Golden Age Showcase: A selection of comics about 9/11

So it’s September 11th today.

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They say everyone who is old enough to remember 9/11 remembers exactly where they were when they heard the news.  I don’t know if this is true for everyone, but I remember being in middle school and being hurried into an auditorium by the entire staff and not really understanding what was going on until much later.

September 11th was an important event in American history and for American comics as well.  For starters, it was the deadliest attack on American soil by a foreign threat since Pearl Harbor.

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We all know that Pearl Harbor was the principal event that brought the United States into World War 2, but it was also the event that guided the direction of American comics towards superheroes,

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and war comics.

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If we take a step back this makes a lot of sense.  Comic book publishers saw that the American people needed escapist power fantasies where all their problems could be solved by walking metaphors that could punch their problems in the face and this trend would continue as America became a world wide military superpower that became increasingly involved in world affairs.

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Just like Pearl Harbor, 9/11 was an event that rekindled our interest in superheroes.

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and it even revitalized an interest in modern military narratives, although these tended to find their way into video games and other forms of media.

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Once again, it was a way for American culture to make sense of our place in the world and give a brightly colored metaphor to our problems.  The only differences were that our heroes fought in Afghanistan instead of Europe and a lot of creators had to deal with a more complex and morally grey fallout.

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In many ways post 9/11 America paralleled post Pearl Harbor America and comic books were there to document and process it.

I know it happened a long time ago, that it brings up painful memories that a lot of us would like to forget, and that many of us would like to keep the political and social fallout that the event caused out of our comic books, but stuff like this is important and needs to be talked about.

So today I’m going to give a brief overview of three comics that dealt with the events of 9/11 and a little bit about the background and influences of each one.

Amazing Spiderman #36

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This comic hit the stores on December of 2001, a mere two months after the attacks.  As a result, it is the closest out of the three comics to the actual attacks, during a time when it was still terrifyingly fresh in our minds and we were all still standing together against a threat that we really didn’t understand.

Out of all the superheroes in the modern pop culture cannon, Spiderman is probably the one who is most connected to New York, and one of the most hard hit by the events of 9/11.

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While New York has always had a special place in comic books as the birthplace of the American superhero industry, Spider Man has had a special relationship with the city.  He’s the city’s defender, the protector of the ordinary people living there, and I’m willing to bet that he’s incredibly grateful for all of the tall skyscrapers around that allow him to actually use his webs effectively.

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The attacks would even have an effect on the Sam Raimi Spiderman movie, forcing Sony to remove a shot of the Twin Towers from a trailer,

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and inspiring Sam Raimi to include a “this is New York!  If you mess with him you mess with all of us” scene into the movie.

The comic itself was written by the legendary writer J. Michael Straczynski and was drawn by Marvel stalwart John Romita Sr.  It isn’t part of a larger story, it’s just Spiderman wandering the wreckage of Ground Zero and trying to process it all.

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Now, I have seen some criticism over the years about this comic, and I can kind of see why.  There’s a page where some of the most violent and destructive villains in the Marvel Universe are just standing in the wreckage, doing nothing.
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Hell, this wasn’t even the first time that Marvel destroyed the Twin Towers in their version of New York.  Juggernaut did it in an issue of X-Force in 1991 and laughed about it.

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but this is not the kind of comic if you ask me this comic deserves our attention and respect as a way for a company that is so engrained into the culture of New York to come to terms with an event that shook the city and the country to its core.

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In the Shadow of No Towers

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In the Shadow of No Towers was published in 2004 and was written by indie comics legend Art Spiegelman, the author of the groundbreaking graphic novel Maus.

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Mr. Spiegelman is a native New Yorker and was there during the attacks.  He was a contributor to the New Yorker magazine at the time and is responsible for the cover of the magazine published on September 24th 2001.

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He’s also a big fan and advocate of comics and takes a lot of inspiration from a lot of the early comic book artists, and it shows in his work.  The book itself is much more personal than the Spiderman comic, but at the same time it has something more to say about the event and its impact.

On one hand it’s about the author himself and where he was during the attacks.  His daughter was attending school near the Twin Towers on that day and the author is not afraid to talk about the fear and terror of actually being up close and personal to an event like that was.

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On the other hand, this book was published in 2004 and while we had come to grips with the attack itself, we were neck deep in the consequences that the attack wrought on American culture and politics. Specifically we were at the beginning of what would become a long, drawn out military occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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Spiegelman saw what was going on, how the attacks were being used to justify spending billions of dollars and killing thousands of American troops (along with Lord knows how many Iraqi and Afghani citizens), and he was not happy with what he saw.

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This book uses old school comic characters and techniques to talk about 9/11 and its aftermath and it is really worth checking out.

Ex Machina

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This comic came out the same time as In the Shadow of No Towers but instead of being a one off graphic novel, it was a 50 issue comic series that lasted six years and was published by DC Comics.

The series was created and written by Brian K. Vaughn,

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who has been doing a lot of great comic book work and is most well known for creating the indie mega hit Saga.

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Now, Vaughn is not a native New Yorker but he did go to New York University and got his start there and, according to the author himself, he created Ex Machina as a rant against the political leadership of the time.

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The comic presents an alternate history of New York and America.  It’s a future where there is a single superhero called “The Great Machine” and he manages to stop one of the planes from crashing into one of the towers.  In the aftermath he is elected to become mayor of New York City and the comic deals with his term in office.

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The comic is a political drama and out of the three titles we’ve talked about it is probably the most detached from the actual events of 9/11.  While it actually changes the events of that day, it uses the superhero story to tell a gripping and meaningful story that shines a light on American politics and how our country’s leaders used the Twin Towers to guide the American public towards the future we are living in now.  The comic is brilliant and it is definitely worth your time.

So there you have it, three different comics, by three different types of comic professionals, talking about the same event through different viewpoints and motivations.  And while it is important to acknowledge the fallout and changes to our culture and way of life, it is important to never forget what happened and how we can ensure it will never happen again.

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Golden Age Showcase: Blackhawk

So I saw the Dunkirk movie yesterday.

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I liked it, it was very well directed, and it’s probably the most British movie since Chariots of Fire.

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The movie got me thinking about this blog.  The simple truth of the matter is that this blog deals with heroes that were created in a time when the world needed a bit of escapist fantasy and the comic book industry responded by creating a whole bunch of heroes who could do the fighting for them.

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While there was a time and a place for these types of stories it’s important to remember that the fantastical violence shown in World War 2 era comics was very real for a lot of people and many of those people didn’t make it out alive.

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Now, we’ve covered some of the more “realistic” war comics with characters like Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos,

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but this week I thought it might be fun to talk about another war comic that was actually published during World War 2 with Quality Comics’ fighter squadron/expertly dressed hero Blackhawk.

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Origin and Career

Blackhawk made his first appearance in Quality Comics’ Military Comics #1 in August of 1941.

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Right off the bat the main character made the cover and looks good doing it.

There is some debate as to who created the character in the first place.  While many credit comic book legend Will Eisner with the character’s creation,

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Eisner himself gave most of the credit to artist Charles Cuidera and writer Bob Powell.

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For a time when the United States hadn’t entered the war in Europe, this comic was certainly very much for it.  In the very first page the comic shows the Nazis steamrolling through Poland and introducing the main villain of Captain von Tepp, who is the very definition of a bastard.

Comic Book Cover For Military Comics #1

Seriously, even kicking puppies seems a bit tame for this guy.

Von Tepp and his Butcher Squadron discover a mysterious black plane that they shoot down.  The Captain makes the unknown pilot’s life even more hellish by destroying a farmhouse with innocent people in it.

Comic Book Cover For Military Comics #1

The pilot is revealed to be a man named Blackhawk, who vows revenge against the Nazis and gets his wish a few months later when he confronts Von Tepp and kidnaps him.

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Blackhawk takes the Captain back to his island base where they decide to settle their grievances with an honorable duel using airplanes.

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Naturally the Nazi cheats by sabotaging Blackhawk’s plane and the two crash to the ground, where the grudge is settled when Blackhawk shoots the Captain.

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In later issues it was revealed that the Blackhawks were actually a squadron of fighter pilots made up of men whose nations had been captured by the Nazis.

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Side note: this actually has a basis in real history.  Feel free to look up the exploits of groups like the Polish 303 Squadron if you want some real life heroics.

In Issue #3 the group would also get a Chinese cook, who was unfortunately named “Chop Chop”.

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…well they can’t all be good.

Sales wise the Blackhawks were a massive hit for Quality Comics.  They were so successful that they received their own comic in 1944.

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In 1950 it was revealed that the leader of the Blackhawks was actually an American volunteer fighter pilot who had joined the Polish air force and decided to form the squadron as a way to fight back against the Nazis, even though he and his comrades had no country.

Some of the most talented writers and artists of the Golden Age worked on the Blackhawk title and it was actually so popular that Quality continued to publish the title right up until they went out of business in 1956 with Blackhawk #107 being the last issue.

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So what happened?

Quality couldn’t make it past the comic book slump of the 1950’s and sold off the rights to most of their characters to DC comics in 1956.

Interestingly enough, the Blackhawks had been so popular that DC actually decided to continue publishing the title after they bought it,

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they even kept most of the original art team on the title ensuring that the only thing that changed with the comic was the logo.

Now that the Blackhawks had new life they wound up being one of the few superhero teams to transition into the Silver Age of Comics.  This time in comic book history saw the squadron face fewer Nazis and more science fiction themed villains and things got a little…weird.

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Also, in 1959 they added a lady to the team as an on and off supporting character.  She was given the rather unimaginative name of Lady Blackhawk.

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She would remain one of the biggest members of the supporting cast and even became a villain named Queen Lady Shark.

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I don’t know what’s funnier, the skis or that hat.

Ironically, the rise of superhero comics in the 1960’s hurt the Blackhawk Squadron and while DC attempted to revamp the group in 1967 by giving them new names and costumes,

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it only lasted 14 issues before the title was cancelled.

The Blackhawks would make a brief comeback in 1976 as a group of mercenaries,

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but they were cancelled again until the 1980’s when they were sent back to their familiar stomping grounds of World War 2.

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The 1980’s series reworked the Blackhawks and gave their older stories a more modern update in terms of storytelling, including a much more dignified appearance and backstory for poor Chop Chop.

In 1988 DC reworked its entire history with the mega event Crisis on Infinite Earths 

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and the Blackhawks made the cut.  They were given another reworking and this time the squadron was led by a man named Janos Prohaska, an actual Polish national who was forced to flee his home after the Soviets kicked him out.

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The Blackhawks continue to be a part of the DC universe.  One of their more noticeable appearances was in the excellent Justice League animated show where they played a major part in the episode “The Savage Time”.

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and in the show Arrow the “Blackhawk Squad Protection Group” made an appearance as the place of employment for John Diggle’s commanding officer Ted Gaynor.

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Also, a group calling themselves the Blackhawks got their own title in DC Comics’ New 52 relaunch,

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but they have yet to show up in DC’s more recent “Rebirth” relaunch.

The Blackhawks are a team with a long and fantastic history.  What I find really fascinating is just how well they were able to survive so much while so many of their contemporaries fell through the cracks, never to be seen again and if it wasn’t for characters like Plastic Man,

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I would go as far as to say that the Blackhawks were the best and most notable comic to ever be published by Quality Comics.

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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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Golden Age Showcase: The Fin

You know who doesn’t get nearly enough respect in the comic book world?  Superheroes who live and work in the water.

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I mean really, we live on a planet that has water covering over 70% of our surface and so many people like to treat genuine and well established heroes like Aquaman and Namor as jokes.

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With that being said, there has been a lot done over the past decade to rectify this.  Aquaman has been getting a lot of attention from the DC higher ups,

Aquaman: Rebirth #1

and despite everything I’ve been saying, Namor has actually been an integral part of the Marvel stories since the beginning as comic’s first anti hero.

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my point is, that there has been a lot of work and effort put in to making characters like these fun and badass and that deserves a lot of respect.

So let’s take the idea that water based heroes can be taken seriously and throw it out the window by taking a look at…the Fin.

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Origin and career

The Fin made his first appearance in Daring Mystery Comics #7 in April of 1941.

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He was created by Massachusetts native and comic book legend Bill Everett.

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The man has a reputation as one of the greats, especially when you consider that his resume includes the creation of Daredevil,

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and Namor the Submariner.

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I guess the guy really liked the ocean.

Back to the Fin,

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the man’s real identity was Peter Noble, a United States naval cadet who found himself in the unfortunate position of being on a sinking submarine,

Peter manages to escape and eventually discovers an underwater cave where he manages to find air, edible plants, and a strange race of creatures calling themselves Neptunians.

Peter fights their ruler, a creature named Ikor, in single combat and realizes that he can breathe underwater because of reasons.

He also becomes their king after killing Ikor with his gun (that somehow manages to work after being underwater for a long time) and the Neptunians begin to worship him as a reincarnation of one of their noble ancestors named “The Fin”.

Peter then asserts his dominance by proclaiming that he is now their king and intends to rule with an iron fist…or just for as long as it takes for him to find a way back home.

The story ends with Peter returning to the sub and fashioning a “slick costume” in order to go off and have an adventure.

Somewhere, a shark is laughing his tail off.

The Fin would have one final Golden Age adventure in the following issue of Daring Mystery Comics where he fought a U-Boat captain calling himself the Barracuda.

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Special mention needs to be given to just how evil the Barracuda is.  He’s got he mustache. the monocle, and has no problem killing women and children.  

Seriously, the Red Skull would be looking at this and go “damn, that’s a bit much”.

Naturally the Fin swoops (swims?) in and saves the day by giving the villain the beating of his life.

He then calls in the Navy and the story ends with the day saved and the villains brought to justice.

So what happened?

The Fin would never have another Golden Age adventure, but not for the reasons you might think.

Normally a lot of these types of characters were cancelled after World War 2 ended due to lack of reader interest, but the Fin was left in the dust BECAUSE of the war.

See, thanks to the fight against the Axis powers, the United States launched a massive campaign to collect material for the war effort.  This meant things like saving metal and paper were given a lot of attention.

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The U.S also implemented a strict rationing system for everything you could imagine from gas to sugar and, most importantly for the comic book industry, paper.

So thanks to rationing and mailing costs Timely Comics had to put a damper on Daring Mystery Comics.  While they did start back up again in 1944 the damage was done and the Fin was no more.

However, like many of his fellow patriots in spandex the Fin would find new life in the later years.

His first post war appearance was in Avengers #97 in 1972 where a likeness of his character, along with a few other Golden Age greats, helped defend Earth during the Kree-Skrull war.

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That was his only appearance for a long time until 2004 where the Fin would become a much more fleshed out and meaningful character in the  All New Invaders series and the unfinished All Winners Squad: Band of Heroes mini series.

He was an ally of the main characters and part of a military team called “The Crazy Sues”, a special group of enhanced humans gathered by the Allies to defeat the Nazis.

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He was not the talkative type.

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Besides his team he also decided to get married to a human/Atlantean hybrid named Nia Noble and assumed his place as the king of Neptunia.

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Despite his background status and small time appearances, the Fin was given a validation of sorts when he appeared in the Marvel Handbook in 2004.

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I’ll be honest, when I was first doing research into the Fin at the start of the article I was a bit skeptic and only wanted to write about him as a joke.  At first glance, I don’t think it’s too hard to see why.

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Looking at him now, with the benefit of research and hindsight, I see him as more of a tragic hero.  Sure he was goofy and had a weird costume, but he was created by a great of the industry and went on to have a fair amount of time in the spotlight.

It’s safe to say that he deserves a place in the pantheon of water themed superheroes.

Cambrian Comic’s Friday Showcase: My top 5 favorite comics #5

So it’s Friday and instead of being at Comic Con or having somebody else’s cool work to show you (if you are interested in showing off your written work or art work feel free to hit us up @cambriancomics and we’ll take a look) I’m going to do what seems to be par for the course on the Internet these days and share with you my favorite comic book series in a list based format.  Over the next couple of weeks I am going to countdown my top 5 favorite comic book series and explain why I like them.

First the usual disclaimers: This list reflects my opinion only if you see something you don’t like please keep it to yourself or leave a nicely worded comment on the site or on Twitter.  All work belongs to their respective owners.

5. DMZ (Vertigo Comics)

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Author: Brian Wood

Artist:  Riccardo Burchielli

Number of issues: 72 (collected into 12 trade paperbacks)

DMZ is what happens when speculative science fiction meets really good and really personal dramatic writing.  The comic is set in the not too distant future where a post 9/11 American government has over extended itself in its War on Terror and has ignored too many pressing domestic issues.  Furious at Washington for spending far too much blood and treasure a large group of dissidents in the American Midwest form a new government dubbed the “Free States” and the second American Civil War begins.

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The comic takes place after the Free State armies halt their successful advance at Manhattan, unable to take the island with the American military on the other side of the river unwilling to engage.  A stalemate develops with Manhattan being declared a Demilitarized Zone, stranding over 400,000 people on the island between the two opposing armies.

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Into this potential powder keg comes a young reporter named Matty Roth who must navigate armed gangs, corrupt public officials, and a very tense political situation to learn all he can about life in the DMZ and manage to survive with his life and freedom intact.

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This is one of those once in a generation comic books, a story that captures the moment it was written and manages to act as a warning to possible future events without sounding too preachy.  Writer Brain Wood manages to accomplish two things.  First, he manages to shed a glaring spotlight on current geopolitical affairs through his storytelling.  It may seem a bit of a stretch to see America torn in half with two equally unpleasant factions vying for control

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and to see America littered with bombed out buildings, suicide bombers, and military checkpoints,

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But this sort of thing is happening today, just not in America.

Also, while Wood does a fantastic job at showing the grand political and military game being played he also makes the story deeply personal and intimate.  When Matty Roth crash lands into war torn Manhattan he doesn’t find a collection of savages living off of rats and wallpaper paste, he finds normal sane people going about their daily lives and trying to adjust to the situation around them.

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It’s not just gangs and psychopaths stalking the streets of New York (although there are plenty of those around) it’s a community filled with art, culture, and pride in who they are and where they are from.

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Amid the ashes, grime, and horror of warfare these 400,000 refugees manage to create their own home and distinct identity, which brings me to the artwork.

Holy crap the artwork is some of the best I’ve ever seen.  Normally I’m not much of an art hound, I prefer comics that favor a good story over art (I may be slightly biased since I can’t draw worth a damn) but I do believe that comic art is at its best when it compliments the story it tells.  Riccardo Burchielli is the perfect artist for this project.

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His style is very dark and blocky creating an aggressive and intimidating look that stays with you for a while, a style that is very good at displaying both the weariness that comes with warfare and the inhuman savagery of those who are fighting it.  He’s also very good at drawing lots of tiny little details in both settings and characters which is fantastic for the countless pouches and modifications you can see on the clothing and uniforms and the destruction of the bombed out hulks in each of the buildings.

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The entire comic series has solid writing, amazing artwork, and tells a story that is gut wrenchingly brutal, deeply personal, and yet…strangely optimistic and heartwarming.

If you would like to read DMZ you can find it on COMIXOLOGY or buy the physical copy on the Vertigo Comics website.