Captain Comics: Celebrating 80 years of great characters

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The year 1940 was, in general, a pretty lousy one, what with World War II and all. But it was a great one in comics, with roughly a jillion new superheroes debuting from roughly a jillion publishers, thanks to the popularity of a certain Man of Steel.

Foremost among those 1940 publishers was today’s DC Comics, which has had some success recently with 80th anniversaries for the aforementioned Superman (2018) and Batman (2019). It planned to celebrate the 80th anniversaries of five more characters this year: Catwoman, Flash, Green Lantern, Joker and Robin.

But 2020 has its problems, too — one of which is that whatever plans you make, COVID-19 now gets a vote. On Monday, March 23, Diamond Comic Distributors Inc. — the company that delivers comics to most comics retailers in North America — announced the indefinite suspension of shipments of new comics.

That just adds to some questions I already had about DC’s choices. But let’s start with the one thing we’re sure of: Robin, the Boy Wonder.

Robin first appeared in “Detective Comics” #38 (April 1940), in a 12-page story by Bill Finger (writer), Bob Kane (pencils) and Jerry Robinson (inks). Legend has it that he was introduced to give Batman someone to talk to (other than himself) on those windswept Gotham rooftops. But whatever the reason, sales on “Detective” nearly doubled after the debut of “the sensational character find of 1940.”

In those days most comics were anthologies, with lots of different characters in 68-page comics for a dime. Which is pretty sweet! “Detective” was no different, with most of the book filled with the likes of Slam Bradley; Speed Saunders, Ace Investigator; and Steve Malone, District Attorney. The lead story — starring Batman, of course — shows Bruce Wayne at the circus, where aerialist Dick Grayson of the Flying Graysons sees his parents brutally murdered by mobsters. Feeling some kinship with the now-orphaned lad, Wayne adopts him as both ward for Bruce and sidekick for the Dark Knight. You can read the whole magilla in DC’s “Detective Comics #38 Facsimile Edition” #1 ($3.99), which came out March 11.

Eighty years is a long time, and Dick Grayson has packed a lot into it. There’s a neat story on highlighting a dozen milestones in Dick Grayson’s career, as Robin, Nightwing and secret agent; as sidekick and substitute Batman; in solo adventures and with the Teen Titans; in major relationships with Barbara “Batgirl” Gordon and Kory “Starfire” Anders.

DC unleashes a cast of all-star creators on that history in the “Robin 80th Anniversary 100-Page Super Spectacular” #1 ($9.99), out March 18. But since the Boy Wonder hasn’t always been Dick Grayson — or even always a boy — you get some stories about some other characters, too. When Grayson became Nightwing, his old red-and-green suit was adopted by, in turn, three guys (Jason Todd, Tim Drake, Damian Wayne) and a gal (Stephanie Brown). In the future-set “Dark Knight Returns,” another gal, Carrie Kelley, sports Robin colors.

Oh, and the “Super Spectacular” also offers eight variant covers, each representing a different decade of the character’s adventures. It’s not Pokemon, but some fans will get ‘em all just the same.

That was the format planned for four more Super Spectaculars, starring Catwoman and Joker (both of whom debuted in “Batman” #1), The Flash (“Flash Comics” #1) and Green Lantern (“All-American Comics” #16). But with the suspension of comics distribution, there’s no telling when these books — which are almost certainly written and drawn by now — will arrive. Any associated activities will likewise be postponed.

And I will be delighted to get these books, whenever they do arrive. But in the meantime, what about the other DC characters invented in 1940? Are they going to be ignored?

Consider, for example, “Flash Comics” #1. That was not, as you might assume, a book starring The Flash. No, “Flash Comics” was an anthology, which gave us the first character to call himself The Flash, a speedster named Jay Garrick (who did manage to make it into the modern “Flash” TV show). But it also gave us a handful of other new characters worth mention.

OK, I’m not going to shed any bitter tears over The Whip, Cliff Cornwall or Red Rian of the Sky Police, who are deservedly forgotten. Or even “Johnny Thunder,” a humor strip whose biggest claim to fame is introducing Black Canary – well, aside from Johnny being a founding member of the Justice Society of America. He was eventually replaced there by Black Canary, as he was in his own strip, so I can forgive his omission at the 80th birthday party.

But what about Hawkman? Yep, he and the Crimson Comet both launched in “Flash Comics” #1 and shared the book for years, with the Winged Wonder even taking the cover slot now and again. I mean, yeah, he’s basically a skeet target who talks to birds, but come on – the Pinioned Paladin is still at least a B-level character.

Speaking of the Justice Society, it was the very first team of superheroes — and it also debuted at the tail end of 1940! Here’s the super-team that inspired all the others, including the Justice League, so where’s the JSA’s Super Spectacular?

Plus, most of the founding members were introduced 80 years ago in one book or another. We’ve already mentioned Flash and Hawkman, but The Spectre came a-haunting in “More Fun Comics” #52 (February 1940), with Dr. Fate debuting in the same title, three issues later (May). Hourman first appeared in “Adventure Comics” #48 (March), while the original Atom (who couldn’t shrink, but was very short) premiered in “All-American Comics” three issues after Green Lantern, in #19 (October).

That’s pretty much it for major DC characters with a 1940 debut, although I’m sure there are boosters of Black Pirate and Congo Bill out there somewhere. Or of the first Red Tornado, who wasn’t a robot like the current one, but was instead a stout woman in red flannel pajamas with a cooking pot on her head.

But DC has also bought out a lot of publishers over the years, and many of them have some terrific characters reaching their oak-and-pearl anniversary. Since those characters are now published under the DC banner, where are their celebratory books?

For example, DC bought out Fawcett years ago, giving them Shazam (or Captain Marvel, as he was originally called), plus B-listers Bulletman (and Bulletgirl), Ibis the Invincible and Spy Smasher.

DC also owns the rights to Quality Comics, which debuted more than a dozen superheroes in 1940, including major (ish) characters Black Condor, The Ray and Uncle Sam. Also The Red Bee, who kept trained bees in his belt buckle to fight crime. As you do.

Of course, there were a lot of other publishers in 1940 churning out guys (and gals) in leotards as fast as they could, some of which were pretty nice and deserve some sort of commemoration. Maybe that recognition is only in this column. For example:

MARVEL: The House of Ideas struck gold in 1939 with Human Torch and Sub-Mariner, and Captain America in 1941. In between? Not so much. Among the dozen or so flops in books like “Daring Mystery Comics” were characters named Black Widow and Vision, who resembled their modern counterparts not at all. 1940’s biggest contribution to the Marvel stable was the Human Torch’s sidekick Toro.

MLJ: This publisher, which later changed its name to Archie Comics, gave us Black Hood, Comet, The Fox and The Shield 80 years ago. Archie still trots them out now and again, sometimes to good effect. The Shield, it should be noted, is a patriotic superhero who preceded Captain America by a year.

THE OTHER GUYS: At least 13 other publishers took a whack at new superheroes in 1940, almost none of which are worth remembering. Shall I regale thee with tales of Blue Bolt, mayhap? Silver Streak? The Owl? Black Owl? Raven? Woman in Red? Maybe some other birds or colors? Nah, it’s not worth it.

I will give special mention to Crestwood’s Green Lama, because the art (by Mac Raboy of Captain Marvel Jr. fame) was spectacularly gorgeous.

Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Fiction House’s Fantomah, “Mystery Woman of the Jungle,” because it was so odd and terrifying. Created by Fletcher Hanks, about whom little is known, Fantomah protected the jungle with a variety of bizarre supernatural powers that seemed to appear as the plot required. Among them was screaming through the sky like a banshee with a blue skull face, to wreak terrible and elaborate vengeance on those who would disturb the jungle.

I guess we’ll just have to settle for Catwoman, Flash, Green Lantern, Joker and Robin at our 80th birthday party. But if they really want a wing-ding, they should give ol’ Fantomah a ring.


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