The First Legacy Hero

The concept of a Legacy hero, someone who steps into the identity of a predecessor to carry on their heroic legacy, is a relatively new development in the world of comic book super heroes, for all that it’s at the same time a widespread phenomenon throughout the field. The earliest prominent Legacy characters were the Julie Schwartz revivals of super heroes such as the Flash and Green Lantern in the 1950s and ’60s. But in those instances, the identity was transformed from the ground up. By the 1970s, Marvel revealed that the Captain America stories that appeared in the late 1940s and the 1950s had actually starred replacement characters who had taken over Cap’s identity. By the 1980s, you began to get genuine Legacy heroes, starting with Jason Todd becoming Robin, and followed not long thereafter as Wally West stepped into Barry Allen’s boots as the Flash. But the earliest example of one person replacing another on a permanent basis in the identity of a particular hero goes all the way back to 1943.

The Black Owl had been introduced in the second issue of PRIZE COMICS, and he became an early cover feature of the magazine. He was your standard Batman type of millionaire playboy by day, nocturnal crimefighter by night. At the time, this was enough to make him popular, but as the months went by, he began to be eclipsed in popularity by other strips that were running in the anthology series.

Yank and Doodle were introduced in PRIZE COMICS #13, at a time when patriotic fervor was breaking out all over the comic book pages. Star-spangled heroes such as Captain America were the new hot thing, and PRIZE COMICS put their own unique spin on the concept. Rather than an adult hero, Yank and Doodle were a pair of teenaged brothers, Rick and Dick Walters, who would dress up in red, white and blue and battle the enemies of democracy. The pair proved popular, and started appearing regularly on covers, occasionally sharing them with the Black Owl and others.

But by 1943, with page counts beginning to shrink thanks to wartime restrictions on paper and audience tastes continuing to change, the decision was made to merge the Black Owl and Yank and Doodle into a single combined feature. This happened in PRIZE COMICS #34, in an amazingly whiplash-inducing tale. In the span of only a few pages, Rick and Dick’s father Walt discovers that they are secretly Yank and Doodle.

As it turns out, Walt is also a friend of Doug Danville, who is secretly the Black Owl. And by a total coincidence, Doug has picked this moment to call Walt up and ask him for a mighty big favor. He reveals to Walt that he’s secretly been the Black Owl–but now, he’s enlisted to assist in the war effort. Not wanting to leave the city undefended, Doug is hoping that Walt will take over his name and costume and take his place as the Black Owl. Given that his kids are already showing him up by fighting crime, Walt really doesn’t have much of a choice at this point.

As it turns out, despite the fact that he’s been depicted up to this point as a bookish inventor, it turns out that Walt is in miraculous physical shape (so much so that one wonders why he hasn’t enlisted as Doug is doing.) Walt is also better at the fighting arts than Doug as well, at least based on their interactions in this tale.

Walt is forced to make the sacrifice of his moustache to take on the role of the Black Owl, but he intends to keep it in his civilian identity by using a phony paste-on one, which seems a bit extreme. But, hey, that’s comics for you. He also determines that he can’t reveal his new guise as the Black Owl to Rick or Dick, lest they move to protect him at some crucial moment thus imperiling themselves. That logic seems pretty dodgy to me, especially given that Walt is the parent here, but what are you going to do?

And so from this point on, Walt takes over the identity of the Black Owl, assisting Yank and Doodle on their cases while simultaneously torturing them by not revealing the truth to them, nor that he knows of their own dual lives. The strip carried on this way until PRIZE COMICS came to its end in 1948. As far as I can tell, Doug Danville was never seen again. I’m guessing that he was killed in combat.

The author of this extra-long story uniting Yank and Doodle with the Black Owl is unknown, but the Grand Comic Database credits the artwork on it to Dan Zolnerowich and John Cassone. You can see the influence of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby on these page layouts.

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