Guest Post: Four Things I’ve Learned From Public Domain Comics

This week is Guest Post Week on my blog. For today’s post you’re in the hands of none other than the incredible Tim Strange!

Comics have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. My parents bought me my first comic, DC Comics Presents #48 before I was even old enough to read it. Now in my early 30s, I find myself toiling away on a web series for my own superhero, El Bastardo Magnifico. In my attempts to fill that world with various heroes and villains for Bastardo to interact with, I’ve delved in the realm of the public domain, where hundreds of characters, long ago abandoned by companies long since dead, patiently wait to be rediscovered and reborn.

Thanks to the good people that put together the Public Domain Super Heroes Wiki, I’ve learned a thing or two about that glorious golden age of comics. Allow me to share a few of them with you:

Some Of These Guys Are Fucking Nuts

It’s a bit odd becoming a vigilante while wearing garish tights, and having a child be your sidekick while throwing him in harm’s way will probably lead to a court-ordered psychiatric evaluation. Those actions are downright sane compared to the “hero” know as Dynamite Thor:

Peter Thor becomes Dynamite Thor, an adventurer who had the power of being immune to the effect of explosives, wears a costume that allows him to propel himself through the air by blowing up sticks of dynamite located in his belt.

He must've been really, really heavy.

Leeeeets do iiiiiiiiit!

If you thought the strategy of “throw explosives at it” was limited to issues of mobility,
you’d be mistaken:

Not Pictured: Dynamite Thor getting a cat out of a tree.

Dynamite Thor is just the tip of the insanity iceberg. If you like your superheroes with a touch of crazy, I recommend taking a look at Twilight, the guy who threw on a
random animal costume to fight crime because a talking parrot gave him a card with an inspirational quote, or Stardust, the Super Wizard, a character that defies logic or sanity.

Every Hero Had An Achilles Heel

The various comic book publishers weren’t the most creative bunch. They took what was popular and copied it ad nauseum. A lot of heroes from the golden age had the same standard set of powers: invulnerability and super strength. They also had the same group of enemies: mobsters or some group affiliated with the Axis powers. Eventually these publishers would conceive of the concept of supervillains, but before that day came they had another idea as to how to put a superpowered hero in peril against non-powered rogues:

A blow to the back of the head.

Doc Savage, Dynamite Thor and the Black Terror. All invulnerable with the exception of the "sweet spot" at the back of the skull.

Virtually every comic book I’ve read from that era has at least one person taking a shot to the back of the head. If the publishers going under hadn’t prematurely ended their adventures, post-concussion syndrome eventually would have.

DC Comics May Have Borrowed From The Public Domain

A man sees an alien spacecraft crash to Earth. Upon investigation, he discovers a dying bald alien which gives him a device which he uses to protect the Earth from various alien threats.

You might think I was describing the Silver Age reboot of Green Lantern in 1959 where the character went from a magic-based hero to a science-based one. You’d be right but you might be surprised to know that this was also the origin of Captain Science, nine years earlier.

Captain Science

That look of disgust on his face is from his frustrations with damsels in distress always cutting into his precious Science time.

Captain Science isn’t the only character DC may have based their creations on. Air Fighters #43 features a character called The Heap, whose origin closely resembles that of Swamp Thing, which debuted 29 years later.

Speaking of DC comics…

DC Comics Should Stop Hoarding Superheroes

Thanks to the American government being paid to change copyright law whenever
Disney gets scared Mickey Mouse will enter the public domain, things have gotten a bit
messy. DC have bought a number of characters from a few publishers that went bankrupt
over the years. Some of these characters they own outright, some are in the public
domain but their names are trademarked, some of the hero’s original run is in the public
domain but the hero themselves are not. By my estimate DC owns roughly a hundred or
so characters with varying rights and ownership. The problem is that outside a handful of
them like Blue Beetle or Captain Atom, DC has done nothing meaningful with them.

Phantom Lady, who DC claims ownership of despite Quality Comics letting the character fall into the public domain before being bought by DC, is a perfect example. Since the character debuted at DC in 1973, the character has been limited to failed runs as part of Freedom Force and the occasional guest appearance or cameo. Her origin has been tweaked, altered, and rebooted several times, each with the same failure to catch the interest of its readers. In 2005’s Infinite Crisis #1, they killed the 2nd incarnation of the character outright:

Oh by the way, your replacement will be a slutty alcoholic that appears in 4 miniseries before getting rebooted again.

DC doesn’t know what to do with Phantom Lady or the rest of the Freedom Fighters in
the public domain. If they were smart they’d release these characters into the Creative
Commons, let other creators take a crack at it, and find a way to tie in promotions to their
more successful comics and related merchandise. Unfortunately corporations like DC are
rarely that smart.

I seem to have ended this on a bit of a rant but as those who know me know, that’s kind
of what I do. I’d like finish this off by thanking Remy for inviting me to contribute to his blog, it was a pleasure to contribute. If any of you out there would like to hear me rant in 140 characters or less, or stay updated on the production of El Bastardo Magnifico: The Series as I spend the next 4.5 months working towards it’s May 22nd debut, you can find me on Twitter as BigTimStrange.

Stay Hungry,

~Tim Strange

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