Robin Hood Tales
(Quality Comics, 1956; National (DC) Comics, 1957-1958)
I've been a fan of comic books since my childhood. I've also been a fan of Robin Hood since my youth. But until recently, I've never collected Robin Hood comics.
Then, in March of 1998, the call went out for papers for the SouthEastern Medieval Association's annual conference. A friend on the Robin Hood mailing list wanted to do a Robin Hood roundtable. I submitted two ideas, and she picked the one about Robin Hood comic books of the 1950s. The conference approved our plan.
Trouble was, aside from the reprint of one 8-page story, I didn't have any 1950s Robin Hood comics. So, I went shopping.
In a column in Comic Book Marketplace, Michelle Nolan notes that at least 7 publishers produced Robin Hood comics during the years of the classic Richard Greene TV series. Like Nolan, my favourites were the ones produced by National (better known as DC) Comics.
In 1954, the comic book industry adopted a self-regulatory Comics Code. This Code was created as a public relations gesture to calm the public fears (and US senate investigation) about the supposed ties between comic books and juvenile delinquency. The Code not only toned down the violence of comic books, it also imposed a moral status quo on them. Provision 1 of the Code was "Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals."
An outlaw was an unlikely hero for these times. To quote from my paper on the subject,
The Robin Hood of the Comics Code was very different from his medieval counterpart. According to Stephen Knight [in his book Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw, p.81], even the most courtly of the early Robin Hood stories, A Gest of Robyn Hode, 'advocates massive theft from the church, civic insurrection against and murder of a properly appointed sheriff, breach of legitimate agreement with a king, and it imagines that all those things can lead to a lengthy and happy life.' Every point in Knight's description violates a provision of the Comics Code. However, the greenwood legend had changed in 600 years. And the Code-approved comics are the best example of how in the 20th century, the stories which gave names and inspiration to rebels and robbers had become safe and harmless.Harmless, yes. But often entertaining as well.
Quality Comics began publishing Robin Hood stories with Robin Hood Tales, cover dated February 1956. (Cover dates are actually three or four months later than when the comic was actually released.) However, National (DC) Comics took over many of Quality's comics and with issues #7, cover-dated February 1957, it became a DC Comic. DC was already publishing superb 8-page Robin Hood stories in the adventure anthology series The Brave and the Bold. Robin Hood Tales ceased publication with issue 14, cover dated April 1958.
The comic books of the time often contained three or four small stories. The Quality issues also included a back-up feature about adventures on the Third Crusade. And the DC issues had various educational pages (both comic and text pages) with titles like "In the Days of Robin Hood". They informed us about medieval taxes, law and superstitions. These short features contained more history than the actual Robin Hood stories in the comics.
Short, simplistic and viewed as crude by the general public, these comic book stories were not too far removed from the Robin Hood broadside ballads of centuries past. Individual issues served as "garlands" of these illustrated adventures.
Both Quality and DC made Robin Hood, the Earl of Huntingdon, a loyal supporter of King Richard. His lands were seized by the evil Prince John. This origin was similar to the one used on the Richard Greene television series, although on TV, Robin was only a former knight, Sir Robin of Locksley.
Quality drew its inspiration from the ballads, or perhaps from the many children's books which were inspired by the ballads. "Rescue of Maid Marian", the lead story in issue 2, features the origin of the Merry Men. It has brief scenes from ballads like Robin Hood and Little John and Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar. "Little John's Peril" in issue 4 adapts the Guy of Gisborne ballad, albeit in a bloodless Code-approved way. In issue 5, "The Menace of the Royal Assassins" combines the ballads Robin Hood and Queen Catherin and its sequel Robin Hood's Chase. [In the original ballads, the king and queen were most likely Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. Here, they are Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine.] And in the same issue, "The Capture of Robin Hood" borrows from the story of the knight's debt in the Gest. However, here the debt is owed to a robber baron, not the abbot of St. Mary's as in the ballad version. (The Code forbade that any religion be attacked or ridicule. As a result there is almost no mention of religion in these stories. Apparently, this provision only applied to Christianity and Judaism as the Crusading stories don't paint the most favourable view of Islam.)
Robber barons were common villains in the code-approved Robin Hood comics. Since the barons were holding their power from the usurper Prince John, they were not legal authorities to be respected. When Robin took money from these barons, he made sure to point out that it was the barons who were the real thieves and crooks.
In the earliest Robin Hood ballads, there's no mention of taxes, except the one Robin himself imposed. By the time of the comics, it was a common theme that Robin Hood robbed taxes to give to the poor or pay King Richard's ransom. In "Ambush of the Merry Men" from issue 5, one tax collector complains "Unless we get rid of Robin Hood, we'll never keep what we steal!" Taking money from these men was not considered a crime. To quote my paper again, "In a country which was founded by men protesting tea and stamp taxes, fighting corrupt tax collectors was not insurrection but patriotism."
When DC took over Robin Hood Tales, Robin did less robbing. His stories veered away from the ballads into the realm of the superheroes.
The most extreme example of this shift in tone comes in "The Masked Marvel of Sherwood Forest" from issue 12. Robin actually loses a Nottingham archery contest to a stranger clad in purple and green. The "Masked Marvel" was dressed in a full mask, cape, sleeveless shirt, and briefs -- a costume as gaudy as the gaudiest superhuman. It turns out that the Marvel was really Robin in disguise, tricking his way into Prince John's service. The "Robin Hood" at the archery competition was really Will Scarlet in disguise.
Although this is the only time Robin Hood dresses like a superhero, he often acts like one. He foils the villains plans by using his wits. For example, in "The Amazing Arrow" from issue 8, Prince John promises to free a prisoner if Robin will face three death traps using only one arrow. Robin shoots two arrows during the story, but he did not break the rules. He broke the longbow arrow in half and formed two crossbow bolts.
It would have been unthinkable for Robin Hood to cheat outright. Another example comes in "The Strange Vow of Robin Hood" from issue 9. Robin vows not to set foot on English soil until he recovers Richard's ransom. He believed the money was stolen by Norman pirates, but soon learns that in fact the money is being held by the villainous Baron Grote in England. Robin refuses to break his vow, and travels to the robber baron's castle by swinging through the trees, rolling down a river in a barrel, and rides on a stage. When he gets near the castle, he's helped out by a passing draper who rolls a long carpet straight to the castle door.
One gimmick used in many DC stories were battles between Robin and exotic animals. In issue 10 Robin faces a panther. In issue 12 he fights falcons trained to catch his arrows and a man-sized hawk. In issue 13 Robin saves Tuck from two tigers. And in issue 14 Robin battles an ape. [Simians were frequent guest stars in DC Comics. Apparently they increased sales. Go figure.]
The National/DC Robin Hood Tales adventures were drawn by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito (except for issue 8, drawn by Irv Norvick) who went on to draw Wonder Woman. And the stories were written by people like Bill Finger, Batman's co-creator. DC was the only American company making money off superhero comics at the time. It is not surprising that the stories resembled the adventures of Batman more than the ballads of Robin Hood. Also, the sorts of adventures the DC Robin Hood found himself in were far less controversial than those of the Quality Robin Hood. DC was one of the more conformist comic companies.
But if the DC Robin Hood was not revolutionary, he was imaginative. The stories in the DC half of Robin Hood Tales were fun, apes and all. Of all the companies to publish Robin Hood stories, DC's Robin was least like his legendary counterpart. But the history of the legend is one of changing with the times. And the DC Robin Hood was best adapted to the comic books of the day.
Visually, both the Quality and DC Robin Hoods resemble Richard Greene. Robin has dark hair and is clean-shaven. Also, green was not the primary colour of this outlaw. His tunic was either red or orange. (In issue 8 he uses the tunic to fight a bull). Comic collectors have told me there was a belief that heroes dressed mainly in green would not sell.
Researching my paper and this article has been a blast. The stories are a hoot. And I felt awe-struck when I actually bought a comic from the long-defunct Quality comics.
Some information for this page came from "Seven Robins!" from the Nolan's Notebook column in the May 1998 issue of Comic Book Marketplace and from Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code by Amy Kiste Nyberg. I'd especially like to thank Professor Nyberg for allowing me to bounce some ideas off her. And of course, a very big thanks to Sherron Lux for getting me started on this project. Our roundtable discussion was well-received and a lot of fun. (More thanks to Henry, Holly, Laura and Lorraine from the SEMA conference.) In July 1999, I presented a heavily revised version of this paper at the Robin Hood academic conference in Nottingham.
Text copyright, © Allen W. Wright, 1997 - 2004.