Golden Age Showcase: Unknown Soldier

This Saturday is Veteran’s Day.

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For our non American readers, this is a holiday where America honors those who have served in the armed forces in conflicts past and present.  It’s also an exciting time for this blog because it’s a great time to talk about war comics!

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When looking at the time period, it’s easy to see why war comics became so popular.  America found itself at war and sent thousands of young men and boys to go off and fight in Europe and the Pacific.

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However, America had the advantage of being separated from the conflict by two massive oceans and it’s people didn’t have to come face to face with the true horrors of war.  With that being said, the United States became a military industrial powerhouse during the war and almost the entirety of American culture became obsessed with doing their part for the war effort and protecting the home front.

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Comic books took advantage of this shift in popular culture, and stories about ordinary soldiers fighting against the forces of evil were quite popular during the Golden Age of Comics both during and after the war.  Many of the greatest artists and writers of the Golden Age of Comics made a living writing and drawing war stories which resulted in some of the most complex and interesting stories of the time, along with some absolutely breathtaking artwork.

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The intent and purpose of the war stories that were written during this time was also pretty varied.  War and combat stories ranged from fantastical adventure stories for young boys staring ordinary soldiers fighting in fantastic situations,

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to very thinly veiled propaganda stories promoting American patriotism and fighting spirit.

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It’s worth noting that most of these adventure and propaganda stories were created and published during the Second World War.  After that war was over and the Korean War began a lot of comics became much more realistic and brutal in their depictions of war.

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So there’s a brief rundown of the early history of war comics.  Unfortunately, since most of the early stories have so much talent behind them and were published by the big important publishers of the day, there isn’t a whole lot of material out there for free reading.  However, today’s comic is available in the public domain and is a pretty interesting look at the early days of the war comic genre.

Today we’re going to talk about the thinly veiled propaganda hero The Unknown Soldier.

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Origin and Career

The Unknown Soldier made his first appearance in Our Flag Comics in 1941.  He was published by a company called Ace Comics and was the title character of the series.

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The funny thing is, despite the fact that he was popular enough to appear on the cover of his debut issue, I can’t find any information on who created him or drew his story.

The hero himself has an interesting backstory, mostly because he really doesn’t have one.

Comic Book Cover For Our Flag Comics #1

He’s just a super being who appears out of nowhere firing explosive bullets and using his superpowers to defeat injustice and oppressive “gangster nations”.

What makes this kind of interesting is that this has some pretty close ties to real world American military culture.  In Washington D.C you can visit a memorial at Arlington National Cemetery that honors the unnamed American soldiers who died in every war America has ever fought.

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It’s called the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and while the comic doesn’t tie the hero to the memorial, I like to think the creators of the story had this monument in mind when they wrote it.

Anyway, in his debut issue the Unknown Soldier helps defeat the Nazi invasion of Britain.

Comic Book Cover For Our Flag Comics #1

It’s worth mentioning that in 1941 this was actually a scenario that was terrifyingly plausible.

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However, in this comic the Nazis don’t succeed because of superior tactics or planning, in fact their kind of idiots, but because of English traitors willing to betray their country to the Nazis known as Fifth Columnists.  We actually get to meet one and learn about his motives.  His name is John Jennings and he has made the classic mistake of believing that his country would be better under the rule of Nazism.

Comic Book Cover For Our Flag Comics #1

The Nazi war machine starts rolling and crushes everyone in its wake.

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Thankfully the Unknown Soldier arrives just in time to murder every Nazi he can lay his hands on.

Comic Book Cover For Our Flag Comics #1

Naturally, the invasion is turned back but not before the story does something really unique and interesting.  Remember the British fifth columnist John from the beginning?  He has a change of heart when he and his gang of saboteurs attempt to blow up a hospital.

Comic Book Cover For Our Flag Comics #1

He actually redeems himself and dies a hero’s death while protecting his mother.

Comic Book Cover For Our Flag Comics #1

Comic Book Cover For Our Flag Comics #1

All while the superhero stands by and does nothing.

So the story isn’t actually about the Unknown Soldier, it’s actually a story of redemption for a man who was once blinded by ideology and hatred and sacrificed himself for a noble cause.

Pretty good stuff for a Golden Age Comic.

After that first adventure the Unknown Soldier continued in a similar capacity.  While the stories were actually about ordinary people doing their part for the war effort, the Unknown Soldier would show up when it was time to knock heads or save someone from dying.

He wasn’t a hero with a secret identity, he was a representation of America’s fighting spirit.

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Also, he got a costume change.

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Despite all the murder done by our hero the creators were quick to make sure that the Nazis were just as bad if not worse.  Case in point, they invade Manhattan and use flamethrowers on civilians.

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So what happened?

Our Flag Comics only lasted five issues, but The Unknown Soldier was popular enough to be moved to another title called Four Favorites where he did pretty much the same thing.

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He lasted for over 16 issues until November of 1945 when he fell into the public domain.

While this Unknown Soldier would fade from the public eye, the idea and name would continue when DC comics published another character called The Unknown Soldier in Our Army at War #168 in 1966.

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The comic was created by DC legends Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert, two men who knew how to create a really good war comic.

This version of the Unknown Soldier was a lot more tangible and slightly more realistic.  Instead of a real superhero, the Unknown Soldier was an intelligence operative who was so disfigured that he had to bandage his face.

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He was actually a master of disguise and in his final appearance, he kills Hitler and disguises himself as the dictator to end the war without further loss of life.

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This iteration proved to be a bit more popular and he got a new limited series in 1997 under the Vertigo imprint at DC.

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As for the original Unknown Soldier, he would make a slight comeback in 2008 when Dynamite Entertainment launched their Project Superpowers title to bring many of the Golden Age public domain heroes back into the mainstream.

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He was renamed “Soldier Unknown” to avoid copyright issues with DC.

As a superhero the Unknown Soldier is not a very good one.  He’s bland, he has no backstory or secret identity, and he’s even more overpowered than Superman.  But that’s not really important.  The Unknown Soldier isn’t a hero, he’s a symbol of something much greater than himself, the creators who made him, and any single person.  He is the personification of the fighting spirit that rises up against tyranny and oppression, and while it would be nice to have known his name, it’s important that we know that he did his job so we could live.

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Happy Veteran’s Day everyone.

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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Golden Age Showcase: The Fighting Yank

Happy Labor Day everyone!

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For our international viewers Labor Day is an American holiday where a lot of working people get the day off in order to relax and for the nation to honor the people working in the shrinking number of manufacturing jobs in this country and no, service workers usually don’t get the day off.

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Sadly there aren’t a whole lot of Golden Age superheroes who worked in factories during the 1940’s, most of them were off actively punching Nazis or saboteurs.

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Still, honoring the men and women who worked in American factories during the Second World War is a pretty patriotic thing,

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so let’s look at one of the most patriotic superheroes to ever come out of the Golden Age.

Meet the Fighting Yank: a hero who bleeds the red, white, and blue so hard he makes Captain America hide his face in shame.

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Origin and Career

The Fighting Yank first appeared in Neodor Comics’ Startling Comics #10 in September of 1941.

He was created by writer Richard E. Hughes,

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and artist John L. Blummer.

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Fun fact: Richard Hughes was a pseudonym for his real name, Leo Rosenbaum.  Hughes would go on to be the editor for the American Comics Group from 1943 to 1967.

The origin story is a doozy, and in order to understand it we have to go all the way back to the American Revolution where a man named Bruce Carter is tasked by George Washington to deliver dispatches through enemy lines.

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sadly the mission fails and Bruce is killed by British spies.

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fast forward a couple of centuries later and Bruce Carter III is being yelled at by his family and fiance for being lazy and day dreaming about his long dead ancestor when he should be doing something.

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In what must have been one heck of a mind trip the ghost of his ancestor comes back to life and tasks the modern Bruce to find his ancestor’s cloak, which will give him incredible power.

It turns out the cloak was hidden in his house all along and after donning it Bruce has the power to bend steel and punch through walls.

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after discovering the extent of his powers the Fighting Yank goes on his first adventure where he manages to save the life of a United States Senator named Walton.

It’s worth mentioning Bruce’s fiancee, Joan, is actually a pretty developed and capable character for a superhero’s girlfriend.  She’s the one that discovers the plot to kidnap the Senator,

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and she handles herself in a fight while Bruce is busy admiring himself in the mirror.

But perhaps the most impressive feat is that she manages to figure out the Fighting Yank’s identity within seconds of meeting him.

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It turns out that the people who kidnapped the Senator were Nazi agents who sought to undermine America’s war efforts.

The Fighting Yank rescues a man who he thinks is the Senator but turns out to be a Fascist decoy.

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The fake Senator shoots the Fighting Yank, but the hero is saved by the ghost of his ancestor after surviving the wound.

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It turned out that the impostor was actually the real Senator’s twin brother (groan) and the Fighting Yank manages to stop the villains in time before they can do anymore damage.

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The Fighting Yank would go on to be one of the most popular characters that the Standard Comics organization would publish.  He was so popular that he was given his own comic book title in September of 1942.

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The rest of his adventures were very similar to his first.  The Fighting Yank and his girlfriend would be confronted with some sort of fantastic threat posed by enemy soldiers or saboteurs and they would save the day.

It’s worth mentioning that this comic is a pretty good look into some of the more unsavory aspects of American wartime culture, including some really uncomfortable portrayals of Japanese soldiers and people.

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He does get to punch a shark though.

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It’s also worth mentioning that there was another hero named the Fighting Yank who was published by Timely Comics during the war as well.

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This version was a slightly more believable character who was a secret agent sent to China in order to fight the Japanese.

He wasn’t nearly as cheesy or as popular as Standard’s version.

So what happened?

Standard Comics reorganized in the late 1940’s and the Fighting Yank disappeared in 1949 after a stint in Nedor Comics’ series America’s Best Comics.

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The hero would be revived in the 1990’s with a publisher called AC Comics reprinting some of his titles.  He would later receive a new costume, which was a homage to Jack Kirby’s hero the Fighting American, in 2001.

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The Fighting Yank would also play a part in Alan Moore’s publishing venture America’s Best Comics where it was revealed that Bruce Cater had a daughter named Carol, who wound up inheriting her father’s powers.

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While Carol received her powers in a way similar to her father she was uncomfortable with the name “Fighting Yank” and decided to call herself “Fighting Spirit”.

The Fighting Yank is pure World War 2 American super cheese.  He was created as wartime propaganda, he helped promote some of the worst stereotypes of Japanese people I’ve ever seen, and he was half a bald eagle short of bleeding red white and blue.

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That being said, it was obvious who he was from the get go and he made no apologies for being one of the most American characters in an industry filled with dozens of heroes wearing the red white and blue.

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President’s Day special: The Fighting American

Happy President’s Day everyone!  For anyone who doesn’t know about the holiday President’s Day started off as a day to honor America’s first president, George Washington.

Today it is a day for Americans to look back and honor the men who have led our country over its 240 year history, although currently it is often associated with taking a day off from school and going out to take advantage of the many President’s Day sales available.

So naturally in keeping with the patriotic theme of today let’s talk about some old school patriotic comic book heroes.

Too easy, how about someone else.

Already talked about him.  You know what?  I’m feeling a bit cynical today, what with an erstwhile holiday being devalued by rampant consumerism and an excuse to try to sell you more cars and a new mattress, is there a hero we can talk about that didn’t take his patriotism so seriously?

Okay, this could work.  Ladies and gentlemen….the Fighting American.

Origin and career

This is going to require a bit of context.  The Fighting American was created in 1954, near the tail end of the Golden Age.  World War 2 was over,

the Cold War was getting underway as the Soviet Union and America started acting like two married people who hated each other and were fighting to see who got ownership of the condo,

and the comic book business was undergoing a massive upheaval.  Between the decline in readership, the Senate hearings, and the new censorship rules, the industry was in trouble.

A lot of Golden Age heroes didn’t survive and the ones that did changed to the point where once edgy and socially conscious heroes like Superman and Batman became safe and non threatening characters who were tasked with upholding the status quo.  Needless to say, a lot of the stories suffered.

One of the few characters to make it through the 50’s relatively intact was Captain America, because what red blooded American parent wouldn’t trust a man who uses the flag as a shield?

However, even Captain America wasn’t safe from change in the 1950’s.  See, while the 1950’s are remembered as a pretty good time in American history (assuming you were white and middle class) there was this guy

That’s Senator Joseph McCarthy and in the 1950’s he took full advantage of the tension between the United States and the Soviet Union to launch a massive publicity stunt known as “The Red Scare”.

The Red Scare was a smear campaign led by Senator McCarthy against political opponents which he branded as Communists or sympathizers to the Soviet Union.

It is not remembered fondly by most historians but that didn’t stop America from going nuts with anti communist sentiment.

Needless to say, Captain America was the perfect superhero to take full advantage of this growing paranoia and in the 1950’s Atlas Comics (Timely Comic’s successor) had Captain America fighting Communists with just as much subtlety as he had fought the Nazis.

However, it turned out that while Atlas had relaunched Captain America as an enemy to Communists everywhere they had done so without the input or permission from the character’s original creators: comic book legends Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.

Sadly, these types of stories were par for the course in the early days of the comic book industry.  So instead of complaining or taking it to court Simon and Kirby created a new patriotic superhero: The Fighting American.

His story goes like this.  Mild mannered and ordinary Nelson Flagg (no really) was serving as the writer for his brother Johnny Flagg, who was not only a war hero and star athlete but a popular television commentator and an outspoken anti-Communist.  Sadly, Johnny was killed by communist sympathizers and Nelson vowed revenge.  He volunteered for the U.S military’s “Project: Fighting American” and had his mind and thoughts transferred into his brother’s physically augmented corpse.

Ew.

He was also given a kid sidekick named Speedboy, an unnamed page who tried to help the Fighting American chase down one of the bad guys.

The comic was published by a company called Crestwood Publications, a publishing company noted for publishing the first romance comic and one of the first ongoing horror comic books.

 

However, while The Fighting American was all geared up to become one of the premier anti Communist American heroes of the 1950’s things took a rather dramatic change.

It turned out that while anti Communist paranoia was a pretty big deal in the 1950’s a lot of people quickly realized that Senator McCarthy was actually full of crap.

Simon and Kirby saw that the Red Scare was actually hurting a lot of people and became uncomfortable with the rantings of a man who was destroying lives and careers with little to no evidence to support his accusations.  So they decided to relax and have some fun with the Fighting American and by its second issue it had turned into a superhero parody.  To give you an idea of the comic’s sense of humor, one of his first villains was a two headed Communist named “Doubleheader”.

The Fighting American and Speedboy would continue for a seven issue run fighting such colorful enemies such as the bouncing bank robber Round Robin.

a villain named Invisible Irving  known as the Great Nothing (a play on the unfounded early Cold War paranoia perhaps?)

and my personal favorite: Rhode Island Red.

It should be noted that a Rhode Island Red just so happens to be the name of Rhode Island’s state bird.

So what happened?

The Fighting American lasted for seven issues ending in 1955.  However, he got a re release in 1994 with a six issue mini series published by DC.

and there was a two issue miniseries published by Awesome Entertainment in 1997.

It should be noted that Awesome Entertainment was a company owned and operated by  Rob Liefeld

and the Fighting American mini series was marked by a massive legal mess involving Liefeld, Simon, and Kirby’s estate which resulted in a horrific legal mess that we don’t have the time to get into here.

The Fighting American was a hero whose existence seems like a joke.  He was created by two men who had been screwed out of their original work, he underwent a tremendous change in character and tone in only one issue, and he was the target of several reboots and re interpretations by some of the more notorious elements of the comic book industry in the 1990’s.  Despite all that I like this guy.  In a way he is one of the most patriotic superheroes out there because not only did he fight Communists he shed light on just how ridiculous most of the early Cold War paranoia really was.