Taking a look at seven of the most influential science fiction (and sci-fi inspired) comic book heroes from the Golden Age of Comics.
The Golden Age of Comic Books took place in America from the mid-1930’s to the early 1950’s. Though many science fiction comic books that came out in the 1960’s or later became wildly influential, if I included everything I wanted to, this article would quickly transmogrify into an encyclopedia (fun word, right?).
Additionally, because this is Sci-Fi Addicts, I thought it would be appropriate to make a Venn Diagram style article by overlapping the time lines and publications of Golden Age of Comic Books with the first Golden Age of Science Fiction. The first (or only, depending on your personal opinion) Golden Age of Science Fiction took place during 1938-1946, a period that saw the publication of authors such as Heinlein, Asimov, and von Vogt (author of the highly influential The Voyage of the Space Beagle). During this time, science fiction directly impacted social and technological development by illustrating visions of the future, whether they were meant to inspire or to warn.
The Golden Age of…?
The resulting period (1936-1946) shall be henceforth known as The Golden Age of Everything (you know, except for the Great Depression and WWII)… Umm, maybe The Golden Age of Futures Past? No? Too X-Men? Well, shoot. Let’s just call it the Golden Age of Science Fiction Inspiration and call it good.
The following list will appear in as close to chronological order as makes sense because some of the most influential comic book heroes originated in comic strips and radio programs before making an appearance in serial volumes, which this article is technically about. Alright, that concludes my many disclosures and exceptions, so keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle and awaaaaaaay we go!
The Most Influential Science Fiction Comic Book Heroes From Golden Age Comics
King Comics #1 (1936): Flash Gordon (originally published as a comic strip in 1934)
Beginning in 1936, the Golden Age of Sci-Fi Inspo kicked off Flash Gordon’s adventures in serial format after his incredibly successful science fiction comic strip which began in 1934. Flash, a young polo player and Yale alumni, was kidnapped by the crazy Dr. Zarkov and taken to the planet Mongo, where he would become a hero after being forced into the middle of their war. Flash Gordon and his adventures were influential because it was one of the first science fiction comics whose heroes only power was extraordinary courage. The Flash Gordon comic strip and series inspired a fevered interest in space travel, and many fictional space adventures as well. George Lucas said that his interest and dedication to the Flash Gordon comic strip as a child made Star Wars, now one of the most popular science fiction series of all time, possible.
Buck Rogers #1 (1940): Buck Rogers (originally published in a magazine in 1929)
Buck Rogers made his first true appearance in a novella called “Armageddon 2419 A.D.” by Philip Francis Nowlan, which was published in August of 1928, in an issue of the magazine Amazing Stories. Soon after, in 1929, Buck made the jump to a comic strip which some may claim gave rise to the Golden Age of Comics, and is said to have inspired Flash Gordon and other heroes from the time period. Though Buck Rogers didn’t get his own comic book series until 1940, he appeared in a comic book series published by Western Publishing as early as 1933, as well as the comic book serial Famous Funnies starting in 1934, the same year as Flash Gordon. Anthony “Buck” Rogers was a young WWI pilot in the 20’s who was suspended in a state of “suspended animation” for nearly 500 years after getting trapped in a mine before he was reawakened in the year 2419, where he would become an adventurer and space explorer. Because his newspaper comic strips had existed since the late 20’s, Buck Rogers gained the love and loyalty of the American public and is considered to be one of, if not the pioneering comic book heroes in the futuristic adventure and space exploration genre.
Action Comics #1 (1938): Superman, and then Superman #1
In 1933, The Reign of the Super-Man depicted an evil, bald, experiment-gone-wrong who decided to take over the world after a scientist imbued him with massively powerful telepathic abilities. Strangely enough, the American public wasn’t too keen on him! Over the next few years, “the Super-Man’s” creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, reimagined him as a hero, gave him a serious make-over, and by 1938, everyone’s favorite alien from Kansas was born. I don’t think it’s too controversial to say that Superman (as he came to be known) is the most influential superhero of all time. Anyone with the slightest interest in comics, movies, or hell, America, knows who Superman is. The Kryptonian with a heart of gold came to represent the best of humanity and became the model for dozens, possibly even hundreds, of superheroes that would emerge in the following decade.
Superman was the first of his kind, a hero from outer space who came to Earth with superpowers, instead of the other way around, like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, and the majority of his adventures and escapades would take place in the present, on Earth. Superman as a protector of the innocent and the American way of life (more so as the series approached the late 40’s/early 50’s) inspired characters like Batman and Captain Marvel to fight for regular human beings trying to live their normal lives. The major difference, (superpowers aside) between Superman and most other superheroes is that he wanted to be good simply for the sake of being good. He’s not called the “Big Blue Boy Scout” because he earned his archery merit badge, after all.
Marvel Comics #1 (1939): The Human Torch (Android)
Jim Hammond, the pyrotechnical android wonder, was first introduced to the public in Marvel Comics issue number one, published at the time by Timely Comics. Originally created to be a monstrosity/borderline villain (not because he was actually evil but just very destructive and difficult to control), The Human Torch became one of the three beloved core characters from the Marvel Comics serial. The Human Torch joined other comic book heroes to fight the Axis powers as WWII erupted, and eventually got himself a secret identity as a detective on the police force so he could more easily do good and protect people after his powers caused the death of a mobster and he vowed to forever protect humanity. The Human Torch is even credited with the death of Hitler (in the comics, anyway!) As far as science fiction goes, the Human Torch drew heavily from the emerging cultural interest in science, particularly the creation and evolution of artificial intelligence, and became the first robotic superhero of the Golden Age comics. His lasting influence has paved the way for the “hero seeking redemption” archetype that has grown more and more popular over time.
Batman Beyond is the short-running yet much-loved near-future peek at the twilight years of Bruce Wayne as he tutors the new teenage Batman, Terry McGinnis. Batman Beyond was pretty dark for a kids show–and that was what made it absolutely perfect. The old bat-team is in pieces, and even Bruce Wayne suffers heart trouble and even more emotional issues from the years of fighting crime. The series was a magnum opus not because of its attempt to re-create the previous Batman universe, but rather because it was willing to introduce darkness [Read more…]
Detective Comics #27 (1939): Batman
Originally called the “Bat-Man,” Bruce Wayne as the Caped Crusader became one of the most popular comic book characters of the Golden Age of Comics, as a sort of antithesis to Superman’s relatable hometown hero goody-two-shoes demeanor. Batman was born from tragedy but was raised in a situation that was otherwise much better than the boy next door, as the son of a billionaire entrepreneur/philanthropist. Unlike Superman, Batman’s loyalty didn’t lie with humanity and doing good for the sake of doing good and protecting people, but with a sort of expanded vengeance aimed at the crime in his city (Gotham) as a whole. Batman didn’t fight bad guys because he wanted to protect good people, he fought them because they were bad and did bad things and they deserved to be punished for them, making him one of the first true vigilante heroes, and another of the pioneering “conflicted hero” archetypes.
Another highly influential aspect of Batman was the fact that he’s not only a human being but a human being that endlessly trains and struggles to gain the physical strength and mental dexterity to do what he needs to do to “clean up the streets of Gotham City.” Bruce Wayne was the only hero at the time to rely solely on intelligence, money, physical strength, and fear to defeat his enemies, as opposed to natural or acquired superpowers. He’s also one of the few heroes of Golden Age comics to use sidekicks on a regular basis, taking in a series of Robins and partnering with Batgirl and Commissioner Gordon, as well as relying on his butler Alfred for a great many things.
All-American Comics #16 (1940): Green Lantern
Another regular-Joe hero, the Green Lantern was born when a railroad engineer (Alan Scott) found a magic lantern after surviving a railway crash and forged a ring from the lantern that would eventually give him incredible powers over energy and matter. That’s right, eventually. At first, the ring had a random assortment of abilities, such as shooting green fireballs, hypnotizing people, and other important things like flying through walls. Alan Scott as the Green Lantern was especially influential, because though he relied on human ingenuity and skill to craft the ring of power from the lantern, he did it himself as a blue-collar worker; no billionaires here!
One of the most interesting elements of the Green Lantern is that he pretty much only fought normal, human criminals, which is another reason he made a huge splash and a lasting legacy in the world of science fiction comics. He was very accessible to readers from all walks of life and inspired hope in people as a mostly normal human being who wants to help and do the right thing.
Captain America #1 (1941): Captain America
And of course, the war-time hero himself, Captain America. Scrawny little Steve Rogers had a love of his country that just would not quit, and so the government transformed him into the patriotic super soldier capable of saving the world from fascists and communists. The science fiction aspect of Captain America is one of the strongest on this list, as he became the super powerful Captain America by getting injected with an experimental serum created by American scientists to help the Allies defeat the Axis Powers in WWII.
His only real “weapon,” is a nearly indestructible shield, again representing the collective cultural image as the United States as a guardian/protector, which was very prevalent during the wartime era. His shield itself is made of a fictional metal alloy, again proving that science can, and will, always save the day!
Launched in March 1996, Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher comics were a product of the golden age of Vertigo Comics. At first glance, Preacher was a blood-soaked story of brutal violence and obscenity that trampled religious taboos in the dirt. But pay attention to the graphic novel that is Preacher and you find something more. This is a richly philosophical exploration of morality, friendship, and faith, a book that delves deep into the guts of what it means to be human. At the core of Preacher are three characters… [Read more]
Honorable Mentions From the Golden Age of Comic Books:
The Phantom, 1936
Unfortunately, possibly the most influential hero on this list was only ever featured in a daily comic strip, and I’m focusing on comic books. However, for many reasons, including his costume, The Phantom remains hugely influential in the world of comics and science fiction. As the first superhero to wear a skin-tight costume and a mask with whited-out eyes, the Phantom has very visually influenced nearly every superhero to come after.
“I swear to devote my life to the destruction of piracy, greed, cruelty and injustice! And my sons, and their sons, shall follow me!” The Phantom
DC Comics, Strange Adventures #1 (1950): Captain Comet.
This comic book series, which began in 1950, is technically said to belong to the Atomic Age of comic books, i.e. the period between the Golden Age comics and the Silver Age comics which gave rise to many science fiction-themed comics but became highly influential for DC Comics for a couple different reasons. Firstly, Captain Comet was one of the very first metahuman/mutants to be born with their superpowers, predating the X-Men by over a decade! (The X-Men #1 was released in 1963.) Captain Comet, Adam Blake, was born to a farming couple in the Midwest in 1931 whose “metagene” was activated by a comet passing overhead when he was born.
King Comics #1: Dale Arden
Dale Arden, the love of Flash Gordon’s life and kick-ass adventurer in her own right, technically wasn’t a superhero as she didn’t have any science-fiction-y powers of her own. However, George Lucas named her as the inspiration for Princess Leia and Queen Amidala, and so I think she deserves an honorable mention! When Flash Gordon was struggling to defeat brilliant (evil) scientist Dr. Zarkov, Dale picked up a wrench and attacked him herself. Girl Power from the 1930’s? Hell yeah!
All Star Comics #8 (1941): Wonder Woman.
Speaking of girl power, the Princess of Themyscira herself couldn’t make the list because she’s not “science-fiction-y” enough. Regardless of the many variations on her origin story, magic and gods created her, not science. However, she remains hugely influential to the comic book world and played a huge role in inspiring interest in comic books for young women, so I couldn’t not include her.
Comic books have undoubtedly influenced science fiction, and the American way of life (including technological advancement and cultural values), and they did so through their use of amazing heroes with unbelievable skills. In addition to a wide variety of powers and origin stories, the most influential science fiction comic book heroes from the Golden Age of Comics had a wide variety of motivators to take up the mantle, or in this case, cape, of a hero. But whatever their motivation, the heroes above have saved the worlds they inhabited and inspired generations and generations of science fiction and comic books that spanned far beyond the reaches of the Golden Age comics. What do you think the superheroes from the 1940’s would think about our superheroes today?
Diehard comic book fans: I am anxiously awaiting your feedback! Did I miss any sci-fi comic book heroes that belong on the list?