Golden Age comics (from the late 1930’s through the early 1950’s) are a joy to read. They differ substantially from today’s comic fare. While present day readers might criticize the Golden Age’s lack of sophistication, it’s precisely that same lack of pretension which makes them a pleasure to read. Say what you want about the artists, writers, and editors of that era but you have to hand it to them: they knew their audience. The stories of that day were geared toward boys aged nine to fifteen (or so) who wanted action and plenty of it.

The typical comic of the early 1940’s cost a dime, contained sixty to sixty-four pages of full-color comics (that count excludes the advertising), and often had eight or more stories packed into its pages. It was common for a particular title to have one or two stories featuring a main or “title” character with a passel of backup features; these backups would also cover a variety of genres. A typical comic might feature three or four costumed heroes in their own individual tales, a western, a couple of sports stories (featuring, say, a boxer or football player), a spy story, and a couple of military tales (usually sailors or aviators). There would also be a short story in text form, one to three pages long, often featuring the book’s title character or one of the more popular backup characters.

Stories of the time were usually self-contained; although there are exceptions, most stories were told in not only a single issue but in just six to twelve pages. This is in stark contrast to the “story arcs” of today in which a story usually requires three or more issues to tell. An extreme case is Geoff John’s Justice Society of America run, in which the story “Thy Kingdom Come” started with issue #9 and ended with #22 more than a year later (including three additional one-shot special issues and an annual) — that’s eighteen individual issues (including several “oversized” comics) to tell a tale that could easily have been told in two or three issues. Not every story possesses enough inherent gravitas to require an epic telling of Ben Hur length, but many of today’s “creative teams” think that extra length is somehow equivalent to dramatic impact. Back in the day, writers and artists typically didn’t even get a whole issue to tell a story — they had to wrap it up in twelve pages, often less.

One of the many reasons why I love 1940’s comics concerns the origin stories of the various superheroes. Let’s be honest here — it’s really tough to come up with an origin that’s really (ahem) original. But the writers and artists of the 1940’s, without the burden of seventy or seventy-five years of prior comic book history weighing them down, came up with some delightfully goofy (and occasionally off-the-wall and clever) stuff.

One of my all-time favorite comic book characters also has one of my favorite origins. College student (and self-proclaimed “football scrub”) Jay Garrick is working late in the chemistry lab one night when he decides to take ten by breaking football training — he fires up a cigarette:

He kicks back to relax with his smoke (did they have menthol back then?) and accidentally knocks a chemical-filled retort onto the floor, shattering it. Let this be a lesson to you, kids: smoking and chemistry sets don’t mix. As he tries to clean up the mess, he’s overcome by what are later called “hard water fumes”:

We will skip the obvious “Culligan Man” jokes and move on. Jay recovers and finds that he now has amazing new powers: super speed and the heightened sense and agility which would (by necessity) accompany the speed power. Jay does what any normal red-blooded American would do in such a case: he uses his newly acquired powers to become a college football star and impress the girl upon whom he has his eyes set. That’s right — screw this “great power/great responsibility” stuff! But when the girl’s father gets into a jam, Jay does the right thing by devising a costume and helping save him:

Jay Garrick - the original Flash (and still the best)

Calling himself “The Flash”, Jay devises what is, in my opinion, one of the coolest superhero costumes ever and proceeds to have a ton of adventures. Flash Comics had a run of over 100 issues; a spin-off magazine called All-Flash Quarterly (which later became a bi-monthly) itself lasted more than thirty issues.

Another wild scientifically-induced origin was that of Captain Future. In Startling Comics #1, “studious young research worker” Dr. Andrew Bryant is summoned to the office of his employer. Bryant is fired for his expensive experiments which don’t produce profitable results. Guys like Bryant are the reason why you now have sixty minutes to clean out your desk and hit the road when you get fired instead of getting a two week “grace period”:

I wasn’t a science major, but even I know that bad things happen when you screw around with gamma radiation.

You get three guesses as to what happens next:

But before he even has a thought about kicking the plant manager’s ass for firing him, Bryant overhears Devlin (the plant manager) plotting a criminal act over on the other side of the plant. That’s right — over just two consecutive panels we learn that Bryant now has a more robust constitution, the ability to shoot electricity from his fingertips, and super-hearing.

It doesn’t stop there — by the end of his first ten-page adventure, Captain Future (as Bryant dubs himself) learns that he has a strange form of invulnerability, and also can fly, perform acts of incredible strength, and read minds. Too bad he didn’t develop some kind of super-fashion sense, because he designs one of the lamest costumes ever:

Captain Future - he had many, many powers but an incredibly lame uniform

Although Captain Future’s amazing array of powers also makes him seem super-boring to us in the present day (I mean, come on — how do you even challenge a guy like him?) he had a pretty good run, appearing in the first forty issues of Startling Comics and in five or so issues of America’s Best Comics between 1940 and 1947. What ultimately saves Captain Future (and makes him somewhat readable today) is the knowledge of what 1940’s readers expected from their costumed heroes. With a very few exceptions, “super villains” as we know them today didn’t exist in the Forties; the costumed “mystery men” typically fought against non-powered gangsters, saboteurs, “fifth columnists”, blackmailers, extortionists, and killers of all stripes. For the comic buyer of the 1940’s, the fun lay in watching the hero kick butt and take names, not in seeing him outwit or outmuscle an adversary of equal or greater power.

As a footnote, it was the crazy array of Captain Future’s powers which led the writers of today’s Project Superpowers to cast him as a villain: in today’s comics Captain Future is the earthly guise of Zeus, the lustful, vain, and power-mad god of Greek myth.

Have fun! — Steve

Copyright 2010, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.