New Book Reveals Secret History of Comic Heroes

In the new book "Our Gods Wear Spandex: The Secret History of Comic Book Heroes," author Christopher Knowles examines the enormous influence religious, occult, magical beliefs and ancient mythology had on the creation of legendary characters like Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and Wolverine. Are superheroes becoming a new religion? What is the relationship between superheroes and the Occult? What influences shaped the modern superhero? Those questions and many others are explored in this 256 page novel.

Knowles has been a contributing writer/Associate Editor to "Comic Book Artist" magazine and "Jack Kirby Collector," has produced comics for Sirius and Radio Comix, illustrated and designed toy packaging for Toy Biz (including X-Men, Hulk, Spider-Man and special collectors assortments) and is currently a freelance artist specializing in superhero licensing and merchandising.

Knowles and Wieser Books have provided CBR News with an excerpt from "Our Gods Wear Spandex" that takes a look at Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's Doctor Occult, the character they created prior to their most famous creation, Superman. Spot illustrations by popular artist Joe Linsner from the book are also included in this preview.

In addition, Knowles has uncovered what he believes might be one of the earliest and potentially the ultimate comics swipe of all time. Was Superman's iconic pose as seen on the cover of "Action Comics" #1 actually swiped from a classic renaissance painting?

"Jerry Siegel was one of those creators who seemed to have a fairly deep fascination with the occult and mythology," Knowles told CBR News. "He is on record as saying that his inspiration for Superman came from mythic characters like Samson and Hercules. And as I document in 'Spandex,' Lex Luthor bears a strong resemblance to infamous British occultist, Aleister Crowley. The Spectre, his second major creation after Superman, was essentially a god. Alan Moore and Alex Ross understood the tradition that Siegel was drawing from, which is why the Spectre played exactly that role in 'Swamp Thing' and 'Kingdom Come.' Siegel's last major creation, the Starling (a backup feature in 'Destroyer Duck'), drew upon conspiracy theories tracing alien encounters to the extra-biblical concept of the Nephilim, the demonic offspring of human women and fallen angels.

"The cover of 'Action Comics' #1 may well be an homage to one of Siegel's inspirations. The pose bears a strong resemblance to a classic image of Hercules- 'Heracles and the Hydra' painted by Antonio Del Pollaiolo in 1475. Note, for instance, that the angle of Hercules' staff is identical to that of the running board of the car there. Note that Superman's hand seems to be a bit tentative and that the anatomy of his torso is awkward.

Is "Action Comics" #1 a swipe? Tell us what you think by taking our online poll.

"The rock on 'Action' looks a lot like the body of the hydra, and the hydra's neck forms an S, just like the snake-like S on Superman's chest. The nebulous background on 'Action' also is strongly reminiscent of Renaissance paintings. Perhaps a subconscious inspiration, but seeing that the pose of Batman from 'Detective' #27 was taken straight from an Alex Raymond strip, perhaps not.

"Whatever the case, Siegel's interest in occultism certainly puts the 'Curse of Superman' in a new light."

"Out Gods Wear Spandex" is available now from Weiser Books.

Excerpt from "Our Gods Wear Spandex" by Christopher Knowles with illustrations by Joseph Michael Linsner.

Wizard archetypes are as old as fiction itself. Thoth, Egyptian lunar god and patron of magic and science, was perhaps the first Wizard archetype. Thoth was also the patron deity of Aleister Crowley's magnum opus on the Tarot, which he called The Book of Thoth. The melding of Thoth and his Greek counterpart Hermes gave the world Hermes Trismegistus, or "Thrice-Great Hermes", the patron of all magical arts and sciences in the pagan world. This tradition, known simply as Hermeticism, was powerful and influential enough to survive centuries of brutal and bloody suppression by the Catholic Church and enjoy a revival among the alchemists of the Middle Ages, who saw themselves as heirs to the Hermetic tradition.

Few people realize, however, that explicitly magical characters are actually the earliest examples of modern superheroes. In fact, it can be argued that all superheroes are essentially magical, since most of their powers have no basis in real science. Early superheroes like Captain Marvel, Phantasmo, and Green Lantern were unambiguously magical in origin, drawing on themes taken directly from the pulps.

Wizards functioned as shamans and medicine men, teachers and priests, and often as chieftains in ancient tribal societies. Three of the most famous sorcerers in Western culture are the Three Wise Men, from the Gospel of Matthew. These magi were Zoroastrian astrologers said to have prophesied the coming of Christ, whom they found in the manger at Bethlehem. The most famous sorcerer of all time, however, is Merlin, the mage from the King Arthur myths. Merlin is usually portrayed as the wise wizard of Uther Pendragon's court who raises and tutors young Arthur to be King of the Britons.

Many of the Arthurian romances are told from Merlin's point of view, and Merlin seems to be the archetype for both Gandalf the White in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy and Obi Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars dramas. A less-acknowledged inheritor of Merlin's mantle is Q, the master of technological wonders in the James Bond films, whose role is very much like that of Merlin in the Arthurian tales-a scolding paternal figure who is also the source of the ingenious tricks and gadgets that regularly save the day. Likewise, Obi-Wan Kenobi can be seen as a Christ-like, sci-fi Merlin who sacrifices himself to save Luke and Leia and their companions. Obi Wan and Q (like Gandalf) are both members of a brotherhood-in Obi Wan's case, the suppressed Jedi, in Q's, the Secret Service.

Mandrake the Magician

The character generally seen as the comics' first superhero is Mandrake the Magician. Created by Lee Falk in 1924, Mandrake didn't find his way into the funny pages until a decade later. True to form, Mandrake studied with ascended masters in Tibet, and returned to the West to ply his trade as a stage performer. Along the way, he picked up a sidekick named Lothar, an African prince who acted as Mandrake's personal bodyguard, and is generally acknowledged as the first heroic black character in American comic strips.

In his early adventures, Mandrake is an occult magician who uses hypnotic suggestion to fight crime. Falk incorporated many interesting occult themes into his storylines. Mandrake fights a death cult in 1935 in "Kingdom of Murderers," and masters the arcane art of inter-dimensional travel a year later in "Mandrake in the X Dimension." In "Mandrake on the Moon" (1938), the magiciandiscovers that the ancient Atlanteans escaped and built a new civilization of domed cities on the dark side of the Moon (note: secret lunar cities are a popular staple in some of the more outre corners of modern conspiracy theory) . Starting in 1939, Mandrake strips were reprinted in magazine format in Magic Comics. Mandrake never hit the big time outside the funny pages, however, despite attempts at a movie serial (1939), a radio program (1940), a TV series (1954), a TV movie (1979), and a TV cartoon (1986).

Mandrake did, however, inspire a whole host of warlocks in both comics and the strips. The first costumed character that can be definitively called a superhero is The Phantom Magician, who first appeared in Mel Graff's syndicated comic strip The Adventures of Patsy in 1935. As comics historian Dick O' Donnell notes, Phantom Magician "was clad in the outfit of tights, cape, and domino mask favored by so many later adventure heroes, including the Phantom and Superman and Batman." Although Phantom Magician appeared in only one Patsy storyline, he caught the attention of Mandrake creator Lee Falk, whose next hero also donned a mask and costume.

Doctor Occult

Perhaps the clearest progenitor of the modern superhero is Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's mystic hero, Doctor Occult, who first premiered in New Fun #6 in 1935. Doctor Occult started out as a traditional ghost detective, but underwent a startling transformation in 1936. As historian Les Daniels notes, the Doctor "developed immense strength and began flying around in a red and blue outfit. He thus served as a prototype for the unpublished Superman." For some reason, Siegel and Shuster later changed his name to the less-objectionable "Doctor Mystic."

Here, then, is our missing link in the evolution from Theosophy and the Golden Dawn to Spider-Man and Flash. In The Comic Book Book, Dick O'Donnell unequivocally declares that "students of the history of comics must regard the Occult-Mystic figure as a definite prototype of Superman, performing many of the feats Superman later performed, but doing so by supernatural rather than superscientific means." It is highly significant that the character who becomes the definitive archetype of the modern superhero is brought into the world by the same men who created the obscure "Doctor Occult," and that Superman bears such a strong, if unacknowledged, resemblance to his mystical progenitor. In point of fact, the name of Superman's home planet, "Krypton," stems from the Greek word kryptos meaning 'hidden' or 'secret.' The Latin translation of kryptos is "occult."

Wonder Woman #750: DC Debuts Art from the Amazon's Landmark Issue

More in Comics

Covering the hottest movie and TV topics that fans want. Covering the hottest movie and TV topics that fans want. A one-stop shop for all things video games.