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,
to creating the genre of science fiction,
to taking us to the moon,
and basically inventing the whole idea of computer sciences and programming.
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.
Origin and Career
Jill Trent made her first appearance as a back up story in Fighting Yank #6 in 1943.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sure those are double cots placed side to side and it’s no different than what Batman and Robin were doing around this time,
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.
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.
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.
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.
She would make a genuinely fantastic modern heroine and more people deserve to know about her.
Quickly, when you hear the name “Bulletman”, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind?
Personally I image some sort of dark, brooding, Punisher type hero who lets his guns do the talking and they aren’t taking “no” for an answer.
Kind of like what you might have found in a lot of comics from the 1990’s.
Side note: the above image is a character named Overtkill. Yes, that is how you spell his name.
Well, in the 1940’s a company called Fawcett Comics created a character named Bulletman and he looked like this:
Good Lord…that hat!
Origin and Career
Bulletman made his first appearance in Nickel Comics #1 in May of 1940.
He was published by Fawcett Comics and was created by writer/editor Bill Parker and artist John Smalle.
Bill Parker created Fawcett’s most popular character, Captain Marvel.
Remember this, it will be important later.
As for origins, Bulletman’s civilian identity is Jim Barr. His story takes a welcome break from the “I’m just going to fight crime because I’m rich and I have nothing better to do” school of thought and takes its cues from the Batman school of crime fighting. Namely, his parents get killed by criminals so he decides to fight crime at a young age.
No word on what happened to his mom.
A couple of things are interesting in this origin story. First, the boy is a scientist and never had any aspirations to be an athlete, so that’s a pretty good deviation from the norm.
Second, he develops a “crime cure” because he believes that crime is a disease that can be treated like malaria or small pox.
Wow, there’s…enough to unpack in that last panel alone to fill an entire book. So let’s skip over that and save it for arguing in the comments.
Sadly, Jim suffers from the plight that all smart people seem to suffer from in fiction, having his career hampered by idiots and jocks.
Three things to note here on this page. First, this is the best scan I could find. Second, the only one who believes in him is a pretty lady named Susan Kent, who eventually becomes his girlfriend and wife. Finally, notice how the cop in the second to last panel is openly justifying torture to extract a confession from a criminal using a rubber hose.
Meanwhile the “crime cure” works! Sort of…
I mean, it turns him into a superhero so yeah…he gets to cure crime by punching things.
He continues his reckless use of using things without testing them by building a gravity defying helmet and leaping out a window before it can be tested.
Thankfully the helmet works, even if he looks hilarious in it, and he manages to stop the criminals and save the day.
Bulletman would go on to be one of Fawcett’s most successful heroes, second only to Captain Marvel. After his career took off (har har) he did something strange and actually didn’t fight Nazis or Nazi spies. Instead he fought criminals both with his superpowers and as a police scientist.
Of course, just punching people can get boring pretty quickly so in April of 1941 Bulletman appeared in Master Comics #12 and his lady friend Susan Kent wound up discovering his identity.
The police chief’s daughter did in a matter of months what Lois Lane couldn’t do in years and in the following issue she confronts him about it.
The two wind up reconciling after Susan saves Bulletman’s life by giving herself the same powers and “finding an extra helmet lying around”.
And the two became a crime fighting couple to be reckoned with.
So what happened?
By all accounts Bulletman and Bulletgirl should have survived into the modern day. He was a popular character, he had an interesting backstory, and he was regularly seen with one of the most popular superheroes of the 1940’s.
And that was the problem. See, while Fawcett Comics had a huge amount of success with Captain Marvel it turned out that his greatest enemy wasn’t a super villain, but legal action.
It turned out that DC Comics looked at the hordes of tall white guys with super strength, super speed, flight, and a secret identity and decided that a lot of them were a little too close to their big time money maker: Superman.
We can debate the truth to this statement all day, but what’s not debatable is the results and in the case National Comics Publications v. Fawcett Comics National Comics won and Fawcett was forced to pay damages and cease publication of Captain Marvel.
It’s worth mentioning that the case made its first initial court appearance in 1941 with the final decision made a decade later, making this one of the longest copyright cases in comic book history.
Fawcett was decimated by the case and ceased publishing comics in 1953, and while they would restart publishing comics in the 60’s, they wound up handing their entire stable of superheroes over to DC comics in 1972.
Bulletman and Bulletgirl made the leap as well and appeared in a new superhero group called “The Squadron of Justice” to defeat the forces of a villain named King Kull.
They kept the helmets because why the hell not? They make the costume.
The two would be moved into the All Star Squadron, a DC Comics superhero team that was placed in a universe where World War 2 was still happening.
The two would go on to have a fairly important supporting role in DC’s SHAZAM! books. He got to meet Green Lantern mentor Abin Sur,
and at one point, Bulletman was actually accused of being a Nazi collaborator in 1998’s Starman #39 although he was naturally cleared of all charges.
Bulletman and Bulletgirl would also have a kid! In 1997 they had a kid named Deana who donned her mother’s helmet and became the hero Windshear.
She dated Captain Marvel for a bit and helped her Dad rescue Marvel from a villain named Chain Lightening.
The group has even inspired copies of their own, although they were all published within DC Comics so there was no court case. In 2005 Grant Morrison published a book series called Seven Soldiers, which was based on many of the old Fawcett characters. Bullet girl became “Bulleteer” and she looked like this.
So nice to know the phallic helmets didn’t just remain, they got bigger.
In a way I’m upset that Bulletman and Bulletgirl wound up where they are today. By all accounts they should still be around today since they did hold their own with some of the big name heroes of the Golden Age of Comics and the fact that they were a capable pairing as husband and wife adds an interesting dynamic that you don’t really see with a lot of comic book superheroes.
They were a solid team with a solid story and a solid power set and deserve a place right alongside their famous colleague Captain Marvel.
So before we begin talking about the ridiculous old school hero of the week I feel obligated to bring up the passing of the great Adam West.
The man was a fantastic actor, a great human being, and for the longest time he WAS Batman.
The reason I created this blog was to showcase some of the crazier and goofier aspects of the early comic book industry. Granted, many of these heroes were blatant cash grabs and lazy copies of other popular heroes but there was a crazy energy to those early comic books that was so captivating that it demands your attention and respect.
I bring this up because the 1960’s Batman show was one of the first attempts to bring that crazy energy to mainstream audiences and holy crap did it succeed.
Sure the show was campy, sure the show was goofy, sure the show is the antithesis of everything that modern comic book audiences think Batman should be, but underneath the camp and celebrity appearances was a show that had razor sharp wit and writing, awesomely cheesy effects and fight scenes, and acting so gloriously hammy that you could put it between two slices of bread and make a sandwich.
Hell, the show won a freaking Emmy and is the reason why the Riddler is my favorite Batman villain!
If you want to check it out for yourself the show is available on Blu Ray, the Batman movie is on Netflix, and you can read the modern take on the show in the DC comics series Batman ’66
Okay, so that’s enough mainstream acceptability for one week. Let’s dive right back into another crazy Golden Age hero.
Hydroman seems nice.
Origin and Career
Hyrdo Man was one of the first characters created by Eastern Color Printing in 1940.
What’s interesting is that Eastern Color Printing was a well established publisher by the 1940’s. In fact, they were the first company to produce what we would call a comic book in 1933,
In an attempt to cash in on the Superman craze of the late 1930’s and early 1940’s Eastern created the title Reg’lar Fellers Heroic Comics. This was cover of the first issue published in August of 1940.
Yes, that is actually how it was spelled and yes, Hydro Man was their main hero deemed worthy to be placed on the cover of the title.
The hero was created by comic book creator Bill Everett,
who co created Marvel’s Daredevil,
and Timely Comics’ Namor the Sub Mariner.
The origin story for Hydro Man combines elements from Everett’s two most famous heroes: water and chemical spills.
The story begins when an unassuming scientist named Harry Thurston accidentally spills a harmless mixture of water, alcohol, and “a little sulfuric acid” onto his hand.
Why did he do this? Because he wanted to see what happened.
At this point I have to ask. Where would superheroes be without a near casual disregard for lab safety and basic human caution? Nowhere, that’s where.
Surprisingly (or unsurprisingly since this is a comic) the explosion doesn’t kill Harry. Instead it turns his hand into a waterfall.
So what does he do? Does he call the hospital? The police? The Nobel Committee?
Nope! He calls his best friend Bob Blake.
In another stunning display of stupidity, another man named Tom trips, and spills the same chemical all over Bob.
Thankfully Tom has a gallon of a counteractive chemical (somehow) and manages to return Bob to human form.
Naturally the men decide to abandon all safety and common sense and decide to inject the chemical directly into Bob’s veins. Then they decide to dress Bob up in a costume, give him weapons, and go and fight off a group known as “The Oriental Invaders”.
Oh right, did you know about the Oriental Invaders? They mentioned it in a couple of panels.
Bob’s girlfriend has a point, he is a nut.
It turns out that the Oriental Invaders are a real threat to our country and way of life. Complete with ridiculous costumes and almost all of the offensive stereotypes that 1940’s America can muster towards Asians.
Thankfully, Hydro Man is there to over compensate like a true American hero and responds by drowning one of them.
In the next issue he gets a see through suit made out of a fictional bulletproof material similar to cellophane in order to go after this mysterious enemy organization.
It should be noted that while Pearl Harbor was still over a year away from pushing America into the war, it was still a time where comic book publishers could get away with calling Asians “a Mongrel Race”.
He was able to find out more information by spying on the guys in charge by dissolving himself into a glass of water.
All silliness and casual racism aside, that’s actually pretty clever.
The rest of his adventures were pretty similar. He fought against so called “Fifth Column” enemies, secret agents who were working for the Nazis and Japanese in the United States in an attempt to sabotage and otherwise subvert the war effort.
He would later get a kid sidekick in 1942 named “Rainbow Boy”,
Sweet Jesus that costume is terrible.
Rainbow Boy could transform himself into a rainbow, create brilliant flashes that disoriented enemies, and could travel at the speed of light.
Seriously, that costume is just the worst.
So what happened?
Hydro Man and Rainbow Boy were actually one of the most successful comic book superheroes of the 1940’s. If he had continued we probably would have gotten to see a gritty reboot (although we did get a Spider Man villain named Hydro Man in the 1980’s)
Unfortunately, our hero fell victim to forces outside his control when his publisher got butchered in the 1950’s with the rise of the Comics Code.
Eastern Color Publishing would hobble on until the 1970’s until they stopped creating original work and existed by printing books from other companies. They finally closed their doors in 2002 when they couldn’t keep up with advances in modern printing technology.
The Golden Age Hydro Man would go on to have a single modern day appearance in Dynamite’s Project Superpowers series in 2008.
That’s him on the far top left of the drawing. His name was shortened to “Hydro” in order to avoid a copyright lawsuit with Marvel.
Hydro Man was a popular hero of the 1940’s and it’s easy to see why. Despite the ridiculous appearance he had a pretty cool power set and a halfway decent artistic team that did their damnedest to keep his stories and powers interesting.
He’s actually available in the public domain, so if anyone wanted to use him in a story, there would be nothing stopping you.