Comics: Marvel First – WWII Superheroes
Marvel Comics, 2013
Whichever superhero company you pick – Marvel or DC – you’ll encounter a founding trinity of costumed characters dating back to the late 1930s and early 1940s, the earliest days of four-color comic books. DC’s trinity are three of the most famous superheroes in the history of the concept: Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. Marvel’s – dating from the inceptions of its precursor company, Timely – are perhaps less well-known: Captain America, the Human Torch, and the Sub-Mariner. There have been countless other superhero characters, of course – Marvel’s latest anthology, Marvel Firsts: WWII Superheroes – presents readers with no less than 39 – but these two trinities have set the standard by which everybody else is judged.
It’s largely because they embody the most essential superhero archetypes: The Powered American, the Non-Powered American, and the Alien Other.
The prevalence of the nationality almost goes without saying. Superhero comics (indeed, virtually comics in general) are not only an American creation, but their most popular early incarnations were spawned during an intensely nationalistic moment in the country’s history, the prelude and entry of the United States into the Second World War. National pride was the defining characteristic of the genre – and its lifeblood, since pulp comics were shipped in bulk to GI’s overseas once America entered the war. This new Marvel collection – ample and intelligent in its editorial selections, downright evil in its egregious overpricing (a trade paperback that costs forty dollars should come with its own uru mallet, at the very least) – full of flag-decked characters tripping over themselves to sock it to Adolf Hitler – is gloriously typical.
The Powered American carries on that fight against the country’s enemies not only with spirit and bravery but also with some set of enhanced abilities (the PA’s actual country of origin is immaterial – the most famous Powered American of all time is of course Superman, who isn’t even from Earth): in this Marvel Firsts collection, PA’s get their powers from chemical baths, electricity experiments, radio waves, and even a blood-transfusion from a mongoose. They are ready-made for the cause of liberty – sometimes literally so, as in the case of Marvel’s textbook Powered American, the Human Torch, who can burst into flame and fly but who is a synthetic being made from scratch in a scientist’s laboratory (he’s in good company in this book – Electro, Flexo, Marvex, and the Dynamic Man were likewise created from store-bought kits). The Powered American caters to a rather obvious set of wish-fulfilments, but not nearly so directly as the Non-Powered American.
That’s because NPA’s could be anybody; they got where they are through simple courage and hard training – and judging from the prototypical comics Marvel’s assembled here, the training part is highly negotiable (foremost case in point: Roddy Colt, alias “The Secret Stamp,” a bike-riding newspaper delivery boy who decides to put on a bright red costume and fight crime – in his initial outing, he’s promptly manhandled by the adults he confronts). Again DC takes the lead, since its most famous NPA is one of the most recognized superheroes in the world, Batman, although in this case Marvel runs a very close second with Captain America, a scrawny 4-F kid who reaches the pinnacle of athletic ability through a one-of-a-kind scientific experiment that could just as easily have been weight training and sprint drills. He may be a physical paragon, but he’s self-evidently as American as somebody can be (in Marvel’s excellent, underrated 2011 movie version of the character, this flag-decked persona is initially played as a publicity stunt, but during Cap’s 1941 debut, everything’s in anthem-taking earnest). Every scrawny kid in the country – not to mention every GI – could aspire to be him.
Not so the Alien Other – these are the always-popular super-beings (Alien Others without superpowers are extremely rare, Tarzan of the Apes being by far the most famous) who come to America and to crime-fighting from places often as alien as Superman’s planet Krypton but who never fully acclimate, as it were. DC’s highest-profile AO is Wonder Woman, who wears an American eagle on her breastplate (and a field of stars, er, elsewhere) but is an Amazon warrior born and raised on a mysterious island of ancient Greek women. The Alien Other might try to fit in (in her alter ego as Diana Prince, Wonder Woman actually works for the US government), but their bizarre heritage is never far from the surface; Superman might be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but he’s unlikely to have his morning commute interrupted by the goddess Athena. This irreducibly odd background is what makes AO’s so interesting, and with all due respect to Wonder Woman, no Alien Other in all of comics is more interesting than Marvel’s standard-bearer of the type, Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner, the massively powerful and borderline-amoral offspring of a human father and a mother from the undersea realm of Atlantis. If a Powered American were to encounter a deep-sea diver, as Namor does in his first adventure, they’d rescue the diver; if a Non-Powered American encountered one, they’d outdo the diver; when Namor encounters one, he negligently crushes the man’s head, helmet and all.
In the late ’30s and throughout the war, Timely mixed-and-matched these archetypes with feverish industry, hoping every time to strike commercial paydirt with a character, as DC Comics had done a bit earlier with Superman and Batman. Over the course of the roughly three years covered by this anthology, the various hacks at Timely (including a young man named Stan Lee) through enormous amounts of you-know-what at the barn door, hoping some of it would stick.
Most of it didn’t. This volume is full of obviously non-starters, character-concepts so patently ridiculous that you wonder how they got editorial approval even in a slightly less discriminating age. Mr. Liberty – a guy in stylish gloves who gets help from feisty ghosts – the Black Widow – the spirit of a murdered girl who hunts down wicked people for her master, Satan – the Vagabond – an assistant district attorney who dresses up as a hobo to fight racketeers – the aforementioned Secret Stamp, fighting fruit-smugglers while hoping to one day get his driver’s license – immortal comics legacies were never made from such materials. And, oddly, some far more interesting characters – like Red Raven or Blue Diamond – are omitted.
Far more puzzling is the editors’ decision to include a six-part adventure of the “Young Allies” (a group of ordinary boys led by two superhero boy-sidekicks) that’s so thick with cringe-worthy racial stereotypes that it’s awkwardness is far outweighed by the fact that most of the art is by Jack Kirby. The volume comes with a warning: “Some stories in this historical collection include references and depictions that are considered derogatory and offensive by modern standards,” and those depictions could be overlooked in the context of war-propaganda aimed at the Germans and the Japanese – but extensively (it’s by far the longest installment in the book) reprinting pages showing a black boy as little different from a monkey serves no good end at all.
But readers who can hold their noses past such garbage will find much to delight them. Here are the very beginnings of a half-dozen characters – Powered Americans, Non-Powered Americans, and Alien Others – who would go on to out-live their creators and survive dozens of conceptual re-interpretations over following seven decades. Indeed, two of the stalwarts from these old issues, Captain America and the Sub-Mariner, are still going strong in the pages of Marvel Comics, sometimes pausing to remember their WWII adventures. Some of that history is brought back to life by this anthology, and that’s always cause for gratitude.