Dr. Occult. Artist: Eduardo Barretto.


Medium: Comic Books
Published by: DC Comics
First Appeared: 1935
Creators: Jerry Siegel (writer) and Joe Shuster (artist)
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Superman is often cited as the first superhero in comics, but he wasn't — he's considered to have founded the genre because it was his instant popularity in 1938 which led to the flood …

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… of similar characters that dominated American comic books of the early 1940s. Actually, he was preceded by Mandrake the Magician (1934), The Phantom Magician (1935) and more. Even at DC Comics, where Superman was the first breakout hit, he wasn't the first superhero. In fact, he wasn't even the first one created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster to see print.

Siegel and Shuster came to work at DC in 1935, when the company barely even existed. Only one of the three companies that eventually coalesced into DC had begun publishing, and during most of the year, that one had only a single title: New Fun the Big Comic Magazine, a monthly tabloid featuring the adventures of western hero Jack Woods, spy chaser Sandra of the Secret Service, funny man Loco Luke, and many others. There was room for a lot, because each of them occupied a page or less, with stories continued from one issue to the next just as they were in a newspaper's Sunday funnies section, which the whole package was designed to resemble (except for the interiors being printed in black and white).

In the 6th issue (October, 1935), Siegel and Shuster debuted two heroes of their own creation, Henri Duval (swashbuckling adventure set in France of Musketeer days) and Dr. Occult (no first name, subtitled "The Ghost Detective"). The latter was a trenchcoat-wearing private eye who specialized in cases that involved the supernatural.

He himself had certain supernatural powers, such as an ability to enter the Astral Plane and observe earthly events without being seen, and to emerge from that locale wherever he pleased (i.e., teleport). He also had telekinesis, and could cast illusions. Some of his abilities were focused through a magic amulet he carried, which resembled a Maltese cross set inside a circle. To top it off, he had a device that could locate evildoers by focusing on their thought waves. He had an associate who went by the name "Rose Psychic".

Later DC writers have speculated that both Occult and Psychic may have been assumed names. Gosh, d'ya think?

With its 7th issue, New Fun became More Fun, but its contents remained the same. Only gradually did More Fun Comics metamorphose into a typical 1940s anthology comic, replete with superheroes such as Johnny Quick, Aquaman and Superboy. It was in the tenth issue that Dr. Occult broke out into two pages, and from there it was onward and upward. By the time he was through, he had four.

While this was happening, Centaur Publications (Amazing-Man, Speed Centaur) ran a little Dr. Occult material, originally intended for More Fun, under the name "Dr. Mystic (The Occult Detective)". The full story behind this may never be known, but what is known includes the fact that publisher Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson wasn't very good at paying his bills. Personnel switching employers may have taken some of their back salary in trade.

Tho he had super powers, Dr. Occult wasn't a full-fledged superhero, complete with gaudy costume, until More Fun vol. 2 #2 (the odometer had been rolled back after #12), which was also the first issue printed in full color. There, Occult met The Seven, in pursuit of a powerful villain named Koth. They supplied the costume, as well as a couple more mystic artifacts that came in handy in later issues. Some superhero-oriented comic book fans see this as Siegel and Shuster groping toward the full realization of Superman, or even as DC doing a trial run of the Superman concept. In reality, Superman was already fully realized, and his creators were then trying (unsuccessfully) to sell him to newspaper syndicates; and if DC was doing a "trial run", then they waited an awfully long time before acting on it — that issue was dated October, 1936, more than a year and a half before Superman's June, 1938 print debut. In any case, the transformation to full-superhero mode didn't stick, and Dr. Occult's most characteristic look remained the trenchcoat version.

Aside from Superman's debut month, June, 1938 was also the month of Dr. Occult's final appearance in More Fun Comics. In the July issue (#33 — they'd dropped the "volume" designation and just kept the numbers), he was replaced by a humor feature titled "Just Like Junior". He wasn't seen again for decades, and probably wouldn't have been at all if DC hadn't gotten into the habit of bringing back practically every character it owned, that could even marginally have been considered a superhero.

Even so, it wasn't until Crisis on Infinite Earths, the 1985-86 12-part series in which the company celebrated its 50th anniversary by getting rid of a lot of useless and confusing portions of its universe's back-story. Dr. Occult was there in a minor way, as were hundreds of other virtually forgotten characters from the distant past. At the same time, he was doing a series of appearances with The All-Star Squadron, which stretched its mission a little (it featured every superhero from the 1940s, not '30s) to include him. In 1987 he was given a new origin story, in which writer Roy Thomas (Liberty Legion, Squadron Supreme) got him and Rose involved with Koth and The Seven from infancy.

He went on to appear in Books of Magic, the series that introduced Tim Hunter (an apparent Harry Potter clone who actually debuted years before the Potter kid). He had a oneshot in 1994 from DC's Vertigo imprint; and in 1999, Vertigo included him in its four-issue Trenchcoat Brigade, alongside John Constantine, Mister E and The Phantom Stranger. That same year, he was also included in Day of Judgment, a crossover series that involved many of DC's current heroes.

It may defy plausibility, but after seven decades, DC's very first super-powered series star is still an active adventurer.


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