Ragman, Bronze Age Scourge of the Ghetto Lords

ragman-2-joe-kubert
Joe Kubert

As with their political counterparts, big-name comic conventions are increasingly morphing into stage managed infomercials, at least, when it comes to generating actual “news”. Major announcements are often made in the days leading up to the con or hinted at so strongly that the actual confirmation seems after the fact. For example, at this year’s San Diego Comic Con, it was nice to have Brie Larson officially named as Marvel Studio’s Captain Marvel, yet it was hardly a shock, as its possibility had been finely debated by fans weeks earlier. One surprise, though, was the news that Arrow would be adding Ragman to its cast of characters in the upcoming season. Not simply for a one episode gig either, but a reoccurring role in the show. Now this was something. Ragman has hardly seemed to be on DC’s radar lately, let alone the writing rooms’ of the CW. Still, for longtime fans of the character, it was welcome news. While Ragman has never broken through to the forefront of popularity, he occupies his own fascinating corner of the DCU.

Ragman was created by Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert and debuted in Ragman #1 (1976). The 70s were an era when comics were increasingly taking on a renewed interest in social awareness, most famously by Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams’ Green Lantern/Green Arrow. This was far from the only instance though. Steve Gerber was employing social satire in Howard the Duck, while various writers used the newly created Luke Cage, aka Power Man, as a means to approach inner city issues. Meanwhile, in the short-lived Night Nurse series Marvel attempted some of their first tentative reckonings with Women’s Lib. Further afield from spandex, Will Eisner was creating his “Tales of Tenement Life” Contract with God. Ragman fits into this trend.

Ragman 1976 #001_p003
The Redondo Studio

Writer Kanigher sets the series amongst a city’s least fortunate inhabitants. The first issue opens with a stark depiction of social imbalance, as a faceless, though clearly wealthy, white man hands a black child a toy ball. The child, as instructed by the man, bounces the ball in the direction of a nearby car. The ball, actually a bomb, explodes injuring the child in the process of killing its intended target. Rising to the defense of this innocent is the mysterious Ragman. Ragman is a silent fighter who rarely speaks. This reserve strengthens his ambiance, even making him appear detached as one of the criminals plummets off a rooftop to his death. While Ragman did try to save him, he betrays little concern for the man’s demise.

This contrast is intriguing as the man underneath the Ragman’s hood is defined by compassion. Rory Regan runs the Rags ‘N’ Tatters junk shop founded by his father, Gerry. Rory is one of those open-hearted souls more concerned with people’s well-being than making a buck. While it is difficult to judge 1970s prices forty years later, the implication is that Rory is giving his customers more for their pawns than the items are worth. In some cases when the item is too emotionally precious (one woman tries to cash in her wedding dress) Rory simply gives money without taking anything in return. Rory grew up in this section of city and is fully aware of the plight of poverty. He may not have much, but what he does, he wishes to share with his community. This extends to his activities as Ragman. When his girlfriend Bette Berg tries to coax him away from the shop for a “better” life, he turns down her offers. Despite his affection for her, his heart remains rooted in the slums.

ragman-4-redondo-studio
The Redondo Studio

Keeping with this street-level milieu is the lack of any four-color spandex adversaries. The most outlandish foe Ragman confronts is a power broker with guns strapped to his wheelchair. Kooky yes, but still linked to real world problems such as gangsters and real estate exploitation. “Scourge of the ghetto lords” reads one cover as Ragman punches a businessman with a gun. Greed is a motif which throughout the series. Kanigher often employs this theme ironically, highlighting the extent people will go to acquire money only to never enjoy its perks. (This idea is echoed in the back matter of one issue, which discusses a historical miser).

The most prominent use of this theme is directly tied to Ragman’s origin. Gerry and his friends are out drinking behind the shop when they discover a stash of bills hidden in a mattress. Their first thoughts are of Rory, believing that youth is more deserving of the second chance wealth might bring. However, before they can alert Rory to his good fortune, they are confronted with gangsters looking for their missing loot. Rory arrives in time to join the scuffle and, in a bit of comic book wizardry involving live wires and the older men’s eclectic skill sets, gains his powers. Gerry and his companions are dead though, the money still hidden. Rory will never know the secret they so eagerly laid down their lives to protect. Eventually, the money is burned in a fire to warm a neighborhood derelict. A blind, mute boy setting the bills on a flame is unable to attach any value to the paper beyond a source of warmth.

ragman-2-redondo-studio
The Redondo Studio

This child, Teddy, reappears throughout the series. In one scene, Bette suggests to Rory that they marry so that they can adopt Teddy (he currently lives in an orphanage). This scene is striking in that a Jewish woman is proposing marriage to an Irish-American so that they can adopt a black boy and no one acts like there is anything either brave or shocking about it. It is simply people wishing to take care of each other. This sense of race-blindness extends to the supporting character Opal, a black nightclub singer who is infatuated with Ragman. Kanigher is clearly setting up a love-triangle here between Bette, Rory/Ragman and Opal, though, unfortunately he does not develop it too deeply. Still, what little readers see of Opal is an intriguing tease of what could have been a captivating character. On the other hand, Bette is bit more stiff, often sounding like a second generation clone of Iris West (they are both reporters by trade), who Kanigher co-created two decades earlier at the dawn of The Silver Age.

The art for this series is striking, though, assigning exact credit is tricky. Joe Kubert did the design work for Ragman, creating his distinctly memorable appearance. Kubert also supplied the covers, one of which more or less reproduces a page from the debut issue (or is it the other way around?). Interior art is credited to The Redondo Studio, which encompassed the brothers Nestor and Frank Redondo. One of the letter columns though credits Kubert with the layouts. Regardless of who contributed what, the art for the series is one of its strongest elements. The art flows smoothly, never betraying if there were multiple artists at work. In addition, the comic does cohere to Kubert’s dynamic, naturalistic style. The action scenes are particularly fluid, as Ragman moves with the nimble agility his name would suggest. This sense of zest is reinforced by way his green-hued costume pops on the page. (All art is credited to Redondo Studio with no mention of whether that included coloring or not). All in the series has a bold visual element.

ragman-4-title-page-redondo-studio
The Redondo Studio

Unfortunately it was not enough to garner the attention of readers. Ragman lasted only five issue before being unceremoniously canceled by DC. After that the character mostly faded away for a period of time. He does pop up once or twice in connection Batman sparking an association between the two which would stretch over decades. Kanigher himself scripted Ragman for an issue of The Brave and the Bold (#196, 1983). Despite the involvement of Ragman’s co-creator, it is an odd story which feels like a gamble on course-correction. Much of Ragman’s earlier mystique is gone, as not only does he talk, but he sounds like the average masked vigilante. Opal shows up speaking like a conventional girlfriend which not only begs the question of where Bette is, but also how did Opal survive her apparent death in Ragman #5? As Bronze Age Batman stories go, it is a diverting read nicely illustrated by Jim Aparo. However, there remains the nagging feeling that DC was trying to shape Ragman into something more palatable to readers, i.e. conventional. If so, it did not take. The character receded away once again. He would naturally join the cast of thousands for Crisis on Infinite Earths, but afterwards return to the shadows. At first, DC demonstrated little interest in reviving the character for the post-Crisis landscape. Eventually, though, a pair of old pros took on the task.

That, however, is a tale for another day.

Cheers

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