Or, â€œNo, this guy was never an Avenger nor a woman named Ritaâ€¦â€
In some of my previous Hero Histories, I talked a little bit about how Golden Age characters might make an appearance and never be seen again, or they could last through to today. While that was meant to be aimed at actual characters, it holds true for good names a well. You might recognize this weekâ€™s Hero History as a name belonging to one of Hank Pymâ€™s various alter egos. Maybe you know it as a young ex-criminal named Rita DeMara who went to the future and on the way back was killed by a mind-controlled Iron Man. Or maybe you even know the pulp-era inspired character published by Shooting Star Comics. But, I can almost bet that you donâ€™t know about the 1940â€™s crime writer who donned a yellow and black cape and fought crime as, The Yellowjacket!
Originally appearing in 1944â€™s Yellowjacket Comics, published by the Frank Comunale Publishing Company, Yellowjacket is one of the orphan characters that no creator seems to have claimed. As a matter of fact, I could not find artist nor writer credits for any of the stories I was able to locate, save one. He is truly one of the forgotten characters of his time.
His origin opens with crime writer Vince Harley being dressed down by his publisher. It seems that Harley has just turned in a new story which is simply a re-working of his previous three stories. His publisher says that it isnâ€™t good enough and that maybe Harley needs a different perspective. Despondent, Harley returns home and takes a moment to enjoy his favorite pastime, bee-keeping.
Later that night, a dark and rainy night, a strange young girl stumbles into his home and collapses. Her name is Judy Graves, and all she can tell him before she faints is that she saw his light, and they where chasing her. Unable to get an answer as to who they where, Harley searches her pocket book and is surprised to find â€œa young fortuneâ€ in precious stones. As he tries to decide what his next action should be, he falls asleep. When he awakes, there are three thugs surrounding him demanding to know where the girl was; she, along with the stones, has disappeared. Harley fights bravely against the three hoods, but is soon knocked unconscious. One enterprising hoodlum gets the bright idea to unleash the beehive on Harley, letting him die from the â€œyellowjacketâ€ stings. Leaving the writer to his fate, the hoodlums rush away in search of the girl.
The criminals did not realize the girl was hiding in the closet of the very living room where Vince Harley was left to die. Horrified, she witnesses Harleyâ€™s body covered in bees and desperately tries to figure out a way to get them off before they sting him to death. But with no warning or outside stimuli the bees begin to return to their hive, and a slightly worse for wear Harley awakens; the bees, or yellowjackets, did not sting him.
Regaining his senses, young Judy tells him that the men who attacked him were Jake Mallon and his gang. Mallon tried to hire her to work with him to steal the jewels, but she was on the way to the police when the Mallon gang followed her to Harleyâ€™s house. After instructing the girl to continue to the police, Harley leaps into a plan of his own.
Little did the criminals know that Vince Harley is one of the rare people who does not get stung by bees (cue suspension of disbelief.) With a manner that leads you to believe that he has this all planned out, Harley declares that, â€œThe Yellowjacket will go to work!â€
Meanwhile, Mallon and his gang have made it back to their hideout. They begin to boast about how the death by bees was a great way to murder a guy, as no one would be able to pin it on them. Then, they hear a buzzing sound; a sound like bees. As the humming gets louder, the brightly clad Yellowjacket bursts through a wall. Using only surprise and his fists, he quickly takes all three gangsters down. It a last ditch effort, Mallon pulls a gun on the striped hero but quickly exclaims, â€œYEOW! Iâ€™m shot!â€ and the reader sees that a bee has stung the hood on his butt.
The defeated criminals lay in a pile on the floor, waiting for justice. The police burst in and order Yellowjacket to stop, but he exclaims that, â€œI must protect the law from my sting!â€ A week later, Vince is seen in his editorâ€™s office, receiving praise over his latest story. â€œI got a check, Judy got off with a suspended sentence, and Yellowjacket is ready for more adventure!â€
This became a sort of framing sequence for the Yellowjacket stories. Vince Harley would find himself in some sort of a sticky-wicket and as the Yellowjacket would save the day. He would write the adventure as a fiction story, and his editor would give him a check. At this time, we do not have any reason to believe that the Yellowjacket has any powers, other than the fact that bees donâ€™t sting him. Later, that and small parts of his origin would change.
NOTE: I have reason to believe that the black and white images I have used for the first part of this article are from a mid-60â€™s reprint book. If you know which book, please comment and let me know.
By the third issue, Yellowjacketâ€™s origin has changed slightly. The splash page of â€œThe Curse of the Broken Clawâ€ states that he was accidentally stung by his pets and gained superhuman strength. It still recognizes that the bees were unleashed on him by criminals, but that one little change gives him superpowers. He is also seen commanding bees, so his powers have grown more. More changes are in store for Harley, as the fourth issue of Yellowjacket Comics proclaims that he is the editor-in-chief of Dark Detective Magazine. At this point he seems to be searching for the perfect crime to write about; he even tears up a manuscript because he successfully escaped the same trap he had written about. In Yellowjacket Comics #6, he no longer is the editor, but once again a writer. Such continuity errors, while reason to launch an internet flame war today, was par for the course back in the Golden Age. Different writers would try different things, and if a hero for another magazine sold issues with X power, then it was likely that Z superhero would either have the power or a version of it.
I would like to say that Yellowjacket fought great villains and rescued damsels every issue, but this would be a lie. I was able to temporarily procure 8 of the 12 magazines Yellowjacket appeared in and each one of them followed the same formula. Vince Harley is told of/a victim of/witnesses a crime and valiantly goes off to stop the gangster/mad scientist/extortionist/murderer. Using his bees and his fists, he stings the criminal into submission and later writes about it for his magazine or for a novel. All but one, the one where he actually tears the manuscript in half, follows this pattern.
When you think of the time period, this is hardly surprising. When World War II ended, the most popular villains had been defeated in real life. The idea of a recurring villain and rogues galleries had a limited hold, and was seldom seen in the lower echelon companies. Many of the adventures I read seemed familiar, and I think I have heard similar plots in several old time radio series such as The Shadow, The Avenger, and The Haunting Hour.
I never was able to successfully locate any writer credits, also not surprising for the day. By way of artist, I only saw one cover which was signed, Yellowjacket Comics # 5 by Art Fagaly. Fagaly was best known for his work at MLJ Comics, the character Superduck, The Cockey Wonder, and his backup stories in Marvel Mystery Comics. Other than this, no artist or writer signature could be found. Visually, several of the covers and interiors seem to possibly have been the work of Lou Fine, but I am not confidant enough to say for certain. More evidence against a connection to Fine comes from the dates: by 1946, Fine had largely left comics and was doing advertising work.
The stories could also have been a product of the Iger Studio, making it possible that any one of more than a dozen creators could have been responsible. The origins and creators would soon be a completely moot point. By 1946, the Frank Comunale Publishing Company had become Charlton Comics. The Yellowjacket ran for 10 issues in his own self-titled series from 1944 to 1946 and appeared in TNT Comics #1. In 1946, Yellowjacket Comics became Jack-in-the-Box Comics with issue 11. That issue contained one last Yellowjacket story, and the character simply ceased to be. Iâ€™ve yet to even see a mention of him in any of the big â€œpublic-domainâ€ series that are currently on the market. He has resurfaced in at least three publications from AC Comics: Men of Mystery #18, Men of Mystery #56, and Golden Age Treasury Vol. 1. Each of these appearances reprint the original stories
So, after seeing examples of three Golden Age heroes who have been resurrected for a modern day audience, we find one that has truly been forgotten. The stories and art of The Yellowjacket are indicative of the work found post-World War II in the super-hero field: quick stories with simple plots revolving around run of the mill criminals. Could the fact that the so little is know about the creators behind Yellowjacket possibly have contributed to his disappearance from the public consciousness? Another hero with a similar connection powers, Red Bee, was part of the Quality Comics stable. Thanks to DC Comics purchasing many Quality characters in the mid-fifties, they are still viable today. You have to wonder what the situation would be if Yellowjacket had also been given a chance at a new lease on life.
Till next time, this is Stacy W. Baugher, signing off.