14 Not-So-Famous Firsts in Comic Book History
1. The first masked hero to debut in a comic book
What you might think: “Batman. Duh.”
In fact… Masked heroes have a long history in literature (think Zorro or the Scarlet Pimpernel), but it wasn’t until the invention of the comic book that the masked-hero genre really took off. And while he’s almost forgotten today, the Clock has the honour of being the first masked hero to debut in a comic book. George Brenner’s creation first appeared in Funny Pages #6 (11/36), a book published by the imaginatively named Comics Magazine Company just two years after the first comic book rolled off the presses (Famous Funnies #1, cover dated July 1934). Sharing the book with such characters as Little Beezer and Loony Louie, the Clock foiled a bank robbery while wearing a full-face mask and business suit. Later stories established he usually left a calling card at crime scenes that depicted a clock and the words “The Clock Has Struck” on it; his secret identity and qualifications as an action hero (he played football and polo, people!) were filled in later. He may also have helped inspire Will Eisner to come up with the Spirit, another masked hero in a business suit, but that’s about the biggest claim to fame the Clock can hope for. The Clock’s adventures ran in one anthology series or another until 1944.
2. The first female superhero
What you might think: “Wonder Woman. Duh.”
In fact… This one is a little tricky, and it depends on how you define “superhero.” Wonder Woman debuted in All Star Comics #8, cover dated December 1941. But Trina Robbins, comics historian and author of 1996’s The Great Women Superheroes, considers the Woman in Red the first true female superhero, appearing more than a year before everyone’s favorite Amazon, in Thrilling Comics #2 (March 1940). Policewoman Peggy Allen created her alter ego as a way to get around those pesky constitutional rights that hamper police officers and other crime fighters who allow their true identities to be known. Her costume was a bright red hooded cloak that extended to her ankles — probably not the most practical outfit when fighting crime, but at least she had the good sense to also pack heat. She appeared sporadically in her company’s titles for five years before vanishing into obscurity. But if we’re willing to bend the rules about who gets to be called a superhero, the honor of being the first female superhero might go to Fantomah, Queen of the Jungle, one of the early “jungle queens” produced by Fiction House, a company famed for its many jungle-themed women. Fantomah was gifted with magical powers that, when summoned, turned her face into a skull (but, interestingly, kept her blonde hair intact); her transformation and powers were de-emphasized in later stories. She debuted in Jungle Comics #2 a month before the Woman in Red, and like the Woman in Red she made a few scattered appearances before disappearing completely.
3. The first patriot-themed superhero
What you might think: “Captain America. Duh.”
In fact… Captain America holds a place in history as the first comic-book character to debut in his own title (even Superman had to audition in Action Comics before getting his own book), but he wasn’t the first patriotic hero to hit the stands. That honor goes to the Shield, whose first appearance in MLJ’s Pep Comics #1 (January 1940) beat the Captain’s debut by a good 14 months, making him the first of many red-white-and-blue heroes to appear in the months leading up to America’s entry into the Second World War. Like Captain America, Harry Shorten’s creation developed his superhuman physique by ingesting chemicals designed by an elderly scientist who was later gunned down by enemy agents (only in the Shield’s case, the elderly scientist was his own father). And like most heroes back in the day, he picked up a youthful sidekick — Dusty the Boy Detective — and dutifully kicked Nazi butt until his retirement in 1945. Fun fact: it was the threat of a copyright lawsuit by MLJ that forced Timely (Marvel’s earlier incarnation) to change the shape of Captain America’s shield, from the triangular-shaped accessory seen on the cover of Captain America #1 to the more familiar circular shield that Cap’s fans know and love.
4. The first film adaptation of a superhero comic
What you might think: “Definitely something with Superman in it. If it isn’t the 1978 movie, then it’s probably a movie that came out in the ’50s when his TV show was really big.”
In fact… 1941 was a good year for Captain Marvel. Just one year after his debut in Fawcett’s Whiz Comics, he was starring in his own self-titled magazine and in Adventures of Captain Marvel, a 12-chapter serial by Republic Pictures (in those days before television, movie studios produced multi-chapter serials that theatres would show before a main feature; moviegoers would have to come back each week to see the next thrilling chapter). When the first chapter, “Curse of the Scorpion,” appeared in theatres March 28, 1941, it predated the Fleischer Studios’ Superman cartoons (Superman’s film debut) by six months and Columbia’s live-action Superman serial by almost seven years. Republic tried twice to secure the rights to Superman for a serial — both before and right after it filmed Adventures of Captain Marvel — but National Comics (later DC) insisted on absolute control of the project, and the film rights to Superman were later tied up by the cartoon series. Which just goes to show that even back then it was impossible to get a Superman movie off the ground without a bunch of corporate types mucking things up.
5. The first superhero wedding
What you might think: The wedding of the Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards and Susan Storm, or maybe Superman and Lois Lane in that 1996 special wedding issue
In fact… While 1965’s Fantastic Four Annual #3 features one of the wildest stories about a superhero wedding, with guest stars and cameos from pretty much every hero and villain in the Marvel universe up to that point, Reed and Susan missed being the very first superhero wedding by a few months. The previous year, DC’s Aquaman and his bride, Mera, tied the knot in Aquaman #18 (11-12/64), with members of the Justice League in attendance as guests. As I noted in a previous list celebrating memorable superhero wedding covers, Mera was introduced to readers as the queen of the “Dimension Aqua,” an other-dimensional realm of water, and she first appeared in Aquaman’s life only seven issues prior to this one — compared to the four years it took Reed and Susan to tie the knot, and the 58 years it took Clark and Lois to get hitched. When the King of Atlantis sees what he wants, he doesn’t fool around.
6. The first Disney character to not debut in a cartoon
What you might think: Scrooge McDuck, probably the most famous Disney character who didn’t start out in an animated feature
In fact… Mickey Mouse made his animated debut in 1928, and it didn’t take long for a merchandising empire to spring up around him and the rest of the Disney crew. By 1932, that empire included Silly Symphonies, a Sunday-only newspaper comic strip featuring Bucky Bug, the only Disney character up to that time to make his debut in a non-animated medium. Bucky, who always talked in meter and rhyme, made regular appearances in the newspaper strip until 1934, and later saw his story continued 10 years later in the back pages of Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories, where he starred in new stories every month until 1950. Since then, there have been a few attempts to revive Bucky, like new stories published by Gladstone Comics in the 1990s, but his lack of screen time (he may have starred in one Silly Symphonies cartoon, 1932’s Bugs in Love, but the stars of that short weren’t mentioned by name) and lack of connection to the rest of the Disney universe have pretty much relegated him to the land of almost-forgotten Disney characters. (P.S. The world’s richest duck made his debut in 1947’s Four Color Comics #178; his first appearance in animated form was in the 1967 theatrical short Scrooge McDuck and Money.)
7. The first Western comic
What you might think: “I dunno, probably a book starring Roy Rogers or one of those other famous movie cowboys.”
In fact… Western stories were a natural fit for the comics, and the very first comic books featured reprints of Western strips alongside the humor and adventure strips of the day. And the first all-original-content comic, New Fun Comics #1, featured Jack Woods, a law-and-order type of cowboy, right on the front cover. But it wasn’t until Centaur Publications came out with Western Picture Stories #1 and Star Ranger #1 (both cover-dated February 1937) in late 1936 that an all-Western title first appeared on newsstands. Dell Comics’ Crackajack Funnies debuted with a four-page Tom Mix story among its features in 1938, and it didn’t take long for movie studios to see the marketing potential; Mix, whose first self-titled book debuted in 1940, was only the first of many movie cowboys to add comics to his media empire.
8. The first animal superhero
What you might think: “Uh… Mighty Mouse?”
In fact… Funny animals were in the comics right from the beginning, and when superheroes exploded onto the scene for someone it was only natural to put two and two together and stick one of them in a cape. Mighty Mouse, probably the most famous of all funny-animal superheroes, first appeared in an animated short in October 1942… the same date that appears on the cover of Coo Coo Comics #1, which featured the first appearance of Supermouse, the Big Cheese (and since comics typically come out months before their cover dates, that means Supermouse came out before Mighty Mouse flew through theatres). Supermouse got his powers by eating super cheese, and a few of his stories revolved around dastardly types either depriving him of his stash or helping themselves to a nibble. And of course his archenemy was a cat — Terrible Tom, to be precise. Supermouse’s adventures continued until 1958, and ended only when his publisher got out of the comic business, so it’s a bit of a shame he’s been overshadowed by his “mighty” counterpart — but at least he has the pride of knowing he’ll always be the first.
9. The first cross-dressing superhero
What you might think: “Wait, they have those? Wow. It must have been a really recent thing, because I can’t imagine anyone in the old days would have been cool with something that kinky in a kid’s comic.”
In fact… Actor Richard Stanton had an interesting life. While he was amassing his fortune, he married the woman loved by gangster John Garver. Two years later, Garver got his revenge by kidnapping Stanton’s daughter, which caused the unnamed wife to die of heartbreak. Stanton then retired from the stage and disappeared from public view for the eight years it took to track down Garver and deliver justice (though the daughter never showed up). Oh yeah, and during all those years of tracking down Garver, Stanton lived and dressed as an old woman, with only a talking parrot for companionship. Ooookay, then. He was decked out as “Madam Fatal” when he confronted Garver and he continued to do so when he decided to keep on fighting crime. All this happened in issues of Crack Comics, where Madam Fatal made his/her first appearance in 1940; the writers never explained the reason for the masquerade, nor why Garver decided it was the perfect crime-fighting attire. Maybe some things are better left to the imagination.
10. The first superhero death
What you might think: “I remember they made a big fuss when Superman died a few years back, but they’re always killing off heroes in one of those big ‘events’ they’re always putting out. It has to be someone recent, though — there’s no way anyone would kill off a superhero back in the old days.”
In fact… In Pep Comics #1 (01/40), readers were introduced to John Dickering, a scientist who discovers a gas 50 times lighter than helium and decides the only rational thing to do with it is inject it into his bloodstream and become a superhero. The Comet could fly and shoot destructive energy beams out of his eyes, which is a lot more firepower than what most superheroes had going for them back in those days. But even a superhero can slip up, and he dies while protecting his brother from a gangster’s revenge. This prompts his brother, Bob Dickering, to start his career as the Hangman, filling his brother’s crimefighting shoes (even taking on his grieving girlfriend, Thelma Gordon, as his own) by first hunting down his killers and then anyone else who deserved a good hanging. This all happened in Pep Comics #17 (07/41), more than 50 years before anyone made a big fuss about Superman’s so-called death, and makes the Comet the first costumed superhero to die in the line of duty. It’s a pretty safe bet he probably would have chosen another claim to fame if he could.
11. The first comic-book swamp monster
What you might think: “Oh, come on! Swamp Thing, of course! It’s right there in his name, for crying out loud!”
In fact… DC’s Swamp Thing and Marvel’s Man-Thing both came along in 1971, soon after the Comics Code Authority relaxed its restrictions and allowed all manners of monsters to appear in the comics. But neither was the first monster to come shambling out of the morass; that honor belongs to the Heap, which first appeared in 1942. Hillman Periodicals’ Air Fighter Comics was devoted to tales about daring aviators, and the Heap in fact started out as one of those pilots. Specifically, he was Baron von Emmelmann, a German fighter pilot whose plane was shot down over a Polish swamp in the final days of the First World War. As his body slowly merged with the muck, it was only his strength of will that gave him the means to return to the world of humans — which he did, more than 20 years later. He was a frequent opponent of Sky Wolf (a Blackhawk knockoff) and even scored his own series in 1946, thanks to fans who were fascinated by a mindless antagonist who only ever seemed to harm other bad guys, like Nazis. And who could not love someone who beats up Nazis? (Fun fact: The Heap itself was no doubt inspired by “It,” a 1940 short story by sci-fi author Theodore Sturgeon in which a man who dies in a swamp comes back as a half-man, half-rotted vegetation monster to have his revenge on his enemies.)
12. First comic co-published by Marvel and DC
What you might think: “Obviously the big book that came out in the ’70s with Superman and Spider-Man teaming up. Man, that was a lot of fun.”
In fact… Superman vs. the Amazing Spider-Man, which came out in 1976, can rightly claim to be the first book starring characters from both companies, but it was only the second time the two U.S. comic book giants joined forces. In the 1970s, both publishers were in a bit of an arms race pumping out “treasury editions” — books that were larger, longer and more durable than the typical comic book — that featured both their characters and other fictional types like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. At around this time, MGM’s The Wizard of Oz (the 1939 film starring Judy Garland) was enjoying a resurgence thanks to repeated TV viewings and an upcoming toy line, and the film studio was looking for a comic publisher to produce a comic adaptation. Both companies started making their pitch, but decided to jointly publish the venture (no doubt guided by cost considerations, plus the fact that neither company had copyright over the characters). The result, 1975’s MGM’s Marvelous Wizard of Oz, was a faithful 72-page adaptation created by Marvel’s Roy Thomas and John Buscema.
13. The first comic book mini-series
What you might think: “Um… that Wolverine mini-series where he went to Japan? Crisis on Infinite Earths?”
In fact… Comic titles with only a few issues to their name have existed right from the beginning, but those titles typically ended because someone ran out of money, or the publishers decided to put out something else. The idea of publishing a title with a fully contained story within a pre-determined number of issues is a relatively recent one, and we can no doubt thank the introduction of the TV mini-series in the 1970s for the inspiration. 1979’s World of Krypton was a three-issue mini-series that was put out to capitalize on Superman’s high-flying film career at that time; the front cover promised readers “the story YOU demanded — the life of Superman’s father — JOR-EL!” (his mother was, apparently, not getting the fan mail that Krypton’s resident dog-napper and mad scientist had been piling up over the years). A second “history of Krypton” mini-series, Krypton Chronicles, followed in 1981; plenty more followed after that, including such critical darlings and fan favorites as Wolverine (1982), The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Watchmen (1986).
14. The first comic with a variant cover
What you might think: “Well, I remember the first issue of Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man book had a bunch of different covers.”
In fact: These days, producing variant covers (or books printed several times with different cover art for each printing) is seen as a cynical marketing ploy, a way to get collectors to shell out more than once for the same issue that surely ranks right up there with the most blatant cover gimmicks ever produced. But in the beginning, variant covers were… okay, they always were a marketing gimmick, let’s just admit that. But at least the first example of one, 1986’s The Man of Steel #1, was relatively restrained, with only two different covers for fans to choose from (an image of Krypton exploding for newsstand distribution, and a close-up of Superman opening his shirt for direct-sales outlets). The explosion of direct sales in the ’80s and the speculator boom in the ’90s led to many more examples of variant covers, from the put-all-the-covers-together-to-form-a-big-picture covers put out for X-Men #1 in 1991, to the you-gotta-be-kidding-me 13 variant covers for the first issue of Gen13 in 1995. At least those guys didn’t try to adapt Around the World in 80 Days...