Golden Age Showcase: Spy Smasher

Sigh, so we can all agree that these last couple of months have been pretty crappy right?

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I’m not going to go into any great detail on this matter, you can watch the news for that, but I will say that if the heroes that I write about in this blog were alive and around today…I’d think they would be very disappointed.

I thought this would be a good place to put the picture of Captain America punching Hitler, but I thought this one would be more apropos.

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Thank you Superman.

The sad truth is that the reality of the situation is, and always has been, complicated.  While these comic books were created to provide a morale boost to the men and women fighting against fascism,

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fascism had a very real presence in America since it became a thing.

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Yes, those are swastikas next to the American flag and a picture of George Washington.  This is a picture from 1938 at a Nazi rally in New York.  This was a thing right up to the point where we started fighting the Nazis.

One of the things that we’ve been seeing in a lot of these Golden Age comics are superheroes who don’t go off to Europe to fight the Nazis, they find plenty of them here.  While there was a war to fight across the ocean a comic book hero could always find a spy ring, saboteurs, or enemy agents hiding around with plans to disable the war effort.

Maybe the heroes saw that there were other threats that were much closer to home, or maybe they just wanted to save money on air travel.

Either way, let’s dive into some escapism and talk about a hero who held down the home front against the scourge of Nazi spies: the eloquently named Spy Smasher.

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Origin and Career

Spy Smasher was first published by Fawcett Comics and was created by Bill Parker and C.C Beck, the two men who originally created Captain Marvel.

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The hero made his first appearance in Whiz Comics #2 in February of 1940, an issue that was actually the first issue of the Whiz Comics title and has one of the most iconic covers in comic book history.

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The story starts off with a literal bang, someone is sabotaging American military vessels.

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Wait, $20 million dollars for an aircraft carrier?  What a bargain!

Naturally this worries a lot of very powerful men in Washington, and one man decides to share potentially dangerous information with his daughter and fiancee.

Comic Book Cover For Whiz Comics #2

Nazi spies in America?  Preposterous!

Meanwhile, the spies themselves have been busy and decide to steal plans for a mine laying ship, only to be foiled by the timely arrival of the Spy Smasher.  They are led by a fairly creepy individual known as “The Mask”.

Comic Book Cover For Whiz Comics #2

The hero manages to pursue the villains in his Gyrosub.  This is a vehicle that serves as a helicopter, an airplane, speedboat, a submarine, and a completely ridiculous looking vehicle.

Comic Book Cover For Whiz Comics #2

Eat your heart out Batmobile!

Long story short, the hero winds up defeating the spies, even though the main villain escapes.

Comic Book Cover For Whiz Comics #2

The day is saved and the plans are returned.

Comic Book Cover For Whiz Comics #2

In a fairly ballsy move, the creators didn’t reveal the identity of the Spy Smasher in the first issue.  In fact, they didn’t reveal the secret identity of the Spy Smasher for most of his stories.  Sure, it may have been a clever marketing ploy, but even children would have thought it was weird that Spy Smasher and Alan Armstrong were never in the same panel together, and how Alan disappeared whenever there was trouble, or how Spy Smasher had a strange fascination with the woman who was Alan’s fiancee.

Spy Smasher was Alan Armstrong is what I’m trying to say.

It turned out that Spy Smasher’s battles with his arch nemesis the Mask turned him into a pretty popular hero.  He was so popular that he actually had a crossover with Captain Marvel in Whiz Comics #16 where he turned evil and tries to hypnotize the hero into doing his bidding.

Comic Book Cover For Whiz Comics #16

But it’s okay because it turned out that it had all been a ploy by the Mask to hypnotize and brainwash the now dead Mask to do his bidding.

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Spy Smasher continued to have a career after the war, although he did change his name to Crime Smasher to fit with the times.

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So what happened?

Alan Armstrong remained a popular staple of Fawcett Comics, right up to the point where they were forced to stop publishing comics in 1953 after losing a lawsuit to DC Comics that claimed they had ripped off Superman.

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While Captain Marvel would go on to have a pretty successful career (he’s called Shazam! now due to copyright issues) Spy Smasher fell by the wayside.  I guess when there are just no more spies to smash you don’t really have a future.  Why they didn’t decide to use him to hunt Soviet spies is beyond me.

Spy Smasher would go on to have a limited career, barely used but not forgotten.  One of his most notable appearances was in the excellent tv show Justice League Unlimited where he appeared in the opening of the episode “Patriot Act”,

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and in Gail Simone’s Birds of Prey series she introduced a character named Katarina Armstrong, a highly skilled global anti terrorism agent with a costume that was heavily inspired by the original Spy Smasher.

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While she looks like Spy Smasher and has his last name, any potential relationship the two may have had is not revealed.

In many ways Spy Smasher had the same career trajectory that a lot of Golden Age superheroes had.  He was popular in the 1940’s and while he fell by the wayside after the comics industry crashed, he was fondly remembered by those who knew and would go on to be an influence for the superheroes of the future.

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If you ask me it’s a crying shame that nobody uses him any more, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind coming out of retirement to fight a few more Nazi spies on American soil.

Comics that deserve more attention: Valerian and Laureline

So I saw Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets this week.

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Now, the reviews have been not that great and it looks like this movie is going to be a massive flop at the box office, but I thought it looked fantastic, it had some really cool ideas and set pieces, and I wouldn’t really mind seeing more of it.  In short, I thought it was basically a retread of director Luc Besson’s other science fiction movie that didn’t get the attention it deserved,

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Like most science fiction movies that are made today, the Valerian movie is based off of a comic book series.  The books in question are the Valerian et Laureline series, which was written by French writer Pierre Christin and drawn by Jean-Claude Mezieres.

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The series started as a comic strip in the French magazine Pilote  in 1967 and published its final series in 2010.  It was published by French comic book publisher Dargaud.

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The series is an epic space opera starring the titular character Valerian and his colleague and co agent Lauraline as special agents working for the Terran Empire across time and space.

To go into any sort of detail about the adventures of these two would take hours, long story short it’s good enough that you should go read it, like right now.  But if you’re still here and need more convincing the real treat of the comic is its art.  Now, I’ve never fancied myself as an art lover and I tend to focus on story over art in my comics but…

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Yeah, I can see why the director wanted to make this movie.

So the comic is a long running, absolutely gorgeous, and thought provoking epic that was good enough to inspire at least one famous movie director to adapt it but how did it get here?  How did it remain so popular and long lasting?  and why was it so unknown to most comic book reading Americans?

To answer that question I did some research and decided that today we’re going to run through a very, VERY brief description of

The history of Franco Belgian comics.

 What a lot of people may not understand is that the idea of using words and pictures to communicate ideas has been around for a pretty long time.  In an age where most people couldn’t read, it was easier to convey ideas or stories through pictures.  As a result, the first comics were strips or single page stories that were owned and published by newspapers.

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In the early 20th century comic strips started to separate themselves from the newspapers to create their own comic series.  Two of the most famous were, Pieds Nickeles 

and the very first female protagonist in comics: Becassine.

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What’s really interesting is that during the 1920’s and 1930’s even the Catholic Church was getting involved in telling stories with pictures with publications like the Belgian Zonneland creating morally upright and decent stories for the children to read.

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Side note: it’s worth mentioning that a lot of people lump France and Belgium together when talking about comics since French is spoken by a healthy chunk of the Belgian population and French and Belgian comics often share the same readers.

France and Belgium had a very strong tradition of graphic storytelling through the 1920’s and 1930’s the art form took off in popularity, and publishers such as Dargaud rose up to meet the demand.

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This time also saw Belgian artist Herge would create a comic series that remains one of my personal favorites in 1929 with the publication of Tintin in the Land of the Soviets.

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This particular title is a bit simplistic and has some really uncomfortable caricatures in it, but it was popular and provided a good jumping off point to one of Europe’s most beloved characters.

The art form was so popular that the French gave a name to it: bande dessinée.  A rough translation would be “drawn strips”.

Now, while the French and Belgian comic book industry did manage to produce some original work it was being rapidly overshadowed by a flood of American comics that could be bought and printed at a lower price.  After all, why spend all the time and money making your own stuff when you can just pay someone else to do the work for you.  However, in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s Europe had a bit of a problem.

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There was a war on and the Germans clamped down on American imports, including comics and animated films.  This cut off helped Europe develop its own stories and characters free from American influence and after Paris was liberated and the war was over, it was local artists and comic book creators who filled the gap.

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What’s really interesting is that even when the war was over, American comics never really came back in France.  This was epitomized by a law passed in 1949 that slowed the import of American literature, a law that was pushed by the French Communist Party who sought to limit American influence in Europe.

Free from the cultural behemoth of post war America, artists like Herge would go on to give Tintin his own comic magazine, and it remains incredibly popular to this day.

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Tintin’s success, coupled with the demand for more comics, resulted in a boom of magazines being published in post war France.  Eventually the market stabilized and Herge’s Tintin magazine and the French magazine Spirou became the dominant magazines throughout the 1950’s.

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It’s worth mentioning that France never had the backlash against comics that America went through in the 1950’s, so while American readers were doing this,

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French comics spent the fifties expanding, diversifying into different stories, and never lost their appeal as an art form.

Some of the highlights included the future 1980’s cartoon fodder The Smurfs, created by comic book artist Peyo and published in 1958 by Spirou,

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and another personal favorite of mine Asterix and Obelix, published by the Belgian magazine Pilote in 1959.

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The 1960’s and 70’s saw a more mature type of storytelling, with the debut of Valerian and Laureline in 1967,

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and tripy and far reaching sci fi art from artists like Jean Giraud (better known as Moebius) and Bilal making their way into a comic magazine called Metal Hurlant.  

That comic would eventually go out of business, but not before it was brought to America where it became the comic Heavy Metal, which is still around.

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The French and Belgian comic traditions have continued to this day.  They’re remarkably different from their American counterparts because while many Americans do tend to think of comics as reading material “for the kids” (no offense to the readers of this blog but come on, everyone knows at least one person who turns their noses up at comics) the French view it as a form of literature that is just as important as the novel or poem.

A modern example?  One of my favorite modern graphic novels created by the French-Iranian writer and artist Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.

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Franco Belgian comics are also reknown for their artwork, with many of the older French artists divided into three distinct schools of comic art, including the realistic, which was popularized by artists such as Moebius,

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the “Linge claire” style, which favored more angular and simplistic character designs set against realistic backgrounds and was popularized by Herge and the Tintin books,

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the “comic dynamic style” which featured a more cartoonish emphasis on characters, movement, and action which was popularized by the Asterix books.

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So there you have it, a simplistic, generalized, and far too brief look at the comic book culture that inspired the movie Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.  If this piqued your interest at all I highly recommend checking some of the titles out that I posted above and if you haven’t seen the movie yet…please go see it now.

Golden Age Showcase: Bulletman

Quickly, when you hear the name “Bulletman”, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind?

Personally I image some sort of dark, brooding, Punisher type hero who lets his guns do the talking and they aren’t taking “no” for an answer.

Kind of like what you might have found in a lot of comics from the 1990’s.

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Side note: the above image is a character named Overtkill.  Yes, that is how you spell his name.

Well, in the 1940’s a company called Fawcett Comics created a character named Bulletman and he looked like this:

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Good Lord…that hat!

Origin and Career

Bulletman made his first appearance in Nickel Comics #1 in May of 1940.

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He was published by Fawcett Comics and was created by writer/editor Bill Parker and artist John Smalle.

Bill Parker created Fawcett’s most popular character, Captain Marvel.

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Remember this, it will be important later.

As for origins, Bulletman’s civilian identity is Jim Barr.  His story takes a welcome break from the “I’m just going to fight crime because I’m rich and I have nothing better to do” school of thought and takes its cues from the Batman school of crime fighting.  Namely, his parents get killed by criminals so he decides to fight crime at a young age.

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No word on what happened to his mom.

A couple of things are interesting in this origin story.  First, the boy is a scientist and never had any aspirations to be an athlete, so that’s a pretty good deviation from the norm.

Second, he develops a “crime cure” because he believes that crime is a disease that can be treated like malaria or small pox.

Wow, there’s…enough to unpack in that last panel alone to fill an entire book.  So let’s skip over that and save it for arguing in the comments.

Sadly, Jim suffers from the plight that all smart people seem to suffer from in fiction, having his career hampered by idiots and jocks.

Comic Book Cover For Nickel Comics #1

Three things to note here on this page.  First, this is the best scan I could find.  Second, the only one who believes in him is a pretty lady named Susan Kent, who eventually becomes his girlfriend and wife.  Finally, notice how the cop in the second to last panel is openly justifying torture to extract a confession from a criminal using a rubber hose.

Meanwhile the “crime cure” works!  Sort of…

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I mean, it turns him into a superhero so yeah…he gets to cure crime by punching things.

He continues his reckless use of using things without testing them by building a gravity defying helmet and leaping out a window before it can be tested.

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Thankfully the helmet works, even if he looks hilarious in it, and he manages to stop the criminals and save the day.

Bulletman would go on to be one of Fawcett’s most successful heroes, second only to Captain Marvel.  After his career took off (har har) he did something strange and actually didn’t fight Nazis or Nazi spies.  Instead he fought criminals both with his superpowers and as a police scientist.

Of course, just punching people can get boring pretty quickly so in April of 1941 Bulletman appeared in Master Comics #12 and his lady friend Susan Kent wound up discovering his identity.

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The police chief’s daughter did in a matter of months what Lois Lane couldn’t do in years and in the following issue she confronts him about it.

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The two wind up reconciling after Susan saves Bulletman’s life by giving herself the same powers and “finding an extra helmet lying around”.

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And the two became a crime fighting couple to be reckoned with.

So what happened?

By all accounts Bulletman and Bulletgirl should have survived into the modern day.  He was a popular character, he had an interesting backstory, and he was regularly seen with one of the most popular superheroes of the 1940’s.

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And that was the problem.  See, while Fawcett Comics had a huge amount of success with Captain Marvel it turned out that his greatest enemy wasn’t a super villain, but legal action.

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It turned out that DC Comics looked at the hordes of tall white guys with super strength, super speed, flight, and a secret identity and decided that a lot of them were a little too close to their big time money maker: Superman.

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We can debate the truth to this statement all day, but what’s not debatable is the results and in the case National Comics Publications v. Fawcett Comics National Comics won and Fawcett was forced to pay damages and cease publication of Captain Marvel.

It’s worth mentioning that the case made its first initial court appearance in 1941 with the final decision made a decade later, making this one of the longest copyright cases in comic book history.

Fawcett was decimated by the case and ceased publishing comics in 1953, and while they would restart publishing comics in the 60’s, they wound up handing their entire stable of superheroes over to DC comics in 1972.

Bulletman and Bulletgirl made the leap as well and appeared in a new superhero group called “The Squadron of Justice” to defeat the forces of a villain named King Kull.

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They kept the helmets because why the hell not?  They make the costume.

The two would be moved into the All Star Squadron, a DC Comics superhero team that was placed in a universe where World War 2 was still happening.

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The two would go on to have a fairly important supporting role in DC’s SHAZAM! books. He got to meet Green Lantern mentor Abin Sur,

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and at one point, Bulletman was actually accused of being a Nazi collaborator in 1998’s Starman #39 although he was naturally cleared of all charges.

Bulletman and Bulletgirl would also have a kid!  In 1997 they had a kid named Deana who donned her mother’s helmet and became the hero Windshear.

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She dated Captain Marvel for a bit and helped her Dad rescue Marvel from a villain named Chain Lightening.

The group has even inspired copies of their own, although they were all published within DC Comics so there was no court case.  In 2005 Grant Morrison published a book series called Seven Soldiers, which was based on many of the old Fawcett characters.  Bullet girl became “Bulleteer” and she looked like this.

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So nice to know the phallic helmets didn’t just remain, they got bigger.

In a way I’m upset that Bulletman and Bulletgirl wound up where they are today.  By all accounts they should still be around today since they did hold their own with some of the big name heroes of the Golden Age of Comics and the fact that they were a capable pairing as husband and wife adds an interesting dynamic that you don’t really see with a lot of comic book superheroes.

They were a solid team with a solid story and a solid power set and deserve a place right alongside their famous colleague Captain Marvel.

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Golden Age Showcase: The Patriot

Happy post Super Bowl everyone!

Last night was one of the greatest games I have ever seen and I am so happy that my favorite team won their fifth championship.

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Full disclosure, I am a huge fan of the New England Patriots so I would like to apologize for anyone reading this who isn’t a football fan and has to put up with yet another half crazed fan talking about something that’s not that interesting.  As for anyone who was hoping for the Patriots to lose, I’m not sorry in the slightest.

The game was one of the greatest things I have ever seen, so I thought it might be fitting to talk about an old school hero named The Patriot.

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Look, it was either this guy or Sportsmaster and I chose him.

Origin and Career

The Patriot was a second string character created by writer Ray Gill and artist Bill Everett,

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who was also the man who created Namor the Submariner.

The character first appeared in The Human Torch #4 in April of 1941.

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Fun fact: the issue is rather famous for a printing error that stated it was issue #3 instead of #4.

Anyway, the Patriot’s actual name was Jeffery Mace and his first appearance was in a ten page backup story titled “The Yellowshirts turn Yellow!” where the Patriot defeated a group of people looking to subvert the United States war effort by overthrowing the United States government.

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The character proved to be pretty popular for a backup character and would go on to have a successful, if not a bit standard and cliche, career as a secondary character in The Human Torch comics and Marvel Mystery Comics as well.

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I like to think that if Captain America didn’t turn out to be as popular, the Patriot would have been able to become a much more established superhero.  He wasn’t flashy, he didn’t have any special powers or particularly noteworthy stories, but he did his job and was popular enough to have a pretty long and storied career in the 1940’s.

So what happened?

Life tip: if you want to survive through trying times, you have to be able to stand out so people notice you.  The Patriot did not have that chance and as a result died out with the superhero fad in the late 1940’s.

With that being said, his previous popularity gave him something that a lot of his colleagues never had: a second chance.

His first appearance was in The Avengers #97 along with his colleague in arms The Fin (the same guy we talked about last week) as a mental projection of Rick Jones in order to wage war on the Kree and Skrull.

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He wound up joining the retconned superhero group known as The Liberty Legion and was given a much more fleshed out backstory in the 1970’s.

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They gave the man a much more fleshed out backstory that gave him some much deeper connections to the Marvel Universe as a whole.

In the new reality Jeffery Mace was a reporter for the Daily Bugle (Spiderman!) who was inspired by his idol Captain America.

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He even got to BE Captain America for a little bit when Marvel published a “What if?” story where he got to don the uniform of Captain America for a bit in order to explain how the hero could have continued to work after being frozen in ice.

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He was actually the third person to don the costume.  That’s him carrying the previous Captain America stand in, a hero called “The Spirit of ’76”.

Jeffery had a couple of guest appearances after that and was killed off in main continuity in 1983.

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But for some wonderful reason, the Patriot still had some juice left in the tank.

In the modern day Jeffery’s story was retold in a comic book series called Captain America: Patriot that took a closer look at McCarthy era America and superheroes who wear the red, white, and blue.

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His legacy lives on with a kid named Eli Bradley (the son of Isaiah Bradley from the excellent Truth: Red, White, and Black) working with the Young Avengers.

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Also, for the first time in this entire blog, I can say that we have a superhero who actually made it outside of comics and into the movies!

Jeffery Mace made it onto the Marvel tv show Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D and was played by Jason O’Mara.

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I won’t go into any further details for fear of spoiling the show, but I can say that he is one of the good guys and a friend to Coulson.

The Patriot is as big, bright, and as dumb as they come.  He wasn’t meant to be all that interesting, he was written to punch Nazis and fight during the war.  What Marvel created was a patriotic mascot, what they got was one of the best and most sincere attempts to replicate Captain America, one of their greatest icons.

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