Superheroes Catch the Spirit of '76
More than two centuries gone, their names are still familiar: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Patrick Henry, James Madison and many others…all patriotic heroes of the great American Revolution.
However, there have been other patriots whose names you’ve never seen in a history book or on a Washington D.C. monument, but were just as dedicated in their fight for liberty and sweet freedom. These, of course, were the proud ranks of costumed superheroes that either lived in, visited, or were mystically connected to the dawning years of the United States of America!
Of the heroes who called the late 1700’s their home, one of the most prominent was DC’s frontier adventurer Tom Hawk. “Tomahawk”, as he became known, lead a fighting force nicknamed “The Rangers”, composed of volunteers from all over the nascent United States. They spent the Revolutionary War years fighting British forces….that is, when they weren’t busy with dinosaur-riding cavemen, giant tree creatures, or alien Indian chiefs.
Though not primarily a comic book hero (nor an American hero for that matter), I still feel compelled to mention Doctor Syn, a swashbuckling smuggler from the novels of Russel Thorndike, later immortalized in Disney’s Scarecrow of Romney Marsh TV mini-series (1964). At the very least, his fight against the forces of our mutual foe King George III (and that cool costume) earns Syn the status of an honorary hero of the Revolution.
Ever since the soul of a slain Revolutionary War soldier merged with the Spirit of Liberty, the mystical powerhouse known as Uncle Sam has appeared in times of national crisis. Uncle Sam’s World War II adventures appeared in Quality’s National Comics and Uncle Sam Quarterly, later on jumping over to DC Comics (along with his fellow Quality characters) to fight for freedom on a parallel Earth.
Striking a blow for both freedom and feminism was the masked swordswoman Miss Liberty, secretly a nurse named Betsy Lynn. Making her second cover appearance here on Tomahawk #88 (1963), she was later revealed to have died one of the strangest deaths in comic book pseudo-history. In All-Star Squadron #45 (1985), writer Roy Thomas retrofitted the origin of Liberty Belle (more on her later) to include Miss Liberty as her ancestor, who met a grisly end getting crushed by the Liberty Bell. Yes, the Liberty Bell.
An edgier, darker take on 18th century heroism is Storyline Studios’ upcoming Pistolfist, Revolutionary Warrior. An escaped slave and brother of Crispus Attucks (the historical first victim of the Boston Massacre), Salem Attucks is transformed into the fearsome figure of Pistolfist, who later meets Ben Franklin himself.
Our next category of Revolutionary War heroes includes time traveling superheroes from the present day who found themselves rubbing elbows with the giants of American history. In Adventure Comics #296 (1992), Superboy and the Kents met the aforementioned Mr. Franklin (who initially thought the Kents were British spies), along with fellow patriots Paul Revere, John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington!
Years later in Action Comics #463 (1976), the adult Superman is blasted back in time to 1776 by the alien Karb-Brak…just in time to save the unsigned Declaration of Independence from Tory spies!
Though not strictly a time-travel story, Action Comics Annual #6 (1994) finds another super-powered Kryptonian wandering around the late 18th century. In this “Elseworlds” alternate reality, Kryptonian criminal Gar-El escapes from Krypton and conquers first the American colonies then the rest of the world. However, two centuries later, his planetary dictatorship is challenged by a descendant named “Kal”.
From the Marvel Comics’ side of the aisle came Captain America's Bicentennial Battles (1976), featuring Cap’s time traveling trip to witness key events in American history, courtesy of cosmic tour guide “Mister Buddha”. One of their stops was the year 1776, where Cap’s costume paradoxically inspires the design of the American flag!
In one of the most endearingly loopy images in comicdom (no easy feat), the Spider-Man and Hulk drummer corps accompany Cap’s inspiring fife solo on The Mighty Marvel Bicentennial Calendar.
Our final category covers relatively modern superheroes whose costumes and names were inspired by the Revolutionary era, or (in many cases) could somehow channel its patriots and mythic power into the present.
Someone who fit both of those criteria was The Fighting Yank, who made his debut in Startling Comic #1 (1941). Awarded a magical cloak by the ghost of his Revolutionary War ancestor, Bruce Carter III added boots, buckles and a tri-corner hat to complete the “Super-Charged Minuteman” theme. His ancestor, Bruce Carter I, would occasionally appear in spirit form to help out during “times of great need” (which translates to "just about every Fighting Yank story").
In Alan Moore’s America’s Best Comics line, he reintroduced a number of obscure characters that had fallen into the public domain, including the Fighting Yank and many of his cohorts originally published by Nedor Comics. Existing on a world named Terra Obscura, Bruce Campbell III was killed during an adventure, which made his daughter Carol the new Fighting Yank (seen here on the cover of Terra Obscura and Splash Brannigan #1, 2006). This time around, it was Bruce Carter III who occasionally popped in to bail out his daughter “in times of great need”.
Instead of receiving her special abilities from dead patriots, “radio columnist” Libby Lawrence was empowered by the Liberty Bell itself, gaining extra strength, speed and vibrational powers whenever the historic relic was rung. Originally appearing in Boy Commandos #1 (1942), Liberty Belle was rescued from obscurity and enjoyed a long run in DC’s All-Star Squadron.
The Spirit of ’76, despite his patriotic billing as “the personification of American Folklore”, had no such mystical link to the past, or any special superpowers (unless you count his bullet-proof cloak). Despite the skimpy resume’, he battled none other than Satan, a “mad underworld dictator” in Pocket Comics #1 (1941).
Another Spirit of ’76 appeared decades later in The Invaders #14 (1977), once again with a bullet-proof cape and no superpowers…though this time echoing the Fighting Yank’s traditional tri-corner hat, cape and knickers ensemble.
Adding to the ranks of the tri-corner hat brigade was Major Liberty, seen here punching out some grotesque Japanese stereotypes on the cover of USA Comics #4 (1942). Angered by Nazi sabotage, Professor John Liberty (I kid you not) was visited by the ghost of Paul Revere who, like so many patriotic spiritual benefactors, granted the history teacher special powers. Somewhat like a red, white and blue version of DC’ s Kid Eternity, Major Liberty could summon figures of the past (in this case the ghosts of American patriots) to help him out during his adventures.
Speaking of the Kid, here he is on the cover of Hit Comics #52 (1948) calling “heroes out of the past”. Along with Shawnee chief Tecumseh and Rip Van Winkle (the Kid could also summon literary figures) came an imposing General George Washington, looking ready to kick butt and take names at the drop of a tri-corner hat.
Sure, it doesn’t get much nuttier than George Washington doing the bidding of a boy, but at the same time, that image…along with the other goofy pseudo-history I’ve featured, strikes me as uniquely and endearingly American. As first a concept, then a country formed “by the people, for the people”, our leaders are charged to “do our bidding”, and not the other way around. They aren’t kings or demigods…they’re people, whom we have an equal right to petition or parody. Similarly, our history isn’t a sacrosanct narrative protected by a Central Committee, but a wide-open canvas for us to examine, question and, yes, occasionally populate with masked superheroes without fear of reprisal.
Have a Happy Independence Day
…and don’t forget to wear your tri-corner hat!