Certain characters are recognized by everyone as representing a sea-change.  Superman inspired the creation of the entire superhero genre, Batman is the source of an abundance of recurring hero tropes, Spider-Man inspired a realm of characters with human failings and personalities.  But what of those characters who DON’T get the same recognition for their place in history?  Welcome to Ten Things!

Whooshman-Bicarbonate Films, in conjunction with ‘An Amateur Comics Historian’, and ‘An Abundance Of Time To Think About Comic History’, Presents:

TEN CHARACTERS WHO WERE SECRET GAME-CHANGERS

10) BUCK ROGERS

1920s-Buck-Rogers

The newspaper comic strip, as an entity, dates back to the end of the 19th Century, and ‘The Yellow Kid’ is generally referenced as the first proper comic strip.  At the tail end of the 1920s, however, we encounter our man Buck (originally named Anthony Rogers in an earlier prose appearance), who quantified the science fiction genre and was a dominant name in it for decades.  Many concepts near-and-dear to later comic book heroes (the alien origins of Superman and company, the suspended-animation antics that protected Captain America, as well as some of the earliest character-based merchandising) originated with Captain Rogers.  Without comic strips, we wouldn’t have comic books; without Buck Rogers, the comics we would have gotten would have been a very different affair.

 

9) THE CLOCK

1930s-The-Clock

Making his bow in 1936, The Clock predates the modern superhero, arriving the same year as the Green Hornet from Centaur Comics, another of the forgotten juggernauts of Golden Age Comics.  Brian O’Brien has a lot of things in common with the pulp heroes of the day, serving as a sort of stepping stone/missing link between pulps and comics, as he was the first comic hero to don a mask.  Interestingly, Centaur sold The Clock to Quality Comics, which was in turn sold to DC Comics, meaning that Brian O’Brien could conceivably have been part of DC’s Earth-X stories of the 1970s, but due to misuse has fallen into the public domain, a sad fate for this pivotal-yet-forgotten hero.

 

8) ROBIN, THE BOY WONDER

1940s-Robin

The literary tradition of the sidekick dates back centuries (Sancho Panza, for instance, comes from the early 17th Century), but the arrival of Robin as kid partner to Batman was a sea-change for comic books.  Within a few months, younger partners were everywhere in comics, from Mr. Scarlet’s Pinky to Cat-Man’s Kitten to Black Terror’s sidekick Tim.  (Real Name: Tim, in case you were wondering.)  People still complain that Robin doesn’t make sense 75 years after his debut, but without his short-pants antics, we might never have had the Teen Titans, nor the Powerpuff Girls, or even Spider-Man, explicitly designed as a teenage hero operating without a mentor to invert the Robin archetype.

7) THE CRYPT-KEEPER

1950s-Crypt-Keeper

Ol’ Crypty may have been the first horror host in history (he first showed up in a 1949 issue of Crime Patrol), but he’s unequivocally one of the most recognizable.  As the superhero star began to fade at the end of the 1940s, other genres stepped in to fill the void, with cowboy, crime and romance books hitting it big.  As the 1950s dawned, though, EC Comics finally assembled the pieces necessary for a bona fide comic book revolution.  ‘Crypt Of Terror’ (later ‘Tales From The Crypt’) was joined by ‘Vault Of Horror’ and ‘Haunt Of Fear’, each with their own macabre narrator, and the books were ridiculously popular.  So popular, in fact, that publisher William Gaines swore that the newly created Comics Code Authority’s disallowances of “Terror”, “Horror” and other words in titles were specifically designed to hobble his books.  The popularity of the Crypt-Keeper and his ilk didn’t make it out of the 1950s, but his influence is still being felt in comics today.  (As an aside: The Phantom Stranger originated as a horror host, as did most of the cast of Neil Gaiman’s ‘Sandman’, and even Captain America took a turn in the last few Golden Age issues of his original title.)

 

6) GALACTUS

1960s-Galactus

Among the many things the Marvel Universe helped to pioneer (some might even say originate) at the beginning of the Silver Age of Comic books was the idea that the worlds of superheroes could have shades of gray.  Galactus is a perfect example of this theory in action: In his first appearance, he wished to consume the Earth not out of villainy, but out of necessity to survive.  As a creature beyond the morality of a moustache-twirling “bad guy”, the Big G is one of the first example of “villain as hero of their own story”.  The fact that he is, in many ways, a noble creature of the universe helped to form later portrayals of Magneto (who was still a cackling evil-for-evil’s-sake caricature in ’66), as well as the anti-heroes that populate so many of today’s fictions…

 

5) SWAMP THING

1970s-Swamp-Thing

While not the first “monster hero” (the Hulk predates him, but then Dick Briefer’s Frankenstein predates even that), Swamp Thing was well ahead of his time, hybridizing 1950s-style horror comics with 1960s-style superhero books more than a decade before it became the trend.  When traditional superhero comics started to wane again at the end of the 1970s, the adoption of those horror tropes and the more serious tone of comics like ‘Swamp Thing’ helped to create the Vertigo line and the grim-and-gritty trends that would transform comics in the coming decades.  His movie successes and later cartoon and toy lines are presaged the current state of comics storytelling…

 

4) TERRA

1980s-Terra

There had been any number of traitor storylines before Miss Markov joined the Teen Titans in 1983, most of which were explained with mind-control, coercion or (in the case of the Legion of Super-Heroes Dynamo Boy, Command Kid and Nemesis Kid) genre-blindness on the part of the heroes.  But Terra was a special case, specifically created as a villain-masquerading-as-hero, and explicitly treated as such in the narrative.  When she effortlessly took down nearly all the Titans in one swoop, it signaled a new wave in comic-book storytelling, and the result is seen every time a Helicarrier has crashed.  The idea of the villains gaining the upper hand didn’t originate with Terra, but its frequent use in today’s comics absolutely does…  (To this day, though, there are fans who will argue that she was manipulated by Deathstroke The Terminator, that she was somehow noble at heart and never meant any harm, proving that complexity of character is possible, even in the proverbial “funnybooks”.)

 

3) GREEN LANTERN KYLE RAYNER

1990s-Kyle-Rayner

Wally West’s takeover as The Flash in 1986 was a monumental moment for comics, removing a major player from the board and finally allowing a kid sidekick to fulfill the implied role of emergency replacement hero.  Kyle Rayner’s appearance, on the other hand, was a rushed affair, best explained by Ganthet’s words upon awarding him the emerald ring: “You will have to do.”  Many comics readers were appalled by the change (which was reputedly editorially mandated to shake things up), but Kyle’s growth into the role of hero endeared him to an entire generation of comics.  When Hal Jordan returned, there were enough Kyle fans that BOTH men’s adventures continued, leading to the realization that more than one version of a character appearing simultaneously was not only not BAD, but could serve to make two different fan bases happy at the same time, and allowing the current proliferation of multiple Avengers titles as well as in-story creations like Batman, Inc.  (His original suit-and-mask is still pretty damned ugly, though.)

 

2) X-23

2000s-X-23

While young Laura Kinney wasn’t the first character originating in other media (specifically the “X-Men: Evolution” cartoon) to make her way into the comics, she represents an important step in comic storytelling, one that once again helped the comic producers to cater to multiple groups of fans at the same time.  She was at the forefront of a wave of “sexy teenage girl versions of the characters we already know”, but more importantly, she takes her genetic forebear’s lack of memory a step further, being designed in-universe to fit into any situation, with a “trigger scent” that can send her from nice girl to killing machine in mere seconds.  As such, she has appeared in literally dozens of comic titles in her less-than-ten-year history, sloughing off bad stories and strange character developments like an old skin and making her uniquely suited to the constant state of reboot in modern comic storytelling…

 

1) SPIDER-MAN MILES MORALES

2010s-Miles-Morales

Drawing on elements of Kyle Rayner and X-23, Miles Morales ups the ante by replacing one of the most revered characters in comic book history, albeit in an alternate universe.  His debut was met with media attention, as well as backlash from fans who hated that Peter Parker was being replaced and complaints that Miles is a non-caucasian.  He quickly overcame those knee-jerk responses, though, and ended up starring in some of the best Ultimate Spider-Man stories in years, and even crossing over into the mainstream Marvel Universe.  Comics readers are demanding greater diversity in their heroes, no longer content to read the adventures of half-a-dozen blond men in masks (and, seriously, sometimes the Silver Age Avengers lineup looked like the ‘Boys From Brazil’.)  A Spider-Man who is black and Puerto Rican, heroic and smart, is a decent step forward for an industry that sometimes seems intent on staying firmly locked in 1963…

As with any set of like items, these aren’t meant to be hard and fast or absolutely complete, nor are they the only examples of this kind of influential character.  They ARE designed to elicit some discussion (as always, the “respectful and thoughtful” part goes without saying), so the comments section is there for just such an emergency, but, as always: Please, no wagering!

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The Author

Matthew Peterson

Matthew Peterson

Once upon a time, there was a young nerd from the Midwest, who loved Matter-Eater Lad and the McKenzie Brothers... If pop culture were a maze, Matthew would be the Minotaur at its center. Were it a mall, he'd be the Food Court. Were it a parking lot, he’d be the distant Cart Corral where the weird kids gather to smoke, but that’s not important right now... Matthew enjoys body surfing (so long as the bodies are fresh), writing in the third person, and dark-eyed women. Amongst his weaponry are such diverse elements as: Fear! Surprise! Ruthless efficiency! An almost fanatical devotion to pop culture!

And a nice red uniform.

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2 Comments

  1. Oldcomicfan
    January 14, 2015 at 9:37 pm — Reply

    Galactus, as it turns out, it easy to deflect. All you have to do is feed him a Giant Twinkie to save your planet. Sadly, Terra was the last of these game changers whose adventures I have enjoyed – due to the nearest comic book store being 75 miles away on the other side of a major mountain range – but of the newer heroes, X-23 (is she related to Wolverine) and the Ultimate Spider-Man look most interesting. I will admit I was one of the vocal ones who protested Miles Morales on the grounds of stunt-casting (Oh, let’s replace Peter Parker with somebody who is a double minority) but I was proved wrong because I am told his books were actually good and if I ever see any Ultimate Spider-Man trades for sale anywhere, I might well pick them up. The Terra saga in Teen Titans was a game changer. It had some of the best comic art (in its day) and although the writing was marred by the mistaken necessity of over-explaining things – “Look!” Nightwing shouts (as he arrests his fall by opening his shock absorbing Expanding Staff as seen in the art) “I will arrest my fall by opening my shock-absorbing Expanding Staff!” – the story was incredible. Terra fought alongside her teammates for the better part of a year, sharing their dangers, their heartbreaks, and their triumphs… and then she climbs out of bed with Deathstroke, smokes a cigarette and everything goes to hell for the Titans! Frankly, I’m surprised that whole reveal didn’t get censored given the comic book sensibilities of the day. Personally, I think it would be great if Marv Wolfman and George Perez could get back together and redo the thing cutting out all the extraneous exposition and update the art and story…

  2. Lemmy Caution
    January 14, 2015 at 10:54 pm — Reply

    Dear OCF:

    X-23 is a clone of Wolverine. I know it sounds awful, but I have found her to be a far more interesting character than Logan over the past decade. The books by Marjorie Liu were especially rewarding (such as NYX and, more so, the self-titled X-23 series which had about 20 issues). New X-Men (2004) is also, astonishingly enough, quite good and brought back to me some nice memories of the original New Mutants (my all-time favorites). And I’ve been enjoying X-23 currently in All New X-Men (by Bendis).

    Miles Morales Ultimate Spider-Man also, amazingly, works (also by Bendis). Although I prefer the first volume to this one. You can skip just about everything else that is Ultimate, in my opinion, and be just fine with this one title.

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