Profiles in Courage: The Vagabond
Last week, my friends Scott and Trey were having a conversation about their favorite Golden Age characters. That's the type of people I hang out with: People that will have intense phone conversations lasting over an hour wherein they discuss their favorite comic book characters that haven't been seen since 1945.
Before long, it became a game of seeing who could top the other with the most ridiculously awesome Golden Ager, at which point Scott--a noted fan of Joanie Swift, Johnny Quick's secretary--knew he had it sewn up. He waited until the appropriate time, and then dropped his bomb: #711, who dropped in 1944's Police Comics alongside Plastic Man. In Scott's version, which as usual is actually better than the way the character really works, Dan Dyce is a lawyer who happened to be an exact double of the client he was defending. He believed so firmly in the guy's innocence that when he was convicted, Dyce offers to take the guy's place in prison, while escaping every night to fight crime in the city and clear his assumed name. And what's more, he wants to send a message to the crime bosses, so he leaves a calling card at the scenes of his exploits, but since he can't use his own name or the name of the guy he's pretending to be, he leaves his prison number: #711.
Like I said, it's slightly inaccurate, but all of the right elements are there. And for sheer high concept value, #711's hard to beat.
But then Trey came back with The Vagabond, and #711 was all but obliterated.
The Vagabond is not only the single best Golden Age character ever created, he may actually be the best character in comics. He's absolutely insane.
You probably haven't heard of the guy, since most of us are not the ridiculously well-read Jess Nevins, who has a great page about the Vagabond in his list of Golden Age Marvel characters, the gist of which is that Jess Nevins hates the Vagabond. He lumps him in with fellow Golden Ager The Fighting Hobo (!) as incredibly offensive romanticisms of the tragedy of Depression-era poverty, and refers to them as "shameful creations that should never have appeared."
Fortunately, Ronald Byrd disagrees, and Nevins posts his piece on the Vagabond under the listing. I'll be cribbing from it (via Scott) for the rest of the evening, but definitely give it a read.
Here's the high points:
Sallying forth to fight evil from the pages of 1941's USA Comics #2, the Vagabond is the costumed identity of either Pat Murphy, a police officer, or FBI Agent Walter Carstairs. We don't actually find out until USA #4--in a text story, no less--and as Scott says, it adds a bit of a Wild Dog element to the story. To make matters even better, while the captions refer to him as the Vagabond, the story states that he's "better known to himself" as Chauncey Throttlebottom III, which means that is his actual Super-Hero codename.
In order to disguise himself to take on the Criminal Element™ of Middleton, Murphy/Carstairs dresses not like a hobo, but like a circus-clown version thereof, complete with an obviously padded stomach, facepaint, and--in the only surviving picture Scott managed to locate--a big red clown nose, and "affects a bombastic pseudo-upper class speech pattern (He is given to saying such things (even in private) as "Yoiks and tally-ho! A Throttlebottom sallies forth to battle evil!") which I can only assume was meant to emulate some 1940s personality whose popularity has been lost in the mists of time." (Cribbed directly from Byrd's piece. I'm not proud of it, but that phrasing's too good to pass up.)
He also goes so far as to ask for a job whenever he goes into a bar to beat up thugs for information. That's amazing.
What's even more amazing is that when you think about it, what we have is a lawman of some kind, who was so riled up by crime that he pretends to be a clown who pretends to be a hobo but is in actuality a super-hero. Zounds!
Glorious. My only question is why the Vagabond hasn't been brought back. With an origin story as insane as that one, the possibilities are endless, and I wouldn't mind seeing an official Chauncey Throttlebottom III Bindle next to the Human Torch Dress-Up Set next time I go into my local store.
The Most Awesome Golden Age Character Ever