There are names everyone associates when you hear the word superhero… Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain America, Iron Man and more. But I bet you never heard of Air Wave, Bulletman and Bulletgirl, The Black Terror or Miss Masque. These were the comic books your grandparents and great-grandparents may have read. These were the characters that led to the Avengers, Justice League, Fantastic Four, Teen Titans, and the X-Men.
It’s safe to say these characters were created in the era when the world was in turmoil… Al Capone and his criminal empire, G-Men, World War I and II, the stock market crash, and more. The politics and news of the world influenced the creation of these colorful characters to inspire young people for “truth, justice, and the American Way.”
A majority of these heroes were not aliens, mutants, or superhuman for that matter. Many of them just donned a mask to fight against evil, not underlying theme or vendetta, just that. For example, The Black Terror from Exciting Comics. His outlandish, stylized “pirate” persona was designed to strike fear into the villains he faced.
The Black Terror‘s secret identity was pharmacist Bob Benton, who formulated a chemical he called “formic ethers”, which gave him various superpowers. He used these powers to fight crime with his sidekick, Tim Roland, together known as the “Terror Twins.” His love interest is secretary Jean Starr, who initially despises Benton and loves the Black Terror, later discovers that they’re the same person.
According to Jess Nevins’ Encyclopedia of Golden Age Superheroes, “The Black Terror has enemies ranging from Nazis to mad scientists like Thorg (he of the “million dollar death ray”), the femme fatale Lady Serpent (who has a hypnotic glance), and the Japanese scientist Hanura and his “electro-hypnotizer”, which is used to assassinate American generals and admirals.” With the popularity of superheroes fading in the late 40s, the Black Terror’s series ended with issue #27 (June 1949).
You can see many similarities in this one comic to many others of the day. A kid sidekick, a love interest, and villains that ranged from mad scientists, femme fatale, and of course, enemies from the Axis powers during World War II. You could look at any comic book from the Golden Age and find the same formula throughout.
Sure, they’re a little campy and, compared to today, quite misogynistic in their portrayal of women. Women were either sex objects, danger prone, or sidekicks. There were a few comics that had women as the main character, but even those had their controversies. Take, for example, the story of Miss Fury.
The character’s real identity is wealthy socialite Marla Drake. She has no innate superpowers, but gains increased strength and speed when she dons a special skintight catsuit when fighting crime. The panther skin was bequeathed to her by her uncle, who said that it was used by an African witch doctor in voodoo ceremonies. (It’s like a combination of Catwoman and the Black Panther in one!) Although Miss Fury was popular, the revealing outfits worn by the female characters provoked some controversy at the time. When Marla Drake was drawn wearing a bikini in 1947, 37 newspapers dropped the strip in response. The Miss Fury strip ran until 1952.
Miss Fury combats several recurring villains, including mad scientist Diman Saraf and Nazi agents Baroness Erica Von Kampf and General Bruno. Drake was also involved in a love triangle with her former fiancé, Gary Hale, and Detective Dan Carey. (See the recurring theme here!) A complicated figure, Marla doesn’t seem to like being a superhero, resenting the need for a secret identity and the danger it poses. She is sometimes accompanied by an albino Brazilian named Albino Joe. This provides another controversy from the Golden Age comics, the fact that racial discrimination was quite obvious within these pages.
The villains were focused on the Axis Powers from World War II (German, Japanese) and then the “Communist Threat” of the 40s and 50s (Chinese, Russian) so many of these villains were portrayed with exaggerated features as much of the propaganda did at this time in history. Although it does take away from the comics themselves, they have to be taken in context with this time period.
I think one of the broad characterizations you can see in the Golden Age of Superheroes is the “flag waving, patriotic” heroes that filled the pages. More than 30+ different characters representing the United States of America and the “American Fighting Spirit” filled the pages with red, white, and blue. Most of these characters did their fighting with their fists. Punching out Hitler seemed to be an American pastime in the Golden Age. The names were also quite colorful from American Eagle and Captain Freedom to Fighting Yank, The Shield, and V-Man (as in “V for Victory”). Even Uncle Sam got his own comic book fighting the scourge of Nazi and communist threats to America.
As I said before, a lot of these superheroes were ordinary people who through genius intellect and wealth or a mystic object or a chemical formula gained super powers. It was very broad and quite basic but in their concepts, but some were just out of this world. For example, meet Lash Lightning. In 1940, explorer Robert Morgan is delving into an Egyptian pyramid when he encounters an ancient mystic called The Old Man of the Pyramids. The mystic teaches Morgan ancient secrets, and gives him the Amulet of Annihilation, on the condition that he uses his powers to fight evil. Morgan’s powers include super-strength, super-speed, flight, the ability to generate electricity and radiate “lightning heat,” and a measure of invulnerability (Sounds a lot like Shazam, a.k.a. the original Captain Marvel, doesn’t he?) His powers can be recharged by electricity. Returning to the United States, Morgan dons a costume and changes his name to Lash Lightning (as opposed to maintaining a secret identity). His emblem is a triangle with a thunderbolt emerging from each of its three sides. His early foes include the Mummy, an insane college professor wrapped in bandages infused with radium, and the mad scientist Mastermind. His recurring villains also include a werewolf, the zombie-raising Dr. Diablo, and the Maestro, who wears a bee costume. Crazy, huh?
I don’t think we’ll ever see any of these heroes on the silver screen or even the TV screen anytime soon. They are from a bygone era. Although, Dynamite Entertainment did a series of books called Project Superpowers where these old heroes were suspended in time, awakened in the world today to fight a new threat. It was a rebirth for these Golden Age heroes and great to read! I’d definitely recommend checking it out!
Although many of the Golden Age heroes still exist in today’s mainstream comics, their legacy with the lost heroes of the Golden Age will never be forgotten. As awkward and politically incorrect as these comic books are, they are still an amazing look into the history of comics as well as our own national identity.
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Mark Piggott is an independent author of the Forever Avalon fantasy book series and other fantasy novels and short stories. Forever Avalon is available for purchase as a paperback/ebook at Amazon. The Dark Tides: Book 2 of the Forever Avalon Series is available for purchase as a paperback/ebook from iUniverse Publishing and at Amazon, and other booksellers. The Outlander War, Book Three of the Forever Avalon series is available for purchase as a paperback/ebook from Austin Macauley Publishing, and at Amazon and other booksellers. His latest fantasy novel, The Last Magus: A Clockwork Heart is available through Lulu and other booksellers. Get ready for The Prometheus Engine: Book 4 of the Forever Avalon Series, coming soon, and the steampunk historical fiction, Corsair and the Sky Pirates.