Despite being arguably the most powerful character in the DC Universe, Johnny Thunder’s strip was much more of a comedy series than a super-hero one. His origin story is elaborate to the point of absurdity, as he is kidnapped as an infant and brought to the Pacific island of Badhnesia, where he is given a magic belt to wear for seven years, after an arcane ceremony in a native temple. Still a child, he sails away from the island and is picked up by a passing freighter, whose captain just happens to bring him onto a streetcar being operated by Johnny’s father, who recognizes his long-missing son. The end result of all of this is that when Johnny says the magic words “cei-u” (which sounds like “say you” in English), a magic Thunderbolt appears, and makes any wish Johnny has come true.
The series tends towards slapstick, and there are as many tales with no villains as with them. Often, Johnny misadventures simply play out without having to solve a crime. Johnny’s honesty and earnestness keep the reader on his side, while his gullibility, and lack of sense, make his use of the Thunderbolt far less omnipowerful than it could be. I should also mention that for much of the first year the series itself is called Johnny Thunderbolt, though the character is never called this.
The earliest stories are the most fun, as Johnny has no idea that he even has this power. Throughout his run he is constantly in search of work, hoping to impress Daisy Darling, and one day marry her. Johnny lives at home on Long Island with his parents.
At first the Thunderbolt is not even seen. Johnny makes wishes, often unwise, and they just come true, like saying “well, blow me down” and having the person then do that.
While unaware of his powers, Johnny gets and loses a job in a department store, becomes a professional boxer, and then a G-Man. It only only after he gets fired from that in Flash Comics 7, after helping a foreign spy escape, that we begin to really see and hear the Thunderbolt. Even still, its progression from a bolt of pink lightning to an anthropomorphic being with a distinct face, three little bolts as “hair”, a human looking upper body and lightning tail takes a very long time. Each issue the Thunderbolt gets a little more human-ish looking, reaching its final form in Flash Comics 21.
By All-Star 2 Johnny realizes that the things he says come true, but still has no idea that he has to utter “cei-u” first. He attempts to protect Daisy’s father from mobsters out to destroy the building he is constructing, succeeding only by fluke. He realizes he can order the Thunderbolt to do specific things, rather than have it act on whims, in Flash Comics 11, and then spends a few issues as a fireman before getting fired from that job for the chaos he (actually the Thunderbolt) causes.
In World’s Finest 2, which pre-dates the attack on Pearl Harbour, Johnny joins the army, but again the Thunderbolt creates such mayhem that he gets kicked out.
Flash Comics 21 introduces Peachy Pet, a hideous looking obnoxious orphan child that Johnny adopts. Peachy really takes the series into slapstick territory, pretty much taking the lead in the next few stories. In issue after issue she causes massive damage, which Johnny consistently gets blamed for. On the plus side, she is a wonderful skewed version of the orphan sidekick boys that had become a must for super-heroes, but even still, she overpowers the stories. Considering that the all-powerful Thunderbolt didn’t even do that, it’s really saying something. This is also the issue in which Johnny knows that his magic words are “cei-u.” There was no moment shown when he figured it out, but really, it had been almost two years, even a boy as dense as Johnny would clue in by now.
In these stories Johnny often forgets that he has the Thunderbolt, until Peachy reminds him towards the end of the tale. Issues 23- 26 see him get into massive debt to Mrs. Ethelmere Van Der Vander, who has the ability to approve or decline his adoption of Peachy, but this entire plotline simply gets dropped with no resolution.
Johnny and Peachy head to Brazil for issues 26 and 27, and Peachy now has a dog, Snuffles, whose thoughts can be read. This really seemed unnecessary, Johnny was getting lost amid all the comedic additions to his series, but the dog was apparently left behind in Brazil, as we don’t see it again.
In issue 32, following the attack on Pearl Harbour, Johnny joins the navy. I had hoped that would reduce Peachy’s role in the series, but she stows away on his ship, and after being discovered becomes the crew’s mascot. There is definitely more action and less slapstick in the navy stories, which last until Johnny gets an honourable discharge in issue 53. Peachy usually gets the credit, though Thunderbolt does the work, as they capture Nazi subs and spies. Johnny is simply treated like dirt by the rest of the crew, and by Peachy, and even by the Thunderbolt.
In issue 42 the Thunderbolt returns to Badhnesia, finding it under Japanese occupation, and brings Johnny along to help oust them. The Thunderbolt will occasionally obey Peachy as well, particularly if Johnny is not around, or unconscious.
The final two stories of the period are billed “Johnny Thunder and Peachy Pet,” but this is inaccurate, as Peachy gets to go solo in the adventures. Needless to say, these take the series back to its slapstick days.
Johnny Thunder continues in the Late Golden Age
Johnny Thunder: Flash Comics 1 – 55
New York World’s Fair 1940
All-Star 2 (Fall 40)
World’s Best 1 (Spring 41)
World’s Finest 2 – 3 (Summer – Fall 41)