First Appearances: Mystic Comics #4 (August 1940).
Golden Age Appearances: Mystic Comics #4.
Modern Appearances: None.
Years Active: 1940-?
"Merzah the Mystic fights international spies and saboteurs. By his amazing powers of thought transmission and mental telepathy he protects his country from the inroads of communism and fascism! Right here in America - there are more than 300,000 foreign spies!!"
The first panel shows Merzah, dressed in his red shirt (the kind with baggy sleeves that Yul Brynner wore in The King and I), gold cummerbund, and black jodhpurs; depending on my mood, the outfit is either laughable or kinda neat. We also see his "assistant," Diana, who is (of course) an attractive, buxom woman.
"On official business, Merzah and his assistant speed westward through the night!" (They're on a train, which of course was a much more common means of travel in 1940 than it is today.)
Merzah: "This unsinkable life boat could be a wonderful thing for our country, Diana!"
Diana: "Twelve o'clock. I think I'll turn in, Merzah!"
However, Merzah is suddenly seized by "a feeling of danger:"
Merzah: "Diana! Something tells me there's DANGER ahead! Porter! Stop the train!" (Geez, with all these exclamation points! It makes me feel! Like I'm reading! A Steve Englehart script!)
Sure enough, a saboteur has messed with a section of the rail on a bridge, and Merzah and Diana, having exited from the last car in the train, watch as the middle cars of the train fall into a ravine.
Merzah: "Come Diana, we must help the sufferers."
Then, at the bottom of the gorge, while they're standing around watching people climb from the train (big help you're giving, Merzah--what, didn't want to get your sash wet?), Merzah says, "...first I must know who did this awful thing! I see it!" And then we get a neat effect: inside Merzah's word-balloon is a picture of the man who gave the order, as well as his words "at 12 tonight!" I don't know who was the first to put pictures and pictograms in word and thought balloons, and it certainly predates Mystic Comics #4, but it's not something you saw, or see, a lot of in superhero comics. Impulse, obviously, does it, and one or two comics have done it since then, in imitation of Impulse (because it is a nice effect, and a very expressive one), but on the whole it's something that has been very rarely done over the decades.
Meanwhile, "in a distant city," the Japanese spy Matsu is meeting with his men. They somehow know that Merzah was on the train, and so Matsu gives orders to lay a trap for Merzah. At the Astor Hotel, where Merzah and Diana are staying, someone leaves a message for Merzah that, if he wants to meet Matsu, to go to a certain address. (Now, I know this is a trap, and you know this is a trap, but somehow that doesn't quite occur to Merzah) Merzah and Diana are driven to the address by their valet Jose, and Merzah warns him to "watch the telepathic recorder, Jose, - if there's trouble, I'll start `reaching' for you."
Merzah and Diana walk into the trap and get captured; although Merzah throws punches and decks several of the Japanese, one of them uses...well, it's too long for a sap, and too short and thin for a baseball bat...it's some form of weapon, anyhow. And Diana gets whacked with it, and then Merzah, and then we see the two of them tied up. Merzah uses his powers to send a message to Jose. The depiction of Merzah's powers is nicely done; we see a glow around his head and lightning-bolt-shaped lines radiating outward from his head, and the words "Jose Jose Jose" written in a deliberately shaky hand. It's a lot more effective than a word balloon would be in depicting Merzah's telepathic broadcast.
Jose gets a flat, but fixes it, and then follows Matsu and his prisoners as he takes Merzah and Diana to a "Long Island mansion." Merzah uses a flashlight which he had concealed in his clothes and shines it out the window; Jose sees the light and makes his way towards the room, knocking out two guards who get in his way and climbing up the side of the mansion. Merzah sees him coming, and we see Merzah seeing it; Merzah says "Diana! He's coming! I see him!" and in his word-balloon is a much smaller drawing of Jose climbing up the side of the building.
Jose gets into the room, but in his rush to untie Merzah he knocks over a lamp, alerting Matsu and his men, who rush upstairs. Merzah "sees" a thug with a knife outside his window (another partially illustrated word balloon) and knocks him out. Merzah, Diana, and Jose get out of the room into the hall and shoot and punch their way through the Japanese; Diana uses a revolver on the Japanese, wounding one in the arm and making him drop his machine gun. Matsu escapes out the window, and Merzah goes after him, telling Diana to hold the machine gun on the Japanese prisoners.
Matsu drives away and Jose and Merzah follow him, Merzah using his powers to take Matsu's directions from his mind. Diana gets rushed by her Japanese prisoners, but she shoots the gun at them, and they fold. She calls the police, and they come to get the prisoners. Merzah and Jose pursue Matsu, and Matsu drives into a tree. That's the end, pretty much, except for a Western Union telegram addressed to "Merzah the Mystic, Mystic Comics, New York City NY" congratulating Merzah.
At first glance "Merzah" is like "Dakor": thoroughly mediocre. I confess that I wasn't looking forward to reviewing Merzah, simply because my first read-through of his one appearance, in Mystic Comics #4, did little for me. But on rereading it several things that caught my eye.
Before I say anything else, though, I have to address the "300,000 foreign spies" comment. I will grant you that "Merzah" appeared in July 1940, when everyone was very war-conscious, and when isolationism was warring with the desire to help our allies. These impulses led, somewhat naturally, to a suspicion that the US was full of spies. And certainly there was some evidence to back this stereotype; in May 1940, for example, two German spies were arrested in London, one of whom was an employee of the US embassy there. All through the early 1940s there was considerable unrest in German-American communities in the US, particularly Chicago. The American public had been bombarded for months by news reports of fifth column activity by Nazi collaborators throughout Europe, which (according to the news reports) made the takeover of those defenseless nations much easier. Most influentially, the Dies Report on German and Communist espionage in the US, published in November 1940, was made public almost immediately; it wildly overestimated the extent and effect of foreign espionage in the US. A similar report, reaching similar conclusions about espionage in the UK, had been published earlier in 1940, and was known about in the US. And, as with the British report, the Dies Report sparked a wave of business and government crackdowns on suspected spies.
The fact was, however, that foreign espionage in both countries was just not that much of an issue during the war. Sabotage in the US was minimal, and certainly nothing like it was during World War One, where the Germans were actually quite successful in sabotaging American munitions factories and dockyards during 1915 and 1916. And Axis espionage in the US was, for all intents and purposes, finished by August 1942; J. Edgar Hoover, creep, criminal, and all-around scumbag that he was, at least was effective in fighting espionage.
What really catches my eye about the "300,000" figure, though, is the number itself. In 1940 the population of the US was 132.1 million. If there were 300,000 spies, that would mean that for every 440 people, one was a spy. That doesn't seem like much, but think about it: by those numbers, a town of 1,000 people would have two spies. This is a recipe for paranoia. Since approximately 43.5% of the US population was lived in rural areas in 1940, this would mean that a lot of small towns (if they believed the espionage numbers of Merzah) would be racked with spy hunts. Even granting the general war-time paranoia, this is still a bad thing.
Diana, Merzah's assistant, also peaks my interest. While she does get captured at one point, she also fights alongside Merzah. More interestingly, she uses her gun against the enemy. Women packing heat weren't an utter rarity in 1940; the "gun moll" was established in film back in the 1920s, after all. But the idea of the female assistant to the hero not only having a gun, but being willing and able to use it...that's not so common. I can't recall Margot Lane, the Shadow's "assistant," ever using a heater, for example. Possibly Patricia Savage used a gat; as one of Doc Savage's helpers, she got in more than her fair share of scrapes, and was certainly one of the more capable female sidekicks. But on the whole, women who used guns were most often with the villain of the piece, not the hero.
Diana also makes me wonder what the average reader of the Mystic Comics would have thought about her. I'll grant you that I'm depraved and decadent and have a dirty mind...but I can't help but think that the average reader would have assumed that something more was going on between Merzah and Diana than just business. It's like with Dr. Who and Sarah Jane, Leela, or any of the other women sidekicks; surely the bedrooms of the Tardis weren't always occupied by only one person?
Naturally, comic writers during the 1940s couldn't talk about this, sex being tabou and all; until you've waded through dozens of Golden Age comics you won't really understand how remarkable the use of the word "lust" was in the Black Widow's first appearance. Yes, there were femmes fatale a-plenty, and many of those with some cleavage and pronounced breasts. Yes, many of the heroes had girlfriends. But even something as relatively innocent as a kiss was mostly undepicted. The only thing left for the writers and the artists was sexy art (and, believe me, some of Will Eisner's femmes fatale were incredibly sexy) and coy implication. As in Merzah's first appearance. A single man and a single woman traveling together on a train? Hard to believe something's not going on between them. (True, many people waited until marriage to have sex during the 1940s, but many didn't--many more than Hollywood and the popular imagination would have you think. A Jacksonville, Florida high school reported that 25 percent of the unmarried girls in its 1942 graduating class were pregnant. Granted, that was partially the effect of the war, which seemed to loosen morals across the board, but premarital sex wasn't the rarity back then that we've been led to believe.)
Or perhaps, in this case, the cigar is just a cigar, and I'm reading too much into the strip.
Another thing that drew my attention in Merzah was the appearance of race and ethnicity. Golden Age comics were, of course, almost wholly whitebread. Non-white heroes were nonexistent. If African- or Asian-Americans appeared, it was in a demeaning manner, as with Wing (the Crimson Avenger's sidekick), Chop-Chop (of the Blackhawks), Steamboat (Captain Marvel's "valet") and Ebony (the Spirit's sorta-sidekick). (Yes, yes, I know that Ebony is something of an exception to this rule, and that Will Eisner gave him good moments, but Ebony's still not something to be proud of, in my opinion.) But Wing et al were comparative rarities; most GA comics seem to have just ignored non-whites. Which makes their appearance in Merzah something to think about.
Consider: we have the porter on the train, who is black. We have Diana, who seems to be half-Chinese (it may be the art, but she seems to me to have the epicanthic fold). We have Matsu and his men, who are all Japanese. We have Jose, who is...well, damn. I would have sworn that he was labeled as being Filipino at some point during the story, but now that I'm rereading it I can't find that. But he's definitely Asian. (I may be confusing Jose with Kato, the Green Hornet's valet and sidekick.)
There's two ways of looking at this. You can take a positive approach, and say that Merzah's creators were showing a much more multi-ethnic America than the average Golden Age comic; indeed, I'd have to say that Merzah, in its one appearance, showed a wider variety of ethnicities than any Golden Age comic I've ever read. The world of Merzah is populated with Asian-Americans, African-Americans, and Caucasian-Americans, just like in real life but not at all like what was shown in most GA comics. This is a good thing.
On the other hand, you could take a negative approach and say that what was really being shown here was the Good White Man descending among the Evil Ethnic Hordes and fighting evil. This, obviously, sees what Merzah's creator was doing as racism. The fact that Merzah is moving among mostly non-whites while doing his good deeds lends weight to this point of view.
I don't agree with this, though, mostly because a lot of the more racist cliches that were put on non-white characters in other GA books are missing. While Jose's speech is grammatically-challenged, which is something that Asian characters like Wing and Chop-Chop were always portrayed as suffering from, Diana and Matsu & his Japanese hirelings speak English as well as Merzah. As importantly, none of the non-whites are given the traditional racist characteristics of non-whites. I can't quite be sure about the porter, as my microfiche is on the murky side, but he doesn't appear to have the big lips and popeyes that Steamboat and Ebony all too often had. Nor are Matsu or Jose or any of the other Japanese portrayed as repugnantly as the Japanese often were; while Matsu does have something of the Fu Manchu mustache and an exaggerated epicanthic fold, neither his facial features nor those of his underlings are the racist caricatures that, for example, CC Beck drew. They're all in suits and ties, and not stereotypical Japanese costumes. And while they do lose to Merzah, it's because Merzah, Diana, and Jose are just better than them, not because they are somehow racially inferior. On the whole, therefore, I'd say that Merzah really is somewhat racially progressive, and not racist.
Another aspect of the story that is somewhat unique is Merzah's powers. Telepathy and pre- and postcognition were just not common powers for GA superheroes. In fact, with the exception of another Timely hero, the Eternal Brain, I can't think of any GA heroes with telepathy. (Mikel Midnight rightly points out that the Fawcett hero Radar had telepathy.)
The art, in case I forget, shows definite signs of a Milton Caniff influence. The overall effect is not as skilled as Caniff's work, but it's certainly not unattractive. And some of the p.o.v. of the panels are unusual; when Diana is holding the Japanese prisoner, she's in the middle ground. Rather than putting the Japanese in the foreground, all we see is their raised hands, which is a neat effect; the cliched thing to do would be to put Diana on the left of the panel, holding the gun, and the surrendering Japanese on the right, but the artist of the strip avoided that.
My final impression of Merzah is a favorable one; I wish the creative team had been given more time and space to develop the character, but such was not to be. Still, compared to Dakor and Hercules, Merzah is a winner.