The comic book landscape is hungry for obscurity.
Websites like Key Collector grow in popularity, and cater to people who hunt for more and more obscure “Key issues”.
We all know about Action Comics #1, the First Appearance of Superman, and Amazing Fantasy #15, the first appearance of Spider-Man. But as these books grow more and more unattainable for the regular collector, today’s comic fan hunts for keys that other people may have overlooked. Currently the trend is “first appearance of an alternate version of a character you know”, or “First appearance of a supporting character who hasn’t been exploited yet”.
This is all well and good if you’re into that kind of thing, but it overlooks some of the reasons books like Action Comics #1 were sought after to begin with.
The Historical significance.
The beginning of something.
The birth of a legacy.
The birth of a popular trend.
Here are 5 characters that made history who history forgot (and some for good reason)
Minimidget The Miniature Man (The First small/shrunken superhero)
Created by: John F. Kolb
First Appearance: Amazing-Man #5 (September 1939)
The Story: A Mad Scientist with the last name of Barmell is out to get his brother’s money, so he shrinks down an unnamed man and a woman named Ritty to do his bidding. The shrinking process seems to have also given him commanding powers over them, because he sends the man (Minimidget) to kill his brother with a tiny poison sword, and Minimidget complies with no hesitation. It’s never mentioned what Dr. Barmell makes Ritty do, as she is only mentioned as being shrunk, so one can only imagine what weird fetish Dr. Barmell is taking part in.
Minimidget kills Dr. Barmell’s brother, but Dr. Barmell was only left 2 cents in the will, so he sends threatening letters to his brother’s two partners and niece who inherited the bulk of his fortune, promising death if he doesn’t receive payment. The police tell them not to pay and sends detectives to guard them. One of the partners, Mr. James, is already dead when they arrive. The police weren’t counting on a “supermidget” created by a mad scientist!
Minimidget is sent to kill the other partner, and is able to kill not only the partner, but his cat as well, all under the nose of the detective who wasn’t expecting a supermidget. The police suspect Dr. Barmell, but he was home all night and his janitor verifies his alibi. The police are stumped!
The only one left with his brother’s money is his niece. Dr. Barmell celebrates by making Minimidget and Ritty dance.
When Minimidget is sent to kill the niece, he gets caught in a mousetrap and is seemingly killed.
The Police go to arrest Dr. Barmell, but while trying to throw a vial of nitroglycerine at the cops, he squeezes the vial too hard and dies in an explosion.
Even though he is a mind controlled murderer and supposedly dies, Minimidget returns in the next issue, where he foils a robbery and is gifted a tiny plane by the police. He and Ritty appear in several more issues where they fight crime, crash on a desert island, are forced to rob a bank, and get sent to the future. But mostly they struggle with being tiny.
Minimidget predates other small heroes like Doll Man (December 1939) Shrinking Violet (May 1961) The Atom (October 1961), Ant-Man (September 1962), Wasp (June 1963), Elasti-girl (June 1963), and others.
While Minimidget predates other shrunken comic characters, I’d wager the story and character were inspired by Dr. Pretorius and his shrunken people from Bride of Frankenstein released in April 1935.
Madam Fatal (The First cross-dressing superhero)
Created by: Art Pinajian
First Appearance: Crack Comics #1 (May 1940)
The Story: Some racketeers are trying to extort a housewife named Sarah, but the Sarah’s neighbor is an old woman named Madam Fatal who is not what she seems. As the thugs try to shake Sarah down, Madam Fatal beats them up with the strength of a regular man!
Madam Fatal finds a business card belonging to John Carver in one of the thugs pockets while Sarah stands in disbelief, she can’t believe her frail neighbor took out the thugs. Madam Fatal credits Morning Radio Setting-Up Exercises and goes on her way. Some sleuthing occurs, and Madam Fatal is able to find John Carver’s home address. She goes home to talk to her parrot. She’s finally close to finding John Carver, and she even blows off tutoring a local boy in math so she can go out and find the man she’s been looking for.
Madame Fatal lies in wait, and jumps in front of a car driven by John Carver and his goons, who take her back to his hideout to see if she’s okay. As you do. Back in his hideout, John Carver discovers newspaper clippings in the old lady’s pockets. It turns out she is a Male actor and Master of Makeup named Richard Stanton whose final acting role was that of an old lady.
While Madam Fatal/Richard monologues about how his wife died of a broken heart when the police couldn’t find their kidnapped daughter, John Carver punches him in the face. While she’s down, John Carver pulls out a gun, but Madam Fatal literally pulls the rug from under him and he shoots himself. John Carver lives long enough to tell Madam Fatal that his daughter is still alive. Richard Stanton/Madam Fatal vows to stay an old woman and fight crime.
Earlier in the story Madam Fatal tells her parrot that she’s been looking for John Carver for 8 years, but later she tells John Carver she’s been masquerading as a woman for 9 years, so presumably Richard decided to dress as an old woman before he decided to get revenge, and when his daughter’s kidnapper is killed, Richard finds an excuse to keep up his masquerade as an old woman.
A number of superheroes have crossdressed in their careers, from Batman to Captain America. Only a small handful made it their full time gig, like the original Red Tornado. Red Tornado was a woman named Abigail “Ma” Hunkel who’s superhero identity was Male. Ma Hunkel made her debut in June 1939, and while this predates Madam Fatal, Ma Hunkel didn’t debut as Red Tornado until November 1940, which came after. So while the character of Ma Hunkel predates Madam Fatal, Madam Fatal is the first hero to cross the gender barrier.
I believe the inspiration for Madam Fatal was Lon Chaney in The Unholy Three (There was two versions, both starring Lon Chaney, a silent version from 1925, and a “Talkie” from 1930). Lon Chaney was known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces”, and his final role before he died of throat cancer was a criminal who pretended to be an old woman named Mrs. O’Grady. Part of Mrs. O’Grady’s scheme involved Parrots. The inclusion of a pet parrot, the moniker of “The Master of Makeup”, the final role being that of an old woman, and the look of the character leaves me with no doubt that Lon Chaney inspired this character.
Kismet, Man of Fate (First Muslim Superhero)
Credited to: Omar Tahan (Likely a false name, possibly written by Ruth Roche, possibly penciled by Matt Baker, because this was a comic produced under studio conditions, it’s likely several hands were involved in it’s creation)
First Appearance: Bomber Comics #1 (March 1944)
The Story: Nazis are occupying Prague, and the underground worriedly awaits the arrival of Freydrich, a Nazi officer known for his cruelty (aren’t they all?). The underground tries to plan Freydrich’s assassination, but can’t crack it. Kismet shows up, and promises to draw Freydrich’s guards away so they can get a clear shot at him. Kismet fights Nazis and gives the allies the chance they need to assassinate Freydrich.
As retaliation for Freydrich’s assassination, 700 Czech civilians are killed. Kismet decides to go undercover in the Gestapo headquarters to take out the local Nazi leaders.
Kismet single-handedly takes every Nazi hostage and delivers them to the allies, where they are shot.
A final Nazi officer threatens to smash a vial of nitroglycerine and kill them all, Kismet snatches the vial from him and gives it to the underground, who uses it to blow up the Nazi officer. Kismet vows to avenge the Czechs and goes on to fight more Nazis.
Kismet is unashamedly Muslim, and predates other mainstream Muslim heroes by almost 50 years like Iron Butterfly (1993) M (1994) Dust (2002) Nightrunner (2011) Simon Baz AKA one of the Green Lanterns (2012) Kamala Khan AKA Ms. Marvel (2013) and many others.
The Comet (The First superhero to be killed off)
Created by: Jack Cole
Killed By: Cliff Campbell and Irv Novick
First Appearance: Pep Comics #1 (January 1940)
Dies in: Pep Comics #17 (July 1941)
If Pep Comics sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same comic that birthed Archie Andrews.
The Story: While under hypnosis in Pep Comics #3, The Comet killed two police officers. This causes him to work double time rounding up crooks hoping to make up for the murders, much to the chagrin of his Girlfriend Thelma, who laments the lack of time he spends with her.
The Comet’s brother Bob comes in town for a surprise visit, walking in on him while he’s changing his super hero costume.
The Comet has been working so hard he didn’t know that Robert graduated college. Robert wants to hang out with his brother but there are criminals to catch! So the Comet tells him to take Thelma out while he’s out fighting crime. This continues for a few weeks. Meanwhile some thugs are worrying about their racket being exposed, and the star witness who is supposed to give testimony is John Dickering AKA The Comet, and they can’t let him take the stand. Robert and Thelma return to The Comet’s apartment, and Roberts chastises his brother for neglecting Thelma. The Comet jokingly accuses his brother of falling in love with Thelma (which he has). Robert gets angry and leaves.
The gangsters stop Robert outside, confusing him for his brother. The Comet rushes to save his brother, but is shot in the process.
The Police show up to take care of the gangsters and Robert rushes The Comet back up to his apartment. Before he dies The Comet tells Robert and Thelma to date in his memory (weird but ok)
This inspires Robert to become a hero called The Hangman, who is essentially Batman but with a Gallows motif. He doesn’t hang people though, he punches them.
The crime boss responsible for The Comet’s death is arrested, tried, and hanged. Bob vows to carry on his brother’s work of fighting crime as The Hangman.
The Comet stayed dead for about 20 years before being revived, likely so Archie Comics could keep the Copyright. The Comet was the first in a long line of heroes getting killed off including most famously Jean Grey (1980), Elektra (1982), Robin (1988) Superman (1992), Captain America (2007) and many, many, many more.
Bonus: The look of The Comet with his visor, combined with his power to shoot powerful disintegrating beams from his eyes, makes him almost a dead ringer for Cyclops, who didn’t debut until September 1963, over 23 years later.
The Clock (The First masked American superhero to appear in a comic book)
Created by: George E. Brenner
First Appearance: Funny Picture Stories #1 (November 1936)
The Story: A Jewel dealer is robbed and the police are stumped! From an underground lair a masked man studies the case. The Masked man is The Clock, who wears a black handkerchief mask and threatens his foes with a gun. The Mask goes to the site of the robbery and the guard confuses the Clock for his criminal accomplices. It turns out the robbery was an inside job!
The Clock takes the guard back to his underground lair, complete with a torture chamber.
The guard spills the beans on his criminal friends. The clock locks him in a cell located in his lair and goes to the criminal’s hideout. They get the drop on him, but he uses his rigged cane to take out one of the goons and is able to pull a gun on all of them.
The clock leaves a note for the police telling them he left the gang tied up on a street corner with the leader chained to a light-pole, and that he is keeping the stolen jewels to turn into cash to give to the poor, because the jewel dealer already has a lot of money. The police chief curses and swears to track down the clock because he is also a thief.
The clock is actually the very first masked superhero to appear in an American comic book. He is predated by masked pulp characters like the Shadow and Zorro, and is also predated by The Phantom as the first masked comic hero, and Mandrake the Magician as the first costumed comic book hero, but the Phantom was a newspaper strip, and Mandrake’s costume was just a fancy suit. The Clock wore a mask, was first to make it into an actual comic book, and I’ll bet the first superhero to have an underground torture chamber.