Fighting American, written and illustrated by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby with Jack Oleck, Mort Meskin, John Prentice, George Tuska and others (1954-55, 1966; collected 2011): By the mid-1950’s, the American superhero comic book had been reduced to a few ‘old’ staples (Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman), with the rest of the Golden Age flood cancelled because of low sales. Comics were growing up, with war, horror, romance and crime comics dominating the marketplace, along with the first issues of a little comic book called Mad.
But the industry-self-imposed censorship of the Comics Code Authority, implemented in response to government hearings in both the U.S. and Canada about the contributions of violent comic books to juvenile delinquency, would bring superheroes back as a wholesome substitute for the now-banned excesses and adult situations of crime, horror and war comics. American comic books would descend into a long stretch of second, superhero-dominated childhood, one they’ve really only been recovering from since the 1970’s.
Into the superhero fray would come Fighting American, created by the great Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (who’d created Captain America for Timely/Marvel back in the early 1940’s) for Prize Comics. He’d only survive seven issues (as Simon notes in the introduction, that was four better than the revived, Commie-fighting Captain America of the 1950’s). But what issues!
The series starts off as a fairly straightforward McCarthy-era superhero book, with super-soldier Fighting American and plucky kid sidekick Speedboy battling Communists and the occasional alien. But McCarthyism was on the way out, and by the third issue, straightforward superhero adventures were as well.
Instead, the comic became more and more comedic and satiric, with our heroes fighting villains that included Hotsky Trotsky, Round Robin, Invisible Irving, Poison Ivan and Rhode Island Red. In what’s probably the story closest to being a Mad magazine parody of a superhero comic, a Soviet superman turns out to have powers created by his terrible body odour. He’s rendered powerless (and pro-capitalist) by a shower. U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!
Kirby and Simon (who share both art and writing duties) do the lion’s share of the artwork here, though some of the material is obviously not from their hands. There’s a refreshing lunacy at work here. The comedy doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s pretty scathing — Simon and Kirby were obviously tuned in to the absurdities of the “long underwear” genre (their words, in one of the stories collected here, not mine).
The volume also collects a few stories done for a brief Harvey Comics revival in the late 1960’s, though these stories are clearly not drawn by either Simon or Kirby. Fighting American is the grandfather of absurdist Commie-fighting superhero Flaming Carrot and a few others — the satiric superhero elements and outrageous, occasionally punning names also remind me of Rick Veitch’s work. This is great, unusual stuff. In one of the ‘straight’ stories, the U.S. Air Force bombs Mt. Shasta, where an apocalyptic battle between Commies and Satan-worshipping monsters is taking place. OK, add Hellboy to the list of descendants. Highly recommended.