In 2009, it can be hard to understand, let alone appreciate, what superhero comic books were like at their inception.
Sure, DC and Marvel have their various reprint programs allow us to read the original adventures of the most popular and successful superheroes. You know, those that are still alive and selling. But it’s not easy to experience a Superman comic, or even a Captain Marvel or Sub-Mariner comic, without thinking of all that followed them. As tossed off as those stories may have been, they have the weight of a creation myth; to read the first Superman story without thinking of every one that followed, as if you had no idea what Superman was, requires an act of willful disassociation bordering on self-hypnosis.
Which is at least part of the fun of Supermen!: The First Wave of Comic Book Heroes 1936-1941 (Fantagraphics Books). Editor Greg Sadowski has collected about 20 stories from the time period, featuring a mess of characters you may have heard of, but certainly don’t know the way you know Wonder Woman or Batman.
These are stories from both the formative years of the superhero, and the gold rush years, when everyone making comics decided to make a Superman of some sort. The genre was still fluid, and hadn’t yet hardened and become solid (let alone calcified).
While the names of the supermen may not be familiar ones, the names of their creators certainly are, and Sadowski has assembled a who’s who of the founding fathers of comics, none of who are working on their signature creations. For example you’ll see Will Eisner, but not on The Spirit, Jack Cole, but not on Plastic Man.
Sadowski includes annotations on the stories, which function as an extremely readable mini-history of the comics industry in those years. I sat down to review this book a couple of times now, but I kept getting pulled in so many directions, wanting to mention every cool thing in it, which is quite difficult, given how many cool things are in it.
So instead, after the jump, I’ll try and say a few words about every single story in Supermen!, a book I honestly can’t recommend enough to any fans of the superhero genre.
This two-page black and white story from 1936’s Comics Magazine #1 seems to be included mostly to make sure Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster get a chapter. Sadowski’s annotations say this story featured “comic books’ first flying caped figure,” which may be the other reason it gets included. Many of these entries have similarly specific “firsts” attached.
Dr. Mystic is referred to as “Dr. Mystic, Occult Detective,” which is pretty amusing considering their other creaton, “Dr. Occult, Mystic Detective.” There’s also a pretty powerful image of two characters growing magically to gigantic size and standing astride a city, a situation The Spectre, another Siegel co-creation, would often be seen in.
This George E. Brenner creation is referred to as “the first masked comic book hero.” His mask looks a bit like a black handkerchief with two little eye holes cut out and stapled to his forehead. He wears a suit and hat and otherwise looks like your average costume-less crime fighter of the era. (He was to be featured on the Mike Allred-drawn cover to Crack Comics #63, part of the Next Issue Project that Image announced in ’07, although I don’t think any issues ever came out after the first).
The story, “Murder By Proxy,” features some thugs getting the bright idea of framing The Clock for murder. He figures out who did it by hanging out in underworld hangouts without his mask—is he pretending to be a lowlife, or is that his secret identity?—and then beats a confession out of the rat who framed him. Justice via violence prevails!
Brenner’s panels are very big and uncluttered—there are about six a page in this story—making this one of the airier stories in here, particularly on pages where entire panels are treated as narration boxes/captions.
“The first continuing comic book science fiction strip” apparently belongs to this guy, whom I wouldn’t really consider a superman, but hell, it’s not my collection is it?
In this five-page story, the titular character, wearing a bright yellow and blue uniform with a golden eagle on it, flies in a red rocket ship to hide out in Canada with his friends, the young guy, the bearded guy, and the lady with large breasts.
It’s the colors in this story that remain in my mind—they are extremely bright and there’s little white or black anywhere other than the dialogue bubbles. That, and how weird it is to see these sci-fi looking characters in Canada. I guess this is the future?
Dirk The Demon
Here’s another sci-fi story, although this hero has a more colorful name and a more discernible character, despite the story being only three pages long.
Despite being published in 1939, the tale opens with an odd bit of self-awareness not normally associated with the period. The title panel calls it “Another Adventure of Dirk The Demon as related from the diary of Bill Everett,” with a picture of Everett drawing, and Dirk jumping off the page in a cloud of smoke.
Dirk seems like your basic Buck Rogers type, with the innovation that he’s a kid. In the process of being captured, he picks a guards dagger pocket and then tricks him into his cell where he can stab him to death. He trips another guard, grabs his gun and knocks him out: “Okay, Mister—Thanks—Now I’ll just bang your head on the floor—Pleasant dreams!”
The cover of 1939’s Wonderworld Comics #7 shows up next, featuring The Flame facing off against a bunch of giant ghouls, and it’s followed by a story by Will Eisner and Lou Fine.
The Flame you may recognize from the Alex Ross-spearheaded Project: Superpowers comics at Dynamite. He’s a red and yellow garbed masked man who fights crime with a flame gun.
This is one of the more visually dynamic stories in the book, and it’s where the cover image is taken from.
At the behest of a gangster, a small army of unstoppable skeleton men invade the city, and nothing seems able to stop them, not even the Flame’s furious fists. He’s captured, but rescued by “A girl!!! Pretty too!” who is an agent of her country. The skeleton men aren’t the living dead people think they are, but are a race of people who live in the land she comes from called The Kikoos.
“Only one thing can stop them—Fire!” she says, which works out perfectly for The Flame, since that’s his whole thing.
You can download a PDF of this entire story here, by the way.
Yarko The Great
This 1939 story is both written and drawn by Will Eisner, and it too is among the strongest entries here. “Yarko The Great, Master of Magic” is your typical turban and tux rocking mystic hero. In this story, he embarks on a sort of stream-of-consciousness, mythic story.
An old witch named Madam Punjai discovers an amulet capable of calling forth death itself—a tall man with a goatee in a Victorian cloak, top hate and sunglasses—and she wishes him to take the life of a beautiful young girl whose beauty she envies.
Summoned telepathically by the dead girl’s father, Yarko is on the case! He takes the witch to the land of death, to show her what she’s done, and they fight their way through symbolic monsters with names like “Pain” and “Fear” until they reach the Hall of Time, where the witch becomes her young, beautiful self. She releases the young girl from Death, and chooses to stay behind, where she’ll always be young and beautiful.
Rex Dexter of Mars
Man, what were the Dexters thinking when they named they’re son Rex?
Dex is the grandson of Montague Dexter, who launched a rocket for Mars from the 1939 World’s Fair. A century later, Dex returns to Earth.
While commuting between the orbs, he and Cynde, his “earthly prize,” are forced to crashland to the nearest planet, Ursis (Actually, I’m pretty sure Mars is the nearest planet to Earth). They are captured by the robots there, and taken to beady-eyed, bigheaded bald madman, who wants to steal Earth’s moon. He’s developed a means for destroying the Earth by simply pulling a lever. A black lever, with a tiny skull atop it. That’s actually a very cool doomsday device-controlling lever.
Unfortunately for the madman, the robot he orders to kill Rex is one manufactured by Rex’s dad, and Rex speaks to it in robot language, telling it to destroy the joint.
Seemingly yet another sci fi style hero, this eight-pager from 1940 is signed “Michael Griffith,” but it’s actually among the first solo comic book work of Jack Kirby’s.
Kirby’s early work never looks all that Kirby-esque, but it sure is fun to scrutinize for hints of what would come a few decades later: The way someone throws a punch here, the lines of a space ship there, the look in a character’s eyes.
He gets off a pretty great monster design in this one, a tall, green skinned, bearded creature named Iako with wide shoulders and long, spindly legs.
Stardust The Super Wizard
Fantagraphics’ acclaimed 2007 collection of Fletcher Hanks’ work, I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets!, reintroduced the world to Stardust, the big, brawny blond hero with a tiny head and adventures that could perhaps most accurately be described as “completely insane.” (Stardust also popped up in an Allred and Joe Keatinge story in Image’s Next Issue Project book Fantastic Comics #24.)
I assume every one knows what they’re in for here, right?
From his observatory on his private star, Stardust, “the most remarkable man that ever lived” keeps his eye on Kaos, a criminal scientist on “the highly civilized planet of Venus,” who has just perfected his super-vitamin vine.
Using the vine and a hypno ray, Kaos breeds and army of super-vultures under his control, which he transmits to Earth via thought waves. The giant vultures wreck earth, then Stardust swoops in, destroys Kaos’ ship, beats up the vultures and sends them back to Venus, and then transforms Kaos into a crazy giant space worm and throws him to Venus to be eaten by the Venusian vultures. The end.
From the pages of Pep Comics comes a Jack Cole written and illustrated story of The Comet, who readers may recall from DC’s short-lived early-‘90s Impact line (for which Mark Waid and Tom Lyle worked on the character).
The original version had a…busier costume design than the ‘90s version, covered with stars and moons. He also had a deadly eyebeam power that could only be stopped by the goggles he wore like a certain X-Man to come along a few decades later, and much better PR than either the later Comet or Cyclops. “The Comet, The Most Astounding Man on the Face of the Earth!” screams the title panel.
In this story, The Comet is chloroformed and captured by the mobster named Satan, and hypnotized to steal and kill for him. This he does for pages, killing at least ten people, before Satan and his hypnotist partner have a falling out, and The Comet melts them with his eyebeam.
Fero, Planet Detective
For sheer breathlessness, this Al Bryant story gives Fletcher Hanks a run for his money. It’s the story of the “super-detective of the netherworld, the one man who can thwart the evil doings of vampires and werewolves that have invaded the Earth from Pluto.”
Keep in mind this is only five pages long.
Dr. John Wade meets with Fero in his office and hires his services, explaining that his daughter disappeared three months ago and his gardener murdered. Every night since, strange lights, wailings and creatures have been seen around Wade’s home.
From a high tower, the men watch as a ghostly green light appears, and Wade says he is going to go investigate, the brave detective staying behind, saying “I’ll cover you from here.”
Once he nears the light, it turns into a werewolf and kills Wade, whom Fero covers by, um, watching him die from far away.
Fero goes himself and he’s attacked the light-that-turns-into-a-werewolf, which he shoots dead. Inside the gardener’s lodge, he finds a sleeping Phyllis, but then a green “hideous dwarf” appears to fight Fero, who strangles it to death. Outside, another green light follows him, this one transforming into a vampire, which Fero throws off a cliff and it falls to its death (despite its wings), then the haunted lodge explodes, Phyllis wakes up, learns of what happened and the death of her father, and tells Fero how wonderful he is.
Another Fletcher Hanks creation prominently featured in I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets! and featured on the cover of the upcoming You Shall Die By Your Own Evil Creation!, Fantomah is probably the weirdest jungle heroine of them all.
Not only does she eschew leopard print for a flimsy black negligee, but she flies, has undefined ray-based superpowers and, on occasion, her face turns into a glowing skull.
This is the story of how an evil scientist develops a formula to give gorillas the minds of men, which he injects in the Gorgon Gorillas and then arms with rifles to help him take over the world. Fantomah stops him. And by stops him, I mean throws him to his own killer apes, who tear him to pieces, as shown in a panel of a crowd of gorillas, with a safari hat, severed human leg, and severed human arm above them.
The “Monarch of Magicians” looks a lot like Yarko, only he has a sharp moustache and goatee, and a differently colored turban, cape and tuxedo combination.
In this story written by Gardner Fox and Fred Guardineer, Marvelo and his bright yellow-skinned, diagonal-lines-for-eyes helper Zee, he arrives in America “in search of adventure,” and finds it through liberal use of his powers. He turns some rude men into pigs, hypnotizes a cabby to punch out another man for him, makes some gangsters’ car teleport to the roof of a skyscraper—and that’s all within the first two pages.
A character with Marvelo’s powers would probably get pretty boring fast, but Fox and Guardineer come up with such constantly clever applications of his powers (to, um, do anything) that the suspense of what he’ll do next makes up for the lack of suspense over whether he’ll succeed or not.
Another Fox penned story, this one drawn by Mart Bailey, features the imaginatively named character The Face, who wears a very convincing monster mask to fight crime in (He’s another Golden Ager that appeared in Dynamite’s Project: Superpowers, there renamed Mister Face. His secret identity is that of radio reporter Tony Trent, and he gives Clark Kent and Billy Batson a run for their money when it comes to questionable journalistic ethics, reporting on his own exploits between scenes of this short story, and using his media platform to draw out criminals.
Ogden Whitney draws this 1940, Fox-written adventure of Skyman, who is sort of an aviator hero in superhero trappings.
He uses his high-tech airplane and gadgets like a “Stagimatic” paralyzing ray gun and “telvisi-radio” to fight the enemies of America. He’s sort of a freelance, one-man U.S. Air Force, and takes on unnamed national enemies solo throughout this action-packed 11-page story.
He’s by far the burliest hero in this collection. Whitney gives him shoulders, arms, a chest and a jaw that make Superman look thin and angular.
More Jack Cole! (And another Project: Superpowers recruit). This speedster debuted just two months after The Flash, but his powers are the same. Why did The Flash survive but S.S. didn’t? Maybe it has something to do with costuming. While Jay Garrick had the bold red shirt with a lightning bolt and a Hermes hat going for him, Silver Streak wore purple and green (?) and had a chest symbol reading “SS” (Isn’t there a rule about two-initial symbols on superhero costumes?).
Cole fills this story, in which the title hero battles some giant bugs, with wonderful intimations of super-speed, and a rather bewildering number of applications of the power in so short an amount of space.
The Claw Vs. Daredevil
Here it is, the main event! I’m a huge fan of Jack Cole’s Plastic Man comics, some of the best super-comics to have been made in the Golden Age, and I’ve always been curious about his prior attempts in the genre, specifically his Daredevil, who boasted that wonderful orange-ish red and blue costume and fought crime with a boomerang, and The Claw.
It was the main reason I was so excited about Alex Ross and company’s Project: Superpowers, and bummed out by how incredibly boring a series chockfull of weird old half-forgotten Golden Agers ended up being. I gave up about halfway through the original P:S series, and gave the Death Defying Devil spin-off a chance, but it was no less dull.
How DD, or DDD, had become a mute, super-ninja, I don’t know, but he sure wasn’t in this story, a sixteen-page mini-epic in which the two enormously charismatic characters go at one another hammer and nails. According to Sadowski’s annotations, this 1941 story was unique in that it pitted a supervillain against a superhero, something that is now a matter of course for super-comics, but back then was still a new idea.
This story is a perfect distillation of Cole’s talents in various genres; The Claw a creature of horror and crime, Daredevil a wise-cracking superhero.
After a yellow, hairy, gnarled hand drives a knife through a slip of paper reading “WARNING!! You are abut to read one of the most astounding tales ever portrayed in a comic magazine!” from the editor, asking those with weak hearts to read no further, we get two panels contrasting the violent war of Europe with the peaceful idyll of 1940 America.
Rich wastrel Bart Hill is enjoying a picnic with girlfriend Tonia Saunders, who wishes he did something more with his life, like Daredevil, who he dare not tell her he actually is.
Meanwhile, in a kingdom around the world, near Tibet, in a giant skull atop a mountain, the canary yellow Asians who worship The Claw, “the god of hate” perform a ritual to summon their master.
The Claw is gigantic in size, and perhaps intended to be a yellow menace type character, but his features are so monstrous its hart to say with certainty that he’s supposed to be a racial caricature along the lines of his minions. He looks a bit like Max Schreck’s Nosferatu, only with bigger eyes, ears, fangs and claws, and yellow skin.
He forces his men to dig an underground tunnel alllll the way to New York City, from which he rises, shouting “Death To America!” in the Chinese restaurant font he gets whenever raising his voice to bold letters.
He wrecks the city with his bare hands, shooting electric bolts, while Bart rushes back home, changes into his costume, and then takes on the invading army. Within The Claw’s bunker, he’s faced with a series of traps and weapons that he over comes, eventually fighting The Claw one on one. When The Claw hurls him through the air, Daredevil contorts his body into the V-shape of a boomerang, and thus flies back at The Claw, eventually driving him away by hurling lit dynamite down his throat.
Man, if you’re really enjoying Project: Superpowers and it’s ‘Devil spin-off, I highly advise you not to read this story, as it’s just going to make them seem dull in comparison.
Another space-faring hero story, this one distinguished by the writing and art of Basil Wolverton, whose incredibly idiosyncratic sense of design, and ultra-detailed crosshatching and linework, make this look work not only look unlike anything else I’ve seen from the time period, but like the sort of comic you could see on the shelf of your local shop today, rather than an artifact from the medium’s formative years.
Another Bill Everett effort, this one features the modestly attired Sub-Zero, who wears a red tunic and boots and blue pants, and fights crime with his cold powers.
You don’t see too many superheroes with cold powers, do you? Ice Man aside, cold seems to be the province of villains more than heroes.
In this eleven-page story, Sub-Zero fights a Professor X, who has found a way to kill with man-made lightning, as well as an elaborate scientific way to counteract S.Z.’s powers.
And here’s your Joe Simon and Jack Kirby collaboration, another space-faring hero. By this point, Kirby’s starting to draw a little bit more like Kirby, and the artwork here greatly resembles that of his early Captain America. There are also more Kirby-like touches in the design work, including a few huge machines, the Dan Turpin eyebrows on a few characters, and so on.
Sadowski apparently chose this story to go out on because “comics would never be the same after Captain America.” As the war began in earnest for America, the superheroes and crime fighters got a common enemy and a common purpose to rally against, and, according to Sadowski, “Their freewheeling days were over.”
And that’s a few words about every single story in Supermen!.