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By Jacobus Dixon

Why do they call it the Golden Age of comics? There were only three real big shot characters that anyone cared about. You got Superman, Captain Marvel, and Batman — what more was there? Well…actually there were quite a number of them. True, they may not have been as successful as Superman, but they were definitely hits. And like Superman and Batman, they belonged to Harry Donenfeld. Ol’ Donny had his hands in exactly three comic book publishers; Detective Comics Inc., National Allied Publications, and All-American Publications. He’d eventually combine the three into National Periodical Publications by the mid-40s, but for now they were separate companies run by separate guys (but all bankrolled by Donenfeld). While Superman headlined National Allied Publications, and Batman did the same for Detective Comics Inc., All-American would pitch its own superhero heavy hitters, and give Donenfeld a tight fist on the superhero genre.

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But how? How could All-American hope to tap into the superhero market when there were characters like Superman and Captain Marvel who were essentially Gilgamesh, Samson, and Hercules (hell, he’s one of the names that form SHAZAM) reborn? People like big strong guys, once you’ve got those archetypes you’ve got the genre in a lock. Well…actually people do tend to enjoy a bit of diversity here and there, which was what Editor-In-Chief Max Gaines was counting on. So the strong guy had been claimed, twice, what about the fast guy? Nobody seemed to be using him. But since there are few well-known fast-guy archetypes, artist Sheldon Moldoff and writer Gardner Fox settled on a hero who would basically resemble a mortal version of the Roman god, Mercury. Gaines and co. knew that there was a mythological allure to these new superheroes and were counting on it to sell comic magazines.

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Like Mercury, the Flash is shown with a winged helmet to connect him to his mythological predecessor, but the rest of him is definite American 20th century. He has colorful red and blue active wear like Superman, but they’re more like the sportswear of a football player as opposed to the getup of a weight lifter. To further illustrate his connection with speed, the Flash is decorated with lightning bolts to give the impression that he strikes like lightning. He’s not a powerhouse, or some supernatural creature, but hey…he can catch bullets as if they were baseballs! I can’t do that, can you? This is why the cover works so well, because it’s counting on the potential reader to make that sports connection. Yes, there’re gangsters threatening a dame, but the Flash is handling the situation like a professional ball player. He’s focused on making the play with a determination that is neither grim nor wrathful but sharp and present. He’s using his talents to win the game just like the perfect sports star should.

Another great attribute of this cover is how it acts as a window that the prospective reader can use to look into the comic without reading it. And it uses the images of the other stars in the book. There’s this Johnny Thunder, who looks like a young scrapper of some kind (he’s upper-cutting some guy), a guy called the Whip who looks like some Zorro knockoff, a stern-faced Cliff Cornwall looking like he’s about to deal with some serious stuff, and…a guy dressed like a hawk? And best of all, these images are to the left, near the spine. So they don’t interfere with the main image on the cover. So it’s a nice cover, but how good is the stuff within?

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Well, we find out that the Flash isn’t a god, but a college science major named Jay Garrick (who also happens to be a big football star as well) who accidentally inhales the fumes of experimental hard water vapors. Jay uses his newfound speed abilities to help his girlfriend’s father against a gang of foreign agents looking to use his Atomic Bombarder for nefarious purposes. It’s a light story, but it hits all the right beats. Hero gets powers, uses powers to get innocents out of a jam, and wins the day by totally trashing the competition. It’s like the sports fantasy the cover promises (except the opposing team doesn’t wind up dead in the end like the hapless thugs the Flash goes up against).

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As for the other stories in the book, the two that really stick out are Hawkman and Johnny Thunder. Hawkman is what happens when an archeologist (this one’s name is Carter Hall) comes in contact with a mystical Egyptian knife that reveals his past life as a tragic Egyptian prince named Khufu. Hall then dons an experimental anti-gravity harness made of ninth metal (later changed to nth metal), artificial wings, a hawk mask (to supposedly imitate the god Anubis, though Horus probably would have been more accurate- hey it was the 1940, there wasn’t a lot of fact-checking), and an assortment of old school weaponry to fight his old reincarnated foe Hath-Set as he threatens Hall’s reincarnated love Shiera. Whoa…trippy.

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And lastly we have Johnny Thunder to round up the highlights of the book. While he is every bit the scrapper we see on the cover, we also find that there’s much more to this character. He was born at 7:00 am, on July 7, 1917, which is a date that prophesizes an auspicious connection to a great power according to a Badhnisian legend. Naturally, this leads to Johnny being kidnapped by a Badhnisian cult. The cultists are awaiting his seventh birthday (when the power will connect itself to him) and give Johnny a magic belt and teach him the magic word Cei-U seven times (pronounced “Say You”) in a ritual to prepare him for this great combination. Johnny is then returned to America where he reunites with his parents and lives an average life. It isn’t until he hits his twenties that he activates this power that he’s come across, which happens to be a full-fledged genie that not only grants Johnny’s wishes, but rescues him from enemies of Badhnisia looking to usurp Johnny’s ability. The story essentially plays out like an action comedy as Johnny bumbles his way into heroism, with the magic thunderbolt genie as his guardian angel. Who said every hero story had to be serious?

While the Whip turned out to be nothing more than a pale Zorro clone, and Cliff Cornwall didn’t even bother showing up in the comic at all, these three stories really stick.  We don’t get Herculean feats of raw power in this comic. We get a swift super-powered athlete honing his skill for a different kind of game, an existential freak-out that results in a guy going on a rampage in a hawk mask swinging old school weapons, and a bumbling schmuck who happens to be in the right place at the right time to receive an immense power. This proves that superheroes didn’t have to be resigned to being just strongmen and that the public was not averse to a little variety in costumed adventurers. It acts as a herald that lets us know that the Golden Age is now in full swing without just ending at Superman, Captain Marvel, or Batman.

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