He was almost the first superhero of the Marvel Age of Comics. But, appropriately enough, he took a wrong turn and vanished.
I first encountered Jack Kirby’s fascinating Invisible Man in the second and final Strange Tales Annual (Sept. 1963), but that was a reprint from Strange Tales 67 (Feb. 1959).
I Was the Invisible Man! is the first-person narrative of scientist Adam Clayton, who creates a device that will accelerate his atomic structure and permit him to move at invisible super speed.
Operating (credibly for once) through a secret identity, Clayton at first does good deeds, thwarting a bank robbery and saving a pedestrian from a falling safe. But his actions as what the headlines call “the Invisible Man” become more arrogant and erratic. He interferes with a prize fight and strips the tires from a “hot rodder’s” speeding car for fun.
Building up the Invisible Man’s reputation, Clayton intends to cash in on his powers and become rich and powerful — but never gets the chance. A glance in his bathroom mirror reveals, to his horror, that his super speed has aged him 40 years. He is nearly finished.
“It was too late to regret my foolish desires for riches,” he thinks. “It was too late to reach back and use the valuable time I’d wasted to perfect my formula for mankind’s benefit. Yes, that’s a job for a young man — a much wiser young man than I was.”
The morose old man is nearly run over by a truck because he’s distracted and slow.
“It was an ironic and somehow fitting end to my career as the Invisible Man — who could have weaved in front of a dozen speeding trucks!” he thinks. “A selfish man is a careless man who has lost sight of the values that count — and in turn, loses everything.”
In the 1940s or the 1960s, Adam Clayton might easily have become a superhero. But DC’s Golden Age Flash had vanished almost a decade before and the Silver Age Flash wouldn’t get his own title until that very month.
During the more conventional 1950s, several concepts that had once been used to springboard superheroes were recycled for use as horror or science fiction plots — winged aliens who recalled Hawkman, flaming monsters that resembled the Human Torch, invisible SOBs who were like the Whizzer.
The tale echoed, perhaps unconsciously, the myth of the Ring of Gyges recounted in Plato’s Republic.
Like Tolkien’s One Ring, this magical device permitted the wearer to become invisible at will. The point of the myth is that by freeing the wearer from the fear of punishment or disgrace, the ring would necessarily corrupt anyone who wore it, morality being merely a social construct. Superhumans could not be trusted.
But Socrates argued that justice is more than a social construct, and that the wearer who abused such a power would end up a miserable slave to his appetites. A wise person would refuse such a ring and, by remaining rationally in control of himself, be happier, Socrates said.
In other words, with great power comes great danger.