Death of the Funny Pages!

By | Monday, July 27, 2020 1 comment
Way back in John Byrne's run on the Fantastic Four, he had Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman adopt secret identities to try to raise their child Franklin in a "normal" household. The bought a place in Belle Porte, Connecticut and created the identities of Reed and Sue Benjamin, and eventually had a house warming to invite all their new neighbors over. And, if you weren't aware, their neighbors are largely residents of the newspaper funny pages...
Fantastic Four #276 panel
That's Hi and Lois at the door (as you can see, they're specifically identified by name). Going clockwise from there, we have Joe and Ann Palooka (from Joe Palooka), Dick Tracy (from Dick Tracy), Henry Mitchell (from Dennis the Menace), Herb Woodley and Dagwood & Blondie Bumsted (from Blondie), and Loretta & Leroy Lockhorn (from The Lockhorns). In the center are Skeezix (from Gasoline Alley) and Jiggs (from Bringing Up Father). Although Skeezix does look a bit more like Uncle Walt to me, Byrne himself has identified the character as Skeezix.

OK, in any event, the party goes off without a hitch and as Reed and Sue are cleaning up, they're attacked by Elspeth Cromwell, a witch-hunter who mistakenly believes them to be witches. Things go south from there and, by the end of the issue, the neighborhood is being overrun the Knights of Hades, multiple houses are shown on fire, and finally Mephisto himself pops up!
Fantastic Four #276 splash page
Then Dr. Strange shows up, Franklin uses some mysterious powers to banish Mephisto again, and the good guys win the day. However...

When Dr. Strange first arrives, Reed, Sue, Franklin, and Elspeth appear dead. Their bodies have been recovered by the police, who are apparently still waiting for an ambulance. The officer also notes the neighbors mentioned the house warming party. Most of the rest of the story is then in Mephisto's realm and when the villain is vanquished, Reed, Sue and Franklin wake up while Elspeth remains motionless. Dr. Strange confirms that she is not only dead but that her soul has been claimed by whichever demon she had actually bargained with.

The initial implication is that Elspeth is the only one who perished. But when local busybody Alma Chalmers begs Dr. Strange to recover her, he says he can't and adds, "Remember the terrible price these people paid for your acts!"

THESE PEOPLE. Plural. Not one person. Not just Elspeth. THESE PEOPLE. Multiple people died during this event and we've already identified all the main characters and their respective statuses, so who snuffed it?

There was only one person shown dead, but we had clearly seen multiple houses on fire and destroyed. So the further implication is that SOME OF THE CLASSIC COMIC STRIP CHARACTERS DIED!

We can pretty safely say Jiggs wasn't killed -- he (and his wife Maggie) show up in Power Pack #47 a few years later. Hi and Lois probably survived, too; they're identified as living in "the second house on the next block" and while there was a lot of damage in the area immediately surrounding Reed and Sue's house, it doesn't seem to have spread too far. But what about everybody else? You might think, "Well, I can read all these characters in the newspaper every day! Just because they don't appear in Marvel comics any more doesn't mean they died! Byrne was just having a little fun!"

Here's the thing, though: you CAN'T read these characters in the newspaper every day! Not all of them! Blondie? Sure. The Lockhorns? Yes. Dick Tracy? Yup. Somehow, even Gasoline Alley is still going strong! But you know what comic isn't still around? Joe Palooka. It ended in November 1984, just a few months before FF #276! In the final Joe Palooka strips, Joe announces he's retiring from boxing, going to spend a little time with Ann and his parents, and "then... who knows?" He's last seen in the strip driving off into the sunset waving goodbye. The newspaper funnies have never seen Joe Palooka since.

So I maintain that when Dr. Strange said "the terrible price these people paid" he was talking about Elspeth Cromwell and Joe & Ann Palooka (possibly their kids as well). Obviously the situation was still in flux when the police officer first pointed Dr. Strange to the four apparently dead bodies; Joe and Ann must have been found after that during the extended sequence in Mephisto's realm. Were they actually slain by the Knights of Hades, or were they simply caught in a house that had caught fire and/or collapsed? That we don't know. But we do know that they are not seen again, in either a Marvel comic, or in the newspapers where they originated!

There you have it! Joe Palooka, the famous comic strip character dating back to 1930, actually died in the pages of a Marvel comic!
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Matt K said...

Woh. At last the full story can be told after more than 30 years…!!