Public Domain Superheroes 1 – The Comet

I mentioned my superhero binge before so this shouldn’t be much of a surprise. I don’t intend to write about every single character I read. I just really like Hangman (and plan to do a write up for him) and I had enough of an opinion on Comet, and also figured he was relevant enough, that I’m doing this one.

A Public Domain superhero from MLJ/Archie comics, the Comet’s run (Pep Comics 1-16/17) is fairly interesting in of itself. For the first 16 issues of Pep Comics, the Comet’s run is played fairly fairly straight. After issue 17 however, he is permanently killed off and his brother, spurred by his sacrifice, takes up a new mantle as the Hangman.

I mostly started with Hangman which I found to be a very fun and solid read. But I did feel the need to read up on the Comet’s adventures beforehand so I got around to it. And I have to say, the Comet is a lot less impressive as a character. John Dickering is a scientist that invented a gas that enables him abilities such as buoyancy (that allows him to bounce off walls quickly) and disintegrating rays. Later he is also given the ability to fly and also actually requires doses of his gas, sometimes, to use his abilities. The only major weakness of his, aside from the retconned doses of gas that seems to kick in whenever the writer remembers, is that his rays are stopped by glass. His costume itself involves a glass visor to ensure he doesn’t harm others and there are some fair uses of the weakness (though there’s notably a “glass net” in one issue as well)

The first issue is standard stuff but two to three sets up the main dynamic and is rather brutal in the way it goes about it. In his attempt to stop “Satan” (a gang boss, not the actual being) he is completely brainwashed into doing evil (and even kills people in his brainwashed state) and actually only manages to break away from the hypnosis when the two villains are done in by their own hubris (“Satan” gets greedy and the hypnotist sics Comet on him, and the Comet accidentally kills the hypnotist as well).

Despite initially being chummy with the police, the general public unsurprisingly turns on him for his actions in his brainwashed state, and worse still, he now has no way to prove his innocence either. While he always had good intentions, he still vows to do good even while he is being hunted by the law. From there, he later is joined by Thelma Gordon, a reporter who is convinced of his innocence and the two constantly work together to help others, write scoops and slowly clear the Comet’s name in the process.

In comparison to Hangman, he is quite lacking. While his dynamic with the police is interesting, he is just far less interesting as a character. I think the main issue is that he’s not that heroic. He does have very good intentions, and while he isn’t a vindictive force of nature like Stardust and Fantomah, he comes off as a super powered vigilante rather than a superhero. Ironically, despite the Hangman appearing darker due to his gallows theme, the Comet has a more questionable logic to his actions (such as outright killing people or threatening to leave a man to burn to death).

I think the biggest weakness is that there aren’t any memorable villains. The Comet deals with gangs terrorizing the innocent for money (usually with the use of strange science fiction devices), or greedy tycoons that refuse to be decent people, but he never faces anything quite fitting of a superhero. Thelma Gordon is the only other character in the story and while she gets kidnapped a lot, she also gets some splendid moments like tricking her captors by sending out a coded message or even saving the Comet himself in a tough situation.

Overall I think it’s a fairly average read. The dynamic is decent and I think having the background for the John Dickering and Thelma Gordon is worthwhile to have before reading the Hangman. At the same time though, I was enjoying the Hangman just fine even without knowing about the Comet chapters. And there’s honestly no payoff or anything necessary as Thelma Gordon jumps on board with Robert rather quickly, and the Hangman even has better publicity than the Comet ever had. I’d recommend it if you’re already interested in the Hangman and want to see the story lead up to it, but I wouldn’t recommend him on his own.

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