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.
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.
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.
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.
Origin and Career
Doll Man made his first appearance in the Quality Comics’ anthology Feature Comics #27 in December of 1939.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Doll Man would later become a fixture of Standard Comics and would often appear on the covers as well.
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.
Some fun facts: his fiancee Martha would eventually become a super heroine known as Doll Girl, who had the same powers as her fiancee.
Also, several of Doll Man’s covers had him tied up and placed in a position of helplessness.
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.
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.
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.
The Freedom Fighters would be relaunched in 2006 by writer Jimmy Palmiotti.
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.
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.
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.
When many people hear the word “comics” they tend to think of superheroes.
There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just that comics can (and have been) so much more.
Now I will grant that I have probably not been doing a very good job in dispelling this stereotype, after all this blog has primarily talked about superheroes, but I like to think of this blog as a way to educate and inform people about parts of comic book history that are a bit obscure and totally crazy.
With that being said, let’s take a look at a character who isn’t really a superhero, but enjoyed a tremendous amount of success during the Golden Age of Comics: Powerhouse Pepper.
Origin and Career
Powerhouse Pepper made his first appearance in Timely Comics’ Joker Comics #1 in April of 1942.
I’m not going to lie, after looking at superheroes punching out Nazis for the past couple of weeks, this is a welcome relief.
The character was created by comic book legend, and a man with the kind of name that belongs in a funny comic, Basil Wolverton.
Basil is considered to be one of the great humor artists ever, and was dubbed the “Michelangelo of Mad Magazine” by the New York Times in 2009.
While he is famous for creating the character “Lena the Hyena”,
and for developing an iconic art style that didn’t just work for humor, but for horror as well,
his signature creation was the dimwitted, super strong boxer with a heart of gold and a penchant for the ladies: Powerhouse Pepper.
The character made his mark in a long series of 6-8 page stories that jumped around from titles such as Joker Comics,
To Gay Comics,
and even managed to get his own title for a little bit.
As mentioned above, the man was a boxer and a very good one at that. While he wasn’t really a superhero, he certainly appeared to have superpowers, up to and including super strength and durability.
The man was a lovable and dimwitted oaf, unconcerned with petty things like money or fame.
He did have a soft spot for the ladies and did his level best to be as polite and chivalrous as possible, even if it meant taking on opponents three times his size.
I would say he’s a Popeye ripoff, but what really sets him apart from everyone’s favorite spinach eating sailor is his penchant for rhyming and alliteration in his dialogue.
These stories are absolutely hilarious and Basil Wolverton’s creation deserves to go down in history as one of the greatest humor characters ever created.
So what happened?
Sadly, while Powerhouse has an impressive pedigree and the kind of history that should have made him into a timeless classic, the character’s exposure to modern day comic book audiences has been somewhat limited.
While you can find reprints of Basil Wolverton’s work, and there is a great website you can visit and view many of his appearances, Marvel has not bothered to reprint or promote any of the old Powerhouse Pepper stories.
If you ask me, it’s a crying shame because from what I’ve been able to read, these stories are hilarious and still hold up today.
Hello everyone. Normally this is the part of the article where I would ask you to support us on Patreon or donate to a Kickstarter. We don’t have those but instead we have a printed edition of our bi weekly web comic “The Secret Lives of Villains” available on for purchase on Amazon here.
Happy Halloween everyone!
A while ago we did a write up of an old comic book publisher called Camera Comics and since that post did pretty well so we decided to do something similar. Today we’re going to talk about a comic book publisher from the 1940’s, but this publisher isn’t obscure or unknown. In fact, this publisher was one of the greatest comic book companies ever created, a company that pioneered the comic book as an art form, and one of the founding fathers of the horror comic.
Ladies and gentlemen: EC Comics.
The company was founded by a man named Maxwell Gaines.
If you don’t know the name you definitely know his work. Gaines actually helped pioneer the modern comic book in 1933 when he worked for a company called Eastern Color Printing and was struggling to come up with an advertising idea for one of his company’s clients. He would up packaging newspaper comic strips into a magazine format with an included coupon from the client.
In 1934 Gaines published a collection of stories called Famous Funnies through a company called Dell Comics.
It was the first book of its kind to be distributed through newsstands and is widely considered to be the first American comic book.
Gaines would continue to publish original material and in 1938 he partnered with a man named Jack Liebowitz
and began publishing material under the name All American Publications.
Liebowitz just so happened to be a co owner of another comic book publisher named Harry Donenfeld, who owned a company called National Publications and agreed to fund All American Publications. Gaines and Liebowitz would go on to publish little known characters such as
In 1944 Donenfeld would buy All American Publications and merge it with National (and several other companies) to form a company called DC Comics.
While many people would have probably have just taken the money and enjoyed the retired life secure in their legacy, Max Gaines wasn’t done by a long shot.
Gaines used the money from the sale to start his own company: Educational Comics.
Gaines decided to not focus on superhero stories and published educational and historical stories instead. Titles like Picture Stories from American History and Picture Stories from the Bible were going to be published and marketed to schools and churches.
While it could have been a great direction for the company to go in, the plans were sadly derailed when Max Gaines died in a boating accident in 1947.
The company would be taken over by his son, William Gaines.
William wanted to take the company in a new direction. While he kept the Bible stories he decided to change the name to Entertaining Comics and publish non educational material.
The new EC Comics quickly gained a reputation as a publisher of high quality comic books. Among their many innovations was a letter section in the back of a comic book where artists could communicate with their fans. This was a first in the publishing industry and would go on to become a staple of comic books.
Another thing that EC did was adopt the novel idea that their artist SHOULDN’T be treated like complete and total garbage. This may seem like a strange thing to bring up but you have to remember that a lot of early comic book publishers didn’t pay their artists very well and didn’t give them the credit they deserve. EC was unique in that it paid their artists well and encouraged them to develop their own styles and techniques.
This paid off big time. EC Comics attracted some fantastic artists for their stories about more mature subject matter such as crime,
and science fiction.
But by far their biggest sellers were their horror titles such as The Vault of Horror
The Haunt of Fear,
and most infamously, Tales from the Crypt.
These weren’t your average comic book story. More often than not they would feature tales of wicked people suffering gruesome and ironic fates which were narrated by macabre individuals such as the Crypt Keeper.
Times were good and in the late 1940’s EC comics became known for its fantastic art and lurid storytelling.
So what happened?
In a perfect world EC Comics would have gone on to become one of the greatest and most popular comic book companies in the world and would have helped to advance the medium of comic books into a legitimate art form.
Unfortunately we don’t live in a perfect world and in 1954 a German psychologist named Fredric Wertham published a book called Seduction of the Innocent, which claimed that comic books were corrupting the minds of American children.
The backlash grew so strong that there was a Congressional hearing to investigate the rise of juvenile delinquency in America and the comic book industry suffered.
In response, the industry leaders banded together and created the Comics Code Authority. It was a regulatory body that established certain guidelines for what could be published and distributed to children. A company could still create any comic they wanted, but if they wanted to get it distributed they had to submit it to the Comics Code for approval and get a stamp if they wanted to see their book sold to make a profit.
The Code decimated the industry and EC comics was hit especially hard since you were no longer allowed to publish comics with words like “horror”, “crime”, or “terror”. You can read the full list of limitations here.
Despite poor sales and a decimated title library, EC Comics did manage to survive. Despite the fact they couldn’t publish any of their old comics they had a small title simply titled Mad.
Gaines decided to publish the title as a magazine, thus avoiding the Comics Code, and the new Mad Magazine continued to sell well and is still around today.
Gaines would sell EC Comics to the Kinney Parking Company in the early 1960’s. The history of that deal is way to complicated for this article but long story short, EC Comics would eventually be owned by the same company would later own DC Comics and Warner Communications.
William Gaines would die in 1992 and despite all the terrible things that happened to the company that he and his father built, the one thing that is ensured is their legacy and great comic book creators. Even though they had been decimated by the backlash against comic books in the 1950’s EC comics still had a fantastic reputation among fans and creators alike.
In the 1970’s Tales from the Crypt was licensed as a horror movie.
The movie followed the anthology style of the comic books and was a big enough hit to spawn another movie based off of the EC Comics title The Vault of Horror.
In the 1980’s there were two movies titled Creepshow and Creepshow 2. Both of them followed the EC horror comics format, both of them were influenced by EC Comic stories, and featured scripts written by Stephen King and George Romero.
In the 1990’s HBO would take Tales from the Crypt and turn it into a long running horror anthology series that lasted for ten years.
The legacy of EC Comics would be ensured, but if you’re interested in reading the original work then have no fear, reprints are here. While many publishers have made a killing off of reprinting these fantastic stories they are currently being republished by Fantagraphics Books.
In a world where superheroes dominated the comic book landscape EC comics dared to be different. To this day they are well known for their fantastic art work and exceptional storytelling abilities. They were the founders of the modern horror comic and deserve a place as one of the greatest, and most chilling, comic book publishers out there.
Happy Halloween everyone, sleep well.