Well it’s July 4th, Independence Day, the celebration of the founding (sort of) of the United States of America. Today I thought I’d write about a patriotic American superhero who was created by the legedary creative team of writer Joe Simon and artist Jack Kirby…
No, not him. I’m talking about this guy:
14 years after they’d created Captain America for Marvel Comics, and unhappy with how Marvel was using (or not using) the character, Simon and Kirby decided to attempt to create a new version of the character, one whom they would own and maintain creative control of. The result of this was FIGHTING AMERICAN, whom they published via a small publisher called Prize Comics. As Captain America was created to respond to the Nazi menace of World War II, they planned for Fighting American to fight against communists, who were seen as the biggest foreign threat of the 1950’s. The first issue was published in May 1954, right in the middle of the infamous Army–McCarthy hearings. A month later the hearings would end, with Senator Joe McCarthy, the biggest proponent of “fighting communism” in the US Government disgraced, with his approval rating dropping down to 16%. It’s because of this change in public attitudes that Simon says he and Kirby quickly changed course with their plans, instead of a straight-forward superhero title, they would take more a satirical tone to the stories of their new hero versus the evil communist threats.
Unfortunately, this new hero did not take off the way Captain America had (superhero comics overall were on a decline at this time, which is why Marvel wasn’t even publishing Captain America comics at the time). The Fighting American only lasted for 7 issues. 11 years later a single issue was published by Harvey Comics. The first picture above is of a hardcover edition that Marvel published in 1989, which recollects all 8 of those issues, plus includes a previously unpublished 3-page story that Joe Simon wrote but an uncredited artist drew. I bought that comic in 2010 and that’s what I’m utilizing for this review today. A year later Marvel would reprint it with a new cover as a paperback, which is the second image.
Unlike much later comics, the Fighting American series didn’t feature one book-length story each issue, intead it featured three separate short-stories in each issue. The first issue began with the 10-page BREAK THE SPY RING. This was the introduction and origin of Fighting American. We meet Johnny Flagg and his brother Nelson Flagg. Johnny Flagg is a handsome and well-built man, although he needs crutches to walk because he was injured while serving during WWII., during which he won several medals. And now he hosts a popular TV show on station U.S.A., where she speaks out against communism. Nelson is Johnny’s younger and noticeably physically weaker brother. Although not handicapped his much skinnier than Johnny, and he wears glasses, unlike Johnny. Nelson admires his older brother but also feels inferior compared to him, although he’s the main writer for Johnny’s speeches.
On his latest show, Johnny exposed a communist named Peter Piper (seriously) who was soliciting money from wealthy Americans for a charity that was secretly backing communist organizations. He also runs an opera house which is likewise used to raise money for communists. Piper has some men assassinate Johnny, but then a secret government agency takes Johnny’s body and recruits Nelson for “Project Fighting American.” They’ve developed means to revitalize Johnny’s corpse, strengthening it and making it “highly geared” and “almost indestructible.” And they want to transfer Nelson’s brain into Johnny’s corpse, so he can take over his identity and become the costumed crimefighter Fighting American (they’ve already got the costume made for him). Nelson agrees to the plan.
As far as superhero origins go, it’s intriguing and something that could definitely be expanded on in modern comics. It’s all explained rather swiftly in this comic, but there’s so much to be explored here. I guess the methods the scientist used to make Johnny’s body superhero only works on dead bodies, otherwise, why couldn’t they just make Nelson stronger? And Nelson agrees pretty quickly but what are the emotional ramifications of his choice? He literally has to give him being himself and become someone else, albeit his brother. That must be weird.
But no, in the comic, the operation is a success, and Nelson, now as Johnny, takes over his brother’s life and resumes taping his TV show. And in no other further issues do we ever see him struggling with an identity crisis or second-guessing his decision. He’s just Johnny Flagg now. And there’s never even any mention about how Nelson’s absence was explained, nobody brings him up again (I guess beside writing Johnny’s speeches Nelson didn’t have much of a life to give up anyway). The only mention of anything being different takes place in the second story where someone notices that Johnny doesn’t need crutches anymore.
When Piper sees that Johnny Flagg is still alive, he sends more hitmen to kill him, but this time Johnny confronts them as the Fighting American and takes them down and turns Piper over to the authorities.
The second story is 6 pages long, and it’s called TRACK DOWN THE BABY BUZZ BOMBS. This involves an ex-Nazi mad scientist named Von Feygel, who tries to kill Johnny Flagg using a bunch of tiny flying bombs. A character described only as “a young page boy” who works at the TV station happens to save Johnny from one of the bombs. And when Von Feygel calls Johnny to taunt him (as supervillains tended to do back then), the page boy uses another phone to trace the call. Johnny changes into his Fighting American costume right in front of the startled boy and takes him with him as they track down Von Feygel’s underground lair, where he’s built a bunch of robots designed to explode on contact. After capturing the scientist, Johnny recruits the boy as his sidekick and gives him a costume and the name “Speedboy”, presumably because of the boy’s speedy reflexes. And thus a new dynamic duo is born.
The final story, also 6 pages long, is WIN THIS AUTO RACE! Fighting American and Speedboy try to protect an American car racer who’s set to compete in some European racing competition. When the racer is killed, Fighting American takes his spot in the race, with Speedboy in the passenger seat for some reason, and he wins it and uncovers the criminals behind the murder.
And the rest of the issues follow the same pattern, so we get a collection of short stories, usually 6-10 pages long, where Fighting American and Speedboy face some new wicked villain. And the villains were quite inventive. THE HANDSOME DEVILS a group of extremely good-looking and well-dressed men who were going out at night killing and robbing people. DOUBLE-HEADER, a man with two heads whose invented a device that helps him (them?) fix various sporting events that he bets on. SQUARE HAIR MALLOY, and old gangster who’s no gone into the weapons-dealing business. POISON IVAN and HOTZKI TROTSKI, who are spreading communist propaganda among American youths. RHODE ISLAND RED, a short ugly woman whose hired a handsome conman to con money out of wealthy women. INVISIBLE IRVING, a theif whose invented invisible paint which he can use to make himself and other objects invisible (although he tends to just use it on his body, making himself look like a floating head). DEADLY DOOLITTLE, who has invented a ray gun that can turn people to stone. SUPER-KHAKALOVITCH, basically a communist Superman. And ROUND ROBIN who is a big fat guy who can bounce around like a human basketball, among other colorful commie criminals. They also have adventures in Japan, India, and Saudi Arabia, as well as outer space and a story where they travel back in time to ancient Rome.
The stories are fun, if rather simplistic, with most of the criminals being defeated easily. There are several potentially interesting plot points brought up but never developed. In one story it’s revealed that some of the other newscasters at Johnny’s station resent him and think he’s a “phony patriot” who is riding on Fighting American’s coattails, but that’s never followed up on. There’s a couple of stories where government agents show up to send Johnny on a specific mission, and in one when he protests they actually threaten him with taking away the Fighting American assignment from him if he doesn’t do what he’s told. How would that work? Would they transfer Nelson’s brain back into his old body? A couple of stories also have the local police contacting Johnny to ask him to contact Fighting American for them, to help capture some criminal. But most stories just have Fighting American and Speedboy tracking down criminals on their own.
There’s the matter of the two or three “Mary’s” who appear in this series. In the first story, we’re introduced to Mary Adams a woman with brown hair, who also writes for Johnny’s show with Nelson (she says she covers “the woman’s angle”, whatever that means). At first, she appears sympathetic to Nelson, when he’s lamenting his lack of physical prowess compared to Johnny, she assures him that Johnny has faith in Nelson. Then the two of them go out to check out Piper’s Operahouse, and when some of the henchmen knock him down and Nelson backs off, she berates him for not fighting back, calling him a “jellyfish” and betting him that Johnny wouldn’t have backed down. You’d think she’s set-up as a potential love interest for “Johnny” down the line, but she’s never seen in the series again. In the Double-Header story, we meet Mary Stewart, a blonde, who is Nelson’s secretary. Her snooping gets her caught by the bad guys and Fighting American and Speedboy have to save her. After which, Fighting American berates her for putting herself in danger and tells her not to do that again, but she’s proud of herself for getting this great news story for her boss Johnny Flagg. Again, it’s set-up so you think she’d be a romantic foil for Johnny.
But in the very next issue, Johnny is about to go on a date with a woman named Mary, we’re not given her last name and she has black hair. But that’s when the Federal agents show up and give him a mission. But then Mary ends up being kidnapped by the criminals fighting American is sent to go after, and when he and Speedboy rescue her later she now has blonde hair? Coloring error? Or was she meant to be Mary Stewart? Either way, that’s the last we see of her and no further detail is given to Johnny’s personal life. But I think if they stuck with Mary Adams, and had her start dating Johnny, not knowing he’s really Nelson, that could be ripe for some dramatic plots, with Nelson conflicted about dating this woman who didn’t want him when he was himself. But, as I said, no mention is made of Nelson after the first story, he’s just Johnny Flagg from that point on.
But probably the biggest underdevelopment is Speedyboy. First of all, he’s never given a real name! He’s just “a young page boy” when first introduced, and then after Johnny makes him his sidekick he only ever refers to as Speedboy, even when they’re both not in costume. Later one story it’s shown that Johnny and Speedboy live together, sharing an apartment and sleeping in the same room in twin beds. So…did Johnny take him in as his ward, like Bruce Wayne did with Dick Grayson? Did he adopt him? Where were his parents? We don’t know! And that’s in addition to the general absurdity of how he became Speedboy. He possesses no special powers nor appears to have any specific training (although one later story shows the two heroes working out in a private gym), but he helped Fighting American out once so he was just like “cool! He’s a costume, you can be my sidekick now and continuously risk your life with me fighting dangerous criminals!” And apparently, the Government agency who created Fighting American were fine with this too? Whatever.
Still, the stories are silly fun, and a nice insight into an under-reported time in the careers of these two legendary figures. And the character still contains much potential, perhaps enough so that it could even rival the popularity of Captain America someday?
You can either get the collected edition or check out the individual issues on Comixology.