For those of us who grew up encountering Golden Age comic books — comics published between 1938–1956, that is — haphazardly, picking up a tattered issue here or there at flea markets and yard sales, the effort to discern how each of these random pieces might fit into some larger, coherent, meaningful whole was a head-scratching affair. With so many gaps in our data sets, and absent any sort of definitive guide, we were forced to engage in various forms of creative misprision, deciding for ourselves what it all might add up to. (The protagonist of Daniel Clowes's graphic novel David Boring, who broods over Golden Age comics written and drawn by his missing father, is an avatar of precisely this sort of pop hermeneutics.) In that spirit, during the COVID-19 epidemic, I've taken to brooding over the phenomenon of the very first costumed comic-book vigilantes who wore masks capable of preventing the spread of airborne viruses.
I know very little about Blazing Skull, Kinks Mason, Micro-Face, and most of these other characters who appeared — in comic books cranked out by a wide variety of short-lived publishers — in the years shortly before and after America joined WWII. I've seen individual panels, sometimes full pages, from comics in which they've appeared… but that's about it. However, taking inspiration from the early 19th-century astronomers who discerned that there was an eighth planet in the solar system (Neptune), which couldn't be directly perceived through even the finest telescopes, but whose existence would alone explain the strange deviations in Uranus's orbit, I feel confident in announcing my discovery of a hitherto-unknown squad of comic-book vigilantes.
The original intercompany crossover "event," preceding and no doubt inspiring the formation of the Justice Society (National Comics + All-American Publications) a year later, the 1939 teaming up of three properly masked heroes was — as far as I can tell — intended as a public service. The Clock (who first appeared in Funny Pages in 1936), Fantom of the Fair (Amazing Mystery Funnies, 1939), and Sandman (New York World's Fair Comics, 1939) were each dedicated not only to fighting crime but preventing a pandemic. It makes perfect sense, then, that they'd join forces to become… the Antiviral Alliance!
Though no doubt mocked and scorned by fans of free-breathing early comic-book heroes like Superman, Batman, Namor, Zatara, and Blue Beetle, the Antiviral Alliance remembered that the great influenza pandemic of 1918-19 (often called the Spanish flu) caused about 50 million deaths worldwide, far more than the deaths from combat casualties in WWI. And they understood that wearing a proper mask, staying six feet apart, and avoiding crowds were crucial behaviors to model. They fought the good fight through 1941, during which year the original trio was joined by ten other antiviral vigilantes.
Alas, not long after America entered the war in December '41, the Antiviral Alliance more or less disbanded. Did its members enlist in the military? Or, perhaps, might the patriotic fervor that gripped the nation after Pearl Harbor have made it untenable to promote proper mask-wearing — that is to say, was doing one's part to prevent the spread of infectious disease politicized by the ignorant America-firsters of the era? Like so much else about the AA, it's a mystery.
Please enjoy the series VIRUS VIGILANTE, published at HILOBROW during the dark days of 4Q2020"
PRE-COMICS: THE MOON MAN (1933). ORIGINAL TRIO (joined forces in 1939): THE CLOCK | SANDMAN | FANTOM OF THE FAIR. AND THEN THERE WERE SEVEN (joined 1940): THE SHADOW | LADY LUCK | THE LAUGHING MASK | KINKS MASON. SECOND-WAVE SIX (joined 1941): BLAZING SKULL | THE CHALLENGER | THE THUNDERER | DOCTOR NEMESIS | HUMAN BOMB | THE VIGILANTE. LATE TO THE PARTY (POST-1941): MICRO-FACE | THE DESERT EAGLE.