09 August 2009

The Other Boy Wonders of 1940

As I described yesterday, in late 1939 American comic-book publishers apparently realized that preteen boys were their biggest audience, and scrambled for ways to appeal to those readers even more. Captain Marvel--a kid who turned into a super-powered adult--was one response. Robin--a kid who fought criminals in costume without any fantastic powers--was another.

Then in issue #41 of Detective Comics (cover date July 1940), the last panel of the Batman stories started describing Robin as "the ORIGINAL Boy Wonder." Which made me wonder: What other kid heroes was the magazine trying to dismiss as wonders-come-lately?

I turned to Don Markstein's Toonopedia. It doesn't offer a one-stop answer to the question of "Who was the second boy wonder in superhero comics?", but it is indeed a "Vast Repository of Toonological Knowledge" (and some historical poppycock).

The first issue of Blue Bolt, dated June 1940, featured the adventures of Dick Cole, the Wonder Boy. Like Dick Grayson, he had no special powers but excellent conditioning. This Dick didn't boast the costume and secret identity of a superhero, however; he was more a descendant of dime-novel heroes like Frank Merriwell. The publisher also didn't feature him so prominently; Dick Cole didn't appear on the magazine cover until issue #10 (shown at top).

The next month, Quality's National Comics offered a six-page back-up story of Wonder Boy, who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal teenagers. Wonder Boy wasn't featured on a comic-book cover at all until 1944, when another company reprinted his stories in Bomber Comics.

Top-Notch Comics, #8, dated September 1940, offered "The Marvel of 1940--Roy...the Super-Boy!" He was a new sidekick for the Wizard, and like Robin wore a tiny cape and shorts.

[ADDENDA: I missed Marvel Boy! Of course, he appeared only in the September 1940 issue of Daring Mystery Comics, and in a second story published in 1943. But he was a creation of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. And he was yet another teenager gaining superpowers in that watershed year.

And yet another September arrival: “The Amazing Boy Richy the Rang-a-Tang Kid! Brand New!!” in Blue Ribbon Comics, #6. The cover shows Richy helping “Rang-a-Tang the Wonder Dog” to rescue Charlie Chaplin. In this case, the boy sidekick actually replaced the star canine’s adult sidekick.]

In fall 1940 the Marvel company launched The Human Torch magazine with issue #2 [don't ask], giving one of its top heroes a title of his own. And a sidekick as well--that magazine's first story was "Introducing Toro, the Flaming Torch Kid."

Though the cover showed Toro alongside his mentor, there was no blurb to identify him as a teenager, and it's really hard to tell one person engulfed in flames from another. Nonetheless, of all these young characters, Toro has had the longest career in comics; he even shows up in this summer's Young Allies special.

Finally, Pep, #11, dated January 1941 but on newsstands before the end of the previous year, brought on Dusty the Boy Detective as a sidekick for the Shield. Months later, Dusty even started teaming up with Roy the Super-Boy.

By 1941, boy sidekicks were no longer a novelty. Indeed, they were almost required. Captain America charged onto the scene with Bucky at his side in his very first issue. To do something new, writers had to upend that relationship, as Jerry Siegel did with the Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy--kid hero, adult sidekick.

Cover images from the Grand Comics Database.

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