In the early 1940s, as a myriad of would-be publishers heard about the overwhelming success of Superman nd rushed into the marketplace offering their own get-rich-quick versions of a comic book super hero, the reality is that nobody quite understood just what factors made Superman work. And so, everything was tried, and creativity–both good and bad–was rampant. But eventually, the parameters for a successful super hero character were worked out, and tacitly agreed to by the publishers and the audience. Still, this didn’t stop any number of creators from pushing their ideas in different directions. While most characters from the 1960s fit readily in the super hero mold, albeit executed better or worse, there are some who did so in a truly distinctive way. Here then are five of the most unique super hero concepts of the Silver Age.
MATTER-EATER LAD, ADVENTURE COMICS #303 – I could practically fill this list with members of the Legion of Super-Heroes alone, in part because none of the members of the Legion were expected to hold down their own series, and so could be a bit more outlandish and specialized in terms of what they could do. And one of the hallmarks of the series early on was that additional novel super heroes would be introduced on a regular basis, most often in the form of applicants for Legion membership from assorted unique worlds throughout the galaxy. But perhaps the most outre of them all was Matter-Eater Lad. He was introduced by writer Jerry Siegel and artist John Forte in the fourth regular Legion story in ADVENTURE COMICS, and as his name implies, his superhuman ability is the power to consume literally anything. See, he comes from the planet Bismoll (a joke name by Siegel, invoking the popular brand name stomach remedy, Pepto Bismol) where thanks to the scarcity of food, his people evolved to be able to find nutrition in absolutely anything at all. As an adjunct, Matter-Eater Lad’s jaws were strong enough to bite through steel with ease, a power almost as significant as his power to swallow the stuff and survive. Amazingly, Matter-Eater Lad wasn’t just a throw-away character but became a regular member of the Legion. While later creators, aware of how overtly silly he was in both name and function, tried to depower him or eliminate him from the roster, such tactics never stood, and he would always return, ready to pit his gastrointestinal tract against the forces of galactic evil.
STONE BOY, ADVENTURE COMICS #306 – Once again, a creation of Jerry Siegel and John Forte, and introduced as a part of one of my favorite concepts, the Legion of Substitute Heroes. The subs were all Legion applicants who had failed to pass their auditions, their powers deemed too insignificant for inclusion among those whose bodies could bounce or who could split into three forms. But undaunted, these rejects didn’t become embittered–rather, under the leadership of Polar Boy, they formed their own secret Legion, one dedicated to helping out the main Legion in times of trouble, when their specialist powers might be of value. Of the five founding Subs, Stone Boy’s power appears to be the least useful: because his planet experiences nights that are half a year long, his people developed the ability to transform themselves into solid stone–in effect, by going to sleep. The drawback with this ability is that, in his stony form Stone Boy cannot move–he’s like a stone statue. A limited gift, to be sure–and yet, within a few issues, Stone Boy would become the first of the Subs to be offered actual Legion membership for his valor (He turns them down, and elects to remain with his friends, the other Subs.) The Legion of Subs was a concept that really spoke to me as an unathletic kid, and years later when Keith Giffen used the Subs as figures of ridicule, it stung a little bit, for all that Giffen’s efforts were genuinely funny.
NEGATIVE MAN, MY GREATEST ADVENTURE #80 – By the early 1960s, as Marvel began to change the paradigm for super heroes, only one person over at monolithic DC was paying much attention: writer Arnold Drake. In an attempt to adopt some of the practices of the growing rival, Drake, with the help of fellow writer Bob Haney and artist Bruno Premiani, created the Doom Patrol in the pages of the flagging anthology series MY GREATEST ADVENTURE. The Doom Patrol were each the product of an accident of fate that had given them strange powers at the cost of destroying their normal lives. They’re angry, bitter characters who are often not well loved by the people they protect–the closest thing DC would see to Marvel-style heroes for two decades. The most unique character among the Doom Patrol was Larry Trainor, Negative Man. Given that super heroes are at their core power fantasies, Negative Man is virtually an anti-super hero. It’s hard to imagine a kid wanting to be Negative Man. Exposure to radiation while on a test flight made Trainor dangerously radioactive, forced to cover himself head-to-toe in radiation-proof bandages to avoid poisoning everyone around him. It also gave him the ability to release a sort of genie made of radio-energy from his body, which could perform amazing feats. However, whenever Negative Man left Trainor’s body, he would slump to the floor, a hair’s breath away from death–and if Negative man remained outside of his body for more than 60 seconds, he would perish. There is really no upside to being Negative Man. And so, it’s not surprising that Trainor became the most acerbic of the group. Astonishingly, he also became the breakout character of the live action DOOM PATROL television series, where the decision to reveal that he was a closeted gay man opened up a bevy of new narrative possibilities for him.
NOMAN, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. AGENTS #1 – If Negative Man was the ultimate loser in the super-powers sweepstakes, then NoMan might have been the all-time winner. He was introduced in T.H.U.N.D.E.R. AGENTS #1 from newcomer Tower Comics, and there wasn’t anything remotely like him to be found in the field. He was conceived by Wally Wood, Larry Ivie and Reed Crandall, the latter two of whom produced his origin story. Aged scientist Doctor Dunn has his mind transplanted into the body of a super-strong blue-skinned, hairless android. Not only does this give him an effectively immortal lifespan, but he can also switch his mind from similar body to similar body–in effect, allowing him to survive a physical death by assuming another form. He’s also armed with an Invisibility Cloak invented by his now-deceased colleague Professor Jennings (who could have used an android body himself, come t think of it.), all of which he uses as an operative of The Higher United Nations Defense Enforcement Reserve in their ongoing battle with both the Warlord and his subterranean legions and the criminal conglomerate S.P.I.D.E.R. NoMan’s best asset was that he could be killed and yet keep on going, similar in its way to Captain Scarlet, and so it was a rare story in which he didn’t demolish several android bodies. Sadly for THUNDER’s budget, each of those androids cost a cool million dollars to manufacture, so NoMan was far from their most cost-effective Agent. But you can’t put a price tag on world freedom, after all.
ROBBY REED, DIAL “H” FOR HERO, HOUSE OF MYSTERY #156 – Sockamagee! was the exclamation used by teenaged hero Robby Reed (and if you can figure out how to pronounce that, you’re a better person than I am despite fifty years of pondering.) Robby was a good-hearted kid living with his grandfather in rural Littleville, a town more regularly menaced by super-villains and alien invasions than one might expect. One day, while fleeing from a robot attack, Robby falls into a disused cave, where he finds a strange alien dial covered in unfamiliar letters. Somehow translating this text into English–a feat that would alone be enough to earn him scientific plaudits–Robby discovers that any time he dials the letters H-E-R-O on the thing, he is transformed into a different super hero. Dialing O-R-E-H will return him to normal, of course. And so, Robby becomes the one-person super-team of Littleville, dialing himself into different identities in order to protect his town and the world from an assortment of weird menaces. Taking their inspiration no doubt from the popular film Dial “M” For Murder, writer Dave Wood and artist Jim Mooney created DIAL “H” FOR HERO as a new feature in HOUSE OF MYSTERY, which had formerly been a mystery anthology before becoming home to the displaced adventures of the Martian Manhunter. The Manhunter wasn’t enough of a sales draw, though, so something new was needed. The downfall of Robby Reed was likely the fact that most of his superhuman identities weren’t all that wonderful, either in concept or design. And that makes sense–why would you want to waste a potentially profitable design or idea on a character who’d wind up as a throw-away in a single story? Robby’s finest hour likely came when DC needed to protect their rights to Plastic Man, a character they’d purchased from the defunct Quality Comics, but whom they hadn’t been publishing. After Plastic Man was used in an unauthorized garment ad, DC was quick to have Robby assume the identity of that long-ago crimefighter so as to reassert their rights to the intellectual property. Response must have been encouraging, as a Plastic man revival was launched soon afterwards. Robby himself would go through ups and downs after his series ended, being cast as a villain sometimes, or a benefactor in others. But never again did he get the chance to be the hero of his own story.