As the 1940s transitioned into the 1950s, the heyday of the typical costumed super hero appeared to be in its twilight. While big marquee characters such as Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman continued to post sufficient sales to continue in their respective titles, all across the field, other less fortunate crusaders were hanging up their capes and cowls; the Flash, Green Lantern, the Atom, the Human Torch, the Sub-Mariner, Captain America–even the fabled Justice Society of America held its final meeting in 1951. Other genres had simply become more popular to the readership, most notably crime, romance, horror and western series. Publishers such as DC/National Comics pivoted with the public’s tastes, moving into these other genres and more, though maintaining the sense of restraint and decorum that had come to characterize their line and create its overall reputation as a “respectable” publisher.
This inside front cover house ad gives a good sense of the kinds of genres DC was attempting to move into, as well as the overall ethos of the company that they were attempting to project.
One of the genres that DC attempted to make inroads into with some success was science fiction. Spearheaded by editor Julie Schwartz, who was himself a science fiction fan and who had previously worked as an agent for several science fiction authors, STRANGE ADVENTURES was launched in 1950 with an adaptation of the then-new movie DESTINATION: MOON. While the title dabbled with a few headlining characters such as Chris KL-99, its stock-in-trade was one-off science fiction adventures with some manner of simple visual hook. Remarkably, Schwartz was even able to convince the very creator-resistant DC to allow him to run some writer bylines on the stories and covers, the better to capture the genuine science fiction readership who might be familiar with the names of the authors in his rolodex that would turn to for stories.
At some early point, however, Schwartz realized that he needed a stronger headliner in order to secure the sales of the series. And so he worked with his favorite writer John Broome and his best artist Carmine Infantino to create such a character. While there was definitely a veneer of a super hero about what they came up with, the triio attempted to position their protagonist, Adam Blake, as a science fiction character, a mutant born 100,000 years ahead of his natural era, what mankind could become through evolution over time. His birth heralded by the flash of a comet in the skies overhead, the character would come to be known as Captain Comet. He was inspired in part by the science fiction pulp character captain Future, created by Leo Margulies and Schwartz’s friend and fellow DC editor Mort Weisinger.
Captain Comet didn’t wear a costume per se, but he soon sported a red-and-white form-fitting space suit that performed the same essential function. He began appearing as the cover feature on STRANGE ADVENTURES, giving the title an anchor apart from simply being an anthology series. The creative team was the same one that in only a few years would jump-start the Silver Age of Comics with their revival of the Flash in SHOWCASE, and Captain Comet evidences much of that same sensibility, of a scientific super hero.
After a few months, the primary artist on the feature became Murphy Anderson, whose clean lines and elegant sense of futuristic design gave it a classic, classy look.
This first Captain Comet story is credited to Edgar Ray Merritt, which was a pseudonym that John Broome used on occasion for some reason known only to him. Broome would go on to write all of the Captain Comet stories. Atypically, this initial adventure ended on a bit of a cliffhanger and was picked up in the subsequent issue, one of the earliest examples of DC experimenting with continued stories. As the anthology was their bread-and-butter format, the company wasn’t even in favor of full-length tales, believing that potential buyers wanted to feel as though they were getting a lot of different content for their dimes.
ADDITION: Ray Cuthbert points out: for those who knew science fiction and fantasy, EDGAR Rice Burroughs, RAY Palmer and Abraham MERRITT were well-known authors. The pseudonym was an Easter Egg of sorts to readers who knew those those famous authors.
The Captain Comet series ran in almost every issue of STRANGE ADVENTURES through #49 in 1954, a solid three-year run. At that point, without any fanfare, the series was dropped. But Adam Blake would eventually make his way back into the DC Universe in the 1970s, in the pages of the second issue of SECRET SOCIETY OF SUPER VILLAINS, which we talk about here:
As such, Captain Comet is one of those bridging characters, straddling the period of time between when the super hero series of the 1940s were fazed out and the Silver Age of Comics, when they’d be brought back. For all that he’s slightly off-model for the genre, he was the first DC super hero created in the 1950s.
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In Julie Schwartz’s autobiography, Man of Two Worlds, he remembered that he went ahead and put creator credits on the covers of the sci-fi comics in the tradition of the pulps, but was then told to stop when the top brass noticed. I don’t think that was the only time he operated under the principle of “It’s better to ask for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission,” but no other specific examples spring to mind right now.