Read Alex Grand’s Understanding Superhero Comic Books published by McFarland Books in 2023 with Foreword by Jim Steranko with editorial reviews by comic book professionals, Jim Shooter, Tom Palmer, Tom DeFalco, Danny Fingeroth, Alex Segura, Carl Potts, Guy Dorian Sr. and more.
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Like we discussed in a previous episode, Bernarr MacFadden and Harry Houdini had their career starts in the 1890s and their contributions colored the 20th century with mythology that went into Superman and Batman. Another thing that got its start in that same decade and colored the mythology of the 20th century was radioactivity which was discovered in 1896 by Henri Bacquerel. In 1899, radioactive decay energy was detected by Paul Villard when studying radium which was called gamma rays. After a couple decades of various scientist’s experiments, Robert Millikan coined the term, Cosmic Rays in the 1920s when he made ionization measurements that extended from under water and above the atmosphere, citing that their source was interstellar space. It didn’t take long to make it into science fiction later on in that decade in 1929
Here is a great cover to Science Wonder Stories 1929 illustrated by Frank R Paul (who also penciled the cover to Marvel Comics 1, 1939), along with one of his beautiful alien invasion interior illustrations. The seal of “A Gernsback Publication” is just great to see, but what matters more is what is found inside this book.
When reading the interior editorial, we see that the big G himself, the modern sci-fi grandmaster, Hugo Gernsback discusses the hidden power of “cosmic rays” as a recent discovery of Professor Milliken, and discusses that it is a terrific hidden sense of power that some day will benefit all of humanity. This discovery and Gernsback making note of it as imaginative inspiration sets forward a chain of events that result in cosmic rays and radiation in general being utilized in various comic books throughout history.
Many of us know about H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds book from 1898, however Wells lived a long life and in 1937 he wrote a sort of continuation of the story with his novel, Star-Begotten. This is an intriguing story about a man who wonders if Martians have already started to irradiate humans with Cosmic Rays to enhance their intelligence.
After seeing Cosmic Rays present in Pulps and Sci-Fi novels it’s only a matter of time seeing them in comic books like Quality Comics’ Smash Comics 14, Sep 1940 which has a character named The Ray, possibly written by Will Eisner and penciled by Lou Fine. This is about a super human originally augmented by a Cosmic Storm of light in a low level space trip in a “strato-balloon.” Through this cosmic ray exposure in the shuttle, the main character, Terrill ascends as a new form who can shape his body into superpowered Ray of light.
A couple months later in Blue Bolt 6, Nov 1940 by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, we have a MODOK like character who started out as humanoid and evolved by bombarding himself with cosmic rays.
He clearly describes himself as a scientist who unlocked the secret of cosmic rays and used his machinery to speed up processes of evolution where his mind was superpowered, and his body needed an exoskeleton to move around.
Jack Burnley also created a cosmic ray empowered hero in Starman from Adventure Comics 61, 1941 here are two panels discussing his gravity rod being empowered by the cosmic rays from the stars!
Bill Everett created a Cosmic Ray empowered Nazi killing hero called Conqueror in Victory Comics 1, August 1941, and here he is on the third cover.
Although they don’t visually portray the Conquerer getting Cosmic Rays, there is a text insert that comic companies would use to get cheaper shipping from the federal mail system that described his cosmic ray origins from a scientist.
Note the topics shown are really the same as what Gernsback said in 1929, that Cosmic Rays are healing and energizing, and improve a person a hundred percent, both physically and mentally!
In 1946, Jerry Robinson and Ken Crossen made Atoman with a suit that would inspire Captain Atom and Dr. Manhattan later with his origin as a scientist who works at an atomic institute who was exposed to nuclear materials and gained superpowers as a result.
This doesn’t stop, there is another Cosmic Ray mutation alert in Charlton’s The Thing 15, 1954 with art by Steve Ditko.
It is again the same scenario as with the Conqueror, but instead of a human, it’s worms. The scientist bombards artificial rays to mutate and augment life forms into larger and stronger sizes.
Bill Finger, co-creator of Batman, wrote a story with art by Dick Sprang in Batman 127, 1959 with an artificial Thor, the Thundergod. In this story, Thor was transformed into existence when a man’s Hammer is hit by a radioactive meteor. The man touches the Hammer, gets hypnotized into thinking he is Thor, grows in size and his hammer returns to his hand when thrown, and he steals money to pay for a temple for Odin.
In that same year, Jack Kirby and Dave Wood made the newspaper strip, Sky Masters 1959 and discussed the unpredictable effects of cosmic ray exposure for these astronauts.
Sky Masters went for realism rather than science fiction, however they make several references to the unpredictable effects of cosmic rays on humans, and that it can affect an entire team of astronauts. Due to the quest for realism, no super powers were produced in this strip.
Radiation induced cosmic super powers again went to a level similar to that of the 1940’s Ray when Steve Ditko and Joe Gill depicted Captain Adam being transformed into the cosmically powered, Captain Atom in Space Adventures 33, 1960.
In Space War 10, 1961 a similar story was made at Charlton likely by Joe Gill and definitely art by Steve Ditko in The Comeback about Atomic Radiation ascending a man to cosmic traveler status. Nothing like seeing a page or panel where Silver Age radiation transcends a human into the super normal category.
Later on in the same year, Fantastic Four 1, 1961 was released and created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee when our fabulous foursome gain their super powers by Cosmic Rays in a manner described in previous comics, as well as by Gernsback in 1929.
After Kid Flash Wally West premiered in Flash 110, 1959, several issues later in Flash 125, 1961, Barry Allen teaches him about how their time treadmill is cosmic ray powered and able to take them into the future or the past.
Hulk 1, 1962 by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee takes the radiation empowered character to an angry level with Gamma rays, again said to be man-made radiation igniting Bruce Banner’s cellular potential into the Incredible Hulk.
Amazing Fantasy 15, 1962 by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee have a Spider made radioactive by artificial means through human experimentation to bite Peter Parker turning him into your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man
Gold Key’s Doc Solar, Man of the Atom 1, 1962 is by Paul s. Newman and Bob Fujitani about a scientist who gains radioactive powers by absorbing too much man-made radiation through an act of atomic sabotage.
Another Radiation Superpower Alert! Doom Patrol 106, 1966 Negative Man back up origin story by Arnold Drake and Bruno Premiani where he is bathed in radio-energy and given structural and superhuman changes to his body.
In 1986, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons combined various origins of the previous characters, and augmented Dr. Manhattan with radiation in the same manner as described by Hugo Gernsback in 1929 and evolved him to the next level becoming an envied and pivotal character in this 12 issue mini-series.
After the 80s, it seemed that the idea of radiation induced superheros was not as en vogue as it was earlier in comics, and likely due to the height of the space race, America’s fascination with Cosmic Rays peaked in the 1960s with some activity before and after. However, it all started with little blips of radiation that were picked up in 1896, with the detection of Gamma Rays in 1899, and coining the term Cosmic Rays by Robert Millikan that got science fiction thinkers like Hugo Gernsback all aflutter with the pseudo-scientific possibilities of what could be in store for us next. That active imagination became a reoccurring theme in science fiction superhero comics throughout the 20th century, and although it’s not as fashionable now, it is nice to stop and smell the roses so we can appreciate another interesting aspect of the 20th century in comic books.
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Batman ©DC Comics, Flash ©DC Comics, Fantastic Four ©Marvel Comics, Captain Atom, Watchmen ©DC Comics, Doom Patrol ©DC Comics, Hulk ©Marvel Comics, Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom ©Dynamite Entertainment, Amazing Fantasy ©Marvel Comics, other images public domain.
Use of images are not intended to infringe on copyright, but merely used for academic purpose.