Top Ten Golden Age Characters Who Should Get Movies

So it seems that the Captain America movie came out recently, and is apparently pretty good stuff. (I can’t confirm this myself, as I haven’t seen it yet.) And y’know what? That’s great. Cap’s a good character, he’s been around for a hell of a long time, and he deserves recognition. Congrats, Cap. Good on ya.

It’s got me thinking, though. For all that Cap’s had quite the career over the decades, he remains firmly rooted in the time he was created – i.e, the Golden Age of comics. After all, this is the guy who punched out Hitler on the cover of his first comic. And cinematically speaking, he’s not alone – why, just in the past few years we’ve had the Spirit and Green Hornet movies, and there are rumors that the Shadow may have another shot before long. This is a good time for Golden Age adaptations (although not always in terms of quality, as the latter two would seem to indicate).

So who should be next? Well, being a big Golden Age fan myself, I happen to have a few notions. Ladies and gentlemen, I present, in no particular order, my Top Ten Golden Age Characters Who Should Get Movies, whether or not they ever actually do!

In making this list, there were a few criteria that had to be observed. First, the careers of the characters had to be rooted in, and primarily consisting of, the Age in question – hence, no Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman; they’ve long since stopped being solely Golden Age. Second, no legacy-founders whose successors have since eclipsed them, i.e, no Golden Age Flash or Green Lantern or the like. Third, if they’ve already gotten a movie, they don’t count.

OK, enough blather. Let’s dive right in, shall we?

10: Daredevil (Bart Hill)

The character: Bart Hill was orphaned at an early age when his parents were murdered by his uncle in the Australian Outback so he could gain control of their mining empire. As the only survivor of the massacre, Hill was raised by aborigines, gaining great fighting and survival skills in the process, as well as a deft touch with a boomerang. When he came of age, he learned his origin, and, donning a colorful disguise, he returned to America to avenge his parents and reclaim his fortune, in the process deciding to fight crime as Daredevil!

Why he’s cool: These days, when you say ‘Daredevil’ everyone thinks of the Marvel character, which is why this guy is probably never going to get a film of his own – the copyright issues are just too complicated. It’s a crying shame, too, because this guy is really pretty nifty. I mean, just for starters, check that costume out! Is that not a really cool outfit?

Secondly, this guy was at one point one of the top-selling characters of the time, alongside Superman, and had some terrific adventures in the process. You think Cap was cool for punching out Hitler? Daredevil had an entire oversized issue (‘Daredevil Battles Hitler #1’) devoted to him punching out not only Der Fuhrer, but every high-ranking Nazi around at the time, including Goebbels and Goering – and this was before the US joined WW2. Most of his enemies were more street-level, though – he tended to fight gangsters and straighten out juvenile delinquents and the like, alongside his sidekicks, the Little Wise Guys, one of the better kid gangs ever created. (They ultimately took over the comic from him.) He did, however, have one arch-enemy – the Claw, a gigantic Chinese demon with menacing powers, and one of the most iconic villains of the Golden Age.

In short, he’s both street-level and large-scale, has a built-in supporting cast, and looks badass. Come on, Marvel, don’t be jerks – let this guy have a movie. It won’t cost you any money, and it’ll give a great hero his due.

9: Sparky WattsThe character: Sparky Watts was a student, working his way through college by selling magazine subscriptions. One day he happened to call upon Doc Static, an eccentric scientist who agreed to buy some magazines in exchange for a little help with an experiment he was working on. Having agreed, Sparky was bombarded with cosmic rays, which turned him into the world’s strongest and most durable man. He then proceeded to fight the usual crime, Nazis, etc., with Static and his various associates serving as his helpers and supporting cast.

Why he’s cool: Sparky is probably best known these days for being the creation of one Boody Rogers, a cartoonist with a notably eccentric and bizarre style – he was basically doing underground comics a couple decades before they were invented. As such, most of his work is absolutely insane in the best possible way, and Sparky is no exception – he’s kind of like Popeye if Popeye was a clean-cut school kid who could give Superman a run for his money. It wasn’t all just crimefighting, either – Sparky’s world was one where anything could and did happen, usually as a result of one of Static’s misfiring experiments. If it wasn’t being shrunk down to tiny size and being forced to marry the monstrous two-headed queen of a microscopic race, it was… well, something equally crazy, most of the time. And then there’s the fact that his supporting cast includes such characters as Slap Happy, a man whose feet are each about as large as the rest of him put together – and he’s not a small man. It makes for very interesting reading.

Naturally, this would be a very difficult character to get right in a movie, but if handled correctly, the results would be spectacular. Even incorrectly, they would be something to see. You’d need a very creative director on board – I can picture someone like Jean-Pierre Jeunet sinking his chops into it with relish. I mean, seriously, there’s enough straight-faced bizarritude in this puppy to satisfy even the most eccentric of creative appetites.

8: The Human BombThe character: Roy Lincoln was a scientist working alongside his father on QRX-27, an explosive chemical. Unfortunately, Nazi spies had gotten wind of this, and invaded their laboratory. His father shot dead, Roy did the only thing he could think of to keep the one small sample of the chemical out of enemy hands – he swallowed it. Instead of killing him, this had unexpected side-effects – anything he touched with his hands now exploded, with the one exception of Fibro-Wax, a substance used in the experiments. Making himself a Fibro-Wax suit and gloves, he went on to battle crime and Nazis as the Human Bomb!

What makes him cool: Read that again, if you will. Everything this guy touches explodes. He can make things explode just by touching them, while remaining unharmed himself! Can you imagine a more perfect character for Hollywood?

Seriously, I think there is tremendous cinematic potential for this guy. Sure, his outfit is basically just a hazmat suit with fancy gloves, but it looks cool, and the very nature of his powers is visually spectacular and has story potential built right into it. You’d have to avoid making him all angsty and dark – such would not be true to the character, who was generally pretty lighthearted – but all the same, I think this guy’s a shoe-in.

7: The Bronze TerrorThe character: Jeff Dixon was a member of the Apache tribe who had moved to the Midwest to go to law school. Having just become a lawyer, he returned home when his father, the tribe’s chief, was falsely accused of murder. Unable to help him legally, Jeff donned a frightening disguise and brought the perpetrators to justice. Having saved the day, he remained to ward off evildoers as the Bronze Terror!

Why he’s cool: There are a relative paucity of minority heroes in comics even today, and back in the Golden Age there were almost none of them. The Bronze Terror was a notable exception, and may, in fact, have been the first. He may be a little non-PC by today’s standards, but by the standards of the time, he was impressively progressive – most of his adventures, in fact, consisted of defending his tribe against various greedy white landowners who sought to take advantage of them. And while his headdress and skull mask may or may not have fit with Apache tribal customs, they sure look cool, and tell you right away which side he’s on.

I think a Bronze Terror movie could work very well as a sort of modern anti-western, subverting the clichés of the genre and telling things from the Native American point of view – only with a superhero. You’d have to be careful not to make it too preachy, but overall, I think there’s potential.

6: Captain MarvelThe character: Billy Batson, a homeless newsboy, was led to the secret lair of the wizard Shazam. The wizard told him that his long life was about to end, and that he had chosen him as a successor to carry on the fight against evil and injustice. From that day onward, whenever Billy speaks his name, he is struck by a bolt of magic lightning, which transforms him into the superheroic Captain Marvel!

Why he’s cool: OK, I’m cheating a little bit here, since the good Captain has indeed had a career since the Golden Age. However, everyone seems to agree that it hasn’t really been much of one. Very few writers in recent decades seem to have really understood Captain Marvel – they’ve tried to darken him up, or written him as a cut-rate Superman. If you want to see him at his best, you’ve pretty much got to go to the Golden Age, and that’s why I’m putting him here.

In many ways, Captain Marvel is the quintessential Golden Age hero. His adventures are as whimsical as they are melodramatic, and he himself is about the purest, noblest example of a hero you could find. He belongs to what may or may not have been a ‘simpler time’, but it certainly was in comics. Getting the tone right in a movie might be tricky, but basically, the guy’s a classic character, he’s been misrepresented or ignored for decades despite a solid fanbase, and by golly this guy deserves a good movie. Somebody make it already!

5: The Barker The Character: Carnie Callahan is, as the above suggests, a barker, or carnival announcer, who plies his trade at Colonel Lane’s Mammoth Circus. Together with his fellow performers, he tours the country, running into various malcontents, crooks, and sleazy competitors on the way.

Why he’s cool: Well, I did say ‘characters’, not ‘superheroes’. The Golden Age had a good deal of non-superheroic features to its name, and the Barker is one of the more interesting of them. It focuses on an aspect of the circus that is seldom touched upon in fiction – plainly and simply getting along and defending yourself against troublemakers. There’s little theatrical razzle-dazzle here – it’s mainly about how Carnie and company get themselves out of whatever jam they’re in now. It’s good stuff – funny and exciting, and never so rooted in reality that it’s afraid to dip into the outlandish.

Really, I think there should be a Barker movie just because it would be fascinating to see how it turned out. A guy who travels around in a circus not so much fighting crime as dealing with any of it that gets in his way? That just sounds like an interesting hook to me, and I’d like to see how it’d turn out.

4: Steel SterlingThe character: Swearing revenge on crime when his father was cheated and killed by crooks, John Sterling devoted himself to becoming invulnerable to harm, so as to fight criminals more effectively. Treating himself with a chemical mixture, he dove headlong into a vat of molten steel, only to emerge alive and unscathed, his experiment a success. Now possessing the strength and properties of the metal in question, he fights crime as Steel Sterling!

Why he’s cool: OK, I’ll admit something – as a character, Steel Sterling is a little on the bland side. He’s basically Superman in a different outfit – he even calls himself ‘the Man of Steel’ more than once. But look at that origin.

Just… look… at… it. Is that not the most insane thing ever?

Think about this. Superman got his powers ‘cause he’s an alien. The Hulk got his powers by accidental exposure to gamma radiation. Spider-Man got his powers through radioactive spider-bite. Steel Sterling got his by diving headfirst into a vat of molten steel! I mean, good gravy, this is a guy who’s either completely off his trolley or… or… I’m not sure what or. Sure, it worked, but man alive, there’s a fine line between confident and suicidal, and Steel Sterling is skipping back and forth across it and doing handsprings along its length even as we speak. I mean that literally. I’ve got embarrassing photographs.

Anyway. The movie would be worthwhile for that scene alone. Not to mention that his run boasted a series of covers which were made completely of unadulterated awesome. View, please, the above picture, where he tears apart a guillotine while punching out an army of knife-wielding men with their brains in jars dangling down their backs. If a movie could channel one-sixtieth of the awesome in that scene, it would truly be a thing to make grown men weep for joy.

3: The VigilanteThe character: A Wyoming native, Greg Saunders was descended from a long line of western lawmen, including his father, the local sheriff. Saunders himself moved to New York and achieved success as a country singer, dubbed ‘the Prairie Troubadour’. When he received word that his father had been murdered by bandits, he returned home to avenge them, taking on the persona of a western gunslinger. Afterwards, he maintained this identity, fighting crime as the Vigilante!

Why he’s cool: Let’s get this out of the way first. There sure are a lot of father-killings on this list, aren’t there? Yeah – it was a pretty common theme back then.

That being said, the Vig is a pretty nifty character. In a way, he kinda plays around with the Western stereotypes in the same way that Bronze Terror does, only where he showed them in a new light, the Vig shows them in the same light, just in a different setting. Instead of ropin’ and ridin’ and yee-haw-in’ out on the range, he’s doing it in the big city. Instead of a horse, he rides a motorcycle, and while he’s certainly faced down his share of ornery hombres, they’re more likely to be wearing fedoras than cowboy hats. In all other ways, he’s pretty much your standard howdy-ma’am-whoa-there-big-fella-type Western hero, embodying all the positive values that such a hero is supposed to. Oh, and his sidekick is Stuff, the Chinatown Kid, who, apart from a thoroughly inexplicable name (I mean, seriously – ‘Stuff’? What the hell?), is actually one of the least stereotyped Asian characters I’ve ever seen in a Golden Age comic. He doesn’t even have yellow skin, and considering that this was practically de rigueur in comics for decades, that’s saying something.

Really, I think a Vig movie would be great simply because the whole ‘cowboy in the big city’ aspect is an unusual one, and the character himself is appealing and likable. He’s already had a serial way back when, and he was a popular character in ‘JLU’ – it’s not entirely impossible, is it?

2: Blonde PhantomThe character: Louise Grant was the secretary of private eye Mark Mason. Enamored of her boss, and wishing to help him out on cases, she donned a sexy evening gown, high heels and a domino mask, and, armed only with a .45 and her wits, set out to fight crime as the Blonde Phantom.

Why she’s cool: First, you will note that this is the one and only female character who’s made the list. I apologize for that, but sadly, there just weren’t all that many female heroes during the Golden Age – or, at least, few who particularly stood out to me in a way that would make this list. Sorry, ladies – better luck next time.

That being said, I love the Blonde Phantom. She is easily one of my favorite comics characters, period. I could quite easily gush on about her for several pages, but I’ll try and restrain myself. It’s going to be difficult.

Why is she cool? Well, to start with, she’s not afraid to defy all logic by bounding into action in an evening gown and high heels. It’s completely ridiculous, but somehow it just clicks – my theory is that anyone who has the skills and moxie to make something like that work is going to be a force to reckon with. Second, she’s a woman in a very male-dominated business, and defies the stereotypes by not only doing a good job of it, but having the crooks genuinely see her as a threat. Third, she just is, OK? I challenge you to defy my flawless logic.

BP actually stands a better chance of getting her own movie than some on this list. For one thing, she’s actually had a subsequent career in her civilian identity – as ‘Weezy’, she became She-Hulk’s friend and confidant for a while. For another, she’s a Stan Lee character, and they seem to have good luck in this arena. For another – be still, my pounding heart – Scarlet Johannsen has mentioned that Blonde Phantom was actually on the list of possible characters that Marvel was interested in having her play! THAT! WOULD! BE! AWESOME!

1: The Vagabond PrinceThe character: Ned Oaks was a cheerfully eccentric character who lived in Estin City, and made a modest living writing lyrics for greeting cards. His pioneer ancestors, however, had owned the land that the city was ultimately built upon, and, due to a legal technicality, so did he. Nobody, including Oaks himself, was aware of this fact, until gangster slumlord Boss Tweed found out about it and attempted to get him to sign the land over. Realizing that the city would suffer under Tweed, Oaks not only refused, he donned a mask and costume and brought the villain to justice. Now, aided by local street kid Roger as his sidekick Chief Justice, he protects the citizens of his ‘kingdom’ as the Vagabond Prince!

Why he’s cool: OK, I admit it, this character is incredibly goofy and obscure (there were only three Vagabond Prince stories ever written), and has very little chance of anyone ever making a movie about him. But goldarn it, I really like this guy, and so far as I’m concerned, if anyone on this list deserves a movie, it’s him.

Why? Well, for starters he was the brainchild of comics legend Joe Simon, who co-created Captain America, and he got a movie, so come on, fair’s fair. Second, he’s just a huge amount of fun. Most superheroes, when off duty, are likable everymen, normal guys who lead normal lives. Ned Oaks, on the other hand, is just a little bit nuts – he’s a likable oddball who is constantly speechifying and making up terrible poetry. (A running gag is Roger rolling his eyes at his boss’s latest stinker.) In short, he’s just the sort of person who would put on a modified bandleader’s outfit and go fight crime when he found out he owned the city. Yes, Ned, that is exactly the sane and logical thing to do. Really. Good show.

Needless to say, a serious take on the Vagabond Prince would not work at all – you’d need a sort of straight-faced comedic approach to the material, perhaps drawing a few parallels to the Emperor Norton-esque qualities of the character. It would be difficult to get right, but hell, I’d watch it. Wouldn’t you? Support the Vagabond Prince! He does good work!

14 comments

  1. First of all, I like the idea of a Blonde Phantom movie myself. Why should Wonder Woman have all the female superhero buzz to herself?

    Second, Captain Marvel actually did get a serial to himself during the Golden Age. He was also on live-action kids’ TV in the 70s. However, he has yet to be seen on live-action, non-serialized film.

    • Exactly. In fact, it might even increase the chances of a Wondy movie getting made if there were a few ‘starter’ movies with female heroes that were fairly successful – as I understand it, one of the main obstacles to a Wonder Woman flick so far is that the big boys are afraid a superhero film with a female protagonist ‘won’t sell’ or some such nonsense. Go on, Blonde Phantom, show ’em they’re wrong! There’ll be a handshake from Wondy in it for ya!
      And yes, I’m aware of the Captain Marvel serial and TV show. However, I’m not counting them, since this list is specifically regarding MOVIES, and not other forms of adaptation. (You will note that I also included the Vigilante, despite his also gracing the silver screen in that format.) However, the fact that he did get a serial (and, from all accounts, a pretty successful one) is a pretty good indicator that the character can indeed work on film, so perhaps I should have mentioned it as a mark in his favor.

    • Yeah, they’d be pretty nifty, wouldn’t they? Really, the world of comics is so incredibly vast – if they’re going to continue adapting so many of them, I say delve into some of the more obscure corners, and give the indy or eccentric directors their chance to shine.
      And I definitely recommend both Sparky Watts and the Barker. They’re nothing too terribly complex – just good, eccentric fun.

  2. The Human Bomb – He would eventually go insane having to wear a latex suit every minute of his life. Or is it ONLY his hands that make things explode? If that’s the case, then living with gloves should be something he could adapt to.

    Captain Marvel – I thought the Saturday morning show was OK when I was a kid. The thing is, when he yelled SHAZAM and the lightning bolt struck him, it changed his clothes and gave him super powers, but it didn’t change his character! He was still kind of a clumsy schnook. He couldn’t fly very well and he was never quite sure of himself, but he still ended up beating the bad guy.

    The Barker – Hmmm. May actually have some potential.

    The Blonde Phantom – A woman?? Impossible. Certainly not a woman in high heels and an evening gown, and especially not during the era when men constantly wore suits and fedoras. Any dame can be dangerous when she’s holding a .45. Without it she’s just a crazy broad.

    The Vagabond Prince – Too swishy.

    • Post-Golden Age, the Human Bomb did indeed have to stay in his suit constantly – but only for a while, then he was cured or something. In the Golden Age, he basically just wore gloves all the time. (The other guy in the picture with him, by the way, was his sidekick, Hustace Throckmorton, who, through a blood transfusion, gained Human Bomb powers in his FEET. He had to wear special shoes instead.)
      Correct me if I’m wrong, never having seen it, but didn’t that show basically abandon the whole kid-turns-into-an-adult aspect? In which case, yeah, it probably wasn’t a very faithful adaptation of the original, where he’s capable enough both as Billy Batson and Captain Marvel – it’s just that he’s a normal kid when the former, and a superhero when the latter.
      Watch what you say about mah gal the Phantom! Them’s fightin’ words! *tips hat back on head*
      Naah, he’s not swishy – he’s just the eccentric intellectual type. I mean, he spends his spare time in the slums beating up crooks – costume aside, the guy may be nutty, but he’s tough. And even if he does have a tad bit of swish to him, what, may I ask, is wrong with swishy? We’ve had more than enough ultra-serious superheroes onscreen – I think we can handle a few who aren’t afraid to be FAAAABULOUS.

    • “The Blonde Phantom – A woman?? Impossible. Certainly not a woman in high heels and an evening gown…”

      Even if she uses her stilletto heels as weapons? I don’t know if she did in the books, but in real life it is more than possible.

      • I believe it’s happened at least once. BP has recently been a supporting character in the Marvel Adventures books, where she’s ditched the gun and relied on more standard fisticuffs. I recall a fight with a gang of crooks alongside Hawkeye where she says something like “I was going to give him the toe – but now he gets the heel!”, and proceeds to heel-kick one of them right in the stomach, with an accompanying ‘holy crap, that hurt!’ expression on the part of the crook.

  3. Did any of these father killers have vestigial digits?

    Bronze Terror would be very tricky to get right. There’s too much potential that he’d become another Billy Jack. And we wouldn’t want that.

    Regarding Blonde Phantom, the wearing of high heels among female superheroes is hardly unusual. Evening gowns maybe, but not high heels.

    And if a Shadow movie does get made, let’s hope that they don’t try to combine pulp Shadow and radio Shadow again. Plus if they do include Margot Lane, try not to make her look so slutty (the original character was suppose to be something of an ingenue).

    • …’Vestigial digits’? Uh, que?
      Well, yeah, movies about Native Americans are always tricky to get right – it’s all too easy to resort to stereotype, either positive or negative. Still, there HAVE been good ones made, and in the hands of a talented director, I think it could be worth a shot.
      True, true, but they’re usually high-heeled BOOTS, which are a modicum more practical.
      Personally, I didn’t have much of a problem with the Shadow movie. Sure, it had its flaws – a bit too much reliance on comic relief, too much Lamont Cranston and not enough Shadow – but the overall atmosphere worked quite well, I thought, and when the Shadow WAS onscreen, he was pretty cool.

      • I’m not sure what sort of penalty Justin would levy for not recognizing a reference from The Princess Bride, but you might want to brace yourself for it (Inigo Montoya’s father was killed by a six-fingered man).

  4. Ah, the Human Bomb. I have no idea why I love his costume — so boring, so drab — and yet I do. Bomb on, my friend.

    I really need to read some more public domain Golden Age stuff. As soon as I finish All-Star Comics and Flash Comics…

    Great article, Deneb!

    • Thanks! I’m really pleased at all the response it’s gotten. I mean, I basically just wanted to jabber on about characters I like, and look at how many people have responded! It’s very gratifying.
      I’ve always had a soft spot for the Human Bomb’s costume. It’s so simple, and yet it works.
      I recommend looking up the Fury Comics website. They’ve got a whole bunch of golden age stuff, and if you’re willing to do a little digging, there are some real gems.

      • In a similar vein, I highly recommend the Digital Comic Museum. DC bought a lot of Golden Age characters from defunct companies, but most of the original stories are now public domain. TONS of perfectly legal comics to fill up your iPad with, Plastic Man and Captain Marvel and early Archie comics, plus hundreds of others and even some newspaper strips.

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