In 1938, Superman smashed a car against a rock on the cover of Action Comics #1 and DC Comics was never the same. But what was DC like before the Man of Steel flew onto the scene? What kind of stories did DC tell and where are those characters now? As we gear up for DC FanDome with this week’s celebration of DC’s legacy, let’s take a look at five still very relevant characters who debuted before Superman.
Texan lawman Jack Woods has the honor of being the first character to ever appear in a DC comic book. In 1935, National Allied Publications (which later became DC Comics) published New Fun Comics #1, and Jack Woods kicked off the action with his story appearing in its entirely on the cover. Since New Fun Comics was an anthology, Jack’s contribution to the book was limited. Heck, you probably didn’t even need to buy the book to read it. Today it would seem strange to publish an entire comic adventure this way, but this was 1935 and the industry was still evolving.
Jack Woods was a Texas Ranger who dressed like Dr. Alan Grant from Jurassic Park. His adventures were set during the Frontier Era and told in serialized installments. According to a text piece in New Fun Comics #1, Jack Woods was based on a character from an old Universal Pictures serial called Rustlers of the Red Gap, which itself was based on Buffalo Bill’s 1916 memoirs, The Great West That Was. Jack’s final old west adventure was published in Adventure Comics #42 and sadly, he hasn’t been seen since. His final story ended in a cliffhanger with him being arrested for murder. Perhaps some future DC writer might bring things full circle by finally finishing this two-fisted story?
Sandra of the Secret Service
Before Wonder Woman, Supergirl and Batgirl there was Sandra of the Secret Service. Sandra’s feature in New Fun Comics #1 immediately followed Jack Woods, making her the first female to ever star in her own DC story. Sandra McLane was a society woman who found herself thrust into the world of espionage after another agent enlisted her help in escaping his pursuers. From there, Sandra became a secret agent, embarking on international adventures, fighting mad scientists and dictators. Like other comic features of that era, most of Sandra’s adventures were serialized and told in single page installments.
Sandra was a capable heroine, confidently battling villains, handling deadly weapons and performing extreme physical feats. During an era where most females were depicted as damsels in distress, Sandra broke the mold by saving her male colleagues. Sandra’s final appearance was in More Fun Comics #35, which also ended in a cliffhanger where the villain gets away. Knowing how capable Sandra is, I’d like to think she eventually caught up with him.
You might be familiar with Doctor Occult, the Ghost Detective who has worked alongside DC’s superheroes, but you might be shocked to learn that he predates Superman by almost three years! Richard Occult was first seen in New Fun Comics #6, in an adventure credited to the creative team of Legar and Reuths. If you look carefully at those names, you’ll unmask Legar and Reuths as Siegel and Shuster, which makes Doctor Occult one of the iconic duo’s earliest creations. During some of these initial stories, Doctor Occult would take flight in his blue tights and red cape. Hmm… Who does that remind you of? It’s for this reason that some comic book scholars classify Doctor Occult as the first caped superhero.
Using his powerful talisman, Doctor Occult solved a series of supernatural crimes throughout the Golden Age. His final Golden Age adventure was published in More Fun Comics #32, the same month that Superman hit the stands in Action Comics #1. However, writer Roy Thomas saw value in Doctor Occult and brought him back in 1985’s All-Star Squadron #49, bringing the Ghost Detective into the modern DC Universe. Since then, Richard Occult has continued to lend his supernatural talents to DC’s heroes, making him—for now, at least—the oldest DC character to still be published today.
Cyril Saunders, commonly known by his nickname “Speed,” was a swashbuckling detective. Don’t let his nickname fool you, he wasn’t an early speedster, but Speed was quick on his feet and a had a knack for rapidly solving dangerous cases. His feature began in Detective Comics #1, making him one of the first characters to appear in the iconic series. Originally Speed was depicted as a member of the River Patrol, solving boat-related crimes, and was later shown to be an OSS agent.
Speed shared Detective Comics with Batman and a host of others until his final Golden Age adventure was published in Detective Comics #58. Decades later, James Robinson and David S. Goyer brought him back in JSA Returns: Sensation Comics #1. During the story, it was revealed that Cyril Saunders and Shiera Sanders were cousins. This connection gave Speed a place in the modern DC Universe and led to further appearances in Hawkman and JSA.
Slam Bradley was a tough-as-nails private detective who found trouble everywhere he went. During his early adventures he was based in Cleveland, the hometown of his creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Slam, like Speed Saunders, burst onto the scene in Detective Comics #1 and his feature ran until Detective Comics #152, making Bradley the longest running character from the first issue.
Slam returned in Detective Comics #500, in a Len Wein and Jim Aparo story that served as a reunion for various detectives that had appeared in the title over its 44-year run. The story placed Slam in the mainstream DC Universe for the first time, which over time led to some fun team-ups with Batman and a chaotic, but kind of sweet, partnership with Catwoman. Slam recently appeared in the first season of Batwoman where he was portrayed as a pretty-boy cop who unsuccessfully tried to romance Gotham’s guardian.
Honorable Mention: Jor-L
Although he wasn’t a lead character, Jor-L is worth mentioning as a fun historical footnote. Over a year before Superman first appeared, a futuristic space cop named Jor-L was seen in New Adventure Comics #12. The story was written and illustrated by (you guessed it) Siegel and Shuster, so it seems like they really liked the name. Aside from it, however, there is no connection between this space cop and Superman’s Kryptonian father, making the original Jor-L an interesting wrinkle in DC history.
DC FanDome returns on October 16, 2021! For more articles like this one, and to stay up to date on all the latest news, visit dcfandome.com.
Joshua Lapin-Bertone writes about TV, movies and comics for DCComics.com, is a regular contributor to the Couch Club and writes our monthly Batman column, "Gotham Gazette." Follow him on Twitter at @TBUJosh.