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.
Have you ever noticed that bookstores tend to put fantasy and science fiction books on the same shelves?
I mean, I can understand why. Both genres talk about the human condition using fantastical elements and worlds. The difference is that while science fiction tends to focus on how technology changes society, fantasy tends to focus on how people change society. The point is that while they share quite a few similarities, they are just different enough to warrant their separation.
Comic books are interesting because the medium has no trouble combining the two genres together and it’s gotten really good at it. In fact, it’s gotten so good at it that not only is it possible to combine aspects of fantasy and science fiction together, it’s possible to spawn a billion dollar franchise out of it.
While the Golden Age of Comics did have a heavy focus on supernatural and fantasy elements, it also had its fair share of science fiction heroes.
One of these heroes was a creature called Bozo the Iron Man and before you laugh at his name and appearance, you may be shocked to learn that he was actually a pretty interesting hero.
Origin and Career
Bozo the Iron Man made his first appearance in Quality Comics’ Smash Comics #1 published on August of 1939.
While that is Bozo on the cover, he doesn’t fight a gorilla in his story.
He was created and drawn by an editor at Quality Comics called George Brenner,
Brenner is also known for creating what is arguably the first masked superhero in all of comics in 1936 as well as the hero 711, who is actually one of this site’s favorite heroes.
The origin of our titular hero actually bucks Golden Age tradition and gives us something that this blog hasn’t really seen: a morally ambiguous and surprisingly deep origin.
The comic starts with a mysterious robot terrorizing the citizens of the unnamed city.
It turns out that the robot is actually under the control of evil scientist cliche #421 and despite the police trying their best they don’t want to go near the giant killer robot. In order to put an end to this case the Commissioner calls in a special consultant named Hugh Hazzard, who winds up being the actual main character of the story.
The comic then goes through the standard motions. The good guy finds the bad guy, defeats him, and the robot is scrapped. However, in an interesting twist, Hugh decides to find the robot and use it to fight crime without the knowledge of the police.
Sure, the design of the robot doesn’t exactly inspire feelings of dread and terror, but the ending of the first issue actually sets up a surprisingly nuanced and interesting premise for a superhero story. Seriously, in a time where comics weren’t known for a whole lot of creative complexity, the creative team behind Bozo had the main robot hated and feared by those he was trying to protect.
Don’t believe me? Take a look at the bottom of a page from the second issue below.
Sure, titles like the X-Men would make the idea of heroes protecting the very people who feared them a comic book staple, but considering that this was being written in 1939 it’s a pretty interesting setup.
Unfortunately, they really didn’t do anything interesting with this setup and the rest of Bozo’s adventures were pretty typical “villain of the week” affairs.
So what happened?
Usually the old Golden Age heroes would either be revived by one of the major comic book companies further down the line or find their way into the works of writers and creators who were fans of the original but sadly, that isn’t the case for Bozo. This is going to be one of the shortest “What happened?” sections ever written.
Quality Comics folded in 1956 when the comic book market contracted. They were eventually acquired by DC and many of Quality’s heroes would survive in reprints, but sadly Bozo didn’t make it into any of them.
The only legacy Bozo would have is a brief re imagining by comic book legend Grant Morrison.
For those who don’t know, Grant Morrison is considered to be one of the great modern wizards of comic books and is responsible for some of the greatest modern comics ever written, including the greatest Superman story of the past 20 years.
Sadly, Bozo didn’t make it into any of Grant’s works, although another creator by the name of Justin Grey said in an interview that his creation of a robot named “Gonzo the Mechanical Bastard” was inspired by Morrison’s redesign.
I would go into more detail into Gonzo’s origin but for the casual fans all I am going to say is that he’s nothing like the source material and for the more hardcore fans I’ll say that the Anti Life Equation was involved.
Bozo the Iron Man was a pretty goofy hero with a well thought out backstory and an interesting hook to his character. Instead of being loved (or at the very least tolerated) by the police and the public at large, he was feared and mistrusted so much that his existence had to be kept a secret. He was one of the more complex characters of his time and should be remembered as such, even if he looked a bit ridiculous.
You know what I really like about comics? The scope and scale of the medium.
Sure, in any artistic medium you can tell big stories, but in comics? Comics are the new mythology, giving us larger than life characters that serve as brightly colored allegories for the larger world.
The Golden Age of Comics had their myths and legends but let’s be honest with ourselves…they were somewhat limited.
It makes sense I guess. After all, a lot of people were pressuring creators to churn out new superheroes as quickly as possible and there are only so many ways you can copy heroes like Superman or Batman. Plus, our country was faced with an actual larger than life event known as World War 2 so those heroes were tasked with winning the war, but surely there had to be some way to inject a little grandiosity into the comic book scene.
Where’s the magic? Where’s the ridiculousness? Where’s the cosmic scale of it all?
Oh, this’ll be interesting.
Origin and Career
Stardust the Super Wizard, a giant space magician with super strength and a tiny head,
was first published in Fantastic Comics #1 in December of 1939.
The title was published by Fox Features Syndicate, who published the first Blue Beetle, and created by writer and artist Fletcher Hanks.
Hanks is also responsible for creating one of the first female characters in comics, a woman named Fantomah.
Hanks was something of an elder statesman for a comic book industry that was dominated by teenagers. He specialized in creating supernatural characters who had no qualms about wrecking terrible revenge against their antagonists and Stardust was no exception.
His origins are simple. He’s a mysterious super being who descends from the stars to wreck terrible retribution on criminals everywhere. Everyone knows this this due to a strange radio broadcast that tells them everything.
What’s his backstory? Where does he come from? Nobody knows.
What we do know is that his powers are seemingly limitless, and he demonstrates his power against two thugs who are just about to assassinate the President.
It’s pretty clear that our hero is a giant and has more powers than Superman did at his height.
It’s worth mentioning that Stardust also partakes in one of the hallmarks of the Golden Age of comics: the hero murdering hoards of criminals and evil doers in brutal fashion.
The first story sets the tone for most of the Stardust stories as the hero defeats a series of increasingly over the top and surprisingly well equipped enemies with unimaginable violence. While he would only last for 16 issues, each one of them is pretty epic and worth checking out.
It’s worth mentioning that Stardust didn’t just police Earth, he dedicated his life to busting crime all across the solar system from his private star base.
He had enemies with creative names like Kaos of Venus, the Brain Men of Mars, and Yew Bee.
My personal favorite is the story where our hero faces the evil machinations of an arch criminal named De Structo, who plans to use an oxygen destroying ray to suffocate the political leadership of the United States.
No I’m not making any of that up.
Stardust captures De Structo and punishes him by removing the villain’s head, keeping it alive, and throwing it to an alien beast known as a “giant headhunter”.
Funny how the headhunter alien looks suspiciously human. Also, that is not a good way to go.
So what happened?
As I stated above, Stardust only lasted for 16 issues. I have no idea why he didn’t last longer and can only assume that people were allergic to fun and epicness.
Thankfully, all was not lost and it turned out that Fletcher Hanks had developed something of a cult following. All of his Golden Age stories were collected into anthologies and are currently published by Fantagraphics Books.
Also, it turns out that Stardust is a superhero that has greatly benefited from being in the public domain since he has actually appeared in a lot of other independent projects.
Some of his more notable appearances have been in Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,
He also had a cameo in Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon #141.
He’s also been used in a genre that we don’t talk a lot about on this blog: table top games. His name was used as an example of how power corrupts in The Super Villain Handbook by Fainting Goat Games.
Stardust the Super Wizard may have had a short career in the Golden Age, but it was a career filled with memorable events and villains. He’s remembered fondly today and his reputation is well deserved.