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.

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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”.

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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.

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Eat your heart out Batmobile!

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

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The day is saved and the plans are returned.

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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.

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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.

Golden Age showcase: Atom

Today we’re going to talk about the second to last original founding member of the Justice League.

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On the bottom left of the above picture you can see a man in a yellow suit and a full face executioner style mask.  That’s Atom

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No not that one.  This one.

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Origin and career

If you’re wondering why the Atom looks like a 1930’s strong man that’s because he started out that way.  Atom originally started off as an unassuming 98 pound weakling named Al Pratt.  While studying at Calvin College he came across a vagrant in the streets and decided to buy him dinner.  That man turned out to be a former boxing trainer Joseph Morgan

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Joe decided to thank Al by training him to be a boxer and he turned out to be a great teacher.  Al would eventually become so skilled that he finally decided to adopt the life of a costumed crime fighter during a time when hard work and a reasonable amount of training could still give you a reasonable shot at being a hero.

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Al would adopt the name “Atom” and became a founding member of the Justice Society when President Roosevelt organized the Justice Society in order to fight the Nazis.

During the war Al served as a tank driver and in an interesting bit of continuity he became friends with fellow strong man Wildcat

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which was all the more interesting since they were both trained by Joseph Morgan.

In 1948 Atom began to live up to his namesake and developed atomic based superpowers.  It turned out the cause of his newfangled powers was a battle with the reluctant villain Cyclotron six years earlier during the war.

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Side note: It turned out that Cyclotron was forced into becoming a villain by another JSA villain, the Ultra Humanite.  He sacrificed himself by flying Ultra Humanite into the atmosphere and destroying himself.

As a reminder of Cyclotron’s deeds Atom changed his costume to resemble the deceased villain.

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Thanks to this battle Atom developed an immunity to all forms of radiation and while pursuing a villain in the middle of a live atomic bomb test

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He developed super strength as well.  His story would further develop when Al Pratt took partial custody of the then deceased Cyclotron’s child Terri.

So what happened?

With his new super powers the Al Pratt devoted his life to studying radiation and its effects.  However, the Atom and the rest of the JSA were disbanded in 1951 when a Senate Committee ordered them to reveal their identities in order to prove they weren’t Communist sympathizers.

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Naturally the JSA refused to bow down to this obvious parallel to the real life Senator McCarthy and the House Committee of un American Activities and opted for an early retirement.  Atom revealed his identity to his sweetheart Mary James and the two were married.

Al would eventually return with his old team mates as Atom on several occasions later on.  However, his life would take a sudden and tragic turn when one of the JSA’s oldest foes, the immortal Vandal Savage, kidnapped his son and killed Mary James.

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Al was devastated but managed to pull through with the help of his teammates.  Unfortunately, he would later perish when battling the villain Extant during DC’s Zero Hour event in 1994.

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While Al Pratt’s Atom was dead his legacy as a hero would live on in another hero named Atom Smasher, who was actually the grandson of the villain Cyclotron and Al’s god son.

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While a huge portion of Al Pratt’s superhero career was marred by loss and tragedy his legacy lives on as one of the founding members of the JSA and as a hero to exemplified defying the odds to do the right thing.

Golden Age showcase: Hawkman

Today we are continuing our exploration into the Justice Society of America.

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Next up is Hawkman, one of the stranger characters to be created out of the Golden Age and a lesson for any future editors and writers on the importance of keeping your origin stories straight.

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Origin and career

The character of Hawkman was created in  by writer Garner Fox and artist Dennis Neville and debuted in Flash Comics #1 in 1940.  Hawkman’s original secret identity was mild mannered archaeologist Carter Hall.  While on an ordinary archaeological dig Hall discovered a mysterious dagger that put him into a deep trance when he touched it (side note: when will archaeologists ever learn that it’s probably a good idea to keep your hands off the ancient and potentially deadly artifact?)

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When he awoke Carter Hall realized that he was actually the modern reincarnation of an ancient Egyptian prince named Khufu (because of course) who had been murdered by the evil sorcerer Hath Set along with his lover Shiera.

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Realizing his true destiny Carter Hall set out to dispense some justice.  He discovered a rare metal known as “9th metal” which allowed him to negate the effects of gravity and fly on a set of homemade wings.  Also, in an act that would send historians and museum curators into fits of rage, he used weapons from his own museum to fight off the bad guys.

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In terms of his career Hawkman would go on to have a long and interesting run.  He would wind up becoming one of the founding members of the Justice Society and was the chairman of the organization until the very end.

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He also met a girl named Shiera Sanders who it turns out was actually his re incarnated bride from ancient Egypt.

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She winds up becoming the heroine Hawkgirl, making these two one of comic’s first power couples.

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All and all the two hawk themed heroes were quite popular.  Their allusions to magic and the ancient past set them apart from the rest of the superhero pack and made them a huge draw for readers.  In fact, Hawkman was so popular that he was the only superhero to appear in every singe Justice Society comic published.

So what happened?

Like most of his Golden Age counterparts Hawkman suffered a serious decline during the 1950’s with his final appearance as part of the original Justice Society in 1951.  However, like his co worker the Green Lantern Hawkman would receive a sci fi makeover a couple years later.

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The new Hawkman wasn’t a human archaeologist, he was a police officer from a distant planet called Thanagar named Kartar Hol.  The Thanagarians still used a winged harness to fly and they and used weapons made out of “Nth metal” to beat their foes.  This new incarnation of Hawkman came to Earth with his wife Shayera and in order to capture an alien criminal named Byth

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and decided to stay and study human police methods (hilarious) and knock some heads in the name of justice.  Eventually they would sever all ties with their homeworld when Thanagar tried to conquer Earth in the name of fighting a long and bloody war with another planet called Ran.

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Now hold onto your hats because this is where it gets weird.

At the beginning of the Silver Age it was established that there were actually parallel universes in what would become the DC Comics cannon (we’ll talk about that next week).  Carter Hall, the original archaeologist Hawkman, lived on Earth-2 with the original members of the Justice Society while the alien Kartar Hol lived on Earth-1.

In 1985 DC decided to do away with decades of comic book continuity and confusing alternate dimensions with their massive crossover series Crisis on Infinite Earths.

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The series was a huge hit and has helped dictate DC editorial policy for years for better or for worse.  What the event did was reboot the entire DC universe from scratch and replacing the alternate dimensions with one Earth timeline that had the Justice Society in the 1940’s and a more modern Justice League later on.  The series had a massive impact on the history and stories of thousands of characters and created new established cannon that still holds sway today.

Apparently someone forgot to get the memo to the writers of Hawkman because when it came time to reboot him they stuck with the Silver Age alien version.  Kartar was the only Hawkman in this universe and that was final.  This created a continuity problem because it left no explanation for how the Golden Age Hawkman, the archaeologist Carter Hall, could exist as Hawkman.  In order to fix this the writers changed it around to state that the Halls, not the Holls, were the original members of the new Justice League and that the alien Hawkman was simply a Thanagarian agent spying on Earth.

If this is sounding confusing to you don’t worry.  A lot of people find this way to confusing to follow and as a result Hawkman titles suffered from poor sales.

Today Hawkman and Hawkgirl are still kicking around the DC universe.

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Currently both heroes are written as re incarnations of Khufu and Shiera although their continuity continues to remain a confusing mess for many.

Before we go, there needs to be special mention of Hawkgirl.  In modern superhero stories she has actually wound up becoming a bit more popular than her male counterpart due to her main role in the phenomenal Justice League cartoon.

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In this version the creators took the Thanagarian route and made her an alien from another world.  Her wings were part of her and she carried an Nth Metal mace.  Interestingly enough, while she would go on to have her own story in the series (she fell in love with Green Lantern and helped stop an invasion of Earth by her own people at tremendous personal cost) there was an episode called “Shadow of the Hawk” where a mysterious man named Carter Hall attempted to convince Hawkgirl that they were reincarnated lovers of a Thanagarian couple who came to Ancient Egypt thousands of years ago.

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While the history and story of Hawkman has proven to be a bit difficult for readers and writers to handle he deserves some recognition as one of the first members of the Justice Society and one of the most important for a very long time.

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Golden Age Showcase: Dr. Fate

Today we’re back on track with talking about the original Golden Age members of the Justice Society of America.

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This week we’re talking about one of the most powerful heroes in all of comics and one of my personal favorites: Dr. Fate.

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Origin and Career

Dr. Fate first appeared in More Fun Comics #55 as a side story but his origin wasn’t explained until a year later.

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In 1920 an archaeologist named Sven Nelson and his son Kent Nelson traveled to Egypt to unlock the secrets of the pyramids and accidentally opened the tomb of an ancient sorcerer known as Nabu the Wise.

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Sadly the act of opening the tomb released a poison gas that killed Kent’s father leaving him an orphan.

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However Nabu, who was actually an alien from another planet with mastery over scientific knowledge so advanced it looked like magic, took pity on Kent and decided to teach him a few tricks.

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The training took over 20 years and at its end Nabu gave Kent a mystical cloak, amulet, and helmet to give him the power and abilities of Nabu and to assume the identity of Dr. Fate.

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After his training was complete Kent met a girl named Inza Cramer in Alexandria Egypt and they would eventually become a couple.

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Kent eventually returns to the United States where he begins his crime fighting career based out of Salem Massachusetts and mostly involved fighting a blend of traditional criminals and supernatural ones as well.

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When World War 2 rolled around Kent Nelson gave up being Dr. Fate and enlisted as a paratrooper.  He would resign the JSA in 1944 to become an archaeologist, ending the career of the Golden Age Dr. Fate.

So what happened?

Despite a pretty short Golden Age career Dr. Fate would go on to be something of a staple in the DC comic book universe.

Dr. Fate was revitalized in the 1970’s into the character we know today.  It turned out that whenever Kent put on the helmet of Fate he was actually possessed by Nabu and adopted the persona of the actual Dr. Fate.  Instead of disguising himself as Dr. Fate, Kent was simply a vessel for the persona of Dr. Fate.

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It was also revealed that Nabu wasn’t just an alien but rather a timeless Lord of Order, a group of mythical beings dedicated to maintaining order and stability withing the universe and protecting it against the Lords of Chaos.

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Since it was revealed that Dr. Fate was actually an immortal non corporeal being bound to a helmet it made working with Dr. Fate much easier allowing him to have decades of history and plenty of opportunities for crossovers, retconns, and changes.  When Kent Nelson retired plenty of others would wear the helmet and/or adopt the persona of Dr. Fate such as Hector Hall

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a couple named Eric and Linda Strauss

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and the most recent incarnation, a man named Khailid Nassour

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His abilities, coupled with his place as a Lord of Order in the DC universe, have also made him very adept at working with other heroes in other forms of media.  He played an important role as a powerful magician in Justice League Unlimited

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Made a pretty memorable appearance in Smallville

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and was a major plot point in the criminally underrated Young Justice.

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Despite the fact that Dr. Fate has never really been one of the greatest or most popular heroes at DC comics he’s always played an important role.  Whether it’s being one of the founding members of the Justice Society or acting as the agent of the very thing that defines superheroes Dr. Fate is, and will continue to be, one of the most important heroes in the DC cannon and one of my favorites.