Crowdfunded Comics that deserve more attention: Heroes of the Public Domain.

Today we’re going to talk about a Kickstarter comic called Heroes of the Public Domain.

Regular Edition Cover

This project is seeking funding to create a catalog of superheroes that are in the public domain.  This means most of them are from the Golden Age of Comics, a time period that many historians place between 1938-1952 where comic books exploded onto the pop culture scene and superheroes became incredibly popular.

The project is being led by a Canadian group called Temporal Comics and is seeking $1,776 USD in funding.  At the time of writing the project has reached $1,432 with 23 days left in the campaign.

Kickstarter link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1973136011/heroes-of-the-public-domain-golden-age-guide-issue?ref=discovery

Why I like it

If you’re a fan of this site than you know that we at Cambrian Comics love writing about Golden Age superheroes.

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For anyone who doesn’t know, over the past three years we’ve been running a blog series entitled “Golden Age Showcase”, where we talk about old school heroes from a time when comic books were new and superheroes were somehow even more popular than they are now.

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While it’s fun to study the absolutely ridiculous characters from the Golden Age of Comics,

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it’s also important.

The Golden Age gave us many of comics’ most important and recognizable heroes.  Characters like Batman,

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Wonder Woman,

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Namor the Submariner,

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and the one who started it all, the one who inspired every modern superhero in existence, and the one who just turned 80 years old this year: Superman.

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But it wasn’t just a time where every superhero became a pop culture icon.  After the success of Action Comics #1 it seemed that every two bit publisher and pulp magazine auteur thought they could make it big by creating a superhero of their own.

The results were ridiculous and hilarious with heroes such as Dynamite Thor,

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Lady Satan,

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and The Fin.

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Sure, many of these heroes were silly, poorly written, or even blatant clones of Superman,  But there is not denying that the Golden Age of Comics was a time of exploration, experimentation, and glorious cheese that built the industry we know and love today.  A lot of people worked very hard to bring us these characters and their legacy is worth remembering and studying.

Also, full disclosure: We’re probably going to use the list provided in the Kickstarter description as a resource for more names.  It really is amazing that we’ve been doing this for over three years and still haven’t run out of heroes to talk about.

Why you should donate

Because the culture of the past informs the culture of the future, mostly by ripping off stories from the past and using our familiarity to open our wallets and giving artists our money.

At some point, I’m sure many of you have expressed your frustration at the endless sequels, reboots, and adaptations that make their way into our movie theaters and Netflix queues every year.

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I know because I am one of those people, but I also understand that one of the most prominent and important aspects of art is the ability to emulate and expand upon past works.

We may complain that Hollywood lacks originality when it comes to making movies, but it’s not a modern issue.  Over half of the movies that Hollywood has ever made are adaptations of some sort.  And let’s not forget that the most successful movie of all time,

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was adapted from a book.

In a way it makes sense, movies cost a lot of money so producers would want something that already has enough mass appeal to get people into the theaters.

What’s funny is that this isn’t even a modern thing, artists have been doing this for centuries.  The Renaissance artists were avid lovers of Classical art and blatantly ripped off the style and practices of the ancients.

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Michelangelo once tried to scam the Catholic Church by carving a statue and trying to sell it off as an antique.

Even the great William Shakespeare ripped off the work of his contemporaries.

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It’s true, Romeo and Juliet was inspired by the works of Italian author. Masuccio Salernitano and his two doomed lovers Mariotto and Giannoza.

Yeah, copyright laws didn’t really exist back then.

While we can moan and complain about how originality in art is dead the simple fact of the matter is that it works.  The unfortunate truth is that, at the end of the day, most artists are looking for the kind of success that allows them to get paid, and borrowing from what is familiar can be an incredibly lucrative option.

Don’t believe me?  Just look at Disney, the current owners of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the empire they built with stories and characters from the past.

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Beauty and the Beast, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty, Alice and Wonderland, Robin Hood…the list goes on.  All of are well known, all of them were borrowed and revamped by the Disney company, and I’m willing to bet that most of these stories made up a healthy portion of your childhood.

Even though comic books are a relatively new medium, it hasn’t stopped companies like Marvel from taking one of their earliest characters.

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and giving him a modern update.

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So if giant corporations and famous artists can do it, why can’t we?

There are thousands of fantastic superheroes out there who are free to use and have so much potential.  This Kickstarter gives us a head start by giving us a list of some of the best.

 

All-Art Variant Edition

Kickstarter link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1973136011/heroes-of-the-public-domain-golden-age-guide-issue?ref=discovery

 

 

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Golden Age Showcase: Jill Trent, Science Sleuth.

It’s funny that popular culture doesn’t associate women with the sciences, and it’s especially interesting when you consider that women have been responsible for huge advances in science from early mathematics and astronomy,

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to creating the genre of science fiction,

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to taking us to the moon,

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and basically inventing the whole idea of computer sciences and programming.

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Interestingly enough, the comic book industry had a female science hero to call their own in the 1940’s, and I thought it might be fun to talk about her today.

This is Jill Trent, Science Sleuth.

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Origin and Career

Jill Trent made her first appearance as a back up story in Fighting Yank #6 in 1943.

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She was created by artist Al Camy, a man who had done a lot of work for Standard Comics including work on one of their most popular heroes, the Black Terror.

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The setup for each story followed the standard Golden Age setup with not a lot of attention paid to the backstory and not a lot of effort being put into explaining how Jill makes a living.  She’s just a genius who invents stuff and solves crimes with them.

Comic Book Cover For The Fighting Yank #9 - Version 2

As you can see from the page above, Jill Trent was a genius inventor and scientist.  Not only did she develop a way to see through walls, she presumably figured out a way to defy gravity as well.

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To help her with her adventures Jill had a friend named Daisy Smythe, who was her confidant and sidekick throughout her adventures.  This were their sleeping arrangements.

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Sure those are double cots placed side to side and it’s no different than what Batman and Robin were doing around this time,

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but let’s face it, your mind already went there didn’t it?

Not only was Jill a genius, but both ladies were actually very capable fighters and had no qualms about defending themselves by any means necessary.

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Also, they weren’t above the use of guns either, especially in one particular adventure when they were fighting off a bunch of goons over a copper bedframe.

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Granted, the crooks were trying to get the bed back because it had a large stack of money in it but still, it certainly puts a vicious spin on customer complaints.

Despite being a bit controversial Jill and company were actually reasonably successful.  They appeared in two issues of Fighting Yank and were then moved to a title called Wonder Comics where they appeared in twelve issues.

So what happened?

Her publisher suffered with the rest of the comic book industry in the 1950’s and she was cancelled in 1956.

With that being said, she may have been cancelled but she hasn’t been forgotten.  She’s actually in the public domain and free for anyone to use, although the sources I’ve checked have said to be careful since there still might be some legal issues.

However, legal grey area or not, that hasn’t stopped the independent comics scene from reviving the two heroines.  In 2015 a Kickstarter was launched to give Jill a modern update and it was incredibly successful.

Cover art by Rafael Romeo Magat.

Sadly, I have no idea where you might be able to buy this if you’re interested.  If anyone knows, please post a comment.

Jill Trent isn’t just progressive and potentially subversive, she’s pretty awesome as well.  She throws down like Wonder Woman, she’s dedicated to the pursuit of scientific knowledge like Einstein, and she has the ability to come up with more gadgets than Q from James Bond.

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She would make a genuinely fantastic modern heroine and more people deserve to know about her.

Golden Age Showcase: Olga Mesmer

When writing about the Golden Age of Comics, one of the fun little treats is discovering and sharing the origins of the tropes and ideas that permeate the genre to this day.

Batman was the the first superhero to have his parents killed,

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Doll Man was the first superhero who used his ability to change size as a superpower,

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Superman was the first hero to have a secret identity,

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the list goes on.

We’ve talked at great length about the impact that female characters have had on the comic book industry, and while Wonder Woman may be the most famous super heroine of the Golden Age,

there were several lady superheroes who came before her and a woman named Fantomah is considered to be the first female superhero in a comic book.

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However, today’s entry comes from a time before we knew what superheroes were.  Heck, it comes from a time when we didn’t even know what comic books were.

Today we are going to talk about a woman with strange and mysterious powers and who some consider to be America’s first super heroine: Olga Mesmer.

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Origin and Career

Before comic books were a thing there were comic strips, serialized stories that were published in newspapers across the country and could range from a strip with a few panels,

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to grand and complex illustrations that could take up an entire page.

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While the comic strip industry laid the groundwork for an entire generation of comic book artists, it was the pulp magazines that laid the foundation for the themes and tropes that would define the future of superheroes.

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The pulps were fiction magazines that were really popular for the first half of the 20th century.  They got their name from the cheap pulp paper they were printed on, one of them many ways they cut corners and lowered production costs.

They made up for the cheap quality with lurid and fantastic stories that helped influence the heroes that came after.  The Shadow was a pulp vigilante who prowled the streets at night and hunted criminals,

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and John Carter was a war veteran who found himself transported to Mars, where the planet’s gravity gives him superpowers.

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While it’s impossible to pinpoint it exactly, it’s easy to see how the creators of Batman and Superman must have been influenced by their popularity.

Olga Mesmer was an interesting case.  She was a comic strip that was initially published inside a pulp magazine.  Specifically, she appeared in a magazine hilariously titled Spicy Mystery in September of 1937.

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The book was published by a company called Culture Publications.

As for the art itself, nobody really knows who created the artwork or wrote the stories, since old timey publishers didn’t give a damn about creators rights or credit.  However, we do know that the artwork was contracted out to an art studio known as Majestic Studios, which was owned by a man named Adophe Barreaux.

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Barreaux was a well known and established comic book artist from Charleston, South Carolina who worked for several ad agencies and drew other comic strips for Spicy Mysteries such as the raunchy “Sally Sleuth”,

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and his own syndicated strip: “The Enchanted Stone of Time”

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As for Olga Mesmer herself, her origin story is actually quite interesting.

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She was the daughter of a royal family originally from the planet Venus and ruled a secret kingdom under the Earth.

It’s really interesting to see how people in the past were convinced that there was a whole different world underneath our feet.
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Olga’s mother was the queen named Margot who had been removed from power during a coup d’etat from a villain named Ombro.  She lost her memory in the escape and met a scientist named Dr. Hugo Mesmer.  The two fell in love, married, and had a child together.  But while she was pregnant, the Doctor began to suspect that his wife was different and his curiosity led him to exposing her to “soluble x-rays”, which left her blinded and bedridden.

Yeah, real father of the year material there.

Margot eventually recovered and discovered that she had the ability to see in the x ray spectrum and could see through walls.  This gift wound up killing her husband (people didn’t really understand x-rays back then) and Margot fled back underground.

Olga was born shortly after and inherited her mother’s ability to see through walls and super strength.

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It’s worth mentioning that there aren’t any pictures of Olga where she doesn’t have ripped clothing.  In fact, there aren’t that many pictures of her at all.

She wound up rescuing a man named Rodney Prescott from a group of assailants, which she dealt with by casually killing them.

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However, Rodney was seriously wounded and was only saved by a blood transfusion from Olga, which granted him a small measure of her power.

Yeah, people didn’t really understand blood transfusions either.

The two became a duo, traveling underground to rescue her mother and defeat the evil machinations of Ombro.

The story ended in 1939, with the two traveling back to Venus and being proposed by a prince of Mars named Boris.  Apparently the two planets were at war with each other and their union would hopefully bring peace to the two cultures.

I have no idea what happened next, although I would like to assume everything wound up fine.

So what happened?

Action Comics #1 came out in 1938 and pop culture and entertainment was changed forever.

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Comic books became the new literary fad for young boys and girls and while comic strips continued to exist through syndication, the age of the pulp novel as a dominant cultural force was over.

Adolph Barreaux went where the work was and wound up producing comic book art for a whole bunch of publishers.  He ended his career in 1953 after working as a children’s book illustrator for a company called Trojan Publications.

Olga Mesmer is less than a footnote in pop culture history.  She played a small part in a fairly small magazine that was part of a culture that preferred to read her stories and then throw them away.  Even her status as America’s first super heroine is up for some debate since she doesn’t display many of the tropes we associate with heroes today.

However, it is my honest opinion that Olga Mesmer was a hero and that she deserves far more recognition than she is currently getting.  Plus, it’s kind of cool to see a woman from the 1930’s kick so much ass.

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Golden Age Showcase: Waku Prince of the Bantu

Did I go and see the Black Panther movie this weekend?  Of course I went to go see the Black Panther movie this weekend!

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It’s a great movie, if you haven’t seen it yet than you need to stop what you’re doing and go watch this movie right now, you can read this article while you’re watching the dozens of previews attached to the movie.

But I’m not here to talk about how this movie is important, other people are doing a better job of that than I can.  While he was the first black character in mainstream comics, he wasn’t the first black character to star in his own series.

That was Waku, Prince of the Bantu.

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Origin and Career

Waku made his first appearance in Atlas Comics’ Jungle Tales #1 in September of 1954.

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Yes, the title says “Jungle Action” we’ll get to that.

The character was created by artist Ogden Whitney,

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who worked as a fairly successful artist for several comic book companies and is most famous for co creating a hero named Herbie Popnecker.

It’s pretty clear that the comic is following in the footsteps of the old Tarzan stories, which makes sense because this book came out during a time when comics were moving away from super heroes and into alternate genres such as romance and westerns.

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It was also released at a time when race relations in America weren’t at their best.

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What’s interesting about comics is that black people have actually been part of the comic book landscape since the beginning.  It’s just that the way they’ve been portrayed hasn’t always been…

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well let’s be polite and say “sensitive”.

Waku was the first black character to star in a series of stories as the main lead.  Not only that, but the stories featured a predominately black cast.

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Certainly sounds familiar.

The character was the head of a tribe living in the depths of South Africa, and it is worth mentioning that there is some respect paid to actual history here.  The Bantu Migration was an actual historical event and is widely considered to have played an important role in developing African politics and identity.

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You can read more about it here.

The character’s first adventure has him inheriting the leadership of the tribe from his dying father, who tells him to forswear violence and govern with kindness and wisdom.  This proves problematic when he refuses to participate in ritual combat in order to take his place as king and loses his throne to a greedy and ambitious rival, who tries to sell his people’s services to “white hunters” at great personal profit.  Waku winds up killing this usurper and is about to kill himself in penance for what he’s done when his father appears as an apparition and frees him from his vow.

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The character would go on to appear in seven more issues and in each issue he would fight off some challenger to his throne or threat to his people.  This ranged from wrestling lions,

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to evil shamans capable of raising armies of the dead.

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In all of his appearanc

So what happened?

Jungle Tales lasted seven issues and was later changed to Jan of the Jungle.

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I guess it’s true what they say, sex sells.

Normally changing a title like that hints at some serious problems for the publisher but this time it wasn’t the case.  Atlas Comics re branded in the 60’s as the more familiar Marvel Comics.

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I’m sure they need no introduction.

Marvel rode the coattails of a little known writer who had been working for them since the 30’s and an artist with an incredible work ethic and a penchant for smoking cigars: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

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For the handful of people that don’t know their names, these two men basically invented the entire Marvel Universe that we know and love today.

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And in 1966 they  introduced the Black Panther in Fantastic Four #52.

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After a couple of guest spots with the Fantastic Four and Captain America, Black Panther was given his own solo series.  The title of the book?  Jungle Action.

Now, I’m not saying that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby used Waku as a direct inspiration for Black Panther, there isn’t any evidence of that and any allegations made would be unfounded and unprofessional.  But it’s worth considering that both characters were kings of African nations and tribes, both of them were capable warriors, and both Lee and Kirby were working for Atlas at the time Waku was being published.

I’d say that is one hell of a coincidence.

Is Waku a better character than Black Panther?  Not really.  Should Waku have been the face of black characters in comics? No.  But Waku was the first black character who was the star of his own stories and he was treated with respect and dignity.

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He was a good man, a capable ruler, and a good starting point for Marvel’s long and storied collection of black comic book characters.

Golden Age Showcase: The Eye

Last week we talked about a superhero known as “The Hand”.

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Everyone seemed to like it so here’s a write up about another body part that decided to become a superhero.

Yes, there was more than one of these, and this one was actually a bit more successful.

Say hello to The Eye.

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Origin and Career

The Eye made its first appearance in Keen Detective Funnies #12 in December of 1939.

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The book was published by a company called Centaur Publications, one of the earliest comic book publishers in American history and the company that helped Bill Everett get his start in comics.

Bill Everett is the man who helped create Namor the Submariner and Daredevil.

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The character itself was created by a man named Frank Thomas.

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You may not know the man’s face, but I’m willing to bet that if you’re an animator or a Disney fan you know his his name and his work.

The man was one of the original animators on Walt Disney’s creative team when the company was just starting out and helped produce some of the most recognizable classics in modern animation history.  One example?  He animated this scene from Snow White.

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He also helped write a book with a colleague of his named Ollie Johnston called The Illusion of Life,

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a book that remains one of the most important milestones in 2D hand drawn animation to this day.  In fact, the two men were so influential that they were given a cameo appearance in The Incredibles, one of my favorite movies of all time.

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Basically Frank Thomas was a big deal, and The Eye was his contribution to the comic book world.

As for The Eye itself, his first adventure starts with the whitest Afghani family on the face of the planet.

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The old man laments that he was once a prosperous businessman but had his livelihood stolen from him.  Suddenly, a disembodied eye appears in the room.

Comic Book Cover For Keen Detective Funnies v2 #12

Meanwhile, in Kabul we’re introduced to the vain and pompous villain of the story, a man named Herat, who wants the old man dead.

Comic Book Cover For Keen Detective Funnies v2 #12

You know, I can’t help but wonder how differently this story would play out if it was published today.

Anyway, the villain tries to hire two hitmen to take out his rival.  Fortunately The Eye stops them with his ability to travel anywhere and shoot heat blasts out of his…well eye.

Comic Book Cover For Keen Detective Funnies v2 #12

Boy, I know red eye flights are a pain…but this is ridiculous.  (wait don’t go…come back!)

The story resolves itself quickly and just in the way you would expect.  The villain is defeated, and justice is served.  The Eye has saved the day and the old man and his daughter are free to return to their business.

Comic Book Cover For Keen Detective Funnies v2 #12

The Eye would go on to become something of a regular back up feature in the comic.  The stories weren’t connected, it was more of an anthology tale where The Eye would drop in on a group of criminals committing a crime and use one of his many ill defined powers to save the day.

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He was also given a sidekick, a young attorney named Jack Barrister who would assist The Eye whenever it needed a hand.

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The Eye ran for eight issues in Keen Detective and must have been popular because he was given his own series in November of 1940.

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So what happened?

The Eye may have been popular enough to get his own series, but his publisher wasn’t so lucky.  While Centaur may have been one of the first comic book publishers ever, poor distribution and business sense saw the company go under in 1940.

While the company folded, it did retain something of a legacy.  In 1987 one of his stories was reprinted in a book called Mr. Monster’s Hi Shock Schlock by Michael T. Gilbert.

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And in 1992 a company called Malibu Comics revived a bunch of Malibu characters into a team known as The Protectors,

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and the Eye was cast as a supporting character.

The Eye was a genuinely interesting idea and character for a superhero.  He had an interesting gimmick and he had a legendary creator behind him.  If it wasn’t for his publisher going out of business I’m willing to bet it would have gone on to become a staple of modern comic book superheroes as well.

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It’s a real shame to see an idea like that go to waste.

Golden Age Showcase: The Hand

This one is going to be a short one, but boy is it a weird one.

We’re all familiar with the idea of a giant hand that is used as a metaphor for controlling things.  The hit video game Super Smash Bros. has the “Master Hand” as a final boss,

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Marvel Comics has the super secret group of ninja demons known as “The Hand”,

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and many real life people love to claim that our lives and fortunes are at the whim of the “invisible hand of the market”.

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Yes, the hand is always there.  It’s big, it’s powerful, and it’s completely unknown to we small pathetic creatures.

But did you know that someone tried to take this idea of “The Hand” and turn it into a superhero in the 1940’s?

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Told you this was going to be weird.

Origin and Career

The Hand made his first appearance in Speed Comics #12 in 1941.

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The comic series was the first comic book title published by Harvey Comics, a relative newcomer to the comic book scene and a company that would become famous for licensed titles such as Caspar the Friendly Ghost and Richie Rich.

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Fun fact: Speed Comics had been bought from a struggling publisher called Brookwood Publications and was Harvey’s entry point into comic book publishing.  Without this title, Harvey wouldn’t go on to become a major comic book publisher.

The character of The Hand was created by Ben Flinton and Bill O’Connor, two men who would go on to create the Golden Age version of the superhero known as The Atom.

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Unfortunately, both men would wind up joining the armed services in 1942, and while both men survived they did not return to comics after that.

In his first and longest adventure, the Hand doesn’t fight Nazis or stop saboteurs.  Instead, he stops a couple of card sharks from ripping off a casino.

He is introduced with no fanfare, no explanation, and no backstory.  He just appears and warns two men that they better watch themselves.

Comic Book Cover For Speed Comics #12

The two men ignore the warning and begin to clean out the house.  The Hand warns management, who takes it all in remarkable stride and agrees to let the disembodied hand help him.

Comic Book Cover For Speed Comics #12

I like to imagine that the hand belongs to some sort of cosmic being that is actually a child and is trying to act all grown up by helping people.

Why not?  It’s more explanation than the comic gives.

The Hand is also a capable fighter…and capable of phasing through walls.

Comic Book Cover For Speed Comics #12

However, when the criminals attempt to stop The Hand by confessing, The Hand realizes that they will not be arrested or charged for their crimes.  So he brands them on the forehead so the world will know what they’ve done.

Comic Book Cover For Speed Comics #12

Apparently, The Hand has never heard of hats.  Which kind of makes sense.

On a side note: this comic issue deserves special mention for the story that came directly after this one.  Since most comics at the time were anthologies publishing short stories of only a couple of pages, we got treated to this one.

Comic Book Cover For Speed Comics #12

A kid taking out a head of state with a rifle and people being okay with it?  Boy the times really were different back then.

Anyway, The Hand would have one more story in the following issue of Speed Comics where he played the patriotic game and helped the F.B.I defeat some foreign spies.

Comic Book Cover For Speed Comics #13

It was shorter, but had more action.

So The Hand was an established hero with a gimmick and a creative team behind him…

So what happened?

…and that was it, those were the only two issues that featured The Hand as a superhero.

It’s really not that surprising really.  The character was a small backup feature in a series that didn’t last very long and was published by a company that shifted focus away from original characters and into licensed stories.

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Plus, let’s be honest, the two stories that The Hand appeared in weren’t that exciting or good.

The Hand may have been a small time character with boring stories, but that doesn’t mean the concept wasn’t interesting or that he didn’t have any value.  Sure, the creature was a hero and had a sense of agency and purpose, but it always had room for normal people to step in and take over when the time was right.

Comic Book Cover For Speed Comics #13

It appeared that The Hand was some sort of benevolent spirit who helped where he could and allowed normal people to do the right thing, and if that isn’t heroic I don’t know what is.

The Hand had potential, it would be a shame to forget that.

Golden Age Showcase: Alias X

We’re back!

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After a nice relaxing Christmas break, and a nasty cold, we’re back to deliver more strange and interesting superheroes of the early days of comics.

2017 was a great year for this blog and we look forward to more of the same this year.  In fact, let’s get started with a good one.

Here’s a hero that never made it past 1943, but could actually be a perfect hero for the modern day: Alias X.

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He even has a cool name.

Origin and Career

Alias X made his first appearance in Captain Fearless #1 in August of 1941.

Comic Book Cover For Captain Fearless Comics #1

We are definitely going to cover the guy on the cover later.

Alias himself was created by Ray Allen and Al Ulmer, two men who will remain mysterious since I can’t find their pictures.

The cover of the book says that it’s published by a company called Holyoke Publishing, but that isn’t true.  It was actually created by a company called Hellnit Publishing, which was owned by this man: Frank Z. Temerson.

Remember this, it becomes important later.

The character himself was created by Ray Allen and Al Ulmer, two people who are so obscure that I can’t find any photos of them anywhere.

The hero’s story starts in the middle.  A mysterious costumed hero who goes by the name of “X” has been terrorizing the criminal underworld and the police commissioner and a newspaper editor are talking about him.

Comic Book Cover For Captain Fearless Comics #1

The hero makes an unexpected appearance and decides to tell the two men his backstory.

Comic Book Cover For Captain Fearless Comics #1

He refuses to give his name, but mentions that he was a small time taxi operator who was charged with the murder of a cop.

The man decides to do the right thing…by escaping prison and bringing those responsible to justice.

Comic Book Cover For Captain Fearless Comics #1

A man on trial for a crime he didn’t commit?  Being forced to answer questions without a lawyer?  Making his escape in order to clear his name?  Yep, sounds like a comic book character to me!

The man doesn’t have any superpowers, but he does use his time in hiding to become a master of disguise.

Comic Book Cover For Captain Fearless Comics #1

The comic says his home was only ten miles away from the prison.  He’s either the smartest man in the world or these cops are idiots.

The new hero manages to foil a robbery using his powers of disguise, and tells the commissioner and newspaper editor that if he manages to complete his mission, someday he will reveal who he really is.

Comic Book Cover For Captain Fearless Comics #1

The rest of Alias’ adventures would follow a similar pattern where he would find and catch a group of criminals using his powers of disguise.  Sadly, he didn’t have a whole lot of time or enough attention to give him an established super villain, although he did appear in a comic called Captain Aero where he fought a Nazi spy ring.

Comic Book Cover For Captain Aero Comics v1 10 (4)

Alias X would only have a handful of appearances and ceased to exist after 1942, a much shorter lifespan than his contemporaries.  Why?  Well…

So what happened?

So you remember the start of the article, where I said the character was originally published under Helnit Publishing under the control of Frank Z. Temerson?

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Well, get ready for legal shenanigans because here’s where it gets weird.

Holyoke Publishing wasn’t a book publisher, it was a newspaper business.

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The company decided to enter the comic book business by taking books created by Helnit Publishing, along with the bankrupt Fox Publications, and repackage them under the Holyoke name.

This was how Holyoke became the publisher of the Blue Beetle, a Golden Age hero with a much longer history than Alias X.

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If this sounds sketchy than you’ve got good instincts.  Documentation over who owned what was pretty poor back then and the owner of Fox Publications would wind up suing Holyoke and winning.

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Temerson, being the original owner of Alias X, would also reclaim what he lost and Holyoke would cease publishing comics in 1944.

Alias X is an interesting case as far as Golden Age superheroes go.  Since he was published by a company that had a small audience and a troubled history he didn’t get a whole lot of attention and respect.  Also, unlike most of the heroes we talk about on this blog he fell off the map at the height of popularity for super heroes in American culture.

Could he have survived the post war years?  Would he have gone on to become one of the great heroes of the modern age?

Comic Book Cover For Captain Fearless Comics #1

Probably not, but I think it would have been interesting to try.

 

Golden Age Showcase: Eerie Comics

It’s nearly Halloween, and if I had a better sense of timing and theme I would have done what lots of other comic book journalists and writers do and dedicated the entire month of October to horror comics.

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The horror genre is an incredibly popular genre for comic books with plenty of opportunities for fantastic art with strange and shocking story material that is perfect for grabbing the readers attention and persuading them to buy the book. In fact, I would go as far as to say that if wasn’t for superheroes, horror comics would be the most popular comic book genre today.

We’ve talked about how the post World War II comic book scene saw a boom in horror titles, particularly the rise of EC Comics with their shocking and grotesque morality tales such as Tales from the Crypt.

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But the history behind the horror genre goes back a little farther.  These creepy and horrific stories have their roots in the pulp magazines and penny dreadful novels that were the ancestors of comic books and the first horror comics were simple adaptations of those works.  Many people consider Classic Comics’ The Tale of Dr. Jekell and Mr. Hyde to be the first horror comic published in August of 1943.

But the first standalone horror comic, the one that would lay the ground work for the genre’s explosion of popularity, would come four years later in 1947 and today we’re going to talk about it.  It’s title was Eerie Comics and it was the first standalone horror comic book ever published.

Comic Book Cover For Eerie Comics Issue #1 Avon Periodicals

Origin

Avon Publishing was created in 1941 as part of the American News Company.  It was originally intended to be the publisher of a type of book known as “dime novels” which were cheap, exploitative works that enthralled readers with anything from lurid romance to exciting adventure.

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These were the kinds of magazines that H.P Lovecraft published his stories in.

Naturally, Avon was the right kind of publisher for comic books, although they shied away from superheroes and stuck to the material that kept them in business, which led to the creation of Eerie in 1947.

Despite the inherent cheapness in the publisher and the medium it was created for, the comic actually had some pretty solid talent behind it.  While the writer was a relative unknown named Edward Bellin, the artistic team was amazing.  There was Fred Kida,

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who created a Golden Age superhero named Air Boy and would go on to find steady work in comic strips, particularly in Marvel’s Spider Man comic strip in the 1980’s.

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There was George Roussos,

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who worked for Marvel as an inker and helped Jack Kirby create some of the most iconic stories in Marvel,

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(yes he inked that one)

and the whole thing was overseen and pencilled by comic book legend Joe Kubert.

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While he is famous for his artwork, perhaps Mr. Kubert’s greatest legacy is the school of  comic book art that bears his name.

Anyway, the book itself was an anthology series containing six stories of strange events and horrific consequences for the wicked.  The stories themselves are pretty tame, with such an amazing team of artists on this book it was only natural for the artwork to be gorgeous.

Comic Book Cover For Eerie Comics Issue #1 Avon Periodicals

My personal favorite is the first story called The Eyes of the Tiger.

Comic Book Cover For Eerie Comics Issue #1 Avon Periodicals

It follows a man who tries to get a life insurance policy but is rejected because of his poor health.

Comic Book Cover For Eerie Comics Issue #1 Avon Periodicals

Apparently he wants to leave his policy to his cats, but the best part?  He threatens the doctor with a live tiger.

Comic Book Cover For Eerie Comics Issue #1 Avon Periodicals

The man wakes up in the middle of the night to find himself being chased by a tiger and winds up suffering from a heart attack and dying.

Comic Book Cover For Eerie Comics Issue #1 Avon Periodicals

I love this story for just how absolutely ridiculous it is.  Never mind that a man wants to leave all his money to his tigers, never mind that he hallucinates a tiger attack, the insane part of the story is that it treats an insurance company like they’re the good guys.

So what happened?

For some reason the first issue of Eerie was pulled from newsstands after it was published.  However, as the horror genre continued to gain in popularity the series was brought back in 1951.

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The title ceased publication in August of 1954, probably because of the backlash against comics in the 1950’s.

Eerie would continue life as a science fiction anthology series called Strange Worlds,

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and that lasted until 1955.

While audience’s appetites for lurid and suggestive comic books would wane, Avon would do just fine.  They discontinued their comic book line in the mid 1950’s and spent the rest of the century staying true to form, especially in the romance novel market.  Currently, they’re operating as an imprint of Harper Collins and specialize in romance novels.

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Eerie was a strange little comic.  On one hand, the writing was kind of crappy and it only had one issue for several years before someone decided it was popular enough to be rebooted.  On the other hand, it deserves its place in history as the first original horror comic ever published and the grandfather of all the horror comics that came after it.

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Plus, it’s amazing how something that old can look that good.

Modern film, the Golden Age of Comics, and Wonder Woman

So this little movie is in theaters now.

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I haven’t seen it, although it is currently on my list of films to see, but I have seen the trailer and a good portion of the promotional media for the film.

A quick summary: the movie follows the real life journey and exploits of William Moulton Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman.

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In real life, Marston was a respected psychologist and the inventor of the lie detector,

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he was also engaged in an unconventional relationship with his wife Elizabeth and his partner Olive Byrne.

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As for the exact nature of their relationship, all you have to do is take a look at the comics that Marston wrote to get some idea of what was going on.

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Frankly, I’m glad this became a movie and I would love to see more films like this since the story behind the creation of some of our most beloved superheroes is often just as interesting as the characters themselves.

Personally, I would love to see a movie about the trials and tribulations of Supmerman’s creators Siegel and Shuster,

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and we’re probably getting a Stan Lee film soon.

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but that’s not what I want to talk about today.

There’s a scene in the trailer for Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman where a group of people are burning a pile of comic books.

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While I don’t like seeing anyone burning books this actually got me pretty excited.  This is the first time I’ve seen any movie talk about the decline and fall of the Golden Age of Comics and while it is presented as a backdrop for the story the movie wants to tell, it’s an important time in American pop culture where the nature and effect that art has on our minds and souls was being hotly debated.

So today I’m going to give a brief history of the comic book industry in the late 1940’s and 50’s and in order to do that we have to talk about:

The post war comic industry

After the Allies won the Second World War Americans everywhere breathed a sigh of relief and celebrated by coming home, starting a family, and giving up on superhero comics.

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Yes, the infamous “superhero fatigue” that so many people say is  coming with this current glut of superhero movies is actually nothing new.

Naturally, the comic book industry reacted to this shift by switching to different genres and trying new things.  Post war America saw a boom in non superhero comics, especially romance,

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humor,

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and horror comics.

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Post war America was actually a pretty good time for comics.  More people were spending money on entertainment, readers were getting older and more mature, and some of the greatest artists of the time were doing some of their best work.

Unfortunately comic books were confronted with a force more powerful than any super villain doomsday device: concerned parents.

You know how concerned parents thought violent video games were turning kids into mass murdering psychopaths?

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Well, it turns out that that isn’t all that new either.  In the 1950’s comic books went through the same process and things would come to a head with,

Backlash, Dr. Wertham, and Seduction of the Innocent

Maybe it was the soldiers coming home from the war trying to process the violence and destruction they saw, maybe it was the Red Scare and the rise of anti Communist sentiment in America, or maybe comic books have a bigger place in our psyche than we think, but for some reason these hearings swept the American people into an anti comic fervor that saw a tremendous backlash against the art form.  This resulted in crazy events like mass comic book burnings as early as 1948,

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but sadly the real destruction would come in the form of a well meaning man in a suit and tie.

Every art form, at some point in its early history, has had a vocal opponent who claims that said art form is destroying our children’s minds and must be censored before it’s too late.

Rap music had Tipper Gore,

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video games had Jack Thompson,

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and comic books had Dr. Fredric Wertham.

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Now, I don’t think Dr. Wertham did what he did because he hated comics or because he was an uneducated hack who was simply making wild accusations because he wanted the attention.  He was actually a highly respected psychologist who did a lot of good work, including providing cheap psychiatric care to under privileged children.

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Unfortunately, he noticed that a lot of the children under his care read a lot of comic books and he started to believe that it wasn’t societal woes or a poor home life that turned kids bad, but violent and disturbing imagery in the media the kids consumed.

Things would come to a head in 1954 when Wertham published his most famous work Seduction of the Innocent

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where he blamed comic books for the rise of “juvenile delinquency” in American youth.

The book was a hit and led to a Congressional hearing on the effects of comic books on children’s minds, and Wertham was the star witness.

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The hearings were incredibly destructive for the comic book industry and effectively brought mass censorship to the medium.  Companies that depended on risque and controversial content to stay afloat, such as the horror and comedy powerhouse EC Comics were the hardest hit and were forced out of business.  The industry underwent a massive contraction and thousands of people lost their jobs as publishers went out of business left and right.

The Fallout

In an attempt to save themselves from excessive censorship the remaining comic book publishers formed an organization known as the Comics Code Authority.  It was an organization that reviewed comics before they could be published and made sure they followed a certain set of rules in order to ensure that they were suitable for children.

The most famous and notable legacy of the Comics Code was the stamp that appeared on the far right corner of almost every comic for the next forty years.

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While the Comics Code didn’t kill the comics industry it did cripple it so badly that it’s still recovering today.  Since comic book writers weren’t allowed to tell complex and morally ambiguous stories if they wanted to get their book published comics became simple and almost boring in their predictable story lines and basic morality tales.  Sure, mature and grown up comics existed, but they could only be found in small press, out of the way places such as the “comix” scene of the late 60’s and early 70’s.

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Eventually cracks in the Comics Code would start to show and historians widely believe that it lost its power after Amazing Spider Man #96 told a story where Spiderman helped a friend who was addicted to drugs and was published without the stamp.

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But if you ask me, the damage had already been done.  The Golden Age of Comics was a time where characters like Wonder Woman could talk about deep and meaningful issues like man’s tendency towards hatred and how women could bring about a more peaceful world, whereas the immediate post Comics Code publishing industry decided to celebrate its newfound freedom by throwing all subtlety out the window and indulging in a lot of violence for violence’s sake.  This,

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is downright childish in comparison to the early issues of Wonder Woman.

Now, I firmly believe that we as a society have gotten better in dealing with art and the effects that it may or may not have on our minds, and I also think that the comic book industry telling better stories today than it did twenty years ago, but it is vitally important that we never forget why heroes like Wonder Woman were created and how important it is that we apply the same passion and thought into our stories today.

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Golden Age Showcase: Doll Man

In the entire library of superpowers, the ability to shrink is one of the more esoteric powers.  It doesn’t get used that much, but there are a pretty select core of superheroes who are known for their ability to change their size.

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That’s not to say that it’s a bad superpower.  After all, the Marvel Ant Man movie showed that it wasn’t just useful, it could tell a great story as well.

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Plus, one of my favorite episodes of the Justice League cartoon centered around the Atom destroying an alien hive mind from within using his powers.

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But where did the idea of a shrinking hero come from and who was the first hero to use this power?  Well, the answer can be found in a fairly obscure Golden Age hero from Quality Comics called Doll Man.

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Origin and Career

Doll Man made his first appearance in the Quality Comics’ anthology Feature Comics #27 in December of 1939.

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While the name of creator was given as “William Erwin Maxwell” it was really a pseudonym for Will “I literally wrote the book on comics as an art form” Eisner.

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As for origins, Doll Man goes the scientific route with the heroic scientist Darrel Dane (alliteration for the win) developing a special serum that will allow a human to shrink down to the size of a doll.  Why he wants to do this I have no idea.  Also, his fiancee Martha Roberts is being blackmailed by a man named Falco and she’s keeping this a secret for some reason.

Comic Book Cover For Feature Comics #27

Since this is the early days of comic book science, Darrel must have not gotten the memo on lab safety and self experimentation and decides to test the serum on himself.  This act also makes Darrell one of the first comic book scientists to go crazy after said self experimentation.

Comic Book Cover For Feature Comics #27

I like to think that Eisner wanted to take Doll Man and turn him into a tortured villain driven mad by the result of his experiment, which would have made for a very interesting story.  However, I’m willing to bet that some editor in the Quality Comics offices squashed that idea because in the very next page Darrell is okay and decides to become a superhero.

Comic Book Cover For Feature Comics #27

It’s a good thing that Darrell decided to be a good guy, because he uses his powers to save his fiancee from the blackmailer to end the story.

Comic Book Cover For Feature Comics #27

Doll Man would later become a fixture of Standard Comics and would often appear on the covers as well.

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His stories were all over the place.  In one issue he would be fighting gangsters trying to rob ships on the docks, in the next issue he would be helping rancher friends in a land dispute.  In all of them he would use his size and relative strength to his advantage.

His stories must have made an impact because Doll Man would later become a pretty popular hero.  He appeared in over 200 comic book issues and was even given his own quarterly title.

Comic Book Cover For Doll Man #1

Some fun facts: his fiancee Martha would eventually become a super heroine known as Doll Girl, who had the same powers as her fiancee.

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Also, several of Doll Man’s covers had him tied up and placed in a position of helplessness.

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It’s nothing special, just an interesting idea during a time when male heroes generally didn’t show that kind of weakness.

So what happened?

The Feature Comics title stopped publication in 1950 and Doll Man’s solo issues stopped publication in 1953.  Quality would go out of business three years later and Doll Man wasn’t seen for two decades.

It was probably Will Eisner’s reputation that kept the memory of Doll Man alive because he wasn’t really used that often.  During the middle of the 20th century DC decided to create a “multiverse” for their characters to avoid continuity mix ups.  Doll Man was placed on “Earth X”, a universe where the Nazis won the Second World War, and made an appearance in the comic title Freedom Fighters.

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He’s at the bottom of the page.

He was also a guest character in the All Star Squadron on “Earth-2”, the place where DC put most of its old Golden Age heroes.

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The separation of these two groups would be erased in the DC comic event Crisis on Infinite Earths where the entire DC continuity was streamlined and simplified for new readers.

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The Freedom Fighters would be relaunched in 2006 by writer Jimmy Palmiotti.

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The team got a modern makeover, including Doll Man.  The new hero was named Lester Colt and he was a more hard ass, military minded, “end justifies the means” kind of hero who proves this in the first issue after he disguises himself as an action figure and kills a drug lord in front of his son.

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Darrel Dane still existed, but it was revealed that he was suffering from mental problems due to shrinking so often and was committed to an unnamed mental institution.

Doll Man would have his most recent reworking in 2012.  This time it was part of another company wide reboot event known as “The New 52”.  The hero was a scientist named Dane Maxwell who was the romantic partner and scientist friend of the heroine Phantom Lady.  He was shrunk to the size of an action figure during a lab accident and became her partner in crime fighting as well.

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In many ways Doll Man’s impact on the superhero world was a lot like his power set.  Sure, it was relatively small and often unseen by many fans and readers, but he was the first hero to use the ability to change his size as a superpower which made him a trailblazer for some of the most popular and well known heroes today.

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