Armagideon Time

Another holiday season is upon us, which means it’s time for me to pack up the snark and snideness for a month and instead shine the spotlight on some underappreciated funnybook fungibles I do count among my favorites.

While the rest of comics fandom has been all a’twitter (or a’blogging or a’message-boarding) about NuDC and whatever the hell Marvel has been up to recently, I’ve been delving deeply into Golden Age superhero material as of late.

This was partially due to finding some exceptional deals on hardcover collections of the stuff, but my fascination with that era of superheroics dates back to when my parents brought my eight year old self home a “Treasury Edition” reprint of All-Star Comics #3. (My brother was given an oversized anthology of Fawcett’s Captain Marvel tales, which had an equally enormous impact on my comics-reading tastes.)

Between reprints of vintage material fished from quarter bins and Roy Thomas’s revisitations of the era in titles like The Invaders or All-Star Squadron, I developed a familiarity and appreciation for the hokey weirdness of the Golden Age of Superheroes and his huge cast of lesser known characters. As I got older and matured past the habits of surface reading and continuity trivia, my love of the material deepened.

In a genre where evolutionary change is as glacial as it is formulaic (not to mention largely cosmetic), the simplicity and energy of Golden Age material provides a refreshing contrast. Though often mercenary in intent and crude in execution, they deliver dense, eight-page doses of unpretentious high concept nonsense pitched at a third-grader’s comprehension level.

Golden Age superheroes operated in a world free of cynicism or revisionist thinking, and this was no more true than in the case of Hourman

…the pill-popping powerhouse who made his debut in Adventure Comics #48 (March 1940).

The ebon-cowled Man of the Hour was Rex “Tick-Tock” Tyler, a research chemist who discovered the formula for a wonder drug named “Miraclo” which granted the user superhuman strength, agility, and endurance for the space of sixty short minutes. An inveterate milquetoast in everyday life, Rex used his pharmaceutical performance enhancer to break out of his shell in the most flamboyant and ill-advised manner possible. He donned a ludicrous “only in the Golden Age” ensemble — complete with weightlifter’s belt, floppy hood, and pre-industrial version of Flavor Flav’s signature bling — and vented his repressed urges upon a parade of criminals, saboteurs, talking flying dogs, and other malefactors typically associate with that era of superheroics.

Though his exploits earned him a place as a founding member of the Justice Society, Rex’s tenure with the team was fairly brief and he was replaced by Starman after seven issues. His run of solo stories — in which Rex was saddled with the Dead End Kids’ lite comic relief of the “Minute Men” — petered out by the end of 1942, making him one of the earlier market corrections of the Golden Age “mystery men” boom.

Unlike forgotten footnotes like The King or Bozo the Robot who lacked the support system of a historic superteam, Rex’s status as a founding Justice Society member ensured his public resuscitation when the team was reintroduced into continuity during the early 1960s and even netted him a pair of Showcase gigs along with regular guest appearances in the annual JSA/JLA team-up events.

While one can deduce a pretty clear subtext for a character who uses pharmaceutical means to overcome his natural timidity and become a raging thrillseeker, the chemical nature of Hourman’s abilities were less a statement about drug abuse than they were a reflection of contemporary attitudes about medical miracles and better living through technology. Originally a convenient gimmick used to justify and provide the framework for Hourman’s high concept underpinnings, Rex’s dependence on Miraclo took a darker, albeit unsurprising turn in more recent tales.

The best of these tales have eschewed the revisionist contortions of embarrassed hindsight or the low-hanging fruit of junkie-centric melodrama in favor of addressing the core concepts laid out in Hourman’s earliest appearances, where Rex’s addiction lies in the sensation rather than the substance. Miraclo is merely an enabling agent for Rex’s true pathologies, the key which unlocks the repressed thrillseeker from his mental prison. It’s a fascinating spin on the Jekyll and Hyde trope, a willing embrace of the Id rationed out in sixty minute intervals…as demonstrated in the “Hourman” story arc of Sandman Mystery Theater where Rex’s superhuman abilities were beautifully contrasted against a gritty pulp backdrop…

Superheroic thrills are Rex’s true addiction, something cannily emphasized in Golden Age period pieces such as New Frontier or The Golden Age which portray Hourman as a desperate holdout of costume-clad vigilantism. Even without that post facto characterization of the Hourman, there’s something about the character that has fascinated me since my days of sugar bowl haircuts and plaid Garanimals (i.e. “since last week”). His early stories may have been generic even by low standards of the 1940s and most of his post-Silver Age appearances fairly uninspiring, but his combination of costume, concept, and gimmick represents Golden Age superheroics at their unpretenious best — what you see is what you get and damn petty details like plot logic or a cohesive narrative.

To sum up: Hourman is a dude who pops pills and then fucks fools up while sporting an hourglass medallion. What’s not to love?

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  3. Nobody’s Favorites: Man meets war

14 Responses to “Nobody Else’s Favorites: Sixty minute man”

  1. Raggedy Man

    Hmmmm… I kinda like Hourman actually…

  2. David Thiel

    Whew. For a minute there I thought that you were going to talk smack about Hourman. Along with Dr. Midnite, he’s one of my favorite “mystery men.” And I always thought that his costume was relatively snazzy, unlike the eye-gouging color scheme of the Golden Age Green Lantern.

  3. Jason Langlois

    Count me in the crowd who likes Hourman. From his costume (loved the cowl + cape and that he had an hourglass to keep track of how long his powers would last) to the fact that he was a gung-ho thrillseeker, I just really enjoyed his appearances. And also liked that in the revisionist view of his past, he still comes off pretty heroic.

  4. Isaac

    I like Hourman, too, at least under the right writer. He’s good in that Sandman Mystery Theater arc, and he’s really good in The Liberty Files.

  5. Tales to Enrage

    Hourman may not be one of my favorites, but as you’ve said, he’s refreshingly simple in concept, from his creation to the present day. So while I might not look forward to him specifically, I’ve never read a comic and been dismayed to see him. That’s better than some Golden Age characters fare.

  6. Slappy

    The stripe along the trailing edge of his cape gave me the impression that Tyler had simply dyed a bath towel while putting together his outfit.

    DC Archives’ JSA All Stars Vol. 1, which collects the earliest adventures of a hodgepodge of Golden Age icons not considered able to support solo collections, was a real eye-opener to me. Tyler wasn’t just “meek,” he was literally afraid of the dark. I’m surprised he wasn’t too terrified to swallow Miraclo. He also had a ring filled with tear gas, which is just…yikes. (But then, these days Batman’s boot-heel contains enough explosives to demolish a tank, so whatevs.) Was the use of yellow in his costume a deliberate statement?

    Co-created by Bernard Baily (who also dished up The Spectre), Hourman (or Hour-Man or Tick-Tock Tyler the Man of the Hour or Oh My God Just Stop) fought all sorts of baddies from mundane thugs to (other) mad scientists and REAL weirdos like Dr. Glisten, a glowing mesmerist who could command people to stop falling in mid-air. The ever-changing tone and on-the-fly revisions (eventually cowardly Tyler’s whimpering confrontations with his boss and girlfriend were axed in favor of the Minute-Men and whatnot, but at least he didn’t get saddled up with Stretch Skinner or Gabby the Talking Monkey) probably did more to deep-six Hourman’s popularity than anything else. Hourman was a pie taken out of the oven too early; with a little more baking Baily might’ve decided making Rex Tyler a shrieking, submissive-urinating pussy-boy wasn’t an improvement upon Clark Kent after all.

    Modern writers did a lot to flesh out Rex Tyler well (Hourman’s Silver Age appearances usually ignored his alter ego completely), but his son? Annoying as @#$%. “We’re trying to have a meeting here, Rick. You maybe want to pause the nonstop public makeout session? Overcompensation much?”

  7. Tony Goins

    What issues/collections are these images from? I recognize the Sandman Mystery Theater panel, but I’m interested to read more.

    I started reading comics at the end of the 80s, so I missed all that Roy Thomas jazz. I’m familiar with the character strictly through Sandman Mystery Theater, the early 2000s JSA and a few assorted James Robinson joints.

    It’s nice to see the character defined by something other than drug addiction, you know? Or did the junkie thing hit Rick worse than Rex?

  8. Matthew Johnson

    Mike Allred did a terrific Hourman story in his “Solo” book.

  9. bitterandrew

    Tony:

    All-Star Comics #4 (from the first hardcover archive collection)
    Showcase #55
    Starman (1994) #11
    The Golden Age #4

    I’d also recommend (despite the silliness and purple prose) All-Star Squadron #31-35.

  10. Tom Hartley

    All-Star Squadron could have done with more silliness and less purple prose. (Not that I don’t miss the days when it took more than five minutes to read a comic book.)

  11. Chris Gumprich

    Slappy already referenced this, but as a kid I dressed up as Hourman because, hey, he already had a towel for a cape!

    Been a fan of his since first seeing him in JLA #197, one of the few heroes that I didn’t recognize (not having an Earth-1 counterpart).

    Never understood why the damn android was the one who got the series though.

  12. Sumguy

    At first, I was all like, “No screw you Hourman is awesome I will now write a ten page essay about how much you suck”, then I remembered it was Nobody ELSE’S Favorites.
    I like Hourman too. Snazzy outfit, neat gimmick, good stories. His legacies aren’t half bad, either.

  13. Harvey Jerkwater

    Why is Hourman so damn cool? Because he puts his signature weakness right in his superhero name. Now that is an “up yours” to villainy. His name says, “If you can hold me off for an hour, you’ll be able to kill me easily. But you can’t. And we both know it. Bring it.”

    And yeah, how can you not love that stupid-ass costume? It’s beautiful.

  14. Eric F

    I love Hourman. He’s always seemed to me to be one of the great untapped properties in comics. There’s so much there to mine between the addiction material, the pharmaceutical industry connection, the time theme, the ties to the Golden Age, and the legacy hero son that I’m amazed that he’s never gotten a shot at his own title. And the costume is perfect for the very reason that it’s exactly the kind of thing no one would design now (though it does need to be drawn a certain way for it to look good).

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