Where were you when the superheroes came? It was a decade in which they seemed to explode onto the scene and disappear just as abruptly. It was the appearance of the Flash, whom sources later identified as Jay Garrick, that truly made everyone think of Greek myth, given that his distinctive helmet evoked the messenger god Hermes, and because they were both speedy it seemed to fit perfectly. It was antiquities collector Carter Hall, however, who really complicated things, convincing himself that he was the reincarnation of the Egyptian Prince Khufu, donning an elaborate costume to transform himself into Hawkman, babbling about his soul mate Shiera and the evil Hath-Set, whom he called his sworn enemy. We heard about a boy named Johnny Thunder, who was somehow able to summon a mystical being he called Thunderbolt, and then some newsboy called Billy Batson, who seemed to have the scoop on Captain Marvel, who everyone agreed had a striking resemblance to Superman, the truly iconic wonder operating out of Metropolis. Detective Jim Corrigan likewise had a suspect relationship with the Spectre, the so-called spirit of vengeance that seemed to have a knack for ironic justice. Hourman was probably more amusing to the general public, given that he was rumored to be powered only an hour at a time.
Some people seemed more interested in trying to do something about it than others. Lex Luthor was a brilliant scientist who struggled to make sense of the claims some of these heroes were presenting for the origins of their incredible abilities, including the so-called “hard water” that had given Jay Garrick his speed. It was clear, however, that Luthor was more concerned with Superman, who relied less on fantastic and preposterous gimmicks than the continuing claim that he was, in fact, an alien, which was a far more alarming prospect than any terrestrial matter, given that we were all in the thick of a world war, which was at least something Luthor could wrap his head around. As usual, though, if something stirred in Metropolis there was an equal yet opposite reaction in Gotham, and Batman introduced his “boy wonder” sidekick Robin, which was an incredible development that would have more lasting repercussions than any of the more colorful heroes still emerging onto the scene. As if to contrast this, the appearance of Doctor Fate was contrasted with the emerging threats of the Joker and Catwoman, two decidedly human individuals who were among the first of what the media dubbed “supervillains,” what was considered a direct result of the provocation someone like Batman actually represented. Noted film actor Basil Karlo transformed himself into Clayface as if to punctuate these claims.
It was the debut of Green Lantern, Alan Scott, that began to blur the edges still further. His powers were derived from a magic ring that gave him the ability to create whatever he could imagine, something many believed could only be possible if the ring had extra-terrestrial origins, which Scott himself was never able to confirm. Somewhat less speculative and certainly less concrete was Uncle Sam, who was dismissed as a delusional figure who actually believed he was the reincarnation of a Revolutionary War soldier, a sort of strictly American answer to Hawkman.
Given that there were suddenly so many of them, someone realized that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to team up, which is exactly what Spectre, Flash, Hawkman, the existing Sandman, and a couple of smaller-tier heroes like Biff Bronson, Ultra-Man, and Red White & Blue did, tenuously. It didn’t last very long, but it was at least a precedent. The Atom, Al Pratt, soon appeared, and then Red Tornado, a woman who said she was inspired by Green Lantern. Perry White, who had just become editor of the Daily Planet, devoted much of his paper to these heroes, though he put the spotlight thoroughly on Superman. The culmination of all this exposure, and certainly of the basic mutual awareness that they existed, led to the formal inductions into the Justice Society of America of Flash, Atom, Doctor Fate, Green Lantern, Hawkman, Hourman, Sandman, and Spectre, with the noted omission of Johnny Thunder, whose petulant behavior served both to advertise the team and its strict membership guidelines. The government soon took notice, and summoned the Justice Society to provide official service to the country. Still, it was Superman and Batman who received most of the attention, being more mysterious and extraordinary, and perhaps too necessary in their home territories of Metropolis and Gotham, the largest cities in America.
Like Green Lantern, Starman was aided by a special devise, which Ted Knight claimed he’d fashioned himself, while Doctor Mid-Nite fancied himself a superheroic medical professional. Both would end up serving in the Justice Society. The country received more direct support, though, from Blackhawk and Miss America, while Plastic Man, Firebrand, Human Bomb, Mouthpiece, and Phantom Lady all served their own interests. Some people were still thinking about the Flash, though, the first of the superheroes to appear, including Johnny Chambers, who announced that he’d discovered an equation that would give him the same speed as Jay Garrick, and took to calling himself Johnny Quick whenever he recited it. Are you curious? It was 3X2(9YZ)4A. Yeah, it never worked for me, either. I always assumed you had to know your math.
The Star-Spangled Kid and his sidekick Stripesy were easily the most patriotic superheroes to appear since the questionably-sane Uncle Sam, though they engaged in the useful activity of thwarting Nazi spies, months before the country entered the war thanks to Pearl Harbor. Perhaps inspired by them, and maybe Batman and Robin, Green Arrow and Speedy arrived on the scene, while Aquaman emerged from the oceans in what for him must have been convenient timing, since he couldn’t have known so many other gaudily-attired individuals were already fighting crime on dry land. Batman gained a new foe in the Penguin, the first new threat to appear in Gotham in more than a year, but still didn’t think to add to his allies, while that’s exactly what Green Arrow and the Star-Spangled Kid decided when they formed the Seven Soldiers of Victory with Shining Knight, Vigilante, and the Crimson Avenger, who had been engaged in these activities probably longer than anyone. Captain Marvel, meanwhile, welcomed who he called Captain Marvel, Jr. to his family, essentially a younger version of himself.
Perhaps the most sensational debut of the decade was Wonder Woman, who was said to be an ambassador from a tribe of Amazons, sent to “man’s world” to serve as an example for justice. She was greeted by Army captain Steve Trevor and Etta Candy, who agreed to help her make the transition. Terry Sloane and Ted Grant meanwhile, were a pair of athletes who donned costumes to transform into Mister Terrific and Wildcat, respectively; it was never confirmed that they were inspired by Wonder Woman, but once again, a strong Greek influence was hard to deny. Paul Kirk, perhaps by another amazing coincidence, soon turned himself into Manhunter.
In Metropolis, beat cop Jim Harper became the Guardian, and took on a group of orphans as his Newsboy Legion, perhaps as a criticism of the fact that Superman seemed to have overlooked Suicide Slum. There was also Robotman, who was said to have a human brain but otherwise robotic body, and who knows how that happened? Perhaps the street level was exactly where the Man of Steel should have been concentrating, because while he tangled with the Prankster, Batman was once more dealing with some very human threats of his own, including Two-Face and Boss Moroni. The war effort soon found itself supported by Brooklyn, Andre Chavard, Jan Haasen, Alfie Twidgett, and Captain Rip Carter, who formed the Boy Commandos.
Wonder Woman’s presence continued to have a sizable impact, as she soon found herself allied by Green Lantern and Flash, perhaps one of the more notable all-star combinations of the decade. Alfred Pennyworth was an amateur detective, meanwhile, who also happened to serve as a butler to Bruce Wayne, and many times suggested that he may have discovered Batman’s true identity. Maybe it was the distraction of Doctor Psycho, ably handled by Wonder Woman, that prevented his claims from being confirmed. Regardless, she continued to receive most of the attention, and action. While Superman handled another obvious nuisance in Toyman, Wonder Woman handled Cheetah. Green Lantern galvanized his fanbase by reciting what would soon become an iconic oath: “In brightest day, in blackest night, no evil shall escape my sight; let those who worship evil’s might beware my power, Green Lantern’s light!” Perhaps it was just the inspiration he needed to tackle Vandal Savage, who claimed he was immortal. Still, Wonder Woman stole the spotlight again when she battled Giganta. Hard to say how anyone noticed that one!
Perhaps with so much competition, even the best of them started to become frustrated. Superman insisted that he didn’t make up the existence of the transdimensional dwarf he called Mxyzptlk (but then, who would actually invent such an absurd name?), and Green Lantern reported the existence of Solomon Grundy (“born on a Mond’y”), the reanimated corpse of the murdered Cyrus Gold, though he gave most of the credit to hobos (as if that made it more believable). For some reason, Wonder Woman changed her allegiances to Hawkman and Flash. From the heartland, reports began to surface that Superman had been active in Smallville years before he surfaced in Metropolis, so youthful that he had in fact been known as Superboy at the time. As if to justify Wonder Woman’s newfound faith in him, Hawkman tackled Jonathan Cheval, who called himself the Monocle. Neptune Perkins joined Aquaman as a marine-based hero. Perhaps the least-wanted addition to anyone’s associates was Black Adam, who said he was a predecessor of Captain Marvel, but was more of a rival and adversary.
The beginning of the end was ushered by Sandman’s retirement, a move that caught many by surprise, since he seemed to have been around just about longer than anyone. Even Superman wasn’t immune, almost literally, given that he was involved in the first full-blown atomic incident since the end of the war. Maybe it was just a case of reality trying to set in, but it all still seemed too surreal, especially when Tommy Tomorrow became the first person to set foot on Mars, or when Robin shockingly went on his first adventure without Batman, both of which would have not only been unthinkable but considered impossible just a few years earlier. The Wizard and the Gentleman Ghost seemed to take advantage of these circumstances to join the supervillain racket. Maybe that’s why Wonder Woman introduced the world to Wonder Girl, because she sensed the world could use a little comfort, or why people were suddenly interested in Tomahawk, a hero who had been active in a different century. The hapless Johnny Thunder met Dinah Drake and Larry Lance, who were somehow connected to the alluring Black Canary, who took over his territory without much trouble.
Years after the formation of the Justice Society, Vandal Savage and Wizard gathered the Thinker, Gambler, Brain Wave and Per Degaton to form the “Injustice Society,” exactly the opposite of what everyone needed. The Flash also found himself targeted by Thorn, and perhaps it was no surprise that Wonder Woman and the Black Canary had to come to the aid of the Justice Society after all, while Flash again confronted new threats on his own in the form of the Fiddler and Star Sapphire. But he would soon face worse times still. His pal Green Lantern, meanwhile, took on a different kind of sidekick in Streak the Wonder Dog, which raised a lot of eyebrows, but was still better than Johnny Thunder once again being eclipsed, this time by another hero from a bygone era who happened to share the same name. As if sensing the trend, Superman publicly celebrated ten years protecting Metropolis, just to remind everyone of all the good he’d done. And then people started talking about yet another hero from the Old West, this time Nighthawk.
Batman tackled Riddler and the Mad Hatter, two villains who messed with his head, to say the very least, but everyone figured he was up to the challenge. What no one was expecting was the retirement of Jay Garrick; the Flash had apparently run his last race. His friend Alan Scott, the Green Lantern, soon followed him. From Smallville came stories of Supergirl, if anyone wanted some happy tales of times past, a companion for the so-called Superboy. Who knows what they were thinking? Roy Raymond, the “TV detective,” maybe. Even he wouldn’t have wanted to report on the retirement of the Boy Commandos, or the biggest story of the decade, the existence of a substance known as Kryptonite, which was said to have lethal side-effects for Superman. Even though the war was over, casualties continued to be the story of the 1940s, and perhaps all of us were the poorer for it. For a decade that had produced so much magic, the cost was more than anyone could have imagined. Was it all worth it?
Adapted from DC COMICS YEAR BY YEAR: A VISUAL CHRONICLE, based on entries from
FLASH COMICS #1, 64, 66, 86, 88, 89, & 104,
WHIZ COMICS #2 &25,
MORE FUN COMICS #52, 55, 71, 73, & 101,
ADVENTURE COMICS #48, 61, 73, & 103,
ACTION COMICS #23, 40, 51, 64, & 101,
DETECTIVE COMICS #38, 40, 58, 66, 140, & 153,
BATMAN #1, 16, & 49,
ALL-AMERICAN COMICS #16, 19, 20, 25, 61, & 100,
NATIONAL COMICS #1,
ALL STAR COMICS #1, 3, 34, 37, & 38,
SUPERMAN #7, 30, 53, & 61,
WORLD’S BEST COMICS #1,
MILITARY COMICS #1,
POLICE COMICS #1,
STAR SPANGLED COMICS #1, 7, 65, & 69,
LEADING COMICS #1,
SENSATION COMICS #1,
BOY COMMANDOS #1 & 36,
COMIC CAVALCADE #1,
WONDER WOMAN #5, 6, 9, & 23,
GREEN LANTERN #9, 10, 30, & 38,
THE BIG ALL-AMERICAN COMIC BOOK,
MARVEL FAMILY COMICS #1,
REAL FACT COMICS #6,
WESTERN COMICS #5, and