What would a superhero be without a plucky, pint-sized partner? What would a villain be with no obedient underlings? What would the landscape of superhero comics look like if there were no sidekicks—or their felonious equivalents, henchpersons?
The answer to this last question is: “Roughly the same.” Nothing requires heroes to pick up a junior partner, or villains to acquire a minion or two. Many high-profile comic book characters do well without them. Nevertheless, sidekicks bring something different to the average super-powered grudge match between good and evil. Sometimes it’s humor, sometimes it’s vulnerability, sometimes it’s merely someone with whom the lead character can share a confidence or two. As superfluous as they may seem at first glance, sidekicks serve a valuable role in their senior partners’ stories.
They also serve a long tradition. The pulp magazines, radio shows, and dime novels that preceded comics produced a veritable army of underlings and assistants. The Lone Ranger and Green Hornet had Tonto and Kato; the Shadow had his sprawling network of secret operatives. Fu Manchu commanded the Si-Fan assassins. And the concept goes back even further, into literature and mythology: Don Quixote’s Sancho Panza; Robin Hood’s Merry Men; even the hairy wild man Enkidu of the Gilgamesh myth. If anything, comics were late to the game when it came to including these characters in stories.
Belated as they may have been, comics take that existing concept and crank the weirdness volume up to eleven. Beyond traditional costumed kid partners, the assistant heroes and adjunct villains covered in this volume range in age from childhood to dotage; they include men, women, children, animals, robot, and . . . other
. Some sport colorful costumes, others make do with street clothes. They are wards, junior partners, peers, and pals, but they are also fiends, creeps, and monstrous menaces. Sidekicks might be pets, imps, romantic partners, troublesome relatives, and all sorts of unlikely underlings.
Of course, not every creation hits a home run. Many of the junior crime busters, super-pets, underlings, and goons-for-hire you’ll meet in these pages are poorly thought-out, mistimed, or generally offensive. But so many more were worthy, if weird, ideas just executed in the wrong place or time. At the very least, they are all fascinating snapshots of what might have been. So, as with the other books in this series, please be aware that the term regrettable
is used loosely and with affection.
Few sidekicks graduate to solo status. For every Winter Soldier (formerly Captain America’s sidekick Bucky) or Nightwing (once Batman’s boy partner Robin), there are a few hundred Peeps, Zooks, Ungghs, Blargos, Monster Men, Gaggies, Ittys, Klonsbons, Bingos, and Dandies who spend their entire career in another character’s shadow. Accordingly, within these pages, let’s celebrate the second bananas on their own merits. They never enjoyed top billing, but they can at least enjoy this fleeting moment in the sun.The Golden Age 1938-1949
As with many trends in mainstream comics, it is Batman who is generally credited with launching the tradition of costumed kid sidekicks. The debut of Robin the Boy Wonder in 1940 opened the floodgates to literally hundreds of other junior superheroes—a new category in the expansive history of the sidekick.
But sidekicks were a presence even before Robin swung onto the scene. Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, partnered their roughneck detective Slam Bradley with a comical, would-be Sherlock-style sleuth Shorty Morgan (1937). They also created the mystical Dr. Occult and his adept assistant, Rose (1935). Meanwhile, Bob Kane spent part of his pre-Batman days drawing the funny animal adventures of Peter Pupp, accompanied by his sidekick Tinymite (1938). Likewise, the bad guys filled their staffing needs, generally preferring insidious monsters, robots, and thugs to the individual sidekick.
The annals of Golden Age sidekickery were awash with not just costumed kids but also with middle-aged men (largely of the working-class variety) and even elderly grandfather types. Heroes were backed by spirits, imps, genies, and mythological gods. Not to mention dogs, cats, parrots, hawks, tigers, lions, chimps, monkeys, gorillas, and every other type of animal.
The buoyant energy of the Golden Age of comics owed much to the fact that both the medium and the superhero genre were brand-new. It was a period of pure invention, and a spectrum of sidekicks was just part of the plenitude.The Agatha Detective Agency
Generally speaking, heroes choose
their sidekicks and pretty much every element of the partnership. The sidekick’s costume, their code name, whether or not they get to fight crime during a particular case or on a school night—that’s all the purview of the senior partner.
Heroes also decide whether they even want
a sidekick. Less-experienced or less-able partners can be a hindrance more than a help, after all. But sometimes the hero doesn’t have a choice. Sometimes the sidekicks decide.
This is how electricity-packed paladin Captain Future finds himself associated with the Agatha Detective Agency. Founded by Grace Adams—the captain’s girlfriend in his civilian identity, Dr. Andrew Bryant—and funded by the group’s only other member, Grace’s wealthy Aunt Agatha, the agency consistently finds itself embroiled in the captain’s adventures and even inspires several exploits in the course of their investigations.
Captain Future meets the agency’s operatives even before they form their two-woman business. Enjoying an ocean cruise, Dr. Bryant stumbles across a kidnapping ring run by a gang of jewel thieves. Their target: Grace’s Aunt Agatha, whom one crook describes as “an old maid . . . with all the jewels and money in the world!”
They consider her an easy target, but Agatha is far from a fainting dowager, actively pursuing cases and taking on goons twice her size armed with only an umbrella. When her niece is tricked into the clutches of the kidnappers—as Agatha had been, ironically—Agatha fusses angrily: “Might have known that idiot Grace’d fall for it! Now I’ve got to save us both!”
In fact Captain Future does the saving, despite the lack of respect he receives from his girlfriend. Dr. Bryant apparently emerged from the Clark Kent school of secret identities, faking timidity and mild manners in order to obfuscate his dual life. Unfortunately, Bryant ultimately pales in comparison to his alter ego—which Grace does not let him forget.
“Gosh, Grace . . . ,” Bryant comments, “Captain Future certainly threw his strength around this time!”
“Oh, Andy,” replies Grace, “if only he’d throw a bit of it your way!”
The Agatha Detective Agency struggles to find clients, but they account for themselves terrifically over roughly a year’s worth of appearances. With Captain Future’s assistance, they break up a truck-hijacking ring, stop a secret society of masked killers, and disrupt the illegal activities of every type of crook from bookies to Bundists.
In the end, the work proves too overwhelming for Agatha. Storming out of the office, she announces, “I don’t want to hear another word! This . . . this detective business has got me down!” As she leaves, umbrella in hand, she hollers over her shoulder, “I’m going to consult a psychiatrist . . . before I go crazy myself!” Grace runs the agency for a few more issues before the endeavor shutters for good.
Copyright © 2018 by Jon Morris. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.