Cry, Freedom!

FROM THE ARCHIVE: 2013

My next novel, titled Who is Killing the Great Capes of Heropa? and due out through Perfect Edge Books in September [2013], is a bit of an anachronism.

In the title, cover art by Rodolfo Reyes, and many of the character exchanges inside the book you’ll pick up on the influence of detective-noir authors Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep) and Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon).
speed_40_Swooning
This is a murder mystery, after all.
But most of all, the novel is a compendium of nods, winks, salutes, misappropriation and homage to the world of comic books. Not only to the fictional characters found in the pages of DC or Marvel Comics, in Aussie escapades, the excesses of 2000 AD and Eurocentric romps like Tintin, Barbarella and Lucky Luke—but also to the creative, real-life people that conjured up those four-colour and monochrome yarns.

Artists and writers both.

So it may come as some surprise that one of the central references in this novel points to a character the creator of which nobody actually knows.
Captain Freedom first appeared in print in May 1941, inside Speed Comics #13—a product of Brookwood Publications soon acquired by Harvey Comics. Yes, the very same people who put out Richie Rich, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Baby Huey and Wendy the Good Little Witch. Sure, they also gave us Green Hornet, but hush up; I’m trying to be disparaging and witty.

Anyhow, our baptismal hero wasn’t even on the cover; that honour was reserved for someone since completely forgotten: Shock Gibson, a.k.a. the Human Dynamo.

speed_40_Laundry BillAnd Captain Freedom appeared hot on the heels of a similarly star-spangled officer-of-same-rank: The hugely popular Captain America, whose first issue was published in March of ’41, via Marvel predecessor Timely Comics.

Patriotic, if occasionally copycat superheroes were de rigueur during World War II, pumped out in millions of ten-cent, 60+ page packages by the sweatshop-like publishing houses in New York—providing not just amusement for the kids back home, but urgent propaganda for the overseas American armed forces.

And there were many captains: Captain Victory, Captain Midnight, Captain Fearless, Captain Courageous, Captain Flag. Major or colonel seemed out of the question (aside from one character called Major Victory), and perhaps lieutenant proved inferior or too much of a mouthful.

Yet while most people know who created Captain America—Jack Kirby and Joe Simon—and you can google the creators of nearly every other captain, the individual behind Captain America’s somewhat derivative peer Captain Freedom remains unknown.

speed_40_Him or Me

There is a name that appears in the credits of Speed Comics #13: Franklin Flagg.

While all too obviously a pseudonym, there’s no information about the real person behind it. Most golden age comic book aficionados have relegated truth in the matter to the waste paper bins of history.

Yet while a mokiker (even a fake one) like Franklin Flagg comes across stalwart and punchy, Captain Freedom, it would seem, lacked the same self-assured convictions.

During a six-year period in which Captain America only swapped shields and slightly amended his mask, Captain Freedom underwent a swathe of wardrobe design changes.

When first he appeared (page 61 of the aforementioned Speed Comics #13), Freedom wore a red skullcap without a mask, he had a circle of stars on his chest, and Captain America’s red-and-white stripes on the waistline at the front of his blue tunic. He also had yellow shoulder pads, bore no sleeves or gloves, boasted blue hot-pants without trouser-legs, and simple brown boots.

speed-22Four issues later, in 1942, our hero adopted a V-shaped star formation on his chest, red gauntlets, and a cowl that covered the top of his face, with a star on the forehead—making him more like Captain America than ever. By #19 he’d lost the peck-stripes, the gloves were yellow, while the star was on top of his head. By the final publication of Speed Comics (#44 in 1947), which wrapped-up Freedom’s career, the man had lost his pants again.

Speed 44 1947But much as we might mock Captain Freedom as a poor-man’s Steve Rogers, the character looks like it ended up on the drafting table of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.

Art restorer Harry Mendryk, one of those involved in the Simon and Kirby hardcover collections through Titan Books, convincingly put it that the duo worked under the alias of ‘Jon Henri‘—the name on the cover for Speed Comics #17 (April, 1942). It’s further contended that Simon did the Captain Freedom artwork inside that issue (along with possibly others as well) and that Simon, again with Kirby, composed the striking cover for #22.

While Captain America went on ice for a couple of decades—at least in the reinvented Marvel Comics scheme of things when Kirby and Stan Lee brought the character back in March, 1964 in the pages of The Avengers—Captain Freedom sank without trace after Speed was cancelled in 1947… prior to being temporarily rejigged, with different powers and a gaudy new costume, by AC (Americomics) in the early 1980s.

jesse_ventura_captain_freedomPeople are more likely to recall an unrelated Captain Freedom character played by Jesse Ventura in the ’87 Schwarzenegger film The Running Man.

In Who is Killing the Great Capes of Heropa? the original golden age comic book character is back—to a degree.

The good cap’n has been promoted to major, and ‘freedom’ given the flick in favour of ‘patriot’. But the spirit of Franklin Flagg’s creation gets space to live a little, and Uruguayan artist Maan House caught this spirit perfectly in his caricature for the book.

Major Patriot by Maan HouseWhile superheroes bearing jingoistic national symbols — think Captain America (iconic for the USA, obviously), Vindicator (Canada) and Union Jack (the UK)—were huge influences on the development of my character Southern Cross, way back in high school, Captain Freedom played no role at all.

That is, until last year when I stumbled across his profile on some obscure website and saw the light.

At that point he took on a life of his own, in the context of the yarn I was writing, and left Captain America in the shade. At least until re-reading Ed Brubaker‘s brilliant 100-issue handling of ol’ winghead.

ADDENDUM, 2015: MAJOR PATRIOT HAS SINCE FEATURED ALSO IN THE BULLET GAL COMIC BOOK SERIES.

 

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