Monday, August 14, 2017

American Patriotic Superheroes of the Forties

On September 1 1939 Nazi Germany invaded Poland. It was on September 3 1939, after Nazi Germany ignored a demand from the United Kingdom to withdraw troops from Poland, that the United Kingdom, France, and Australia declared war on Nazi Germany. In the United States the majority of Americans opposed the nation entering the war. It would not be until December 8 1941, after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbour the previous day, that the United States would enter World War II. They would declare war on Nazi Germany a few days later, on December 11 1941.

While the United States would not enter World War II until 1941, a majority of Americans were hostile towards Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. And while a majority of Americans still favoured a course of non-interventionism, there were those who thought the United States should enter the war against Nazi Germany. It should then come as no surprise that patriotically themed superheroes began appearing in American comic books well before the U.S. entered World War II or that there would be a plethora of them following the nation's entry into the war. Strangely enough, the most popular patriotic superheroes with the most longevity all appeared before the United States entered the war.

Indeed, the first patriotically themed superhero appeared nearly two years before the attack on Pearl Harbour. The Shield was the creation of writer Harry Shorten and artist Irv Novick. He first appeared in Pep Comics #1 (January 1940), published by MLJ Comics (the company that would later become Archie Comics). The Shield was chemistry student Joe Higgins, the son of Lieutenant Tom Higgins, who was working on a formula that would give people super-strength for the United States military. Unfortunately, the Nazis wanted the formula and killed Tom in an act of sabotage. Joe continued to develop the formula on his own and, once completed, used it on himself. He then took to fighting crime and the enemies of America as The Shield, dressed in a suitably patriotic costume.

The Shield proved to be MLJ's most popular superhero. He was featured on the cover of Pep Comics for several years. With Pep Comics #15 May 1941 he received his own fan club, the Shield G-Man Club. From summer 1940 to winter 1944 he also shared his own title with another superhero, The Wizard: Shield-Wizard Comics. Unfortunately for The Shield, the popularity of teen humour character Archie was such that Archie eventually forced The Shield entirely off the covers of Pep Comics with issue #51 (December 1944). The Shield would continue for another four years in the pages of Pep Comics before ending his original run in 1948.

The Shield would not remain the only patriotically themed superhero for long. As a national personification of the United States, Uncle Sam has existed since around 1810. It was legendary comic book artist and writer Will Eisner who took Uncle Sam and turned him into a superhero. Uncle Sam first appeared in National Comics #1 (July 1940), published by Quality Comics. Uncle Sam was the spirit of a slain Revolutionary War soldier who returned any time his country was in need of him. He proved to be a fairly popular character and received his own magazine, Uncle Sam Quarterly in September 1941. Uncle Sam would continue to appear in the pages of National Comics until #45 1944. His own magazine, Uncle Sam Quarterly, continued for 8 issues until September 1943, after which it was renamed Blackhawk and given over to another wartime hero.

While the superhero Uncle Sam has largely been forgotten by all but comic books fans, Captain America would become the second most famous and second most popular patriotic superhero after Wonder Woman. Created by the legendary team of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, the character would appear to owe a little bit to the original patriotic superhero, The Shield. Captain America was Steve Rogers, a tall, frail, young man born to a poor family on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Disturbed by the rise of Nazi Germany, he tried to enlist in the United States Army but was rejected as being too thin. Steve then volunteered as a test subject for a top secret project that would transform him into a super-soldier. Injected with a special serum, Steve Rogers found he had super-strenghth and enhanced reflexes. He then became Captain America, fighting the Axis powers in a red, white, and blue costume. He was equipped with a bullet-proof shield.

Captain America's original shield would create a bit of conflict with John Goldwater of MLJ Comics, who thought the shield bore too close a resemblance to their character The Shield's breastplate on his costume. Martin Goodman, publisher of the company that would evolve into the modern day Marvel Comics, then had Joe Simon and Jack Kirby redesign Cap's shield. The end result was the circular shield used by Captain America today.

Captain America was introduced in his very own title, Captain America Comics #1 (March 1941). That same issue marked the first appearance of his archenemy, The Red Skull. Originally The Red Skull was an American Nazi sympathiser, George Maxon, owner of Maxon Aircraft Company. In Captain America Comics #7 (October 1941), however, it was revealed that Maxon was merely a pawn of the real Red Skull, a Nazi agent named Johann Schmidt.

Captain America proved phenomenally popular, but the character also proved to be a source of controversy. At the time Captain America first appeared the United States was several months away from declaring war on Nazi Germany. The cover of the first issue featured Captain America punching Adolph Hitler. While they were a minority at the time, there were Nazi sympathisers in the United States in 1941 and they were angry about this new patriotic superhero. The offices of Timely Comics were inundated with angry letters and hateful phone calls. Eventually suspicious, threatening-looking men were seen outside their offices, to the point that employees were afraid to go out for lunch. The threats were reported to the NYPD and soon the offices of Timely were being patrolled by New York City cops. It was not long after the police guard had arrived that Timely Comics received a call from Mayor Fiorello La Guardia himself. He spoke on the phone to Joe Simon, telling him, "You boys over there are doing a good job. The City of New York will see that no harm will come to you."

Captain America proved to be Timely Comics' most popular character and one of the most popular characters of the Golden Age. Although it drew little from the comic book, there was even a 1944 Republic serial. Captain America would end his original run in 1948. After an unsuccessful revival attempt in 1954, Captain America was brought back in 1964 and has remained around ever since.

Although never as popular as Captain America, The Star-Spangled Kid and Stripsey would see a good deal of success in the Golden Age. The Star-Spangled Kid was Sylvester Pemberton, a young man of some wealth. One night he went to the cinema where Nazi sympathisers were so upset by a film's patriotic theme that they started a riot. Sylvester Pemberton, along with mechanic Pat Dugan, helped stop the riot. The two of them eventually decided to fight such threats to America as The Star Spangled Kid and Stripesy, with Pat Duggan going to work as Sylvester's family's chauffeur. The two relied on superb martial arts skills and a few gadgets, as well as their specially made limousine the Star Rocket Racer, to battle the forces of evil. They were unique in being a teenage hero with an adult sidekick.

The Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy first appeared in Action Comics #40 (September 1941) before appearing in Star-Spangled Comics on a regular basis. The characters were created by writer Jerry Siegel (most famous as co-creator of Superman) and artist Hal Sherman. The Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy were featured on the covers of Star-Spangled Comics until #7 (April 1942), when the Newsboy Legion (created by Jack Simon and Jack Kirby) took over. That having been said, they continued to appear in the pages of Star-Spangled Comics until #86 (November 1948).  The two of them joined the Seven Soldiers of Victory, the second superhero team published by one of the companies that would become DC Comics (the first being the first ever superhero team, the Justice Society of America). They first appeared with the Seven Soldiers of Victory in Leading Comics #1 (December 1941) and continued to appear until Leading Comics #14 (March 1945), after which the title switched to a funny animal format.

The Fighting Yank also made his first appearance in a comic book with a cover date of September 1941. He first appeared in Startling Comics #10, published by Nedor. He was created by writer Richard E. Hughes and artist Jon L. Blummer. The Fighting Yank was Bruce Carter III, who was visited by the ghost of his ancestor Bruce Carter I, a veteran of the Revolutionary War. Bruce Carter I directed him to a magic cloak that gave the wearer super-strength and invulnerability. Bruce Cabot III then became The Fighting Yank, outfitted in a Revolutionary War inspired costume, complete with a tri-corner hat. The Fighting Yank proved fairly successful. He received his own title with Fighting Yank #1 (September 1942). He continued to appear in various Nedor titles until 1949.

By far the most popular patriotic superhero of all time made her first appearance only a little over a month before the attack on Pearl Harbour.  Wonder Woman first appeared in a back-up story in All-Star Comics #8 (December 1941). Wonder Woman was Diana, Princess of the Amazons.  Steve Trevor of U.S. Army Intelligence crashed on Paradise Island, home of the Amazons. Nursing Steve back to health, Diana fell in love with him. Having learned of the threat of Nazism, Queen Hippolyta  of the Amazons decreed that an Amazon should accompany Steve Trevor back to the United States to help fight the Nazis. Unfortunately, Hippolyta also forbade her daughter, Diana, to participate in the tournament that would decide who should go back to the U.S. with Steve Trevor. Diana then donned a mask in order to take part in the tournament. Winning the tournament, Diana then won the right to accompany Steve Trevor back to the United States. She was then given her patriotic costume and the name "Wonder Woman".

While Wonder Woman has since drifted away from her patriotic roots (in the Eighties the eagle that originally formed part of her costume would be replaced by a stylised "WW"), during World War II she was very much a patriotic character. Among her opponents in the Golden Age were Nazi spy and saboteur Baroness Paula von Gunther. In addition to supervillains, it was not unusual for Wonder Woman to tackle spies and saboteurs during World War II.

Regardless, Wonder Woman would prove phenomenally popular during the Golden Age. In fact, she became one of the only superheroes besides Superman and Batman to be published continuously since the Golden Age. She would be adapted to television, animated cartoons, and, most recently, a feature film. Although not tied to patriotism as closely as she once was, Wonder Woman would appear to be the most successful patriotically themed superhero of all time.

These aren't the only patriotically themed superheroes to appear during the Golden Age of  Comic Books. There were a few others who appeared before the United States had entered the war and several others who appeared after the U.S. had entered World War II. In fact, comic books cover dated August 1941 produced several  patriotic superheroes, including Miss America (Quality), Miss Victory (Holyoke), U.S. Jones (Fox), and American Crusader (Nedor). Among the other well-known patriotic heroes of the Golden Age were Minute-Man (Fawcett), Captain Battle (Lev Gleason), Mr. America (DC Comics), Captain Flag (MLJ), Liberator (Nedor), and Liberty Belle (DC Comics). There were yet others, some of whose lifespans were measured in months.

Patriotically themed superheroes served an important purpose during World War II. Like many films from the era, they served to boost morale, both at home and in the various theatres of the war. Even superheroes without a patriotic theme often found themselves battling Nazis or the Japanese during the war, including such big names as Batman and Superman. During what was perhaps the bloodiest struggle in the history of humanity, superheroes did their part.

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