14 Comic-Book Heroes Who Preferred Suits Over Spandex in Their Never-Ending Battles for Justice
1. The Spirit
Superman’s arrival did more than deliver the comic industry’s first superstar; not long after his debut, dozens of imitators did their part to ensure his costume elements (cape, tights, chest emblem, boots) became the standard comic-book look. But while some of the new characters adopted a few of the rapidly-becoming-standard superhero tropes — secret identity, hidden headquarters, colorful arch-villains — they weren’t so keen to part with their three-piece suits. Take the Spirit, arguably Will Eisner’s greatest creation. Eisner created the mystery man in 1940 for a newspaper syndicate that wanted a new Sunday supplement to compete with the new-fangled comic books; when the anxious publishers asked if the lead feature would star a costumed superhero, Eisner took one look at his detective, probably said something along the lines of “Um… yeah, you bet!” and slapped a domino mask on his creation. Eisner later said he came up with the Spirit to get out of the superhero ghetto, as he wanted to work with a character that would allow him to delve into a wide range of genres — but if a pair of gloves and a domino mask were the concessions he had to make to get his stories told, then so be it.
The funniest part of Midnight’s entry in DC’s 1985 Who Who series? “It is theorized that Midnight was inspired by reading of the adventures of a similar but more celebrated masked crimefighter.” Gee, ya think? If Midnight looks like a carbon copy of the Spirit, there’s a good reason for that; fearing the loss of the Spirit strip if Eisner were killed during his time in the army, Quality publisher Everett M. “Busy” Arnold ordered Jack Cole (of Plastic Man fame) to come up with a decent substitute. (Later, during the war, Arnold ran reprints of Spirit strips in his books, offering readers two masked guys wearing blue suits and red ties; alas, no team-up ever materialized.) There were some differences; the Spirit was more of a mysterious figure who worked out of a cemetery and rarely appeared as his alter ego, while Midnight was Dave Clark, a radio announcer who adopted his Midnight moniker when he ran afoul of gangsters, and he gave the name of a fictional radio character when pressed to identify himself. Supporting cast included inventor Doc Wackey, as seen here, and… good God, what is that horrid thing on his shoulder? Meet Gabby, Doc Wackey’s talking monkey who was at least one step up, racism-wise, from the Spirit’s sidekick, Ebony White… or not, depending on how you look at it.
3. The Mouthpiece
At this point, you can’t help but wonder if Everett Arnold just had a thing for dudes in blue suits and fedoras. First appearing in Police Comics #1, the Mouthpiece was the third character in a Quality comic to fight crime while wearing the uniform you see here. He was also possibly the dumbest, given that he had a high-profile occupation (newly elected district attorney), didn’t make much of an effort to disguise his face, regularly encountered the kind of people who would recognize one of the city’s leading non-masked crimefighters, and chose a superhero name that immediately pegged his alter ego as a lawyer (just ask any underworld type what “mouthpiece” means). Quote the Wikipedia: “Mouthpiece was an above-average detective and an expert in criminal law” — except for the part about due process, one assumes. As for his career, it was nothing special by Golden Age standards, though he probably holds the distinction of being the first comic-book vigilante to throw a harpoon(!) into the back of a fleeing lawbreaker. If he didn’t yell “Objection overruled!” after doing something like that, I’d be very disappointed.
4. The Clock
I don’t know what’s more improbable: the fact this two-against-one fight is taking place on a roof, with the Clock straddling a chimney (ouch) while he dishes out justice… or that he’s using the wrong end of a gun to make his point (and that must’ve been quite the wallop, to push Red Vest Guy back into that awkward, Rockette-approved position). The Clock first appeared in 1936, and most sources credit him as the first original masked hero to appear in the comics. He didn’t get too fancy with the clock motif, just a plain suit, a simple piece of cloth for a mask, and calling cards that read “The Clock Has Struck” (wokka wokka). Though his first few stories were light on characterization, readers eventually learned he was former district attorney Brian O’Brien (“the lawyer so nice, they named him twice!”). After his last appearance in the mid-1940s, he was pretty much forgotten until Malibu Comics updated a bunch of public-domain heroes for 1992’s The Protectors, a series in which we find out O’Brien gave up crimefighting to join the military and eventually became President of the United States. So in retrospect, wearing a mask while committing murderous vigilantism was definitely a good plan.
5. The (Golden Age) Sandman
Not to be confused with Neil Gaiman’s Lord of Dreams, Wesley Dodds first appeared as the Sandman in a 1939 issue of Adventure Comics, accenting his (usually green) business suit and fedora with a gas mask and sleeping-gas gun. Like many other early comic-book characters, the Sandman had one foot firmly planted in the pulp magazine detective tradition and one in the emerging superhero tradition, working on cases involving non-superpowered criminal types, but also adopting a mask, secret identity, and odd weaponry to help him mete out justice. (Another unique selling point: his main gal, Dian Belmont, was fully aware of his dual identity and often portrayed as an equal, not a perpetual damsel in distress like some lady reporters we could mention.) But the allure of the tights could not be ignored for long; about 30 issues into his run, Dodds traded in his dapper duds and gas mask for a purple-and-yellow ensemble that came complete with a masked sidekick, Sandy the Golden Boy. Not better, not worse, just… different. Still, we can be thankful that 1993’s excellent Sandman Mystery Theatre series brought him back to basics.
6. The Crimson Avenger
While the name suggests a tip of the hat to the Scarlet Pimpernel, it’s more likely the Crimson Avenger, DC’s first mask-wearing hero, was inspired by the Green Hornet, the hugely popular radio star whose program came out two years before the Avenger’s comic-book debut in 1938. Both were wealthy newspaper publishers, both had an Asian sidekick/chauffeur, both wore color-coordinated cloaks and masks to conceal their identities, and both were initially seen as criminals in the eyes of the law. Like the Sandman, Crimsy (as he was called by no one) eventually caved to market pressures and ditched the three-piece suit for an outfit made of yellow and red spandex (his sidekick, Wing, held out a little longer). He last appeared in 1945, not counting a few short-lived revivals (like the 1988 mini-series the above image came from). Within the DC universe, he has been most definitely dead for quite some time and a new female version of the character carries on in his name. And since comic-book characters never come back from the dead, we know he’s going to stay that way, right? Right.
7. The (Golden Age) Blue Beetle
Speaking of Green Hornet ripoffs. Those who remember the Golden Age Blue Beetle will likely remember him as the guy in the blue tunic who ingested “Vitamin 2X” (DRUG!) to give him (DRUG!) the standard set (DRUG!) of superhuman powers. But before that phase of his career, he was just plain Dan Garret, a fellow who joined the New York Police Department after his father was murdered by a gangster. But a fellow can only take so much red tape and “constitutional rights” nonsense before he need to take the law into his own hands, which Garret did by donning a white mask and business suit and hitting the mean streets as the Blue Beetle. And just like his inspiration, he was often seen as a criminal by officers of the law, including Garret’s own partner (who wasn’t too swift in the detecting department, given how often he saw both Garret and the Blue Beetle up close). His calling card was a small, beetle-shaped marker that he left in conspicuous place to alert criminals to his presence, using their fear as a weapon against them. One can only imagine what someone would have to leave lying around to put the fear of God in him. A copyright-infringement lawsuit, maybe?
Not, as you might imagine, the sworn protector of convenience store clerks everywhere, #711 was a costumed crimefighter with one damn strange origin. Daniel Dyce was a district attorney who just happened to be an exact double of his friend, Jacob Horn. Horn was going to prison for a crime he committed, and he begged his friend to take his place just long enough for Horn to witness the birth of his child. But — oh, tragedy! — Horn is killed on the way to the hospital, and Dyce is stuck in jail (apparently, this is a world where fingerprints don’t exist). Dyce tunnels his way to freedom, but for no discernible reason he uses his newfound freedom to fight crime as a masked avenger, always returning to his cell by the morning. (Where a convicted prisoner managed to pick up a cape, fedora and brown business suit — and where he stashed them during the day — was never mentioned.) In 1943, two years after his debut, #711 died at the hands of a mobster, and another unnamed man witnessed his murder. That man, codenamed Destiny, had the power to instantly appear wherever a life was about to be taken. So… good for him, I guess? I’m not really sure how handy it would be to instantly appear in front of homicidal maniacs conducting their business, but he seemed to handle himself all right. Alas, in the end it only took a teenage girl to snuff him out — his spot in Police Comics was replaced a year later by Candy, a teen-humor strip looking for a bit of that sweet Archie magic.
10. The Bogey Man
No, he’s not the same as everyone else here! He’s different, see? He has a moustache. So there! All right, let’s get our ducks in a row: Kendall Richards was a mystery writer whose expertise was so helpful to the police that a gangster named (or, one hopes, nicknamed) Rusty Blade decided to have him killed. But Richards proved too tough for Blade’s hitmen; he managed to survive their attack, but in the process they swiped the manuscript for his next book, a book with instructions on how to commit the perfect murder. Because reading is fundamental, Blade and his thugs follow those instructions to kill Richards… but seeing as how he literally wrote the book on murder, Richards was able to anticipate their actions and survive the attack without letting the them know he had done so. With Blade and his gang no longer gunning for him, Kendall assumed the guise of the Bogey Man and brought them to justice. First and only appearance: Red Band Comics #1 (11/44), never to be seen again.
11. The Phantom Reporter
If the Bogey Man is bummed because his one appearance didn’t turn into something bigger, then he should take heart. The Phantom Reporter also made only one appearance during the Golden Age (1940’s Daring Mystery Comics #3), but that was enough to score him a sweet role in The Twelve, a 2008 Marvel mini-series about a dozen time-displaced heroes, and a continuing presence in the Marvel universe thereafter. A champion boxer, fencer, wrestler and football player, Richard Jones gets a job as a reporter and grows frustrated with the crime and corruption he sees every day; during what we can only assume was a serious case of writer’s block, he adopts his “Phantom Reporter” persona to punish the criminals the law can’t touch (he later adopts a third identity as a millionaire socialite, because a reporter moonlighting as a millionaire is totally believable). Hat, mask, suit, guns, moxie — you get the idea.
12-13. The Question/Mr. A
The Silver Age saw an explosion of new superheroes, but few of them strayed far from the standard longjohns look. Then came the Batman TV show, which led to damn near everyone, up to and including the Archie gang, pulling on a pair of tights. One notable exception: the Question, the alter ego of crusading reporter Vic Sage. Disguised by a featureless mask and a special gas that alters the color of his street clothes, the Question reflected Steve Ditko’s growing interest in objectivist philosophy (among other things, a belief in a clear delineation between “good” and “evil”). When Charlton pulled the plug on its entire superhero lineup, Ditko changed a few details, rechristened his creation Mr. A, and published new stories in Witzend, an independent book for creator-owned strips. Everything was black and white to Mr. A; an incorruptible reporter by day, Mr. A dispensed justice at night, usually by lecturing criminals on why they were pure evil. And heaven help the poor soul who tried to explain his actions or place the blame on society: to Mr. A, A is A, and each individual is solely responsible for his or her own actions. As you might imagine, reading the adventures of an Ayn Rand-approved superhero would get pretty monotonous after a while, and Mr. A only lasted a few years before he hung up his white suit for good. The Question, after finding a new home at DC, fared better — but never yielded to the temptation to wear his shorts on the outside.
And then there’s Rorschach. The breakout star of 1986’s Watchmen series came to life when writer Alan Moore couldn’t use characters from Charlton’s superhero lineup (like the Question, Rorschach’s obvious inspiration) to tell his story about a world where the presence of superheroes led to real consequences. Just like his inspiration, Rorschach’s “uniform” consists of a suit and featureless mask, with a trenchcoat added for extra noir. Given his urban milieu and the outlawed status of costumed heroes at the time the story in Watchmen takes place, it makes sense that Rorschach would eschew the usual, attention-grabbing superhero garb in favor of something a little more inconspicuous. I mean, stalking the streets of New York City with a grappling-hook gun and beating murderers and rapists to a bloody pulp while mentally composing your next journal entry, that’s fine. But doing all that while wearing a cape? That’s just crazy.