Although it is rarely mentioned today, the comic books of the 1930s were dominated by newspaper strip reprints, in titles such as Famous Funnies and Ace Comics. It was the extraordinary impact of Superman that concentrated publishers' minds on the financial benefits of creating new heroes that they would own themselves. Neophyte publisher and owner of Quality Comics Everett
Busy Arnold was enjoying reasonable success with Feature Comics, which was stuffed cover-to-cover with newspaper reprints, but he wanted a chance at the sort of big money that Superman's publisher, DC Comics, was making. Arnold called up the Eisner/Iger comics studio and demanded a hero of his own. Their response was Doll Man, the first in a long line of Quality heroes that would include Plastic Man, Uncle Sam, Blackhawk, Kid Eternity, the Ray, and many more. Doll Man premiered in Feature Comics #27 in December 1939 and was only the twelfth superhero to appear on the shelves, beating such bigger names as Captain Marvel, the Flash, and Captain America to the punch.
Studio co-owner Will Eisner himself dreamed up the character, possibly with some input from Arnold, and was no doubt inspired by the tiny Liliputians from Gulliver's Travels. Eisner recruited one of his top artists, Lou Fine, to draw the tale over his layouts, and the result was some of the most handsome art of the era. Publishers were keen to get straight to the action in those days, and there was little room for introspection, but even by the standards of the late 1930s the Doll Man's origin was disappointingly slight.
Brilliant young scientist Darrel Dane creates a super-formula that shrinks him down to a height of just five inches. After drinking it to save his girlfriend, Martha Roberts, from hoodlums, Dane decides to take up life as a caped crime fighter, proclaiming,
From now on, I shall be known as Doll Man, and I pledge myself to fight crime and evil relentlessly. But he doesn't need an antidote to resume his normal size, he simply
wills it. As the
World's Mightiest Mite—complete in a blue body-suit-like costume that boasts bare arms and legs, a short cape, and pixie boots, worn under his street clothes—Doll Man is ready to go. By way of compensation for his diminutive size, Doll Man packs a mean punch and is able to sneak up on villains unannounced, hiding in pockets, bags, boxes—or on cats! Magically, he also gains the telekinetic power to slow moving objects.
Within a couple of issues of the arrival of Doll Man, Arnold lost the rights to many of his newspaper strips, and so Doll Man was promoted to cover star and Quality Comics changed its direction for good, switching over to superhero production with gusto. Fine drew the feature for eleven issues and was soon followed by his only real rival at the time, Reed Crandall (who would go on to draw Feature Comics #44–#63). Crandall was, if anything, an even better draftsman than Fine, being a master of anatomy, mood, and action. Given the strip's excellent art, it is no surprise that Doll Man was soon given his own quarterly title, which hit the stands in winter 1941. With Crandall busy with Blackhawk, other artists were brought in, including Mort Leav, John Cassone, and Rudy Palais, but it was Al Bryant, Quality's most prolific artist, who drew the bulk of the strips for the rest of the 1940s. Eisner soon left the scripting chores to other hands, including Joe Millard and William Woolfolk.
Most Doll Man stories began with the pipe-smoking Dane relaxing with his girlfriend Roberts and her inventor father Dr. Roberts in their front room. Invariably, the radio would announce some heinous crime and Dane would rush out, shrink, discover the evildoer, and dispatch him—all within ten pages. Over the course of fourteen years, Doll Man encountered an impressive array of villains, including Iron Mask, the Storm, Fat Catt, the Vulture, the Brain, the Phantom Duellist, and Pluvius the Storm Maker. In the 1940s these could be fairly brutal encounters and the miscreants rarely reappeared for a second thrashing, most of them having been callously and fatally disposed of by Doll Man. However, two notable returnees were the dapper, pint-sized Tom Thumb and the 'Lord of the Plunderworld', the Undertaker—a theatrically sinister foe who slept in a grave.
The year 1949 was something of an annus horribilis for superheroes, witnessing Doll Man replaced in issue #140 of Feature Comics by the woefully banal Stunt Man Stetson. Unusually, however, Doll Man's own title was to run for four more years, and there were even a couple of new additions to the comic's supporting cast. First up (in Doll Man #31) was a rather pathetic-looking stray mutt called Elmo, which Doll Man befriended and transformed by means of some sort of ray into Elmo, the Wonder Dog, an extra-strong, super-intelligent, crime-fighting canine! Not content with that, six issues later the cast was joined by Doll Girl, a.k.a. Martha Roberts, who had finally acquired the knack of thinking hard enough to shrink. Her red costume was a skimpy counterpart to Dane's blue one and certainly added a touch of glamour to the strip, but perhaps it all came a little too late and Doll Man was canceled with issue #47, in 1953.
Quality Comics sold its heroes to DC Comics a few years later, but the company must also have sold some old printing plates to I.W. Comics, as that company brought out a series of Doll Man reprints in the early 1960s. It took DC a long time to realize the potential of the Quality heroes but, following a couple of appearances in the Justice League of America in 1973, Doll Man eventually emerged as one of the Freedom Fighters in 1976, along with Uncle Sam, the Ray, Human Bomb, Phantom Lady, and the Black Condor. Sadly, that group's comic was not a success and the Doll Man returned to obscurity, possibly for the very good reason that DC had a tiny superhero of its own. During the mania for revivals that characterized the early stages of the Silver Age (1956–1969), artist Gil Kane had remembered Doll Man and suggested that DC resurrect its old Atom character as a shrinking superhero. By the 1970s, therefore, DC already had its Atom—and indeed had seen his solo title canceled—and probably saw no point in publishing Doll Man. Whether or not he surfaces again is anyone's guess.