Superhero movies have dominated Hollywood for nearly a decade, but superheroes' popularity is nothing new. Characters like Batman, Captain America, and Wonder Woman have been popular for over seventy years, but many of their caped brethren have fallen through the cracks of history.
Editor Greg Sadowski gathered many of these forgotten heroes into 2009's Supermen! The First Wave of Comic-Book Heroes 1936-1941, a great anthology about comics' Golden Age. The idea of the superhero began as an amalgamation of the circus strongman and pulp characters like the Shadow and Doc Savage. Once Superman hit the scene in Action Comics #1 in 1938, publishing companies scrambled to get into the comic book business and create their very money-making superhero.
Trying to come up with the next big thing is almost as difficult as trying to come up with the big thing in the first place, a fact made clear by the creation and immediate disappearance of heroes like Skyman, the Silver Streak, and Yarko, Master of Magic. Still, there's life in these stories, the kind creative abandon found only when writers and artists make up the rules as they go along. These creators of these stories didn't have to bow to the needs of continuity, perform fan service, or concern themselves with maintaining a franchise. They were trying to make a buck, and create stories people would want to read. If nothing else, they were successful on that tip.
Standouts include Basil Wolverton's Spacehawk, Superhuman Enemy of Crime, and the brutally strange work of Fletcher Hanks. Hanks' characters Stardust the Super Wizard and Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle are the epitome old, weird superhero comics. Be sure to check out Hanks' I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets! for more early superhero antics. It's an excellent companion to Supermen!, and is also available from the library.