What happens to superheroes once their publications go bust? Much like the gods of ancient mythology, they sink into obscurity, but they do exist — and they’re free for you to use!
Like the pulp magazine culture that came before it, the birth of the superhero age saw a boom in two-bit publications manufacturing their own superhero comics, trying to get in on the latest craze. Superman was the first super-powered hero, created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster for DC (then called Action Comics) in 1938, and his popularity launched an entire genre of similar heroes with fantastic powers. They shared many character aspects with Superman, with secret identities and colorful costumes. His title even popularized the term “superhero” — although the word had been in use since around 1908 (as a translation of Nietzshe’s übermensch), before Superman characters of his ilk were usually referred to as “masked heroes”.
Eager to make as much money as possible from the public fascination with superheroes, hundreds of writers were commissioned by magazines and comic book manufacturers to create thousands of superheroes. So what happened to all these heroes, and why did so many publishers go bust?
The Almost-Death Of The Superhero Genre
The popularity of superhumans, brought on by Superman, was only perpetuated by WWII, as people looked to these brightly colored heroes to save the day in fiction, as things seemed very bleak in the real world. After the war ended, the demand for superhero comics dropped, and publishers tried to incorporate edgier storylines in order to keep the comics fresh.
But that caused its own backlash, as conservative writers started to blame juvenile delinquency on lurid comic books. One psychiatrist, Fredric Wertham, published a fear-mongering tell-all book called Seduction of the Innocent, claiming to have used multiple psychological studies that proved a link between comic books and crime. This data was revealed to be falsified, but decades too late.
The damage was done: The US government held multiple hearings on the morality of comic books, and decided that a strict ethics code had to be instated, known as the Comics Code. If you’ve ever wondered why so many Silver Age comic books feature fluffy plotlines and black-and-white thinking, you have this senate subcommittee to thank.
Inclusion of stories dealing with evil shall be used or shall be published only where the intent is to illustrate a moral issue and in no case shall evil be presented alluringly, nor so as to injure the sensibilities of the reader
This caused scores of publishers to go out of business, as they could no longer include scenes of violence, or any kind of sexual intrigue. But while their comics were trashed — or even burned by angry parents — the heroes themselves remained.
You see, once a character is created that figure exists within the realm of fiction. If the publisher attached to those characters no longer exists, they float in copyright limbo for a while, and after 28 years of not being published about, these characters become public domain.
The long and the short of it is: There are thousands of whacky superheroes that are free for anyone to use. And here are our favorites!
Black Cat (Harvey Comics, 1941)
Hollywood movie star and stuntwoman Linda Turner was not satisfied with her glitzy lifestyle, so when she suspected her director of being a Nazi spy, she took it upon herself to investigate him — dressed in the appropriate superhero outfit of course. She enjoyed taking this fiend down so much she decided to continue her life of crime fighting as the Black Cat, and became one of the most popular Golden Age heroes.
Many of the comics ended with a how-to on self defense:
Because no-one should walk around unprepared!
Black Cat’s comics shifted genres several times, with the Mystery line garnering a lot of attention for its depiction of horror and graphic violence. The heroine herself was so popular that a script for a modern film adaptation has been floating around Hollywood for decades, but has yet to be picked up by a studio.
Blue Bolt (Novelty Press, 1940)
One of the most long-lived and popular of the Golden Age, Blue Bolt still has many fans today. His creators, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, went on to create Captain America for Timely Comics.
Blue Bolt’s path to superpowers was slow and arduous — struck by lightening not once, but twice, Fred Parrish was rescued from his crashed plane by Dr Bertoff, who took it upon himself to imbue poor Fred with powers, using radium deposits to harness the electricity still present in Fred’s body. Bertoff envisioned Fred as a heroic protector of Earth and naturally, that’s just what Fred became.
Blue Bolt fought primarily against the forces of Green Sorceress, a vicious megalomaniacal witch who sought to conquer the world. Aided in his quest by Lois Blake — who possessed the same powers he did — Blue Bolt struggled against Green Sorceress’s army and his blossoming attraction to her. Lois, Fred’s girlfriend, was very much aware of this and would often fight with Green Sorceress out of jealousy. Ah, the Forties!
Amazona The Mighty Woman (Planet Comics, 1940)
We all know the classic tale: Amazon warrior, possessing great strength and the power of flight, journeys from her utopian homeland to help us poor mortals after rescuing a marooned explorer.
No, I’m not talking about Wonder Woman. Predating DC’s first female hero by a whole year, Amazona the Mighty Woman has an almost identical origin story, but because she only appeared in one issue of Planet Comics, her existence has sunk into obscurity. William Marston, I’m on to you.
Black Widow (Mystic Comics, 1940)
Not to be confused with the Marvel heroine of the same name, or the other Marvel heroine of the same name and the same backstory, Claire Voyant became the Black Widow when she was appointed as Satan’s agent on Earth. And by “appointed” I mean shot by a previous client who believes she is responsible for the death of his family, because the Devil doesn’t do anything by halves.
Given the task of sending the murderous, deviant, and downright evil people of this world to hell, Black Widow used her supernatural powers to do exactly that — by killing her victims with a single touch. She’s arguably the first anti-hero of the superhero genre, and her hyper violent, graphically gory comics probably would have given Fredric Wertham a heart attack.
Crimebuster (Boy Comics, 1942)
If you thought the name was silly, just wait until you hear the origin story. Chuck Chandler became a costumed hero after the death of his parents at the hands of a Nazi agent known as Iron Jaw. And by costume I mean he slapped a cape over his hockey uniform. Donning the name Crimebuster, Chuck took on Iron Jaw, then the entire Nazi army and Axis powers. Because why start small?
Chuck’s comics slowly dwindled into college kid antics after a while, but before he stepped away from vigilantism, Crimebuster battled He-She — a half-man half-woman who tried to defraud Chuck of his money.
The Golden Age of comics was littered with offensive characters, and He-She is pretty hilarious in how yikes-worthy they are. But at least they have a dramatic intro:
“The deadliest of the species is the female! The strongest of the species is the male! Combine these with the killer instinct and you have the most cunning, the most vicious, the most fiendish killer of all time!”
It’s science, dammit!
Starlight (Fiction House, 1950)
Coming in towards the end of the Golden Age is Starlight, a Native American warrior maiden from the Huron tribe. She appointed herself the protector of her people, setting out to defend them from harm.
Starlight was a trail blazer, possibly the first Native American superheroine, and still among the very few of them that exist. Her creators, Ann Adams and Ralph Mayo, made a point of not objectifying Starlight, always depicting her fully clothed. That might seem like a base requirement, but compared to other native “jungle women” of comic books, Starlight’s portrayal was significantly progressive.
She was also the protagonist of the comic, which makes her the only female Native American superhero to ever get her own title. And that’s kind of depressing.
Spacehawk (Novelty Press, 1940)
Ahead of his time in more ways than one, Spacehawk was an interstellar hero from the distant future, tasked with protecting the Earth from invasion. He possessed the power of resistance to mind control and hypnosis — which came in useful more times than you would expect while journeying in outer space — and was equipped with ray guns, anti-gravity belts, and other retro-futuristic gadgets.
Towards the end of his run, Spacehawk journeyed back in time to the 1940s, with the sole intention of punching Hitler in the face — a staple of most superhero comics of the time. Eventually though, he was cancelled for being “too fantastic” for readers. Maybe he just lacked the right soundtrack…
Amazing Man (Centaur Comics, 1939)
The imaginatively titled Amazing Man was a real trend-setter. Appointed by the Tibetan Council of Seven to be a guardian of humanity, the orphaned John Aman was trained extensively to both mental and physical perfection — including being gifted superhuman powers of strength, invulnerability, and the power to disappear in a puff of green smoke.
This origin story went on to inspire Marvel’s Iron Fist (soon to get his own TV show), DC’s Amazing Man, and Watchman’s Ozymandias.
Interestingly, Amazing Man teamed up with Zona Henderson, a female crime investigator. This was pretty groundbreaking for the 1930s, and Zona was far from a damsel in distress: Joining Amazing Man on his missions, Zona could think three times faster than the average human and was notoriously vicious in combat.
Dynamite Thor (Weird Comics, 1940)
Also known as The Explosion Man, Peter Thor is only really notable because of the gadget that gives him his name — a belt with sticks of dynamite on, which allows him to fly. Luckily, he’s also resistant to explosives. Iron Man, eat your heart out.
They don’t make ’em like this any more.
Which Golden Age superhero is your favorite? Tell us in the comments!