Secret Origins: 1953: The Origin of Red Rocket and Tom Atomic, Chapter 1: The Monster That Ate Sheboygan

by Dan Swanson

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November 23, 1953:

It was terrible — the entire town of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, totally destroyed, burned to the ground, and then… eaten? The entire population, missing and presumed dead, some of them burned to death and then torn apart by massively powerful jaws. And no witnesses. What could have happened?

There had been a terrible storm on Lake Michigan that night, forcing everyone into shelter. Early the next morning, a post office carrier was taking the day’s mail to the Sheboygan office, and all he found was a steaming, smoking ruin.

Once he had conquered his panic and convinced others that something terrible really had happened, investigators were called in. And when they didn’t produce immediate results, in came even more investigators. Closer examination showed that the bite marks found on many of the burned and damaged structures, trees, vehicles, and people were sharp-edged, as if made by a massive beak, rather than ragged as if made by teeth. The monster, whatever it had been, was a sloppy eater; as it had chewed, many chunks and pieces had fallen from its mouth. More than one member of the many rescue teams became violently ill when they discovered these kinds of remains.

Eventually, after several days of investigation, a sort of coherent story emerged. Some very large animal, perhaps a giant crocodile, alligator, or something like a Komodo dragon had crawled from Lake Michigan, set the town on fire, and then followed behind the flames as they died out, smashing anything that remained and making a grotesque meal out of whatever was left. Its footprints were the size of swimming pools, with claws six feet long. The belly of the beast apparently rode about thirty feet above ground, because anything tall that had escaped the fire had been smashed at that height. A tail had dragged through the debris behind the beast.

Herpetologists pointed out a couple of flaws in the crocodilian theory. The beak must have resembled the beak of a parrot: short, triangular, with sharp edges rather than teeth. No known crocodilian had a beak like that. And the tail wasn’t broad enough and didn’t seem long enough to resemble any known crocodilian. Most of the other investigators pointed out that no known crocodilian was well over one-hundred and twenty feet in length or apparently breathed fire, either. Both sides kept arguing long after normal people started worrying about when it might come back and how they could protect themselves.

A few folks wondered if there might be any link between the monster that ate Sheboygan and the UFO scare over northeastern Michigan that same night, but there was really no way to investigate. Perhaps when the monster was captured or killed, more would be found out.

And, of course, it would be captured or killed. Everyone was certain of that. Why, almost anyone or anything might be able to commit an atrocity one time, with the advantage of surprise, but after that, the Marvel Family would be alerted and would certainly prevent the terrible events from recurring. It was just around then that people started to panic, as they finally realized that Captain Marvel and his fellow super-heroes had seemed to have vanished forever. (*)

[(*) Editor’s note: See “The World’s Wickedest Plan,” Shazam! #1 (February, 1973).]

Suddenly, everyone was afraid to venture out on Lake Michigan, or any of the other Great Lakes, for that matter. The Coast Guard pulled a half-dozen destroyers out of the navy mothball fleet and started working frantically to put them back into commission. All of the old stories, rumors, legends, and myths about lake monsters, especially the ones that were reputed to rise up out of the Great Lakes and swallow lake steamers whole during storms, made a comeback. The navy announced that it was sending some submarines into the Great Lakes, and there were a hundred desertions from the ranks of the submariners within a couple of days.

Almost all shipping on the Great Lakes came to a halt. Middle America was shocked to realize how much their lives depended on things shipped via the Great Lakes, as prices immediately started to rise on almost everything. A few foolish or very brave crews on tramp steamers made their fortunes, accepting urgent shipments that no one else dared to transport. Railroads and trucking companies enjoyed tremendous growth, as did shipping on the Mississippi and its tributaries — after all, the experts assured everyone that the fire-breathing, beaked crocodilian was too big to survive in the Mississippi.

By the middle of December, the advancing economic hardship in the Midwest, combined with the Korean War and the trauma caused by the sudden disappearance of the Marvel Family, would give the appearance that the United States was heading into an economic crisis even worse that the Great Depression.


December 12, 1953:

Todd Drake had problems of his own. Two of his best friends, Bulletman and Bulletgirl, had vanished a month ago, and it was time for finals at the University of Chicago. His heart wasn’t really into studying. He wished Tomas Thomas was still going to school here, because Tomas had always found some way to cheer him up and get him going. But Tomas had finished his dual undergraduate degrees during summer school, his enhanced memory having helped him learn three or four times as fast as a normal student.

Tomas had temporarily tabled his desire to build atomic reactors, and he was now working as a trainee at a private detective agency in Chicago. (*) The friends still saw each other each week, but Todd missed his best friend. Lately it had been harder than ever to get hold of Tomas, as he was spending most of his free time on some hush-hush project.

[(*) Editor’s note: See Suspense Detective: Times Past, 1953: Tomas Thomas, P.I.]

When Todd saw the news story about Sheboygan, it made him feel even worse. Why, only a few months ago, Bulletman and Bulletgirl had taken a vacation in Wisconsin, and they had spent several days in Sheboygan. If only they had been there three weeks ago, they might have stopped the disaster. If only, if only…

Realizing that he wasn’t going to be able to study any more today, Todd left the dorm, then drove south to Calumet, where Tomas had a small house near the beach. He brought along the course material he was having problems with, hoping he could perhaps get Tomas to talk over the concepts with him. Sometimes Tomas was able to make things much clearer than any instructor Todd had ever seen.

The roads in Tomas’ neighborhood were almost always closed during the winter, as they usually had several inches of ice covering them, as spray blew off of the lake. People parked in a sheltered lot and then walked to their houses. The beach itself was covered with a scattering of tremendously large rocks — detritus picked up by the glaciers during the last ice age and dropped here when the ice age and the glaciers retreated northward.

Todd walked along the beach, weaving between the rocks. As he approached the house, he heard an unusual noise. Not that the sound of waves on the beach was unusual here, but the noise level quickly grew, and within seconds, Todd thought that the surf noise was louder than standing right next to a locomotive. Turning to look at the lake, he was stunned to see a fifteen-foot wall of water rushing toward him.

A tsunami on Lake Michigan?! It was totally unheard of, and yet that wave was real. He had to warn everyone, so he started yelling at the top of his lungs. By this time the wave was so close, the roar was too loud for him to holler over. He was doomed to be swept away unless he could find something sturdy to hold on to.

He saw a couple of rocks that seemed to offer him the best hope of survival, and ran to them. A very large boulder, larger than Tomas’ house, in fact, would prevent this wave from crashing down on top of him. And close by was another rock that looked like the stump of a tree. He hoped this rock was just the extension of a much larger boulder buried beneath the sand.

With a roar louder than anything he had ever heard before, the wave crested against his sheltering rock. As Todd had counted on, it was tall enough that the wave washed around it rather than over the top. This wasn’t as big a win as Todd had hoped, though. Ice-cold water battered at him from both sides, and it would be over his head in seconds. He barely had time to take a deep breath, and then he lunged for his stump and quickly wrapped both his arms and legs around it. Apparently it was attached to something much bigger, as Todd wasn’t washed away.

He could feel the water pressure build as the highest point of the wave passed over him, and then lessened. The force of the wave had bashed him against his anchor, which had forced out about half the air he was trying to hold, and his lungs were starting to burn. He also realized that he was starting to lose feeling in his limbs due to the cold. If this wave didn’t recede soon, he was a goner.

But that would cut the story short, wouldn’t it? In less than another minute, the water level was low enough that Todd could breathe again. In another few seconds, he was able to release his grip. He quickly looked toward the lake to see if he was going to have to live through another battering like that, but the water was almost calm now.

He figured that Tomas’ house must have been demolished, but he was wrong. Most of the nearby houses were virtually unaffected. People around here were used to fifteen-foot waves, although they usually only occurred during violent storms. The houses were all cunningly arranged so that any giant wave would have to batter its way past at least two of the giant rocks on the beach before they reached any of the houses, and the houses were all built on stilts that kept them a good five feet off the beach. About a quarter-mile away, he could see that some buildings had collapsed. He decided to see if Tomas was all right, and then see if he could offer assistance to anyone.

Running up to the front door of the house, which faced away from the beach, Todd pounded on it. As Tomas answered the door, he was in the process of putting on some kind of red and blue costume. Seeing Todd, he pulled him into the living room, and then threw him a bundle of red and yellow cloth.

“Quick! There are people who need our help! Put this on!” As he said this, Tomas pulled on a mask.

“What is it, anyway?” Todd asked, shaking out the bundle.

“It’s your Red Rocket costume. (*) C’mon, hurry!”

[(*) Editor’s note: See Whiz: Times Past, 1953: The New Adventures of Bulletboy, Chapter 7: Red Rocket.]

“Tomas, you know I don’t want to be a super-hero! I’ll just go along and help as plain old Todd Drake.”

“Todd, we are going to have to fly to rescue some of these folks! You can give the costume back later, but don’t argue with me right now!”

Seeing the wisdom of this, Todd acquiesced. It would be helpful to be able to fly if they had to rescue someone from the icy waters of the lake. Much of the costume looked at least vaguely familiar, and he started pulling it on. But something was missing.

“Uh, Tomas, I hate to be negative, but I need the gravity helmet to fly.”

“I’ve made improvements. The circuits are now part of your utility belt. But you control it the same way. Except for some additions I’ve made, you control it exactly the same as you did the gravity helmet.”

When he was finished putting on the costume, Todd was left holding a red visor. “Uh, Tomas, what’s this?”

“Don’t worry about it now; it’s one of these extras I told you about. You can do without it for now. Hook it through the utility belt, and let’s go!”

Todd did that, and then leaped into the air. Tomas was right; he did control this suit exactly as he had controlled the gravity helmet. He was unsurprised to see Tomas floating next to him. “I’m heading that way,” Todd said, pointing to the nearest collapsed building.

“OK, I’ll check the water and then come to help you.” Tomas flew back into his house and emerged a few seconds later, carrying a young lady. “I’ll introduce you later!” He the flew into the nearby boathouse, where boats were typically drawn up a ramp into the interior, and then lifted onto racks.

“Aki, stand back! I’m going to put your boat into the water!” He put her down, ran to a wooden runabout, and, barely straining, picked it up off the rack and put it into the water. He and Aki quickly gathered as many life jackets as they could find, and Tomas grabbed two coils of rope. As Aki climbed into the boat, Tomas tied one of the ropes to the bow of the boat and started towing it out onto the lake. By the time Aki had the motor running, they were about a hundred feet offshore. Todd threw his end of the line to Aki, and she tied it onto a life preserver ring.

Tomas flew northwest along the coastline for about a half-mile. Nobody lived near the lake in that area, and it was several miles before the shore started being populated again. He then dropped one end of the line into the lake and tied the other around his waist. He started to slowly fly back toward Aki and her boat. Each time he would spot someone in the water, he would drag the rope so that the new person could grab hold, and then flew onward. By the time he reached Aki and the motorboat, there were seven people holding onto his lifeline. Aki had moved the boat southeast, and she had picked up another four. Tomas helped them all into the boat. On the south side of the little settlement, it was about fifteen miles to the next beach-side settlement, so Aki headed the boat back to the boathouse.

Tomas flew to where Todd was trying to extricate people from the wreckage of a collapsed house. Todd was having problems trying to move the larger pieces of debris — the Red Rocket suit had power and to spare, but Todd had to wrap his arms around things before he could life them, and some of them were too heavy for his arms and hands. Tomas changed that.

Working quickly but carefully, the two costumed heroes cleared enough debris to rescue everyone they could, and then they moved on to the next collapsed house, and then the next. In an hour they were done — there was nobody left to rescue nearby. They flew back to Tomas’ house, where they found that Aki had set up a soup kitchen and was serving bowls of hot soup to anyone who needed something, rescued and rescuers alike. By now, the fire department had arrived, and they were tending to the wounded. For the moment, their job was done.

Todd turned to Tomas. “Nice costume! What do you call yourself?”

Tomas struck a bodybuilder’s pose, flexing both arms. “Red Rocket, meet Tom Atomic!”

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