This week’s entry is kind of jumping off something my friend Kurt remarked about last week’s Lone Ranger column, when he used the expression “prototype super-hero.”
I’m sure he had no idea I would latch on to that, but I did, because it touches on something that has always fascinated me — tracing the ancestry of pop culture figures. Where do these things COME from? Who ARE the ‘prototype’ characters for the marquee comics characters of today? Are any of them still around?
I don’t mean ancestry in the Wold-Newton-geek way, though I’m a huge fan of that stuff too, don’t get me wrong. But I’m talking mostly about influences, first appearances, things like that. Now, of course, when you are talking about superheroes there’s always somebody that’s bringing up Greek mythology or Norse mythology or something like that, and Lord knows there is a whole raft of THOSE characters in comics…
…But I’m not going to go there today. Mostly because I’m writing a column and not a book. I’ll grant you Hercules and Thor and Mercury and the whole mythology bunch, okay? I’m more interested in the ones from popular fiction — what Denny O’Neil once called “post-industrial folklore.” For us I think that means our starting point is probably the early part of the last century if we’re looking for the prototypes that became Batman and Superman and so on.
Let’s look at Batman for a minute, since I brought him up. What’s his line of ancestry? Who’s the “prototype” Batman?
The most common one that people name is the Shadow, and hell, Batman even MET the Shadow a couple of times in the 70′s (and geeked out over him — honestly, I’m not making it up. Total fanboy. It was rather endearing.)
But really, if you look at them, they’re actually not very much alike. We hardly ever got a look at the Shadow’s motivations or character, he was more of an avenging force of nature. The Shadow was fun because we didn’t know very much about him, the mystery was part of his charm. Nobody had a clue, not even his agents knew who he was. He maintained dozens of other identities along with the Shadow, it was only the radio show that said he was really Lamont Cranston.
Bruce Wayne, on the other hand, is pretty thoroughly documented. We know all about the man beneath the Batman’s mask. Plus, he doesn’t use a network of agents (yes, I know there are exceptions, particularly Azrael and Oracle, but really, over the last sixty-some years there’s been Alfred and Robin and that’s it) and he’s much bigger on the fisticuffs than the Shadow… who admittedly did his share of clobbering as well, but the Shadow preferred hypnotizing crooks with his mysterious girasol ring, or else just shooting the punks and being done with it.
There are a couple of other possibilities. The star of the pulp magazine Black Book Detective, the Black Bat, probably was on Bat-writer Bill Finger’s mind and he HAD to’ve been on Bat-artist Bob Kane’s. At least in terms of Bruce Wayne’s fashion sense.
But again, it’s all surface. Apart from dressing the same way when they fought crime, there’s really not very much there. Tony Quinn, former D.A., was blinded by acid thrown by “vicious criminals.” He started his career as the Black Bat when his girlfriend’s dying father donated his eyes to Quinn and in a weird side effect, Quinn discovered he could see in the dark. (You could make a better case for Daredevil coming from this guy… blinded attorney gains weird powers in a medical accident, puts on a mask and starts fighting evil.)
A much closer candidate, and the one named most often by Kane and Finger themselves, was “the Curse of Capistrano,” Johnston McCulley’s Zorro.
Millionaire adventurer is an effeminate lazy loser by day and a caped avenger of injustice by night. Pretty similar taste in costumes — black mask, black cape. Certainly for the first couple of years he was around, Batman was lifted almost bag and baggage from Zorro and planted firmly in the urban 20th century.
And I think when you’re talking about Batman’s predecessors you have to take a hard look at this guy. If for no other reason than that it was Lee Falk’s Phantom who first hung out in a really tricked-out cave and who had a mask that turned his eyes blank white.
There are a couple of other minor similarities — for example, like Batman, the Phantom also liked crooks to think he was a scary supernatural being, and he also was a secret friend to the local head cop, and he had the same nutty idea as Bruce Wayne about underwear over a leotard striking fear into the hearts of criminals.
But really if I was going to pick someone as being the prototype Batman it would be this guy. Richard Wentworth, who anchored his own pulp magazine title from 1933 to 1943 as the original Spider.
Wentworth had something none of the others had when it comes to Bat-comparisons. He wasn’t pretending to be scary. He WAS scary. Borderline nuts, really. And pretty pissed off at crime.
To become the Spider, Richard Wentworth put on a black cape and hat, a fright wig, fangs, and assumed a hunchbacked posture. He was the only pulp-magazine hero whose look had to be toned DOWN for his covers. His secret identity was very Bruce Wayne-ish; wealthy man-about-town Richard Wentworth was all about the charity galas and so on, usually with his girlfriend Nita Van Sloan on his arm. Nita was in on the Spider’s secret and was always right in there with him, backing the Spider up at a fateful moment or — more likely — trying to back him up and getting clobbered and captured for her trouble. And his faithful valet Ram Singh had a real Alfred-esque vibe, much more so than all the other faithful valets and chauffeurs and aides that follwed the other pulp guys around. In fact, read Nita as Dick Grayson and Singh as Alfred and you pretty much have the same division of labor with Wentworth’s crew as Batman has with his. Though Frederic Wertham couldn’t get quite as testy about the sleeping arrangements.
There was plenty of other stuff for him to take issue with, though. There’s a real adrenaline rush to the Spider stories. Parents would definitely not have approved of the violent Spider, and his rogues’ gallery makes Batman’s look pretty wimpy. This is a group that made the Spider’s psychotically-enraged war on crime look like a perfectly sensible reaction. The Vampire King, the Red Mandarin, the Sandman, the Skull, the Death Fiddler, and (my favorite) the Emperor of Vermin… all of these were guys who, between them, racked up a death toll of thousands (it’s a wonder New York managed to rebuild every month) and on whom due process would be, frankly, wasted. Much better, as Wentworth usually did, to just skip to the end and blow their sick asses away.
Wentworth’s New York IS Gotham City as we know it today: gothic, terrifying, full of freakish evil psychos and rampant with crime. And Wentworth takes the same kind of physical beatings Bruce Wayne routinely has to deal with– most Spider stories end with him having to wrap a tourniquet around his calf and pop his shoulder back into its socket just before bursting into the bad guy’s lair and taking out fifteen or twenty henchmen on his way to rescue Nita from being raped by the Flame Destroyer.
That kind of teeth-gritting, pull-out-the-win-at-any-cost feeling is something unique to the Spider among the pulp heroes, and it’s something Batman writers have been riffing on since the forties, too. The sense of Wentworth’s physical sacrifices and the rogue’s gallery of homicidal sickos are what edge him out ahead of the Shadow as Batman’s most direct ancestor for me; your mileage may vary, of course. But he’s my pick.
Turning to Superman, there aren’t nearly as many possibilities. People often bring up Doc Savage as being a Superman prototype, but really it was Mort Weisinger that started stealing Doc riffs for Superman in the fifties and sixties. I think it was Weisinger’s co-opting of Doc’s arctic Fortress of Solitude, especially, that gets people making the direct connection. But for Siegel and Shuster, my sense is that they were much more influenced by a different guy.
Specifically, this guy: Hugo Danner, from Philip Wylie’s Gladiator. Hugo, the product of his father’s genetic experiments, has powers and abilities far beyond mortal men. He has superhuman strength and speed, can leap great distances, is practically invulnerable, and if he put on a blue leotard and a red cape he’d be damn near indistinguishable from the Superman of 1938 and 1939…
With one hand, Hugo imprisoned his wrists. He lifted Melcher from the floor and shook him. “I meant it, Melcher. And I will give you a sign. Rotten politics, graft, bad government, are doomed.” Melcher watched with staring eyes while Hugo, with his free hand, rapidly demolished the room. He picked up the great desk and smashed it; he tore the stone mantelpiece from its roots; he kicked the fireplace apart; he burst a hole in the brick wall–dragging the bulk of a man behind him as he moved. “Remember that, Melcher. No one else on Earth is like me…”
The key alterations Siegel and Shuster made to the Hugo Danner idea were adding the costume, the Clark Kent secret identity, and — most importantly — they cheered their super-guy up. In Gladiator, Hugo Danner is gradually more and more alienated from humanity; Wylie’s through-line for the novel is essentially that Hugo can never be one of us. He keeps trying to find his place in the world, first as a sports star and then as a social activist and warrior, but always, it turns out that Hugo Danner is too dangerously strong to live with his fellow man, he is fated to be forever alone. Eventually he resolves to exile himself and even becomes suicidal. Gladiator is clearly designed as a tragedy. Superman, just as clearly, is not… but the sense of alienation that surrounds the Kryptonian’s early and middle years of publication history is, I think, foreshadowed more purely in Wylie’s book than anywhere else. Kal-El as a superhuman fated to be forever alone is an idea that keeps showing up in Superman stories, from the 40′s on up to as recently as Superman Returns.
So did any of these pulpy progenitors make it to comics? Are they still around?
The Shadow has often appeared in comic books: I’ve talked about those books before, particularly DC’s The Shadow Strikes!, so I won’t go through that whole list again. But the others have too. Zorro, especially, has had a number of really good runs in comics, particularly at Dell under Alex Toth, and those are certainly worth picking up, they’ve been collected a couple of different places.
More recently, Don McGregor has done some nice work on the character… in newspaper syndication and for Topps Comics in the 90′s.
In fact his Zorro was so successful there for a while it seemed like it was anchoring Topps’ line, and even after it folded McGregor ended up taking the Lady Rawhide spin-off to Image a couple of years later.
How good are they? I rate them as pretty good, but, you know, Don McGregor’s writing style is something where you’re either on board for the ride or you’re not, it’s definitely a love it or hate it experience. Those of us that fondly remember his work from Killraven and Detectives Inc. are probably more inclined to be indulgent of his excesses; but they are certainly there, it has to be said. Anyway, in many of these books the art alone is a real treat, especially Esteban Maroto’s work. You probably could bowl them out at a con or from an online dealer for not too much money if you were interested.
And the Phantom, of course, has had lots of success in comic books. In fact, if you look outside the U.S. comic book direct market, he’s a megastar. The Ghost Who Walks has been in continuous publication in one form or another since 1936…. newspapers, mostly, but Australia’s Frew Publications has been putting out a Phantom comic book since 1948, and according to the GCD it’s coming up on #1500 or so. I’m not going to go over the Phantom’s whole history here — that’s a book in itself, never mind a column. But I will mention a few different ones I liked personally, just briefly.
I first encountered the Phantom in prose, not comics — the novels put out by Avon Books in the 70′s. And those are well worth seeking out, especially the first one, The Story of the Phantom, which really is Phantom: Year One for our generation’s Kit Walker.
I made it a point to check the spinner rack soon thereafter for the Phantom’s comic book, and lucked into Charlton’s last gasp on the title, when they were letting Don Newton just go nuts on it. Those were gorgeous, gorgeous books. I was instantly a fan. One of the five or six times in my life I bought a comic book just for the art.
I also really liked the four-issue mini-series Peter David did with Joe Orlando for DC in the 80′s, as well as the regular Mark Verheiden/Luke McDonnell monthly that followed.
And though I wasn’t crazy about the three-issue Marvel miniseries in the 90′s, I nevertheless bought it; I forget who worked on that one, and with the GCD down at the moment I can’t look it up, but I remember it as being just on the low side of okay. I still like the Phantom, and I do check in with the Moonstone version now and again.
But mostly, I surf eBay looking for the novels. Those are great fun. There were fifteen in all and so far I have acquired nine of them. Another collector quest I pick at off and on. Everyone needs a hobby.
As for the others, there aren’t many iterations of them in comic books, but the interested scholar can find a couple. The Spider got a comic book in the early 90′s.
Tim Truman did a really cool version that ran for a couple of mini-series’ worth from Eclipse Comics. The interesting part was that he imagined a look for Wentworth that was kind of averaging out the portrayal on the pulp covers and the really freaky outfit author Norvell Page described the Spider as wearing in the original stories, which is a feat of design I wouldn’t have thought possible. Anyway, the two minis would make a nice trade collection if anyone ever manages to untangle the rights.
The Black Bat never got a comic — come on, imagine what fans would say if somebody tried to market a comic starring a caped-and-cowled guy with radar sense called the Bat, in this day and age. Nobody would believe he came first. But you can check out a few facsimile reprints of his pulp adventures as back issues of High Adventure, published by the delightful Adventure House. And as it happens that selfsame publisher also will soon have replicas of Norvell Page’s original Spider novels for sale, as well. Everyone should read at least one of those, just for the sheer breathlessness of the experience. Norvell Page slaved over his prose, according to pulp historians, but the typical Spider adventure nevertheless reads like it was written in twenty-four hours by a guy trying to beat a death sentence.
And Hugo Danner, the proto-Superman? He actually did appear in a comic of his own. It was Marvel Preview #9, written by Roy Thomas, with art by Rich Buckler and Tony DeZuniga.
In an unfortunate decision they changed the name from “Gladiator” to “Man-God,” I guess in some hope of sucking in the folks who’d bought Marvel Preview #1 featuring the Man-Gods From Outer Space. (Which actually had nothing to do with Philip Wylie’s novel, that was a lame story trying to cash in on Erich von Whatshisname’s Chariots of the Gods.) But it’s otherwise a very cool version. Thomas wisely decided to skip all the suicidal depression stuff at the end and only adapt the front half of the novel, ending the story of Hugo Danner with his World War I experiences. A blurb at the end urges readers to write in if they want to see the rest. Obviously they didn’t, which is a pity, because it was a pretty good adaptation, and there were nice articles about Philip Wylie and the history of the superman in SF novels, too. I just got this from a dealer not too long ago, and it was actually looking at this particular book and remembering Kurt’s comment about prototypes that started the whole rock rolling down the hill for this week’s piece.
Anyway, those are my picks and where you can find examples of them. But by all means, feel free to argue it back and forth among yourselves, that’s the fun of the exercise.
See you next week.