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,
Doll Man was the first superhero who used his ability to change size as a superpower,
Superman was the first hero to have a secret identity,
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.
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.
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,
to grand and complex illustrations that could take up an entire page.
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.
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,
and John Carter was a war veteran who found himself transported to Mars, where the planet’s gravity gives him superpowers.
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.
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.
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”,
and his own syndicated strip: “The Enchanted Stone of Time”
As for Olga Mesmer herself, her origin story is actually quite interesting.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.