Golden Age Showcase: Stuntman

We all know who Jack Kirby is right?

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Okay, so for anyone who doesn’t know the name all you need to know is that Kirby was the main artist and one of the biggest creative voices behind many of Marvel’s greatest superheroes.  The man had one of the most prolific art careers in comic book history (there are stories out there that said he could draw five to six pages a day) but  was sadly, and unfairly, overshadowed by his more famous counterpart: Stan Lee.

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With such a legendary career you would think that Kirby created nothing but legendary stories.  Sadly, that wasn’t the case as evidenced by today’s hero: Stuntman.

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Origin and Career

Our hero made his first appearance in the self titled Stuntman #1, which was published in April of 1946.

Comic Book Cover For Stuntman #1

A couple of things to note here.  First, the cover claims that it’s not a comic book.  Instead, it’s a comic novelette which makes me think the comic’s creators were trying to create something a bit classier than the throwaway pulp that made up most of the comic book scene of the 1940’s.  Second, you’ll notice that the book was created by Jack Kirby AND Joe Simon, the creator of Captain America.

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So we have not one, but two of the greatest comic book creators of all time working on single project.  This ought to be good.

The story starts off with a criminal gang trying to shake down a travelling circus, implying that there will be several accidents if management doesn’t pay up.

Comic Book Cover For Stuntman #1

Sadly, the criminals succeed in killing the circus’ greatest act: a group of high flying acrobats known as “The Flying Apollos”

Comic Book Cover For Stuntman #1

The only survivor is their young ward Fred who vows revenge and accidentally runs into a movie star/amateur detective named Don Daring.

Comic Book Cover For Stuntman #1

What?  Is the origin of an acrobatic superhero who used to work for a circus before his parents were murdered starting to sound a bit familiar to you?  Shut up and focus on the excellent artwork!

Anyway, Fred takes a job as Don’s stuntman in his pictures with the purpose of getting a new job and working with Don in order to solve the case by acting as bait for the killer.  Fred is eventually attacked and decides to don a costume to go after the killer

Comic Book Cover For Stuntman #1

Hmmm, could use more black.

Don discovers that it was a circus manager who was behind the crime all along, but before he can carry out his dastardly deed he is ambushed by the Stuntman and the day is saved.

Comic Book Cover For Stuntman #1

The rest of Stuntman’s adventures would have a similar theme to them.  Don would do all of the detective work while Fred would swoop in as the Stuntman to do the fighting.  The two men were a duo, dynamic even, and their adventures all centered around the entertainment industry and the various people looking to fleece audiences and entertainers alike.

For a Golden Age comic the writing and artwork were fantastic.  But then again, that’s what you expect from the minds and talents of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon.  Surely the Stuntman would go on to become one of the greatest superheroes of all time.

So what happened?

The Stuntman Comic only lasted three issues and the character would only make nine appearances for a single year.

Honestly, considering the talent behind the character and quality of the artwork and writing, I’m really surprised it only lasted that long.  Maybe it was the post war backlash against superheroes, or maybe it was Harvey Comics’ decision to focus on licensed characters instead of original content.

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but sadly we were deprived of more excellent stories.

However, it’s safe to say that the legacy of the Stuntman superhero lives on in another circus performer who watched his family get murdered before his eyes and eventually wind up fighting crime under the guidance of a rich amateur detective.

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Okay, so maybe Stuntman bears too much of a resemblance to Robin for comfort and maybe if the title had kept going Harvey would have found themselves on the receiving end of a DC lawsuit, but I honestly think that comic book fans and readers missed out on something fantastic with this Golden Age hero created by two of the greatest comic book creators of all time.

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Golden Age Showcase: Target and the Targeteers

 

You know what they say…comedy comes in threes.

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And I like to think that today’s superhero group took that lesson to heart, even though I’m willing to bet any comedy was unintentional.

Today we’re talking about the rather humorously named Target and the Targeteers.

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Origin and Career

This trio of superheroes was published by a company called Novelty Press, which was created in 1940 by Curtis Publishing.  If that name isn’t familiar all you need to know is that they publish the Saturday Evening Post.  If that name isn’t familiar then you probably recognize this cover.

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Novelty Press was created as a comic book imprint in order to take advantage of the comic book craze.  They were able to draw a lot of great Golden Age talent such as Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, and Basil Wolverton and their two most famous publications were the superhero series Blue Bolt,

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and the anthology series Target Comics.

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Despite sharing the name of the title, the superhero we’re talking about today didn’t appear until issue #10 in November of 1940.

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Yes that is him on the cover and I have to admit I don’t know what’s funnier: the testicular fortitude of a man who is willing to get shot by painting a giant target on his chest or how stupid the gangsters are for not aiming at the knees or face.

The hero was created by artist Dick Briefer under the pseudonym of Dick Hamilton. Image result for golden age dick brieferBriefer’s most famous work was with the Frankenstein character and is widely considered to be the first modern comic book artist to work with horror stories.

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 Back to Dick’s most famous superhero, Target’s first adventure had him sending an ominous message to criminals everywhere: “Live your life on the straight and narrow or I’ll find you”.  He does this by buying up advertising space on nationwide newspapers, radio space, and even hijacking the phone service.

Comic Book Cover For Target Comics v1 10 [10]

You know how in modern movies the bad guy can mysteriously deliver a message to every computer, television, and phone around the world?  It’s nice to know that this particular cliche isn’t so modern.

The Target’s ominous message doesn’t deter a group of gangsters from kidnapping a scientist who is developing a new explosive that other countries want.

Comic Book Cover For Target Comics v1 10 [10]

The gangsters reach the professor’s house, only to find that the Target is already there.

Comic Book Cover For Target Comics v1 10 [10]

On the face of it, it would appear that the hero has a very poorly designed costume for dealing with guns, but the comic explains that while the suit protects his chest and arms (thus leaving the face and legs unprotected) the target is there to draw enemy fire to the places where the bullets can’t harm him.

Comic Book Cover For Target Comics v1 10 [10]

I would commend the comic for attempting to use “Batman psychology” to explain why the hero made the decisions he made but no, in real life that man is dead.

The adventure ends in typical fashion.  The bad guys are stopped, the hero saves the day, and the reader is left wondering what’s next.

Comic Book Cover For Target Comics v1 10 [10]

The next issue not only delves into the Target’s backstory, it also reveals that he has two friends who share a similar death wish by dressing in similar costumes.

The Target’s civilian identity is Niles Reed.  He was an athletic prodigy who decided to become a metallurgist had a brother named Bill, who decided to become a lawyer.

Unfortunately, Bill was framed for murder and arrested.  In his rage, Niles decided to rescue his brother while disguised as a masked vigilante.

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While it’s a bit unclear it would appear that the cops accidentally shot Bill as he was trying to escape with his brother.  So in an interesting twist, Niles was responsible for his brother’s death.

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Later that evening Niles happens to stumble across two orphaned boys who were in a lot trouble with some gangsters for not paying protection money.  The three become friends and decide to dress up like superheroes using the same bulletproof costumes of Niles’ design.

Comic Book Cover For Target Comics v1 11 [11]

The origin story ended with the reveal that Bill had been framed by a crime boss named Hammerfist, who would become something of a recurring villain for the trio.

I’ll admit, there are some interesting points to this story.  The fact that the hero is actually responsible for his brother’s death coupled with him taking in two orphans who share similar tragic stories draw a lot of similarities to more popular heroes like Spider Man and Batman.

The rest of the trio’s adventures were all one shots with a very patriotic bent them.  The three did their duty and fought against America’s enemies, both at home and abroad.

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The post war years saw a return to form for the trio where they went back to waging war against criminals in the United States.

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So what happened?

The trio of crime fighters had a pretty long shelf life for the Golden Age heroes.  They lasted until issue #95 of Target Comics where their last adventure had them foiling criminals who were sabotaging advertising signs in order to extort an advertising firm.

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Yeah, maybe it was a good thing that they got cancelled.

The trio would disappear for a while until the Target made an appearance in AC Comics’ Men of Mystery series in 1999.

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The trio itself made a comeback in Dynamite Entertainment’s Project Superpowers series in 2008.

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Their backstories remained the same, only this time they all had super speed on top of their indestructible suits.

The Target and the Targeteers embodied everything that worked and didn’t work about the Golden Age of Comics.  On one hand they were goofy, wore silly costumes, and relied on some pretty bad science in order to survive and function.  On the other hand, they had one of the better origin stories I’ve read, they had a long run, and a lot of the things that made it into their stories such as the use of psychology to fight criminals would be use to great effect in other, more popular comic hero stories.

All in all, they weren’t that bad.

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Golden Age Showcase: The Blue Diamond

When you look at the subject of today’s blog post, the Blue Diamond is probably one of the more thought out and coherent Golden Age superheroes we’ve ever talked about.

Despite the fact the he was well put together and could have made it though the 1940’s with more famous Timely heroes like Captain America and Namor the Submariner he appears on this series because he was only able to last through two issues in the 1940’s.  However, the Blue Diamond does have one thing that sets him apart from many of the other heroes we’ve talked about on this blog.  He is one of the best showcases of how to take an old school hero who doesn’t have a whole lot of backstory and character and turn him/her into a fully fleshed out and realized part of a much larger comic book universe.

Origin and Career

The Blue Diamond first appeared in Daring Mystery Comics #7 in April of 1941.

Daring Mystery Comics Vol 1 7

The hero’s real name was Professor Elton Morrow (get it?) and he was an archaeologist.

Professor Morrow was on an expedition to the Antarctic and instead of finding an army of Shaggoths and Elder Things (H.P Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness if you’re interested) he found a giant glowing diamond.

Unfortunately while on the journey home Morrow’s ship was found by a German U boat.  Despite the fact that the United States was technically neutral at this time the Nazis torpedoed the boat and when they discovered Morrow floating in the wreckage clutching the container that held the diamond they shot at him with a machine gun.

Historical side note: it is nearly impossible to overstate just how terrifying German U boats were to the American population at the time.

The Nazis were actually able to attack American shipping in American waters for a time during the war, which explains why a large number of villains in the early war period comic books were U boat captains and enemy submarines.

Anyway, back to the Blue Diamond.

Despite the fact that Professor Morrow had been machine gunned in the middle of the ocean he actually wound up surviving.  It turned out that the diamond had absorbed most of the impacts from the bullets and had fractured into thousands of pieces and most of those pieces had embedded themselves into Professor Morrow, granting him diamond hard skin and immunity from pain and external damage.

Naturally, the heroic minded professor decided to use his powers to become a hero and the Blue Diamond was born.

Professor Morrow would go on to have one more adventure in the 1940’s in the following issue of Daring Mystery Comics.  

Daring Mystery Comics Vol 1 8

In this issue Professor Morrow was investigating a collection of bodies that appeared to be “Mongolian aboriginals” (he was an archaeologist after all) when suddenly the bodies sprang to life and walked out the door!

Morrow changed into his Blue Diamond costume and followed the ghouls to the basement of the Federal Reserve bank where he literally beats some sense into the helpless zombies.

It turned out that the “ghouls” were actually hypnotized people who were under the influence of the evil Dr. Eric Karlin.

 

Karlin was a master hypnotist who was sent to America by the Nazis in order to steal back German gold that America had confiscated at the beginning of the war.

The wicked doctor also had a habit of throwing his enemies into a vat of acid and displaying their remains in his lab.  The Blue Diamond confronted Dr. Karlin at his hide out and during the fight the hero knocked the villain into that vat of acid, killing him.

The Blue Diamond was horrified at what he had done but felt that his actions were justified because they helped give Dr. Karlin’s victims some peace.

So what happened?

The Blue Diamond got lost in the explosion of comics during and after World War Two.  Daring Mystery Comics was replaced by the Comedy Comics title the following month,

and while Timely would later revive the Daring Mystery line a few years later the Blue Diamond was in the new line up.

However, the Blue Diamond had something that a lot of comic book characters of the time didn’t have: pedigree.

The Blue Diamond had been created by comic book legends Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, two men who were responsible for the creation of Captain America among other famous Marvel heroes.

which meant that even though the Blue Diamond didn’t survive the 1940’s, he was still big enough for other comic book creators to remember him.

The Blue Diamond would be reborn in Marvel Premiere #29 in April of 1976.

Marvel Premiere Vol 1 29

This was the first appearance of a group known as the Liberty Legion, a superhero team that was set in the past of World War Two and was made up of old Timely characters.

It’s worth noting that this book was first published in the 1970’s, which makes the idea of mining older titles and stories for nostalgia dollars nothing new.

In their first adventure the Liberty Legion was tasked with saving another old school superhero team, the Invaders, from the mind control of the Red Skull.

The Blue Diamond went face to face with Namor the Submariner and managed to capture him although he managed to escape.  The Liberty Legion would later face down the brainwashed Invaders and defeat them a couple issues later.

The Blue Diamond would follow up this adventure by teaming up with the Fantastic Four’s “The Thing”, who had traveled back in time and found himself in several adventures with a variety of Marvel’s heroes.

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You’ll notice that the cover of the comic introduces a new character named “Star Dancer”

See? Ballet!

It turned out that Star Dancer and the Blue Diamond were destined to be husband and wife (as if comics weren’t sappy enough) and she saved the Blue Diamond’s life after he suffered from a heart attack while trying to hold back an angry mob that wanted to attack her.

Star Dancer gave The Blue Diamond a new, more durable body made entirely out of diamond and the two left Earth for the stars.

That was his final appearance as a comic book character, although it was later revealed that the diamond that had given Professor Morrow his powers was actually part of a rock called the Lifestone in Thunderbolts #46

While The Blue Diamond didn’t have much of a Golden Age career he is a prime example of how some characters managed to get a second chance further down the road.  He was a hero with a solid origin story, a cool power set, and most importantly his adventures showcased a special kindness and passion for doing good and protecting those around him that transformed him from a decent superhero to a pretty gosh darn good one.

Here’s hoping he’s still wandering the universe as a happy man.

Golden Age Showcase: Atomic Man

The Golden Age of Comics gave us our first modern superheroes and established the idea of the modern day origin story as an important part of any superhero’s lore.  There were plenty of ways for someone to decide to become a superhero.  He/she could be naturally endowed with great power,

He/she could have suffered a great personal tragedy,

or a person could have gained powers from some sort of magical incantation/device or scientific experiment.

But one of the most popular ways for a superhero to gain powers was a little known plot device called radiation.

It should be noted that while radiation can kill you in real life, a lot of comic books saw the wonders of the real life Atomic Age and decided that this,

could give you superpowers.

The list of superheroes who gained their powers from some form of radiation is extensive and makes up some of comic’s greatest heroes.

Most of these characters were products of the Silver Age of Comics, a time period between 1956 and 1970 where comics became heavily influenced by science fiction and the brave new world that gave us the Space Race and Tang.

However, the heroes of the Silver Age were not the first superheroes to gain powers from strange radiation.  Comic book writers had known about atomic energy since the end of World War 2 and responded accordingly.

Today I present the first hero of the Atomic Age, a man known simply as…Atomic Man.

Origin and Career

Atomic Man first appeared in Headline Comics #16 in November 1945.

There are two things worth mentioning here.  First, while the Atomic Man doesn’t appear on the cover he is used in its advertising and second, this comic would have been published mere months after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War 2.

The character was created by comic strip artist Charles A. Voight,

who began work as a cartoonist in 1908 and was most famous for a strip called “Betty”.

Voight created the Atomic Man as a scientist named Dr. Adam Mann, a scientist who made it his life’s work to study this strange new nuclear science.

Sadly, Dr. Mann fell victim to a lab explosion while experimenting with uranium 235, the type of uranium which makes atom bombs go boom.   The explosion embedded radioactive shrapnel into his right hand.  However, instead of killing him the shrapnel gave him incredible powers including super strength, flight, the ability to manipulate minds (somehow), and energy blasts.

Naturally, Dr. Mann was somewhat terrified of his newfound power, not just because he had the ability to do great damage to the people he cared about, but because of the damage it could cause if it fell into the wrong hands.  As a result the doctor would wear a lead lined glove on his right hand while in his civilian identity and take it off whenever he needed to call upon his powers.

It should also be noted that his costume simply appeared once he took off the glove.

So what happened?

Atomic Man would appear in five more anthology issues and had a pretty good run for a Golden Age hero, even making the cover of Headline Comics three times.  He spent his time fighting various science fiction threats, criminal enterprises, and communists.

His last appearance was in September of 1946, his creator would die in 1947.  Atomic Man himself would be phased out of the Headline Comics title when the comic transitioned away from superhero comics to crime stories that were written by Captain America co creators and comic book legends Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.

While Atomic Man has faded from memory his legacy is an important one for comic books.  I mentioned before just how many superheroes gained their powers from radiation and Atomic Man was the first hero to accomplish this.

But there is something more to the hero than just a cool origin story.  Atomic Man represented a change that wasn’t just occurring in comic books, but in our society as well.  We had just witnessed the awesome and terrifying power of atomic energy,

and we had so many questions and concerns.  How dangerous was this thing?  What if it got into the wrong hands?  What were the true effects of radiation on the human body?  Will this new idea elevate us to a new Golden Age or plunge us into the apocalypse?

Yes a comic book hero as silly as Atomic Man got quite a few things wrong about radiation and yes, maybe a children’s comic book wasn’t the best place to be asking these sorts of questions.  But whether its audience knew it or not, Atomic Man did ask these questions, putting it at the forefront of some of the most important issues of our time.

President’s Day special: The Fighting American

Happy President’s Day everyone!  For anyone who doesn’t know about the holiday President’s Day started off as a day to honor America’s first president, George Washington.

Today it is a day for Americans to look back and honor the men who have led our country over its 240 year history, although currently it is often associated with taking a day off from school and going out to take advantage of the many President’s Day sales available.

So naturally in keeping with the patriotic theme of today let’s talk about some old school patriotic comic book heroes.

Too easy, how about someone else.

Already talked about him.  You know what?  I’m feeling a bit cynical today, what with an erstwhile holiday being devalued by rampant consumerism and an excuse to try to sell you more cars and a new mattress, is there a hero we can talk about that didn’t take his patriotism so seriously?

Okay, this could work.  Ladies and gentlemen….the Fighting American.

Origin and career

This is going to require a bit of context.  The Fighting American was created in 1954, near the tail end of the Golden Age.  World War 2 was over,

the Cold War was getting underway as the Soviet Union and America started acting like two married people who hated each other and were fighting to see who got ownership of the condo,

and the comic book business was undergoing a massive upheaval.  Between the decline in readership, the Senate hearings, and the new censorship rules, the industry was in trouble.

A lot of Golden Age heroes didn’t survive and the ones that did changed to the point where once edgy and socially conscious heroes like Superman and Batman became safe and non threatening characters who were tasked with upholding the status quo.  Needless to say, a lot of the stories suffered.

One of the few characters to make it through the 50’s relatively intact was Captain America, because what red blooded American parent wouldn’t trust a man who uses the flag as a shield?

However, even Captain America wasn’t safe from change in the 1950’s.  See, while the 1950’s are remembered as a pretty good time in American history (assuming you were white and middle class) there was this guy

That’s Senator Joseph McCarthy and in the 1950’s he took full advantage of the tension between the United States and the Soviet Union to launch a massive publicity stunt known as “The Red Scare”.

The Red Scare was a smear campaign led by Senator McCarthy against political opponents which he branded as Communists or sympathizers to the Soviet Union.

It is not remembered fondly by most historians but that didn’t stop America from going nuts with anti communist sentiment.

Needless to say, Captain America was the perfect superhero to take full advantage of this growing paranoia and in the 1950’s Atlas Comics (Timely Comic’s successor) had Captain America fighting Communists with just as much subtlety as he had fought the Nazis.

However, it turned out that while Atlas had relaunched Captain America as an enemy to Communists everywhere they had done so without the input or permission from the character’s original creators: comic book legends Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.

Sadly, these types of stories were par for the course in the early days of the comic book industry.  So instead of complaining or taking it to court Simon and Kirby created a new patriotic superhero: The Fighting American.

His story goes like this.  Mild mannered and ordinary Nelson Flagg (no really) was serving as the writer for his brother Johnny Flagg, who was not only a war hero and star athlete but a popular television commentator and an outspoken anti-Communist.  Sadly, Johnny was killed by communist sympathizers and Nelson vowed revenge.  He volunteered for the U.S military’s “Project: Fighting American” and had his mind and thoughts transferred into his brother’s physically augmented corpse.

Ew.

He was also given a kid sidekick named Speedboy, an unnamed page who tried to help the Fighting American chase down one of the bad guys.

The comic was published by a company called Crestwood Publications, a publishing company noted for publishing the first romance comic and one of the first ongoing horror comic books.

 

However, while The Fighting American was all geared up to become one of the premier anti Communist American heroes of the 1950’s things took a rather dramatic change.

It turned out that while anti Communist paranoia was a pretty big deal in the 1950’s a lot of people quickly realized that Senator McCarthy was actually full of crap.

Simon and Kirby saw that the Red Scare was actually hurting a lot of people and became uncomfortable with the rantings of a man who was destroying lives and careers with little to no evidence to support his accusations.  So they decided to relax and have some fun with the Fighting American and by its second issue it had turned into a superhero parody.  To give you an idea of the comic’s sense of humor, one of his first villains was a two headed Communist named “Doubleheader”.

The Fighting American and Speedboy would continue for a seven issue run fighting such colorful enemies such as the bouncing bank robber Round Robin.

a villain named Invisible Irving  known as the Great Nothing (a play on the unfounded early Cold War paranoia perhaps?)

and my personal favorite: Rhode Island Red.

It should be noted that a Rhode Island Red just so happens to be the name of Rhode Island’s state bird.

So what happened?

The Fighting American lasted for seven issues ending in 1955.  However, he got a re release in 1994 with a six issue mini series published by DC.

and there was a two issue miniseries published by Awesome Entertainment in 1997.

It should be noted that Awesome Entertainment was a company owned and operated by  Rob Liefeld

and the Fighting American mini series was marked by a massive legal mess involving Liefeld, Simon, and Kirby’s estate which resulted in a horrific legal mess that we don’t have the time to get into here.

The Fighting American was a hero whose existence seems like a joke.  He was created by two men who had been screwed out of their original work, he underwent a tremendous change in character and tone in only one issue, and he was the target of several reboots and re interpretations by some of the more notorious elements of the comic book industry in the 1990’s.  Despite all that I like this guy.  In a way he is one of the most patriotic superheroes out there because not only did he fight Communists he shed light on just how ridiculous most of the early Cold War paranoia really was.