Mad Scientists and Wizards in Spandex: A History of Science Fiction and Fantasy in Comics
By Christopher Erickson
With the superhero genre dominating the box office and the small screen as well as making up a number of the nominations for dramatic presentation at the Hugo Awards in recent years, people might wonder what comics and superheroes have to do with science fiction and fantasy. From the beginning, there has been a huge intertwining between superheroes, comics and science fiction/fantasy.
Before superhero comics became a dominant form of publication, science fiction and fantasy was featured in popular newspaper comic strips of the 1930s. “Mandrake the Magician,” featuring a magician who could cast illusions to fight crime, was first published in 1934. “Prince Valiant” featured Arthurian legend and mythical creatures when it was first published in 1937. Two of the popular comic strips at the time featured 20th Century men displaced into the future, “Buck Rodgers” (first published in 1929) and “Flash Gordon” (first published in 1930).
The first science fiction concept merged with superheroes was the introduction of Superman in “Action Comics” #1 published in 1938. The story introduced an alien baby sent to live on earth as his home planet was exploding, his miraculous powers and his first exploits as a costumed hero. The story was only 13 pages but was powerful enough to be depicted on the cover. This issue also introduced John Zatara, a stage magician/crime fighter who could cast spells of real magic by speaking backwards.
Due to the popularity of Superman, many other concepts became popularized in the pages of both “Action Comics” and “Superman,” such as giant robots, energy weapons and mad scientists like Lex Luthor. These concepts became a standard tropes that are now staples of the superhero genre.
As the popularity of superhero comics exploded in the 1940s, many of the companies introduced a variety of superheroes that had either pseudo-scientific origins to their powers or were able to utilize magic in some way. National Comics and All-Star Comics (the original DC Comics companies) introduced science fiction based characters The Flash (Jay Garrik, who got his superspeed when he breathed heavy water fumes), Starman (Ted Knight, who created a cosmic rod that could manipulate a form of energy from outer space) and The Sandman (Wesley Dodds, who invented a gas gun that delivered a combination knockout gas and truth serum to help in his investigations). Fantasy characters included Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Dr. Fate (a magic wielder wearing the Helmet of Naboo), Hawkman and Hawkgirl (reincarnated spirits of Egyptian royalty), The Spectre (a dead policeman who was merged with an avenging angel of heaven), Shining Knight (a knight from the Camelot who had a magical sword and a winged horse) and Green Lantern (a railroad engineer who manipulated magic in the form of green projections from a ring he discovered).
Villains of these superheroes had fantasy and science fiction based powers as well. The best known included Solomon Grundy (a semi-sentient plant zombie), Per Degaton (time-traveling scientist), Brain Wave (a telepath and telekinetic), Ultra-Humanite (evil scientist who could mind transfer into other bodies), Vandal Savage (an immortal genius Cro-Magnon who achieved his long life and intelligence after being exposed to a meteorite), The Thinker (a failed lawyer who gained telepathy from a helmet) and Wizard.
Other comic book companies followed suit. Marvel forerunner Timely Comics featured three popular superheroes: Captain America, Human Torch, and Namor the Sub-mariner. Captain America got his enhanced strength and athleticism from injection of the Super-Soldier formula and exposure to “Vita-rays.” The Human Torch was a synthetic human (android) who had a malfunction that allowed him to oxidize the air around him. He also had a sidekick who named Toro who was human and had the same power. Namor was a prince of Atlantis who had incredible strength. Other characters included Miss America who had super strength and could fly and super-speedster Whizzer.
Fawcett Comics was another influential company publishing several characters, chief among them Captain Marvel, whose powers of super strength and flight were magically granted by the wizard Shazam. These powers were extended to family members and confidants like his sister Mary Marvel and pet bunny Hoppy. Their enemies included mad scientist Dr. Silvana, alien worm Mister Mind, the super-soldier Captain Nazi, and former Shazam protégé Black Adam. Fawcett also published other heroes. Two were Bulletman and Bulletgirl who have chemically-induced super strength and intelligence and a special helmet that helps them fly and deflect bullets. Another was Ibis the Invincible who was an Egyptian prince brought back to life and would wield magic using his Ibistick.
The other major comics company was Quality Comics, who provided readers with Uncle Sam (the spiritual embodiment of patriotism), The Ray (a hero who could create hard-light objects and fly), Doll Man (a scientist who could shrink down while retaining his full strength) and Plastic Man (who got his stretching and shape changing powers after exposure to a chemical bath).
The popularity of superhero comics died out by the 1950s to be replaced by romance, cowboys, funny animals, monsters, war stories and space adventurers. One of the most famous comic character groups from this time was the Challengers of the Unknown, a team of adventurers who would face different threats including genies, robots and aliens.
Horror comics and crime comics were also popular until the publication of “Seduction of the Innocent” by Fredric Wertham and the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. After this, the self-imposed Comics Code Authority (CCA) set up guidelines on publication of comics, destroying most of the horror and crime comics, leaving only “safe” ideas that were not considered dangerous to corruptible youth.
In response, comic book publishers started to publish more superheroes in the late 1950s. This allowed new characters to be introduced or other characters to be revamped. One of the first characters introduced in the post-CCA rules was DC Comics’s Martian Manhunter, an alien shapeshifter and telepath brought over from Mars by an experimental communications device.
The revitalization of comics was really kick started by the introduction of a new Flash character in Showcase #4 (October, 1956) who was a separate character from the previous Jay Garrik version. The new Flash (Barry Allen) was a police scientist who gained superspeed after exposure to chemicals hit by a lightning bolt. This led to DC Comics revamping a number of previous characters and giving them science fiction style powers. Green Lantern was reintroduced as pilot Hal Jordon who received an alien ring that allowed him to manipulate energy into anything he could think of and was inducted into a corps of protectors from various worlds. Hawkman and Hawkgirl were now alien policemen who came to earth to track down an escaped convict and then decided to stay. A new Atom character was created who had developed a shrinking device that utilized a lens made of material from a white dwarf star.
DC Comics would also introduce new several new characters. One of the most popular was magician Zatanna, the daughter of previous character John Zatara. Another lasting character was the enigmatic mage The Phantom Stranger. Other characters introduced that had science fiction origins were the Metal Men (a team of sentient robots created by Dr. Will Magnus who had powers based on their namesake metal), the team Doom Patrol (Robotman, a sentient robot; Elasti-Woman, who could stretch; Negative Man, who could make a negatively charged projection of his body; and The Chief, a wheel-chair bound supergenius), and Adam Strange (an earthman transported to another world and became a hero similar to Flash Gordon).
DC Comics also created several Kryptonians to expand the Superman comics. Supergirl and the shrunken bottle city of Kandor were introduced as well as a number of superpets like Krypto the Superdog and Streaky the Supercat.
Villians were also added to the mix such as the super-intelligent Gorilla Grodd, and aliens like Bizzaro, Braniac, Starro the Conquereor and Despero. Several of the Flash’s villains had advanced technology that gave them powers such as Captain Cold (cold gun), Heat Wave (flame gun), Weather Wizard (weather control from a wand) and Abra Kadabra (a man from the future who used technology that looked like magic).
Marvel Comics followed suit in the 1960s by introducing a huge slew of characters. A huge number of them received their powers after exposure to some form of radiation or chemical such as the Fantastic Four (cosmic rays in space), Daredevil (exposure to toxic chemicals), The Hulk (gamma radiation) and Spider-Man (a bite from spider exposed to radioactivity). Others created a new technology such as Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit based off of transistors and Hank Pym’s discovery of Pym Particles that allowed him shrink down as Ant-Man along with Janet Van Dyne as The Wasp. Hank Pym also created a helmet that allowed him to control ants. The X-Men were humans who developed their powers from evolutionary mutation.
A number of villains also had similar sci-fi origins like the heroes. Most Iron Man foes used inventions or alien artifacts to achieve their powers. The Hulk’s main villains of The Leader, The Abomination and Grey Gargoyle were exposed to gamma radiation. Spider-Man enemies utilized technology or exposure to chemicals to gain their powers. Galactus and the Silver Surfer drew on the Power Cosmic, similar to the cosmic radiation of the Fantastic Four.
Fantasy heroes created by Marvel included mystic Doctor Strange and the Norse god Thor along with his allies Lady Sif and the Warriors Three. They had many enemies that used magic such as Baron Mordo, the demon Dormammu, the Wrecking Crew and Loki. Doctor Doom mixed science, robotics and sorcery.
“Star Trek” became an established comic book property in the 1960s with original stories published by Gold Key Publishing eventually moved to other companies including DC Comics, Marvel and IDW Publishing.
Charlton Comics created three of their best-known properties in the 1960s. Blue Beetle was an archeologist who discovered a mystical scarab that granted him superpowers. Captain Atom was a technician working on a rocket when it was accidentally launched and exploded, exposing him to radiation and granting him atomic manipulation powers. The Question used a piece of artificial skin called pseudoderm to hide his face. All three would go on to be revamped by DC Comics after they were purchased when Charlton Comics went out of business. The characters served as the basis for the superheroes in Alan Moore’s “Watchmen.”
In the 1970s, horror-based comics became popular with the loosening of CCA restrictions on monsters. Several monster-style characters were introduced by Marvel including antiheroes Ghost Rider, Morbius the Living Vampire and Blade. Other horror characters included Dracula, Werewolf by Night, N’Kantu the Living Mummy and the plant monster Man-Thing. DC Comics introduced The Demon Etrigan and Swamp Thing in the same time period. DC also published anthology comics “The House of Mysteries” and “The House of Secrets” hosted by monsters.
Marvel also introduced a number of new science-fiction concepts in the 1970s. Two of the more interesting were based on toylines: Rom the Spaceknight and Micronauts. They would later repeat this feat in 1984 with The Transformers. They also introduced the alien races the Eternals (who Thanos is best known member), the Celestials and Captain Marvel. Marvel also published original comics stories based on the characters from “Star Wars” and “Godzilla.” DC Comics published a wide ranging group of inter-related characters created by Jack Kirby that he called the “Fourth World” featuring powerful aliens such as Darkseid and Mister Miracle that were eventually integrated into the main superhero universe.
Swamp Thing was revamped in the 1980s by Alan Moore from a science-fiction monster to a metaphysical being representing plant life. He also introduced the character of demonic exorcist John Constantine, who was later spun off into his own title “Hellblazer”. The groundbreaking comic “The Sandman” by Neil Gaiman was also published in the 1980s. This comic featured an anthropomorphic personification of the idea of dreams as the hero. These comics were aimed at mature readers with a level of sophisticated storytelling that wasn’t found in typical superhero stories. The popularity of these comics lead to the creation of the Vertigo Comics imprint, which featured a number of science fiction and fantasy titles including “Animal Man,” “IZombie,” and “Lucifer.”
As comics became a big business in the 1990s due to a speculator’s market, comics companies started cropping up and putting out a large number of titles. Fantasy and science fiction were used extensively to create new characters and titles. Valiant Comics launched titles based on previously published characters: “Magnus, Robot Fighter,” “Solar, Man of the Atom” and, “Turok: Dinosaur Hunter.” Valiant also created a new character called X-O Manowar, a Visogoth during the Roman Empire who is kidnapped by aliens and later obtains a suit of battle armor. Topps Comics published an “X-Files” series and “Xenozoic Tales” (also known as “Cadillacs and Dinosaurs”) about a post-apocalyptic land where dinosaurs have re-emerged and technology is a precious commodity. Image Comics provided readers with the demonic-powered anti-hero Spawn, the superhero team of WildC.A.T.s featuring several alien/human hybrids and green-skinned superhero cop Savage Dragon. Milestone Comics featured several minority superhero characters with science-fiction based powers like the electricity-wielding teen Static, the super powered alien Icon and the battle suit armored Hardware.
Marvel followed suit with the creation of the Infinity Watch team comprising previously introduced characters like Adam Warlok, Drax the Destroyer, Gamora and Moondragon. DC Comics introduced the Darkstars, a team of intergalactic policemen.
The creation of the Guardians of the Galaxy team featuring Star-Lord, Groot, Gamora, and Drax the Destroyer in 2008 continues to show the influence science fiction and fantasy has in comics.
Science fiction and fantasy have a long history in comics and superhero fiction. The influence of genre fiction merging into modern day mythologies helps bring science fiction and fantasy to a broader audience and gives it a greater appeal.