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 regarded as the bastion of the arcane, historic, esoteric and the just plain interesting arenas of the comic book marketplace, Fantagraphics Books fully entered the Fights ‘n’ Tights Game with this magnificent paperback and digital format collection of (mostly) superhero tales from the very dawn of the American comic-book industry.

Supermen sublimely gathers together a selection of pioneering stalwarts by names legendary and seminal from the period 1936-1941: combining 9 stunning covers, many interior ads (for further beguiling characters and publications) with twenty complete sagas of fantastic worlds and times, exotically-costumed heroes and Mystery-Men – masked or otherwise – from an era when there were no genre boundaries, only untapped potential…

After Jonathan Lethem’s instructive introduction, the wonderment begins with a 2-page instalment of Dr. Mystic, the Occult Detective by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster, taken from Comics Magazine #1, May 1936.

Following a selection of covers. ‘Murder by Proxy’ – an adventure of The Clock by George E. Brenner, from Detective Picture Stories #5 (April, 1937) – displays all the verve the new art form could muster. The Clock has the distinction of being the first masked comic-book hero of the era, whereas Dan Hastings – by Dan Fitch & Fred Guardineer – is accounted the first continuing science fiction hero in comic books, represented here by this appearance from Star Comics #5, 1937.

Dirk the Demon is a flamboyant boy hero created by young Bill Everett, taken from Amazing Mystery Funnies (vol.2 #3, March 1939), and is closely followed by a bombastic tale of The Flame from Wonderworld Comics #7 (November 1939). This gem comes from comics royalty Will Eisner & Lou Fine using the pen-name Basil Berold, whilst super-magician Yarko the Great debuted in Wonderworld Comics #8, written and drawn by Eisner.

The unique and brilliant Dick Briefer shines here in a Rex Dexter of Mars episode from Mystery Men Comics #4 (November 1939) before wonder boy 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 rediscovered as the century ended by comics’ intelligentsia in such magazines as Raw! 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). Then in Pep Comics #3, from April of the same year, a turning point was reached 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). The second astounding Hanks offering, pseudonymously credited to Barclay Flagg, is followed the truly bizarre Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle from Jungle Comics #4 (April 1940).

Big Shot Comics combined reprints of established newspaper strips of the period with original characters and new material. From the first issue in May 1940 comes Marvello, Monarch of Magicians by Gardner Fox & Fred Guardineer: another in a veritable legion of wizard crimebusters inspired by Lee Falk’s Mandrake.

Plainclothes mystery-man Tony Trent fought crime by putting on a hideous mask and calling himself The Face. His gripping exploits were also written by Fox and drawn here 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, Captain Midnight and Doc Savage dubbed Skyman, and this yarn by “Paul Dean” (Fox & Ogden Whitney) is a real cracker.

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

The legendary Basil Wolverton steals the show next with the cover of Target Comics #7 and a startling story of Spacehawk, Superhuman Enemy of Crime from issue #11, (December 1940) after which artic avenger Sub-Zero stops 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 & Jack Kirby’s incredible and eponymous 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.