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?