In the entire library of superpowers, the ability to shrink is one of the more esoteric powers. It doesn’t get used that much, but there are a pretty select core of superheroes who are known for their ability to change their size.
That’s not to say that it’s a bad superpower. After all, the Marvel Ant Man movie showed that it wasn’t just useful, it could tell a great story as well.
Plus, one of my favorite episodes of the Justice League cartoon centered around the Atom destroying an alien hive mind from within using his powers.
But where did the idea of a shrinking hero come from and who was the first hero to use this power? Well, the answer can be found in a fairly obscure Golden Age hero from Quality Comics called Doll Man.
Origin and Career
Doll Man made his first appearance in the Quality Comics’ anthology Feature Comics #27 in December of 1939.
While the name of creator was given as “William Erwin Maxwell” it was really a pseudonym for Will “I literally wrote the book on comics as an art form” Eisner.
As for origins, Doll Man goes the scientific route with the heroic scientist Darrel Dane (alliteration for the win) developing a special serum that will allow a human to shrink down to the size of a doll. Why he wants to do this I have no idea. Also, his fiancee Martha Roberts is being blackmailed by a man named Falco and she’s keeping this a secret for some reason.
Since this is the early days of comic book science, Darrel must have not gotten the memo on lab safety and self experimentation and decides to test the serum on himself. This act also makes Darrell one of the first comic book scientists to go crazy after said self experimentation.
I like to think that Eisner wanted to take Doll Man and turn him into a tortured villain driven mad by the result of his experiment, which would have made for a very interesting story. However, I’m willing to bet that some editor in the Quality Comics offices squashed that idea because in the very next page Darrell is okay and decides to become a superhero.
It’s a good thing that Darrell decided to be a good guy, because he uses his powers to save his fiancee from the blackmailer to end the story.
Doll Man would later become a fixture of Standard Comics and would often appear on the covers as well.
His stories were all over the place. In one issue he would be fighting gangsters trying to rob ships on the docks, in the next issue he would be helping rancher friends in a land dispute. In all of them he would use his size and relative strength to his advantage.
His stories must have made an impact because Doll Man would later become a pretty popular hero. He appeared in over 200 comic book issues and was even given his own quarterly title.
Some fun facts: his fiancee Martha would eventually become a super heroine known as Doll Girl, who had the same powers as her fiancee.
Also, several of Doll Man’s covers had him tied up and placed in a position of helplessness.
It’s nothing special, just an interesting idea during a time when male heroes generally didn’t show that kind of weakness.
So what happened?
The Feature Comics title stopped publication in 1950 and Doll Man’s solo issues stopped publication in 1953. Quality would go out of business three years later and Doll Man wasn’t seen for two decades.
It was probably Will Eisner’s reputation that kept the memory of Doll Man alive because he wasn’t really used that often. During the middle of the 20th century DC decided to create a “multiverse” for their characters to avoid continuity mix ups. Doll Man was placed on “Earth X”, a universe where the Nazis won the Second World War, and made an appearance in the comic title Freedom Fighters.
He’s at the bottom of the page.
He was also a guest character in the All Star Squadron on “Earth-2”, the place where DC put most of its old Golden Age heroes.
The separation of these two groups would be erased in the DC comic event Crisis on Infinite Earths where the entire DC continuity was streamlined and simplified for new readers.
The Freedom Fighters would be relaunched in 2006 by writer Jimmy Palmiotti.
The team got a modern makeover, including Doll Man. The new hero was named Lester Colt and he was a more hard ass, military minded, “end justifies the means” kind of hero who proves this in the first issue after he disguises himself as an action figure and kills a drug lord in front of his son.
Darrel Dane still existed, but it was revealed that he was suffering from mental problems due to shrinking so often and was committed to an unnamed mental institution.
Doll Man would have his most recent reworking in 2012. This time it was part of another company wide reboot event known as “The New 52”. The hero was a scientist named Dane Maxwell who was the romantic partner and scientist friend of the heroine Phantom Lady. He was shrunk to the size of an action figure during a lab accident and became her partner in crime fighting as well.
In many ways Doll Man’s impact on the superhero world was a lot like his power set. Sure, it was relatively small and often unseen by many fans and readers, but he was the first hero to use the ability to change his size as a superpower which made him a trailblazer for some of the most popular and well known heroes today.
So I saw the Dunkirk movie yesterday.
I liked it, it was very well directed, and it’s probably the most British movie since Chariots of Fire.
The movie got me thinking about this blog. The simple truth of the matter is that this blog deals with heroes that were created in a time when the world needed a bit of escapist fantasy and the comic book industry responded by creating a whole bunch of heroes who could do the fighting for them.
While there was a time and a place for these types of stories it’s important to remember that the fantastical violence shown in World War 2 era comics was very real for a lot of people and many of those people didn’t make it out alive.
Now, we’ve covered some of the more “realistic” war comics with characters like Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos,
but this week I thought it might be fun to talk about another war comic that was actually published during World War 2 with Quality Comics’ fighter squadron/expertly dressed hero Blackhawk.
Origin and Career
Blackhawk made his first appearance in Quality Comics’ Military Comics #1 in August of 1941.
Right off the bat the main character made the cover and looks good doing it.
There is some debate as to who created the character in the first place. While many credit comic book legend Will Eisner with the character’s creation,
Eisner himself gave most of the credit to artist Charles Cuidera and writer Bob Powell.
For a time when the United States hadn’t entered the war in Europe, this comic was certainly very much for it. In the very first page the comic shows the Nazis steamrolling through Poland and introducing the main villain of Captain von Tepp, who is the very definition of a bastard.
Seriously, even kicking puppies seems a bit tame for this guy.
Von Tepp and his Butcher Squadron discover a mysterious black plane that they shoot down. The Captain makes the unknown pilot’s life even more hellish by destroying a farmhouse with innocent people in it.
The pilot is revealed to be a man named Blackhawk, who vows revenge against the Nazis and gets his wish a few months later when he confronts Von Tepp and kidnaps him.
Blackhawk takes the Captain back to his island base where they decide to settle their grievances with an honorable duel using airplanes.
Naturally the Nazi cheats by sabotaging Blackhawk’s plane and the two crash to the ground, where the grudge is settled when Blackhawk shoots the Captain.
In later issues it was revealed that the Blackhawks were actually a squadron of fighter pilots made up of men whose nations had been captured by the Nazis.
Side note: this actually has a basis in real history. Feel free to look up the exploits of groups like the Polish 303 Squadron if you want some real life heroics.
In Issue #3 the group would also get a Chinese cook, who was unfortunately named “Chop Chop”.
…well they can’t all be good.
Sales wise the Blackhawks were a massive hit for Quality Comics. They were so successful that they received their own comic in 1944.
In 1950 it was revealed that the leader of the Blackhawks was actually an American volunteer fighter pilot who had joined the Polish air force and decided to form the squadron as a way to fight back against the Nazis, even though he and his comrades had no country.
Some of the most talented writers and artists of the Golden Age worked on the Blackhawk title and it was actually so popular that Quality continued to publish the title right up until they went out of business in 1956 with Blackhawk #107 being the last issue.
So what happened?
Quality couldn’t make it past the comic book slump of the 1950’s and sold off the rights to most of their characters to DC comics in 1956.
Interestingly enough, the Blackhawks had been so popular that DC actually decided to continue publishing the title after they bought it,
they even kept most of the original art team on the title ensuring that the only thing that changed with the comic was the logo.
Now that the Blackhawks had new life they wound up being one of the few superhero teams to transition into the Silver Age of Comics. This time in comic book history saw the squadron face fewer Nazis and more science fiction themed villains and things got a little…weird.
Also, in 1959 they added a lady to the team as an on and off supporting character. She was given the rather unimaginative name of Lady Blackhawk.
She would remain one of the biggest members of the supporting cast and even became a villain named Queen Lady Shark.
I don’t know what’s funnier, the skis or that hat.
Ironically, the rise of superhero comics in the 1960’s hurt the Blackhawk Squadron and while DC attempted to revamp the group in 1967 by giving them new names and costumes,
it only lasted 14 issues before the title was cancelled.
The Blackhawks would make a brief comeback in 1976 as a group of mercenaries,
but they were cancelled again until the 1980’s when they were sent back to their familiar stomping grounds of World War 2.
The 1980’s series reworked the Blackhawks and gave their older stories a more modern update in terms of storytelling, including a much more dignified appearance and backstory for poor Chop Chop.
In 1988 DC reworked its entire history with the mega event Crisis on Infinite Earths
and the Blackhawks made the cut. They were given another reworking and this time the squadron was led by a man named Janos Prohaska, an actual Polish national who was forced to flee his home after the Soviets kicked him out.
The Blackhawks continue to be a part of the DC universe. One of their more noticeable appearances was in the excellent Justice League animated show where they played a major part in the episode “The Savage Time”.
and in the show Arrow the “Blackhawk Squad Protection Group” made an appearance as the place of employment for John Diggle’s commanding officer Ted Gaynor.
Also, a group calling themselves the Blackhawks got their own title in DC Comics’ New 52 relaunch,
but they have yet to show up in DC’s more recent “Rebirth” relaunch.
The Blackhawks are a team with a long and fantastic history. What I find really fascinating is just how well they were able to survive so much while so many of their contemporaries fell through the cracks, never to be seen again and if it wasn’t for characters like Plastic Man,
I would go as far as to say that the Blackhawks were the best and most notable comic to ever be published by Quality Comics.