The Primordial Soup: American vs. British comics

The world is filled with rivalries: Barcelona vs. Real Madrid, Pokemon Red vs. Pokemon Blue, Justice League vs. Avengers, butter side up vs. butter side down (you may laugh but they almost declared thermonuclear war in the book over this issue) and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Healthy rivalries give both sides something to work towards, the goal being to be better and more successful than the other.  It’s no small secret that the comic book industry is home to one of the biggest rivalries in entertainment, Marvel vs. DC, and talking about that little squabble and whether or not it really matters is an article all unto itself but today we are going to talk about something different.  Today we are going to talk about which country produces better comic books: America or Britain.

A quick explanation and a couple of ground rules.  The article will look at both sides of the debate and present the pros and cons of either side.  If you see something you disagree with or have a point to make please feel free to do so, just do it in a way that is constructive and beneficial to the conversation.  

Avengers4download (23)

The Americans

Pro:

It’s no small secret that American comic books are kind of a big deal, in fact it’s pretty safe to say that the comic book as we know it (i.e a printed magazine with sequential art work designed to tell a story) is an American invention.

download (24)

And then we get to superheroes.  While superhero comics weren’t all that popular in the very early days of comics it didn’t take long for Action Comics #1 to change everything in 1938, introducing the man you all know so well that I don’t even have to say his name.

download (25)

In fact, there are so many famous characters that came out of American comics that to list them all would take months.

Detective_Comics_27

flash021

download (26)

Not only does the American scene have a superhero roster that dominates the comic book market but there is also a thriving independent scene with companies like Dark Horse and imprints like Vertigo delivering top notch non superhero comics.

hellboyep

250px-American_Vampire_Cover_-1

The way I see it, American comics are as varied as they are and as big as they because of what America is as a society.  While it may seem strange we have to understand that America is not a very old country.  We haven’t been around even 300 years which means we like to move forward and look to the future.  It’s that forward thinking attitude that lets us look at something like a cheap plup story and think “hey, that would make a really good multi million dollar movie” or “hey, why NOT write about a man who can bench press continents and stand for truth, justice, and the way of life our parents worked so hard for?”.  It’s that forward thinking, almost naive optimism that allowed America to create the genre and some of its most famous characters and it allowed the American comic book industry to flourish.

Con:

Just because you have an idea doesn’t mean you necessarily have the skill or the talent to pull it off and make it a success.  It’s a generally accepted rule that when something is successful there will be a host of imitators trying to cash in on its popularity and this is especially true with comic books.  While the American industry has produced some of the greatest ideas every conceived it has also produced a lot of crap.

6a00e39337cb1e8834019aff3fd862970b-800wi

cover2

ac01-1343371808

The British

Pro:

While you could be forgiven to think that this debate heavily favors the American side it is important to remember that Great Britain has its own comic culture and its own comic book icons that are some of the greatest in the business today.  British writers like Grant Morrison, Neil Gaimen, and Alan Moore (who I am going to affectionately dub “The Magic Bros.” on account of their shared fascination with the strange and the occult) have not only produced some of the greatest comic book stories of all time, but some of the greatest stories of the modern age period.  Don’t believe me?  Take a look.

All_Star_Superman_Cover

absolute_sandman_v3

watchmen_hardcover

It’s also worth noting that Mark Millar, who is currently one of the most successful comic book movie creators, is Scottish and his violent and gory offerings are helping to shape what a comic book movie is.

MV5BMTMzNzEzMDYxM15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTc0NTMxMw@@._V1_SX640_SY720_

Kingsman_The_Secret_Service_poster

p172810_d_v7_aa

Now I’m not British so I really can’t explain why Britain produces such great writers but if I had to guess it’s because of Britain’s history and connection to their past.  Whether you miss it or hate it the British Isles once dominated a quarter of the globe and have turned out some of the greatest writers in human history.  When you’re part of a culture that once ruled the Earth and produced literary geniuses like Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, and Eliot AND authors that defined genres like Tolkein, Conan Doyle, Orwell, and Clarke you respect the history and traditions that made it great.  Great Britain has produced some of the greatest writers of all time and it only makes sense that this seemingly natural talent translates over to comics as well.

Cons:

Name one British comic book series that is even as remotely iconic as a hero like Superman or Batman.

2000AD168

Okay maybe, but can you name another?

Britain’s history and culture is one of its greatest strengths it is also a crippling weakness as well.  When you become too wrapped up in tradition and the way things are supposed to be you wind up stifling a lot of creative potential for something new.  Sure these traditions helped create a writer like Gran Morrison but it is no coincidence that Grant Morrison has done some of his most famous and best known work for American comic books.

So what do you think?  Does skill and tradition trump the desire for something new and a willingness to try new things?  Is it better to move forward and push the boundaries of what’s possible or devote your energy into honing your skill on an established piece of work?  Let us know in the comments below and feel free to share. 

Golden Age Showcase #3: Miss Victory

Quickly, without thinking name the first patriotic superhero.  This is what you were thinking right?

captain-america-comics-1

Yes if the Golden Age of superheroes is known for one thing it’s the fact that most of it took place during a little world event known as World War 2.  America’s superheroes rose the occasion and so many of them took on Hitler and the other Axis powers that if they had all been real then we would have won the war in no time.

Marvel_Mystery_Comics_4

download (21)

Sensation Comics 13

But believe it or not there was another patriotic hero, one who wasn’t afraid to buck tradition or assumed gender roles that the 1940’s had placed on American culture, one who used her incredible strength and invulnerability to not only help America beat back the Axis powers but to open a unholy beat down on American officials who she deemed corrupt and incapable of doing their jobs: Miss Victory.

CaptainAeroComics-MissVictory-Page01

Origin and career:

Miss Victory debuted as a side story in Captain Fearless #1 in August, 1941.  In keeping with wartime comic tradition it shows someone beating Nazis to pulp.

1018171-fearless_1

It should be noted that she predates Wonder Woman by about four months making her one of the first super heroines in comics, although not the first.   In terms of origin Miss Victory doesn’t have one, she just appears in the comic and it is simply assumed she has super strength and invulnerability (hey, it was a simpler time back than).

MissVictorVsNaziGorilla

Her real name was Joan Wayne, a stenographer (fancy word for someone who writes down conversations) working for the government.  However, instead of simply contenting herself with beating back Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo she decided that it wasn’t enough and turned her attention towards corrupt and deceitful American politicians and law makers (corruption and lies in American government? THAT’S never a problem)  and holy hell was she dedicated to her work.

bef61d3177a8791e51d4c9a2c649f34e

1318292844Captain_Aero_Comics_no.17_194410_pg09

miss-victory01

Yes Miss Victory wasn’t just a Nazi hunter, she was also a champion of social justice.  As a quick side note, social commentary is another thing that the Golden Age of superheroes was known for.  Superman’s first appearance had him save a man from Death Row, stop a wife beater, and tackle political corruption, it’s just that it quickly took a back seat to Nazi punching.

So what happened?

Miss Victory continued to star in her own short stories in the back of Captain Fearless comics until the comic was discontinued in 1946.  Post war America had little use for patriotic themed heroes and her publisher, Helnit Publishing, had been bought by Holyoke Publishing (it should be noted that Holyoke was no shrinking violet publishing house.  They are responsible for the creation of the Blue Beetle and one of their original artists, Carmine Infantino, was instrumental in creating the modern day Flash) and she was cut to save money.

However, Miss Victory had a much longer career than most of the Golden Age gems we’ve talked about and she would eventually have something even rarer: a resurrection.

In 1984 writer Bill Black and artist Mark Heike resurrected Miss Victory and gave her a new team, the Femforce, which was one of the first all female superhero groups ever created.  The comic was published by AC comics, a company that was founded in 1969 and made a name for itself bringing Golden Age superheroes into the modern era.  Her look was updated.

download (22)

and she was given a back story.  In this version she was still alive for WW2 but secretly developed a serum called V-47 to help boost the strength and endurance of American troops.  Sadly, it only worked for her but thanks to the serum she now had super strength, invulnerability, and radically slowed aging which explains why someone who is over 70 years old can look like that.

Now you may be wondering where this particular title went.  The answer is that it’s still going.  AC Comics is still around and you can actually purchase recent Femforce comics on their website.  It just goes to show that when you have a staunch defender of liberty and freedom like Miss Victory it’s almost impossible to make it go away.

The Primordial Soup: July 4th, Captain America, and Modern Myth

Ah the 4th of July.  A time for Americans all over the world to stuff our faces with more food than even we’re used to,

july-bbq-ay-x

Terrify our pets and small children with big loud explosions in the sky,

images (13)

and if we have time, remember our country’s foundation and the crowd of old white men that got together and hammer out the rules and laws Americans live by today.

trumbull-large1

One thing that has really struck me looking back at the history of America is our fascination with symbols and myth, especially with the classics.  Granted, this is nothing new.  Every part of the world has a part of their history that they fondly remember but I like to think America is a bit different and a bit more obsessed with it than the rest of the world.  After all, what other country has a massive statue of the Roman God Libertas, the classical personification of freedom from tyranny, and displays it so proudly?

download (18)

Author’s note: yes I am aware the statue was a gift from France.

It’s fair to say that Americans, especially out founding fathers, loved to build statues based off of classical ideals and abstract figures.  It’s also fair to say that this fascination has changed a bit.  Instead of building monuments to the ancient goddess of victory like the Dewey Monument in San Francisco

Dewey-monument-eastward-in-union-sq1859

To more corporeal figures like Abraham Lincoln

images (14)

To Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin-Luther-King-Jr-web-1024x682

So where have all the representatives of ideas and values gone?  Do we pay attention to symbols anymore?  The answer is yes, we still have representative figures of these values and they are found in our comic books, specifically our comic book heroes.

It’s no small secret that pop culture is in love with super heroes at the moment and a truly great hero can become immortal in our hearts and minds.  In my opinion the best heroes fall into two categories.  They are either the weird and crazy ones that you can help but admire.

deadpool

download (19)

Or the more serious ones succeed because they are representations of ideas that are much bigger than themselves or anyone one person.  Comic books are stuffed to the gills with the personifications of justice,

3058421-nealadamsbatman

human curiosity and scientific advancement,

download (20)

and our hope for peaceful existence and a desire to live a society that can accept us for who we are.

infographic-crazy-x-men-movie-timeline

This all started, as almost every comic book trope started, with the big blue boy scout himself the physical manifestation of the American dream who tirelessly fought for the principals of “Truth, Justice, and the American way”.

wbhe-05

There have been entire books and websites dedicated to the meaning and symbolism of Superman, the creation of two first generation Jewish Americans who wanted to build something that would symbolize the hopes and dreams of the wave of immigrants coming into America, but one thing is clear, the years have not been very kind to the original message.  Today Superman is written more as a Christ figure and writers tend to play more to his alien heritage than his original meaning and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

man-of-steel-superman

However, that means that there must be another hero to take his place, someone who can symbolize what America can stand for and if you read the title, or have even the most cursory knowledge of comics or comic book movies, you know who it is.

1585_CaptainAmerica_AvengersAssemble_46

The symbolism of Cap is pretty obvious, so obvious that even a 4 year old can figure out his meaning.  To quote Bob Chipman, a Boston based internet movie critic who is a favorite of mine, “If you pointed out to him [Captain America] that he’s kind of corny, he’d respectfully ask that you not refer to a storied American produce like corn in the pejorative sense.” (this is taken from his review of the first Captain America movie) and that is completely true.  Captain America is everything now that Superman was fifty years ago.

But here’s the thing, it’s not just Cap’s uniform and shield that make him the personification of American ideals, it’s his actions as well.  Whenever America did something morally questionable or outright evil, Captain America was there to voice his displeasure.  One of the biggest instances of this was in 1974 when it was discovered that the President, looking suspiciously close to Richard Nixon, turned out to be a terrorist in disguise.  Captain America proceeded to abandon his costume and start fighting crime as the hero Nomad.

Nomad

But one of the best, and my personal favorite, example was with the 2006 story line Civil War.

Civil_War_Vol_1_1_Variant

Now to many comic fans this may seem like a polarizing choice and I’ll admit that Civil War has produced some things that quite a few people don’t like.

03-Spider-Man-One-More-Day

But it’s the main storyline, where the superheroes are divided between those who see government registration as a safe and secure way to train and use their powers to help more people and those who view becoming glorified government employees as a threat to their personal liberties, that I really like.  While Iron Man, the ever practical business man and futurist, sides with and lead the pro registration side it is Captain America who goes against the will of his government and many of his friends to say “this is wrong and I need to fight it”.

captain-america-vs-iron-man-civil-war

Captain America is the unironic personification of all the good America the country has done and the model character for all the good and upright things America is capable of doing.  So this July 4th enjoy your food, enjoy the fireworks, and remember that myths and heroic representations of all the good things we can be is still around and still going strong.

Oh, and for all the non Americans who read this article, thank you for putting up with this one day where we’re louder and brasher than usual.

Golden Age Showcase #1: The Vagabond

The Golden Age of Comic Books was a period in comic book history that saw the American comic book come into its own as an art form and saw the introduction of what we would today call “superheroes”.  Although the exact start date can be debated most people agree that the Golden Age began with the publication of Action Comics #1 in June 1938, an anthology series featuring a strange new creation by two men named Jerry Seigel and Joel Shuster simply named “Superman”

Action_Comics_1

This superhero able to move “faster than a speeding bullet” became immensely popular and helped kick off the Golden Age of Comics and a boom in superhero titles.  Some of these new superheroes would go on to become industry giants.

220px-Detective_Comics_27

SensationComics

Some would start out as the creation of one comic book company and would later be either sold off, bought, or merged with one of the industry giants to become future comic book mega stars.

captain-america-comics-1

220px-Whiz2

And others would continue to survive as important characters but either undergo drastic changes to their character in later years or continue to survive without the iconic pop culture status of their peers.

blue-beetle-fox

All-American_Comics_16

But there were other superheroes, a lot of them actually, who didn’t survive past the Golden Age.  Whether it was because they didn’t have the staying power to survive the over saturation of the market (like I said, there were A LOT of superheroes) or because they fell victim to the forces of censorship and the Comics Code Authority (this is an article for another day but for now all you have to know is that the Comics Code Authority was a set of rules and censors that was put in place to “protect” children from obscene and violent images that could turn them into delinquents) there were hundreds of superheroes that had their own comic book series that simply vanished off the face of the earth.

This series is dedicated to those superheroes, the obscure and crazy heroes that only lasted a few issues and were probably created in a haze of some massive drinking binge or some other illicit substance.  So let’s start this series off with a little known “hero” created by Timely Comics (the company that would later become Marvel Comics in the 60’s) known only as

The Vagabond

vagabondtimely1

Origin and career:

The Vagabond was first introduced in the anthology series USA comics #2 in 1941.  This is the cover.

USAComics2

Despite the awesome insanity that must have gone into the conception of the comic and the character (“Hey Bob!  I have this great idea for a comic where we have a guy dressed up as a clown and he’s part of a comic where Hitler invades New York!” “BRILLIANT”) his backstory is surprisingly straightforward.  The Vagabond is the costumed identity of a police officer named Pat Murphy (there is a debate on whether or not he’s actually an FBI agent by the name of Walter Carstairs but we’ll go with this for now).  Fed up with the rise of crime in his home city of Middleton Pat decides that he needs to fight crime by hiding his face.

secret origins

The Vagabond has no superpowers other than his fists.  Basically he’s Batman, only instead of a rich playboy he’s a cop and instead of a dark and imposing bat he’s a hobo.  Although to be fair, when you’re a criminal facing off against this

TheVagabond

not even the Batman can match the sheer terror this face can inspire.

Despite his somewhat normal origin, the Vagabond’s short career was the kind of mad filled fever dream that can only be created when a writer is desperate to meet a deadline and sniffed a gallon of ether to meet his deadline (this probably didn’t happen but hey, writers are a crazy bunch).  While he didn’t do much other than beat up some goons in a bar his costume and identity demanded that he speak with a mock upper class accent and use words like “tally ho” and “yoinks” in his everyday speech.  Also, and I swear I am not making this up, in an attempt to protect his every day identity, he began to refer himself as “Chauncey Throttlebottom the Third”.  It is at this moment I’d like to re stress that this is from the same company that would later become Marvel Comics, a company that produced some of the greatest heroes the world has ever seen, and one of their first heroes went by the name “Throttlebottom”.

So what happened?

The Vagabond lasted only three issues, I guess the idea of a crime fighting bum just didn’t catch on too well, even with a name like “Throttlebottem” (will I ever get tired of saying that name?  NOPE!).  It is believed that Patrick had difficulty maintaining two separate identities and eventually adopted the hobo persona on a full time basis, exploring one of the most difficult and challenging aspects of being a costumed hero.  He did manage to make a guest appearance in a later issue of the Avengers where he helped fight back an army of Nazis (clowns fighting Nazis?  AAAAHHH!!) but for the most part he was simply too good for this world and faded into obscurity.

So that’s the first issue of our Golden Age showcase.  If you enjoyed this post please let us know in the comments, on Facebook, or Twitter (@CambrianComics) and if you have any requests or want to learn more about a particular Golden Age super hero do not hesitate to ask.