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The Gray Seal: Superhero Prototype

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Jimmie Dale, aka the Gray Seal, was created by author Frank L. Packard in 1914. This predated comic books, and we were still a couple of decades away from Superman and Batman. However, Jimmie Dale used many elements that would later be used as the building blocks for the comic book superheroes.

Jimmie was a rich playboy who was well educated, and had both a butler and a chauffeur. His father was a safe maker, and to pass the time Jimmie would break into safes, not taking anything but leaving behind a gray paper seal shaped like a diamond to show that he was there. He was just proving to the world that no safe was uncrackable. However, he ran into a hiccup when a woman known to him only as Tocsin begins to send him letters to let him know that she is aware of his identity and exploits. She blackmails him into fighting crime.


As for the elements of the Gray Seal that would influence later crime fighters, there were many. There was the fact that the Gray Seal wore a mask to hide his identity. He was a master of disguise and took on alternate identities, such as Larry the Bat and Smarlinghue, just as Batman would later disguise himself as Matches Malone. The Gray Seal had a girdle with pockets that held the tool he used, a utility belt if you will. He had a secret hideout called the Sanctuary, though his lair was not in a cave or in the Arctic, but in a building in Bowery.

The Gray Seal would carry a gun, but only used it for intimidation, and had a strict code against killing. His war on crime was mostly focused on a group of gangsters known as the Crime Club. They were formidable enemies, even discovering the location of the Sanctuary and burning it down. The Gray Seal stories were collected into books, and stories were published until 1935, just before Superman came on the scene and changed heroes forever.

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While some of the pulp heroes made the transition to comics, like the Shadow, and many others made comebacks in TV and movie properties like Tarzan and John Carter, the Gray Seal faded into history with the advent of the superhero crowd. There was a movie serial made of his adventures in 1917. Walt Disney was a big fan and tried many times to get a television series going based on the character like he had done for Zorro. He could never get the networks interested though, and so the project never came to anything.

So, the Gray Seal was destined to become more obscure as time went on, joining the likes of Doc Savage and the Scarlet Pimpernel as characters that had a huge influence on modern superheroes, but never quite getting the recognition they deserve.

© 2022 Gracchus Gruad

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