While Captain America continues to enjoy patriotic salutes at the box office, one key aspect of his origin story gets downplayed in these modern times. For all the talk of “vita-rays” and such, Steve Rogers would still be a 98-lb. weakling today without the “super-soldier serum” — a chemical concoction cooked up by a scientist who dies right after giving Rogers a dose — coursing through his veins. Of all the methods by which Golden Age heroes gained their incredible powers, taking a pill or serum was one of the more common ones for a couple of reasons: it’s vaguely scientific, offers instant results, and it puts power in the hands of literally anyone, even a lowly research scientist like Rex “Tick-Tock” Tyler. Debuting a full year before Captain America, DC’s Hourman was a biochemist researching vitamins and hormone supplements when he discovered Miraclo, a drug that greatly increased a subject’s strength and speed for exactly one hour. In one of those moves that would surely not have been FDA-approved, he used himself as a human test subject and embarked on a career as a drug-enhanced superhero to help those in need. In recent years, both he and his son have been depicted as addicted to the stuff, reflecting changing societal attitudes towards performance-enhancing drugs. Now seen as a cautionary tale within the DC universe, Hourman’s son continues to fight evil using a form of Miraclo that’s non-addictive… or so he says.
2. Blue Beetle
Because so few men of action also happen to be scientists, a lot of super-heroes in the early days started out as ordinary guys who were lucky enough to have a generous scientist benefactor on their side. Dan Garrett was your typical police officer looking for a more flamboyant way to avenge his father’s death when a friendly neighborhood pharmacist gave him a special chain-mail suit (“as thin and light as silk but stronger than steel”) and an ample supply of Vitamin 2-X for temporary boosts in strength, stamina and healing abilities. How could a simple pharmacist come up with such a miracle drug? Why give it to only one guy in a mask instead of making millions off patenting it? How does a guy schooled in biochemistry and medicine also have the know-how to create a one-of-a-kind bulletproof suit? Shut up and buy the comic, that’s how. Interestingly enough, the Blue Beetle was never shown in the early stories carrying a supply of Vitamin 2-X with him; every time he sprung into action, he had to make a visit to the pharmacist’s drugstore first, where he’d don his uniform and pop a pill inside a secret room. Let’s hope the local bank robbers were polite enough to wait.
3. The Terror
Captain America wasn’t the only Marvel character to owe his superhero abilities to a miraculous drug; heck, he wasn’t the only Marvel character who debuted in a book cover-dated March 1941 who could make that claim. Introduced in Timely’s Mystic Comics #5, Laslo Pevely was injured in a car accident when a reclusive scientist named Dr. John Storm (no relation to that Human Torch guy) found him. Proving to be a better chemist than ethicist, Dr. Storm injected the amnesiac accident victim with chemicals derived from his dog’s blood, after the pet accidentally ingested a formula the doctor was working on and transformed into a monster to protect his master from a rampaging ape. And if all that doesn’t sound far-fetched enough, a group of mobsters chose that same night to break into the doctor’s house and coerce him into helping them in their crooked schemes — causing a doped-up Pevely to wake up, assume the bone-white visage of the Terror, and kill the intruders. Um… okay. As Marvel’s wiki puts it, “Pevely, who suffered amnesia as a result of the accident, subsequently found himself transformed whenever evil was near into a vampiric creature who would wreak terrible vengeance on the perpetrators.” A vampiric creature whose drug injection also gave him the power to materialize his costume at will, it seems. Simpler times.
4. Captain Wonder
Presumably hoping to catch lightning in a bottle twice, Marvel published the first adventure of Otto Binder’s Captain Wonder in 1943’s Kid Komics #1. Jeff Jordan was a chemistry high school teacher who dabbled in experiments to create a “wonder fluid” that could increase human strength by a factor of 12. One day, while a student named Tim helped him after school with his experiments, Tim accidentally knocked over a test tube, which filled the room with gas from Jordan’s latest experiment. Both of them inhaled the mysterious gas, which immediately bestowed super-strength on both of them, and the ability of flight on Jordan. Obviously, the only thing they could do at that point was put on masks, adopt superhero identities and fight Nazis, with Jordan calling himself Captain Wonder and Tim calling himself… um, “Tim.” Well, that’s easy to remember, I guess.
5. Black Terror
Hey, look! It’s another Golden Age superhero with questionable fashion sense and a junior sidekick named Tim. Actually, I amend my earlier statement: clearly, Marvel was trying to rip off Nedor’s Black Terror, and not its own Captain America, when it published the adventures of Captain Wonder. Let’s review. Science-y occupation? Check (science teacher/pharmacist). Alliterative civilian name? Check (Jeff Jordan/Bob Benton). Teen sidekick named Tim? Check. Developed super-powers after breathing in gas (“formic ethers” in the Black Terror’s case) derived from secret formulas that both fellows were working on? Ch eck. Divided their time between gangsters and Axis spies and saboteurs? Check. At least Captain Wonder and his sidekick didn’t dress alike and call themselves the Terror Twins, which… yeah, getting a little creepy there, Bob.
6. Doll Man
Comic historians agree Doll Man was the first superhero to have super-shrinking powers and the worst superhero to go to for ideas for a kick-ass codename (seriously, folks: “Doll Man“…???). Darrel Dane was — surprise! — a research chemist who invents a formula that enables him to shrink to the height of six inches while retaining the full strength of his normal size. Why did he do this? What practical applications would this have in the real world? How would ingesting a drug have any impact on a subject’s mass? Who cares? We’ve got pictures of him using a pencil as a spear! Cower in fear, ankles of evil-doers! In all seriousness, Doll Man was one of the more popular heroes in the Quality Comics line-up, eventually scoring himself a female sidekick (Doll Girl), canine companion (Elmo the Wonder Dog, whom he often rode) and his own Dollplane, which was (as one online source puts it) “deceptively presented as a model airplane in his study when not in use.” Ha! Let’s see your fancy-shmancy Batmobile do that!
7. The Great Defender
As I mentioned in an earlier list about patriotic pretenders to Captain America’s throne, Stormy Foster (really, that was his name) was just another meek and mild pharmacy assistant who discovered a “vitamin” (read: drug) that could give him the strength, speed and endurance of ten men. He was assisted in his superhero adventures by Ah Choo, a slightly stereotypical Chinese-American boy; Dr. Vaughan, his kind and oblivious boss who rarely questioned Foster’s tendency to disappear for hours at a time, or ever wondered where his store’s supply of vitamin ingredients kept going; and of course his bare legs and tightie-whities, which were his first line of defence against the forces of evil. At least, that’s what I’m sure he told anyone who asked.
8. Master Man
I’m quoting the first issue of Master Comics because this kind of florid prose belongs to the ages: “Master Man! Stronger than untamed horses! Swifter than raging winds! Braver than mighty lions! Wiser than wisdom, kind as Galahad is Master Man, the wonder of the world! As a boy, young Master Man was weak until a wise old doctor gave the youth a magic capsule, full of vitamins, containing every source of energy known to man! The boy becomes the strongest man on Earth!” That’s one potent capsule, Doc. His hobbies included building castles out of rocks and sitting on mountaintops waiting for calls for help. Fawcett’s Master Man was one of several characters that appeared shortly after Superman’s debut, and he lasted a full six issues before a threatened lawsuit by Superman’s publishers ended his career. “Wiser than wisdom” don’t mean squat when the lawyers show up, it seems.
9. Dick Cole
Any time you find yourself wondering why today’s scientists are bound by pesky rules that don’t allow the use of babies in experiments, think of little Dick Cole. Abandoned by his mother on the doorstep of a professor famed for his theories about how to raise “a perfect specimen of manhood,” young Dick Cole was subjected to “special vitamin serums” and radiation treatments to boost his strength and intelligence. Despite his serious lack of ethics, the professor was on to something; Dick was talking by age one and graduated with honors from high school at age 12, allowing him to spend the rest of his teen years travelling the world and learning all kinds of athletic skills. Cole then enrolled at a military academy where he kept his special abilities secret while he foiled criminal and spies in between drills and inspections — because of course any scientist who has discovered the secret to raising a super-intelligent and physically perfect teenager wants to keep everyone from finding out what he did. Sometimes I think the early comic publishers didn’t have a high opinion of their readers’ intelligence.
10. Doc Strange
Not the mustachioed Sorcerer Supreme familiar to Marvel readers, this Doc Strange is a brilliant scientist who developed a serum called Alosun, a “distillate of sun atoms” that gives him standard superpowers trifecta (strength, flight, invulnerability). He didn’t wear a mask or have a secret identity, which meant the mayor of his hometown could (and often did) call him up to ask for help with whenever the local police couldn’t handle on their own. Not to worry, though; when Strange needed to get away from it all, he and his sidekick Mike travelled to other parts of the United States in search of crimes to foil. And… that’s pretty much it. Never the flashiest of heroes (an “S” on his belt buckle was as far as he was willing to go with the whole superhero suit thing), Doc Strange faded away with the rest of Standard’s stable of heroes after the war, leaving only the nagging question: how the hell do you distill atoms from the sun?
11. Iron Vic
What is it with scientists finding dying amnesia victims wherever they go? First it was Terror, now it’s this guy. As the story goes, two scientists who would indeed qualify as “mad” come across a dying man on the beach and treated him with a special serum they had developed — a serum that, when irradiated with infra-red light, grants the subject super-strength and super-intellect. One of the scientists promptly died soon after, but the other survived to aid the mysterious man now known as Iron Vic in his never-ending battle against criminals and spies. For no discernible reason, Iron Vic decided to do his crime-fighting in a tuxedo and red opera cape. The only other thing that distinguished him from the rest of the doped-up do-gooders back then was his choice of occupation; seeking meaningful employment, he became a minor-league baseball player, even though his drug-enhanced abilities gave him an unfair advantage on the field. Didn’t matter; before long, he wasn’t even talking about his superheroing anymore, and except for a year in the Marines, spent the rest of his days playing ball.
12. Little Giant
And then there are the times when the life of a comic-book scientist really sucks. Sure, you could sit around and wait for a mother to abandon her baby on your doorstep, or wait for a dying accident victim with severe amnesia to show up just when you’ve discovered an amazing strength-enhancing serum. But what if you’ve got a drug that you want to test on humans right now and there isn’t an abandoned baby or accident victim anywhere in sight? Why, just walk up to the next red-blooded American boy you see and ask him to be your guinea pig. Rusty was an orphaned newsboy when Professor Rednow injected him (with some warning, one hopes) with a serum called “Impruvogen” to give him the strength of a dozen men, limited invulnerability and superhuman speed. What, no flight? Of course not, the idea of a drug bestowing the power of flight is simply absurd. No, the professor tackled that by giving Rusty a special suit that reduced the effects of gravity on him, allowing him to make incredible leaps. Because he just happened to have one of those lying around, see.
Lest anyone think that only the boys were taking advantage of all the strength-bestowing vitamins and serums back then, here’s a jungle gal who gained superhuman strength after drinking an experimental drug. Lynn Thomas was your average medical mission pilot in the jungle when her plane carrying a drug intended for plague victims crashed in a storm. She accidentally drank the drug, then fought off a lion with her own hands, leading the natives that found her to proclaim her The Tawny One, the leader they believed would be sent to them by their gods. And so began the career of Tygra, whose brief career (1947-8) left her very little time to answer a few basic questions: (1) How did she end up with the name and striped pattern of a jungle cat not native to Africa? (2) What do you suppose happened to those plague victims that were waiting for that miracle drug? (3) How do you “accidentally” drink a medicine you were asked to deliver to someone else?
Arriving in that same early wave of heroes that showed up after Superman’s runaway success, Bulletman was Fawcett’s most successful superhero without “Marvel” in his name. The son of a police officer murdered by criminals, young Jim Barr swears vengeance against all criminals — but unlike Batman, he channels his energies into becoming a forensic scientist, where his aptitude for ballistics earned him the nickname “Bullet Barr.” Using his superior knowledge of chemistry, Barr created a formula that he thought would purge the human body of toxins that turn people criminal; trying it on himself, he gained 60 lbs. of muscle overnight with a corresponding increase in his intelligence. (It’s probably a good thing he didn’t try to test it out on actual criminals first.) Next on his to-do list: using his increased mental powers to invent a “gravity regulating” helmet that enabled him to fly (and, not coincidentally, made his head look like a bullet), with the added benefit of magnetically preventing real bullets from reaching his body. Bulletgirl, Bulletboy and Bulletdog soon followed and okay I think we’re done here.
15. Sky Wizard
Also appearing during that first rush of heroes that followed in Superman’s wake, Sky Wizard was an ordinary man whose greatest strength was his scientific genius (which sadly did not extend to a genius for fashion sense). The “Master of Space” built himself a “stratosphere plane” (basically an enormous flying island) and flew it on various missions, like rescuing his buddy Captain Dare from the clutches of the evil Tibetan tyrant known as The Unholy One. He was aided in his adventures (as any proper Caucasian adventurer should) by his Sikh manservant, Keeshan. Oh, and Capt. Dare’s children came along for the ride because why they hell not. Along that same why-the-hell-not line of thought, Sky Wizard created a drug in his second appearance in Hillman’s Miracle Comics that temporarily boosted his strength and speed — and he can quit taking it ANY TIME HE WANTS, SO BACK OFF, OKAY, JUST BACK OFF!
AAAAAHHHH! AVERT YOUR EYES, CHILDREN! HE MAY TAKE ON OTHER FORMS! Sorry you had to see that, but if pictures like this is what it takes to keep innocent kids from popping pills, well… Truth is, there were hundreds (if not thousands) of superheroes in the 1940s who are barely remembered today, and I’ve only scratched the surface here cataloging those characters who owed their powers to drugs, vitamins, serums, special herbs and spices, you name it. But let’s end this list with one of the last drug-enhanced characters to come out of the Golden Age, a tiny (and damn creepy-looking) fellow by the name of Tom Tot. This spunky newsboy wore his leopard-skin uniform under his clothes, ready at all times to “vitamize, vitalize and atomize” and become Atomictot, enemy of evildoers everywhere! What kind of evildoers? Well, the kind who experiment on children and turn them into monkeys (as opposed to the other scientists who pump untested drugs into randomly selected boys, which was totally aces back then). Played for laughs, Atomictot (his name being an attempt to cash in on peoples’ fascination with atomic power post-1945) appeared in Quality’s All Humor Comics between 1946 and 1949. It’s almost a shame he didn’t survive into the 1950s; I can only imagine what Doc Wertham would have had to say about a kid popping pills and dressing like that in public. At least Robin kept his prepubescent nipples under wraps…