O Say Can You See: The Greatest Patriotic Super Heroes of All-Time
There are a lot of cool comic book blogs out there (see our sidebar for a list of a bunch of them), but I guess it is hard to pick which ones you think you’d like to read. So each week, I will feature a guest entry by a really cool comic blogger, and you all can then check out that comic blog after you see how cool they are from their guest bit.
Today’s entry comes from Harry Mendryk, who runs the Simon and Kirby blog, an invaluable museum-style look at the work of Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, their work together and the artists that worked for them.
Harry’s guest entry is titled “Simon and Kirby Meet the Shield”
Simon and Kirby Meet the Shield
Pep #1 (January 1940) by Irv Novick
The idea of a patriotic superhero appears to be one that was completely obviously but only after someone had taken the first step. It is not that previous heroes like Superman or Batman were unpatriotic, it is just that there was special magic to be had by incorporating a distinct patriotic theme, usually the U.S. flag, into the design of the costume. The first hero to adopt the patriotic mantle appears to be MLJ’s Shield as drawn by Irv Novick for Pep Comics #1 (January 1940). Irv was an outstanding cover artist and the costume for the Shield was an excellent design. The flag is well incorporated into the costume and the shape of the flag field matches the name of the character, the Shield. With a cover of the Shield battling it out with robots, how could any boy resist purchasing Pep Comics #1? Unfortunately the contents did not match the cover. Not only was there no story about marauding robots we are not really given much of an explanation for the Shield’s origin. The only thing we learn about the origin of the Shield is from the splash panel blurb:
Because of his uniform he is called “The Shield”. This uniform, of his own secret construction, not only is bullet and flame-proof but gives him power to perform extraordinary feats of physical daring and courage. Wearing his shield, he has the speed of a bullet and the strength of a Hercules.
Novick was a better cover artist then he was at story illustration and today the scripts read a bit stale. Despite my negative comments, Pep seemed to sell rather well. This was probably due to the fact that the Shield was the first patriotic superhero and therefore had a head start with the competition. Further during the golden age of comics many of the superhero stories really were also rather poor. With the Shield on the covers, Pep Comics seem to sell well enough to warrant a new title, Shield-Wizard Comics, that came out the that summer. The Wizard refers to another of MLJ’s superheroes that was featured in Top-Notch Comics. Interestingly it is in Shield-Wizard #1 (Summer 1940) that we are provided with a story about the origin of the Shield. A combination of chemicals and fluoroscopic rays. The uniform that the Shield wore for this treatment was actually white, but the rays gave it the final colors. Not only was the Shield patriotic but his fluoroscopic rays were also!
Captain America #1 (March 1941) by Jack Kirby
Once the Shield was out, other patriotic heroes followed. Joe Simon and Jack Kirby presented their own take on a patriotic hero, Captain America. Who can say for sure how much Captain America depended directly on the Shield or just on the general idea of designing a costume based on the American flag? But if S&K owed something of their character to the Shield, they did not copy him too closely, Captain America did not have any super-powers. While I describe the Shield stories as being a bit stale, those for Captain America produced by Simon and Kirby were packed filled with excitement. The Shield may have been successful, but it appears that sales of Captain America Comics were phenomenal. This was Simon and Kirby’s first great success and effectively made stars out of the collaborators. Unfortunately despite promises made by Goodman, Timely’s owner, Joe and Jack did not share in the financial success of their creation. So after a relatively short run (10 issues) on Captain America, Joe and Jack signed up with DC for a better deal.
Although Joe and Jack were working for DC, as far as they were concerned it was not an exclusive arrangement. For instance they supplied their friend Al Harvey with covers for titles for his publication company (Speed, Champ and Green Hornet Comics). However they did not use their real names for the Harvey covers and when these are signed it is with the aliases of Jon Henri or Glaven. If the management of DC was aware of Simon and Kirby’s moonlighting they wisely turned a blind eye to it.
Meanwhile Irv Novick had continued to draw the Shield for MLJ with the same combination of exciting covers and not so great stories. Although it is frequently cited that Irv did superhero work for MLJ until 1946, in fact, like many artists, Irv spent some time in the military. During that time Irv befriended Roy Lichtenstein, getting him out of manual work and helping Roy get a job that used his artistic talents. Of course no good deed goes unpunished, after the war Lichenstein became a highly paid pop artist by painting greatly enlarged copies of comic book art originally drawn by a variety of comic artists, including Irv Novick. I do not know exactly when Irv served in the military. But judging from the MLJ covers I would suggest covers dated late in 1942 marked the start. Not only do the covers seemed to be drawn by a different artist, the costume for the Shield seemed to change. On Pep #30 (August 1942) a belt was added and for Pep #32 (October 1942) blue shorts. That last change was significant because the flag region no longer suggested a shield shape and the costume looked more like that of Captain America.
Shield-Wizard #7 (Summer 1942) by Jack Kirby
If I am correct about the timing for Novick entry into military service, that would explain the unusual appearance of Jack Kirby as the cover artist for Shield-Wizard #7 at that time (Summer 1942). The GCD attributes this cover to Mort Meskin but although Mort was a great artist this attribution is surely incorrect. The Jack Kirby Checklist gives Kirby as the penciler and Novick as the inker. I find calling Irv the inker rather unconvincing. I am pretty confident this was drawn by Kirby but who can say what part Joe Simon may have played. It is a great cover with the Shield taking center stage and Dusty playing the standard part for a side-kick, that is tied up and in need of rescue. You can tell that as far as Jack was concerned the Wizard was a minor character, he has been pushed off to the left background. Surprisingly our heroes opponents are little blue men. But I do not think that was Jack’s intention. In the background is a fortress flying the Japanese flag. I am sure that this fight was supposed to be taken place in Japanese waters. Although Jack did demonize his villains they were still meant to be Japanese. The same thing was done for a Harvey cover, Champ #20, done at about the same time as Shield-Wizard #7. Another surprise is that Jack drew the Shield with blue shorts. Shield-Wizard was published quarterly and issue #7 is the Summer issue. But in a unusual example of golden age continuity, the Shield story recaps the July issue of Pep (#29) telling how he lost his super-powers. At the end of the story the Shield is attempting to regain those powers and we are asked to read the August issue of Pep (#30) to find out if he is successful. So it is clear that S-W #7 came out between Pep #29 and #30 and the cover is the first one to show his new uniform. Jack could have been given the latest Shield design, been told to redesign the costume, or he could just included shorts by mistake. Jack is famous for that sort of error and Captain America also had shorts. It is entirely possible that a Kirby snafu resulted in other artists new to the Shield adopting the changed costume. Kirby did not do any other covers for MLJ, probably because he and Simon would also shortly enter the military.
Superheroes, especially patriotic heroes, started to disappear after the war was over. But the Shield’s decline actually started much earlier and can be blamed on a teenager named Archie Andrews. Archie first appeared in Pep #22 (December 1941) as a backup story. But by Pep #41 (August 1943) he shared the cover with the Shield. Although they continued to share the cover Archie clearly was dominant and covers from Pep #51 (December 1944) on would feature only Archie. Pep continued to include a Shield feature until issue #65 (January 1948). When after the war Simon and Kirby did a story for Archie Comics (as MLJ was renamed) it was a not the superhero genre but was teenage humor instead.
The Double Life of Private Strong #2 (August 1959) by Jack Kirby
But as we all know, the silver age of comics brought a superhero comics as a profitable item. The Simon and Kirby team had already broken up with Jack doing freelance work mainly for Marvel. But when Archie Comics decided to try publishing their own superhero comics again they ask Joe Simon to produce them. In turn Joe went to Jack to provide much of the art work for the initial issues. The Fly seems to have been largely Joe’s initial concept based on an early character called the Silver Spider that C. C. Beck had drawn up but was never published. The Shield however probably was requested by Archie Comics. But Simon and Kirby developed a whole new Shield with a new origin, costume and powers. It would appear that S&K did too good a job of giving powers to the new Shield as DC threatened to sue. As a result The Double Life of Private Strong was canceled after only two issues.
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