The True Story Behind the Defenders of the Earth
By Art Bollmann
During the brief period between the end of the Cold War and the election of George W. Bush, American scholars enjoyed a golden age where they actually had access to public records. Because of this, we are aware of the true story behind many of the novels and films that, for reasons of national security, had been presented to the public as fiction.

A case in point is the 1972 animated feature "The Man Who Hated Laughter." This film was the story of Professor Morbid Grimsby who kidnapped a number of comic strip characters, such as the Little King, the Katzenjammer Kids, Snuffy Smith, Hi and Lois, Maggie and Jiggs and Popeye. (In fact, the Professors assistant was the character Brutus. These characters were lured aboard a yacht, and taken to an island. The President of the United States, according to this film, recruited the Phantom, Flash Gordon, Mandrake the Magician, Steve Canyon and Tim Tyler to rescue them. The film claims that the Professor kidnapped these citizens because they were comic strip characters who made people laugh. The characters caused the Professor to laugh and, as he was doubled over, managed to escape in his submarine.

A brief look at the characters involved, of course, shows that this film cannot have happened in 1972, or in any time. The Katzenjammer Kids, for example, first appeared in a comic strip prior to World War One. They obviously cannot be contemporaries of, say, Hi and Lois, who debuted in the 1960s. In fact, like most people, I had been prepared to dismiss this film as complete fiction, until an article in "The Lone Gunman" magazine inspired me to redouble my research. After many months of research, I am prepared to present my findings to the public. The time has come to separate the truth from the lies.

One might think that the existence of a man with the unlikely name of Morbid Grimsby would be one of the lies in our tale, but it appears to have been his actual name. It was, at least, the name he used while he was on the faculty of Miskatonic University in Arkham, Massachusetts. Like most of the faculty there, he was forced to leave the university after one of the college’s many scandals. This one involved the illegal experimentation upon a moose. (One absurd rumor states that they were attempting to modify the moose so that it could play football.)

After leaving the college, he became an agent of the Italian government. (The film attempted to imply this in 1972 by giving him the Italian character Brutus as an assistant. They could not come right out and say it at the time because of the diplomatic situation.) Grimsby’s scientific knowledge was of great value to the fascist government of Italy. In addition his study of ancient tomes had persuaded them that a prophecy regarding an ancients artifact was about to be fulfilled. In order to take advantage of this momentous events, Grimsby was put in charge of an important mission, to kidnap the ocean liner, the Hilary. (The movie says it was his yacht, and called it the Hilarious.) This liner, which was travelling from Europe to America, had a passenger with a very important package.

To compare the passenger list of the Hillary with the movies cast of characters is a provocative experience. It helps us to see who the actual people were who the film characters were based upon. It also tells us why the Italian government wanted the crew kidnapped. It also, surprisingly, shows us that many, but not all, of the passengers in the yacht did (or would) have comic strips based on their experiences.

The most important passenger was, of course, Prince Kline II the ruler of Id, who was known as the "Little King" as the result of the numerous cartoons about him that first appeared in the New Yorker. One of the almost innumerable small kingdoms that littered Europe at the time, Id is believed to have bordered Graustark and Freedonia. Prince Kline, short but portly, was a mute, but ruled Id with kindness and compassion. In this respect, he was the exact opposite of his namesake, Kline I, who was also the subject of a comic strip. As was traditional in his family, while he travelled he carried with him the Singing Sword. The Italian ally Hitler coveted this artifact because I was from the legendary land of Thule, which he mistakenly believed to be the ancestrial home of the Nordic race. This, however, was not their primary reason for hijacking the Hillary.

Another important passenger was the American industrialist Connor Briggs. A self-made millionaire, he was staunchly in favor of American involvement in the steadily worsening European situation. This set him apart from his fellow Irish-American Joe Kennedy. By silencing Briggs, Italy hoped to strengthen the powerful isolationist sentiment in industry and among the Irish For decades, Jiggs had to endure the slurs of a comic strip called "Bringing Up Father" which satirized his less than happy marriage. Even worse, over the years, his enemies had commissioned a number of racy Tijuana bibles concerning his sex life. However, he was not the primary target.

A third important passenger was the sailor known as Popeye. Like other figures of American folklore, such as Davy Crockett, Mike Fink and A.B. Stormalong, Popeye deliberately allowed a number of tall tales to be circulated about him. One can imagine that the Italian government, like modern historians, were uncertain what to believe about Popeye. However, they did know that Popeye had been entrusted with an important package by a man who was even more cloaked in mystery and legend than himself.

There were a number of less important passengers as well. Snuffy Smith, a native of Hootin’ Holler, Tennessee had won a trip as the result of a sweepstakes entry. He was accompanied by his wife, Louise. His friend, Barney Google, was also supposed to come, but, as was often the case, Barney Google disappeared before the ship left.

Dagwood Bumpstead and his wife, Blondie Bumpstead, also came. Blondie, it should be noted, had been quite a flapper in her single days when she was Blondie Boopadoop, but she had achieved none of the notoriety of her cousin, Betty, sho shortened their last name to a simple Boop. After she married Dagwood, Dagwood had been disinherited by his father. The cruise, for them, was a chance to recapture the high life that they had both given up out of love for each other.

Hi and Lois Flagston and Hi’s cousin Beetle Bailey, are fictional characters. However, it should be noted that they do have counterparts in George Burns and Gracie Allen, who were taking the ship to do a European tour. Their presence may have been what caused the producers of the 1972 film to claim that the Professor hijacked the Hilary to rid the world of comics. It should also be noted that Gracie brought along her cousin, Myron Clark, who had just graduated from high school. When the war did come, Myron was drafted. His ineptitude seems to have fascinated George Baker, an army cartoonist, who based his character "Sad Sack" on him.

Also on the boat were the Katzenjammer Kids. The sons of the original Hans Katzenjammer, one of the original Katzenjammer kids, they were also named Hans and Fritz, after their father and uncle. They were coming home from visiting relatives in Germany.

All of these passengers were taken hostage when Grimsby hijacked the ship. Grimsby took the Hillary to an island base. It appears that this island base had once been the headquarters of a man called Nemo. However, we are uncertain as to exactly which of the many men called Nemo owned the island.

Grimsby then issued taunting messages via radio to the President of the United States. As a former Secretary of the Navy, the President took piracy very seriously. He also realized what a tremendous blow this incident would be to American morale. He became even more concerned when, several weeks later, his intelligence service finally got around to decoding some intercepted enemy messages. A few calls to Doc Savage further convinced him of the severity of the situation. The President therefore assembled his own team of agents, in much the same way that the British government had assembled Leagues to deal with similar threats for centuries.

To head this team, he got an American, Flash Gordon. Gordon had recently played a key behind the scene role in the Rogue Planet Crisis. Those who remember the Rogue Planet Crisis tend to think it was an example of mass hysteria, like the Y2K hoax. In fact, it actually has more in common with the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast. It was a genuine crisis that has been disguised as a case of mass hysteria. Gordon had saved the world from invasion by the other-dimensional planet Mongo, had brought back some powerful alien weapons, and more importantly, had kept his mouth shut. He was a man the president trusted.

A second man was a man called the Phantom. This was the 20th Phantom, the man called Kit Walker. He had just inherited the mantle of the Phantom from his father, who had retired in the usual way that Phantoms retire, and he was slightly vervous about his first favor mission..

The third man was the master hypnotist Mandrake. Only he was aware of the true reason that the Hillary had been hijacked. He was also the only one aware that this Phantom that they were working with was a new one. He had met his father, the 19th Phantom, a year earlier, when on a mission in Africa. During that mission, he had created the identity of Congo Bill, the trader. During that mission, he had also hypnotized many people, making them believe that he could turn into a giant Gorilla.

Lothar, the Prince of the twelve nations, and the strongest man in the world, was also on the expedition. Lothar was often taken to be Mandrake’s servant because of the attitudes in America, but, in fact, he was an equal partner of Mandrake. From his Waziri mother he had inherited a warrior’s heart.

The 1972 film says that these four men, who the President, in his enthusiasm, dubbed "the Defenders of the Earth" where accompanied by Terry Tyler and Steve Canyon. This mission, however, was not for cheap imitations or wannabees. Nor, in the case of Canyon, was it for fictional characters. The President called in his best, Terry Lee and Pat Ryan. Lee and Ryan had done work with American intelligence in China, and they also functioned as agents of the man who had entrusted the package to Popeye.

Lee and Ryan had gotten a secret tip about the location of the island where the hostages where kept. They flew the heroes to the island, and dropped the four "Defenders of the Earth" off to attempt the rescue them.

At the same time, on the Island, the passengers maintained a spirited resistance. Grimsley. Grimsley was frustrated. He knew that one of the passengers had the package, but he did not know which one. Finally, he decided to start torturing the passengers, in the hopes of getting one of them to surrender the package.

According to the film, the Professor decided to free the prisoners when he saw himself in the mirror and laughed. The truth is different. The prisoners were freed by laughter, but it was not Grimsley’s. A cold, harsh laugh echoed throughout Grimsley’s headquarters in the island as a dark figure in a slouch hat emerged from the shadows. Twin 45s dealt death to Grimsley.

(Did I mention that Lamont Cranston booked passage on the Hillary at the last minute? It must have slipped my mind.)

At that moment, the Defenders of the Earth broke in, and rescued the prisoners. During a battle, the Little King handed Mandrake the Singing Sword. Mandrake used it to defeat Grimsby’s chief henchman in battle. The Defenders took the prisoners to a submarine and escaped. (The submarine was one of the many named the Nautilus that men called Nemo have used.)

In the confusion, Popeye slipped the package to Terry and Pat. Although the truth was known only to a few, this was what the entire battle had been about.

It was a railroad lantern. It had shined twice, once bringing life, and once bringing death. Prophecy maintained that, when it came to America, it would shine a third time.

This time it would bring power.

© 2003 by Art Bollman