Supernatural Heroes(pop culture)
When the dark forces of the underworld threaten to scare up trouble for humankind, paranormal protectors—many with modus operandi drawing from the same sinister sources as their enemies’—stand ready to vanquish vampires, demons, and wizards.
King Features’ Mandrake the Magician, an illusionist sporting a top hat and tails, first used his mystical attributes to fight crime in the June 11, 1934 unveiling of his long-running newspaper strip. Over the decades Mandrake and his assistant, Lothar, have appeared in a 1939 movie serial, Big Little Books, comic books, a 1979 TV movie, and the animated series Defenders of the Earth (1986). DC Comics’ debut of Dr. Occult predated the industry’s eminent Golden Age (19381954). Originating in 1935, this amulet-wearing investigator of the arcane has materialized off and on in DC’s titles over the decades but has never achieved tremendous acclaim. Dr. Occult’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, scored a larger success with their next character, Superman, first seen in Action Comics #1 (1938), the same issue that introduced Zatara the Magician, the crime-fighting showman who voiced backward incantations (“raeppasid” for”disappear”).
In 1940, Egyptian Prince Amentep emerged from a four-thousand-year sleep to become Fawcett’s Ibis the Invincible, the red-tur-baned titan who wielded a magic wand—his Ibistick—against evil. A chilling superheroine named Madame Satan had a short lifespan, in 1941, at the publisher that would ultimately be known for its squeaky-clean characters—Archie Comics—and Fox Features Syndicates’ the Wraith, a ghostly guardian parroting DC’s successful supernatural hero, the Spectre, faded from view after a mere five stories that same year. Other supernatural superheroes seen during the 1940s were Dr. Fate, Mr. Mystic, and Sargon the Sorcerer.
Another hero that emerged during this period is Johnny Thunder, who debuted in Flash Comics #1 (January 1940). As an infant Johnny was given possession of the Thunderbolt, a magical being like a genie. Johnny grew up and accidentally discovered that by saying the magic word Cei-U (“Say you”), he could summon the Thunderbolt to do his bidding. Johnny’s adventures tended to be humorous: he was not particularly bright, but he had a good heart, and he even became a member of the Justice Society of America. (In recent years Johnny died, but his consciousness lives on as part of the Thunderbolt. A young African American, Jakeem Thunder, who debuted in Flash #134, February 1998, is the Thunderbolt’s new master, controlling him by saying “So Cul” [“So cool”].)
Horror comics were the rage in the early 1950s, evidenced by gruesome anthology titles like EC Comics’ Tales from the Crypt. During this trend, the Phantom Stranger, a trench-coated enigma who guided passersby through the supernatural realm first appeared in a short-lived series bearing his name. The Phantom Stranger returned to his own title from 1969 to 1976— and continues to wander in and out of various DC titles.
DC’s jungle adventurer Congo Bill goes all the way back to More Fun Comics #56 (June 1940), but his fate changed weirdly in the 1950s. In Action Comics #248 (January 1959), he first rubbed a magic ring that caused him to switch minds with a powerful gorilla with golden fur. Thus he became Congorilla, who starred in a backup series in Action Comics and later Adventure Comics. He even stared in his own comics miniseries in 1994 and 1999. After his human body died, Congo Bill’s mind lived on in the legendary Golden Gorilla, and as Congorilla he even became a member of the Justice League in 2009.
The content sanitization of comics, in the wake of mid-1950s U.S. Senate subcommittee hearings, temporarily retired most supernatural references. Two of DC’s spooky heroes eventually resurfaced in the 1960s: the Spectre returned in 1966 and spun off into a ten-issue run of his own title, and Dr. Fate received occasional outings in the pages of Justice League of America. Marvel’s master of the mystic arts, Doctor Strange, first peered into his all-seeing Eye of Agamatto in 1963, fending off magical menaces like Baron Mordo. DC’s Deadman, originating in 1967, was circus aerialist Boston Brand before an assassin’s bullet ended his life and began his postmortem quest: to find his killer. And Zatara’s daughter, Zatanna, surfaced in the 1960s, eventually joining the Justice League of America, equipped with her own backward-spoken spells. While dealing with matters mystical, these 1960s creepy crusaders were squarely rooted in the mainstream.
In the 1970s, the Comics Code Authority censorship board eased its restrictions against occult references, and a plethora of paranormal heroes crawled forth. DC revived the Spectre (again) in the pages of Adventure Comics, pushing graphic storytelling to its limits with the hero’s bloodcurdling means of disposing of criminals, including dismemberment by giant scissors and transmutation into mannequins. Legendary comics artist Jack Kirby expanded DC’s mystical mythos in 1972 with The Demon, a series starring demonologist Jason Blood. Blood, an immortal, is the human host to Etrigan, a chaotic, yellow-skinned devil, who once served in the court of Camelot. Channeled by Blood through an incantation, the Demon speaks in rhyme and has fought magical threats in myriad appearances, including team-ups with Batman.
Marvel Comics embraced the macabre with a host of horrifying heroes, all bowing in the 1970s, including the Ghost Rider, the flame-headed motorcyclist/superhero who gave a new definition to the term “Hell’s Angel”; Moon Knight, Marvel’s answer to DC’s Batman; the half-man/half-vampire Blade, who has headlined a successful franchise of live-action movies from the late 1990s to the present; Brother Voodoo, an African American character mixing Hougan mysticism and superheroics; and the Son of Satan, a.k.a. Daimon Hellstrom, who, with a pentagram birthmark on his chest and a trident that emitted “soul fire” in hand, waged war against his unholy father.
Beginning in the 1980s, “real-world” society grew more violent, and the supernatural heroes of popular fiction followed suit. Perhaps no character better exemplifies this than creator James O’Barr’s bleak angel of vengeance, Eric Draven, popularly known as the Crow. In the character’s 1989 origin from Caliber Comics, the mortally wounded Draven watches helplessly as his fiancée is brutalized and murdered by street punks. The trauma of this event prohibits him from resting in the afterlife, and on the first anniversary of his death he is resuscitated by a crow and given paranormal abilities, including an empathic touch and augmented agility, in a mission of vengeance against those who cut short his life. His iniquitous methods have transcended his cult-favorite comic book and have been adapted to cinema via a franchise of films beginning with The Crow (1994), and a syndicated TV series, The Crow: Stairway to Heaven (1998).
Top Cow Productions’ NYPD detective Sara Pezzini was first seen in 1995, on an implacable expedition to destroy the mobster who ritualistically eliminated those closest to her. Once she unearthed Joan of Arc’s enchanted gauntlet— called the witchblade—Pezzini donned the glove and symbiotically bonded with it. As Witchblade, she wielded the glove’s powers—the creation of daggers, the deflection of bullets, and an extrasensory perception—in a brutal vendetta against organized crime. A live-action Witchblade TV movie (2000) and weekly cable series (20012002) starred Yancy Butler.
Mitchell Shelley is the Resurrection Man, who can be killed, but then returns to life within moments, gaining a different superpower each time he is resurrected. Created by writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, and artist Jackson Guice, he first appeared in Resurrection Man #1 (May 1997). His abilities have been ascribed to nan-otechnology, However, it has been established that the Resurrection Man has existed since the days of cavemen, so there must be another explanation for his powers, perhaps the supernatural. Abnett, Lanning, and artist Fernando Dagnino collaborated on DC ‘s new Resurrection Man series that launched in September 2011.
Characters such as the Crow, Witchblade, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are non-masked fighters that elevate the classic concept of the superhero to a more realistic level, despite their fantastical settings. “Buffy could be seen as qualifying as a superhero,” wrote Peter Coogan in his 2002 dissertation “The Secret Origin of the Superhero.” Coogan also observed, “She has a mission; she has superpowers; Buffy has an identity as the Slayer.” (Marvel has its own analogue to Buffy: Elsa Bloodstone, a superstrong young woman who hunts monsters; she debuted in Bloodstone, in 2001, and counts Frankenstein’s Monster as her ally.) Buffy and her supernatural ilk—Steven Hughes’ Lady Death, Dark Horse’s Ghost, and DC’s Vertigo heroes (Sandman, Death, Hellblazer, and Preacher)—have reinvented the concept of the dark hero for a new generation. —ME & PS