Bizarro Back Issues: The Most Terrifying Superhero Story Ever! (1942)
I've written before about how a lot of the fun of reading Golden Age comics is in seeing people who have no idea what they're doing scrambling to figure out the limits of a whole new medium, but if you ever need definitive proof that it was the Wild West back then, just flip through the pages of 1942's Scoop Comics.
It's the home of an early superheroine called Mother Hubbard, and if you haven't heard of her, don't worry. I hadn't either, until I read about her in Jon Morris's League of Regrettable Superheroes, and I think he said it best: "Back then, everyone in a cape and cowl fought a few Nazi masterminds. Only Mother Hubbard confronted a race of gnomes who pried the eyes out of children's heads with a crowbar!"
Now that is how you sell a comic book.
Well, in theory, anyway. In practice, Mother Hubbard only ran for three stories in the early '40s, but I assume that's because there was nowhere to go after that third story, which is quite possibly the single most terrifying superhero tale of all time.
Not that the series started out with a whole lot of restraint, you understand. Mother Hubbard, created by artist Bill Madden and an unknown writer, makes her debut in one of the most hilariously violent stories I've ever read. In the span of six pages, Hubbard faces off against a Nazi who is trying to torture the secret of a "flame gun" out of a scientist by burning the scientist's son with a swastika-shaped branding iron; gets locked in an iron maiden; casts spells using a bottle of "madman's blood"; sends a swarm of beetles to eat a gang of hoods alive; and then paralyzes all the crooks and burns them to death while flying away on her broomstick.
That's how Mother Hubbard starts her heroic career.. By the time it gets to the third story, it has gone completely off the charts, mainly because the new villains are giant ogres who literally eat babies. Like, on the page.
Clearly, this is a crime that requires the intervention of Mother Hubbard, but oddly enough, she decides that burning everyone alive is not what the situation calls for. Instead, she employs a magic lotion --- not a potion, you understand, but a lotion --- to cause their eyes to drop out of their heads.
That panel where the ogres are standing around in their underpants clutching their faces while their eyes rain onto the floor beneath them? That is some straight up Byzantine Monk art, and is only made moreso by the weirdly placid baby and the fact that the "eyes" are less like eyes and more like, you know, the concept of eyes.
With the child saved, Mother Hubbard sends the eyeless ogres on their way with a few lashes from what appears to be a bullwhip, once again setting everything right. But that, my friends, is just the beginning of the story.
Once the ogres get back to their home, which appears to be a surprisingly peaceful meadow with very tall grass and downright Lewis Carrollian toadstools, they're approached by a tiny gnome that wants to make them a deal. In exchange for a bag of gold every day --- because apparently eating children is a booming industry --- he'll go and find them some new eyes.
Mother Hubbard is, of course, alerted to this plot almost instantly, as one of her super-powers involves getting all twitchy whenever evil is a-brewin'. She checks things out on her crystal ball, and once again, she decides on a pretty odd course of action. Rather than going to stop the gnomes from stealing the eyes, Mother Hubbard instead goes to hang out in the meadow-adjacent cave where the Ogres live, confident that she can go put back the eyes once they're taken. And then she promptly falls asleep.
Not a great plan, Mom Hubbs. Not a great plan at all, especially when matters are complicated by the ogres finding her due to her extremely loud snoring, and then trying to boil her alive in a cooking pot.
As for the gnome, his part of the plan is going horrifyingly well, especially the part where he's just straight up walking up to children and gouging their eyes out with his bare hands.
And just on the off chance that's not horrifying enough, here he is with the crowbar PRYING A SLEEPING CHILD'S EYEBALL OUT OF HIS HEAD.
Jeepers Christmas. Where's Frederic Wertham when you need him?
Back at the stewpot, Mother Hubbard calmly casts a spell that invokes the devil's tongue and scalds the ogres with boiling water, which at this point is actually starting to make me feel bad for the guys that were literally snacking on babies four pages ago. I mean, dang, all these guys wanna do is have breakfast and they've had their eyes pop out and been burned by boiling water.
With the ogres left moaning in pain on the floor of their cave, Mother Hubbard decides to just hang out and wait for the gnomes to come back, bewitching a tree to catch them when they return with a wicker basket full of human eyeballs. This, for the record, is not the proper way to transplant organs, but I suppose when you're pulling them out with a crowbar, anything short of literally just kicking them into the gutter is handling them with more care.
The trees do their work and Hubbard demands that the gnomes put the eyes back or catch a whipping of titanic proportions, and while they do, they're not all that thorough about it, failing to give anyone back their own matching pair and spreading the grooviest of all mutations, heterochromia. And Mother Hubbard is not pleased.
Thus, the fourth wall becomes the final victim of Mother Hubbard's unchecked murder spree. Unfortunately (and deservedly) for the gnomes, that next story in Scoop Comics never came. Aside from a few reprints, this was Mother Hubbard's last appearance, meaning that the same wretched creatures who were prying out eyeballs from children have been entombed for 73 years longer than they thought they would be, and are probably pretty hungry for some eyeball-based revenge.
And if anyone wants to do anything about that, well, Mother Hubbard's in the public domain.