In 1952, the superhero Radioactive Man appeared on newsstands across America in Boffo Mystery Stories #15.
Well, not really. In actual fact, Radioactive Man is a character in the Simpsons universe and a favorite of Bart Simpson.
But his adventures have also been published in the “real world” by Bongo Comics, and in 2012, HarperCollins collected several adventures in a 272 page hardcover as Radioactive Man Radioactive Repository Volume One.
I first encountered Radioactive Man when I came across a six-issue miniseries published in the 1990s. I almost passed on it, in part because the character looks a bit like Homer Simpson in a superhero costume; but as I recall all six were packaged together and on sale.
I’m glad I bought those issues (and subsequent ones as well), because Radioactive Man is an often hilarious parody not only of superhero comics, but also of real-world events.
The first six issues weren’t numbered 1-6. Instead, they were, respectively, #s 1, 88, 216, 412, 679 and 1000, with fake publication months and years for each issue.
Radioactive Man is really wealthy, layabout playboy Claude Kane III, son of physicist Claude Kane II. When he gets lost and ends up at a nuclear test sight (and fails to see the big sign warning him away), he’s exposed to the energies of the “Mega Bomb.”
Good news: He gains super powers.
Bad news: A lightning bolt-shaped piece of shrapnel gets embedded in the top of his head, meaning Claude must always wear a hat of some sort to protect his secret identity.
References to other comics characters abound in these stories. Claude’s wealth, and the fact that he lives at “Stately Kane Manor”, recalls Batman; his exposure to a bomb at a test site recalls The Incredible Hulk; and his hidden hideaway, “The Containment Dome”, based on an architectural model of a geodesic dome stolen from architect “J. Westminster Fulbright”, recalls Superman’s Arctic Fortress of Solitude.
Okay, in fairness, Claude didn’t steal the model so much as he assumed it was being thrown out because it was sitting at the foot of the steps outside a building.
Radioactive Man later gains a sidekick, Fallout Boy, whose backstory recall Spider-Man in more ways than one. Peter Parker has his infirm Aunt May. Rod Runtledge has his infirm Aunt June. Also, in “Radioactive Man #88” (“dated” May 1962), there are two specific references to Spider-Man. First, Fallout Boy is trapped under heavy machinery, just like Spider-Man was in Amazing Spider-Man #s 32 and 33 from 1966.
Second, in a flashback recounting Fallout Boy’s origin (which he remembers “as if it were just last issue”) at an experiment in radioactivity (“completely safe! Bring the kids!” the sign says), we learn that a “strange glowing spider” landed on Rod’s hand. He promptly flicked it away and as Rod notes, “Ha! It landed on that goofy-looking bookworm and bit him!”
Other comics references include parodies of both The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen in “Radioactive Man #679”, “dated” January 1986.
And “Radioactive Man #1000”, “dated” January 1995, not only shows our hero reverting back to his “long-forgotten Golden Age self”, Radio Man (with an outfit reminiscent of Fawcett Comics’ Captain Marvel), but he also finds himself battling “Radioactive Worm”, an analogue to Captain Marvel villain Mr. Mind, whose “Monster Society of Evil” bedeviled Captain Marvel in a storyline running in Captain Marvel Adventures #s 22-46 from 1942-1944.
Some real world references include a scene in “Radioactive Man #216”, “dated” August 1972, in which Claude Kane, waiting for reporter Gloria Grand, throws away a note for her about a “burglary planned tonight at Demo HQ at Watergate.” He thinks to himself, “Gloria’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist! She didn’t come all the way to Washington to cover a third-rate burglary.”
Nixon (whom Radioactive Man supports) makes several appearances in these comics. In Radioactive Man #1, he’s part of a congressional panel investigating whether certain comics are “anti-American” (a reference to real-world 1954 senate subcommittee on juvenile delinquency, which sought to blame comics, especially those published by William Gaines) for social ills. In Radioactive Man, “William Maimes” is accused of being part of a communist conspiracy. The “overwhelming evidence” being that Radioactive Man found a stack of “Maimes”’ comics in the lab of communist villain Dr. Crab. Radioactive Man subsequently warns Nixon that “subversives are everywhere” and that he might want to install a taping system.
And the so-called “expert”, “Dr. Hedrick Hertzmann” (an analogue of Dr. Fredric Wertham), tells Gloria Grand that “starting immediately, the Cartoon Conduct Code Program will examine every new comic book to make sure it is free of subversive ideas—or any other ideas for that matter.”
For his part, Radioactive Man assures Rod Runtledge that “the Constitution doesn’t protect things that are printed on such crummy paper” and Rod promises to only read “CCCP-approved” comics from then on.
The Cartoon Conduct Code Program is a reference to the Comics Magazine Association of America, an “authority” created by comics publishers to self-sensor themselves (and which has since been abandoned).
Of course “CCCP” is also the Cyrillic abbreviation for the Soviet Union. Another bit of irony.
Radioactive Man Radioactive Repository Volume One offers fun-filled superhero stories made even more fun for those in the know about comics history or history in general. Well worth a read.
Copyright 2013 Patrick Keating