As Independence Day rolls around again, Americans are bombarded by the sights, sounds and symbols of patriotism. Patriotic songs, patriotic ads, patriotic parades, patriotic … superheroes? In honour of the Fourth of July, we’re taking a brief tour through some of the lesser-known patriotic heroes.
Everyone knows the most famous patriotic superhero of them all, Marvel’s Captain America. Created in 1940 by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, Cap was an expression of his creators’ anti-Nazi principles and an instant hit.
As the Second World War escalated, plenty of other star-spangled superheroes hit America’s newsstands, but not all of them lived on to be as remembered as the Sentinel of Liberty.
The WWII boom
Not every patriotic superhero who appeared during the war was a Captain America knockoff. For example, MLJ Comics’ The Shield, who looks like the most obvious Cap clone in the world, actually predates Captain America’s first appearance by several months.
Other all-American heroes who made their first appearances during the war include (deep breath) The Fighting Yank, Liberty Belle, Man of War, Uncle Sam, Minute-Man, Major Victory, Miss Victory, Miss America, Yank and Doodle, U.S. Jones, American Eagle, War Eagle, Yankee Eagle, Yankee Boy, Yankee Doodle Jones, Liberator and Flag-Man. And if you liked Captain America, publishers hoped you would also enjoy (another deep breath) Captain Battle, Captain Commando, Captain Courageous, Captain Flag, Captain Fight, Captain Freedom, Captain Glory and Captain Victory. There was also Captain Valor, but he was actually a captain in the Marine Corps so maybe we can give him a pass.
Some of these wartime heroes did return in later years: Liberty Belle and Uncle Sam are moderately important DC characters, while Fighting Yank and other public-domain superheroes turned up in Tom Strong and its Terra Obscura spinoff. Archie Comics and later DC Comics keep trying to revive The Shield, so far without lasting success.
The strange tale of Fighting American
The world loves one patriotic hero created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, but although Captain America is a worldwide icon, Fighting American never made the same splash. Resenting their treatment by Captain America publisher Atlas Comics, Simon and Kirby decided to create a new patriotic hero for the 1950s. Fighting American was initially a sincere opponent of Communist agents, but as public opinion began to turn against anti-Communist Senator Joseph McCarthy, Simon and Kirby moved the character in a stranger direction, turning him into a parody character who battled Communist foes with names like Poison Ivan and Hotsky Trotsky.
Toward a more critical patriotism
The war years were a time of optimism about America’s role in the world, but the simple idealism of a patriotic hero can sometimes be undone by awkward reality. Comic creators with a more ambivalent view of US patriotism have created a number of patriotic-themed supervillains. In some cases, these villains think of themselves as heroes — and in a few, they were originally intended to be (like the Americommando). Perhaps the most over-the-top of these are the Force of July, an apparent hero team who battled the 1980s incarnation of the Outsiders. In addition to Cap clone Major Victory, the team included Sparkler, Lady Liberty (who was, like the real Statue of Liberty, French), plant-controlling Puritan Mayflower and laconic clone-spawner Silent Majority. These days, probably the best-known of these villains is Nuke, the roided-out Daredevil antagonist who appears in a slightly different from in the Jessica Jones Netflix series.
Patriotic heroes have also been used to critique the history of American civil rights. In 2003, Marvel introduced the character of Isaiah Bradley, a black soldier who had been used as a test subject for the formula that would eventually go on to create Steve Rogers. The fictional test program echoed actual US government experiments on black servicemen and added a more morally ambiguous note to the idea of a government-created super-soldier by drawing attention to the government’s historical mistreatment of African-Americans. Isaiah’s grandson, Elijah, would go on to become Patriot, a member of the Young Avengers.
So whether you take your patriotism simplistic and bright or clear-eyed and complex, there’s a patriotic superhero for you to enjoy this Fourth of July. From the run-of-the-mill like the Patriot to the simply bizarre like Yankee Poodle, there are as many takes on the all-American crimefighter as there are on America itself.