The Champion Bad Guy

Posted by on October 27th, 2010 at 12:17 AM

 

 

Iron Jaw, a name that still raises the hair on the back of my neck. A champion baddie of the Golden Age, Iron Jaw may have been ahead of his time, the prototype of today’s soulless super-thugs. He was one of few transgressors who made encore appearances in those days. He was eventually motivated not by greed or by a desire for power (the entire gamut of motives for most villains until the Silver Age), but by the obsession to murder the good guy who repeatedly apprehended him and threw him in the hoosegow. Sometimes, instead of being captured, he died horribly in a ghastly conflagration the inadvertent result of some scheme of his own gone awry. But he always escaped or came back to life (because he hadn’t really been killed; it only appeared that he had been). In all of this, as you can plainly see, he was a thoroughly modern — i.e., contemporary — villain.

Iron Jaw appeared exclusively in the pages of Boy Illustories, a Lev Gleason comic book that started in April 1942 (#3, #1 and #2 belonging to the canceled Captain Battle), ended in 1956 (with #119), and featured almost exclusively the exploits of an athletic lad named Chuck Chandler, who made a name for himself as Crimebuster. CB (as he was usually denominated by friend and foe alike) was no superhero, but he wore a costume, a red-white-and-blue hockey uniform, for most of his career. The antics of CB’s pet monkey, Squeeks, enlivened the adventures, which were otherwise fairly grim — even grisly — affairs.

 

 

Under the aegis of editor-writer Charles Biro, the Gleason criminals were unusually craven and unscrupulous even by present-day standards. Murder and assorted mayhem thrived in the pages of Boy, as they did in the other Lev Gleason titles, which included the first of the crime comics that so appalled Fredric Wertham, Crime Does Not Pay.

The underworld had a mean and cruel streak in these books, and the denizens of that world were greedy and cowardly folk, who, driven to desperation when pursued by the likes of Crimebuster, Daredevil or the Little Wise Guys (Daredevil’s version of the Newsboy Legion, which eventually elbowed the title character out of his own book), committed wanton acts of brutality in their desperation. It was a world wholly foreign to my young imagination. It was, therefore, thoroughly — hypnotically — fascinating.

The most murderous brute of all was, without question, Iron Jaw, CB’s arch enemy and, in fact, the person who inspired young Chandler’s fight against crime. Like many scoundrels in the early 1940s, Iron Jaw was a Nazi, and as a loyal and dutiful factotum of the party, he sought to silence Chandler’s father, a governmental official who was revealing to Americans the Nazi atrocities in the days before we went to war. Iron Jaw shoots the senior Chandler but doesn’t quite kill him. Later, in the hospital, the blackguard takes the place of the surgeon operating on Chandler and deliberately botches the procedure, murdering Chandler on the operating table.

 

 

At this gruesome turn of events, young Chuck races (improbably) from a hockey game in the states to France in order to rescue his mother from the threatening machinations of Iron Jaw. But Nazis catch up to the fleeing pair as they cross the Atlantic en route to the U.S. Hitler’s minions torpedo their ship and machine-gun the survivors in the water, killing Chuck’s mother. When Iron Jaw hears about it, he gloats and rejoices. Wounded but alive in the water, Chuck vows vengeance, and Crimebuster is born.

He is so dedicated to his mission that he never takes time to slip out of his hockey togs into something resembling conventional street garb. Not until years later does he give up his hockey shorts and don long pants. (And in #111 of the title, he finally decides to give up the nickname Crimebuster and pass among us as Chuck Chandler. But he still wears his distinctive jersey with the big “C” on it — standing for Curtiss Tech, his school.)

CB met Iron Jaw again and again after the death of his father and mother. Old Shovel Snout proved nearly invincible. He had no costume — no chains or spikes or cape. He didn’t shoot bolts of lightning from his fingertips or launch force fields of assault energy from the palms of his hands. But physically, he was among the most powerful of men. He was also ingenious, daring, and completely without moral sense or compunction. His hatred for Crimebuster developed into a full-scale mania, and when in the grip of his madness, Iron Jaw was an irresistible force.

To pit a mere youth, even one of CB’s considerable athletic prowess, against such a maniacal powerhouse is to court disaster for the youth. And Biro, recognizing a good thing, arranged this courtship 50 times in the 116 issues of Boy in which CB appeared. Some of their physical encounters are epic David and Goliath confrontations — the monomaniacal Iron Jaw, as unstoppable as a Sherman tank, towering over CB, who, through cunning and sheer agility, manages to defeat the fiend. Their fights were usually depicted blow-by-blow in nearly continuous action sequences — a startling departure from the usual Gleason-Biro practice of overloading the panels with verbose speech balloons. The contrast in narrative manner was dramatic, adding suspense and danger to the battle taking place before us.

 

 

Iron Jaw was clearly evil incarnate. His brute power, his fiendish dedication to lawless rampaging, and his compunctionless acts made him genuinely terrifying. And his hideous visage contributed to the terror he inspired.

Iron Jaw was so christened because the lower half of his face had been horribly disfigured while he was a soldier in the Kaiser’s army during World War I. His closest friend (as CB put it when telling the story) “was a weasel of a corporal named Schicklgruber, a rat who later became der fuehrer.” The two plot the undoing of a superior officer they mutually despise. Iron Jaw, known then as Von Schmidt, shoots the officer in the back, but the mortally wounded man gets revenge: his last act is to hurl a grenade at Von Schmidt and Schicklgruber. Only Von Schmidt suffers any damage: His jaw is blow away and subsequently replaced by a saw-toothed metal construction, hence his nom de guerre. In one issue, he removes the device and we are treated to a view of his withered chin. It was enough to give young readers nightmares.

Iron Jaw’s last appearances in the title were the strangest ever associated with a villain. Years before, a petty criminal named Sniffer wandered into CB’s venue, and his amusing though still sinister antics attracted a following that would not be denied; after being properly chastised with jail time, Sniffer became a somewhat reformed petty crook, dabbling in mere confidence games and get-rich-quick schemes rather than outright crime — nothing that would get him arrested in most places. Comedy was now Sniffer’s forte, and he regularly appeared in Boy in a short humorous feature between Crimebuster epics. Occasionally, Sniffer was joined in these endeavors by none other than the once bloodcurdling Iron Jaw, who, for the occasion, was about as reformed as Sniffer. Unlikely as it seems, Iron Jaw finished his career as a comedian. And by his appearance in #112’s Sniffer story, he’d even managed to grow a regular flesh-and-bone jaw, replacing his iron choppers. In short, the terror of the funnybooks was now just funny and not terrifying at all. What a come-down from his reign of unholy brutality and sadistic horror.

We don’t see Iron Jaw’s ilk as a brute-force bad guy in comic books again until the last decade or so, when murderous conscienceless super villains have replaced routinely conniving miscreants almost entirely. Dr. Doom might be Iron Jaw’s lineal descendent (but he’s not nearly as savage in person as Iron Jaw was). You might say Iron Jaw showed the way for all of them. In any event, he deserves a place in history even if he wasn’t the bellwether I think he was.

 

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2 Responses to “The Champion Bad Guy”

  1. Bob Levin says:

    I’m thinking I ran into Iron Jaw 1952-54. I knew nothing about his history but, yeah, his presence sure was a consciousness stirring one. I remember sitting in a car waiting for my parents to come out of somewhere with nothing but a book he figured as company. Not a good thing to be left alone with. Thanks for the information and the thinking on the subject.

  2. WLLilly says:

    …No space for any of the later gags then ?????????
    ( In a letter to you ) I stated that your Archieve didn’t have numbered pages on the bottom .
    Either my bad , or a briefly defective computer , this time , they do .