Yeah, everyone knows Batman. And Superman. And Captain America. But what about Blue Bolt? Or Marvelo, Monarch of Magicians? How about Sub-Zero or Spacehawk, Superhuman Enemy of Crime?
After Superman exploded on the scene, the dawn of the comic book in the late 1930s offered a flood of dazzlingly named, strangely attired do-gooders all trying to compete with the Man of Steel's success. No idea was too strange, no gimmick too outlandish. Seventy years on, most of these early comic book stars are forgotten, mouldering away in landfills. Golden age superheroes always looked intriguing to me, whenever I'd see strange titles like Silver Streak Comics and Amazing Mystery Funnies in a magazine. Of course, these old back issues were well out of my price range!
Supermen! The First Wave of Comic Book Heroes 1936-1941 is the book I've been waiting for – a crazed whirlwind tour through the raw badlands of early superheroes, the best and the weirdest of the early days. Gathering a decent sampling of these stories today, if you could even track down the rare original comics, would cost you thousands, but Fantagraphics Books has assembled 20 of these quirky gems into a nicely designed, affordable full-color paperback. It's like a roadmap of alternative history, where you can imagine that a character like Stardust the Super Wizard became a star.
Some of the earliest adventures here are truly rough stuff (such as The Clock, who appears to be a man in a tuxedo wearing a napkin on his face), but given time, the young comics pioneers began to really stretch their wings in stories of sustained invention and oddity. After a few stories that are more of historical value than entertainment, such as a very early effort by Superman creators Siegel and Schuster starring Dr. Mystic, Supermen! opens up into a strange and wonderful ride. Giant robots, werewolves, malevolent gorillas – they're all here.
Creators who would go on to more famous work include Jack Kirby, with Cosmic Carson, Will Eisner with Yarko The Great (they really were just picking names out of a hat, weren't they?) and Basil Wolverton with Spacehawk. None of these stories are quite up to their later creations, but they all have strong hints of what was to come. There's a willingness to try anything in this new genre – such as The Face, whose entire gimmick seems to be wearing a creepy Halloween mask.
In his enjoyably hipster introduction to Supermen!, novelist and occasional comics writer Jonathan Lethem lauds these tales for their "defiant disorienting particularity, their blazing strangeness." And yes, there is something kind of creepy and unknown here, some of the imagery nearly as surreal as something out of Salvador Dali (the silent skull-faced primitives battled by The Flame, or the leering countenance of The Comet's archenemy who goes by the subtle name of "Satan"). Men in capes hadn't quite become cliches then.
One of my favorite tales is the whacked out Daredevil Vs. The Yellow Claw saga by Plastic Man creator Jack Cole, whose vivid, rubbery art leaps off the page. This Daredevil isn't the blind superhero of today, but a wisecracking pliable acrobat with a striking red-and-blue costume. The towering, fanged and drooling Oriental villain Yellow Claw is so over-the-top a caricature of "yellow peril" racism it's hard to be offended by it, although some readers might find it a bit rude today. Still, Cole's sheer storytelling energy makes this story as exciting to read now as it was decades ago.
There are two stories by the king of bizarre Fletcher Hanks, whose fever-dream madness almost makes everyone else here look staid and dull by comparison. My only quibble with the inclusion of the Hanks stories is that he's already been the focus of two Fantagraphics books and frankly, it would've been better to give space here to another forgotten creator instead. But you can't top the sheer lunacy of Hanks' stories, such as the one here featuring Stardust battling space vultures that features a startlingly high body count.
Supermen! The First Wave of Comic Book Heroes resurrects a forgotten army of well-meaning, bizarrely named heroes and villains. It's one of the best comic collections of the year. Bring on a sequel!