There are few names in comics that are as well-known as Jack Kirby and Joe Simon. Kirby co-created, with Stan Lee and others, nearly every Silver Age character for Marvel, including The Fantastic Four, Dr. Doom, the Incredible Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, Cyclops, Jean Grey (then Marvel Girl), the Beast, the Angel, Iceman, Prof. X., Magneto, the Inhumans, the Black Panther, Galactus, the Silver Surfer, and the list goes on.
Simon’s career was similarly creative but didn’t involve as many superheroes. He became a big name in romance and satirical comics, though, founding Mad competitor Sick. Simon did eventually go back to capes and tights, though, co-creating the super-weird team The Outsiders with Jerry Grandenetti for DC.
But, although Simon and Kirby both created their fair share of heroes, none had both the lasting popularity and influence of their first big hit Captain America. So, neither could resist rehashing the idea in 1954 when competitor to their Crestwood Publications‘s, Atlas Comics — a re-branded Timely Comics — retrieved the good Captain from comicbook limbo. This rehash’s name was Johnny Flagg AKA Fighting American, and he, along with his sidekick Speedboy, kept America safe from commies.
Simon & Kirby’s Fighting American: “Are You Kidding?”
No, I’m not kidding. But after the first issue, Simon and Kirby may have been. The plots get increasingly ridiculous as the series progresses. And that’s no small feat considering that the premiere issue starts with Fighting American’s confusing origin story.
Fighting American’s origin starts with Nelson Flagg, a mild-mannered weakling. Nelson’s brother is Johnny Flagg, a handsome war veteran who keeps the American people apprised of commie threats via his TV talk show. Though Johnny’s a former athlete and war hero, he now walks with crutches due to an injury sustained in what was presumably the Korean War. Johnny and Nelson, on top of being brothers, are also colleagues. The mild-mannered Nelson writes the material, and Johnny delivers it on the air.
But the fraternal work relationship is not meant to be. A commie retaliation to one of Nelson’s well-worded pieces of propaganda sees Johnny at the receiving end of a hail of gunfire. Johnny dies, but the US Army offers Nelson a confusing and creepy chance to become a hero.
Simon & Kirby’s Fighting American: Zombie Bro
A nameless colonel asks Nelson if he’s willing to give his life to bring Johnny’s killers to justice. Nelson agrees and the colonel describes a process the US Army has developed that will allow them to turn an ordinary man into a “virtually indestructible agent of the future.” Seems pretty familiar so far … but wait. The twist is that, rather than subjecting Nelson to the necessary treatments — as they did to the puny Steve Rogers — the colonel and his team revitalize Johnny’s corpse. The colonel’s team transfer Nelson’s consciousness to Johnny’s revitalized body, and (the undead freak of nature) Fighting American is born!
Aside from the palpable creepiness of switching bodies with your brother’s corpse, one wonders why the colonel’s team didn’t just suggest revitalizing Nelson’s body. Weak though Nelson may have been, his body would probably have been in better shape than the bullet-riddled corpse of his wounded war hero brother. But, that’s military intelligence for you I guess.
Simon & Kirby’s Fighting American: Pre-Jenny McCarthyism
It’s tough to say whether Simon and Kirby created Fighting American as a reaction against or as propaganda for McCarthy era politics. If they are a reaction against McCarthyism, they’re not overt. Instead, Soviet Russia is the butt of quite a few jokes in the original 7-issue run, and the USA is made out to be a paradise that defectors dream of. But, since I’m not a historian, rather than getting bogged down in the dysfunctional politicking of the ’50s, I’m going to focus on a specific story in Fighting American #4 (October 1954), “Home-Coming Year 3000.”
But before I do, I should say a little about Speedboy, Fighting American’s sidekick. Much like Bucky, Speedboy has no super powers. And, again like Bucky, Speedboy is not a reanimated corpse. Instead, he’s just a pageboy Fighting American meets and recruits in his super-dangerous mission to protect America from the communist threat. OK, now on to “Home-Coming Year 3000,” a non-sequitur if ever there was one.
Simon & Kirby’s Fighting American: … On Opium?
This is by far my favourite story in the original run of Fighting American: Johnny sleeps and dreams of the distant future. He dreams that he’s an explorer, also named Johnny Flagg, returning from the planet Canopus 4. Johnny relates his adventure to his shuttle pilot while sitting with a mysterious white cube on his lap that he describes to the pilot as alive.
Johnny’s description paints Canopus 4 as a planet full of hostile life of all different forms. Amid the barrage of terrifying animal and plant life, though, Johnny meets Kleeter, a boy dressed in the same manner as Johnny but bald except for a shock of hair on top of his head. Johnny determines that Kleeter is part of a race of telepathic shape-shifters.
After Johnny learns the shape-shifters’ language (but aren’t they telepathic?), they take Johnny to a cave where the shape-shifters use their telepathic powers to kill a “spole,” essentially a huge gelatinous organ bag. They do so, and here Johnny finishes up his story to the shuttle pilot.
Simon & Kirby’s Fighting American: “Why Is It On Your Lap Then?”
The pilot asks about the white cube on Johnny’s lap, and, to the pilot’s surprise, it turns into Kleeter. After the big reveal, Kleeter turns back into a cube (on Johnny’s lap the whole time), and Johnny takes a catnap while the pilot docks the shuttle. Johnny wakes up back on Earth (apparently he and Speedboy sleep in the same room) in 1954. Johnny describes his futuristic dream, and then, in a zeitgeist-defining caption, a maudlin Joe Simon ends this weird tale with a final thought, “So, on with the gloomy present — and the mad whirl of action, intrigue and aggravation in the war of ideologies. Fighting American and Speedboy have rolled up their sleeves and are ready for the next adventure!”
I’m not sure if Simon and Kirby meant to have this kind of futuristic story become a mainstay of Fighting American, but this is the only issue in the original run that features this brand of wild science-fiction, and it sticks out like a diamond in the rough.
Simon & Kirby’s Fighting American: The Art
Jack Kirby is a genius in any decade. His work on Fighting American, although derivative, is just as dynamic and “krackley” as anything else he did. I particularly liked the spole as Kirby’s take on some Lovecraftian nightmare. Beyond the spole, though, Kirby’s mastery of the grotesque is on full display in villains from other Fighting American stories such as “Square Hair” Malloy and Yuscha Liffso.
Simon & Kirby’s Fighting American: The Writing
As you may have guessed, I didn’t have as much time for the red bashing punch ’em ups as I did for Fighting American‘s lone science-fiction story. But, either way, there’s no denying Simon’s writing talent. I think this talent was on full display in “Home-Coming Year 3000,” especially in passages like this one, “There is no up or down or side here — nothing too small, nothing too large — here it is limitless, boundless, silent. Time is like that … beyond size or space or sound … here is where past, present, and future meet like merging traffic … as Johnny drifts in that unguessable stream … along a celestial highway.”
Sure, Simon mixes his metaphors a bit at the end, but this is quality writing for a comicbook from 1954. Aside from this dreamy passage, though, Simon’s description of the world of the future shows an Asimov-like creativity, for instance, “He rises from his pressure couch, happy to be back among familiar surroundings,” or “The glove lining around my left forefinger held a compact fusion charge unit! I simply pointed and fired.” It just goes to show that even when working on a derivative knock-off, there’s still opportunity for great work … unless you’re Zack Snyder (I kid, I kid).