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The Shield

MLJ’s hero The Shield was the first supehero to dress in an American flag, predating Captain America by over a year.  He was FBI man Joe Higgins, and his identity was known only to J. Edgar Hoover, who appears in many of the stories, sending him on his missions.  The artist who created the character was Irv Novick, though there is nothing about the art that resembles his later work.  A variety of artists would work on the series, which ran in Pep Comics, as well as Shield-Wizard, which he shared with the other hero, but the only one to shine on it was Jack Kirby, and even then only his earliest issues reflect his talent.

At the beginning, the Shield’s powers are ill-defined, but part of the costume.  This changed in the first issue of Shield-Wizard, in which we learn that Joe’s father was a scientist killed by foreign agents to prevent him from developing his Shield serum.  This boosted the powers of the Sacrum, Heart, Innervation, Eyes, Lungs and Derma.  Joe’s costume resembled the badge-style of American shield, with red and white stripes running vertically down the torso, and a blue band with horizontal stars along the upper chest.  A blue mask and tights complete his outfit.

It would take a while for the Shield to get a supporting cast.  His girlfriend Betty was the first recurring character.  She would eventually become a private investigator, in Shield-Wizard 4, but not much was ever done with her, and of course she never figured out Joe was the Shield.

JuJu Watson became his sidekick in the extended origin story in Shield-Wizard 1, joining the FBI at the same time, and becoming buddies, though again unaware of his identity.  JuJu appeared older than Joe, and definitely not as intelligent.  He would also get a girlfriend, Mamie, in Shield-Wizard 3.

At the beginning, the Shield fought mostly foreign spies of fictional countries.  The Wizard appears in Pep Comics 4, a story that falls between the Shield’s two appearances in his series in Top-Notch.  The Wizard just gives the Shield some information on the Mosconians, setting up the story in which they both battle them.

The Shield gets two recurring villains in these early days, both foreign agents, Dr. Wang and the Vulture.   The Vulture has unexplained green skin and pointy ears.  It may be a mask or make-up, but no one ever questions it.

In Pep Comics 11 the Shield adopts an orphan boy, Dusty, and trains and costumes him as his sidekick, Dusty.  Neither Betty, JuJu nor Mamie ever figure out that Dusty is really Dusty.  Sigh.

With Pep Comics 27, and Shield-Wizard 7, Jack Kirby takes control of the art, and the series just takes off.  OK, well, it doesn’t get amazing, but it ceases to become a chore to read.  Kirby’s art improves with each issue at first, and it is fascinating to see him develop his style.  The Shield and Dusty are pitted against wonderfully grotesque German agents, The Strangler and The Hun.  The Hun even gets an entire story in Shield-Wizard 8 on his origin, which parallels that of the Shield.  Amidst this, the Shield’s powers simply wear off in Pep Comics 29, and he cannot get them back.  He bemoans this for a number of issues, but does not let it stop him.  This makes the stories in which he battles, defeats and kills the Hun more effective, as the Hun is actually more powerful than the Shield.

The Hun story was clearly popular enough that the Son of the Hun (not called that, but I couldn’t resist) appears in Shield-Wizard 10.

By Pep Comics 30 the supporting cast aside from Dusty was basically dropped.  Even J. Edgar Hoover had stopped appearing.  But after the first few power packed Kirby issues, the stories turned back to crime tales, lots of haunted houses that turn out to be hoodlum hideouts.

As the series continues to the end of this era, there are some stories that clearly are not Kirby, but many that look sort of like him, but also not.  I am not sure if this is Novick back on the series and trying to duplicate Kirby, or some of his rushed work before he went off into the army, or if the work itself is part Kirby, part someone else.

The Shield continues in the Late Golden Age.




The Shield:  Pep Comics 1 – 49  (Jan 40 – July 44)

Shield-Wizard  1 – 13  (Summer 40 – Spring 44)

Blue Beetle (Early Golden Age)

As I started to read the Blue Beetle stories from this period, I marvelled at the huge differences between the original character and the current one, but as I got to the tales from 42-44, I began to think lack of consistency may be the hallmark of the character.

Blue Beetle 1 gives an origin for the character.  We learn that Dan Garret was born December 6, 1916 (so very rare to have a specific birthdate for a superhero), to a poor family.  His mother died in a flu epidemic.  Dan earned a scholarship to university, and excelled there both in academics and athletics.  His father, a policeman, was killed in the line of duty shortly before Dan graduated, which lead him to join the force, hoping to catch his father’s killer.  We also learn that Mannigan was his father’s partner before becoming Dan’s.  There is no clear reason why Dan adopts the Blue Beetle guise.

The costume is inconsistently portrayed throughout the run.  Sometimes he has blue gloves and a blue belt, sometimes white, sometimes yellow.  The belt buckle has a symbol of a beetle on it, or a “BB”, or nothing at all.  There is a blue beetle on his cowl, just above his forehead, or a yellow one, or none at all.  The costume is sometimes textured, sometimes smooth.  Dan wears it under his police uniform, or he reverses his uniform to become the costume.

It is described a few times as armour, called “chain mail” in Blue Beetle 26, and in Blue Beetle 29 it is further stated that it was built out of a 400 year old suit of armour, and that on occasion it can emit death rays, though that never happens.

In Blue Beetle 3, with no set-up, we discover that Dan has been taking a Vitamin 2X potion made by Professor Franz.  Professor Franz is later shown working at a drugstore, which seems odd for a professor.  This potion does not give Dan actual powers – we never see Beetle lifting cars or jumping over buildings – but does seem to increase his endurance and stamina.  Still, when the expanded costume information is given in issue 29, and Beetle’s powers and abilities detailed, the Vitamin 2X potion, which had figured in so many early tales, is not mentioned at all.

In Mystery Men 10, a very early Jack Kirby story, Dan devises a flashlight that shines a beetle symbol on a wall.  Though we never again see this flashlight, the beetle symbol continues to appear throughout the run.  At first, always on walls, and when Dan is in a position to be shining the light on it, but eventually the beetle can be very small, and apparently floating between bad guys, and often appears in locations where Dan could not possibly be shining a light, but with no other explanation.

For the first two years, this series plods along.  I wondered how it became so successful that Blue Beetle got not only his own series spun out of his strip in Mystery Men, but also the lead spot in the Big 3 anthology.  I began to think that perhaps this series appealed to readers who dared to dream small.  Unlike the multi-powered Superman or multi-weaponed Batman, Blue Beetle’s stories are all fairly close to reality.  As a policeman on the beat, he learns about crimes, and then dons the costume to deal with the bad guys.  He faces killers and counterfeiters, smugglers and kidnappers, but no world conquerors or crazed madmen at this time.

Blue Beetle 17 introduces Joan Mason, a reporter for the Bulletin newspaper, who becomes his close friend, possibly girlfriend, although Blue Beetle 30 would have the only appearance of a woman named Tina, identified as Dan’s girlfriend.  Perhaps he is cheating on Joan.  I know I would have gotten tired of her yelling “Blue Beetle!  Look out!” in every story.  Issue 22 informs us that Joan works for a paper called The Clarion, but adds that it is the leading newspaper in the city, so I like to think she moved up in the world, rather than view this as a continuity error.

The villains begin to get more dramatic come 1942, Leo Sugar invents a drug that makes people combust into flames in Blue Beetle 10, Willie the Weasel finds a bottle with a giant blue genie that he sends to destroy the city in Blue Beetle 21. The Countess Belladonna makes two appearances, in Mystery Men 28 and 29, first as a thief, and then seeking to kill Beetle in revenge, while disguised as a man.  The Condor tries to sabotage the fleet, and then smuggles guns to foreign agents, in his two appearances, in Big 3 issues 5 and 6.

A text page in Blue Beetle 14, September 42, introduces Sparkington J. Northrup, an American orphan adopted by a British lord, who appears in the following issue, unmasking Blue Beetle, and then becoming his sidekick, Sparky.  As Sparky, he wears a matching costume, though with shorts and his blond hair flowing free.  Sparky spends his days hanging at the police station with Dan, and is always called Sparky, in costume or not, but somehow this does not help either Mannigan or Joan figure out Dan is the Blue Beetle.

As if Sparky was not a bad enough addition to the strip, an amateur magician whose tricks cause chaos in introduced in issue 16, Dascomb Dinsmore.  The story ends asking the readers to write in if they want to see more of him.  Not only did Dascomb never return, but Sparky vanished after another issue as well.  Maybe Dascomb’s magic made them both disappear.

With Blue Beetle 22 we learn that Dan has been walking his beat in Centre City, though in the next issue its Central City.  No matter, by issue 29 its New York City.  As well, in 22, he resigns from the force and joins Army Intelligence, undergoes training and is sent behind enemy lines as a spy, managing to beat up Hitler and rip his moustache off in his first adventure.

From 22 – 29 there are two Blue Beetle stories in each issue of his comic, and one has him behind enemy lines as a spy while the other has him back in Centre/Central/New York City with Mannigan and Joan, dealing with police matters.  Even though this makes for cringe-worthy continuity, I excuse these as a compromise, and assume that one set of stories are taking place before the other set.

But even that gets stretched in Blue Beetle 31, in which he is no longer a spy, but in one story is back walking a beat, and in the other is an FBI agent stationed in Washington DC.  Dan has also developed (on his own apparently, Professor Franz not having appeared in over a year) a black light device that makes him invisible.  His gloves are now red, matching the shorts he has taken to wearing over his tights.

As bewildering, and tedious, as the series became, I admit I am curious to read his stories in the Late Golden Age, if only see what other changes the character undergoes.

Blue Beetle:  Mystery Men 6 – 31 (Jan 40 – Feb 42)

Blue Beetle 1 – 32  (Winter 40 – July 44)

Big 3  1 – 7  (Fall 40 – Spring 42)

Sandman (Early Golden Age)

The Sandman series would undergo huge changes in this period, and it’s an oddity of comics history that the fondly remembered costume, and the fondly remembered stories, do not correspond at all.

Wesley Dodds continues to fight crime in his suit, cape and gasmask, most often dealing with kidnappings and jewel robberies as he moves through his high society life.  In Adventure Comics 47 he encounters a female safe cracker, The Lady in Evening Clothes, who winds up helping him take down her gang.  Although she gives her name as Diana Ware, by the end of the story she learns that she is really Dian Belmont, the long-missing daughter of District Attorney Belmont.

With no hesitation, Wesley reveals his identity to her, and they become a couple both in romantic terms and crime fighting ones, though most often Dian is relegated to driving the car and getting information.  Adventure Comics 56 gives her her best story, as Wesley gets kidnapped and she disguises herself as the Sandman to free him.

The gas gun is used less frequently as the series progresses, and Wes invents a new weapon in issue 61, the wire-poon gun, which he uses to scale buildings and get from rooftop to rooftop.

Although he gets no recurring villains, Sandman does fight an impressive array of foes in this period, who easily could have returned.  Borloff has a metal dissolving ray and a flying cylindricraft, one thief uses invisibility paint, another a hypnotic ruby.  Professor Doobie commits crimes using a shrinking serum in issue 67, then shrinks Sandman and Dian when they try to apprehend him.

The big change in the series comes with Adventure Comics 69, as Wes gets a new costume and sidekick, but these changes are not reflected at first in his stories in World’s Finest Comics, meaning Dian has her final appearance in World’s Finest 5.  There is no explanation for her disappearance or the costume change, though Roy Thomas would provide answers for both in All-Star Squadron in the 80s.  He has Dian die in a car accident at this time, but as she is later shown to have become an elderly woman, the car accident must not have been fatal.

Sandy debuts in issue 69, in a costume he claims he patterned after Sandman’s.  This is curious, as his costume does match that of Sandman, but it matches the costume he has just started wearing, a skin-tight gold and purple outfit, with a purple cape.  Sandy is in gold and red, with a red cape.  He is an orphan, staying at a farmhouse where the owner has experimented with creating giant bees, not thinking about the deadly giant stingers that would come with them.  Wes apparently adopts Sandy at the end of the story, as they live together from this point on.  Sandy’s last name is given as McGann in issue 71, but Hawkins in issue 73, and from then on.

Incidentally, Sandy’s full superhero name is Sandy the Golden Boy.  I believe this would win not only gayest superhero name, but also least likely to make a villain scared of you.

They wear the caped version of the costume until issue 71, but when Jack Kirby takes over the art the capes are abandoned.  It takes a few more issues for Sandy to get a red collar, and Sandman to get the purple scallopy thing that goes down to his shoulders.

Simon and Kirby take the reins of this series with Adventure Comics 72, and the series quickly excels virtually everything else coming from DC at this time.  The trademark of leaving sand behind had pretty much fallen by the wayside when Simon and Kirby replace it with the “calling card” that reads

There is no place beyond the law

Where tyrants rule with unshakable power

It’s a dream from which the evil wake

To face their fate…their terrifying hour

The Sandman

But more importantly, they begin playing with the concept of dreams, right from the get-go.  In their first story, a human slaver has a nightmare about being caught by the Sandman.  It turns out he is already in jail, the dream reflects events that have occurred, but it quickly becomes a theme in the series that the bad guys have nightmares about the Sandman before actually encountering him.

And though the costumes are somewhat tired and generic, even for this early era, the overall art is astounding.  Kirby gives an art deco feel to everything, and the action is far more dynamic than in other artists works.

Two of the villains the Sandman faces at this time would be resurrected in the pages of All-Star Squadron.  Nightshade, who has a great mask and a bunch of fake plants and traps in his “magic forest” debuts in World’s Finest 6, while Adventure Comics 75 introduces Fairytales Fenton, “The Villain from Valhalla,” who pretends to be the Norse god Thor.  This is, I believe, the first time Kirby would render a Thor character, but obviously not the last!  This story also has a beautiful full-page panel of Sandman and the police fighting “Thor” and his viking henchmen.

Sandman deals with an insomniac who turns to crime in issue 80’s “The Man Who Couldn’t Sleep,” and a narcoleptic framed for murder in 87’s “I Hate the Sandman.”  The idea of wedding cake dreams foretelling the person you will marry is tidily worked into issue 83’s “The Lady and the Champ.”

I am restraining myself from detailing every single Simon and Kirby issue, though it is tempting to do so.  Even their weaker stories are so above the mass of other tales being released at this time, but I will limit myself to only talking about three more.

Sandy gets a starring role in issue 81’s “A Drama in Dreams.”  He is surprised to discover Wes having a nightmare about the Sandman, and realizes Wes has been kidnapped and impersonated.  Sandy tracks him down and once Wes gets free he takes out his impersonator, and pretends to be him to get to the guy behind it all.

“Santa Fronts for the Mob,” in issue 82, begins with a hilarious nightmare of department store owner P.P. Miller, who imagines that without a good store Santa people will picket and boycott his establishment.  The man he hires has mob ties, but grows to love the job and the kids so much, when the time comes to rob the store he helps the Sandman take down the bad guys.  Somehow this story manages to capture much the same feeling as movies like “Miracle on 34th Street” and “Holiday Affair,” both also 1940s department store-based Christmas tales.

In my eyes, the crowning glory of this run is Adventure Comics 85, “The Unholy Dreams of Gentleman Jack.”  This opens with a prisoner dreaming of being waited on hand and foot by the guards, and Sandman bursting into his cell.  Once he is released from prison, he has his apartment made up to resemble a jail, and his servants dressed as guards.  He lures Sandman to his place, so we get the visual from the dream a second time, but just shows him around and gets him off his guard, so his men can capture him.  Gentleman Jack has Sandman put into a gas chamber to kill him, and goes to bed, unaware that Sandy has been following him.  Sandy frees Sandman as Jack dreams that his servants are now acting like actual prison guards, and just as Sandman appears in his nightmare (the third time for the same visual) he wakes, discovering Sandman in his room, as well as police, playing that same visual for the fourth time in 10 pages!  Each time we see Jack, the Sandman, the cell and the guards it is from a different perspective, and it is shown from another angle on the cover as well.  This story could easily be muddled or repetitive, but instead is a thorough delight.

Simon and Kirby were drafted before the end of the war.  A few stories were kept aside, but other artists and writers were put onto the series with issue 91.  The art is not terrible, but has none of Kirby’s inspiration or skill, and the stories drop Simon’s dream motif entirely.

Sandman continues in the Late Golden Age

Sandman:  Adventure Comics 46 – 92  (Jan 40 – July 44)

New York World’s Fair 1940

All-Star Comics 1 – 2  (Summer – Fall 40)

World’s Finest Comics  3 – 7  (Fall 41 – Fall 42)

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