In 1941, the entity we now know as DC Comics instigated what would amount to a 12-year legal battle against Fawcett Comics, publisher of the Big Red Cheese, Captain Marvel. Billy Batson’s alter ego was far and away the most popular superhero of the 1940s, his adventures and those of the Marvel Family of characters Fawcett spun off into titles of their own (Captain Marvel, Jr., Mary Marvel, Hoppy the Marvel Bunny, and more), racking up sales of millions of comics every month. The kids couldn’t get enough of Captain Marvel, prompting Fawcett to bring the hero to other media, resulting in the character’s status as the very first comic book superhero translated to film. When sales of the Marvel Family titles outstripped those of Superman, DC Comics took notice and sued the rival publisher for copyright infringement. When the dust settled on the protracted legal battle, Fawcett decided to bow out with whatever grace they could muster, primarily due to the fact that sales of superhero comics had been steadily declining and the idea of throwing more money and resources at a group of fading characters didn’t seem like all that sound of an economic strategy.
The collateral damage in this hard-fought war was Marvel Family artist and art director, Charles Clarence Beck. The mega-popularity of the characters under his purview afforded the artist the ability to open a number of studios with which to produce their adventures. When the characters vanished into oblivion, Beck was devastated to the point where he, much like Fawcett, deemed it wise to just throw in the towel on comics. Thankfully, in the late ’60s, he was lured back by his Captain Marvel buddy, Otto Binder, patron saint of ridiculous comics. Together, they crafted the short-lived adventures of one of comics most oddball heroes: Fatman, the Human Flying Saucer!
Fatman, the Human Flying Saucer #1
Written by Otto Binder
Illustrated by C. C. Beck
Published April, 1967 by Lightning Comics/Milson Publications
Sole scion of the wealthy Crawford family, portly Van Crawford whiles away his days cultivating rare tropical plants, collecting stamps and puppets, bird watching and, as his gargantuan girth would attest, eating. Van is constantly chided by his parents for wasting his life on frivolous pursuits, but what they don’t know is that their oversized offspring is secretly Fatman, porcine purveyor of justice…and donuts!
One day while bird watching, Van’s life was changed forever when he spied a flying saucer on the fritz. Believing the craft to be on the verge of a terrible crash, Van used his tremendous weight to fell a tree, giving the wobbly saucer bunches of leafy boughs with which to cushion the impact. Turns out the ordeal was a ruse perpetrated by a benevolent alien pilot in order to gauge Van’s empathy for the plight of a stranger. The only human to pass the test, Van was given a chocolate drink that granted him the ability, like the denizens of the planet from which the alien originated, to transform into a human flying saucer!
Frequently breaking for food, Fatman tests his powers while in saucer form, finding his abilities near-limitless. He can travel at speeds up to mach 20, intercept radio signals, use his radar dish to summon illusions, fire lasers, disperse clouds by becoming an electrostatic precipitator, employ his great speed to summon tornadoes, and more. After foiling the plans of crime boss, Zero Zero, to steal an experimental aircraft and squashing the Jet Gang’s supersonic spree, the heavyweight hero meets the issue’s most engaging (and beautifully designed) villain, the aquatic Anti-Man, Enemy of Mankind!
The sole survivor of a once-mighty race of benevolent sea creatures, Anti-Man saw his people decimated at the hands of the brutal and warlike homo sapiens. Retreating to the darkest depths of the sea, Anti-Man came into contact with a cache of radioactive waste, gaining tremendous powers and abilities. Vowing to eliminate the scourge of humankind from the face of the planet, Anti-Man makes a beeline for Van Crawford’s yacht, grabs the hefty hero’s fishing line, and pulls Fatman down into the murky depths. In his element, Anti-Man has Fatman on the ropes (Apparently, our hero requires oxygen even when in saucer form), but the foolhardy villain chases his prey to the surface, and that’s when the tide turns. One freeze ray and a couple laser blasts later, and Fatman’s foe retreats from whence he came. Thankfully, this is not the last time we see Anti-Man this issue.
In Fatman Meets Tinman, scrawny Lucius Pindle takes center stage. Ridiculed by his peers because of this excruciatingly slight frame, Pindle sought to beef up his bod by any means possible. When training and chemicals proved to be a bust, he grabbed a conveniently-placed ancient tome from his bedroom bookshelf, read a passage aloud, and was bestowed the powers of the Shining Knight! The ladies love the Tinman. Methinks it has something to do with the new shape he’s taken on…
During the obligatory power-testing phase, Lucius finds that he has been given superhuman strength, more than enough to lift 500 pounds and, get this, propel himself into the upper atmosphere! After he splashes down into the ocean (attracting the attention of the irascible Anti-Man; Doesn’t this guy have anything better to do?), Tinman is struck by lightning and has his brains scrambled. Fatman enters the picture, sees his city in a shambles and, you guessed it, thinks the devastation was caused by Tinman. During the inevitable battle, the ancient spell wears off, transforming Tinman back to skinny ol’ Lucius Pindle, who reveals that he had nothing to do with the destruction. If he didn’t, then who did? Yep, nasty ol’ Anti-Man, who tries to get the drop on the do-gooders but is beaten back into the sea thanks to the Human Flying Saucer’s lasers. As expected, Fatman and Tinman vow to join forces in the war against crime. I’d call this team-up a 10!
In the final tale, Fatman actually seeks out Anti-Man to help him train Tinman for the rigors of crimefighting. The two throw down, each winning one match and fighting to a draw on the third. Fatman then asks Anti-Man to join his war on crime, to which the feisty fish-man…agrees? Wait a minute! What happened to Anti-Man’s, “KREE-GAH! DEATH TO ALL HUMANS!”? Turns out his soul-searing story was a total barefaced lie, as admitted by Anti-Man’s wife, who enters the proceedings while ordering her husband (whose real name we learn is Finneus) home to feed their children!
Lightning Comics sure delivered a very high return on readers’ investments. The first issue featured a Fan-Man Feedback text page (containing bios of the creative team during which editorial made every effort to link Fatman to the duo’s previous work on Captain Marvel, teasers for upcoming Fatman storylines, and more; basically, a Bullpen Bulletins page, rife with Lee’s trademark hyperbole), a Fatman Speaks! letters page (photostat copies of the first issue were dispersed to fans in the New York area), a continuation of Otto Binder’s syndicated Our Space Age one-panel strip in which the writer examines real-world UFO encounters (Shush, skeptics!), a page of jokes (editorial supposedly paid $5 for each winning submission), and a double-page Fatman poster. All told, Fatman, the Human Flying Saucer #1 contained five stories totaling 52 pages of C. C. Beck art. Not too shabby a deal for a quarter.