Man of Destiny

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This post turned out to be timely for the worst of reasons. News broke one week ago that we lost Murphy Anderson, one of the giants of the Silver Age, at the age of eighty-nine years. One of the comic properties most closely associated with Mr. Anderson just so happens to be the subject of today’s post.

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A Captain Comet illo by Murphy Anderson.

So here it is—finally. Today I write of the “man of destiny”; the man born 100,000 years before his time; the one, the only, Captain Comet.

As mentioned in prior posts, he was one of my childhood favorites—but why? He was a rather obscure character and not very mainstream at all. But this obscurity was probably a contributing factor to my fondness, as he didn’t pop up very often after his brief renaissance in the mid-1970s, so when he did appear I cherished those issues. It also helped prove my bonafides with other geeks by knowing obscure characters like this. (Everyone knows Superman, Batman, etc., but when you know who Captain Comet is, you’ve got serious comics knowledge.) Plus, he was the heroic protagonist of Secret Society of Super-Villains, a title I greatly enjoyed as a kid (as discussed last time).

Some other reasons I was drawn to him: He had brown hair and kinda looked like me (or so I thought). This may also be part of the reason why I was so drawn to Peter Parker/Spider-Man, among other young, male, brown-haired characters. Then there were the standard superhero-character tropes I generally identified with, particularly the fact that he was an outsider—even moreso than most superheroes.

First, he was an evolved form of man, one that was 100,000 years more advanced than his fellow humans. Then, when he left Earth and returned after a twenty-year absence, he was socially displaced as well, which left him even more of an outsider than before.

And naturally, I also liked him because he seemed really powerful and thus a badass. My first encounter with the captain was in those supe-stars-space4pages of SSOSV, but at nearly the same time DC had put out several issues of DC Super-Stars of Space (aka DC Super Stars) featuring reprints of Captain Comet stories from the 50s, beautifully rendered by Murphy Anderson. In these old tales there was heavy emphasis on the science, and Cap seemed so brilliant and so formidable, solving the densest of scientific riddles and beating back the most powerful of menaces with seeming ease.

When pure oxygen is absorbed by the calcium-based lifeforms of these alien invaders, they are transformed into marble statues—science, people! Originally presented in Strange Adventures #17 (Feb. 1952) and later reprinted in DC Super-Stars of Space #6 (Aug. 1976).
When pure oxygen is absorbed by the calcium-based lifeforms of these alien invaders, they are transformed into marble statues—SCIENCE, PEOPLE! Originally presented in Strange Adventures #17 (Feb. 1952) and later reprinted in DC Super-Stars of Space #6 (Aug. 1976).

 

And on top of it all, his name was Captain Comet. The best comic characters tend to have alliterative names like this. I can’t tell you why such is the case—it just is. As cornball as it might sound to adult ears today, the name “Captain Comet” sounded nothing less than cosmic and awe inspiring to the six-year-old me.

History

Captain Comet first appeared in Strange Adventures #9, the creation of writer John Broome (under the pen name of “Edgar Ray Merritt”) and artist Carmine Infantino. With the twelfth issue, Murphy Anderson took over as artist on the strip and would stick around through the penultimate installment of the captain’s Strange Adventures run in issue #46. (Comet’s final appearance was in issue #49, in a story entitled “The Revolt of the Thinking Machine,” which was illustrated by Sy Barry.)

The cover to Strange Adventures #9, by Carmine Infantino.
The cover to Strange Adventures #9, by Carmine Infantino.

So Murphy Anderson’s run as the artist on Captain Comet lasted nearly three years straight, from issue #12 (Sept. 1951) through #46 (July 1954). The run of Comet overall in Strange Adventures (with the exception of three issues, #’s 45, 47, & 48) went from issue #9 (June 1951) to issue #49 (Oct. 1954). Out of these 38 appearances, Comet appeared on the issue’s cover for 25 of them.

This was a fascinating point for a new comics hero to be born, as it’s right in the middle of a historical no-man’s land. Comet begins in 1951, just when superheroes are in their death throes, and ends in ‘54, two years before the Silver Age Flash debuts in Showcase #4 (Oct. 1956). So what is he—a Golden Age character or Silver? (Some like to call him an “Atomic Age” character, but this feels like a cheat.) Since he’s based purely in sci-fi, he feels more Silver Age to me. (Despite the fact that Superman, the very first comic-book superhero, was based in sci-fi, most of the Golden Age superheroes were based in fantasy/magic; or at best, “soft” sci-fi). Still, his run ended two years before the Silver Age officially started. Personally, I guess I’d categorize him as Pre-Silver Age.

“A Mystery to Himself”

My being adopted has been a recurring theme from the very beginning of this blog. As discussed before, it likely played a big part in my attraction to superheroes, as such characters tend to have themes of identity, loss, and dispossession baked into their premises. Looking back on those original Captain Comet strips, it’s striking just how directly these themes are addressed. From the very first title page:

He was a mystery to himself! Why, young Adam Blake wanted to know, was he so different from other people? How did it happen that there was no one else like him in the whole wide world? Where did he really come from? Who was he?

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The identity issue was front and center literally from page one. From there, Adam Blake’s sense of displacement, of not belonging, comes up again and again.

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This, in turn, leads to a rather tragic sense of loneliness and utter isolation.

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Finally, Adam meets Emery Zackro, a professor of physics, and begins to learn what he really is.

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Yep, he was the first mutant superhero. Yet another marker of historical significance for the character.

So ultimately Adam decides to use his amazing powers for the benefit of mankind as… Captain Comet! The story ends on the cliffhanger of this giant, metallic, spinning top that suddenly appears “in another part of the country,” causing death to anyone that gets too close. After the top shakes off the power of an atomic bomb with nary a scratch, Captain Comet leaps into action for the first time.

Readers would have to wait until the next issue for the exciting conclusion, but these first two chapters of the captain’s career would be adapted and re-told in Secret Origins Annual #1 (Aug. 1987). For those who have never read it (the original stories or the later adaptation), I suggest tracking it down—it’s a great mix of classic sci-fi and superheroics.

Cover to Strange Adventures #10, by Bob Oskner & Bernard Sachs.
Cover to Strange Adventures #10, by Bob Oskner & Bernard Sachs.

In fact most of Captain Comet’s stories from this period were tremendous fun. And the art was always a treat as well—not just the elegant linework of Murphy Anderson on the interiors, but the covers as well, many of which I’d categorize as classics. Highlights on this front include the character’s debut in Strange Adventures #9 by Carmine Infantino; issue #10 by Bob Oskner & Bernard Sachs; and issues 12 & 17 by Gil Kane.

Fun Fact: You know that holster the Captain wears? It holds his “Paralo-Gun.” To the best of my knowledge, he only used it once—in Strange Adventures #30, in a story entitled “Menace from the World of Make-Believe!” The gun’s function is to paralyze opponents.

The Secret Society of Super-Villains

As noted in my SSOSV post, the captain would not appear again until twenty-two years after his last appearance in Strange Adventures #49. My man basically skipped over the entire Silver Age proper and returned right in the middle of the Bronze Age when he popped up in ssosv02-cSecret Society of Super-Villains #2 (Aug. 1976)—an issue I bought right off the racks of the Village Smoke Shop in South Orange, NJ, in 1976. It was one of my earliest purchases, and all this time later it’s difficult to recall precisely what made me buy it. That beautiful Dick Giordano cover was likely a contributing factor. And I liked the captain’s costume—primarily red with touches of blue and white; also the shoulder fins were something I hadn’t seen before and thus felt somewhat exotic to my young eye.

Oh yeah, and Cap is punching somebody in the face. That probably helped a lot, too. (I lived for fight scenes as a kid.)

Again, the time jump between appearances effectively served to double down on Cap’s outsider vibe. As writer Gerry Conway told Back Issue magazine, “What really interested me was the man-out-of-his-era angle, though I probably didn’t do as much with it as I could have.” (BI #29, p. 54).

In fairness to Conway, Comet does notice the stark fashion differences upon his initial return to Earth. There’s also a moment where we see Cap at the grave of Emery Zackro, which heavily hints at the regret Comet must feel over the time he’s lost. But yes, the man-out-of-his-era angle isn’t utilized much after this, at least not outside of Cap’s love life (which I’ll get to in just a bit).

Manhunter

Another thing I enjoyed about Captain Comet’s association with the society was the relationship with Manhunter—what little we got of it, anyway.

The sample size is so small that it shouldn’t even register, honestly, yet the characters seemed to have a real chemistry that was rather inexplicable. In combat together, they were like the proverbial well-oiled machine.

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Outside of combat, they had this “buddy cops” vibe before “buddy cops” were even a thing. In their first private conversation in that second issue, Manhunter means to fill in the captain on what’s really going on with the society, but Comet stops him before he can even begin.

“Are you trying to tell me you’re a ‘good guy’– unlike the rest of the Secret Society?”

“Yes, I– huh? You know?”

“Grodd’s shield is effective, Manhunter– but not against me.”

This conversation occurred halfway into the second issue, and Manhunter was gone by halfway into issue #5. And with all the action going on inbetween, they barely interacted. But when they did, it left quite the impression.

Danger: Dinosaurs at Large!

Captain Comet must have been scoring some points with fandom at danger-dinothis stage, because he was soon granted the starring role in DC Special #27 (May 1977), “Danger: Dinosaurs at Large!” Even if you weren’t a Captain Comet fan, the cover has him punching a Tyrannosaurus Rex right in the face. It’s an image few adolescent boys could resist.

In addition to the captain, the special gives us Tommy Tomorrow, Chronos (nemesis of the Silver Age Atom), an anthropomorphic T-Rex (among other, more conventional dinosaurs), and a cameo appearance by Hawkman. It also had some great art by Rich Buckler—among my favorite sequences were Comet’s fight with Chronos as he attempts close the time portal:

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…And, of course, his wrestling a T-Rex and tossing it back through said portal:

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On the character side of things, there was also some nice work done with Comet & Hawkman’s friendship, continuing what writer Bob Rozakis had begun in the pages of Secret Society of Super-Villains #5. Had he remained on as writer of SSOSV, Rozakis told Back Issue, “I would have continued to build the friendships between Comet and the members of the JLA, particularly Hawkman and Hawkgirl. I thought there was a bond among them since they had all traveled around the universe.” (BI # 29, p. 53)

NEXT: Star Sapphire!

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