Golden Age Showcase: Rockman

While the Space Race turned the imaginations and attention of the American public towards the stars science fiction writers have been just as interested in what possibly lay below our feet as well as above our heads.  Some of the more famous examples include Jules Verne’s A Journey to the Center of the Earth,

the reptilian Silurians who live under the Earth’s crust from Dr. Who,

and the gloriously cheesy yet surprisingly touching 1951 movie Superman and the Mole Men.

Why do I bring these two examples up?  Because they all ascribe to the idea that there is an entire world living underneath our feet just like today’s Golden Age superhero: Rockman.

Origin and Career

Rockman first appeared in USA Comics #1 in August of 1941.

The name that is credited in the first page of his origin is Charles Nicholas, which was an in house pseudonym for several artists including the legendary Jack Kirby but the majority of Rockman’s stories were written and drawn by Basil Wolverton

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and one of Rockman’s stories was signed by Stan Lee himself.

Rockman was actually a member of the mysterious underground kingdom of Abysmia, a kingdom under the surface of North America and allegedly founded by the first white settlers of the continent.  Rockman is the leader of the Abysmians and realizes that in order to protect his kingdom he must ascend to the surface because the vibrations he was reading told him that the surface dwellers were at war.

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Once he got the surface Rockman used is incredible strength, speed, and ability to withstand incredible pressure and lack of oxygen to do what all Golden Age heroes did best: beating the crap out of Nazi and Japanese caricatures.  His first menace was to fight and defeat the nefarious Zombo, a man who was capable of hypnotizing other people to do his bidding and was running around the Pacific sinking ships.

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His third adventure (which was actually written by Stan Lee) had him defeat an army of pixies who also lived underground,

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and his final adventure had him facing off and defeating the villainous Le Barbe who made the grave mistake of trying to take over all the gold mines in Alaska.

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So what happened?

Despite the fact that Rockman had some top tier talent behind him he only lasted four issues, probably falling victim to the same issues of lack of interest that the majority of his Golden Age compatriots suffered.

There was also the problem with Rockman being a bit…bland.  Sure he was a king with a secret kingdom and sure he had advanced technology and gadgets, and sure he had a cool idea behind him but there just wasn’t a whole lot of nuance to the character.  He was the kind of hero that was fun for a couple of stories but not much after that.

Rockman would later be revived in the 2007-2008 comic book mini series The Twelve where a lot of that would change.

The new Rockman got a face lift from artist Chris Weston where he looked a lot more intimidating.

He even got to keep some of his gadgets like the Digger Car.

However, all the gadgets in the world couldn’t save Rockman and the rest of the group when they were captured and placed into stasis by Nazi scientists only to be discovered over sixty years later.

We’ve been covering the Twelve for a while now and one of the things that has fascinated me the most about the series is how Michael J. Straczynski turns the story into a deeply poignant tale about recovering lost identity and re discovering your place in a world that has moved on.  For some members of the twelve this works out perfectly.

However, Rockman was one of the hardest hit by the change.

Even though the group was moved to a mansion in upstate New York Rockman spent most of his time in the cellar beating his fists against the ground in a vain attempt to contact his long lost kingdom of Abyssia.

However, it turned out that Abyssia may have not been a real place and that Rockman was actually suffering from something much darker than homesickness.

While it was never confirmed in the series proper it was strong hinted that Rockman wasn’t actually a being from an ancient kingdom but a former miner by the name of Daniel Rose.

 

According to a woman named Danielle Rose, a woman who claimed that Daniel was her great uncle,

everything about Rockman from the equipment he used to the kingdom of Abyssia, was a coping mechanism designed by Daniel to cope with the loss of his family and friends to a mining accident.

Daniel had been a coal miner in West Virginia where he had attempted to form a union but when a local boss threatened to hurt his family Daniel and the miners fought back, causing a horrific accident that somehow released a mutagen gas that gave Daniel super strength.  Since he was the only survivor Daniel was wracked with guilt and spent the rest of his days pining for his lost kingdom and not remembering the family he once had.

While he never discovered his true identity and never found is old home Rockman died a hero, protecting his colleagues trapped in the mansion after another of the heroes named Dynamic Man attempted to kill them by lighting the house on fire.

Rockman is an interesting case in the study of Golden Age superheroes.  On one hand he is presented as a king, ruler of his own lands and a steadfast warrior who fought to protect his people and the world above him but on the other hand he is presented as a mentally scared and unbalanced man who was given superpowers and used them to cope with the death of his family.  It’s actually kind of funny, on one hand he’s like Aquaman and on the other he’s like Batman.

Golden Age Showcase: The Witness

You know who we haven’t talked about very much on this blog series?  Stan Lee.

It’s no small secret that the man is a comic book legend.  Although his first written work was with Captain America in the 1941 with the story Captain America foils the Traitor’s Revenge (fun side note this was the first story that had Captain America throwing his shield)

His most impressive creative period was the 1960’s, where he created some of the most iconic characters of all time and secured his place as a legend of comic books.

But the man’s impressive body of work didn’t just spring out of a vacuum.  The man started working in the comic book business at the very beginning in 1939 back when his name was Stanley Lieber (he used Stan Lee as a pseudonym and would later have it legally changed) and would eventually rise through the ranks to become the man he is today.

So why am I talking about this here?  Because in 1941 Timely Comics an unknown writer by the name of S.T Anley had a story published about a new super hero called “The Witness”

The name was a pretty cheesy pseudonym for Stan Lee but even though the Witness wasn’t the first hero that Lee would create for Timely (oh we’ll definitely be getting to those), he was definitely one of the most interesting.

Origin and Career

The Witness first appeared in Mystic Comics #7 in December 1941.

He was a Jewish kid who grew up to join the Chicago Police as a detective until he accidentally shot an innocent man in the line of duty.  He was tried and sent to prison, something that only seems to happen in fiction nowadays, for two years and when he got out life wasn’t much better.

In another interesting twist the poor man attempted to commit suicide but was saved by a mysterious voice who told him it wasn’t his time.  He would later become the costumed hero The Witness.

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His power set was actually pretty interesting because while he didn’t have super strength of flight he did have a strange ability to tell who was going to be the victim of a crime before it happened.  He would then find the future victim, observe them, and then decide if they deserved to be saved or whether he would simply be a witness to the crime.

In his first appearance he brought down a group of assassins called the League of Blood and their evil leader Mr. Natas (groan) who the Witness sent hurdling to his death.  He also discovered that a humble pawn shop owner named Booie Dawdly was actually a highly accomplished mobster and jewel thief known as the Imp.

 

His final adventure involved him breaking up a gambling ring on a ship.

So what happened?

Like so many superheroes of the time The Witness only had two stories in the 1940’s and would have been doomed to obscurity if it wasn’t for his revival in the 2007 series The Twelve.

In the series the Witness was sent to Europe to fight in WW2 where he witnessed the horrible events that happened at Auschwitz.  While the events must have had a terrible impact on the psyche of a Jewish American hero he didn’t allow it to faze him as he joined his comrades for an assault on Berlin.

However, the Twelve were captured and placed in suspended animation by Nazi scientists where they would remain until 2007 when they were rediscovered.

The Witness actually took the change of scenery pretty well.  However, his powers prevented him from enjoying his new life and he was called to a diner to witness a death.  It turned out the man who was doomed to die was actually a prison guard from Auschwitz and the hero watches as the man was run over by a truck.

He was also called to witness the death of his teammates after it was revealed that Dynamic Man had actually gone crazy and started killing his former teammates.  His story arc ended with him surviving the destruction and disappearing off the face of the Earth. It turned out he had recruited by Nick Fury in order to work for SHIELD as an operative who punished anyone who had committed a crime.

The Witness was a strange hero.  On one hand he was actively punishing those who he knew were guilty but on the other hand he was doomed to remain a passive observer in the lives and deaths of random people he had never known.  Regardless, the Witness was one of the most interesting heroes to come out of the Golden Age and a definite sign of Stan Lee’s budding genius.

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Golden Age Showcase: The Human Torch

So after a long look at the first superhero team put together by what would eventually become DC comics I thought it would be nice to take a break and look at some of Marvel’s heroes from the Golden Age.

Now it should be noted that before Marvel Comics became the Stan Lee powerhouse publisher that we all know and love they were originally known as Timely Comics.  It’s important to know this to avoid any potential confusion.

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With that being said, let’s take a look at one of the their earliest and most popular superheroes, one of the biggest names that Timely had on their roster of superheroes: The Human Torch.

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No, not that one.

Origin and Career

The Golden Age Human Torch was rather unique in that he wasn’t actually human.  He first appeared in Marvel Comics #1 in 1939 and was an android developed by a scientist named Phineas T. Horton.

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While demonstrating his latest creation at a press conference his robotic creation decided to demonstrate a massive design flaw at the worst possible time.  It turned out that when his skin was exposed to oxygen the robot would burst into flame all while remaining unharmed.  Unsurprisingly people were terrified of this strange robot and demanded it’s destruction.

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Not that hard as to see why.  Anyway, Dr. Horton couldn’t bear to destroy his creation and attempted to encase the robot in concrete.  However, a crack in the encasement allowed the Torch to escape and in its confusion it laid waste to a large portion of New York.  After nearly killing his creator the Human Torch vowed to control his powers and to use them to benefit humanity.

After building a special oxygen damper the Human Torch adopted a more human persona and enrolled in the NYPD as a man named Jim Hammond.  During this time he had what was probably his most notable claim to comics fame, his encounter and subsequent fight with Timely’s great anti hero: The Sub Mariner.

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The fight was a hit and the two would later become on again off again rivals/frenemies.

After his first battle with Namor the Human Torch would fulfill his patriotic duty and head off to Europe to go kick some Nazi butt.  Before he would do that he would pick up a sidekick named Thomas “Toro” Raymond, the son of two nuclear scientists who had mutated into…someone who could control and manipulate flames in the same way the Human Torch could.  I’d also like to take this moment to mention that one of their biggest foes was a super villain named “Asbestos Lady”.

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That’s both of them with their WW2 superhero team comprising of Namor, Captain America, Bucky Barnes, Miss. America, and the Whizzer (we will be doing articles on all of them) and they kicked a serious amount of ass in both Europe and the Pacific.  Probably the most notable achievement was when the Human Torch immolated Hitler and ended the war.

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So what happened?

The All Winner’s squadron was disbanded in 1949 after defeating the world’s first nuclear terrorist but the Human Torch continued to survive.  After a brief solo career he and Toro were kidnapped by mobsters and were doused with a chemical that paralyzed him and blew out his flame.  Believing him for dead the mobsters buried the Human Torch in the desert and sold Toro to the Soviet Union.  But in 1953 a nuclear bomb tested near his burial revived him and he returned stronger than ever.

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Sadly, his power was to great and too unstable so in 1955 he flew out to the desert and blew himself up so he wouldn’t hurt anyone.

The Golden Age Human Torch would remain destroyed for the rest of the 1950’s.  However, superheroes would make a roaring comeback with the publication of Stan Lee’s Fantastic Four #1 in 1961 with an all new, and all human, Human Torch.

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Thanks to the revitalization of the genre the company now known as Marvel just couldn’t leave one of their greatest heroes by the wayside, so in the 1960’s a villain called The Mad Thinker rebuilt the original android and programmed him to fight the Fantastic Four.

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Naturally the robotic Human Torch was too much of a hero to remain under the control of a supervillain for long so he would eventually free himself from the Mad Thinker’s control only to be extinguished, had has hist body stolen by another evil robot name Ultron, and turned into a little known hero called Vision in 1975.

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However, it turned out that this WASN’T the case and the Vision’s body was actually made up of spare parts from the Human Torch.  The real Torch was revived, lost his powers, and would go on to be a mentor and guiding hand for most of the Marvel Universe before blowing himself up again in order to stop a H.Y.D.R.A sleeper agent named Tara.

The Human Torch would continue to exist as a robotic android in one variation or another up until the modern day. He was one of Marvel’s first and greatest superheroes, and continues to be a mentor and inspiration to most of the Marvel Universe.

Golden Age Showcase #7: Let’s Play Detective.

So when I was at Boston Comic Con I had the great honor of meeting Allen Bellman.

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Side note: this is not a picture of him at Boston Comic Con.  I made the stupid mistake of not getting a picture of him there so this will have to do

For those who might not be familiar with the name Allen Bellman was a freelance artist for Timely Comics during the 40’s and 50’s, which meant that he spent a lot of time with this guy.

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While Lee was busy performing editorial duties at Timely (this was well before he created most of his iconic characters like Spiderman and before Timely would become Marvel Comics), Bellman was busy drawing some of the earliest issues of a little known superhero you’ve probably never heard of.

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He also did a lot of work on the Golden Age Human Torch, which is another iconic superhero that underwent quite a bit of change from his early days and is definitely going to appear in an article at some point.

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But what we’re going to talk about today is a project that was created and written by Allen Bellman alone, a filler comic for larger issues called Let’s Play Detective.

Origin and career

This one’s a bit different because there really was no superhero origin for this comic.  Bellman realized that the comics Timely was producing needed filler pages for them so he proposed small and simple 1-2 page mystery comic book series.  It starred detective Michael Trapp who was confronted with a new case every issue and at the end of a page he would have deduced who committed the crime and made the arrest.  It was up to the reader to figure out how the detective had arrived at his deduction and the answer was always printed upside down in the last panel.

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While the stories themselves were incredibly simple and were never designed to be their own thing these stories did appear as filler in a whole bunch of Golden Age books from Captain America to the Sub Mariner.  They also speak to the rise in popularity of crime comics during the Golden Age with the very popular anthology series Crime Does not Pay

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and featuring rather lurid tales of female criminals in the series Crimes by Women.

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So what happened?

It was a crime comic in the late 1940’s, it’s pretty clear what happened.

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Another way to tell just how popular crime comics were in their hayday was by looking at how much attention the Comics Code paid to them.  The CCA reserved some of it’s strangest and most restrictive rules for crime comics including halting portrayals of excessive violence, forcing artists and writers to make criminals always look bad, and sadly enough always requiring that good triumph over evil at the end of the story.

Granted Let’s Play Detective was never going to be a lasting hit, it was simply a cheap way to fill out a comic book, but the creation of the CCA and the destruction it caused would mean that there was no place for fun little stories like this and it disappeared in the 1950’s.

Regardless of its size and its lack of impact Allen Bellman created something small in fun in Let’s Play Detective amid his much bigger and important work.  So next time you see a solve it yourself mystery in a book or in your local paper, make sure you thank Allen Bellman for his work.