Comic books superhero origins have always been a bit of a dicey subject. It’s very tough these days to come up with a truly original (no pun intended) concept for how a costumed hero or heroine obtained his or her powers. Most of the combinations of origins have already been used, so unless your new, exciting comic book character got his powers because he was a billionaire mutant who’d been bathed in gamma radiation after being struck by lightning at the exact moment as he was bitten by a radioactive wombat which had been exposed to cosmic rays and, as our hero recoiled from the bite, fell into a vat of chemicals but was saved from drowning by Cuchulain, who is secretly his father and anoints our hero heir to his legendary powers, his origin has probably already been done before.

If you’ve ever run a superhero roleplaying game for a few players, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. Most players at the time of character creation want to hurry up and play already, and give little thought to their character’s origin and motivation. I once ran a game for ten or so players, and I don’t think there was a character who’d not been struck by lightning or bitten by some exotic radioactive beast. Even when I ran a game for my sons and one of their friends when they were teenagers, in our group of three players we had a lightning strike and an irradiated animal attack in their set of origins.

It’s tough to devise a really good origin (although in the case of the large gamer group I mentioned, I did resent the complete lack of effort shown by the “radioactive animal bite” crowd. “So just how did you get exposed to a radioactive eland, anyway? Didn’t the zoo cage have bars? And why the heck was the eland radioactive?” I’d ask. And get a dumb look in reply, followed by a “Can we just get on with the game??!!??”). After three-quarters of a century of comic book history and the introduction of tens of thousands of characters, it’s become impossible to create a transformational origin event that’s never been done before. It seemed far easier to do so a half-century ago in the early Silver Age, when “scientific” origin stories were all the rage.

Except that one of the best-known Silver Age superhero origins was lifted lock, stock, and barrel from an obscure Golden Age origin story.

It’s a Silver Age story that most comic book fans know by heart, but for those who aren’t familiar with it here are three pages from DC Comics’ Showcase #22, published in 1959. After the crash of an extraterrestrial vehicle, the craft’s pilot bequeaths a power ring and battery to aircraft test pilot Hal Jordan. These tools grant Jordan extraordinary powers with which to battle against crime and injustice:

DC Comics Showcase #22

DC Comics Showcase #22

DC Comics Showcase #22

It’s one of the most famous origin stories of the Silver Age; even many casual comic fans (or people whose entire comics knowledge comes from movies or TV) know it by rote. Many writers and bloggers have heralded the story as a paradigm Silver Age origin based on science or science fiction, contrasting it with Golden Age origins (which more than a few writers identify as primarily magic or mystic/mythic based).

The problem here is that this well-known Silver Age story is copied straight from another superhero’s origin story published in 1940 by Quality Comics. Feature Comics was an anthology title which made its debut in 1937 reprinting newspaper funnies. Soon after its inception, Feature Comics began introducing original costumed heroes to it pages, including The Clock, Doll Man, Usa (The Spirit of Old Glory), and Rusty Ryan & the Boyville Brigadiers. In the November 1940 issue another new superhero character took a bow: Ace Egan, who becomes known as “The Ace of Space”. The source of his powers seems oddly familiar

Feature Comics #38,  November 1940

Feature Comics #38,  November 1940

In DC Comics’ defense, they did acquire the rights to Quality’s lineup of characters in late 1956, more than two years prior to the introduction of the Silver Age Green Lantern. Whether or not they also acquired the rights to the stories in which those characters had previously appeared is a bit murky, although it seems unlikely since all of the comics Quality published are now in public domain. We don’t know for sure that the Green Lantern origin story was copied from The Ace of Space’s first appearance, but if it wasn’t a swipe it was one heck of a coincidence. The two origins are for all intents and purposes identical.

So why didn’t DC Comics just reintroduce The Ace of Space? It’s probable that there were two reasons. For starters, DC had successfully updated The Flash in 1956 from the Golden Age Jay Garrick to the new Silver Age incarnation of Barry Allen, and likely wanted to simply repeat the formula by revising the original Alan Scott character into a new, more contemporary version. The second reason was that The Ace of Space had a fatal flaw: the character was a dud right from the start.

The Ace of Space appeared in four issues of Feature Comics (#38 through #41) and was uniformly dull throughout. What should have been an exciting new concept in comic book heroes was hampered by poor writing and plotting. Ace Egan is the stereotypical rich “playboy” comic character (although all he really does is sit around his estate and go to the “gentlemen’s club” to sit around with other boring rich guys); although that gives the writer a lot of freedom, it’s hard for the reader to identify with Egan. He adopts a mask, despite the fact that the belt makes him nine feet tall the moment he puts it on and returns to normal size when he removes it; when you’re a giant, who’s really going to notice your face? Worst of all, his powers aren’t well defined in the origin story, and he ultimately suffers from the same “suddenly discovered power” syndrome which kills Captain Future’s stories; in the thick of the fight, Ace frequently discovers he possesses a new power which is just the right one to save his bacon: “Oh, look! I’m telepathic! Oh, look! I have super strength! Oh, look! My ship can become invisible!” It’s hard to stay interested in a character who can do practically anything, especially when he constantly discovers new abilities in this deus ex machina manner.

The Ace of Space never caught on with readers, and he was never revived by DC Comics as were other Quality characters like Blackhawk and Doll Man. Ace’s sole legacy is his origin story, and only because it was appropriated for a more successful character near the start of comics’ Silver Age.

Have fun! — Steve

Copyright 2015, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.