Golden Age Showcase: The Destroyer

On November 12th, 2018 we lost the Walt Disney of comic books, a master of movie cameos, and one of the few comic book creators that almost every person in the world can name whether they’re a fan of comic books or not: Stan Lee.

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There is no denying that the man’s legacy is immense and the impact he had on comic books as a medium and as a pop culture force was almost immeasurable.

Some cliff notes on his early life.  He was born in 1922 to a Jewish family in New York under the name Stanley Lieber.  “Stan Lee” was originally a pen name that he used when writing comics because he was saving his actual name for when he would start writing novels.

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Stan was around for the very beginning of the comic book industry that we know and love when he first started working for Timely Comics in 1939 after graduating high school.  While his initial duties were small time stuff like filling inkwells.  His first bit of writing work was creating filler text for a Captain America story named “Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge”,

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Fun fact: this is the first story where Captain America throws his shield.

From there, Stan wrote a back up feature called “Headline Hunter”,

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and in 1942 Timely Comics launched the first superhero co created by their new upcoming writer and the hero we’re going to talk about today: The Destroyer.

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Ladies and gentlemen, here is the first superhero that Stan Lee ever created.

Origin and Career

Full disclosure, I’ve done a bit of research for this article, and I can’t find a whole lot of images of the Destroyer due to copyright, so there’s going to be a lot of text and not a whole lot of pictures.

The Destroyer made his first appearance in Mystic Comics #6 in August of 1942.

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He was co created by Stan Lee and artist Jack Binder,

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Jack Binder was the older brother of Otto Binder, the man who would develop a healthy portion of the Superman mythos.

The Destroyer’s civilian identity is Kevin Marlow, an investigative journalist who was sent behind enemy lines to record and document Nazi atrocities.

He got a view that was a probably a bit too personal when he was captured, tried as a spy, and sent to a location known as Strohm Prison.  While he was there he was tortured met a Jewish scientist who was forced to work for the Nazis known as Eric Schmitt.

Schmitt had been forced to develop a super soldier serum for the Nazis (yes, it turns out he was a colleague of the scientist who gave Captain America his powers) and was beaten to near death.  Schmitt would wind up giving his heavily guarded sample of the super soldier serum to Marlow, who became incredibly strong and fast and used his abilities to break out of prison.

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Marlow vowed to fight Nazism on his own an donned his black, grey, and red costume to strike fear to the Nazis behind enemy lines.

Of course, his actions did not go entirely unnoticed and the Destroyer’s one man war drew the ire of the Gestapo under the command of Captain Fredrick von Banger.

Naturally, the confrontation didn’t go very well for the Nazis and while The Destroyer was able to overpower the captain, von Banger managed to escape by cheating.

That was The Destroyer’s first appearance and it turned out he was actually pretty popular during the wartime years.  Perhaps the one thing that separated The Destroyer from his other super powered colleagues was his willingness to accept help from other Germans and to accept the idea that the Nazis were more tyrannical despots rather than an entire nation of people.  Case in point, one of his earliest enemies was a psychotic scientist named Herr Scar,

Scar (Earth-616)

who was tasked by the Nazi government to quell German dissenters.  Naturally, with a face and name like that Herr Scar was an evil man who died very quickly.

The Destroyer would continue to experience a fair amount of success during the war.  He made cover appearances in the last four issues of Mystic Comics and would go on to become one of Timely’s most published characters, just behind the heavyweights of Captain America, the Human Torch, and Namor the Submariner.

So what happened?

Kevin Marlow disappeared in the late 1940’s when comic book superheroes were on the decline and comic books were facing a significant backlash and public hatred.

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Timely Comics changed its name to Atlas Comics, and Stan Lee managed to keep going by writing other stories.

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What happened next is mostly hearsay and conjecture, but the story goes that Lee was just about to quit comic books forever until his wife Joan told him to write one last story that he wanted to write.  The result was the creation of a new group of superheroes: The Fantastic Four.

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They’re pretty obscure, you’ve probably never heard of them.

The book was a hit.  Coupled with the rebirth and revitalization of the superhero genre in the 1960’s, comic books became cool again and Atlas changed its name again to Marvel Comics.

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The Destroyer continued to exist, although it was no longer a heavy hitter in the Marvel lineup.  However, in the 1970’s, then Marvel editor in chief Roy Thomas and artist Frank Robbins rebooted the story and made the new Destroyer a British agent named Brian Falsworth, and through a long and convoluted path of events (it’s comics, this happens) Falsworth became the British hero Union Jack.

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All previous continuity was retconned and the previous identity for the Destroyer known as Kevin Marlow was revealed to be a mistake by the FBI.  It was also revealed that Brian Falsworth died in a car crash in 1953.

The Destroyer name would eventually be adopted by Brian’s close friend Roger Aubrey in a 2009 miniseries written by Ed Brubaker.

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A final version of the Destroyer would make an appearance in Marvel’s MAX imprint, which was the place where Marvel created its explicit and mature stories.

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This series was written by The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman and featured an elderly Kevin Marlow in modern times.

Kevin Marlow (Earth-616) from Destroyer Vol 3 4 0001

This version of the Destroyer still had the strength and endurance of the super soldier serum, but unlike Cap he aged.

The story itself followed the Destroyer as he set off to kill his remaining rogues gallery and ensure the safety of his loved ones, by any means necessary.

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So that’s a brief rundown of the Destoryer.  If I had to describe him in one word it would be…standard.  During the 1940’s he was a product of his times.  People wanted bright and colorful heroes to fight their battles for them, and the destroyer delivered.  And while he would go on to become a part of the Marvel Universe and was well remembered by people working in comics, he would never see mainstream success.

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As for Stan Lee?  Well, he went on to help create some of the greatest and most popular heroes of all time,

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become the public face of American comic books, and be well known and loved by millions of fans.

All in all, a pretty good life and a pretty good legacy.

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Thanks for everything Stan, you will be missed.

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Comic book showcase: Steve Ditko’s career and contribution to comics

So we lost one of the greats this week, legendary comic book writer and artist Steve Ditko.

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Ditko was an interesting character in his own right.  In an industry that thrives on creators being in direct contact with their fans through things like letter pages,

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and comic conventions,

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Ditko was a recluse who rarely made appearances and almost never gave interviews.

So how did Steve Ditko become such an icon in the comic book community, despite choosing to adopt a public persona that many would have considered career suicide?  Well, let’s take a brief look at his career and some of his more famous creations.

Ditko was part of the great revitalization of comic books in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  This time period was known as the Silver Age of Comics and was known for its focus on science fiction aesthetic and themes,

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and for a little known writer named Stan Lee and a cigar chomping artist known as Jack Kirby creating the juggernaut known as Marvel Comics.

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This was also a time when many of the heroes that we know and love today were either created, such as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four,

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or received a make over that would define them for the next fifty years such as Carmine Infantino’s re interpretation of The Flash.

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So where was Ditko in all of this?

Well, he got his start drawing for a small company called Charleton Comics after serving in the Army after World War 2, but moved to Atlas Comics in the mid 1950’s after recovering from a bout of tuberculosis.

Ditko would frequently collaborate with Stan Lee in creating short stories for Atlas publications such as Strange Tales,

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These stories were a huge success, and in 1962 Lee was given permission to create a story about a teenage superhero with spider themed powers.  Lee’s first choice for an artist on the project was…Jack Kirby.

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Kirby was an industry veteran and a very good artist, but in interviews Lee recalled that he didn’t like the way Kirby drew Spider Man.  It was good but it was just too heroic.

So Lee turned to Ditko and together they would go on to create one of the most iconic and popular superheroes ever: Spider Man.

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The hero would debut in Amazing Fantasy #15 on August 10th, 1962.  While the interior artwork was done by Ditko, the cover was drawn by Kirby.

Lee and Ditko’s creation was a massive hit and helped usher in a new era of superheroes who weren’t gods or paragons of virtue, they were creatures with fantastic powers and very human emotions and problems.  Spider Man may have had amazing powers, but he always suffered because of it.  Everything from the death of his Uncle Ben,

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to the death of Gwen Stacy,

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was his fault.

But if you ask me, one of the most iconic moments in the early Spider Man comics was a scene where he’s trapped under rubble, buried alive by the Green Goblin and he has to get himself out.

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Ditko helped make superheroes vulnerable, twisting Spider Man’s body into brutal and uncomfortable poses that made the reader feel the effort and pain he was going through.  It’s fantastic stuff.

A few years later Lee and Ditko would go on to create Dr. Strange, who debuted in Strange Tales #110 in July of 1963.

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Strange allowed Ditko to unleash some of the most surreal and fantastic artwork ever seen as the human Dr. Strange battled creatures of the mind who wielded black magic.

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It’s worth remembering this was the 1960’s, a time when counter culture and New Age religions were starting to make their way into pop culture.  It’s also worth remembering that Dr. Strange became really popular with college kids at the time.

Unfortunately, Steve’s relationship with Marvel and Stan Lee wouldn’t last.  See, Marvel Comics in the 1960’s pioneered a style of comic creation known as “The Marvel Method”.  Long story short, what would happen is that the writer would send an artist a rough idea of a story, the artist would draw the story as they interpreted it, and then the writer would write out the dialogue afterwards.

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It was a great way for a writer like Lee to produce a metric crap ton of work while maintaining his public image, but it wasn’t without problems.  Sadly, there is a lot of debate to this day over who created what at Marvel and whether or not Stan Lee deserves the level of credit and respect he is enjoying in popular culture while artists like Kirby and Ditko were relatively sidelined in the public eye.

But that’s a debate for another day.  What we do know is that Ditko was frustrated with Marvel and Lee enough to leave them and go work for his old collaborator Charlton Comics.

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While Charlton didn’t pay as much as Marvel, they did allow their creators more freedom in their work.  Ditko thrived at Charlton, helping to create some of their most iconic heroes such as Captain Atom,

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and The Question.

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The Question was probably Ditko’s most personal work.  He was a big fan of Ayn Rand and objectivism, the idea that morality must be realized through individuals seeking to act in their own self interest.  The Question was Ditko’s way to express his personal philosophy to the world, something that hadn’t really been done in a medium that was originally more concerned with simple stories for children.

The Question was uncharacteristically brutal for the time period.  There was a scene where he let a pair of criminals get swept away in a sewer than save them.

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Ditko also did some work for DC in the 1970’s creating heroes like Hawk and Dove and Shade the Changing Man along with a whole host of others.

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During the 1980’s and 90’s Ditko would become even more reclusive, working for small presses and often taking bigger work simply for the paycheck.  He would eventually retire from mainstream comics in 1998, although he did work with former Charlton editor Robin Snyder in publishing bits of solo work.

While Steve Ditko became more and more of a recluse, his work and characters continued to have a lasting effect on comics and popular culture.  While Spiderman is his most famous work,

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and Doctor Strange is currently enjoying higher status thanks to the Marvel movies,

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I think a lot of his work at Charlton and DC comics deserves special mention.

In 1983, most of the Charlton characters were bought by DC comics when Charlton was suffering financially.  They were approached by Alan Moore, who wanted to write a 12 issue series that was a dark and gritty deconstruction of the superhero genre called Watchmen and he wanted to use Charlton characters to do it.  Two of them were Ditko creations, The Question and Captain Atom.  When DC said no, Moore used the idea of The Question to create his own character: Rorschach.

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and the idea of Captain Atom to create Dr. Manhattan.

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Most of the Charlton characters would go on to have successful careers in the DC universe on their own accords.  I can specifically remember the Justice League cartoon making fantastic use of The Question in its later seasons.

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So, how do we process the legacy of Steve Ditko?  He helped elevate the medium of comic books by introducing deeper and more meaningful themes and ideas into his work, he stood by his beliefs and preferred to let his work speak for him, and he helped to create two of the most iconic superheroes in modern history.

All in all, as far as legacies go, his position as one of the greatest comic book creators of all time is well deserved.

Thank you Mr. Ditko, you will be missed.

Comic book showcase: The creators of Thanos.

So I saw Avengers: Infinity War over the weekend.

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The only thing I will say about it is that it’s one heck of a turning point for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and an epic way to cap off this giant experiment that Marvel and Disney have been running for the past ten years.

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Other than that, I’m not saying anything else about the movie.  The internet is filled with enough spoilers as it is.

No, today I want to do something different and talk about the behind the scenes history of big bad guy of the film, the villain who has been teased for the past five years: Thanos.

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The character is pretty simple.  He’s in love with the Marvel Universe’s personification of death and he attempts to prove his love by killing off half of the universe using the Infinity Gauntlet.

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He’s one of Marvel’s most powerful bad guys and a big part of the strange and weird cosmic stories that Marvel produced in the 70’s and 80’s.

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Sadly, Marvel’s cosmic stories were never a big seller for the company when you compare them to their mega hits like Spider Man and the X-Men.  Stories about characters like Ronan the Accuser and Adam Strange weren’t very popular, even though they’ve been getting more attention nowadays with the smash success of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies.

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This is really sad since these are some of the weirdest, most bizarre, and high concept storytelling the company has ever produced, and most of this insanity was created by the other legend working at Marvel, and a long time favorite of this blog series: Jack Kirby.

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You know him, you love him, he helped create nearly every single superhero on the big screen right now, and he loved him some crazy far out aliens and space stuff.

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You can see a lot of his

design aesthetic on display in Thor: Ragnarok.

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While Marvel had Kirby to thank for some of the most fascinating and bizarre aspects of their superhero universe, he didn’t create Thanos.

Thanos was created by writer Mike Friedrich,

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and writer/artist Jim Starlin.

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Both of these artists have had long and storied careers at both Marvel and DC and came into their own in the 70’s and 80’s, reinventing what comics could do and giving us some of the greatest characters and stories today.

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Starlin in particular is the prince of the Marvel cosmic universe, and his resume is only dwarfed by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby themselves.

He helped create Thanos,

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Drax the Destroyer,

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Gamora,

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and he reinvented other heroes which will probably be making appearances in future Marvel movies like Adam Warlock,

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and Captain Marvel (who has a long and interesting story that I’m not going to talk about here, but long story short he was created in the 70’s and was reinvented as a lady in the present day).

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Yes people like Kirby, Friedrich, and Starlin were some of the most prominent and successful names in comics in the 70’s and 80’s, and were responsible for many of our childhood favorites.

And they all hated Marvel with a burning passion.

Long story short, the mega publisher decided to continue the long and sordid history of comic book publishers screwing authors and artists over.  Kirby followed in the footsteps of hundreds of his Golden Age co workers and was famously screwed out of most of the credit and royalties of his work, watching as his co creator Stan Lee would go on to become the biggest name in comics.

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Starlin in particular hates Marvel with the burning passion of a neutron star.

 

So they decided to quit Marvel and move on to greener pastures.  Kirby would move to DC Comics and create the characters of New Genesis and Apokalips, the latter being home to one of DC’s most powerful villains: Darkseid.

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Starlin and Friedrich decided to create their own comic, an anthology series known as Star Reach.

Star Reach is an interesting bit of comic book history.  It may seem like the comic book scene is dominated by Marvel and DC, and for the most part that’s true, but there has been a long running independent comic book scene that really took off in the 1970’s with the work of underground super stars like Harvey Pekar,

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Art Spiegelman,

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and Robert Crumb.

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The independent “comix” scene has its own separate and unique history and you could write books about it,  but for the sake of time and simplicity all you need to know is that it was characterized by its own unique art styles, adult themes, and subject matter that was absolutely NOT for children.

Star Reach was a comic anthology that collected short science fiction and fantasy stories and shared and helped bridge the gap between mainstream comics and the independent comix of the time.

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The first issue was published in 1974 and fans described the book as a “ground level publication”, sharing the distinction and aesthetic with a similar European publication we know today as Heavy Metal.

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Perhaps it was the lurid material, or the crossover appeal bridging the gap between mainstream comic books and the underground comix scene, or maybe it was the famous names attached to the book.  Either way, Star Reach was a hit and had a pretty solid five year run.

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Also, it helped set off a boom of independent comic books published in the late 70’s and early 80’s which helped shape the pop culture landscape we know and love today.

You know what?  I think this might be the perfect segue into a new age for this blog.  Sure, the 40’s were a fantastic time for comic books and produced some of comics’ most endearing characters and crazy stories, but the late 70’s and 80’s had some pretty insane characters and were a pretty fascinating time for the comic industry as well.

All good things must evolve, and I think now might be the time to change it up a bit.

This’ll be fun.

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: 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: Spider Queen

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You know what we need to talk about more on this blog?  Female superheroes.

The way I see it, if we’re going to talk about female superheroes we should go all the way with it.  We need something daring, something obscure, something so original and new that it has stood the test of time and has never shared any background or history with any other established character.

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Huh, that’s a woman swinging from a thread, in a strange costume, and calling herself “Spider Queen”.

This sounds familiar, but I just can’t quite place it.

Origin and career

Spider Queen was published by Fox Features Syndicate, the same company that gave us the original Blue Beetle.

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The Spider Queen first appeared as a back up story in a comic book called The Eagle in September of 1941.

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The story names a person called Elsa Lesau as the creator.  It would be fantastic if this character was actually created by a woman, but sadly I can’t find any pictures of her.  Also, Elsa may have been a pen name for a writer/artist duo named Louis and Artuo Cazeneuve who were two brothers from Argentina who did a lot of work for Fox and would go on to successful careers as comic book artists.

And this is where I would have a photo of them but alas, Google is a cruel mistress.

It’s worth mentioning that the Golden Age of comics wasn’t very good with things like creators’ rights and giving credit to the people who deserved it so it’s all very up in the air.

Anyway, the Spider Queen was a mild mannered assistant named Sharon Kane.  She worked as an assistant for her husband, a chemist who designed weapons until he was killed by “enemies of the country”.

Comic Book Cover For The Eagle #2

While sifting through the stuff in the lab, Sharon uncovers a formula for a super strong, super sticky thread like substance similar to spider silk.

Comic Book Cover For The Eagle #2

Once she realizes that with great power comes great responsibility, Sharon takes the formula, crafts her own wrist mounted spray guns that she can use to swing across buildings, and dons a costume to become a “sworn enemy to all wrongdoers”.

Isn’t it amazing how “scientist with a fascination with bugs” is such a common trope, especially in comics?  It’s not like anyone’s turned this idea into anything successful.

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Anyway, over the course of her career The Spider Queen simply contented herself with punching out goons and other small time criminals.  There may have been a budding romance with a detective named Mike O’Bell, but that didn’t pan out because…

So what happened?

She only lasted three issues, and since she was only a backup character she didn’t get a chance to develop as a hero or as a person.

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The character would have been doomed to comic book purgatory if it wasn’t for the folks at Marvel resurrecting her in a 1993 mini series starring a superhero team known as the Invaders.

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In a rather interesting twist, Spider Queen was actually a villain.  In fact she wasn’t just a villain but a Nazi as well.

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To be fair, they give her some justification by explaining that she’s only with the Nazis because they’re fighting the same group of people that killed her husband, but still…nazis.

Plus they gave her costume the 90’s comic book treatment.

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Eh, personally I’m on the fence about it.

So that’s the history of the original Spider Queen, but you’re probably wondering if Spider Queen has any thing to do with Marvel’s flagship hero, Spider man.  After all, I have been dropping subtle hints about it throughout the article.

The answer is yes, Spider Queen and Spiderman did meet.  That being said, it got a bit…weird.

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Long story short, this new Spider Queen was a woman named Adriana Soria who was a failed S.H.I.E.L.D experiment in 1945.

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She has super strength, a sonic scream, and the ability to control people with an “insect gene” which allows her to turn people into spider monsters.  One of her victims is Peter Parker.

We’ll ignore the “spiders are not insects” thing and focus on the fact that Peter actually becomes pregnant while in his spider form, dies, and is reborn as a new Spider Man with organic web shooters instead of mechanical ones.

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ew.

This version of the Spider Queen would come back as a semi regular Spider Man villain in a couple more stories but other than the fact that this new villain was more of a body horror, all powerful lady spider that’s really all you need to know.

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The Spider Queen was an interesting super heroine.  Sure she didn’t have a very long career as a hero, and her time as a villain was both short and very weird, but I like to think she was a real trailblazer.  She was the first super hero to utilize web shooters as a gimmick and would have one of the most interesting transitional careers as a super villain.

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Golden Age Comics: Chandu the Magician

If you’re like me you probably went to go see the new Marvel movie this weekend: Dr. Strange.

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If you haven’t seen it my spoiler free review is this: GO SEE IT NOW!!!

It’s trippy, mind warping, Benedict Cumberbatch is an awesome edition to the Marvel Universe, and it has some of the coolest fight scenes I’ve ever seen.

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Normally I would do a blog post about the history behind Dr. Strange but here’s the thing, the character really doesn’t belong to the Golden Age of Comics.

Dr. Strange was created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, the creative team behind Marvel’s greatest hero: Spider Man.

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Dr. Strange premiered in 1963 in the anthology series Strange Tales.  Since the character was a sorcerer and master of magic Ditko used the comic to create some of the coolest and most mind bending artwork ever seen.

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Sadly, while the art was fantastic, Dr. Strange didn’t really catch on as a solo character in his own series like Iron Man or the Hulk.  While he was popular with college kids who were experimenting with Eastern mysticism and psychedelic stimulants like LSD, the character was more at home as a supporting hero who was useful to other heroes whenever they were confronted with magical threats.

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Like I said before, Dr. Strange really doesn’t fit the bill for this blog.  However, while researching the character’s history I discovered that Stan Lee took a lot of influence for Dr. Strange from an old radio program called Chandu the Magician.

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After looking up Chandu on the internet I decided to write this week’s blog post on this instead.  Sure it’s a radio show turned into a movie series, but it’s got enough comic book elements in it to justify a place here.

Origin

Before there were comic books and comic book movies, there were radio shows and pulp novels.

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Chandu the Magician premiered in 1931 on the Los Angeles station KLR.  The show featured a man named Frank Chandler who was played by radio actor Gayne Whitman

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Frank was an American who had traveled to India to learn the mystic arts from the yogis.  Such skills included astral projection, hypnosis, and escape artistry.

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After he had learned everything he could he was sent into the world to fight evil in all its forms with the new identity of Chandu the Magician.

He would have various adventures every week, broadcast in 15 minute adventures, and sponsored by companies such as White King Soap and Beech Nut Gum.  He had several love interests such as the Egyptian princess Nadji who was played by actress Veola Vonn.

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The program was successful and lasted from 1932 to 1935, and was even revived in the late 1940’s.

On top of the radio show, they even made a movie about Chandu in 1932.

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Chandu the Magician stared actor Edmund Lowe as the title character,

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and horror movie icon and king of over the top epic performances, Bela Lugosi as the villain Roxor.  You probably know him better as Dracula.

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The movie was 71 minutes of glorious 1930’s cheese filled with magic, sappy romance, and death rays.  If you don’t believe me please watch this clip of Bela giving the best damn evil villain monologue I have ever heard.

The movie was successful enough to spawn sequels and I can assume the studios loved Lugosi because they cast him as Chandu in the sequel.

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So what happened?

Life and society moved on, leaving radio and old heroes like Chandu in the dust.

While I normally feel a pang of regret and nostalgic longing for the heroes that I write about in this blog I’m really not feeling a whole lot for this one.

Sure he was a cool magician and yes the adventures were creative and exotic, and we got one of the best Bela Lugosi performances I’ve ever seen out of it, but the character was definitely a product of his time.  There’s a pretty strong undercurrent of some of the more uncomfortable ideas that permeated American entertainment during the 1930’s.  Everything from blatant racism to casual sexism is on call here.  Granted, a lot of the early comics played with that as well, but I get the feeling that a lot of people won’t be lining up to see the Chandu reboot at the box office.

Still, it was a fun little story and it seemed to have enough of an effect on a young Stan Lee to create Doctor Strange, so it wasn’t all bad.

Silver Age Showcase: Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos

Happy Memorial Day everyone!

For the non American readers of this blog Memorial Day is a day where Americans recognize and celebrate the lives of those who served and died in military service, usually by eating a lot of meat and drinking a lot of booze.

The reason I bring this up is because comic books have a pretty long and storied history when in comes to honoring and talking about American men and women in uniform.  After all, the early days of the modern comic book industry were smack dab in the middle of the biggest conflict in human history and it shows.

Books like these were fantastic wish fulfillment, where writers and artists could end the war with a stroke of a pen and make sure that the Axis powers got what was coming to them.

But comic books didn’t just tell stories about impossible men and women with amazing powers and flashy costumes, they told stories about the actual men and women in uniform as well, and a lot of them weren’t so happy and carefree with their subject matter.

This fascination with actual military exploits and stories about real life soldiers make sense when you consider that some of the greatest comic book creators who ever lived served in the military, including the legendary duo of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

Author’s note: It should be noted that while Stan Lee served in the Army Signal Corps and din’t see much combat, Kirby was a Private in the U.S Third Army and was awarded the Regimental Bronze Star.

While I don’t know how their military experience influenced their later work I do know that Lee and Kirby would go on to create one of the greatest groups of ordinary soldiers who would go toe to toe with some of the greatest villains the budding Marvel Universe had to offer: Sargent Nick Fury and his Howling Commandos.

Origin and Career

According to Stan Lee himself the idea for the Howling Commandos came about on a bet that Lee and Kirby couldn’t create a successful comic book title with a terrible name.  Lee would go on to state that the inspiration for the name “Howling Commandos” would come from the real life 101st Airborne Division, which called itself the “Screaming Eagles”.

Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos first premiered in May 1963, making it a Silver Age comic book created at the height of Lee and Kirby’s creative partnership.

Lee and Kirby would go on to write and pencil the first seven issues until the series was taken over by writer Roy Tomas (who would go on to introduce Conan the Barbarian to the comic book world)

and artist Dick Ayers, who would go on to pencil and ink 95 issues of Sgt. Fury and his squad.

Now, the Howling Commandos would go on to have a pretty successful run.  They appeared in over 150 issues so it’s somewhat difficult to describe everything they did.  So instead, we’re going to have a quick list of some of the most important exploits of the team and some of their biggest contributions to Marvel and comics as a whole.

The group was a multi cultural and multi ethnic.  It even included an Asian American during a time when Japanese Americans were being interned in camps and an African American during a war where the United States Army was still segregated (the U.S Army wouldn’t fully integrate until 1948).  It fact, this was so rare in the 1960’s that Lee had to remind the colorist that one of the Commandos named Gabriel Jones was actually black.

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Besides their commitment to diversity the writers weren’t afraid to kill people off in a time when comic book characters just didn’t die.  Nick Fury joined the US Army with his best friend Red Hardgrove, who would later perish in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Fury would go on to form the Howling Commandos and be stationed in Britain where he fell in love with a nurse named Pamela Hawley in Issue #4

only to have her die in a bombing raid before he could propose to her in Issue #18.

Also, despite being a “kid’s book” the adventures of Sgt. Fury and his squad did not shy away from dealing with some pretty complex themes.  Issue #51 was called The Assassin and told the tragic story of a man who was forced to become an assassin when the Gestapo held his family hostage.

And issue #75, titled The Deserter, was an allusion to the real life trial and execution of an American G.I named Eddie Slovik.

And then there are the cameo appearances by other famous Marvel characters.  During their time in the second World War the Howling Commandos would work with the likes of Reed Richards, the future Mr. Fantastic,

and their most famous partner, Captain America and his side kick Bucky.

During their adventures they would also face several of Marvel’s greatest villains, including Baron Strucker,

Helmut Zemo (before his unfortunate accident gave him his trademark mask),

and the Red Skull himself.

So what happened?

The Howling Commandos would have a successful career in the 1960’s and early 70’s, producing 167 individual issues and reprints which started in 1974.  While the group would reunite to carry out missions in Korea and Vietnam the series was cancelled in 1981.

Nick Fury would go on to become a Colonel and a James Bond type spy in 1965’s Strange Tales #135 for a little known organization called S.H.I.E.L.D.

An artist named Jim Steranko would make his name working on Nick Fury’s comics and become one of the greatest artists of the 1960’s and a pioneer in what a comic book could do.

Fury would later undergo a pretty dramatic change in appearance in Marvel’s Ultimate series, an alternate universe continuity to Marvel comics designed to allow new readers to jump on board without having to worry about decades of continuity.

Ironically, this Nick Fury would go on to become the more famous one.

As for the Howling Commandos themselves, they’re still kicking around as a group.  While they’re probably too old to do much in the modern day they’re still very much a part of the Marvel mythology.  They made an appearance in the first Captain America movie,

and they had a cameo appearance in the Agent Carter tv show.

While Nick Fury and his squad of badass commandos performed nearly impossible feats of bravery and valor and were soldiers of mythic skill and ability they were still ordinary humans thrust into a chaotic world of death and destruction.  They are a reminder that sometimes you don’t need a hero, you just need group of ordinary men and women to perform the impossible and can rise to the occasion to be heroes.

Happy Memorial Day everyone.

 

 

Golden Age Showcase: Namor the Submariner

Today I would like to talk about the original super hero trinity.

No, not that one.

Back when Marvel Comics was known as Timely Comics the company had their own Trinity of superheroes: Captain America, the robotic Human Torch, and the hero we’re going to talk about today: Namor the Submariner.

Origin and Career

Namor was supposed to premiere in a magazine called Motion Pictures Funny Weekly in April of 1939.

It was supposed to be a giveaway promotional project that would be handed out to movie theater owners.  Unfortunately the idea fell through so Namor’s creator, the legendary Bill Everett,

decided to send the project to another client, Timely Comics.  Timely liked the idea and in December of 1939 they published Namor as a part of their first ever comic book Marvel Comics #1

Fun side note: Bill Everett would later go on to help create the modern day Daredevil for Marvel Comics so…there’s that.

Namor is an important part of comic book history due to the fact that he was the industry’s first anti hero.  In his very first appearance Namor was actually a bad guy who had a short temper and decided to declare war on the surface world of man.

Namor was the child of a human father named Leonard Mckenzie and a princess named Fen who was the daughter of the king of Atlantis.

the man grew up as the heir to the throne of Atlantis and had a rather nasty temper.  Things would come to a head when he battled the Golden Age Human Torch in 1940 while threatening to sink New York under a tidal wave.

In another historical first this was the first fight between superheroes in all of comic books.

Despite his hostility towards the surface world and his seemingly villainous behavior Namor was well received by comic book fans in the 1940’s.

Despite everything Namor did, no matter how cruel or vicious, he did it in the name of protecting his people.  He was viewed as less of a savage villain and more as a noble anti hero and in February of 1940 he made his first cover appearance in Marvel Mystery Comics #3.

I think it’s pretty obvious whose side Namor was on during the Second World War.

From 1941 to 1949 Namor would remain one of the biggest heroes in Timely Comics’ lineup.  He kicked his fair share of Nazi butt during WW2 (it should be noted that during the Golden Age he was much more of a solo act and only during the 1970’s was it revealed that he had worked with Captain America and the Human Torch),

and like all superheroes he suffered from a lack of interest after the war had ended.

However, unlike many superheroes Namor actually survived the 195o’s and experienced something of a revival.  However, his home would be destroyed and his family killed when a villain named Paul Destiny,

used a magical helmet to destroy Atlantis and give Namor amnesia.

So what happened?

Namor was too popular and too important to the Timely Comics Universe to disappear for long.  After Stan Lee revived the superhero genre for the newly named Marvel Comics with his 1961 comic The Fantastic Four,

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the new Human Torch discovered Namor the Submariner living as a homeless man in the middle of New York.

Namor would regain his memory and return to his home of Atlantis, only to discover that it had been destroyed by nuclear testing.  Naturally the man was a bit…upset and attempted to conquer the surface world with a giant worm named Giganto.

Thankfully the Fantastic Four were able to defeat him and it even turned out that Atlantis hadn’t been completely destroyed.

Over the next several decades Namor would continue to play a major role in the Marvel Comics Universe.  Despite the attempts of his people to bring him back as their king Namor would continue to wage war on the surface.  This led him to several team ups with some pretty shady characters like Doctor Doom, Magneto, and the early Hulk.  All of them ended poorly.

In a rather interesting bit of history, Namor’s adventure with the Hulk led him to discovering the frozen body of Captain America, who was being worshiped as a god by a group of Inuit.

Over time the Submariner would abandon his villainous ways and become a true hero, using his vast wealth and power to help create the superhero team The Defenders,

and became heavily involved in the business of superheroics with his self funded company Oracle Inc.

Namor is still going strong as a superhero and is an integral part of the Marvel Comic Book Universe.  He’s so prolific that to describe his entire history would take way more space and time than we have here.

Namor is one of the most fascinating and enduring characters in all of comic books.  As the industry’s first anti hero and literal King of the Seas he is interesting, complex, and a definite force to be reckoned with.

Golden Age Showcase: Mercury

So the Boston Marathon was today.

I know this because I live right by the Marathon starting point, and I spent the last six hours praying to every god above that I didn’t have to deal with the traffic (long story short, I did…it wasn’t fun).  Anyway, spending all that time thinking about running got me thinking about comic book speedsters and provided the inspiration for today’s article.

Anyone with even the the most basic comic book/pop culture knowledge can probably name one speedster.

It’s an incredibly useful power to have and many of these heroes who possess super speed are capable of going toe to toe with opponents who, at least on paper, are even more powerful than they are.

But here’s the thing, I’ve already covered two Golden Age speedsters: the first and original Flash from DC Comics.

and the spectacularly named “Whizzer” from Timely Comics, who got his power from mongoose blood (swear to God, not making that up).

But here’s the thing, the Whizzer was not Timely’s first attempt to imitate the Flash and create a speedster.  That honor goes to the original god of speed himself: Mercury.

Mercury

Origin and Career:

Mercury appeared in Red Raven Comics #1 which was published in August of 1940.

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Mercury’s first and only Golden Age appearance was actually pretty important to the world of comics.  For starters he was created by writer Martin A. Burnsten and the man, the myth, and the perpetual loser of hard earned credit, Jack Kirby.

Mercury was also one of the first instances of Timely Comics using actual mythological gods from history in their comics since Mercury was the Roman name for Hermes, the original speedster from antiquity.

This is a strategy that would pay off big for Marvel in the future.

Anyway, in Timely’s story the Greek god Zeus looked down on Earth and saw it was being ravaged by war.  It’s worth re iterating that this comic was published in 1940.

Zeus deduced that his evil brother Pluto (you may also know him as Hades) was the one responsible for this madness and sent Mercury down to Earth in order to make things right.

Mercury meets his uncle who is posing as the power mad dictator of “Prussialand” (subtle Kirby…really subtle) and when talk fails the god of speed proceeds to wreck Prussialand’s plans despite the best efforts of a Prussialand spy named Thea Shilhausen and does such a good job that Prussialand effectively surrenders and peace talks begin.

The comic ends with peace being restored and Mercury returning to Olympus.

So what happened?

Red Raven Comics would only last one issue.  The very next month it was replaced by a new hero who would go on to become a Timely Comics staple: The Human Torch.

But the idea of having a Greek god in Marvel’s library wouldn’t go away and and over thirty years later it would come roaring back.

See Kirby was a HUGE fan of ancient gods and mythology and it would be a huge influence in his later work.  Probably his most famous example was when he left Marvel in 1971 to work for DC.  The reason?  Well, Kirby had spent the 1960’s creating many of Marvel’s most iconic superheroes with Stan Lee.

Bear in mind, this is just a small sample of what Lee and Kirby created but unfortunately there was some disagreement over who did what and Jack wasn’t too happy with what Marvel was paying him.

When Kirby came to work for DC he created a comic book series called “The Fourth World” which branched off into titles such as “New Gods”.

The Fourth World Saga is a massive heady mix of mythology and modern culture and to talk about it would take an entire book on its own.  Unfortunately, the Fourth World didn’t sell as well as Kirby’s Marvel creations.  However, he was responsible for creating one of DC’s most iconic and dangerous villains in the entire DC universe: Darkseid.

Kirby would return to Marvel in 1976 and it could easily be said that his time at DC had a profound effect on his work.  Marvel let Kirby create a series called The Eternals  and it’s fairly easy to see the similarities between The Eternals and The New Gods.

Like the New Gods, the Eternals were a group of god like beings who possessed incredible powers and long lives.  They fought against groups such as the Deviants

and to go any further would be getting into Marvel’s cosmic history which, like the New Gods, is incredibly complicated and dense and would require much more time to explain here.

One of these Eternals was a being named Makkari.

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Makkari was an Enternal who had spent quite a lot of time on Earth.  In the series he helped teach writing to the Egyptians, learned philosophy from Plato, witnessed the reign of Vlad the Impaler, and even taught Elvis a few tricks.

But most importantly he was sent to Earth by the Eternal Zuras

under the aliases of Mercury and Hurricane, which was the name of another Marvel speedster from the 1940’s.

In a stroke of genius Kirby had changed his original 1940’s work from a one off tale about a Greek god coming to Earth to thrusting him into the middle of a rich and complex celestial story that still has a tremendous impact in the Marvel Universe today.

Seriously, Kirby was the man!