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Supernatural Heroes


When the dark forces of the underworld threaten to scare up trouble for humankind, paranormal protectors—many with modus operandi drawing from the same sinister sources as their enemies'—stand ready to vanquish vampires, demons, and wizards.

King Features' Mandrake the Magician, an illusionist sporting a top hat and tails, first used his mystical attributes to fight crime in the June 11, 1934 unveiling of his long-running newspaper strip. Over the decades Mandrake and his assistant, Lothar, have appeared in a 1939 movie serial, Big Little Books, comic books, a 1979 TV movie, and the animated series Defenders of the Earth (1986). DC Comics' debut of Dr. Occult predated the industry's eminent Golden Age (1938–1954). Originating in 1935, this amulet-wearing investigator of the arcane has materialized off and on in DC's titles over the decades but has never achieved tremendous acclaim. Dr. Occult's creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, scored a larger success with their next character, Superman, first seen in Action Comics #1 (1938), the same issue that introduced Zatara the Magician, the crime-fighting showman who voiced backward incantations (raeppasid = disappear).

Zatara's daughter, Zatanna, surfaced in the 1960s, eventually joining the Justice League of America with her own backward-spoken spells. In 1940, Egyptian Prince Amentep emerged from a four-thousand-year sleep to become Fawcett's Ibis the Invincible, the red-turbaned titan who wielded a magic wand—his Ibistick—against evil. A chilling superheroine named Madame Satan had a short lifespan in 1941 at the publisher that would ultimately be known for its squeaky-clean characters—Archie Comics—and Fox Features Syndicates' the Wraith, a ghostly guardian parroting DC's successful supernatural hero, the Spectre, faded from view after a mere five stories that same year. The Heap, Hillman Periodicals' mindless, lumbering behemoth, first tromped from the mire in 1942, putting the squeeze on Axis officers and criminal vermin that stumbled across his path. Other supernatural superheroes seen during the 1940s were Dr. Fate, Mr. Mystic, and Sargon the Sorcerer.

Horror comics were the rage in the early 1950s, through gruesome anthology titles like EC Comics' Tales from the Crypt. During this trend, two noteworthy supernatural heroes arose at DC. There was Dr. Thirteen, a.k.a. the Ghost-Breaker, a skeptic sleuth who flushed out the truth behind supposed paranormal perils, and the Phantom Stranger, a trench-coated enigma who guided passersby through the supernatural realm in a short-lived series bearing his name. The Stranger was a moderate success, inspiring copies like Charlton's Mysterious Traveler and Harvey's Man in Black. The Phantom Stranger returned to his own title from 1969 to 1976—with Dr. Thirteen occasionally included as a backup feature—and continues to wander in and out of various DC titles in the 2000s.

The content sanitization of comics in the wake of mid-1950s U.S. Senate subcommittee hearings temporarily retired supernatural references. Two of DC's spooky heroes eventually resurfaced in the 1960s: the Spectre returned in 1966 and spun off into a ten-issue run of his own title, and Dr. Fate received occasional outings in the pages of Justice League of America. Marvel's master of the mystic arts, Doctor Strange, first peered into his all-seeing Eye of Agamatto in 1963, fending off magical menaces like Baron Mordo, and in 1966 Dell Comics launched three superhero titles based on famous monsters: Frankenstein, Dracula, and Werewolf. DC's Deadman, originating in 1967, was circus aerialist Boston Brand before an assassin's bullet ended his life and began his postmortem quest: to find his killer. While dealing with matters mystical, these 1960s creepy crusaders were squarely rooted in the mainstream.

The same cannot be said of Vampirella, the scantily clad, voluptuous vampire, who originally flashed her fangs (and other attributes) in 1969 in her self-titled series from Warren Publishing. Vampirella's black-and-white magazine-sized format sidestepped the stringent restrictions imposed upon color comic books, and her stories were replete with gore and eroticism. A native of Drakulon, a planet of bloodsuckers, Vampirella took stake against her evil brethren that wrought havoc on Earth. Her title lost its bite in 1983, but she did not lay dead for long. Harris Comics resurrected the character first with a 1988 reprint, followed in 1991 by a new comic-book series (and an altered origin) that continues in print as of 2004. Vampirella starred in a 1996 movie that was mercilessly slaughtered by critics, but the world's sexiest vampire remains undaunted: Live models, including Playboy Playmates, have popularized the heroine through personal appearances and cover photo shoots. As of 2004, model Kitana Baker wears Vampirella's slinky red costume.

In the 1970s, the Comics Code Authority censorship board eased its restrictions against occult references, and a plethora of paranormal heroes crawled forth. DC revived the Spectre (again) in the pages of Adventure Comics, pushing graphic storytelling to its limits with the hero's bloodcurdling means of disposing of criminals, including dismemberment by giant scissors and transmutation into mannequins. Legendary comics artist Jack Kirby expanded DC's mystical mythos in 1972 with The Demon, a series starring demonologist Jason Blood. Blood, an immortal, is the human host to Etrigan, a chaotic, yellow-skinned devil who once served in the court of Camelot. Channeled by Blood through an incantation, the Demon speaks in rhyme and has fought magical threats in myriad appearances, including team-ups with Batman.

Marvel Comics embraced the macabre with a host of horrifying heroes all bowing in the 1970s. Morbius, the living vampire, was a geneticist whose treatment of his own blood disease triggered scientifically created vampirism, which he employed to fight demonic menaces—after some early skirmishes with Spider-Man, that is. Another Spider-Man spinoff was Man-Wolf, an astronaut mutated into a white-furred beast by a moon rock. Jack Russell sprouted fur as Marvel's Werewolf by Night, a hip young lycanthrope who, after initial uncontrollable rages, channeled his bestial abilities into battling bad guys. Other Marvel supernatural heroes premiering during this era include the Ghost Rider, the flame-headed motorcyclist/superhero who gave a new definition to the term Hell's Angel; Moon Knight, Marvel's answer to DC's Batman; the half-man/half-vampire Blade, who has headlined a successful franchise of live-action movies from the late 1990s to the present; Brother Voodoo, an African American character mixing Hougan mysticism and superheroics; the Son of Satan, a.k.a. Daimon Hellstrom, who, with a pentagram birthmark on his chest and a trident that emitted soul fire in hand, waged war against his unholy father; and lesser-known characters like Satana (Hellstrom's sister), the Living Mummy, the Monster of Frankenstein, Manphibian, Gabriel the Devil Hunter, and the Golem.

Marvel's Man-Thing and DC's Swamp Thing both premiered at roughly the same time in 1971 and have become immortalized in comics lore. Both were humans transmogrified by the marsh, both were slimy plant-men, both pitted their newfound strength against wrongdoers, and both have regularly encountered superheroes. Swamp Thing is better known, with two live-action movies (1982 and 1989), a live-action TV series (1990–1993), a Kenner toy line, an animated cartoon program (1992), and several successful Vertigo (DC's mature readers imprint) series under his belt, but Man-Thing, a small-budget motion picture slated for 2004 release, should afford a higher profile to this misunderstood beast whose touch burns those who fear him.

Beginning in the 1980s, real-world society grew more violent, and the supernatural heroes of popular fiction followed suit. Perhaps no character better exemplifies this than creator James O'Barr's bleak angel of vengeance, Eric Draven, popularly known as the Crow. In the character's 1989 origin from Caliber Comics, the mortally wounded Draven watches helplessly as his fiancée is brutalized and murdered by street punks. The trauma of this event prohibits him from resting in the afterlife, and on the first anniversary of his death he is resuscitated by a crow and given paranormal abilities, including an empathic touch and augmented agility, in a mission of vengeance against those who cut short his life. His iniquitous methods have transcended his cult-favorite comic book and have been adapted to cinema via a franchise of films beginning with The Crow (1994), and a syndicated TV series, The Crow: Stairway to Heaven (1998).

Top Cow Productions' NYPD detective Sara Pezzini was first seen in 1995 on an implacable expedition to destroy the mobster who ritualistically eliminated those closest to her. Once she unearthed Joan of Arc's enchanted gauntlet—called the witchblade—Pezzini donned the glove and symbiotically bonded with it. As Witchblade, she wields the glove's powers—the creation of daggers, the deflection of bullets, and an extrasensory perception—in a brutal vendetta against organized crime. A live-action Witchblade TV movie (2000) and weekly cable series (2001–2002) starred Yancy Butler.

Characters like the Crow, Witchblade, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are non-masked fighters that elevate the classic concept of the superhero to a more realistic level, despite their fantastical settings. Buffy could be seen as qualifying as a superhero, wrote Peter Coogan in his 2002 dissertation The Secret Origin of the Superhero. Coogan also observed, She has a mission; she has superpowers; Buffy has an identity as the Slayer. Buffy and her supernatural ilk—Steven Hughes' Lady Death, Dark Horse's Ghost, and DC's Vertigo heroes (like Sandman, Death, Hellblazer, and Preacher)—have reinvented the concept of the dark hero for a new generation. —ME

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