Featured Post

NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Thursday, August 3, 2017

ASSORTED NEAR MYTHS AND ONE NULL MYTH: FIGHTING AMERICAN (1954-55)

In the short run of Simon and Kirby's FIGHTING AMERICAN-- seven issues, published from 1954-55-- one can find a rich harvest of near myths. Only one story in this corpus-- to which I'll devote a separate essay-- brought together its mythic elements with sufficient density to create a mythcomic.

In interviews given long after this run, Joe Simon talked as if the feature came about when he and Kirby sought to show comics-makers of the period how to do an action-packed superhero comic in the tradition of their Captain America, the classic WWII champion whose rights were owned outright by Timely Comics. However, it may have been more of a desperation ploy on their parts, of trying to find something, anything, that would catch on with audiences of the period. The superhero genre had declined in popularity since the post-war years, and not until 1958-- when DC Comics began emphasizing the genre in their line-- did the genre catch fire again.

In addition, Simon and Kirby sought to apply all the rock-em, sock-em storytelling strategies they'd used in the 1940s. But Captain America and other Simon/Kirby productions benefited from existing in an apocalyptic world, where it seemed like the battle between good and evil was taking place as a part of everyday life. The real-life Axis powers provided an enemy of unbridled aggression, and any fictional characters modeled on them could be just as pulpishly violent. And even when Captain America chose to fight other forms of evil, such as vampires and mad scientists, these too could take on the stature of larger-than-life villainy.


Fighting American was positioned to be a Commie-smasher in the same way Captain America was a Nazi-smasher-- but even I suspect that even had the feature premiered at a boom time for superheroes, it simply didn't work to substitute Commies for Nazis. Even allowing for the fact that Simon and Kirby were drawing on superficial images of real Communists for their stories, the years of the Cold War didn't present Russian Communists as great symbols of aggression. (Chinese Communists are not very important in the FIGHTING AMERICAN stories.) Rather, the average American knew Communists primarily as spies and subversives, and so that was how Simon and Kirby treated them. But because of this, Fighting American's villains lacked the formidable qualities of even the lesser villains of Captain America. As if the artists were dimly aware of the problem of making Commies into great villains, by the third issue of the comic, Simon and Kirby began portraying the Commies as goofy ne'er-do-wells, with names like Poison Ivan and Hotsky Trotsky.



Additionally, Simon and Kirby were probably somewhat influenced by the example of Harvey Kurtzman's MAD, one of the few indubitable sales-successes of the early 1950s. The influence isn't so much in content-- Kurtzman was a master satirist, while Simon and Kirby depended more on goony comedy-- as in style. American comics were often produced by Jewish-Americans, including these three artists. But while a few American comics-characters might have oddball accents, like those of Brooklyn or the Wild West, a reader almost never encountered a character who sounded like a New York City Jew. Kurtzman changed that, slipping in yiddische words like "goniff" and "meshugenah" for MAD's largely goyim audience, and occasionally having characters speak in the elliptical fashion favored by many New York Jews of the time. Rarely if ever had Simon and Kirby reproduced the Jewish cadence of speech, but it came to the fore in remarks like this one:

'Get this guy! A real "eager beaver!" If I suddenly yelled "Fighting American," he'd hide under a bed!'-- FIGHTING AMERICAN #7.

To my ears, at least, this is the same mode of speech Jack Kirby used in his problematic scripting for his 1970s work, which gives FIGHTING AMERICAN a certain cachet in terms of Kirby-history.

Yet despite his wearing a gaudy,, star-spangled costume, Fighting American was a very colorless character, and so was his kid-partner, who had so little background that he didn't even possess any other name than "Speedboy." In the 1940s both Captain America and Bucky were at best two-dimensional characters. Yet their creators infused both of them with a passionate hatred toward evil, whether it took the form of a Nazi Bund or a guy dressed in a buttefly-costume. Fighting American and Speedboy were just bland, though the former boasts an origin that had great psychological potential-- only to drop the ball on developing it, so that it became no more than a null-myth.

Captain America was a weakling whom the U.S. government transformed into a muscular superman with a special serum. Simon and Kirby kept the basic idea of the government creating a superman, but threw in a strange, barely acknowledged sibling complex.

Though the story initially focuses on Johnny Flagg, a radio celebrity renowned for attacking American Communists, the real star is Johnny's brother Nelson. Johnny is the typical Simon-Kirby he-man: square-jawed and broad-shouldered, though he was injured during his stint in the armed services, so that he has to walk on crutches. Johnny's radio-colleague Mary, your basic "Lois Lane" figure, openly admires Johnny, and so does his less impressive brother Nelson, though what Nelson doesn't say about his brother is as important as what he does say:

"Johnny was always the pride of the family-- a brilliant student, a prize athlete, and a war hero."


Nelson doesn't say what it means to him to dwell in the shadow of his brother, but he does touch on the irony that his crippled sibling can no longer be a man of action, "depending on his weak little brother to do his leg work." Later Nelson tries to stand up to a bad guy and gets beat down, living the reality of Clark Kent-- until evil Communists kill Johnny, making it possible for Nelson to banish his sibling envy in a macabre manner.

After Johnny is killed, the government, without so much as a by-your-leave, takes possession of his body, and somehow rebuilds the corpse to be "the agent of the future." But they can only bring this super-agent to life by transferring Nelson's mentality into the body of his late brother-- and Nelson, grieving for the brother he loved (even with resentment), quickly agrees.



Thus the weak body of Nelson dies, erased as the weak Steve Rogers was erased-- and yet Nelson lives on, to enjoy the skills and muscular powers of his brother's body. (Mary doesn't stick around much longer, but from then on, she seems to dote less on her co-worker than on his superheroic alter ego) For the remainder of the hero's short career, there's no further acknowledgement that the person everyone sees is not Johnny, but Nelson. As far as Simon and Kirby were concerned, Nelson existed only to bring about a magic-like transformation of weakness into strength. Still, this strategy didn't do a lot for making Fighting American work, even as a two-dimensional character.

However, though in FIGHTING AMERICAN Simon and Kirby never got any further than opening a door leading to dark psychological corridors, later Kirby, in partnership with Lee, would return to the theme with better results. Another weakling-- Bruce Banner, whom Nelson slightly resembles-- would not need to get his power from an envied sibling, but from his own "id," the wellspring of his desire for power and violence. True, early issues of THE INCREDIBLE HULK are all-over-the-place, in which the hero-monster varies between being a brutish villain to a muscular "genie" manipulated by his youthful buddy. But even so, Kirby seems to have grasped, in partnership with Lee, that Bruce Banner's problem had to be front-and-center this time. instead of being swept under the proverbial rug.


No comments: