Supermen: the First Wave of Comic Book Heroes 1936-1941

By various, edited by Greg Sadowski (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-971-5

Long the bastion of the arcane, historic, esoteric and the just plain interesting arenas of the comic book marketplace, Fantagraphics Books fully enters the Fights ‘n’ Tights Game with this magnificent collection of (mostly) superhero tales from the very dawn of the American comic-book industry. Supermen gathers together a selection of stalwarts by names legendary and seminal from the period 1936-1941, combining 9 stunning covers, many interior ads (for further beguiling characters and publications) and twenty full stories of exotic heroes and Mystery-Men from a time when there was no genre, only untapped potential…

After Jonathan Lethem’s introduction the wonderment begins with a two page instalment of Dr. Mystic, the Occult Detective by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, from Comics Magazine #1, May 1936, which after a selection of covers leads into ‘Murder by Proxy’ an adventure of The Clock, by George E. Brenner, from Detective Picture Stories #5 (April, 1937). The Clock has the distinction of being the first masked comic-book hero whereas Dan Hastings by Dan Fitch and Fred Guardineer is accounted the first continuing science fiction hero in comic books, with this appearance from Star Comics #5, 1937.

Dirk the Demon is a boy hero by young Bill Everett, from Amazing Mystery Funnies vol.2 #3 (March 1939), closely followed by a tale of the Flame from Wonderworld Comics #7 (November 1939) by Will Eisner and Lou Fine using the pen-name Basil Berold, whilst super-magician Yarko the Great first appeared in Wonderworld Comics #8, written and drawn by Eisner.

The unique Dick Briefer is represented hereby the Rex Dexter of Mars episode from Mystery Men Comics #4 (November 1939) and Jack Kirby makes his first appearance, working as Michael Griffiths on a tale of Cosmic Carson for the May 1940 issue of Science Comics (#4).

The work of troubled maestro Fletcher Hanks was lost to posterity until recently rediscovered by comics’ intelligentsia in such magazines as Raw! and his woefully short career in comic-books is represented here by two pieces. The first of these is the stunningly surreal and forceful Stardust, the Super Wizard from Fantastic Comics #12, (November 1940). From Pep Comics #3, in April of the same year comes a turning point in the brutal career of Jack Cole’s murderous superhero The Comet, followed by Al Bryant’s monster-hunting vigilante Fero, Planet Detective, (Planet Comics #5, May 1940) and the second Hanks offering, pseudonymously working as Barclay Flagg, is the truly bizarre Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle from Jungle Comics #4 (April 1940).

Big Shot Comics combined reprints of established newspaper strips with original characters and material. From the first issue in May 1940 comes another Mandrake inspired crusader, Marvello, Monarch of Magicians by Gardner Fox and Fred Guardineer and a plainclothes mystery-man named Tony Trent who fought crime by putting on a hideous mask and calling himself The Face, also written by Fox and drawn by the wonderful Mart Bailey working together as “Michael Blake”. The other major all-new star of Big Shot was the fabulous blend of Batman, G-8 and Doc Savage called Skyman, and this yarn by “Paul Dean” (Fox and Ogden Whitney) is a real cracker.

Jack Cole returns as Ralph Johns to tell a tale of super-speedster Silver Streak (Silver Streak Comics #4, May 1940) which is followed by one of the most famous tales of this era as a daring hero battled the God of Hate in #7’s ‘Daredevil Battles the Claw’ (from January 1941).

The legendary Basil Wolverton is represented here by the cover of Target Comics #7 and a startling story of Spacehawk, Superhuman Enemy of Crime from issue #11, (December 1940) whilst icy hero Sub-Zero stopped crime cold in an episode from Blue Bolt #5, courtesy of rising star Bill Everett, before the pictorial magic concludes with an episode of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s incredible Blue Bolt fantasy strip from the tenth issue of the magazine that bore his name (cover-dated the same month as another S&K classic entitled Captain America)…

Augmented by comprehensive background notes on the contents of this treasury of thrills, Supermen is a perfect primer for anyone seeking an introduction to the Golden Age, as well as a delightful journey for long-time fans. I’m sure there’s very little here that most of us have seen before, and as a way of preserving these popular treasures for a greater posterity it is a timely start. Much, much more, please…

All stories are public domain but the specific restored images and design are © 2009 Fantagraphics Books.