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.

Golden Age Showcase: The Grim Reaper

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

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

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

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

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

Comic Book Cover For Wonder Comics #2

Origin and Career

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

 Comic Book Cover For The Fighting Yank #7 - Version 1

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

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

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

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

Comic Book Cover For The Fighting Yank #7 - Version 1

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

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

Comic Book Cover For The Fighting Yank #7 - Version 2

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

Comic Book Cover For The Fighting Yank #7 - Version 2

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

Comic Book Cover For Wonder Comics #1

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

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

Comic Book Cover For Wonder Comics #1

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

Comic Book Cover For Wonder Comics #1

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

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

Comic Book Cover For Wonder Comics #1

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

Comic Book Cover For Wonder Comics #1

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

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

Comic Book Cover For Wonder Comics #2

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

Comic Book Cover For Wonder Comics #2

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

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

Comic Book Cover For Wonder Comics #2

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

Comic Book Cover For Wonder Comics #2

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

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

Comic Book Cover For Wonder Comics #8

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

So what happened?

History and bad business happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comic book showcase: Truth: Red, White, and Black

Today is Martin Luther King day.

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Now, we’ve been writing this blog series for a long time and when an important holiday happens to fall on a Monday, we like to find some sort of superhero and/or comic book that fits within the theme for that holiday.

When it’s the 4th of July we like to do a patriotic superhero,

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when it’s Halloween we like to do a horror themed blog post,

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and for holidays such as Martin Luther King day, we like to talk about black superheroes.

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We’ve briefly talked about the history of black men and women in comic books before, but today I thought we could break tradition and talk about an actual comic book series that was published in 2003 and uses one of the worst events in American history to tell a damn good story.

Today we’re going to talk about Truth: Red, White, and Black.

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Origin and history

WARNING: We are about to discuss a historical event that involves some very questionable ethics, upsetting imagery, and a rather frank discussion of race relations in America.  It may cause some people discomfort but talking about this is necessary in order to make sure something like this never happens again.

Between 1932 and 1972 the United States Public Health Service conducted a long running experiment known as “The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment” where they purposely infected 600 black men in rural Alabama with syphilis in order to study the long term effects of the disease.

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As if that wasn’t bad enough, the people running the study never told these men what was going on.  Instead, all the test subjects were informed that they were simply receiving free healthcare and medical treatment.

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This vile experiment continued until the program was shut down in 1972 after the project was discovered and public outcry grew too strong.

Although the study was shut down and $10 million dollars were paid out in reparations after a class action lawsuit in 1974 it remains one of the darkest chapters in American history.

The Comic

In January of 2003 comic book writer Robert Morales pitched an idea to Marvel’s editor in chief Joe Quesada that told an alternate story behind the serum that turned Steve Rogers into Captain America.

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As many of us know, the true recipe for the super soldier serum was destroyed after creating Captain America, but that didn’t stop the Allies and the Nazis from trying to replicate it and making more super soldiers.

What followed was as series of experiments to see if the formula could be replicated.  In the case of the Allies, they forced a regiment of African Amerian soldiers to act as human guinea pigs for the serum, because people are awful and mid 20th century America didn’t really care about black people.

The results were catastrophic and disturbing.

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...and the horror that ensued, graphic illustration of a moral low-point in human and US history.

However, five test subjects did survive to be sent off to the war and one manged to come home.  His name was Isaiah Bradley and he was the first black Captain America.

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Despite having every right to be pissed off at the people giving him orders, Isaiah did his job and did it well.  He managed to swipe one of Captain America’s spare shields and uniforms and kick a lot of Nazi butt.

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Image result for truth red white and black

He was even captured by the Nazis but was rescued before he could be dissected and studied.

His country decided to reward his bravery and accomplishments by court marshaling him and throwing him into prison in 1943 because sometimes life just takes a steaming dump on you and there is nothing you can do about it.

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He was later pardoned by President Eisenhower in 1960.

At the end of the series, Steve Rogers managed to find out about the program that created Isaiah and tried to make things better.  Unfortunately, the serum had a debilitating effect on Isaiah’s mind and he suffered Alzheimer’s like symptoms until he had the mental capacity of a child.

The last panel of the series is one of the most heartbreaking and sweetest panels I’ve ever seen.

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Impact of the comic

Within the Marvel Universe, Isaiah Bradley became a symbol and a living legend within the black community.

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Also, he served as a grandfather like figure and inspiration to many of Marvel’s black superheroes.  Even Black Panther gives him a massive amount of respect.

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While he was immensely popular with other black heroes he remained unknown by many white superheroes

Sadly, even after he did his time and served his country the United States government tried to use him and duplicate the experiment.  They wound up creating a clone that was born from a surrogate mother.  The child managed to escape and named himself Josiah X.

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Isaiah also had a grandson named Elijah Bradly who would go on to become the superhero Patriot.

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I’ve talked about race relations in comic books before.  When the industry really started taking off it was not kind to men and women of color.  While I do think things have gotten  better there is still a wide discrepancy between black creators and superheroes and white creators and superheroes in terms of audience and exposure.  But, thankfully things are getting even better and I believe only good things are in store for the future.

Truth: Red, White, and Black is one of the most brutal and uncompromising comic books out there and it is well worth your time and money.  It takes one of the ugliest events in American history and manages to turn it into something that is not only educational but one of the sweetest and most important comic book stories in the past twenty years.

Thank you for reading this article!  Besides weekly blog posts about comic books and superheroes Cambrian Comics also publishes a bi weekly web comic called “The Secret Lives of Villains” and the first volume is up for sale on Amazon here!  If you enjoyed this article please feel free to support us by picking up a copy.  Thanks again!

Golden Age Showcase: Camera Comics

Today we’re going to do something different.

I was planning to try and talk about a famous Golden Age comic book villain, but since most of the bad guys were usually one note, thinly veiled Nazis.

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or usually wound up dead after a single issue,

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it was kind of difficult for a villain to really take off.

The thing is, during my research I discovered a comic book villain called “The Mad Arsonist”.

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That’s him in the background holding the vial and looking like a half crazed madman.

The story behind him is simple, he’s a crazy pharmacist who liked to set things on fire and watch them burn.

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While the villain himself was pretty intriguing what I wound up discovering is that the company that published his story, Camera Comics, had a pretty interesting backstory itself.

So today, instead of talking about a single character, we’re going to showcase an entire company and the work they did.  Today we’re going to talk about Camera Comics.

Origin and Titles

In 1935 a man named Tomas Maloney published a magazine called U.S Camera.

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Maloney was an advertising executive and photography enthusiast who dedicated himself to publishing photographic works and promoting photography as an art form.

He would move on to publishing a full size magazine, titled U.S Camera Magazine, in 1938.

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The publication was a success and would eventually reach a peak circulation of over 300,000 copies.

In 1945 the U.S Camera Publishing Corporation looked at the pop culture landscape, noticed that this new fangled “comic book” was really popular with young people, and decided to enter the comic book publishing game themselves.  Their first publication was Camera Comics #1 in October of 1944.

Comic Book Cover For Camera Comics v1 1 (1)

It’s important to understand that these comics were created as advertisements first and stories second, which is a crying shame because a lot of the work that came out of these comic books was really good.

Camera Comics produced six volumes of work and each volume was usually made of three types of material: ads and real world tutorials, fictional stories, and historical/biographical work.

The first type of material was pretty straightforward.  Since Camera Comics was created to advertise and sell photographic equipment it would make sense that a lot of ads were placed in each publication.

Comic Book Cover For Camera Comics v1 1 (1)

Also, each issue had two issues talking about certain aspects of the hobby.  These included instructional pages on how to create a dark room,

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to showing how American soldiers set up, took, and developed recon photos for the war effort.

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Naturally, the war effort led to the second type of material that the comic title published: traditional comic book stories.

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A lot of these stories were similar to the traditional wartime superhero stories that were popular throughout the war.  The big difference is that instead of superpowers and bright costumes saving the day, these heroes usually saved the day by using a camera in some capacity.

For example, “The Grey Comet” was a story about an Air Corps (the Air Force didn’t exist until after the war) pilot who managed to stop a German guided missile and somehow managed to complete a reconnaissance run as well.

Comic Book Cover For Camera Comics v1 1 (1)

Comic Book Cover For Camera Comics v1 1 (1)

This would eventually develop into Camera Comics creating its own characters such as “Kid Click”.

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He was a young kid with a passion for photography and would go around solving small time crimes where his film would always be used as evidence to apprehend he criminals.

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Comic Book Cover For Camera Comics v1 3 (3)

Another character of note was Linda Lens.

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While Kid Click was a pretty blatant gimmick to sell cameras to kids, Linda Lens was surprisingly progressive for comics.  As you can see above she was a capable, independent photographer with her own business which by all accounts was doing well.

What makes it even more interesting is that she wound up becoming a freelance photographer for the U.S Army and was able to appear on the front lines as a combat photographer.

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she actually helped uncover a secret Nazi listening post in a popular officer’s club in Allied occupied France.

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and played an important role in capturing the Nazi spy.

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The third and final type of story that appeared in these books were short biographical comics about famous historical figures that helped develop the art and technical aspects of photography.  These included pioneers such as Matthew B. Brady,

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who was one of the first pioneers of outdoor photography and was one of the first wartime photographers.

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Image result for mathew b brady photography

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and Edward Maybridge, a man who was one of the first people to showcase how a series of still photographs could be turned into a moving picture.

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All in all, Camera Comics was a fun, engaging, and informative advertisement for photography and I like to think that it was a success in convincing a generation of children to take up a camera as a hobby.

So what happened?

Despite some genuinely good work and sincere thought that went into a lot of these comic books, at the end of the day they were just ads.

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Camera Comics played second fiddle to the much more serious publications that Thomas Maloney was publishing and his other work was  finding great success in the popular culture.  In fact, his U.S Camera Annual: 1945 was lauded by the New York Times as “The best picture book on the War to date”

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Camera Comics was cancelled in 1946 after a nine issue publishing run.

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These comics were far better than they had any right to be.  Even though they were essentially glorified ads there was some genuine heart, passion, and talent that went into publishing these stories and that deserves our recognition and respect.  Whether it was telling fictional stories about characters using their cameras to save the day,

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telling stories about the pioneers of photography,

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or showing kids how they could become better photographers themselves,

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Camera Comics was a publication that set out to make photography better for everyone.

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.

Comic Book Cover For Startling Comics v4 1 (10)

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.

Comic Book Cover For The Fighting Yank #1

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.

Comic Book Cover For The Fighting Yank #1

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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4th of July Special: My top 5 Superman stories

Happy Fourth of July everyone!

and what better way to celebrate American independence than to look at the greatest American superhero ever created.

Is there anyone in modern fiction that embodies the ideals of truth, justice, and the American way?

Well, technically that last part isn’t exactly honest.  The “American Way” part of the motto wasn’t added until the 1950’s in an attempt to make Superman more politically friendly and “safe” for kids.  The original Superman had no problem threatening politicians and destroying homes in the name of justice and fair treatment.

Still, all things aside, Superman’s commitment to fighting for the little guy does make him an important figure in American pop culture.  He’s been dissected, discussed, and re interpreted countless time throughout the decades and today I would like to talk about five of the most important and/or interesting Superman stories ever told.

I believe that these five stories focus on a major aspect of Superman’s character and attempt to explain who the Man of Steel is and why he is, and must remain, the way he is.  This list is not designed to be an extensive description of the plots of each of these stories and I highly encourage you to check them out on your own.

Note: This list is my opinion and my opinion only.  If I left out your favorite Superman story please feel free to let me know in the comments.

5. Superman: Red Son

Writer: Mark Millar

Artists: Dave Johnson and Killian Plunkett

Date published: 2003

A huge part of Superman’s personality and character stems from the fact that he grew up on a small farm in the middle of Kanses, the heartland of America.

His parents raised him the best way they could and gave their adopted son Clark the values and moral compass that made him the hero he became.

“Red Son” asks the question: what if Superman hadn’t landed in Kansas?  What if he had landed in America’s ideological opponent: the Soviet Union?

Without going into too much detail it’s safe to say it doesn’t end very well for America and instead of being instilled with values that promote freedom and individual liberty the new Soviet Superman becomes something akin to a Big Brother figure, watching over the people of the world as an authority figure rather than a benevolent guardian.

4. What’s so funny about Truth, Justice, and the American Way?

Writer: Joe Kelly

Artists: Doug Mahnke and Lee Bermejo

Date published: 2001

Unlike most titles on the list this is not a stand alone story, rather it’s an arc in the Action Comics title, which is the long running Superman series that started in 1938 and only ended in 2011 (we’ll get to that).

This story is a discussion on one of the biggest questions a lot of readers have about Superman: why doesn’t he just kill his enemies?

Now, some superheroes do kill,

and some superheroes used to kill

but had that part of their character changed due to editorial mandate and the need to keep a running stable of villains.

While Superman has had his fair share of violent streaks, he has remained pretty committed to not killing his enemies for a very long time.  Even though he has the power to wipe out entire solar systems

and many people have pointed out that, by letting the bad guys he captures live, they have gone on to cause even more death and destruction.

Seriously, in order for a villain to present a threat to Superman they either have to have enough power to rack up a body count in the billions or wield enough intelligence and influence to control countless numbers of people.

“What’s so Funny about Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” answered that question and gave a pretty good reason as to why Superman doesn’t just kill his enemies, no matter how much they may deserve it.

The story starts with Superman coming face to face with a group of heroes known as “The Elite”

They are a group of erstwhile heroes who have no qualms about killing the villains they capture, much to the delight of the people of Earth and the dismay of Superman.

Things come to a head and the Elite and Superman wind up fighting each other.

It is very much an ideological battle that asks a whole lot of questions.  What is the purpose of a hero?  What is the proper use of power?  How far should a hero go in order to keep the peace?

All of these questions are answered in a fight that I believe is one of the best fights in comics.  Granted, the story can be a little heavy handed and self serving at times, but the story shows why Superman must remain the way he his, why he is still relevant it today’s society, and gives us a glimpse into the terrifying vision of a Superman who has no problem killing people.

3. All Star Superman

Writer: Grant Morrison

Artist: Frank Quietly

Publication date: 2011

This is the most modern Superman story to appear on the list and one that answers the OTHER big question about Superman: how can you make a man who is literally invulnerable interesting?

Morrison tackles this question by doing something brilliant: he kills Superman.

Basically, an accident near the sun saturates Superman’s cells with radiation and he only has a short while to live before he disintegrates into energy.

The story is about the last days of Superman on Earth as he says goodbye to Louis Lane.

manages to defeat Lex Luthor one last time,

and comes to grips with his own mortality and several of the stranger bits of the Superman mythos.

This is Superman at his most basic essence.  He’s not protecting a cause, he’s not working with any other hero, he’s a God among men and he is doing everything he can to help.

This series is also home to what I consider to be the greatest page in all of comics.

I tear up every time.

2. Action Comics #1

Not only is this the first appearance of the Superman we know and love, it’s the first American superhero comic ever published.

We owe so much to this comic it’s difficult to describe.  Everything from the costume,

to his secret identity,

To his strange origins define so much of what it means to be a modern day superhero.

Granted, there were other masked vigilantes around before Superman and yes, there are plenty of heroes who have gone on to eclipse the Man of Steel in popularity but I think it is important to remember that without this,

there would be none of this.

1. Superman and the Clan of the Fiery Cross

This isn’t a comic book, it’s a story that ran as a radio serial between June 16th, 1946 to July 1st, 1946 and I believe it is the single most important Superman story ever created.

Post war America had a problem with a group called the Ku Klux Klan.

For anyone who might not know, the Ku Klux Klan (or KKK for short) is a vile hate group that was formed by white men in the American South in order to protect American societ, just as long as that society was white and Protestant Christian.

Unfortunately they are still around and while they used to campaign against the inclusion of black people into American society

they continue to exist today as a force campaigning against immigration and what they perceive as an invasion of America by foreigners.

So why am I talking about this?  Well, in the 1940’s a human rights activist and investigative journalist from Jacksonville Florida named Stetson Kennedy decided to go undercover and investigate the Klan.

He uncovered a whole bunch of the Klan’s secrets from how they ran their meetings, to how they were organized, and even what their secret handshakes looked like.

He actually discovered that beneath the violence and horrific racism the Klan was pretty stupid and after a while he was ready to report his findings to the world.

Unfortunately this was going to be difficult since the Klan was big and Kennedy had no idea if the police of newspaper editors he could share his findings with were members.

So Stetson went to the writes of the popular Superman radio show and together they came up with a 16 part radio drama where Superman fought and defeated “The Clan of the Fiery Cross”.

I won’t talk about the story, you can read a synopsis here and listen to it here if want the original serial complete with ads for Kellog’s Pep, but what I do want to talk about is the real world impact that story had.

The story claimed to expose real Klan codes and practices and in 2005 a book called Freakonomics stated that this single radio serial was the biggest contributor to the decline in Klan membership in the 1940’s.

Whether it’s true or not the fact remains that Superman helped fight and bring down one of the worst and most vile hate groups in American history.

No other hero in popular culture has had that kind of impact on our society and way of life, and that is why this story is the greatest Superman story ever told.  It doesn’t matter how many people like Superman or if people thing he’s too powerful or boring.  What matters is that he is there for us as an example of pure, unadulterated good in the world and worthy of being the champion for the ideals of truth and justice that America was founded on and strives to live up to.

 

Happy July 4th everyone.

Golden Age Showcase: Atomic Man

The Golden Age of Comics gave us our first modern superheroes and established the idea of the modern day origin story as an important part of any superhero’s lore.  There were plenty of ways for someone to decide to become a superhero.  He/she could be naturally endowed with great power,

He/she could have suffered a great personal tragedy,

or a person could have gained powers from some sort of magical incantation/device or scientific experiment.

But one of the most popular ways for a superhero to gain powers was a little known plot device called radiation.

It should be noted that while radiation can kill you in real life, a lot of comic books saw the wonders of the real life Atomic Age and decided that this,

could give you superpowers.

The list of superheroes who gained their powers from some form of radiation is extensive and makes up some of comic’s greatest heroes.

Most of these characters were products of the Silver Age of Comics, a time period between 1956 and 1970 where comics became heavily influenced by science fiction and the brave new world that gave us the Space Race and Tang.

However, the heroes of the Silver Age were not the first superheroes to gain powers from strange radiation.  Comic book writers had known about atomic energy since the end of World War 2 and responded accordingly.

Today I present the first hero of the Atomic Age, a man known simply as…Atomic Man.

Origin and Career

Atomic Man first appeared in Headline Comics #16 in November 1945.

There are two things worth mentioning here.  First, while the Atomic Man doesn’t appear on the cover he is used in its advertising and second, this comic would have been published mere months after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War 2.

The character was created by comic strip artist Charles A. Voight,

who began work as a cartoonist in 1908 and was most famous for a strip called “Betty”.

Voight created the Atomic Man as a scientist named Dr. Adam Mann, a scientist who made it his life’s work to study this strange new nuclear science.

Sadly, Dr. Mann fell victim to a lab explosion while experimenting with uranium 235, the type of uranium which makes atom bombs go boom.   The explosion embedded radioactive shrapnel into his right hand.  However, instead of killing him the shrapnel gave him incredible powers including super strength, flight, the ability to manipulate minds (somehow), and energy blasts.

Naturally, Dr. Mann was somewhat terrified of his newfound power, not just because he had the ability to do great damage to the people he cared about, but because of the damage it could cause if it fell into the wrong hands.  As a result the doctor would wear a lead lined glove on his right hand while in his civilian identity and take it off whenever he needed to call upon his powers.

It should also be noted that his costume simply appeared once he took off the glove.

So what happened?

Atomic Man would appear in five more anthology issues and had a pretty good run for a Golden Age hero, even making the cover of Headline Comics three times.  He spent his time fighting various science fiction threats, criminal enterprises, and communists.

His last appearance was in September of 1946, his creator would die in 1947.  Atomic Man himself would be phased out of the Headline Comics title when the comic transitioned away from superhero comics to crime stories that were written by Captain America co creators and comic book legends Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.

While Atomic Man has faded from memory his legacy is an important one for comic books.  I mentioned before just how many superheroes gained their powers from radiation and Atomic Man was the first hero to accomplish this.

But there is something more to the hero than just a cool origin story.  Atomic Man represented a change that wasn’t just occurring in comic books, but in our society as well.  We had just witnessed the awesome and terrifying power of atomic energy,

and we had so many questions and concerns.  How dangerous was this thing?  What if it got into the wrong hands?  What were the true effects of radiation on the human body?  Will this new idea elevate us to a new Golden Age or plunge us into the apocalypse?

Yes a comic book hero as silly as Atomic Man got quite a few things wrong about radiation and yes, maybe a children’s comic book wasn’t the best place to be asking these sorts of questions.  But whether its audience knew it or not, Atomic Man did ask these questions, putting it at the forefront of some of the most important issues of our time.

Golden Age Showcase: The Human Top

We’ve covered a lot of stupid on this blog post from insect controlling lawyers to bird politicians but today we’re going to talk about a hero that beats them all when in comes to sheer lunacy.  I present, the Human Top.

Origin and career

While he may not look like much, the Human Top’s career started off with a literal bang.  He first appeared in Red Raven Comics #1 in August of 1940.  His story was written by comic book writer and artist Dick Briefer.

Interestingly enough, this issue also held the first appearance of another super hero we’ve talked about on this blog: Mercury.

The Human Top was originally named Bruce Bravelle, a man who volunteered as a human guinea pig for one Dr. Davis.

The good Doctor was attempting to find a way for humans to feed off of electricity (Golden Age science was weird) and naturally the experiment went wrong when Bruce was accidentally struck by lightening.

Since this is a superhero comic, the wrath of God doesn’t kill Bruce but gives him the ability to spin up to speeds of 250 miles per hour.

What’s really interesting about this Human Top is that his powers weren’t based off of something like the Speed Force or divine intervention.  His ability to spin comes from opposing electrical currents which he can create by either crossing his wrists or by getting shocked from an outside electrical source.  While I don’t think the writer had a really keen grasp on how electricity works it is interesting to see a Golden Age hero who’s powers were based purely off of science instead of magic.

Professor Davis dubbed Bruce “The Top” and suggested that he go out and fight crime, since that’s all the motivation a super hero needed back in the 1940’s.

In his first adventure the Human Top foiled a bank robbery when it was revealed that the bank’s president, a man named Horace Vanderveer,

attempted to frame the Human Top and escape with the money.  Fortunately, the Human Top stopped the greedy bank president and the day was saved.

The hero would go on to have one more adventure in March of 1942, published in Tough Kid Squad Comics.

It is worth mentioning that the Human Top would also get a costume redesign for his second appearance.

Bruce Bravelle (Earth-616) 002

In his final adventure the Human Top would defeat a masked train robber named the Red Terror.

The Red Terror had a gang of armed goons, a couple of pet lions, and a rocket powered zeppelin which he used as a getaway vehicle after orchestrating a series of train wrecks.  However, the Human Top stopped him and he was sent plummeting to his death at the end of the story.

So what happened?

Bruce Bravelle would never have another comic book story.  However, he is still treated as mainstream cannon in the Marvel comic book universe and while Bruce is no more the name and idea behind the Human Top would continue.

The first reiteration of the name would be used by a super villain calling himself “The Human Top” and would appear in Tales to Astonish #50 in 1963.

He was a mutant named Darren Cross and he was an Antman villain.  He would later re name himself Whirlwind and he was successful enough to appear in other media as well, including his most recent appearance in the excellent Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes cartoon.

But the Human Top would be reborn yet again in 1978 as part of Marvel’s Kid Commandos team that was published under the Invaders title.

His name was David Mitchell and he worked with Toro, the sidekick of the Golden Age Human Torch (who was a cyborg instead of a boy) and Bucky Barnes himself.

Goldengrrl.jpg

They fought Nazis, as almost all Golden Age superheroes fighting in World War 2 were required to do.

The Human Top is one of the more ridiculous ideas to come out of the Golden Age of comics.  The idea that spinning in circles really fast is a super power is less of a cool idea and more something to make you giggle as you imagine the hero/villain having to stop and vomit from the motion sickness.  However, while the super powers of the Human Top may seem a bit ridiculous, it is important to recognize the creative passion and drive behind heroes like these and admire them for the silly and amazing creations they are.

Golden Age Showcase: Archie the Gruesome

So I’m a big fan of Captain America: Civil War and the comic book series it sprang from.

One of the big themes of the movie and the comic book series is how so many of the superheroes fight on Captain America’s side simply because he’s Captain freaking America.

I mean who wouldn’t want to charge the gates of Hell itself if you knew it was with this guy?

The reason I bring this up is because even back in the 1940’s Captain America was an inspiration to countless other heroes and even ordinary people.  I bring this up because sometimes even ordinary people can rise to do great things if they have the proper motivation and inspiration and that is something that comic books are great at showing.

Unfortunately, the person we’re talking about today is NOT one of those great people but dammit, he deserves some respect for trying.  Ladies and gentlemen: Archie the Gruesome.

Origin and Career

We’ve covered some pretty obscure old timey superheroes in this blog series but I think this guy takes the cake.  Archie the Gruesome had one Golden Age appearance as the cover character in 1942’s Comedy Comics #10.

Nobody really know who wrote him, nobody really knows who drew him, and he was relegated to a single five page origin story in the comic.

Archie was a street sweeper who was inspired to become a costumed hero after seeing his idol, Captain America.

He didn’t have any powers, he wasn’t part of some secret experiment, he wasn’t blessed/cursed by some sort of magic, he didn’t lose his parents in a tragic accident, he just wanted to do good and I’m going to show the same cover picture again because that is the only image I can find of him.

As you can see, his costume is a parody of Captain America’s, he’s using his broom as a weapon (clearly in an attempt to “clean up the streets”), and the way he’s drawn and presented is clearly meant to not be taken seriously.  His opponent was a fellow street sweeper named Big Joe who was Archie’s polar opposite, preferring to turn to a life of crime rather than a life of heroics.

So what happened?

Shockingly, Archie the Gruesome did not go on to wild fame and success and he disappeared after his first appearance.

However, he would go on to have a role in a limited comic book series published by Marvel in 2011 called All Winners Squad: Band of Heroes.

All-Winners Squad Band of Heroes Vol 1 2

The comic book series was a World War 2 comic about a group of old school super powered humans who were drafted into the Allied war effort and were placed into a squad known as “Special Unit, Enhanced Humans” but wound up calling themselves “The Crazy Sues”

They were led by Captain America (obviously) and Archie was their medic.

They didn’t give him much to do in the comic.  He was a capable medic, there was actually one point in the book where he was asked to pump a dying soldier full of morphine while another soldier finished him off, and it was widely assumed that he was killed in battle because the comic book series was cancelled after five issues out of the proposed eight were published and that is why we can’t have nice things.

Archie the Gruesome can easily be thought of as a joke character and most of that thinking would be correct.  However, Archie is a special character in comics and deserves way more credit than he gets.  He saw the world around him, he saw his favorite superheroes doing great things, and not only did he think that was awesome, he actively tried to emulate his heroes and make the world a better place.  He had no powers, no gadgets, and no money but he managed to be one of the truest and greatest heroes around.

Golden Age Showcase: Mastermind Excello

Today we’re winding down our coverage of J. Michael Straczynski’s The Twelve with the second to last hero in the story.  He’s the suave, playboy, telekinetic spy catcher for the United States Navy: Mastermind Excello.

 

Origin and career:

Like so many of his Golden Age compatriots Excello only lasted a couple of issues.  His first appearance was in Mystic Comics #3 in April of 1940,

Mystic Comics Vol 1 2

where he would uncover and defeat a Nazi spy ring.

His character was simple.  His real name was Early Everett and he was a wealthy playboy (because there aren’t enough of those in comic books) who possessed great physical and mental powers which he used to fight for America.

The man was sort of like an American James Bond but with superpowers as well as cool gadgets (this was a time when a pocket transmitter was a big deal).

So what happened?

Sadly “James Bond with superpowers” was as far as they were going to go with the character so it was up to Straczynski to expand the character and give him a more meaningful existence.

Judging from this picture they were off to a very good start.  The character looks badass, although to be fair anyone can look badass when holding a Tommy gun like that.

In The Twelve it is elaborated that Everett’s father is a brilliant scientist, so brilliant that he was actually pen pals with Einstein.  While his father was busy developing a special radioactive bullet for the Allies,

Earl Everett was determined to waste as much time and money as possible the only way a wealthy playboy with no concept of the value of money can.

It should be noted that for some reason Earl seemed to win more often than he lost.  This would later be revealed to stem from latent psychic abilities that wouldn’t be fully realized until a fateful trip to Britain where he was shot in the head by a Nazi spy while saving his father.

However, while the doctors managed to save his life they weren’t able to get all the bullet fragments out.  Several of these highly radioactive fragments would remain in his skull threatening to kill him.

After turning a new leaf Earl Everett decided to work on behalf of the United States government and was given the code name “Mastermind Excello”.

He would use his powers to great effect during the war, even helping the Allies retrieve occult items that the Nazis might have used to win the war.

In 1945 he joined the Twelve on their ill fated assault on Berlin.

They were captured, placed into stasis, and re discovered in 2008.

Like many of his compatriots Mastermind Excello had a difficult time fitting in.  It wasn’t for lack of money, his trust fund from 1940 had amassed millions, but it was more due to the continued noise and interference from this new world that played havoc on his psychic senses.

Excello separated himself from the group for most of the story and bought a house that he was able to soundproof and line with lead, which allowed him to enjoy a quiet peaceful life.  Gradually his future senses returned and he began interacting with his former teammates again.  While he couldn’t see the future clearly he could get glimpses and snippets of what was about to happen, enough to warn his friends and prepare them as best he could for the coming danger.

It would later be revealed that one of their own, the hero Dynamic Man, had turned evil and was ready to embark on a homicidal rampage.  Although Excello didn’t play a direct part in the ensuing fight he did help prepare the Phantom Reporter to take on the Fiery Mask’s powers and was able to help the team cope with the apparent death of Rockman.

After the fight was over Excello used his powers to ensure that The Phantom Reporter and Black Widow became a couple,

it worked.

It was also revealed that the shrapnel in his brain would kill him (kind like Iron Man only in his brain instead of his heart) if he used his powers to much.

Not willing to go quietly Excello decided to continue being a hero and used his vast fortune to purchase a large private investigator firm which he renamed E.X.C enterprises.  The Phantom Reporter and Black Widow were two of his first hires.

Like so many heroes in this series Mastermind Excello had tremendous potential as a hero.  He had the looks, superpowers, and motivation to be an interesting hero but sadly he was a drop in a very large bucket of “one and done” heroes.  Thankfully he was given a better ending and a new purpose on life with The Twelve.