Before “superhero” was a household word and before Superman or Batman made their debuts to the world, Americans followed the adventures of a unique crime-fighting duo: the Green Hornet and Kato.
In 1933, Fran Striker created the radio show hero called the Lone Ranger, a masked man who brought justice to the American frontier with his partner Tonto. Later on, it was suggested that Striker make a more modern hero. So in 1936, he recycled the idea and created a new radio series starring newspaper publisher Britt Reid AKA the Green Hornet.
Unlike other masked crime-fighters, the Hornet didn’t advertise that he was an enemy of evil. Instead, he pretended to be a criminal himself. Britt’s valet Kato, an expert martial artist and skilled mechanic, aided the Hornet by donning a mask and acting as his nameless bodyguard, enforcer and driver. As the Green Hornet, Reid would work alongside criminals so he could sabotage their operations from the inside, leaving them easy prey for the police while he and Kato made a getaway in the Black Beauty, a special car with a loud, buzzing engine (the sound of which helped give the Hornet his name). His fugitive status, along with the fact that he sometimes took credit for the crimes of others, earned him a reputation as a clever gangster and got him the trust of several criminals he’d later help put away.
Some time later, Stryker revealed that the Hornet and the Ranger were related. The Lone Ranger was a man called Reid (later named John Reid) who had a nephew named Dan. And the Green Hornet had inherited his newspaper, The Daily Sentinel, from his father Dan Reid. So Britt was the Lone Ranger’s grandnephew. Cool, right?
I have a personal connection to this character. Before I read comic books, back when I didn’t know what an X-Man was or how Spider-Man became a hero, my father and I would watch videos of the 1960s Green Hornet show and would listen to copies of the original radio series. So because of this, and because he’s been making a huge comeback in recent months, I figured we should look over the different ways this character has been portrayed over the decades.
IN THE BEGINNING
Now, unlike other characters we’ve discussed, the Green Hornet was not a specific image presented to audiences in a comic book. He was a radio show hero, reliant on imagination for the most part. We were told that the Hornet wore a dark suit and overcoat, with a fedora and a green mask that only revealed his eyes.
In 1940, the Hornet appeared in print for the first time in a novel by Fran Striker for Big Little Books. The novel was called The Green Hornet Strikes! and this is how it described the title character:
“The mask was green. Where the mouth should have been, there was a sinister white figure, the outline of a hornet… As for the Hornet’s costume, the soft hat was made of dark gray felt. He wore gray gloves, a dark scarf to conceal his throat and a long dark topcoat.”
The cover gave us this view of the Green Hornet. While the suit and mask are green, the top coat and hat are both rather plain. Other than the mask, Britt could very well have been wearing this outfit at the office earlier that day. This disguise does the job but it’s not exactly eye-catching.
That same year, the Hornet made his way to live-action media in a collection of movie serials. Here, the mask is not simple cloth tied around his lower face, it’s a plastic shield. This mask, I have to say, is memorable and quite effective. Not only would a person’s voice sound a little different when it echoed off this covering, but the mask gives no hint as to the shape of his nose or his facial structure. The size and shape of it distracts you from getting a clear idea of the Hornet’s jawline.
An excellent disguise and necessary when you consider that Britt Reid is a high-profile figure. It also, frankly, is quite creepy because by completely disguising the Hornet’s facial expression, it’s now tough to tell what he’s thinking at any given time. We’ve just got his eyes and that insect silhouette staring at us.
Meanwhile, Kato is basically wearing a chauffeur’s outfit with driving goggles instead of a mask. This outfit doesn’t really work for me. If Kato is supposed to be the enforcer, why wear a button down shirt and dress clothes that might impede movement? The goggles look like they cut down peripheral vision, which could save your life in a fight. And how intimidating can you be with a bow tie? Honestly.
The show was in black and white, but the darker colors made the Hornet seem a little more intimidating than the Big Little Books. In this picture, he clearly isn’t wearing some tan overcoat with a gray hat. Several of the movie posters showed the Hornet’s hat and coat as matching the dark green of his mask. So now at last we’re getting something resembling a costume.
In the movie, the Hornet’s scarf is tucked in, so there didn’t seem to be any danger that an enemy could grab a hold of it and strangle him. He wore a suit, but it was loose enough that he was able to fight, climb fire escapes and jump through windows when he needed to. The coat was often buttoned so it didn’t risk getting trapped in a door or caught on something. Since he’s trying to look like a gangster rather than a vigilante, this ensemble makes a lot of sense. A very nice interpretation of the character.
THE GOLDEN AGE COMICS
At the end of 1940, the Green Hornet made his way into the comic book medium in a series published by Halyoke Comics. At first, it basically copied the Big Little Books design.
The Green Hornet had a costume that was not really that green at all. This is a pretty garish look between the light blue suit and the yellow overcoat. We can maybe buy into a the idea that a gangster could be intimidating a dark green suit, but who would be afraid of a guy in these bright colors?
In 1942, Harvey Comics took over the series and began publishing new issues. His suit was sometimes green, sometimes brown, but now the yellow topcoat was replaced with a green trench coat. It’s a small change, but gives a slightly more blue-collar impression rather than a gangster vain enough to wear an expensive looking overcoat when he knows he might have to battle it out with his enemies.
The trench coat also makes more sense from a practical standpoint. In the radio show, it was stated several times that Britt Reid wore a reversible coat to work, which he could later turn inside out to make it the Green Hornet’s coat. That idea may not be practical for a heavy top coat, but for a trench coat it works just fine.
In the second comic series, Kato is wearing a somewhat more practical outfit. The buttoned-down shirt and bow tie are gone, replaced with a buttoned jacket that looked like it allowed more freedom of movement. The goggles are still bothersome, but this is definitely a step in the right direction.
THE TV SHOW
In 1966, the Green Hornet got his own TV show, though it lasted only one season. It starred Van Williams as Britt Reid and Bruce Lee as Kato (in fact, this was the role that helped make Bruce Lee a star). With a green suit and matching fedora, we again have a look that is meant to say “gangster” rather than “hero.”
Van Williams wears a Chesterfield top coat, which is quite stylish. But in the TV show, the Hornet operates during the day at times and this coat is made of wool, so I’m now worrying about how hot he might be getting underneath that thing. Fortunately, the Hornet would often dismiss his top coat in the TV show and simply wear his dark green suit that matched his fedora.
The mask was replaced by one that showed a lot more of the actor. This mask is custom-molded for the man’s face, which fits with the persona of a vain gangster. This is definitely not some store-bought thing anyone can pick up before Mardi Gras. The seal of the Green Hornet stamped on the brow is a nice touch too. When the Hornet’s staring you down, that little seal advertises who he is without being overbearing.
But as snazzy as this looks, it also brings up a concern that the mask could be easily dislodged during a fight since it’s so small. And now we’re in the danger zone of Reid being recognized since he is a public figure. What if some reporter photographs him? One of his own reporters might see this face in the paper and figure things out.
Kato wears a similar mask but he can get away with it. Britt Reid if a professional man of wealth and considering the circle he travels in, it’s doubtful that many of his colleagues (particularly during this time) would pay close attention to his personal valet. He wouldn’t be a person of importance, just hired help, and he certainly wouldn’t be someone appearing in new stories with published photographs. What’s more, almost none of these same people would be the same folks that Kato and the Hornet would encounter in the underworld.
This outfit is much like the previous incarnations, except a bit looser, allowing actor Bruce Lee to display the martial arts skills that would make him famous. As a nameless enforcer, this look is very cool. My only suggestion would be that Kato might prefer to wear boots of some kind rather than dress shoes.
Starting in 1989, Now Comics spent several years on creating their own version of the Green Hornet mythology, drawing on both the radio series and television series and explaining that the identity of the Hornet was actually passed down through the generations and used by different members of the Reid family.
The idea from Now Comics was that the Green Hornet seen in the TV series was actually the nephew of the original radio show hero and that TV Kato was the son of the original Kato from the 1930s. Each generation was also well aware of their connection to the Lone Ranger (who was still never named since Now Comics did not have the right to that character). So there was a deep sense of legacy now in the stories.
In picturing the original Hornet and Kato duo, Now drew him just as the 1940s comics had. Green trenchcoat with a loose suit underneath. They gave him the full-face mask of the movie serials, but often depicted it as cloth rather than plastic. I quite like this look. It’s a nice amalgamation of previous interpretations.
In one adventure, we saw that Britt was forced to confront a murderer while attending a party. Not having his mask and special clothes with him, he simply threw on a trench coat and fedora and wore a torn piece of green cloth as a makeshift mask. This image of the Hornet is surprisingly striking, making him appear more sinister and hinting that he’s a crazed criminal rather than a calculating gangster. Considering he was consumed with vengeance in this tale, the design definitely works for that particular story.
The Now Comics also briefly pictured the 1930s Green Hornet with a lower-face mask that hung loosely. This doesn’t really work for me. It makes him look more like a Western bandit and gives him a resemblance to another popular radio show hero, the Shadow. Considering how many 1930s characters wore masks with suits and/or capes, you want to add as many distinguishing features as possible so they don’t seem as if they all belong to the same club.
In depicting the 1960s Green Hornet, the comic artists did their best to simply draw Van Williams and Bruce Lee in their familiar garb.
And then came the new Green Hornet. When his brother Alan died while wearing the mask, Paul Reid decided it was time to pick up the mantle of the Hornet himself. He basically just wore the Harvey Comics outfit with a larger version of the TV series mask.
More striking was the fact that his partner was the original Kator’s daughter, Mishi Kato. As we can see, the chauffeur look is completely gone and we’re given what looks like a 1980s gang member with gloves and a mask. It wasn’t a bad look for when it came out, but very quickly it became dated. Few things say 90s like a red headband and rolled up sleeves on a leather jacket. I also don’t think such a loose, low neck T-shirt is very practical for a martial artist. I can easily see some criminal grabbing the shirt’s neck during a fight and pulling Mishi off-balance.
Eventually, the female Kato was replaced with a more familiar face and costume. Mishi went on to become an enemy of the Hornet’s, calling herself the Crimson Wasp.
On a different note, the classic look now seems a lot less practical. The older incarnations of the Green Hornet would drive into places and confront folks directly. On some occasions, he might’ve come down a jump line and jumped through a window, but it’s not as if he were performing acrobatics in those suits.
However, Paul Reid here regularly runs across rooftops and leaps down through skylights like many superheroes. He’s performing martial arts moves as regularly as Kato, dodging gunfire as he takes on multiple opponents. Taking all of that into consideration, should he really be wearing a suit, tie and trench coat? And that big, loose scarf seems like a risky thing to have when you regularly get into brawls. What if someone grabs it from behind and rings your neck?
Now Comics later did a three issue mini-series Dark Tomorrow, which featured the Green Hornet of the year 2080. This guy was actually a criminal and was opposed by Kato’s descendant. Kato has gone for a full ninja look here. It’s nice and it suits the character, but what is with those shoulder pads? They’re definitely a sign of 90s comic book mentality where shoulder pads and belts were all the rage and, again, I think a martial artist like Kato (any of the Katos) would avoid wearing things that would restrict movement in any serious fashion. What if this guy needs to throw his arms vertically in the air so he can grab a fire escape? He’s not going to make it!
This Green Hornet, Clayton Reid, has thrown out the suit and gone for full body armor. This makes sense from a protection standpoint and the segmented style of it gives a definite insect impression. That’s a nice touch. But now he definitely looks more like a superhero and that makes even less sense when you have a character who actually is a gangster rather than just pretending to be one. Also, it feels like it needs a little something more. Just throwing a trench coat over a suit of armor does not make the armor more interesting or decorative.
The holographic hornet mask is a nice touch. Removing the eyes definitely gives us a nice creepy look, though artists will find it hard to convey emotions if you don’t even have the eyes to work with.
Little trivia for you. The Now Comics finally gave Kato a first name. He was called “Hayashi,” named after Raymond Hayashi, the first actor to portray him on the radio series. In the Now Comics, it was said that Hayashi was the name of the 1960s Kato and that his father who fought in the 1930s was named Ikano. But the new comics by Dynamite have altered that, saying the original 1930s hero was the one named Hayashi. I personally prefer that since the original 1930s Kato was the incarnation Raymond Hayashi actually played.
Moving on …
For a while now, a live-action film has been in production. Starring Seth Rogen as the title character, The Green Hornet has met with repeated delays and some recasting, but apparently it’s back on track now.
As we can see here, the movie is going for a pretty simple take on things, a callback to the TV series. I don’t seem to see any hornet insignia on the mask, but otherwise this look isn’t too bad. It’s hard to tell whether or not it’ll translate until we actually see how the actor wears it when he’s performing the role on-screen.
Hopefully the movie will be something we can all be entertained by (and mean that in a not-sarcastic way). Though personally, I’m still holding out a new live-action TV series. I think it’s long overdue. And hey, I do some acting and look good in a suit, so if anyone out there decides to cast a new Green Hornet, I’m available, people! I know some martial arts! Just saying!
THE DYNAMITE TAKE
Recently, Dynamite has acquired the rights to the Green Hornet as a comic book and they are going nuts with it. We’ve got Green Hornet, a modern-day tale with Kevin Smith’s interpretation of the character. We’ve got Green Hornet Year One, a Matt Wagner penned series showcasing the original radio heroes and how they got their start, creating a whole new backstory for them. And we’ve got The Green Hornet Strikes!, a series whose title recalls the very first Hornet book ever written and that showcases a Hornet of the not-too-distant future.
In Year One, the style is taking notes from the Now Comics that combined the 1940s comic look with the movie serial mask. It still works, naturally. But Kato has had a redesign that sneaks up on you.
Even though this is the 1930s character, the goggles are (thankfully) gone, replaced by a form fitting mask. The outfit recalls the original look of the chauffeur, with the strap that he had in the movie serials, but this is a lot looser on his body, showing that Kato has complete freedom of movement.
And notice the wrappings around his calves and his forearms? This is the Kato uniform with a Japanese touch added to it. A great way of melding his visible role as driver with his function as an enforcer. It also reminds us that, at heart, Kato is a samurai and not just some strong-arm who works for the Hornet. Wonderful.
Kevin Smith’s modern day tales show us another female take on Kato. Mulan Kato is like her father, attempting to display herself as a driver and a warrior. Her outfit is pretty great. It harkens to the original, but again is loose and practical. She’s got boots that are ready for combat and she has her weapons in easy reach, strapped to her leg (I always wondered where exactly Kato stored his hornet darts).
The new Green Hornet though, I don’t know about. He’s got a long coat, an overcoat AND a small cape? Um, excessive much? The mask is a nice take, with new angular features and insect-like lenses covering his eyes. But the rest of the look makes me think this is a bit too much of a costume to me rather than something he’d actually wear when he was out and about.
Now let’s talk about our newest addition to the Hornet legacy, the title character of The Green Hornet Strikes! This is a very cool take on things that breaks a lot of rules. Gone is the fedora, the suit and scarf. We’ve got a jumpsuit here with a trench coat over it. The disguise has been replaced with a full-on gas mask, a wise precaution for a man who relies on gas-guns as his primary weapon. And rather than a gas gun with small canisters, he’s got a tank strapped to his back so his weapons don’t run out of juice.
This would not work for Brit Reid, not the way he operated. But we’re dealing with a character who seems to be living in a world where the major mobsters know he’s an enemy and not an ally, thus there’s no longer a need for a gangster disguise. This is also a young and inexperienced character and that comes across with this look. This is Green Hornet with a little bit of punk in him, a little bit of rebel. He doesn’t care if you think his suit is sleek, he’s just getting the job done.
But the jumpsuit he wears isn’t plain either. The green lines decorating it keep the suit from being plain and add color in a subtle way. The pockets and belt show us this guy is carrying a lot of equipment, which is necessary for the world he lives in where you can’t make a getaway and vanish into the night as easily as you were able to in the 1930s. He doesn’t live in Britt Reid’s world of dark alleys and abandoned warehouses. This guy is surrounded by skyscrapers, security cameras, night-vision goggles and GPS. Unlike Paul Reid of Now Comics, this is a true modernization of the character.
The gas mask gives him an insect-like look and the colors and hornet insignia harken back to the original incarnation of the character. I don’t know how heavy that gas canister is and it could get him in trouble during a fight if it slows him down or someone grabs it (as we saw in this character’s first issue), but otherwise this is a great look and I’m all about it. Well done, guys!
And that wraps it up for us. Definitely check out Green Hornet: Year One, Kato: Origins and The Green Hornet Strikes, they are all great books. Hope you enjoyed this look at a hero who has crossed nearly all forms of media. This is Alan Kistler, Agent of S.T.Y.L.E., signing off.
Alan Kistler writes the comic book history/fashion column Agent of S.T.Y.L.E. He is an actor and freelance writer living in New York who has been recognized by Warner Bros. Films and major media/news outlets as a comic book historian. He is also the creator/host of the web-show “Crazy Sexy Geeks: The Series.” He knows entirely too much about the history of comics, Star Trek, Doctor Who, time travel, and vampires that don’t sparkle.