“In the beginning there was the word, and the word was <SHAZAM!>” – John 1:1, New Testament, Biblical quote (altered, obviously)
One of the things I absolutely love about comic books is the intricate history, not just the current ‘in-cannon’ history of the stories themselves, but the history behind the stories, the history of the characters, and their creators. What started in newsstands and drug stores eventually evolved into bestselling graphic novels, and smart phone downloads.
In this (retro) installment of ‘Spoiler Alert’, I’ll be discussing the initial appearances of many of the world’s most famous super heroes between both MARVEL and DC comics! Furthermore, I will be delving into the differences between their initial appearances and today. One big difference between DC and Marvel over the years is that DC characters almost always started out in their own separate worlds and eventually crossed over into the same continuity, whereas Marvel characters have always been a part of the same world from day one. However almost all these characters started out in a series that was not titled after them.
Back in the day, it was not uncommon for single comic issues to have Multiple (complete) stories rolled into one, whereas today you’re lucky to get One story in a single issue, since most stories are stretched between several issues and later collected into a trade paperback, so most of today’s comics are the equivalent of a chapter. Anyone who already knows a bit about comics knows that Superman first originated from Action Comics 1 (1938) and Batman made his debut in Detective Comics 27 (1939), while Marvel’s Spider-man (created by New York comic gods STAN <the man> LEE and Steve Ditko) first swung into the pages of ‘Amazing Fantasy’, Issue #15, in 1962. But did you know that Wolverine first appeared in the Incredible HULK?! (Issue 180, 1974)
Real quick note about DC and Marvel. The two competitive companies are akin to Microsoft and Apple in that both are very similar in a lot of ways, both have been known to copy one another, there are a few differences in the way they get things done, but it all comes down to the fact that both of them pretty much do the same basic shit. A key difference right now would be that Marvel’s live action films are kicking ass left and right (Iron Man, Spider-man 2, X-Men: First Class, Daredevil, THOR, ‘The INCREDIBLE’ HULK, etc), in comparison to DC’s few and far between with a few notable exceptions (The DARK KNIGHT Trilogy), even though they have just as much potential, but take their animated films and DC is far superior in quality thus far with their new line of PG-13 movies directed to an older audience (Superman Doomsday, Wonder Woman, Batman: Under the Red-Hood, Green Lantern: Emerald Knights, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, Justice League: Doom, etc), also, obviously, with a few notable exceptions (Hulk vs Wolverine).
Also, one cool thing about all these first appearances is that if you can get your hands on one of these issues, (I’m talking first printing) especially the older stuff, it’s going to be worth a lot more than your average comic. For instance, Action Comics #1 recently sold for a whopping $2.6 MILLION!!! It originally only sold for a measly 10 Cents (talk about inflation). But that’s a rare case seeing as it’s not only one of the rarest comics of all time, but it is the original super hero comic of all time! So yeah, if you’re ever perusing a vintage collection of comics in a random flea market keep your radar out for these diamonds in the trash.
Now that we’ve got those honorable mentions out of the way let’s buckle our seat-belts and set our Flux Capacitor for the 1930’s because when it comes to history I like to go chronologically. We’ll be skipping the Victorian and Platinum Ages that led into…
THE GOLDEN AGE (1938-1956)
—“Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!” – Superman narrator / radio announcer (from the 50’s TV series)
Although sequential art first started in cave paintings, and evolved into the hieroglyphics of the ancient Egyptians, I’m going to skip ahead to something a bit more relevant for this article, the late 30’s and on.
During the 30’s in the infancy of the comic book industry, comics were mainly for kids (gasp!), and most were well, funny (see your average American newspaper for the ‘Funny’ pages for reference). This all started at the end of the 19th Century, and started to become much more prominent at the start of WWII, as printing became cheaper and more available to a wider audience. Other genres had started to take shape in the early days of magazines featuring comic strips such as romance, horror, crime, and western. With SUPERMAN (in ACTION COMICS #1) these three styles were slammed together into one awesome chemical reaction known as The SUPER-Hero which has dominated Western comics ever since its inception. (Japan also has a huge market of such stories, but also have a much wider fan base for other kinds of comics / manga, namely romance and comedy… comics are HUGE in Tokyo, but that’s another story!)
Basically every All-Star, A-class DC super hero, that’s still around today, started during this World War II period (and they were all rip-offs of the Man of Steel himself, yes even you Batman). I should mention that around this time comics were admittedly used as propaganda tools for young impressionable readers (Captain America). But many people don’t realize that Germany realized the power of this medium, and began actually issuing out a counter-measure known naturally as … Captain NAZI?! Marvel’s ‘First Avenger’ Captain America followed suit, punching Hitler (in the face) on the cover of ‘Captain America Comics’ in 1940, created by Timely Publications prior to Marvel’s official creation in the 1960’s. As a heads up though, Marvel as we know it didn’t come around until the Silver Age of the 60’s.
Shortly following the unique creation of Superman, by Siegel and Schuster, (which was a clever combination of Hercules and the Jewish messiah), was a darker take on the super hero with DC’s THE BATMAN, created by Bob Kane AND Bill Finger, (whom was a perfect mixture of Zorro and Dracula with a little Lone Ranger and pulp characters like the Shadow thrown in) in DETECTIVE COMICS 27.
Another interesting tidbit, Superman established the comic book origin story. He was born on Planet Krypton and his parents sent him away to Earth (Moses-style) to save him from certain doom where he would be a god among men and use his powers for the betterment of humankind, whereas Batman didn’t really earn his own origin story till down the road a bit when it was established why exactly a crazed grown man was running around in a Bat-suit bashing criminal craniums in. Unlike the typical version of Superman, the original incarnation of the character didn’t have the ability to fly.
Now, it’s also worth noting that BOTH Batman and Superman, in their original incarnations had no beef with killing criminals. In fact Superman had no regard for the law of any nation if it meant protecting the innocent, and Batman carried a freaking gun! (which is shocking because in his current version he’s so against using firearms due to the traumatic death of his parents) The Man of Steel would interrogate corrupt lobbyists and beat up wife beaters, the Dark Knight would take on the entire mafia. Superman destroyed Nazi’s by the dozen and Batman was a psychotic serial killer who just happened to only murder the bad guys.
The real reason this changed (no it’s not because it gave kids a bad impression) was because someone pointed out that Batman had all these cool-ass villains that kept getting offed at the end of each issue, so they had a board meeting and realized that either their ‘deaths’ would have to be ambiguous, or they’d have to have all these rogues rounded up and sent to jail (only to break out in a few months time), or to have them claim to have realized the errors of their ways, temporarily of course (till next time they decide to go ape-shit on their arch nemesis). This started the trend / stereotype of many a super hero coming to the moral epiphany that killing is bad, and they had to be good, and in some cases it’s the only line they won’t cross. See ‘Batman 1’ (1940) for the first appearance of both CATWOMAN and arguably the best villain in existence: THE JOKER!! LEX LUTHOR also appeared in ‘Action 23’ where Superman subsequently murdered him… but he apparently got better.
Meanwhile, Timely Publications (later known as MARVEL Comics) featured their first super hero, ‘The Human Torch’ (no, not the same one from ‘the World Famous’ Fantastic Four) in the pages of… “Marvel Comics #1” (1939) which also featured NAMOR, the Sub-Mariner! Namor, for those who don’t know is like an Aquaman rip-off… except he came first… so yeah! Namor was actually more of an ANTI-HERO, with gills and elven features, seeing as he attempted to drown New York with a massive tidal wave that one time…
Anywho, 1940 was a big year in Super-Mania (which surpassed both Poke-mania and the Beanie Baby phenomenon put together), and so new super heroes were showing up left and right, including but not limited to the Original GREEN LANTERN (Alan Scott) in All-American Comics 16, and (the Savage) HAWKMAN in Flash comics 1… which btw also featured the first (the) FLASH (Jay Garrick). Interesting tidbit about the original Green Lantern and Flash: both looked nothing like their modernized versions. Alan Scott was a blonde dude who sported a cape and actually lugged around a magical lantern that happened to be green, while classic Flash, Jay Garrick looked a lot more like Hermes the Messenger of the Greek Gods, also known as Mercury, winged helmet and all. Also that same year, the first official sidekick in a wave of tag-along teens was, of course, Robin, first introduced in ‘Detective 38’, teaming up with Batman, because the DC executives thought the dark and grisly Batman tales could use a light-hearted touch, and a way for younger readers to connect and relate. On the other hand, the SPECTRE, DC’s spirit of vengeance, first appeared in ‘More Fun Comics’ issue 52, the same comic series that would later introduce both AQUAMAN, and the GREEN ARROW (originally a Batman knock-off with trick arrows and a Robin Hood theme) in the same issue! (#73 for those keeping track)
Also worth a mention is ‘CAPTAIN MARVEL’ whom was originally published by Whiz Comics was later bought out by DC comics and eventually incorporated into the DC Universe. Captain Marvel, not to be confused with Captain Marvel of MARVEL Comics, was a boy who could turn into a super hero with magic-based powers when he called upon the force of the wizard: SHAZAM! Marvel kind of had an issue with this, seeing as they also had a Captain Marvel, so when the DC character was reintroduced they had to change the title to Shazam, and more recently in current continuity they have now simply renamed the title character ‘Shazam’, which makes much more since to begin with. His ultimate adversary, BLACK ADAM (1945’s ‘The Marvel Family’ #1) was empowered with the deities of Egyptian mythology rather than Greek / Roman mythology (and was later reintroduced in the 70’s and has since been completely revamped as a super-powered tyrant in the middle-east).
Speaking of characters based in mythology. A certain Dr. William Moulton Marston steps into the picture and realizes that up until now this whole super hero craze has turned into quite the sausage fest (he would’ve also been disappointed with the 90’s). Other than LOIS LANE (who was occasionally a damsel in distress herself), comics of this time period are really lacking strong female role model. He decided to change this, because he believed that girls could be just as ‘super’.
So Marston created the first super heroine, WONDER WOMAN, a Greek Goddess who comes to man’s world and defends those who can’t help themselves. Ironically she was armed with a lasso of truth which she tied up the bad dudes with and made them confess… it’s ironic because Dr. Marston also invented the lie-detector test, and had a thing for bondage. Yeah, Wonder Woman got tied up herself A LOT! But girls and boys of all ages really got into it… um Wonder Woman, not necessarily the implied bondage, but that too.
Wonder Woman’s very first appearance was All-Star Comics 8 (1941) which featured an ongoing series showcasing the Justice Society (the first super hero team, the predecessors of the Justice League), and furthermore, she wasn’t even featured on the cover! The cover shows: Hawkman, the ATOM, Dr. FATE, the Spectre, the Sandman, Johnny Thunder (?), along with Dr. Midnight, and … Starman. Wonder Woman later starred in her own series in Sensational Comics, but also joined the Justice Society… as their secretary?
Moving along, the next couple years also featured the first appearances of a couple notable Bat-villains including the SCARECROW (World’s Finest Comics 3, 1941, in the series that first crossed over Batman and Superman) And TWO-FACE, originally called Harvey Kent, instead of Dent (Det. Comics 66, 1942). Flash Comics #86 (1947) introduced the world to the femme fatale known as ‘Black Canary’, starting out initially as a super-villainess, then becoming a full-fledged vigilante in Gotham, she eventually gained membership into the JSA. Also, Marvel’s master of mysticism, DOCTOR STRANGE was introduced in the psychedelic pages of ‘Strange’ Tales 110, 1951 (Strange Indeed), while the MARTIAN MAN-HUNTER first shape-shifted into a backup story of Detective Comics 225 in 1955, right around the time of the Red-Scare, and the perfect lead-in to the Silver Age of Comics!! EXCELSIOR!!!
To be continued… Part 2: The Silver Age!
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