Thursday, August 25, 2016


They drop the "O'Leary" pretty early on, because we don't want the Irish!

Key Comics (Consolidated Magazines Inc, early 1944 through 1946) seemed obsessed with justifying its title. Not only did it boast the adventures of its eponymous hero, The Key, but also contained features titled Key Corn, Keylines, Tommy’s Time Key, its Musical Key Series of famous operas, and, if I’m not pushing my luck, EsKEY & Mo and Mascot MonKEYshines.

One of Key’s heroes who defied that theme was Gale Leary/O'Leary, a.k.a. The Will O’ The Wisp, a woman who clutched a willow branch for justice! Few other characters in comics could ever be described as wielding “the avenging swish” of justice but, then again, none of them are Gale!

Well here's a gruesome panel!
Keeping in line with the traditionally grim origins of golden age comic book superheroes, Gale’s tale of tragedy begins in the cradle. Disgraced politico “Boss” Bob Evans and his underling Red Brandois break into the home of District Attorney Greg Leary in the middle of the night, intent on avenging themselves against the DA for his recent conviction of the corrupt public figure on fraud and money-laundering. Leary's wife Martha is murdered in the middle of hollering for help (what is it with comic books and their mothers named Martha?), but Greg is kept alive long enough to be tied between two chairs and to have Boss Evans put his considerable weight down upon the D.A.’s legs, shattering them into uselessness.

What about baby Gale, however? Well, Boss Evans isn’t all bad. Instead of hucking her out a window or engaging her in direct fisticuffs, he chooses to keep the kid from caterwauling into the night by breaking a branch off a nearby willow tree and leaving it for her to play with. This is a great idea – babies love branches!

Fast-forward eighteen years, and the surviving Learys (Learies?) are still stewing about Martha’s untimely getting-shot-in-the-back. I can see why they’re bitter; She should’ve led a long, fruitful life and then been shot in the back.  

What can he say? He hates snitches but loves kids!
Even more than her father, Gale harbors deep and abiding … and weird … drive for justice. “Sometimes, “ she explains to her wheelchair-bound father, “When I hold that willow branch they gave me that night, I feel endowed with more than just courage … I feel as though nothing … no-one could stop me! Just like – Like a Will O’The Wisp!”

It’s no bat crashing through a window, but Gale and her souvenir willow branch make for an effective if very focused outlet of vigilante justice. Relying on her uncanny resemblance to her mother and the unlikely bet that an incarcerated Red would recognize the same willow branch that his partner provided the baby almost two decades earlier, Gale terrifies her mother’s killer into a heart attack. Problem solved!

In the next issue, Gale catches up with Boss Evans (living under the very clever pseudonym of “Snave”) and terrifies him into a hasty suicide. She seems so sweet, and such a lovely girl, and yet she keeps driving men to an early grave. I wonder if it’s her perfume…

 (The plot of the second issue is hard to follow, only because a key player is a character called – and please do forgive me, I’m only the messenger -- “Mr.Faggot,” which sounds like he comes from the all-slur version of Clue. It’s distracting that, every few panels, someone shouts “This’ll take care of you, Faggot!” or “I’ve caught you red-handed, Faggot!” What is this, Continuity Comics?)

And who are these two supposed to be?
With the men who murdered her mother and crippled her father dispatched, you’d think Gale might have hung up her bough. Nope, in fact, with the gruesome past finally put to bed, Gale does what anyone might do when entering a new stage of their life – she gets a makeover!

Now boasting long, flowing blonde hair, Gale’s memorial willow branch also picks up incontrovertible magic powers – it’s not just about spooking a crook any more. She glows, she’s impervious to bullets, can fire bolts from her hands and either the second round artist on the title screwed up or she can grow to twice her normal size. Gale even gets a whole new dad! Once a dynamic district attorney confined to a wheelchair, her “ailing father” is promptly transformed to a pudgy guy in a lumberjack shirt. It’s as if the handoff between creators (original series artist, creator of The Green Turtle and one of the few artists of Asian descent working in American comics Chu F.Hing, and second issue-onward’s Gerald Altman) only ever discussed the character while sharing a bus ride on a short hop. “She’s got a branch, it’s magical, she was a baby, dad sucks, this is my stop, see ya!”

By her final appearance, she doesn’t even fight crime or so anything except get roofied by a hermit. It’s an inglorious end to a character who brought inglorious ends to others before fizzling out unceremoniously … like a will o’the wisp


Al Bruno III said...

Always a pleasure to read your work.

Briane Pagel said...

"Martha" was the 30th most popular woman's name in the 1940s, according to a site I found so it's probably incontrovertible. (It's equal, in terms of men's names, to "Douglas.") In perusing the names above it, most of them don't seem 'motherly.' I mean: a mom named "Carolyn"? I can't even.

Alternatively, by this time Martha Kent was around and who knows maybe Superman was a big hit because of the name? Who can understand these confusing customers in an era before Twitter polls?

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