Supermen! The potent, primitive four-color heroes of 1936-41

Greg Sadowski's anthology Supermen!: The First Wave Of Comic Book Heroes 1939-41 pulls together some of the goofiest, most innocent, most violent superhero comics ever penned, excavating rarities from the dawn of the genre when small studios set out to reinvent pulp literature in four colors.

These are heroes from an era of cheerful immorality, when masked heroes like The Clock (apparently the first masked hero) maintained secret identities as "a small time dip and drug addict;" when Yarko, Master of Magic, kidnapped evil hags and took them to hell (beating the hell out of any demons he encounters on the way) so that she can bargain with Satan to restore the girl she killed in a jealous fit; when Fletcher Hanks's demented, idiotic hero Stardust and heroine Fantomah (the first woman super-hero) fought evil with nonsequiturs and a remarkable lack of anatomical accuracy; and when a hero called "The Face" fought crime by donning a fright mask that terrified villains into confessing their bad deeds on the spot.

The forematter (a lovely, insightful, nostalgic essay by Jonathan Lethem) and the afterword (a collection of bibliographic and historical notes on each strip) make perfect bookends for the hot stuff in the middle. This is pure and unadulterated Id, the kind of thing that inspired a moral panic about the corruption of the young. It's every bit as potent today.

Supermen!: The First Wave Of Comic Book Heroes 1939-41