Diamond Comic Distributors: a brief history.

I was going to write an article about an obscure superhero this week, but then I heard the news that DC is teaming up with Walmart to start selling comic books.

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For anyone who doesn’t know, Walmart is going to start selling 100 page anthology titles for $5 starring Batman, Superman, the Justice League, and the Teen Titans in July.

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Personally I find this pretty exciting, partially because I’m a fan of anything that gets comic books into the hands of more people and expands the public profile of the medium that I love.  While some people may question my enthusiasm for supporting a mega corporation that engages in some of the shadiest business practices ever, I can assure you that Walmart is a step up from the current state of affairs.

For those of you who know what I’m talking about, yes it’s going to be one of those articles that confirms what you probably already know and yes, there will be much anger and rage.  For those of you who don’t, let’s delve into the history and reputation of the biggest distributor of comic books: Diamond Comic Distributors.

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very brief history of comic book distribution.

In the early days of the comic book industry, comic books were distributed like newspapers to newsstands and drug stores.

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It was a good place for comics at the beginning, but the system had three big problems.  For starters, comics suffered from the reputation of being cheap and disposable entertainment that wasn’t worth a whole lot of attention, so books tended to be shipped and sold in very poor condition by people who had no idea what they were talking about.

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Second, if a book didn’t sell well, the seller could rip the cover off of the book and return it to the publisher for credit towards the next order, which was very bad news for a publishing industry that survived off of very small profit margins and was perpetually going out of business.  And finally, the stranglehold that newspaper distributors held on getting a comic book out to the people allowed for censoring bodies like the Comics Code Authority to step in and impose their will on content.

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If comics didn’t have this sticker on them, then distributors wouldn’t move the comic, ensuring that the comic would make nothing.

All of this started to change in the 1960’s with the rise of the underground comix scene.

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The comix scene was a network of alternative, underground, and controversial creators and artists who disliked the rules imposed on the comic book medium and protested by creating some of the raunchiest and explicit material I’ve ever seen.

No, I’m not showing this to you, go find out yourself if you want to learn more.

Naturally, no big newspaper distributor would sell this kind of stuff, so the creators created their own small time distribution models in places like San Francisco, where their comics were sold out of head shops and weed dispensaries.

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Things would come to a head in 1972 when comic book dealer, convention organizer, and fan Phil Seuling,

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approached publishers with an idea.   He would create a new distribution model where purchases were no longer returnable and where shops and retailers could order the specific number of books that they wanted, something that was unheard of at the time.  This idea, coupled with the fact that Seuling could offer retailers a discount if they bought a certain number of books, would lead to the decline of the newsstand model and the rise of the specialist comic book store.

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For a while this new system was a success.  Now, comics could be bought and sold faster, cheaper, and by people who knew what they were talking about and what they were doing.

And it only took two decades for all of it to go wrong.

The rise of Diamond

In 1982 a Baltimore comic book store owner by the name of Steve Geppi,

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took over the sales accounts and warehouses of defunct comics distributor New Media and another distributor named Irjax.  He named this new company Diamond, after an imprint that Marvel had created for non refundable comics.

Mr. Geppi’s new venture quickly became one of the largest comic distributors in the United States, mostly because they actually knew what they were doing and were one of the most efficient operations in an industry.  Most of their rivals either went bankrupt due to poor business management, or were bought out by Diamond in the late 80’s and early 90’s.

By the mid 1990’s the comic book distribution business was dominated by three players: Diamond,

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Capital City,

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and Hero’s World.

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In 1996 Marvel Comics, who was enjoying its position as the largest comic book publisher in the world and riding high off of a massive sales boom in the late 80’s and early 90’s, decided to buy Hero’s World and make them the sole distributor of all of Marvel’s titles.

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty clear that Marvel was being a jerk during this whole ordeal so I’m not passing too much judgement on Diamond for what happened next.  Long story short, Diamond managed to outbid Capital City and become the exclusive distributor for DC Comics,

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and Dark Horse Comics,

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which made the largest comic distributor in the United States even bigger.

The Marvel/Hero’s World deal failed miserably.  Hero’s World didn’t have the infrastructure and ability to handle nationwide distribution for the world’s largest comic book publisher and folded after less than a year of business.  Out of options, Marvel went to Diamond cap in hand,

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and Diamond became the sole distributor of the entire American comic book industry.

If all of this sounds sketchy as hell, you’re right.  In 1997 the Department of Justice launched an anti trust investigation looking into Diamond.

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However, in 2000 the DOJ ceased their investigation, believing that further investigation was unwarranted since Diamond only controlled the distribution of comic books but not the distribution of all books.

Which doesn’t seem very fair at all.

The current state of affairs, or why Diamond is bad for business

Despite the fact that the Feds didn’t find anything wrong with Diamond’s business practices, it’s pretty clear that Diamond is a monopoly and certainly acts like it.

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That’s what Diamond is now.

Since there is no competition to keep Diamond honest and promote fair business practices everyone has suffered and everyone has a reason to dislike Diamond.

Retailers dislike Diamond for their poor customer service, late shipping of orders, and sloppy business practices.

You can read a store owner’s own troubles here.

Seriously, I have a friend who owns a comic book store (who shall remain anonymous) who has told me that several colleagues still have to mail checks to Diamond every month in order to pay for orders.

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Mailing checks…in an age where everything is paid for online.

But retailers aren’t the only ones who suffer, publishers and creators suffer as well.

If you’re a small time comic book creator and you want to get your book out to stores and in front of prospective buyers than you better get really good at cold calling, because Diamond won’t even consider selling your book unless you can do at least $2,500 worth of business.

Sure, this is great news for bigger publishers who don’t have to worry about too much competition and can sell their books at a lower price point by offering bulk discounts, but even Marvel and DC have problems.

There was an infamous incident in 1986 where a comic book called Miracleman showed a graphic scene of a mother giving birth.

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There was some negative backlash against the scene, and Diamond responded by encouraging retailers to drop the title all together.

If this sounds like the echos of the Comics Code Authority, you’re absolutely right.

Quite a few creators have taken notice and aren’t very happy with the current state of affairs.  Don’t believe me?  Here’s a page from a Spongebob comic book that was given out during Free Comic Book Day.

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So, that’s the way things are now.  Will this deal between Walmart and DC change things for the better, or is it simply an interesting footnote in comic book history?  Will this usher in a new era of comic book popularity, or are we simply trading one monstrous corporation for another?

Only time will tell, but I for one am going to be watching the future of comic books very closely.

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Comic book showcase: Fish Police

I did some thinking over the Memorial Day weekend and I came to the realization of just how different this blog is going to have to be.

Talking about superheroes from the 1940’s was much easier than talking about comics from the 80’s.  For one thing, there were more resources and easier access to scanned copies of books from the 1940’s.  Plus the business was much newer and simpler back then with the centralized distribution through newsstands and a small group of publishers, the lack of censorship from the Code, and less media to compete with for viewers.

But then again, if it wasn’t for the wild and kooky business practices of the 1980’s I don’t think we would have had anything as bizarre as Fish Police.

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Origin and Career

Fish Police was created by comic writer and artist Steve Moncuse, whose image I cannot find.  He first started Fish Police as a self published title under the name of Fishwrap Productions.

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This lasted for eleven issues until it was picked up by a small indie publisher called Comico in 1987.

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Comico is the kind of publisher that this blog was built for and you better believe this will not be the first time we talk about them.

Fish Police is a comic about Gil,

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Gill is a hat wearing, hard nosed, gun packing detective who allegedly used to be human and now solves fish related crimes in a sort of film noir style, complete with an authority figure that’s had enough of his loose cannon ways.

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One would assume that it would be easy to solve a murder when everyone is “sleeping with the fishes”.

The comic even continued the film noir tropes by including a dame named Angel,

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who gets Gil mixed up in a strange drug case involving her uncle but that’s all I was able to find on that.

So what happened?

Everything was hunky dory for 17 issues until Comico went bankrupt in 1986 after trying to distribute their comics directly and through newsstands.

The comic was almost immediately picked up by Apple Press,

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That lasted for a few years until 1991 when Apple let the series go.

Despite the comparatively short print run and carousal of publishers, the idea still had some life to it.  In 1992 Steve Moncouse and artist Steve Haulk launched Fish Shticks, a six issue series that told some new stories and was more gag focused than the original.

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Also, joy of joy and wonder of wonders!  They made an animated tv show!

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Hanna Barbara (you know, the Scooby Doo guys) adapted the comic into a regrettably short lived animated show that took a much darker and hard broiled (preferably with a nice white wine sauce and lemon) turn than the comic.

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For God’s sake, the show had Tim Curry voicing a shark lawyer!

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Which is funny considering that this wasn’t even close to his weirdest role.

The cartoon was created as an attempt to compete with the new and hip show on Fox The Simpsons,

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but since you probably know all about The Simpsons and next to nothing about Fish Police, it’s safe to say we can guess what happened.

The show only lasted 6 episodes, which I am sure you can find online if you look hard enough.

The series has continued to live on in reprints.  Marvel reprinted the title in the early 90’s and IDW reprinted the story as late as 2011.  Plus, there was a new Fish Police story that made an appearance in Dark Horse Presents in 2013.

Fish Police was a story that could have only gone as far as it did in the 1980’s.  It was a self published book that managed to make it all the way to prime time television before dying a painful death wrapped in newspaper.  It was quirky in all the right ways and i love it.

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Although, I am disappointed at the lack of fish puns I was able to fit into this article.

Golden Age Showcase: Jill Trent, Science Sleuth.

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,

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to creating the genre of science fiction,

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to taking us to the moon,

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and basically inventing the whole idea of computer sciences and programming.

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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.

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Origin and Career

Jill Trent made her first appearance as a back up story in Fighting Yank #6 in 1943.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Sure those are double cots placed side to side and it’s no different than what Batman and Robin were doing around this time,

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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.

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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.

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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.

Cover art by Rafael Romeo Magat.

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.

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She would make a genuinely fantastic modern heroine and more people deserve to know about her.

Comic book showcase: The Flaming Carrot

You know what?  I think it’s time to take a break from the Golden Age this week.

The Golden Age of Comics was an age of ridiculous comic book characters and a “well let’s just throw things against the wall and see what sticks” attitude, which is the main reason why I started this blog in the first place, but I’d like to branch out and see if there might be other characters that could be just as ridiculous and crazy.

Sure, we’ve talked about comic book characters from different time periods before, but there has to be something there that’s crazy, bold, and…

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oh hello, where have you been all my life?

Screw tradition, this is the Flaming Carrot.

Origin and Career

The Flaming Carrot made his first appearance in a small comic called Visions which was published by a convention called the Atlanta Fantasy Fair in 1979.

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A bit of context here: the early 1980’s were a time when the independent comic book scene was really starting to take off.  Creators were often ditching the big publishers of Marvel and DC to self publish their own stuff or with smaller publishers who were much more generous with their checkbooks and willingness to share credit.

For a bit more context, this was the time period that gave us the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

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The Flaming Carrot comic would later be self published through a company called Killian Barracks Press and then find different homes through various publishers over the next thirty years.

He was created by comic book author and illustrator Bob Burden.

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The hero was meant to be a parody of superhero comics at the time.

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he got his powers by suffering from brain damage after reading 5,000 comics in a single sitting.

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Just goes to show you, comics are bad for you and will rot your brain.

How did his head turn into a carrot?

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Don’t ask such stupid questions.

The Carrot lived in the fictional neighborhood of Palookaville in Iron City.  He didn’t have any superpowers but he would often win the day through grit, determination, and sheer dumb luck.  Also, he had a toy chest of gadgets to help him along with a gun, which he used without hesitation or remorse.

His enemies were equally ridiculous, as you can see below.

You’ll notice that a lot of the interior artwork is in black and white.  It was like this to cut down on art and printing costs.  Believe me, I know.

Over the course of his career, the Flaming Carrot developed a cult following and became pretty popular.  He even found some time to create a team of working class heroes known as “The Mystery Men”

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We’ll touch on that later.

So what we have here is an independent creator, publishing a black and white comic, that parodies super hero stories, and is self published without any help or support.

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Can’t imagine why I would relate to something like that.

Side note: did you know that we actually have another web comic up and running?  It’s called “Questing 9 to5” and it’s on our Tapastic account which you can find here 

So what happened?

It’s actually kind of difficult to pinpoint the exact time and moment when Flaming Carrot ceased publication ended.  Despite its success as an indie hit, it ceased being an ongoing title when issue #31 was released in 1994.

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The hero would make various appearances in one shots and crossovers over the course of the 1990’s, including a crossover with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in 1993.

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Sadly, this did not make it into the show.

In 2004, the character was picked up by Image Comics and four more issues were published.

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His last appearance was in 2006 and to this date, Bob Burden hasn’t published anything else.

Thankfully, Flaming Carrot was just crazy enough, and just popular enough, to garner attention from Hollywood, and in 1999 Burden helped create a movie based around Flaming Carrot’s teammates.  The movie was called Mystery Men,

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and it failed spectacularly.  It’s actually kind of sad really, the movie has some great actors who would go on to better things, so it was clear that there was SOME effort put into it.  Although, it had Dane Cook in it which was just…

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ugh.

However, there was one thing about the movie that has stayed with us and has gone on to pop culture immortality.

You know that one song by a band called Smash Mouth?  The one that was really REEEAAALY popular in the early 2000’s and everyone knew as “that song that plays at the beginning of the first Shrek movie”?

Yep, this is the movie where that song came from and why the introduction has a whole bunch of ridiculous superheroes…and Dane Cook.

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You’re welcome.

I’m going to level with you, Flaming Carrot is that kind of ridiculous cheesiness that makes comic books the unique and wonderful medium that they are.  He was a rough and tumble, blue collar, scrappy hero with the kind of gimmick that would make you roll your eyes and groan.

But it was very clear that there was a lot of heart and effort put into The Flaming Carrot, and although he was ridiculous, he was drawn proof the the wonderful and heartfelt insanity that could only occur in comic books.

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Golden Age Showcase: Olga Mesmer

When writing about the Golden Age of Comics, one of the fun little treats is discovering and sharing the origins of the tropes and ideas that permeate the genre to this day.

Batman was the the first superhero to have his parents killed,

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Doll Man was the first superhero who used his ability to change size as a superpower,

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Superman was the first hero to have a secret identity,

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the list goes on.

We’ve talked at great length about the impact that female characters have had on the comic book industry, and while Wonder Woman may be the most famous super heroine of the Golden Age,

there were several lady superheroes who came before her and a woman named Fantomah is considered to be the first female superhero in a comic book.

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However, today’s entry comes from a time before we knew what superheroes were.  Heck, it comes from a time when we didn’t even know what comic books were.

Today we are going to talk about a woman with strange and mysterious powers and who some consider to be America’s first super heroine: Olga Mesmer.

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Origin and Career

Before comic books were a thing there were comic strips, serialized stories that were published in newspapers across the country and could range from a strip with a few panels,

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to grand and complex illustrations that could take up an entire page.

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While the comic strip industry laid the groundwork for an entire generation of comic book artists, it was the pulp magazines that laid the foundation for the themes and tropes that would define the future of superheroes.

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The pulps were fiction magazines that were really popular for the first half of the 20th century.  They got their name from the cheap pulp paper they were printed on, one of them many ways they cut corners and lowered production costs.

They made up for the cheap quality with lurid and fantastic stories that helped influence the heroes that came after.  The Shadow was a pulp vigilante who prowled the streets at night and hunted criminals,

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and John Carter was a war veteran who found himself transported to Mars, where the planet’s gravity gives him superpowers.

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While it’s impossible to pinpoint it exactly, it’s easy to see how the creators of Batman and Superman must have been influenced by their popularity.

Olga Mesmer was an interesting case.  She was a comic strip that was initially published inside a pulp magazine.  Specifically, she appeared in a magazine hilariously titled Spicy Mystery in September of 1937.

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The book was published by a company called Culture Publications.

As for the art itself, nobody really knows who created the artwork or wrote the stories, since old timey publishers didn’t give a damn about creators rights or credit.  However, we do know that the artwork was contracted out to an art studio known as Majestic Studios, which was owned by a man named Adophe Barreaux.

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Barreaux was a well known and established comic book artist from Charleston, South Carolina who worked for several ad agencies and drew other comic strips for Spicy Mysteries such as the raunchy “Sally Sleuth”,

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and his own syndicated strip: “The Enchanted Stone of Time”

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As for Olga Mesmer herself, her origin story is actually quite interesting.

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She was the daughter of a royal family originally from the planet Venus and ruled a secret kingdom under the Earth.

It’s really interesting to see how people in the past were convinced that there was a whole different world underneath our feet.
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Olga’s mother was the queen named Margot who had been removed from power during a coup d’etat from a villain named Ombro.  She lost her memory in the escape and met a scientist named Dr. Hugo Mesmer.  The two fell in love, married, and had a child together.  But while she was pregnant, the Doctor began to suspect that his wife was different and his curiosity led him to exposing her to “soluble x-rays”, which left her blinded and bedridden.

Yeah, real father of the year material there.

Margot eventually recovered and discovered that she had the ability to see in the x ray spectrum and could see through walls.  This gift wound up killing her husband (people didn’t really understand x-rays back then) and Margot fled back underground.

Olga was born shortly after and inherited her mother’s ability to see through walls and super strength.

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It’s worth mentioning that there aren’t any pictures of Olga where she doesn’t have ripped clothing.  In fact, there aren’t that many pictures of her at all.

She wound up rescuing a man named Rodney Prescott from a group of assailants, which she dealt with by casually killing them.

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However, Rodney was seriously wounded and was only saved by a blood transfusion from Olga, which granted him a small measure of her power.

Yeah, people didn’t really understand blood transfusions either.

The two became a duo, traveling underground to rescue her mother and defeat the evil machinations of Ombro.

The story ended in 1939, with the two traveling back to Venus and being proposed by a prince of Mars named Boris.  Apparently the two planets were at war with each other and their union would hopefully bring peace to the two cultures.

I have no idea what happened next, although I would like to assume everything wound up fine.

So what happened?

Action Comics #1 came out in 1938 and pop culture and entertainment was changed forever.

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Comic books became the new literary fad for young boys and girls and while comic strips continued to exist through syndication, the age of the pulp novel as a dominant cultural force was over.

Adolph Barreaux went where the work was and wound up producing comic book art for a whole bunch of publishers.  He ended his career in 1953 after working as a children’s book illustrator for a company called Trojan Publications.

Olga Mesmer is less than a footnote in pop culture history.  She played a small part in a fairly small magazine that was part of a culture that preferred to read her stories and then throw them away.  Even her status as America’s first super heroine is up for some debate since she doesn’t display many of the tropes we associate with heroes today.

However, it is my honest opinion that Olga Mesmer was a hero and that she deserves far more recognition than she is currently getting.  Plus, it’s kind of cool to see a woman from the 1930’s kick so much ass.

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