Dr. Occult

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Dr. Occult

Dr. Occult is a Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster character in More Fun Comics; Siegel and Shuster are the creators of Superman, of course. Dr. Occult is a detective who solves supernatural mysteries. Such supernatural detectives have long roots in prose fiction. English writers, with their fondness for ghost stories, created several of them in the early 1900's, and there has been a small but steady production of such tales ever since. In these stories, the supernatural is treated as genuine. Both the mysterious situation and its solution are fully supernatural in nature. This is a complete contrast to the pure mystery genre of Weird Menace, in which apparently supernatural crimes are explained away at the solution as ingenious hoaxes by bad guys, using purely natural, non-supernatural means. While I love Weird Menace tales, I know very little about supernatural detectives, or any other branch of ghost fiction. So I am unable to place Siegel and Shuster's Dr. Occult stories into any sort of historical context, or suggest where they stand within the evolution of ghost story-detection hybrids.

Dr. Occult shares features with other Siegel and Shuster detectives of the 1940's. He works closely with the police, and his stories usually take place in modern day urban America. The urban architecture, streets and cars in the stories mark them instantly as Shuster's work. Dr. Occult is not especially ethereal looking. He is instead a macho man, big and broad shouldered, who looks a lot like Slam Bradley and Bart Regan (of Spy). Like them, he tends to be well dressed in good suits. He also wears stylish overcoats and hats, and looks like a well dressed he-man of the 1930's. At home he wears white shirts and dressing gowns. Later on in the series, he is given a glamorous girlfriend named Rose Psychic (you gotta love that name). The two get dressed in evening clothes and go to a night club, in "The Lord of Life" Part 2 (#21, June 1937).

The Dr. Occult tales began with #6 (October 1935), and ended in More Fun Comics with #32 (June 1938). The series then moved to All-Star Squadron.

The Werewolf (1936). A man named Westy who is cursed to turn into a werewolf against his will comes to Dr. Occult for help. Nicely done little three part story. Each part is only two pages, the typical length of all stories in More Fun Comics at this time. Each part tells a complete episode however, and Siegel shows logic and concision in his storytelling construction.

The werewolf myth is among the most conventional supernatural ideas employed in the Dr. Occult tales. Siegel was often a lot more way out in his supernatural concepts. The story is also among the most cheerful of the tales; much of the rest of the series is pretty grim. The story reflects the Depression atmosphere of the time, with Westy and other characters being out of work men living in great poverty.

Koth and the Seven, Part 3 (#16, December 1936). Dr. Occult journeys within the Ether-World, a mystic dimension in which he meets both good and bad beings of great magical power, and where he has a mystic belt that gives him fantastic powers such as flying. This story (part 3 of the series) tells the origin of the villain Koth, how he became an enemy of humanity in the ancient past, and how he has warred with humanity through the centuries. Counterpoised to Koth are the Seven, ancient magicians who are good, and who form allies to Dr. Occult. The Seven anticipate other wise old men who form all-knowing organizations for good: for instance the Guardians of the Universe in John Broome's Captain Comet and Silver Age Green Lantern stories.

The whole "Koth and the Seven" series is a complete change of pace for Dr. Occult. He travels within a magical world, and wears a mystic belt, that allows him to fly and which gives him other fantastic powers. Today we would say that he is a prototype super-hero. This tale appeared a year and a half before the first publication of Superman, the first great super-hero. It must have seemed spectacularly strange back then to contemporary readers. Even now, it is distinctly off trail. Unlike later super-heroes, such as Superman and his many successors, Dr. Occult does not use these powers in our world, but rather in the fantastic Ether-World.

Shuster gets Dr. Occult into completely different clothes for this adventure. Gone is the sharp suit he usually wore on Earth. Instead, he is in a cape, and the mystic belt, and brandishes a sword. He looks a lot like the medieval figures found in sword and sorcery tales. The cape anticipates Superman's cape. Dr. Occult's chest is bare; artists in the early More Fun Comics seized every opportunity to get their heroes out of their shirts.

Siegel and Shuster apparently created Superman years before they were able to sell him to the comics in 1938. So Superman might already have been fully in existence in the Siegel and Shuster shop at the time of this story. It is hard to say whether Superman influenced this Dr. Occult story, or vice versa.

"Koth and the Seven" is quite remarkable for the ideas it contains. However, it does not seem to me to be that much fun as a reading experience. This particular episode (Part 3) is especially idea rich, with the century-spanning origin of Koth told, and with Dr. Occult experimenting with his belt's super-powers for the first time.