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“I Believed the System Could Reform Cons. But Then I Saw the Truth…”

14+ Stories Featuring Prison Wardens Who Are Frankly Terrible at Their Jobs

1. “Terror Prison” (All Winners Comics #3, Winter 1942)
Pity the poor prison wardens. From The Shawshank Redemption to Orange Is the New Black, it’s hard to find a prison warden in movies or television who isn’t (a) a sadistic psychopath (b) irredeemably corrupt (c) completely incompetent or (d) all of the above. And you better believe the National Prison Warden Appreciation League has its work cut out for it in the comics, too. Exhibit A: this guy, who in his off hours becomes the skulking super-villain known as The Black. Why? So he can cause riots and jailbreaks in his prison, of course. As he explains to the Whizzer: “I discovered oil under this jail — tons of it! I plan to cause so much trouble that the governor will build a new jail and sell this one. I’ll buy it cheaply and then make a fortune from the oil! HA HA HA, nothing can stop me!” Well… nothing except maybe the governor deciding that your incompetent ass is the problem, not the prison itself, and replacing you with someone who can keep the prisoners from escaping. Just sayin’.

2. “Paradise Prison” (Star Spangled Comics #11, 08/42)
As evil as the first guy might be, at least he didn’t include “threaten children at gunpoint” and “lock kids in dungeons” in his master plan. After the Newsboy Legion come across a reform school escapee who begs them not to send him back, they go undercover at the State Reformatory for Boys, which happens to be run by the “kindly lookin’ ol’ gent” B.O. Goodley. But Goodley is hip to what the boys are up to, and he gives them the four-star pie-and-ice-cream treatment to throw them off the scent. But then one of the newsboys finds the dingy cellar that Goodley uses for solitary, where another prisoner gives him the straight dope: “He’s scared on account of you’re pals with the Guardian… he’ll get rid of you guys, then he’ll go back ta starvin’ and overworkin’ the kids… keepin’ the dough he’s supposed ta spend fer our food an’ clothes!” I mean, I get that these were stories written for kids, but… what, they didn’t have auditors keeping tabs on reform school finances back in the ’40s? And what was Goodley’s plan to keep the kids who completed their sentences from blowing the whistle on his abusive antics, just keep them imprisoned indefinitely? Crimes against children are bad enough, but crimes against logic…?


3-4. “The Death of Superman” / “The Leper from Krypton” (Superman #149, 11/61 and Action Comics #363, 05/68)
Speaking of logic. I love, love, love the way Silver Age DC comics had to twist themselves into knots to explain how guys like Lex Luthor could escape from prison again and again to butt heads with the Man of Steel. You would think that maybe after his 47th escape attempt someone would wise up and give Luthor the full Hannibal Lecter treatment. But no, all Luthor has to do is say “Let me cure cancer” or “I’ll fix them cows right up!” and he’s given whatever the hell he wants, no questions asked. Cut to the next page where he’s smashing through the prison walls inside a giant punching robot, or whipping up something that turns Superman into a super-Typhoid Mary. “This is a biochemical lab… What harm can he do here?” Jiminy cricket, man, listen to what you’re saying. It’s like locking MacGyver and the A-Team inside a fully stocked Lowe’s store and expecting them not to find a way out.  (Also, can we talk about the framed and autographed poster of Superman that a grown man has hung up in his office, warden? Little creepy, innit?)

5. “Riot in Cellblock 12!” (The Defenders #39, 09/76)
Not familiar with Steve Gerber’s work on The Defenders? That’s okay; all you really need to know is things always got freaky when Mr. Gerber was in the house. In this story, for instance, the Defender known as Valkyrie finds herself in prison awaiting trial for a destruction of property charge when the warden hints heavily (in a Comic Code-approved way) that she could make her stay more enjoyable if she just, y’know, played ball (wink wink). This goes over with our liberated heroine about as well as you might expect, and Valkyrie is sent to solitary for her defiance, an act that rouses the rest of the prisoners to rise up against the unfair treatment, overcrowding and filthy conditions they had to put up with for years. Pretty bad job there, buddy. I’m just saying a real man would have known how to keep the ladies happy, amirite guys? (ducks to avoid thrown objects) 

6. “One-Man Meltdown” (Batman and the Outsiders #4, 11/83)
As dumb, crooked and/or skeevy as all the wardens we’ve seen so far might have been, at least none of them tried to out-and-out execute the prisoners in their charge just because they decided their jobs were, like, really hard. As our story begins, Jake Creegan, a convict at the Gotham State Prison and former Batman sparring partner, receives some bad news courtesy of the warden. Specifically, he’s told the prison board has turned down his request for radiation treatments that could reverse the condition that’s literally turning him into a one-man meltdown. Feeling he has nothing left to lose, Creegan escapes from prison, leading to Brewster contacting the Batman and encouraging the Dark Knight to take him out (and not in the dinner-and-flowers sense) before Creegan exacts his revenge on Batman for sending him to jail. Being no fool, Batman figures out what’s really going on and gets the warden to confess his plan to kill Creegan… his risky, convoluted, not-really-thought-out plan. (I mean, when your plan relies on Batman doing your wetwork for you, then you really haven’t thought things through.)

7. “Batman – Boss of the Big House!” (Detective Comics #169, 03/51)
While spending a fun night at home studying crime scene photos in the Bat-Cave, our heroes realize they have photographic proof of a condemned man’s evidence. Rushing to the prison to stop the execution (the phone lines not working in a plot-convenient storm), Batman notices upon arrival a few small details that add up to one inescapable conclusion: Warden Downs is losing his sight. “I should have admitted it long ago,” the aged bureaucrat confesses. “But it will take weeks before a successor can be chosen and I’ve been worried what might happen here in the prison if it were know [sic] that the warden is almost blind!” Two words, buddy: “succession planning.” Every well-run enterprise does it. Also… what exactly does this guy think is going to happen if people find out he’s going blind? Does he think the guards will fling the doors open as soon as word gets out? Does he believe it’s only his iron will and/or sparkling personality that keeps the lid on the merry mix of murderers and marauders under his care? The word of the day, gang, is “megalomania.”

8. Avengers: Death Trap, The Vault (1991)
Okay, so let’s review the situation here. It’s bad enough that Truman Marsh (presumably) hid the facts about his parents’ deaths during his job interview for prison warden of The Vault, just so he could put himself in a prime position to punish incarcerated super-villains for the crimes that one of their own committed against his family. Some guys dress as bats, others get master’s degrees in criminology and lie during job interviews — we all deal with grief in our own way. But no matter how much you might identify with his anger, no matter how much you might agree with the idea that the only good super-villain is a dead super-villain… you really don’t have much of a moral leg to stand on if you’re rooting for a guy who secretly overrides remote detonators for bombs that only the President of the United States is allowed to control. I mean… technically this makes him a terrorist, doesn’t it? Or at least engaging in some light treason. Either way, I don’t think I’m spoiling the story by telling you a bad performance review ends up being the least of his problems.

warden-greenlantern1269. “Deep Cover” (Green Lantern #126, 07/2000)
So by my count this is the third cigar-chomping warden we’ve seen with a moustache, dark hair and male-pattern baldness. Coincidence? Maybe.  What’s not a coincidence is the correlation between a warden’s suckiness at his job and his inability to see his prisoners as human beings who deserve certain rights. Case in point: Warden Dunahy, who runs unauthorized experiments on some of his super-villain charges inside the Slabside Island Maximum Security Penitentiary. When Green Lantern stumbles across the operation during an undercover mission and takes the prisoners’ side, Dunahy counters with a “for the greater good” argument, saying the information they’re getting from what they’re doing to the prisoners could help millions… and it’s an argument that might have some merit, if he weren’t so keen on keeping anyone from finding out about what his team is doing down in the basement. Faced with public exposure, Dunahy orders his guards to “take out” the inmates and Green Lantern — and again, not in the flowers-and-a-movie sense, either.

10. “Circle of Blood” (The Punisher #1, 01/86)
Fans of the Punisher know his code forbids him from killing anyone in law enforcement, and many in that field return the favour by looking the other way while he hunts down mobsters and drug pushers. But few officials have been more proactive in their support of Frank Castle’s vigilantism than Ryker’s Island Warden Jerome Gerty, first seen in the Punisher’s 1986 mini-series. When Castle gets sent to Ryker’s, Gerty lets him in on a little secret: he’s a member of the Trust, a secret organization of industrialists, ex-military and other influential types who want to fight crime with methods that go beyond the law. To that end, he offers the Punisher freedom, supplies and tactical support if he continues his mission to wipe out organized crime. Hmm, releasing a violent psychotic from custody and counting on him to play along with your shadowy group’s secret agenda? I can’t see how anything could possibly go wrong.

11. “Pay as You Go” (The Outsiders Annual #1, 2007)
Introduced in 2001’s Flash: Iron Heights, Iron Heights Penitentiary is where the Flash’s regular rogues do time, along with a whole lot of other super-powered and non-powered types. This is bad news for them, because Warden Gregory Wolfe is… well, he’s an ass, if we’re being honest. Prisoners are beaten daily, guards have shoot-to-kill orders if they see any prisoner trying to escape, and the super-villain prisoners kept in “the Pipeline” are given very little light, food or water. Even worse, they’re forced to wear their costumes at all times, which can’t help improve the aroma down there. But his worst act as warden was probably the way he tried to contain a prison riot that broke out when the Outsiders infiltrated his prison to rescue Black Lightning. With events spiralling out of control, Wolfe lets loose with his own super-power, killing 44 people — some of them his own men — in the process. The law-and-order crowd in Keystone City might like his brutal methods, but you just know the guards’ union raised a big stink about that.

12. “Out of Hell — a Hero!” (Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #1, 06/72)
In his very first appearance, Luke Cage is doing time in a prison in the Deep South, and the prison guards there are not what you might call the enlightened type. In fact, shortly before a new warden arrives to take command of the prison, Luke finds himself in a solitary cell getting the stuffing beat out of him by a racist guard. Warden Stuart arrives to stop the assault and, after confirming that Cage isn’t hurt too badly, announces the guard’s immediate dismissal — right after he’s had ten minutes alone with Cage in the cell “to say good-bye.” And yeah, I know we’re supposed to root for Cage and see the warden’s actions as just desserts doled out to an abusive a-hole… but holy crap, man. You’re not even in the building ten minutes and you’ve already exposed the prison to a massive lawsuit, if not serious heat from the guards’ union and federal agencies in charge of workplace safety. You don’t know jack about Cage or what he’s in prison for, and for all you know you could be signing that guard’s death warrant by locking him inside a cell with an angry convict… and you’re one of the good guys?

13. “The Belly of the Beast” (Nightwing #35, 11/99)
Lyle Bolton started out as a security expert who was fired from Arkham for using excessive force; he later decided the real criminals in society were the “gutless police, mindless bureaucrats, and coddling doctors” who let scofflaws and maniacs go free. First appearing in the Batman animated series, he showed up in the No Man’s Land storyline that ran through all the Batman titles in the late 1990s, taking over Blackgate Penitentiary after a massive earthquake levels Gotham. Appointing himself warden, he uses the prison to continue his crusade against criminals — a crusade that Batman only tolerates so long as he needs someone to keep criminals in check while he focuses on saving Gotham. So, yeah, technically he was only a warden in name since no one appointed him head of the prison in any official capacity… but that doesn’t make his reign any less terrifying for the inmates who were sent there.

14+. Every story featuring anyone who has ever been in charge of Arkham Asylum
Yes, technically Arkham is a hospital for the criminally insane and it’s run by a chief administrator instead of a warden… but come on. Right from the start, when founder Amadeus Arkham turned his family home into a hospital for the mentally ill, the place has been rife with administrators who are often hard to distinguish from the inmates they treat. Amadeus ended up a patient in his own asylum after electrocuting the man who killed his wife and child… his nephew, Jeremiah, also went insane and became the second Black Mask… Jeremiah’s replacement, Dr. Alyce Sinner, was revealed to be a member of the Church of Crime in league with Black Mask… and then there was that Quincy Sharp guy, introduced in the Batman: Arkham Asylum video game, who turns out to be a serial killer and a puppet of Hugo Strange. Heck, even kindly Dr. Bartholomew, head of Arkham in the Batman animated series, was useless at maintaining order, allowing the Scarecrow to escape right under his nose and later powerless to prevent the inmates from taking over the asylum and kidnapping Batman to stand trial for his “crimes” against them. And the less said about whoever runs Arkham over in the TV show Gotham the better, as that place has proven to be so easy for homicidal maniacs to enter and exit they might as well install a revolving door. No wonder all the receptionists at Arkham have the same “You don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps” sign on their desks — with bosses like that, who needs enemies?