Sep 27, 2010

Top Five Most Important Pre-1938 Comics Superheroes!

So now that we have our list of top five most important superheroes post-1938 that have nothing to do with Marvel and DC, and our top five most important superheroes who didn't originate in comics, it's time for the top five most important pre-1938 superheroes who did!

Now, since the term "superhero" originated really because of Superman in 1938, they weren't really meant to apply to anyone created before. For this post, we'll define them as adventurers who have a desire to do good and help people, and if they have special abilities while they do that as well as a distinctive look/costume, the better.

An Honorable Mention to Terry and the Pirates. Milton Caniff's work was very influential to many generations of superhero creators. But as much as I may already be stretching the definition of the term "superhero" with my number five pick, he at least resembles one on the superficial level, while Terry does not.

Here we go!

5. Prince Valiant

Art by Hal Foster
Created by Hal Foster in 1937, Prince Valiant is the longest-running continuous story in comics existence. Foster's classicist depiction of the Arthurian-era hero is an inspiration to many a comics artist, and serves as a building block for any who want to carry on with medieval-era comics, of which there has been a considerable number.

I originally considered Tarzan for this spot, but he was disqualified due to not having originated in comics.

4. Mandrake the Magician and Lothar

Art by Phil Davis
In 1934, Lee Falk created Mandrake the Magician, who pretty much dressed up like your regular stage magician and whose real power was to make people see things that weren't there. A whole slew of magical characters followed him, almost all adhering to the same model. The list includes Fawcett's Ibis the Invincible and DC's Sargon the Sorcerer and Zatara, father of Zatanna.

More importantly, Mandrake had a crimefighting partner named Lothar, an African prince who chose to go adventure with Mandrake. Although Falk characterized Lothar as having broken English and made him subservient to Mandrake, one must take into account the times (please refer to my Ebony White article) and give credit to Falk that Lothar was neither drawn in blackface nor portrayed as incompetent. In fact, he was Mandrake's ace in the hole, as he was the strongest man in the world.

Mandrake and Lothar are widely accepted as the first interrarcial crimefighting duo.

3. Dick Tracy

Art by Chester Gould most likely Dick Locher (Thanks, Booksteve!)
Created by Chester Gould in 1931, Dick Tracy pretty much started a bunch of things, including being the first actual police procedural mystery comic and also being the first of its kind in that it invented all that fancy-schmancy detective equipment. But what really sets Dick Tracy apart and above the rest is his villains - the first ever collection of characters that was rightly deemed a "rogues' gallery," a term now in the generic superhero lexicon. With characters who resembled their names, such as Flattop Jones, Pruneface, and Cheater Gunsmoke, Gould harnessed the power of icons, semiotics, and symbols and played them up in his comics for a powerful and surreal effect. Many comics are equally as serious as they are silly, and it could be argued that Dick Tracy is the first to do so. Nonetheless, it can't be argued that Dick Tracy showed how important good villains are.

2. The Phantom

Art by Dave Gibbons

Kit Walker is the 21st Phantom, created by Lee Falk in 1936. He is, really, the first legacy hero, which is pretty much the foundation of DC Comics (and even Marvel, to an extent) these days. When one Phantom dies, his son takes his place.

More than that though, the Phantom is the archetypal action/adventure hero, with his adventures taking place in Africa and lore surrounding the Phantom, with old jungle sayings like "The Ghost Who Walks can never die," or "Those who see the true face of the Phantom will surely die a horrible death." He was also the first to wear a skintight costume and a mask that covered the pupils, setting a precedent for many, many superhero costumes.

There is a Phantom comic book being published today, and the rights for him are always hotly contested whenever the expiration date comes up.

1. Flash Gordon

In 1934, Alex Raymond changed the comics universe by unleashing into it the space adventure strip known as Flash Gordon. Raymond's figure work, still emulated and imitated (but never duplicated) today, drew readers in, giving it an insanely high readership. The title character and his true love, Dale Arden, along with a scientist named Hans Zarkov, are transported to a far-off planet called Mongo, a world ruled by the tyrannical Ming the Merciless.

As Alex Raymond's style is still copied today, Flash Gordon is continually held in high esteem, with revivals and reprints upon revivals and reprints. Alex Raymond and Flash Gordon is the reason a lot of comics look the way they do, and they are also partly the reason why there is a large section of comics and other works that take place in space. In fact, Flash Gordon is the direct inspiration for a little movie franchise called Star Wars. You may have heard of it.

Interestingly, in 1986, Flash Gordon was the leader in the animated series Defenders of the Earth, where the other members were the Phantom, Mandrake, and Lothar - all updated (especially Lothar) for the 80s. All four characters are distributed by King Features Syndicate, as is Prince Valiant (who showed up in the show as well!).

The Defenders of the Earth, and their kids.

Did I miss anyone? Do you agree? Disagree? Let me know!


Dev said...

Glad to see the Phantom on here! He was one of my favourite characters growing up. His newspaper strip has been published in India since my Dad was a kid! Plus, an Indian publication called 'Diamond' compiled and published most of the stories - great work and fantastic character! But btw, since I'm too lazy to actually go to your earlier post and comment there, I'm a little disappointed in Asterix and Lucky Luke being left out in the post '38 superheroes. They're both hilarious, fun and meet the special ability/special outfit criteria. Super strength (Magic potion - Asterix) Shoots faster than his shadow (Lucky Luke). For any kid who didn't grow up in America, I know that these characters resonate strongly till today!

Duy Tano said...

The top spot on this list was always going to go to either Flash Gordon or the Phantom, and I don't think many people are going to dispute that the Phantom is cooler than Flash Gordon (even in the Defenders of the Earth cartoon, Phantom was much cooler). I love the character and he's really the first one to show the fundamental absurdity of the genre -- he's a serious, serious legendary figure, and he's in PURPLE. Love it.

I have to be honest - I've never heard of Lucky Luke! And looking at him on Google, he looks like Woody!

I considered Asterix, but when I thought about it in terms of influence, I just didn't see how he could knock any of the five down the list. Similarly, I considered Tintin for this one, but unfortunately, he just doesn't count as a superhero.

Booksteve said...

By the way, that's not Chester Gould art on the DICK TRACY cover you ran. That's from the 1980's run and looks like Dick Locher's work.

As for LUCKY LUKE, mentioned in the comments, not only are the comics fun but there's a marvelous English language TV series from the early eighties with Terrence Hill and a not bad multi-million dollar French film version released last year...although not in the US.

Oh, and just to let you know, I've been enjoying the blog and plugged this post in my daily column at I.T.C.H. today!

Duy Tano said...

Steve, I honestly love being wrong; it just means there's more to learn. Was Dick Tracy ever drawn in anything other than that Chester Gould house style?

This Lucky Luke story is a revelation; I don't think he ever came to the Philippines, and in all of my "comics history" books and over 10 years of surfing the Internet, I've never ever heard of him. Aside from being fun, was he influential?

And thanks for the plug, Steve! I'm not sure "presumptuous" is the right word. "Lacking choices, thereby making the selection process easy" is probably better.

Booksteve said...

I'm not sure how influential LUCKY LUKE would be considered. He never really made much of a showing here, either, although I recall several different attempts at releasing his graphic novels in the US since the seventies. There are a whole bunch of European graphic novels and strips done in similar style but that could be attributed as much to ASTERIX, also by Luke's co-creator Rene Goscinny.

The LUCKY LUKE TV series was very much a compromise and probably didn't please Luke purists but I loved it. Fun, clever, well-acted and wonderfully cast! Was released on VHS in the US only and quickly disappeared. The recent film was more like the comics but even then took the visuals to a much more realistic look.

As far as Tracy, when Max Collins took over as Gould's hand-picked successor in the late seventies, the art continued to be the same as Gould's longtime assistant Rick Fletcher continued on. When Fletcher died suddenly, an earlier Gould assistant, Dick Locher, was brought in. Over time, Locher stylized the art into a slightly different direction but still the recognizable Tracy of all those years of adventures!

Dev said...

Duy, Duy - be glad. Rene Goscinny was a genius and you've just found a whole new section of his work to read in Lucky Luke. But be sure to get a good english translation! ( The original stuff was in french) The ones I read growing up were published in Britain and really captured the flavour of the original writing while the ones published in India today are being translated by a local Indian firm that does a very literal translation, unfortunately killing half the humour.

Duy Tano said...

Dang, more things to find! Thanks, folks!

The Professor said...

No love for Buck Rogers?

Duy Tano said...

I considered Buck Rogers, but then figured that Flash Gordon had whatever Buck could cover covered. Or would I be getting that wrong?

The Professor said...

I think Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon were pretty different. There weren't so many Bug-Eyed-Monsters in Flash Gordon. But, could I bump any of your top five with Buck Rogers? Probably not. But if you were aiming for a top 10 list ...

Duy Tano said...

I considered Buck Rogers in place of Prince Valiant (and I actually considered Mandrake and Lothar as two separate spots). I'd read that Flash Gordon started out as an imitation of Buck, and that Buck also spawned an imitator called Brick Bradford, who, like Flash, was more durable than Buck. Which surprises me, because who the hell is Brick Bradford?

To be honest, everyone in the running past the first four slots was so behind of the first four slots in my mind, that I'd be happy to hear who anyone's top 10 may be!

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