If you were to ask fans to name the most important year in comic books, many undoubtedly would say 1938, which marked the debut of Superman, or 1939, which saw the introduction of Batman. Others might suggest 1956, which ushered in the Silver Age with the first appearance of Barry Allen’s The Flash in “Showcase” #4, or 1961, which gave birth to the modern Marvel Universe with “The Fantastic Four” #1. Or maybe it would be 1986, with “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns,” “Watchmen,” “Maus” and “Daredevil: Born Again.”
However, somewhere on that list you’re bound to find 1941, which gave us so many heroes and villains — costumed and otherwise — who have stood the test of time. Many have even made a significant impact beyond comics. To commemorate their 75th anniversary, we offer a list of 15 famous (and, at least in one case, infamous) comic book characters that made their debut in 1941.
15. Phantom Lady
Comics publishers and artists today are sometimes criticized for their depictions of scantily clad superheroes, but as skimpy as those costumes may be, most of them have nothing on Phantom Lady. Debuting in Quality Comics’ “Police Comics” #22, the same issue that introduced Plastic Man, Phantom Lady started out innocent enough, as the typical (for the time) wealthy socialite by day / superhero by night. Created by the Eisner & Iger Studio, Sandra Knight fought crime dressed in a modest one-piece yellow swimsuit and armed with a “Blackout Ray.”
When Quality stopped publishing Phantom Lady’s adventures, Iger Studio (as it was by then called) believed it owned the character. So when Fox Feature Syndicate asked for a “sexy heroine,” Phantom Lady was given a makeover, complete with short-shorts and a plunging neckline. It was enough to draw the attention of Dr. Fredric Wertham, and earn the cover of “Phantom Lady” #17 a place in his infamous book “Seduction of the Innocent,” accompanied by the caption, “Sexual stimulation by combining ‘headlights’ with the sadist’s dream of tying up a woman.”
Like the other Quality characters, Phantom Lady was acquired in 1956 by DC Comics, and then reintroduced in 1973 as a member of the Freedom Fighters. The partial inspiration for Silk Spectre in “Watchmen,” Sandra Knight has been supplanted as Phantom Lady in recent decades by three other DC characters.
14. Seven Soldiers of Victory
National Periodical Publications clearly thought it was onto something with the Justice Society of America, because less than a year after it introduced the world’s first superhero team, the predecessor of DC Comics debuted the Seven Soldiers of Victory. Bowing in the premiere issue of “Leading Comics,” the Seven Soldiers brought together Green Arrow and his sidekick Speedy with Star-Spangled Kid and his sidekick Stripesy, Vigilante, Shining Knight, and Crimson Avenger and his sidekick Wing (the only non-white character, who, for reasons never explained, wasn’t counted as an official member). Hardly the publisher’s top-tier characters, with the exception of Green Arrow the Seven Soldiers quickly faded into obscurity at the end of World War II.
Resurrected in a 1972 crossover between the Justice Society and the Justice League of America, the team continued to crop up now and again, most notably in “All-Star Squadron,” the 1980s series that reimagined most of DC’s Golden Age heroes as part of an effort initiated by President Roosevelt to protect the home front during WWII. Although some of the Seven Soldiers have inspired legacy characters, most notably Stargirl, today the team is probably best known from the title of writer Grant Morrison’s sprawling 2005-2006 comic series that featured its own version of the Shining Knight.
Today one of Batman’s more memorable and chilling foes, with appearances across comics, television, film and video games, the Scarecrow was nearly little more than a Golden Age footnote. Introduced in “World’s Finest Comics” #3, the villain made only one other appearance in the 1940s before effectively disappearing into the cornfields of history. Luckily, however, someone at DC Comics recognized something special — not to mention frightening — in disgruntled psychology professor Jonathan Crane, and in 1967, the Scarecrow returned to the Caped Crusader’s rogues gallery, where he’s remained virtually ever since.
Dressed in ragged clothes and often a burlap-sack mask, the Scarecrow is an expert in fear who uses a blend of drugs, toxins and psychological warfare to turn the phobias of his adversaries against them. An occasional member of the Injustice Gang and, on “Challenge of the Super Friends,” the Legion of Doom, Crane has haunted Batman and the DC Universe for decades, and was featured prominently on “Batman: The Animated Series” and “The New Batman Adventures,” and in the live-action “Batman Begins.” He even cropped up briefly on “Gotham.”
Fittingly perhaps, Starman shone brightly for a brief time, and then faded from sight for decades. First appearing in “Adventure Comics” #61, feckless millionaire Ted Knight invented a “Gravity Rod,” and later a “Cosmic Rod,” which harnessed stellar radiation, enabling him to fly, project energy and create force fields. Suddenly finding himself with a purpose, Knight donned a red costume and green cape to become Starman, and briefly replaced The Sandman and Hourman on the covers of “Adventure.” However, within a dozen issues, Starman was himself bumped, first by Manhunter and then by a revamped, unitard-clad Sandman, with his sidekick, Sandy the Golden Boy. Not even membership in the Justice Society of America could save Ted Knight.
However, like other Justice Society members, Starman was reintroduced in the 1960s as part of their annual crossovers with the Justice League of America. By the next decade, Knight had gone into retirement, passing his Cosmic Rod to the Star-Spangled Kid and, later, his superhero mantle to his sons David and, more importantly, Jack, who starred in the acclaimed 1990s “Starman” series by James Robinson and Tony Harris. The elder Knight ultimately sacrificed his life to save Opal City in a fight with his old foe, the Mist.
11. Nelvana of the Northern Lights
Nelvana of the Northern Lights wasn’t merely one of the first female superheroes — debuting a few months before Wonder Woman — she was also Canada’s first national superhero. Introduced in “Triumph-Adventure Comics,” one of the black-and-white titles that proliferated in Canada during the World War II ban on luxury imports from the United States, Nelvana was created by Adrian Diggle after he heard stories about a mysterious Inuit goddess. Dressed in a fur-trimmed miniskirt and a magical cape, Nelvana was the daughter of a mortal woman and an Arctic god who used her powers — they ranged from telepathy to invisibility to flight at the speed of light — to defend the Northern people and fight Nazi agents.
Although not widely known outside of Canada, Nelvana was honored on a stamp issued in 1995 by the National Post, and resurrected in 2014 in an archival collection funded through Kickstarter and published by IDW. Oh, and if she bears more than a passing resemblance to Snowbird from Marvel Comics’ “Alpha Flight,” that’s no accident: Creator John Byrne drew inspiration for his character, and the title’s mythology, from Nelvana, whom he intended to be Snowbird’s mother.
10. The Penguin
While arguably not of the same stature as, say, The Joker and Two-Face, Oswald Cobblepot has nevertheless proved an enduring, and impressively adaptable, foil for the Dark Knight. Introduced in “Detective Comics” #58, by Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson, The Penguin first made his mark as a tuxedoed art thief with a fondness for trick (and sometimes deadly) umbrellas, as well as a knack for making the right criminal connections; all traits that would aid him time and again over the decades. Notable for his twin obsessions — birds and umbrellas — The Penguin was a regular foe for Batman and Robin throughout the 1940s, where he occasionally teamed up with The Joker. Then, midway through the next decade, The Penguin disappeared, as Batman’s adventures became more otherworldly.
Propelled first by the 1964 overhaul of Batman books and then by the performance by Burgess Meredith on the hit 1966 television series, The Penguin came roaring back into the spotlight, at least for a while. After fading from sight once again in the 1970s, the once-comical rogue underwent a makeover in the 1980s, becoming first a cold, calculating criminal and then a “respectable” nightclub owner and information broker, before dropping the façade and embracing the Gotham City underworld. In between, the villain, dubbed as “odd-looking” by Bruce Wayne in his first appearance, managed to find fame once again on the screen, played by Danny DeVito in 1992’s “Batman Returns” and by Robin Lord Taylor on the current “Gotham” television series.
9. Plastic Man
The brainchild of cartoonist Jack Cole, Patrick “Eel” O’Brien broke into Quality Comics’ “Police Comics” #1 as part of a gang that was probably asking for trouble when it plotted a late-night heist of a chemical plant. During their escape, Eel was wounded and exposed to a mysterious liquid, which gave him the ability stretch his body into most any shape. Nurse backed to health by a monk, the now-super-powered Eel turned away from a life of crime, apprehended his former colleagues, and launched his career as Plastic Man.
Blending humor and action, Plastic Man’s original adventures continued until 1956, outlasting many of the other superheroes of the World War II era. Like the other Quality characters, Plas was purchased by DC Comics, which briefly revived him in the mid-1960s before putting him back on the shelf. But, as you might expect, Plastic Man came bouncing back, in comic books and in his own Saturday morning cartoon, which aired from 1979 to 1981 (more recently, he starred in a series of DC Nation animated shorts). Although Plastic Man has never been as popular as he was under Cole, the character has starred in several comics over the years, and even served as a member of the Justice League.
8. Captain Marvel Jr.
It may be difficult for modern readers to imagine, but there was a time, in the 1940s, when Captain Marvel was the most popular superhero in the United States, outselling even Superman. In fact, he was such a sensation that, within two years of his debut, Earth’s Mightiest Mortal had already inspired a popular film serial and a handful of spinoff characters — first the Lieutenant Marvels and then Captain Marvel Jr.
Young Freddy Freeman’s back was broken by Captain Nazi when the teen helped save the unconscious villain from drowning after a fight with Captain Marvel. Rushed to the hospital by the superhero, Freddy’s life was saved only through the intercession of the wizard Shazam, who imbued him with the ability to transform into Captain Marvel Jr. simply by saying the name “Captain Marvel” (he remained crippled in his mortal form, however).
A success in his own right, Captain Marvel Jr. sprang immediately from Fawcett’s “Whiz Comics” to headline “Master Comics,” and later co-starred alongside Captain Marvel and Mary Marvel in “The Marvel Family.” Like the rest of the Marvel Family, however, Captain Marvel Jr.’s adventures came to an end in 1953 as the result of a lawsuit by DC Comics predecessor National Comics. He and the other Marvels were revived by DC two decades later, with Junior eventually serving as a member of the Teen Titans and the Outsiders, and even assuming the mantle of Shazam. But his most enduring legacy may be inspiring Elvis Presley’s hairstyle and 1970s stage costumes. Yes, the King was a fan.
7. Betty Cooper and Jughead Jones
Sure, the famous pairing is “Betty and Veronica,” but Ms. Lodge didn’t arrive until early 1942. Betty Cooper and Jughead Jones were there from the start, however, debuting alongside Archie Andrews in “Pep Comics” #22. The classic girl next door, Betty is smart, kindhearted, athletic and confident, and Archie’s original love interest (take that, Veronica … and Cheryl … and Valerie). Jughead, in his signature whoopee cap, is analytical, snarky, relaxed and food-obsessed, and Archie’s best pal. Although the two are perhaps better known for their other friendships — Betty with Veronica and Jughead with Archie — they’ve long been confidants, with the occasional hint of romance, particularly in their early years.
Throughout the decades, Betty and Jughead have become two of the best-known supporting characters in comics (although both have also headlined their own titles) and in animation. Heck, they were even pop stars for a time, as two-fifths of the band The Archies, whose hit song “Sugar, Sugar” rocketed to the top of the Billboard charts in 1969. Now, with the “Riverdale” live-action drama set to premiere early next year on The CW, they’re poised to reach new heights of popularity.
6. Bucky Barnes
Created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, James “Bucky” Barnes began as little more than another young sidekick in the vein Robin the Boy Wonder; the Golden Age was lousy with them. However, a pair of retcons introduced nearly four decades apart ensured he would become much more. Captain America’s faithful companion in his World War II adventures, Bucky even joined him on the All Winners Squad, Timely/Marvel’s first superhero team. Cap and Bucky were shelved in 1949, only to be revived briefly in the early ‘50s as “Commie Smashers.”
That might have been that, if it weren’t for the Avengers, which in 1964 discovered Captain America in suspended animation. In this new retroactive continuity, Cap and Bucky disappeared at the end of the war, with the former frozen in Arctic ice and the latter killed in action. Bucky’s death occasionally haunted his revived mentor over the decades until, in 2005, writer Ed Brubaker revealed the teen’s sidekick role had actually been a cover for his work as a government assassin. What’s more, Bucky hadn’t died in an explosion, but instead had been rescued by the Russians, outfitted with a bionic arm and reprogrammed as a Soviet assassin codenamed Winter Soldier. Eventually confronted by Captain America, in comics and then on screen, Bucky regained his memories and even took up the mantle of his former partner.
It’s tough to find a superhero who’s been more maligned, and more frequently reimagined, than Aquaman, DC Comics’ King of the Seven Seas. Introduced two years after Timely/Marvel’s Sub-Mariner, the sea-faring hero battled Nazi U-boats and Axis villains throughout World War II, using his abilities to breathe underwater and communicate with aquatic life (first by speaking their language, and later through telepathy). Moving in 1946 from “More Fun Comics” to “Adventure Comics,” Aquaman was among the few superheroes who continuously fought crime into the Silver Age, not because he was wildly popular — he wasn’t — but because Superboy, the title’s cover star, was.
In the late 1950s, Aquaman’s backstory underwent some changes — he was now Arthur Curry, the son of a lighthouse keeper and an Atlantean outcast — and he received a sidekick in Aqualad. Soon thereafter, he became a founding member of the Justice League of America, and the star of not only his own comic book, but also his own segment on the animated “Superman/Aquaman Adventure Hour.”
Rather than propel him to stardom, however, the cartoon combined with the later “Super Friends” to establish Aquaman as the butt of jokes, mocked endlessly for his seemingly useless ability to “talk to fish.” In the decades since, writers and artists have sometimes taken great pains to shake that perception, even giving the sea king a grim makeover, complete with an epic beard and a harpoon hand. Although those efforts have met with mixed success, Aquaman’s best shot at redemption may come on the big screen, where he’s portrayed by Jason Momoa.
4. Green Arrow
Despite starting out as little more than Batman with a bow and arrow — seriously, he was a wealthy playboy turned vigilante, with a teen sidekick named Speedy, an Arrowcar and even an Arrow-Cave — Green Arrow somehow survived the post-war superhero decline, and was one of the few to continue his adventures through the 1950s (and unlike The Flash and Green Lantern, he did so without a Silver Age revamp). Not exactly a marquee name, Green Arrow joined the Justice League of America in 1961, but it wasn’t until later in the decade that he began to emerge as the warrior for social justice we know today.
Losing his fortune but gaining a social conscious, a Van Dyke goatee and a love interest in Black Canary, Oliver Queen championed left-wing ideals and partnered with Green Lantern on a cross-country road trip to right wrongs ranging from corruption to racism (and then there was the matter of Speedy’s heroin addiction). While that period was relatively brief — “Green Lantern” was in danger of cancellation even before Green Arrow was added — it not only brought the Emerald Archer out of Batman’s shadow, but also colored virtually every depiction of the character in the decades that followed. It’s not difficult to see the influence of the Dennis O’Neil/Neal Adams era on TV’s “Arrow,” even if that Oliver Queen refuses to grow a Van Dyke.
3. Archie Andrews
For 75 years old, “America’s Typical Teenager” doesn’t look a day over 16 — but, in fairness, he’s had a little work done over the decades. Archie Andrews debuted in “Pep Comics” #22, replacing the undoubtedly kid-friendly Madam Satan in an anthology that featured such superheroes as The Shield, The Comet, Black Hood and Hangman. Within 14 issues, the lovable freckle-faced redhead had worked his way onto the cover, and soon crowded out the heroes entirely. It was merely a sign of things to come, as Archie and the Riverdale gang quickly expanded onto radio and into the newspaper comics pages before, in the late 1960s, reaching Saturday morning cartoons and even the music charts. But perhaps the greatest testament to the character’s lasting appeal is that he and his friends have sustained an entire publishing company, Archie Comics, for 75 years.
Inspired, in part, by Mickey Rooney’s character in the popular Andy Hardy movies, Archie was introduced by cartoonist Bob Montana as a kind but klutzy teen, whose romantic pursuits — most famously Betty and Veronica — take precedent over, well, most anything, particularly academics. Endlessly adaptable, over the years, Archie has starred in both Christian and horror comics, and crossed over with the likes of The Punisher, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and KISS. Through it all, he’s survived cultural shifts, changes in tastes and art styles, a best-forgotten TV movie, marriage — to Betty and Veronica — and death itself. Nothing can keep this good teen down.
2. Captain America
He wasn’t the first star-spangled hero to emerge in the war era — DC’s Mr. America, Quality’s Uncle Sam and MLJ’s The Shield were on the scene first — but Captain America indisputably packed the biggest and longest-lasting punch. Introduced in “Captain America Comics” #1, the cover of which depicted the hero slugging Adolf Hitler, Steve Rogers was a frail Army private transformed by an experimental serum into a super-soldier to aid in the U.S. war effort. Carrying a virtually indestructible shield, Captain America battled Nazis, and quickly became the most popular character published by Marvel Comics predecessor Timely.
But while Cap could defeat his arch-enemy the Red Skull, he couldn’t overcome the post-war decline of superheroes, and in 1949, quietly ended the first phase of his career. Dusted off briefly in 1953 to fight Communism, the Sentinel of Liberty was called back into action in 1964’s “The Avengers” #4, with a slightly altered history, but without his wartime sidekick Bucky.
A man out of time, Captain America became a hero for a new era, first as leader of the Avengers and then in his own title. A walking, shield-slinging symbol of the United States, Steve Rogers experienced the same ups and downs of the nation he fought for, and in the 1970s became so disillusioned that he abandoned his superhero identity in favor of Nomad. Through political upheavals, resignations and even “death,” Captain America endures — even if it’s not always Steve Rogers beneath the mask.
1. Wonder Woman
Few superheroes have had as great of a cultural impact as Wonder Woman, who over the decades has been embraced as an icon of the feminist, pacifist and, most recently, LGBT movements. That was, at least in part, by design, as her creator, psychologist William Moulton Marston, sought to introduce a feminine counter-balance (and apparently a hefty dose of bondage) to male-dominated superhero comics. Wonder Woman wasn’t the first superheroine, but she is by far the most successful, and has been published virtually continuously since her 1941 debut.
Although her origin and superhuman abilities have been tweaked from time to time — originally molded by clay by her mother, the queen of the Amazons, she’s now depicted as a daughter of Zeus — Wonder Woman remains a powerful, if complicated, symbol, serving as a superhero, a fearless warrior and an emissary of peace. (She was recently even named UN Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls, an honor that was accompanied by some controversy.) Famously played on television in the 1970s by Lynda Carter, the Amazon Princess has struggled for years to return to live-action. However, Gal Gadot made her debut as the heroine this year in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” and will reprise the role next year, first in “Wonder Woman” and then in “Justice League.”
Who is your favorite 75-year-old superhero? Let us know in the comments!
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