I agree with Jim, the scariest villains are often the ones you don’t see coming. Audacious, bombastic miscreants might occasionally commit super-crimes which cause widespread suffering and mass destruction. But their grandiose plans are often foiled, and their shtick serves as a constant reminder that they are fiction. Furthermore, supervillains often focus their attacks on superheroes, and the primary threat they pose to the average person is from collateral damage. Supervillains rarely mingle with the common folk. The Penguin is a terrible man, but as a crime boss he is separated from the general populace by his network of henchmen and underlings. The Red Skull is Hitler-level evil, but like Hitler, his depravity influences and controls society more often than it interacts directly with it.
Ouch! Is that spruce?!
The truly terrifying villains are the ones that could actually exist, the ones you might otherwise overlook. That’s what is unsettling about Jean Loring; she’s just a normal woman until she murders her friend. This is the type of villain that really makes you nervous, the one you could meet on any given day without even realizing it. They could be the person behind you in the grocery line, the person in the elevator with you, or the owner of a little shop you pass by on your way to work. This brings me to the subject of today’s post.
Welcome (back) to Comical-Musings Week of Villainy. Recently I have been reading-up on some of the back story of Alan Scott, the original Green Lantern, who is now being re-introduced in DC’s current Earth 2 series. As I was perusing his rogues’ gallery, I came across a particularly disturbing villain known as the “Made of Wood” Killer. Before I describe him further, there are a few things you should keep in mind. First, the Green Lantern and his initial set of enemies were created in the forties, long before the gritty and graphic crime drama that has become commonplace today. Back then, the comic industry was in its infancy, and “superheroes” as a genre was not well defined. As a result, the Green Lantern’s initial adventures tended to alternate between cartoon comedy – saving his inept sidekick Doiby Dickles – and horror comics – fighting his undead nemesis Solomon Grundy – with occasional detective/crime drama mixed in. Second, most of the villains during this era tended to be of the “themed” variety, such as the nefarious Sportsmaster. While they were unique and undeniably criminal, they tend to seem silly and mostly non-threatening by today’s standards. Third, the original Green Lantern’s ring did not work on objects made of wood. (Is it really that much dumber than having a weakness against the color yellow?)
You’re doing it wrong.
So, when I read that Golden Age Green Lantern fought a villain called the “Made of Wood” Killer, I immediately imagined someone literally made of wood, perhaps an evil incarnation of Pinocchio, because this would have undoubtedly posed a challenge for Alan Scott. But upon further reading, I discovered the meaning behind this criminal’s name is much darker.
Samuel Sullivan is an Irish immigrant and store owner. But he becomes disillusioned when the Sportsmaster destroys his store and wrecks his livelihood. Having lost faith in America as “The Land of Opportunity,” he murders the mayor of Gotham City for giving its citizens false hopes. Then he carves the words “Made of Wood” into the mayor’s chest and leaves the body at the foot of a statue recently erected to honor the Green Lantern. He goes on to murder several other people that he views as phony or artificial, leaving the same message carved into their corpses. Adding to his horrific brutality, he kills all of his victims by beating them to death with a baseball bat. He is eventually captured and committed to Arkham Asylum, but not before leaving an indelible mark on the residents of Gotham as well as the comic reading public. Years later, Alan Scott has to team up with Batman in order to track down a murderer using the same modus operandi, who is later discovered to be Sullivan’s grandson.
In retrospect, this killer’s tactics may not have seemed realistic to readers in the forties, who assumed them to be beyond the limits of moral depravity. However, considering the list of real-world serial killers that have emerged over the past seventy years, to modern readers it seems all too plausible. It’s sad to realize how life has imitated art in this respect. I would expect to see this type of story on an episode of CSI or in modern “edgy” comics that are intended for mature readers. So it startled me to find it in comic books from the forties, which were mainly marketed to children. Then again, these comics were produced long before the “comics code” went into effect.
Color me crazy, but there several things I like about this villain. Obviously his actions were heinous, but he provided the Green Lantern with some realistic and meaningful crime to fight. Also, I really like the contrast between the “Made of Wood” Killer and the Sportsmaster. In a way, it was the absurdity of the Sportsmaster that resulted in the emergence of the “Made of Wood” Killer. And while the Sportsmaster makes a public show of his villainy, the “Made of Wood” Killer carries out brutal acts in solitude, using one of the Sportsmaster’s very own tools. The “Made of Wood” Killer commits murder out of pure malice, rather than out of a desire for personal gain. And his calling card is much more grisly and fear-inspiring than a penchant for recreational activities. Finally, I enjoy the irony of the killer’s name. He wasn’t actually made of wood, nor did he depend on it to evade apprehension. But just as the Golden Age Green Lantern is powerless against wood, Alan Scott was unable to stop this criminal before he committed several murders.
The “Made of Wood” Killer was ahead of his time, almost on par with modern-age villains like Onomatopoeia. As such, I was surprised that I had never heard of him before. In all of the modern comics that I’ve read, I have never seen him mentioned. Then again, his murderous career might be something that heroes like the Green Lantern try to avoid thinking about, as should readers who wish to escape the worry that any stranger giving them a side-long glance might be thinking they are made of wood…