Comics' Deadliest Deathtraps!
Though Harry Houdini had gained a measure of fame as a stage magician, it wasn’t until he began performing breathtaking escapes that he was guaranteed immortality. Whether escaping from handcuffs, ropes, straightjackets, chains, or water-filled milk cans, audiences were thrilled by Houdini’s showmanship and (though few would admit it) the very real possibility of his failure and death!
Long after Houdini’s actual (and very premature) death, the spirit of his intricate deathtraps lived on. Saturday matinee cliffhangers, the motorcycle stunts of Evel Knievel, the elaborate execution machines of James Bond villains, modern magic stylists like David Blaine and, yes…even some superhero comic book covers seem to owe at least some debt to the great Houdini’s stagecraft.
One of the earliest of the deathtrap covers featured Dr. Zodiak’s Perpetual Motion Machine, a.k.a. “The Pinwheel O' Death” from All Star Comics #42 (1948).
Crikey! The cover of Flash #124 (1961) finds the Fastest Man Alive strapped to "The Space-Boomerang Trap", courtesy of Aussie villain Captain Boomerang. I’m no physics major, but that mattress spring propelled Space-Boomerang won’t make it across the street, so much an a "one-way trip to the moon".
In Fantastic Four #201 (1978), the deathtraps aren't provided by a supervillain, but by the F.F.'s malfunctioning high-tech headquarters!
At first glance, what kind of threat would a single Nazi-missile pose to someone as powerful as Wonder Woman? Couldn’t she just snap those chains around her wrists and backhand the missile into the Red Panzer’s leering face? Not so fast! Wonder Woman, like all of her sister Amazons, was rendered powerless when her bracelets were chained together, as they are here on the cover of Wonder Woman #229 (1977).
Continuing the chain motif is the cover of Amazing Spider-Man #148 (1975), where the Tarantula tosses a tightly-bound Spidey from the George Washington Bridge. Compounding Spider-Man’s distress were several major-league mindgames: (A) This was the exact same place his girlfriend Gwen Stacy died a few years earlier and (B) the clone of said dead girlfriend was now watching him fall…all courtesy of the green-garbed Jackal, who was (C) secretly Spidey's college biology professor.
As a popular comic book character in Michael Chabon's pseudo-historic novel The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, The Escapist was an homage to the great heroes of Golden Age comics. Here, on the cover of The Amazing Adventures of The Escapist #4 (2004), Tom Mayflower finds himself in the very definition of "a tight spot".
As the final member of our “chain gang” quartet of covers, Superman: The Man of Steel #50 (1995) featured Big Blue awaiting trial for the death of Krypton’s entire population. Wait…what? Wasn’t he just an innocent baby when he escaped Krypton’s destruction? Sure…but an alien tribunal begged to differ, holding Kal-El responsible for an ancestor’s genetic experiments that inhibited Kryptonians from leaving their planet.
Three years earlier in issue #13, Superman found himself strapped to the business end of a missile by the creepy collective villainy of Cerberus.
I get a bit claustrophobic just looking at the cover of Jimmy Olsen #112 (1968), as a Houdini-esque escape trick of Superman's goes horribly awry. Relax....it's only a disguised assassin named MagnaMan.
Captain America #359 (1989) turned helpless captivity under threat of imminent death into a fun group activity…looking less like a deathtrap and more like a Busby Berkeley show-stopper from the Golden Age of film.
In The Atom #10 (1964), a humble hand grenade becomes a mammoth one-way ticket to oblivion for the Tiny Titan!
Even comedian Jerry Lewis found himself in a supervillain deathtrap, as the Joker’s “sunlamp” laser beam threatens to lobotomize the moronic man-boy. Will Batman and Robin rescue him in time? Or, if the laser lobotomy is successful, would anyone even notice?
The Dynamic Duo had their own problems in Batman #207 (1968), as they desperately tried to escape a watery death while three gun-toting hands riddled the water with bullets!
Things look equally desperate on the cover Daredevil #141 (1977), as Bullseye hurls a helpless Man Without Fear from some kind of giant crossbow…on a one-way trip to the moon!
Everyone’s favorite girl reporter becomes a human hood ornament on the cover of Lois Lane #135 (1973), victim of a mind-controlled Superman. However, despite facing certain death while gagged and bound to a plunging semi-truck, Lois’ stripey leotard and pink tights lighten the mood considerably.
Of course, the most extravagant of the superhero deathtraps can be found on the covers of DC’s Mister Miracle series. As a player in Jack Kirby’s sprawling Fourth World saga, Apokolips refugee Scott Free became the protégé of escape artist “Mister Miracle”, a.k.a. Thaddeus Brown. When Brown died, Scott combined the skills he learned with New God technology to become the new Mister Miracle, “Super Escape Artist”!
Naturally, all of the heroes pictured in this collection of deathtrap covers escaped to fight another day...and yet we continue to subject them to Pinwheels of Death, Space Boomerangs, Sunlamp Lasers and Murder Machines. Why is that?
Maybe the answer goes back to Houdini and the daring escape artists who followed him. Perhaps there's something about that razor's edge dance between death and dazzling redemption we can't seem to get enough of.