Last week we talked about a superhero known as “The Hand”.
Everyone seemed to like it so here’s a write up about another body part that decided to become a superhero.
Yes, there was more than one of these, and this one was actually a bit more successful.
Say hello to The Eye.
Origin and Career
The Eye made its first appearance in Keen Detective Funnies #12 in December of 1939.
The book was published by a company called Centaur Publications, one of the earliest comic book publishers in American history and the company that helped Bill Everett get his start in comics.
Bill Everett is the man who helped create Namor the Submariner and Daredevil.
The character itself was created by a man named Frank Thomas.
You may not know the man’s face, but I’m willing to bet that if you’re an animator or a Disney fan you know his his name and his work.
The man was one of the original animators on Walt Disney’s creative team when the company was just starting out and helped produce some of the most recognizable classics in modern animation history. One example? He animated this scene from Snow White.
He also helped write a book with a colleague of his named Ollie Johnston called The Illusion of Life,
a book that remains one of the most important milestones in 2D hand drawn animation to this day. In fact, the two men were so influential that they were given a cameo appearance in The Incredibles, one of my favorite movies of all time.
Basically Frank Thomas was a big deal, and The Eye was his contribution to the comic book world.
As for The Eye itself, his first adventure starts with the whitest Afghani family on the face of the planet.
The old man laments that he was once a prosperous businessman but had his livelihood stolen from him. Suddenly, a disembodied eye appears in the room.
Meanwhile, in Kabul we’re introduced to the vain and pompous villain of the story, a man named Herat, who wants the old man dead.
You know, I can’t help but wonder how differently this story would play out if it was published today.
Anyway, the villain tries to hire two hitmen to take out his rival. Fortunately The Eye stops them with his ability to travel anywhere and shoot heat blasts out of his…well eye.
Boy, I know red eye flights are a pain…but this is ridiculous. (wait don’t go…come back!)
The story resolves itself quickly and just in the way you would expect. The villain is defeated, and justice is served. The Eye has saved the day and the old man and his daughter are free to return to their business.
The Eye would go on to become something of a regular back up feature in the comic. The stories weren’t connected, it was more of an anthology tale where The Eye would drop in on a group of criminals committing a crime and use one of his many ill defined powers to save the day.
He was also given a sidekick, a young attorney named Jack Barrister who would assist The Eye whenever it needed a hand.
The Eye ran for eight issues in Keen Detective and must have been popular because he was given his own series in November of 1940.
So what happened?
The Eye may have been popular enough to get his own series, but his publisher wasn’t so lucky. While Centaur may have been one of the first comic book publishers ever, poor distribution and business sense saw the company go under in 1940.
While the company folded, it did retain something of a legacy. In 1987 one of his stories was reprinted in a book called Mr. Monster’s Hi Shock Schlock by Michael T. Gilbert.
And in 1992 a company called Malibu Comics revived a bunch of Malibu characters into a team known as The Protectors,
and the Eye was cast as a supporting character.
The Eye was a genuinely interesting idea and character for a superhero. He had an interesting gimmick and he had a legendary creator behind him. If it wasn’t for his publisher going out of business I’m willing to bet it would have gone on to become a staple of modern comic book superheroes as well.
It’s a real shame to see an idea like that go to waste.
This one is going to be a short one, but boy is it a weird one.
We’re all familiar with the idea of a giant hand that is used as a metaphor for controlling things. The hit video game Super Smash Bros. has the “Master Hand” as a final boss,
Marvel Comics has the super secret group of ninja demons known as “The Hand”,
and many real life people love to claim that our lives and fortunes are at the whim of the “invisible hand of the market”.
Yes, the hand is always there. It’s big, it’s powerful, and it’s completely unknown to we small pathetic creatures.
But did you know that someone tried to take this idea of “The Hand” and turn it into a superhero in the 1940’s?
Told you this was going to be weird.
Origin and Career
The Hand made his first appearance in Speed Comics #12 in 1941.
The comic series was the first comic book title published by Harvey Comics, a relative newcomer to the comic book scene and a company that would become famous for licensed titles such as Caspar the Friendly Ghost and Richie Rich.
Fun fact: Speed Comics had been bought from a struggling publisher called Brookwood Publications and was Harvey’s entry point into comic book publishing. Without this title, Harvey wouldn’t go on to become a major comic book publisher.
The character of The Hand was created by Ben Flinton and Bill O’Connor, two men who would go on to create the Golden Age version of the superhero known as The Atom.
Unfortunately, both men would wind up joining the armed services in 1942, and while both men survived they did not return to comics after that.
In his first and longest adventure, the Hand doesn’t fight Nazis or stop saboteurs. Instead, he stops a couple of card sharks from ripping off a casino.
He is introduced with no fanfare, no explanation, and no backstory. He just appears and warns two men that they better watch themselves.
The two men ignore the warning and begin to clean out the house. The Hand warns management, who takes it all in remarkable stride and agrees to let the disembodied hand help him.
I like to imagine that the hand belongs to some sort of cosmic being that is actually a child and is trying to act all grown up by helping people.
Why not? It’s more explanation than the comic gives.
The Hand is also a capable fighter…and capable of phasing through walls.
However, when the criminals attempt to stop The Hand by confessing, The Hand realizes that they will not be arrested or charged for their crimes. So he brands them on the forehead so the world will know what they’ve done.
Apparently, The Hand has never heard of hats. Which kind of makes sense.
On a side note: this comic issue deserves special mention for the story that came directly after this one. Since most comics at the time were anthologies publishing short stories of only a couple of pages, we got treated to this one.
A kid taking out a head of state with a rifle and people being okay with it? Boy the times really were different back then.
Anyway, The Hand would have one more story in the following issue of Speed Comics where he played the patriotic game and helped the F.B.I defeat some foreign spies.
It was shorter, but had more action.
So The Hand was an established hero with a gimmick and a creative team behind him…
So what happened?
…and that was it, those were the only two issues that featured The Hand as a superhero.
It’s really not that surprising really. The character was a small backup feature in a series that didn’t last very long and was published by a company that shifted focus away from original characters and into licensed stories.
Plus, let’s be honest, the two stories that The Hand appeared in weren’t that exciting or good.
The Hand may have been a small time character with boring stories, but that doesn’t mean the concept wasn’t interesting or that he didn’t have any value. Sure, the creature was a hero and had a sense of agency and purpose, but it always had room for normal people to step in and take over when the time was right.
It appeared that The Hand was some sort of benevolent spirit who helped where he could and allowed normal people to do the right thing, and if that isn’t heroic I don’t know what is.
The Hand had potential, it would be a shame to forget that.
So I just watched the season premiere of CW’s Black Lightning yesterday.
It’s pretty good. The effects were great, the character dynamics were well thought out and have a lot of potential, and it pulls absolutely no punches when it comes to dealing with the…well let’s be polite and say “strained” relationship between black Americans and the police.
By all accounts the CW has another hit on their hands and it looks like Black Lightning is here to stay, so let’s look at his origins and see what’s changed and if the show can learn anything from the comics.
Origin and Career
Black Lightning was created in 1977, a few decades after the Golden Age of Comics and the favorite time period of this blog. This is going to require a little explanation.
It’s widely believed that the Golden Age of Comics ended in 1956 with the publication of Showcase #4 and the introduction of Barry Allen as the Flash.
This brought along the Silver Age of Comics, a time period that was known for comics that focused on a more sci fi and technological oriented appeal.
Magic had been replaced by space science and monsters had been replaced by aliens.
This was also the time when Marvel Comics came into the world as the comic book company we all know and love today. A little known creator named Stan Lee decided to create a super hero family that traveled across time and space to defeat strange and fantastic threats.
It did pretty well and helped kick off the Marvel Universe that we all know and love today.
However, by the 1970’s things were changing again, and comics were moving out of the high concept science fantasy of the Silver Age. Times were changing. There were protests,
and there was a general sense of doom and gloom.
Yes, the 1970’s were a unique and special time that we will never have to live through again.
The great thing about these changing times was that in the comic book industry restrictions on what comic books could be talk about were becoming looser and looser, and in 1970 we entered a time that comic book historians called “The Bronze Age of Comics”.
This was a time where comic books got darker and edgier, talking about issues like drugs,
not shying away from violence,
and launching an explosion of black superheroes. Luke Cage is probably the most famous and successful of these heroes.
Anyway, DC had a problem in the 1970’s, Marvel was growing too fast and taking away a huge portion of their business. So DC decided to try and beat Marvel by flooding the market with a slew of new titles. One of these titles was going to be DC’s first black superhero and they eventually decided to publish….the Black Bomber.
The Black Bomber was supposed to be a white bigot who hated black people, but thanks to an accident he gained the ability to turn into a black superhero when under duress.
This is the only picture I could find of him. The only other reference he got in a comic book was a small reference in a Justice League of America comic written by Dwayne McDuffie.
Yeah, this was probably not a good idea.
So what convinced the editors at DC to change their mind? Why one of the writers of Luke Cage of course!
The guy on the right is Tony Isabella, one of the early writers of Luke Cage. DC had hired Tony to create their first black superhero and in 1977 he partnered with artist Trevor Von Eden,
to create Black Lightning.
Black Lightning’s real name is Jefferson Pierce. He actually grew up in the poorest part of Metropolis known as Suicide Slum. After becoming a highly successful athlete an scholar he returned home and he used a newly created power belt that helped him shoot bolts of electricity to clean up the streets of drug dealers and gang members.
Where was Superman in all of this? Probably saving Earth from aliens but whatever.
Black Lightning did initially play up a lot of stereotypes that were prevalent among the black community in the 1970’s. His costume and accent were over the top and almost comical but his intentions were good and he proved himself to be a respectable hero in his own right, gaining the trust of Superman and several other figures in the city in his battle against the gang that had made Suicide Slum their home, a group called The 100 and led by a large man known as Tobias Whale.
Aside from changing the location, the show appears to be pretty loyal to the comics. Granted, in his early appearances Black Lightning isn’t married and doesn’t have kids, but that would come later.
So what happened?
Unfortunately the individual series for the character only lasted 11 issues. While DC had high hopes in regaining its market share by flooding the market with new comics, it didn’t work out so well due to rising printing costs, the 1977 blizzard, and an awful economic recession. A year later the company cancelled 40% of its titles in an event known as the “DC Implosion”.
Black Lightning survived, although he would only show up in other books for the next couple of years. In 1983, he joined a group called the Outsiders, a group of superheroes led by Batman and featured mostly new characters like Katana and Geo-Force.
So yes, the idea that Batman is everything is nothing new.
In 1989 it was revealed that his powers weren’t the result of his power belt, but they were actually derived from a genetic abnormality known as the “Metagene”, a plot point that has been used throughout the DC universe as the source of power for a large number of their heroes.
DC’s first black superhero would get another crack at a solo series in 1995, and they even brought back Tony Isabella to do the writing.
Unfortunately, history has a nasty way of repeating itself and the series was cancelled after 13 issues.
Black Lightning has continued to exist in the DC universe as a hero making appearances in other books. At one point, Lex Luthor actually made him Secretary of Education when he was elected President of the United States.
But let’s not delve too much into the fact that a comic book company had a corrupt businessman elected to the Presidency, that’s just too unrealistic.
He would also get a family and two children to look after. Their names were Anissa and Jennifer Pierce and they have been a staple of Black Lightning’s identity ever since.
Even though he’s never had much of a solo career, Black Lightning is a capable and talented hero with a great backstory and plenty of potential.
He is a teacher, a mentor, and a very capable role model for everyone in the DC universe but most importantly of all…he has the respect and attention of Batman.
I think this CW show is going to be awesome.
Happy Martin Luther King Jr. day everyone!
Today is the birthday of one of America’s greatest civil rights leaders and in honor of the day I’m also going to post the video to his famous “I have a Dream” speech, which I highly encourage you to watch since it is one of the greatest speeches of the 20th century.
Fun fact: the man was also a huge Star Trek fan.
He was such a huge fan that he personally begged Nichelle Nichols to keep her iconic role as Lt. Nyota Uhura on the show.
Don’t believe me? The Washington Post can do a better job of explaining it than I can.
Anyway, another tradition that this blog has for Martin Luther King Jr. Day is talking about black representation in the comic book industry. Today I thought it would be nice to talk about the first black comic book character to star in his own solo comic book series: Lobo.
Origin and Career
The character made his debut in his own self titled series in December of 1965.
The comic was published by a company called Dell Comics, which had survived the comic book crash of the 1950’s by publishing Disney licensed comics and grew to become the largest comic book publisher of the 1960’s.
He was created by writer and Dell Comics editor Don Arneson and artist Tony Tallarico. Both of them were white men from Minneapolis and Brooklyn respectively and thought that having a black cowboy as the main character of a series might be a good sales hook to lure interested readers.
Since the comic was published two years after King’s famous speech and in the middle of the American Civil Rights movement I can see the logic.
The story itself starts off at the very end of the Civil War, where it is revealed that the main character fought for the Union and is happy to finally be free.
Unfortunately, the unit is attacked by a bunch of Confederate soldiers who haven’t heard that the war is over. The main character is fed up with the violence and decides to move West to start a new life for himself. He becomes a cattle drover on a ranch where he is framed for murder and decides to become a vigilante and hunt down other criminals. His trademark is a gold coin with a wolf’s head on it, which is where he gets his name since “Lobo” is Spanish for wolf.
His name is never revealed and his race is never brought up as a point of contention. He’s a good and capable man who just happens to be black.
Now, believe it or not, this story does have some basis in historical fact. There were black soldiers who fought for the Union during the Civil War,
many people did move out west in an attempt to start a new life after the war and there were black cowboys such as Nat Love who worked in the West as cattle drivers.
So we have a publishing company at the height of its power, with a character based in a genre that was doing really well at the time and steeped in historical fact, coupled with a good creative team telling a story about a black man in the middle of one of the most progressive and forward looking eras in American history.
What could possibly go wrong?
So what happened?
The series was cancelled due to poor sales numbers. Basically, how the industry worked back then was that publishers would print a certain number of copies of a book and sell it to retailers who would mark up the price and sell it to the public. Any copies that weren’t sold would have their covers cut off and returned to the publisher.
After publishing the first issue of Lobo comic book retailers returned over 90% of the copies that Dell Comics had shipped out.
It’s worth mentioning that this is not the case with comic book distribution today since the distribution industry doesn’t allow returns and is dominated by a singe company called Diamond Distributors,
but that is another story.
While there is not official explanation for the crappy sales numbers it’s probably safe to assume that a comic book with a gun wielding black man on the cover in 1960’s America probably didn’t go over very well with the majority of the American comic book buying public, who just so happened to be white.
Still, it was a well written, well drawn character with some serious and well meaning effort behind his creation and while we may never grace the cover of another comic book ever again, his position in the annuls of comic book history is assured as the first African American solo comic book character.