Retro Review: More Fun Comics #73 (1941) – “The Case of the Namesake Murders”
Retro Review takes a look at influential issues of DC comic books and measures their artistic integrity against their cultural and symbolic importance to the DC Universe and comic books in general.
More Fun Comics #73 (1941) – “The Case of the Namesake Murders”
Written by Mort Weisinger
Art by George Papp
Published: November 1941 (National Allied Publications)
In 2004, author Christopher Booker published his life’s work, a Jungian analysis of storytelling entitled The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. In the book, Booker proposes that there are, as the title suggests, seven basic plots, and that all stories told are merely different combinations and interpretations of those plots. The purpose of the book was not to accuse authors of plagiarism or a lack of creativity, but rather to demonstrate that throughout history and across different cultures, we share something common and universal about our own existence through storytelling. And in spite of the small number of original plots proposed in Booker’s work, the collective literary canon of the human race includes a vast and varied catalog of incredible stories of romance, adventure, betrayal, loss, hope, and love (among other themes), demonstrating both the universality of narrative structure but also the originality, complexity, and nuance of the human condition.
Unfortunately, this is not true of “The Case of the Namesake Murders”, the story which appeared in 1941’s More Fun Comics #73, marking the debut appearance of the Green Arrow and his sidekick Speedy, and which bears an unsettling similarity to “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” – the debut appearance of the Batman from two years earlier.
The story, written by Mort Weisinger, follows the Green Arrow and Speedy as they attempt to stop a string of murders revolving around members of the History Club – a social organization whose members share a name with famous historical figures. In each of the murders already committed, the manner of death of the famous namesake was used to kill the club member: George Lincoln was shot, John Hale was hanged, and Anthony Caesar was stabbed, mirroring the deaths of Abraham Lincoln, Nathan Hale, and Julius Caesar, respectively. As Green Arrow investigates the club an attempt is made on his life. Chasing down the shooter, Green Arrow decides to disguise himself as the crook to gain access to the man who hired him – the true Namesake Killer. After both he and Speedy are briefly captured, they once again escape and thwart the killer’s next two murder attempts. In stopping a third murder, they finally catch the killer, who turns out to be none other than the society’s treasurer, who had been embezzling money from the organization.
Weisinger’s story is full of action and the namesake set up allows for a variety of dangerous tricks and traps for the heroes to overcome. Weisinger does a particularly good job of allowing the Green Arrow and Speedy to show off their incredible archery skills; from the precision of pinning a thug to a wall by his clothes to the power and ingenuity of making an arrow-ladder to escape a burning building, the framework is well laid out for what would become Green Arrow’s extensive array of trick and gadget arrows. The artwork, provided by George Papp, finds a wonderful balance between the exuberance of Weisinger’s writing and the darkness of the threats the heroes face. Costumes and vehicles are brightly coloured, as are the backgrounds of many panels, while the thick lines and heavy inks create shadows that are full of potential danger and intrigue. Papp’s art is especially well-suited to the quick action sequences of the story, including a wonderful panel in which Speedy catapults onto a rooftop to join the Green Arrow mid-sprint. It’s a dynamic style of drawing that is rather unconventional for the era, and it helps elevate the action of the book to a tremendous height.
And yet, for all of the good to be said of Green Arrow’s debut, “The Case of the Namesake Murders” is absolutely crushed under the weight of its own lack of originality.
Green Arrow is, for all intents and purposes, Batman with a bow and arrow. He is a wealthy industrialist without superpowers who dresses up and fights crime using a variety of gadgets. In the Silver Age, the Green Arrow was often used as a Batman analog in Justice League storylines so that the Batman property – which already existed across a vast number of titles – would not be stretched to thinly. Many subsequent non-powered heroes, including the second Blue Beetle, fit this description, but what makes the comparison so strong between the Dark Knight and the Emerald Archer is the complete lack of any attempt to disguise the fact that, in creating the Green Arrow, Weisinger was blatantly copying the Batman. Beyond what has already been mentioned, the Green Arrow’s debut takes a page out of the Batman’s own history and skips straight to the hero employing his teenaged ward as a sidekick. Throw in the Arrowplane vehicle – and appearances of the Arrow-Cave and the Arrow-Signal in subsequent issues – and it is clear that Green Arrow is intended to be a carbon copy of Batman; those elements already having been added to Batman’s mythos by this time.
But the most disturbing element is how “The Case of the Namesake Murders” is nearly a beat for beat copy of Batman’s debut story. A close-knit group of men are one by one being targeted by a murderer. While in pursuit of said murderer, the hero goes through a low-level thug who coughs up some information, then the hero ends up captured in an enclosed space that rapidly fills up with gas. Breaking the glass and escaping, the hero foils the murderers plan, exposing him as a member of the targeted group – a feat he accomplished through deduction of a clue found at an earlier crime scene. As the murderer attempts to get away, the hero makes a swift attack that results in the accidental death of the murderer. This comparative description is both vague and concise, but a close read of “The Case of the Namesake Murders” reveals its near identical nature to that of “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate”.
The unabashed copy of Bill Finger’s story is an absolute shame not only because it is, in and of itself, a shameful act, but also because it undermines the numerous positives in this story. Weisinger’s writing is tighter and more cogent than Finger’s original Batman, and Papp’s art is far and away superior to Bob Kane’s. There are obviously still some contrived bits of storytelling and a few strange aberrations in the art, but the fact remains that this is a better executed story than the one on which it draws. In fact, had this story been published first, I have no doubt that the Green Arrow would be the monumental cultural phenomenon that Batman currently is. Then again, had the Batman story not been published first, it is unlikely that Green Arrow would have happened at all.
Perhaps the greatest shame is that, in trying so transparently to capitalize on the success and the readership of the Batman, Weisinger denied his own creation any sort of originality. Green Arrow’s early adventures are nothing more than Batman stories in a different costume, and it wasn’t until much later that elements of the Green Arrow mythos which are now considered foundational were added – elements such as his socially progressive politics, his focus on street-level crimes, and his awareness of the socio-economic roots of crime. Weisinger gave none of this nuance to his character, and aside from the characters’ names and the actual bows and arrows, the Green Arrow and Speedy of today resemble nothing of their original, rather uninspiring incarnations.
Combined with Aquaman’s debut – also within this issue – there is a clear pattern as far as Weisinger’s original characters are concerned: their first appearances are pale indicators of the potential and eventual depth of their respective mythologies.
More Fun Comics #73 is available digitally on the DC Comics website.
– This strikes me as the kind of excessive behaviour that gives masked vigilantes a bad name. If this is how the Green Arrow makes an entrance among friends, I’d hate to see how destructive an entrance he makes when it comes to enemies.
– It astounds me that, for all of the obvious references to Robin Hood in both the costuming and the weaponry, there is no trace of it within the characterization of Oliver Queen. The social crusader of the 1970’s is completely non-existent in this story.
– Speedy says “methinks” in a single panel of this comic. I’m not sure if this became a function of his speech in later issues, but it is gloriously out of place in this one.
– Despite being referred to as the Arrowplane, it is clearly a car. Moreover, it never once flies in this issue.