President’s Day special: Uncle Sam

Happy President’s Day everyone!

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For our non American readers, President’s Day is an American holiday held on the third Monday of every month.  It was originally made a legal holiday in order to honor George Washington and Abraham Lincoln,

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but depending on what state you live in it can either celebrate one of them, both, or every President who has been elected into office.

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Now, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the position of President of the United States of America is probably not the most popular position of leadership in the world right now,

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but let me make my position on the matter perfectly clear.

While it is important to realize that the position of President of the United States is a difficult one, and that we should honor the people who sacrifice their time and health to the job, the truth of the matter is that at the end of the day the President is an elected official who can, and should, only do so much.

At the end of the day the problems that we face as a society can only be solved when ordinary people come together to fix them and take action.  Solutions are almost never the work of one great individual, but rather a collection of ordinary people.

Sadly, the slow and tedious work of millions is difficult to comprehend.  So in order to make sense of it all we do two things.  We celebrate the lives and achievements of a few men and women and we craft symbols and signs that we can rally around.

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That is part of the reason why I like superheroes so much.  They’re colorful, larger than life, and an easy way for people to relate to things and events that are much bigger than themselves.

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In an increasingly complex and chaotic world, they are the walking solutions to many of our problems.

So let’s take a look at a Golden Age superhero who wasn’t just a superhero who represented the millions of men and women who fought in WW2, but a walking symbol of America as well: Uncle Sam.

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Origin and Career

Uncle Sam became the personification of the American people and government during the War of 1812, although you probably recognize him more from his World War 1 recruitment poster.

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According to legend, the character of Uncle Sam was based off of the real life Samuel Wilson, who was a meat packer from New York and a fervent American patriot.

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Uncle Sam is up there with the bald eagle, baseball, and the flag as great American symbols and since he has such a violent history and is often associated with war it only makes sense that when America decided to get involved during World War 2, they co opt the ever loving crap out of him.

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Naturally he found a home in comic books and in July of 1940, Quality Comics published National Comics #1 hit the stands with Uncle Sam leading the charge against the Axis.

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I don’t know what I like more, the fact that Uncle Sam’s hat hasn’t blown away in the wind, or that they have a LITTLE KID RUNNING ACROSS AN AIRPLANE WING ATTACKING A FULLY GROWN MAN ARMED WITH A PISTOL!

Boy, child safety laws were pretty lax back then.

Like every hero, Uncle Sam needed an origin story.  It turned out that the folks at National Comics were content to keep him as a vague symbol of American government and way of life, only this time he was going to get his hands dirty and join the fight against crime and injustice.  It turned out that Uncle Sam was the spirit of a fallen soldier from the American Revolution and continued to appear whenever his country needed him to fight.

With any other company or creator this probably would have turned into a silly little farce, but this version of Uncle Sam was written by Will Eisner.

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If you don’t know who Will Eisner is, all you need to understand is that the comic book industry’s version of the Oscars is named after him.

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Anyway, this version of Uncle Sam did his patriotic duty and fought off, what else, the forces of evil and tyranny that just so happened to look like the Nazis.

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His superpowers were whatever the story needed and he had a kid sidekick named Buddy Smith who accompanied Uncle Sam on his many dangerous adventures.

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So what happened?

He spent 45 issues beating the enemies of America, and freedom loving people everywhere, to a pulp.

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Then Quality Comics went belly up in 1956 and was bought out by DC.

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DC’s Uncle Sam would go on to be a pretty big supporting character in the DC universe.  He became the leader of the Freedom Fighters, a group of old Quality Comics characters that were brought together in a Justice League type of arrangement.

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His origin was retooled a bit.  Now he was a spiritual entity that was summoned by the Founding Fathers in an occult ritual that bound the “Spirit of America” to the body of a dying patriot.

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He’s had a steady presence in the DC universe ever since the 1970’s.

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In 1997 DC’s greatest imprint, Vertigo Comics, gave Uncle Sam a two issue mini series written by Steve Darnell and drawn by Alex Ross.

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My hat is off to Vertigo for taking a pretty goofy character and treating him with respect and giving him a meaningful story.

He appeared in the DC event comic Blackest Night.

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and was dramatically revamped as a mortal black man in the New 52 reboot.

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Uncle Sam is an interesting character.  On one hand he’s goofy, colorful, and the kind of un ironic display of patriotism that would make a lot of people cringe.  On the other hand he’s a symbol of a violent and destructive superpower that has a nasty habit of sticking its nose in business that it has no right to be in.

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Personally, I’m more inclined towards the first interpretation.  Whether you love him or hate him, there is no denying that the man is pure Americana and I can’t think of a better symbol of the effort and determination of the American people.

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Sure, you can call me corny and cheesy but you know what?  I’m okay with that.

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Golden Age Showcase: The Grim Reaper

Before we begin, I just want to say thank you for two very big milestones.

First, last week’s blog post on Truth: Red, White, and Black was the single most successful blog post we’ve ever had on this site.

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I was absolutely blown away by the audience and the wonderful conversations that the article generated.

Second, yesterday was our two year anniversary as a blog and a website.  I’m not going to lie and say it’s been easy, but watching people enjoy everything we’ve worked so hard for has made this little venture worth it.

Anyway, let’s talk about a super hero that killed a whole bunch of Nazis and called himself the Grim Reaper.

Comic Book Cover For Wonder Comics #2

Origin and Career

The Grim Reaper first appeared in Standard Comics’ The Fighting Yank #7 in February of 1944.

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As you might be able to figure out from the cover, the entire issue had something of a military theme to it, especially since the United States was in the last full year of the war in Europe.

The Grim Reaper was published by Standard Comics and was created by comic book writer and editor Richard E. Hughes.

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The pictures above show Hughes’ many pseudonyms which he used since he was an incredibly prolific comic book creator in a career that spanned the 1940’s to the 1970’s.

It’s worth mentioning that the Grim Reaper is something of an oddity in Golden Age superhero comics.  While many of his fellow heroes started off fighting common criminals and spies, the Grim Reaper was thrust straight into the front lines of the war in Europe and got right down to kicking Nazi butt.

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It’s also worth mentioning that Richard Hughes was actually a pretty good writer, because The Grim Reaper’s stories were pretty good.

In his first appearance our hero makes it very clear that he has no qualms about shedding German blood.

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Also, he manages to save a concentration camp full of prisoners and captured Allied pilots so the Allied war effort can destroy a Nazi aerodrome.

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Apparently, this story was so popular and well received that the Grim Reaper would be given his own title and cover appearances after his first story.

Comic Book Cover For Wonder Comics #1

To be perfectly honest, I think that this is one of the greatest Golden Age covers I’ve ever seen.

The Grim Reaper’s new adventures were more of the same deal with him fighting the good fight in Europe and killing Nazis left and right.

Comic Book Cover For Wonder Comics #1

What’s really interesting about these stories is just how human and normal they are. The Grim Reaper is actually more of a secondary character and the writer tends to focus on the plight and effort of normal humans actively fighting the Nazis across Europe.

Comic Book Cover For Wonder Comics #1

Sure, the first page has a large picture of the hero, but the story itself is about the Greek resistance movement that sprung up to fight the occupying Nazi force.

It’s also worth mentioning that while the first Grim Reaper story falls into the typical tropes of turning the hero’s Nazi enemies into monsters who don’t have a very keen grasp of English and like to talk “in ze stereotypical German akksent!”

Comic Book Cover For Wonder Comics #1

The funny thing is that, during his first main story, the writer goes out of his way to actually humanize some of the Nazis by having a Gestapo officer actually save the Grim Reaper’s life and reveal himself to be a German working against the Nazis.

Comic Book Cover For Wonder Comics #1

They would eventually give the Grim Reaper an origin story in his second issue.

It was revealed that the Grim Reaper was actually an American student studying in France named Bill Norris who decided to stay behind in Paris in order to continue his studies.

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The Nazis, in a blatant disregard for human rights and the Rules of War, sent Bill to a concentration camp when he tried to protect an old man from being beaten by a group of soldiers.

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Sure, the soldiers had every right to arrest Bill for what he did, but you don’t sentence someone to slave labor when they assault your men without weapons.

While in the camp, Bill meets a leader in the French Resistance and manages to escape.

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He decides to help the French and dons the Grim Reaper costume to fight the Nazis out of patriotic duty.

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The Grim Reaper would go on to have a couple more adventures fighting the Axis powers, but then the war ended.

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The Grim Reaper was too popular to be cancelled, so he decided to go and fight gangsters and common criminals instead.

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Honestly, the new stories were nothing special and the Grim Reaper found himself playing second fiddle to other stories and characters that were becoming more and more popular in post war America.

So what happened?

History and bad business happened.

Standard comics went out of business in 1956 as the comic book market dried up and left many of the smaller publishers bankrupt.

The Grim Reaper would have remained forgotten if it wasn’t for the best beard in comics, the incredibly intimidating Alan Moore.

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Moore had created his own publishing company in the early 2000’s called America’s Best Comics 

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and he scooped up many of the Standard Comics’ characters that had slipped into public domain which he used in a spin off series called Tom Strong.

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The Grim Reaper would eventually be killed in the Tom Strong spin off series Terra Obscura.

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In the end The Grim Reaper was a pretty typical flash in the pan Golden Age superhero.  He existed, had a pretty short run, and faded into obscurity quickly and was only remembered by people who were truly interested in this particular time in comics.

With that being said, he was well drawn (for the time), had a pretty sensible backstory, and was surprisingly well written for the time.  Like many real life people who were fighting and dying in Europe and the Pacific during the war, the Grim Reaper did his part to beat back tyranny and evil and that is worth celebrating.

Golden Age Showcase: Betty Bates, Lady at Law.

Full disclosure, this is going to be a short article.  That being said, I think today’s comic book heroine is awesome enough on her own and doesn’t need a whole lot of space to show how awesome she is.

Today we’re going to talk about a female heroine who SHOULD have been one of the great female heroes to come out of the 1940’s: Betty Bates, Lady at Law.

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Origin and career

Betty Bates first appeared in Quality Comics’ Hit Comics #4 in October of 1940.

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She was a backup character created by artist and writer Bob Powell,

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whose other credits include characters such as Sheena, Queen of the Jungle.

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Betty Bates was an interesting character, especially for the 1940’s.  While the era has been criticized for its rampant sexism and misogyny it is the era that gave us classic female super heroines such as Wonder Woman,

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Lady Satan,

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and an early Black Widow.

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With all these super powered ladies flying around it seems difficult for someone as plain as Betty Bates to stand out, but she manages to do that in grand style.

For starters, Betty Bates was a District Attorney, a profession that was almost exclusively reserved for male characters.

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She was almost unnaturally honest, refusing to take bribes and to be coerced into letting criminals go free.

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She was also a capable and talented detective, determined to get to the truth.  She never had a secret identity or costume, never had any colorful gadgets, and while she only fought gangsters and thugs with colorful names, when it came time to throw down and defend herself…

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she could handle herself in a fight.

So what happened?

Her series was published by a company called Quality Comics, a company whose most famous creation was this guy.

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Quality Comics sold off most of its characters in the 1950’s to DC Comics but the company had been suffering for a while.  Betty Bates was lost in the shuffle and after a ten year run her title was cancelled.

Despite her unglamorous end, Betty actually has a pretty impressive legacy.

She outlasted many of her more traditional male superhero counterparts and would continue to have a comfortable position as a back up character in the Hit Comics line for over ten years.  In fact, she still holds the honor of being the longest running non super powered, non main character heroine in comic book history.  Plus, there is only one comic book lawyer who has lasted longer than she has.

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Anyone want to try to explain why we’re not talking about her instead of Wonder Woman as a female comic book icon?

Sadly, she has remained forgotten for most of history and hasn’t been revived or brought back in any modern issues.

Which is a crying shame if you ask me.

How could she be brought back?

Unlike many of the Golden Age heroes we talk about on this blog that might have trouble fitting into a modern setting, Betty’s problems are actually quite the opposite.

There are a seemingly endless number of law procedural shows on television today.

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and Betty Bates could fit into any one of them

Also, we are now living in an age where leading ladies are gaining an increasingly large portion of the spotlight in popular culture.

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and I think Betty could fit right in.

The difficulty rests in finding a leading lady.  Personally, I nominate Haley Atwell.

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But that’s just me.