J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, May 11, 2008

America’s Bravest Defender: The Fighting Yank

Last year I analyzed several nonfiction comics designed to teach topics in American Revolutionary history. [The impressively talented illustrator of one of those comics, Ross Watton, recently posted a thoughtful comment in response to my criticism.] I return to the theme of Revolutionary comics today, but we’re leaving the world of nonfiction far behind.

In the early 1940s, the superhero was new and hot. This was when Superman, Batman, the Human Torch, Captain Marvel, the Sub-Mariner, the Spirit, and Wonder Woman were created—as well as hundreds of other, forgotten heroes, most clearly derivative and others simply ludicrous. (Doll Man? The Human Bomb? Stardust?) Almost any superhero seemed to sell, at least well enough for the publisher to stay in business, or to slip away and reopen under a new name.

At the same time, the Second World War was raging in Europe and Asia. By 1941, most Americans expected the U.S. of A. to enter that conflict as well. Those expectations produced a flurry of ultra-patriotic superheroes, of which only Captain America remains well known today.

Into that world burst the Fighting Yank, in the tenth issue of Startling Comics, with a cover date of September 1941 (and thus on newsstands a couple of months before). This magazine came from a second-rate publisher doing business at different times as Standard, Better, Four Star, and Nedor. The first story was created by writer Richard E. Hughes (a pseudonym for Leo Rosenbaum) and artist Jon Blummer. Eventually the Fighting Yank appeared in his own magazine as well as the original America’s Best Comics, but the end of the superhero fad led to his disappearance in 1949.

What made the Fighting Yank stand out from the superhero pack was his Revolutionary War heritage. His origin story starts with an appearance by Gen. George Washington himself, as well as a Longfellovian “wayside inn.” Redcoat soldiers shoot a Patriot messenger named Bruce Carter, but he will return as a ghost whenever danger threatens the U.S. of A.—which brings us to 1941.

Bruce Carter III, great-great-grandson of the dead Patriot, does “nothing but lie around all day reading history books.” Unfathomably, his father and his fiancée, Joan Farwell, think this is a Bad Thing. (One wonders why Joan agreed to marry Bruce III in the first place.)

Then the threat to the U.S. of A., not to mention Bruce’s engagement, grows so great that the dead Patriot appears before his young descendant and leads him to a cloak hidden in the attic. As soon as Bruce III puts on his ancestor’s cloak, he discovers that he’s super-strong and invulnerable.

But of course a superhero must have a secret identity and a special look. Thus, Bruce III becomes the Fighting Yank! With his keen knowledge of history and attic full of antique garments, he dresses himself in a tricorn hat, breeches, buckled shoes, and a shirt with a small American flag on it. (Sometimes this flag even has the circle of stars associated with Revolutionary times.)

It’s never clear exactly how the Fighting Yank’s cape of invulnerability works. It appears to deflect bullets shot at his chest even when it’s streaming out behind his back, but it doesn’t keep him from being felled by a sock on the jaw or a lead pipe to the tricorn, should the plot demand that he be knocked out. The Fighting Yank doesn’t fly, but he figures out how to propel himself through the air by wrapping his cape around his body and setting off an explosion under himself.

Bruce III’s secret weapon, however, is the first Bruce. About once an issue, when things look their worst, readers can count on the ghostly Patriot reappearing to fetch the cape back to his descendant or aid in some other way. His presence helps to remind us all of what a noble cause Americans are fighting for. Though that cause is rarely any clearer than “Down with the dictatorships! . . . The price of liberty is constant vigilance!”

In his origin story, the Fighting Yank battles a fascist ring that’s kidnapped an influential senator. I don’t want to give away the ending, but keep an eye out for the long-lost evil twin brother.

The truly revolutionary aspect of that and subsequent Fighting Yank stories, I think, is that when our hero first rescues his girlfriend Joan, she doesn’t wail, “Oh, why can’t my Bruce be as brave and strong as the Fighting Yank?” Instead, she starts this exchange:

“Hmm—That costume of yours—It looks familiar!”

“Er, I’d better be going!”

“No you don’t, Bruce Carter! Something’s happened to turn you into a human dynamo...but you’re not fooling me!”
Joan remains at Bruce’s side, encouraging him to fight on in his new guise. Don Markstein’s Toonopedia explains, “Depending on the needs of the story, she could be either an assistant or a hostage.”

Because the publisher of the Fighting Yank went out of business and didn’t renew its copyrights, those stories have entered the public domain. Cash Gorman’s Fighting Yank archive lets us read several stories on the web; that’s where I found them. Others are available (in black and white) in AC Comics’ reprints series, source of the cover image at top.


J. L. Bell said...

Another source for Fighting Yank stories is the Nedor a Day blog.

Remember: These comics are in the public domain, so they belong to all of us. Isn’t that wonderful?

Larry Cebula said...

"Something’s happened to turn you into a human dynamo..."

I get that a lot myself.

What other history superheroes have graced our comic books? Were there any Civil War-inspired superhero stories cooked up in the mid-20th century?

Anonymous said...

Reminds me of the upcoming Pistolfist comics. It'll be interesting to see how (or if) the artists balance history and over the top fiction: http://aliasenterprises.com/previews/prevpf.html

J. L. Bell said...

I can’t think of any superheroes with U.S. Civil War roots as deep as the Fighting Yank’s link to the Revolution. And now that Marvel had such a hit with its “Civil War” crossover event, Google’s no longer any help.

The Alias comics publishing company also puts out Revere, about a certain Boston silversmith using his powers to fight werewolves and vampires.

Kinggame said...

Fantastic find, this Fighting Yank. However, I think the most unbelievable quirk of this character is just how much he is alike the other superheroes. From truth, justice, and the American way to Spiderman's red and blue getup, comics have always been a most reflective medium.