The Debut of MLJ's "The Shield": Typical patriotic propaganda, or something darker?

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Lorendiac

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Apr 30, 2004
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Indianapolis
#1
As those of you with long memories will recall, for several years now I have had a sacred tradition. In honor of this special day of the year, I am once again perpetrating -- I mean, perpetuating -- my charming habit of dusting off the debut story of some Golden Age superhero, and reading it with a fresh set of eyes. I pretend I have never before seen or heard of this character concept, and am judging the material by modern standards, strictly on the basis of what is contained within those pages.

In past years, I have offered my no-holds-barred opinions about the debuts of the characters known as "Superman," "Batman," "Captain Marvel," "The Sub-Mariner and The Human Torch" (since they debuted in the same issue), "Plastic Man and Phantom Lady" (since they, too, debuted in the same issue), and last year I was merciless in my appraisal of the debut of Jay Garrick, the original "Flash."

This year, I decided it was time to give the business to the USA's very first "flagsuit superhero"; a red-white-and-blue trailblazer who inspired many other unabashedly patriotic characters, such as Captain America, Uncle Sam, The Fighting American, and even U.S.A.! (The latter was one of the heroes introduced in Alan Moore's "1963" miniseries about a quarter-century ago, in case you had forgotten.)

By seniority, the first such character turned out to be The Shield, who debuted in Pep Comics #1, cover-dated January 1940, published by MLJ. The lead story is 10 pages long, written by Harry Shorten and drawn by Irving Novick.

The cover art gives us a taste of things to come. The Shield is demolishing a robot soldier with one mighty punch.



So mighty, in fact, that not only is the metal head being knocked loose from the torso, but each metal hand is simultaneously being shaken loose from the arm to which it was previously attached! Which already has me thinking: "Wait a minute . . . if we presume that The Shield's mighty fist just finished hitting the robot on what passes for its chin . . . which seems to be what the artist is going for . . . why does that detach both hands at the same time? Just what sort of rickety construction did the engineers use in putting that robot together in the first place?

Naturally I'm hoping to see this matter carefully addressed within the pages of the actual story. (Make a note . . . we'll get back to that point later!)

Once we move past the cover, we find the writer takes an interesting approach to the whole "Origin Story" question. In the past, I've examined cases where a new character's journey to become a superhero is central to the plot of the first adventure -- the debuts of Captain Marvel and of Plastic Man spring to mind -- and I've looked at some cases in which the superhero is already going strong in a costumed identity as we tune in, and the first story gives us no insight whatsoever into how this man or woman got interested in fighting crime in the first place! (The debuts of Batman and of Phantom Lady fit that description.)

But Harry Shorten decides to split the difference between those methods of introducing a superhero. The lead story in Pep Comics #1 is not an origin story in the classic sense of showing us a lengthy visual depiction of the sequence of events that leads to the protagonist putting on a fancy costume -- but on the other hand, the story does not utterly fail to inform us about such events, either.

Instead, Shorten decided to give us an "origin story," but to race through it as quickly as humanly possible so that he could then get down to the good stuff by showing us the end result of
Accordingly, our hero's background is all spelled out in a scroll-shaped caption running down the right-hand side of the splash panel which takes up two-thirds of the first page. Here's what it comes down to:
1) Joe Higgins is "The Shield," but only his boss, the Chief of the FBI, knows his identity.
2) His costume was secretly invented by himself. It makes him bulletproof, flameproof, superstrong, and superfast.
3) As you might guess from the red-white-and-blue color scheme, he's very patriotic. This is, in part, because "Joe's father was killed in the famous Black Tom Explosion set off by foreign spies during the World War."

(I had to look it up. "The Black Tom Explosion" was a real thing. If I'd ever heard of it before, I'd completely forgotten. And it makes me nostalgic to realize there was a time when superhero comic books could take it for granted that there had only been one World War, and it had been over and done with for a couple of decades already!)

Anyway, moving on to the actual plot. Higgins is called into the Chief's office (the man bears an uncanny resemblance to J. Edgar Hoover) and is told: "There is a Stokian spy ring operating here and we must smash it!"

He says,"spy ring," but on the next page he starts describing the things they've been doing, and it becomes clear that he really meant "saboteurs." They've been blowing things up and shooting people. An arsenal here, a merchant ship there . . .

Oh, those perfidicious Stokians! I knew we couldn't trust them! This is just the sort of thing you'd expect them to be doing, considering their track record . . . uh, wait a minute. Just what is a Stokian, anyway? Presumably a nationality, but which part of the world are we talking about? (Or some other planet entirely, for all I know at this point?)

Now, you might be thinking that Higgins would have to spend the next few days visiting crime scenes, reading reports from other agents, looking for clues, identifying suspects and placing them under surveillance for a while, etc. -- you know, the sort of painstaking detective work for which the FBI is justly renowned? But Shorten has no intention of wasting time on all that nonviolent stuff, so he jump-starts the next stage of the plot by having the enemy seize the initiative.

As Higgins (wearing a green business suit, with a briefcase under his arm which presumably contains the superhero outfit) is walking away from the building where he had his meeting, two men spot him and say to each other: "I don't know who he is, but he was in the FBI office." "He must be spying on our gang. Let's get him!"

I'm not following this logic at all. Hundreds of people must walk in and out of FBI Headquarters every day. Are these enemy saboteurs assaulting everyone who leaves the building, without even having a clue as to who this person is? Are they so vain that they assume nobody from that building could possibly have been assigned to any ongoing case except hunting for the Stokians themselves?

So they attack him, but Joe Higgins quickly turns the tables on them and beats them into unconsciousness. (Please note that, according to the origin story on page one, he must be doing this without the use of any artifical "powers.") Searching their pockets, Higgins finds a handwritten note which very conveniently tells him where the next portion of the plot is scheduled to happen. It says, in plain English:

"We meet on top floor of Hotel Braganza -- all the building is in the hands of our friends. Klotz."

So of course Higgins calls his boss and arranges for the whole building to be cordoned off so no one can escape the net, right?

Nope! He decides to go over there solo. When he asks for a room, the desk clerk says they don't have any space left. When he tries to go up in an elevator anyway, the elevator boy refuses to take him unless he states his business. (Since he's not a paying guest.) Then the burly house detective tells him not to loiter here.

Higgins is beginning to feel unwelcome. He leaves the building, sneaks around into a dark alley, and opens his briefcase to change into his flagsuit costume. He also comments that he didn't want to kick up a fuss in the lobby when he wasn't sure of his facts. (Which makes some degree of sense, I suppose).

We are now on the middle of Page 4 as Higgins finally starts showing us exactly what his suit is capable of doing. And the first "power" we see with our own eyes is one that wasn't even mentioned in the summarized origin story on Page 1! A new caption tells us: "Like a human fly, The Shield scales the walls of the hotel." Then, using yet another trick we didn't know about, he pulls a "radio sound detector" out of his pocket and sets it up to eavesdrop on a conference taking place in a "soundproof" room in the hotel.

I blinked. Just where is this room? Say, five stories below him? Remarkable that he could "tune in" on their dialogue so quickly. But on the next page, it becomes clear that by Sheer Good Luck, the room in question is on the top floor, and literally immediately below where The Shield is standing.
(Granted, that handwritten note did warn him that the top floor was supposed to be where the big meeting would take place, but it's still a bit hard to believe that his first wild guess had him standing on the correct portion of the roof, instead of over at the other end of the building.)

The Shield now displays yet another useful trick which wasn't mentioned in his origin story. He produces some glass containers and mixes their contents together to create a powerful acid which is his own "secret formula." He pours it on the roof, and it quickly "cuts its way through armor plating." Apparently, it does this so quietly that nobody in the room below even notices a sudden hole in the ceiling until The Shield drops down through it!

The fight scene on the next page could just as easily be taken from a Superman story. Gunshots are fired . . . the bullets bounce off our hero's chest. Hand-to-hand is tried . . . The Shield tosses his opponents around like toys. A monocle-wearing man called "the chief spy" grabs a sword and slashes down at The Shield's head . . . thereby bending the sword. (Scintillating dialogue in that panel: "Won't anything stop you?" "Nope -- nothing!")

Then The Shield gets so interested in some documents he has picked up that he completely ignores whatever else the chief spy is trying to do. Which is a trifle short-sighted of him, because it turns out that the Stokian spy ring had several cases of TNT stockpiled at the other end of the room for just such emergencies. The chief spy sets a bomb which will detonate all of that TNT, presumably leaving it on a timer, and then he disappears through a secret panel. Meanwhile, The Shield is cheerfully oblivious to all this as he looks through some files and says brightly, "This places the blame directly on the spies. Our country won't have to go to war!"

(Not quite following his "logic" there -- is he trying to say that these documents somehow "prove" that the Stokian government did not order its spies to start blowing things up on American soil? Those agents just suddenly went rogue and did all that rough stuff entirely on their own initiative, and nobody else should be held accountable for it? Even if that were approximately what was written down on one piece of paper in that soundproof room, how could anyone be sure that it constituted the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?)

Then the explosion takes place, of course. People down on the street below stare in horror. Meanwhile, the chief spy figures The Shield is done for, and now he'll just hop in a car, drive away, and rebuild his spy ring elsewhere. (Unmentioned, but heavily implied, is that all other participants in the recent meeting have just been wiped out by the blast, but the chief spy doesn't seem to be shedding a single tear over that minor detail.)

Of course, The Shield's uniform protected his flesh from being harmed by the explosion, but it did hurl him "far up into the air." He says, "This will be a terrible fall -- even for me!" With the help of a flagpole (which breaks) and an awning (which his body rips through), he slows his fall enough that he finally falls into some trees, grabs at the branches, and ultimately lands on his hands without any harm done (then somersaults back onto his feet). Apparently doing all this without acquiring so much as a sprained wrist. (I could be wrong on that detail -- all I can swear to is that he never complains about any sudden aches and pains as a result of what just happened, but perhaps he was bearing it stoically?) Anyway, to survive such a long fall unscathed means he's wearing an even more impressive suit than I initially gave him credit for! Must have some incredible shock absorbers in there somewhere. Looking back at the scene where he tried to board the elevator in the hotel lobby, I estimate the elevator serves at least 12 floors, and we know he was on the top one when the TNT went off.

The last action sequence of the story is sort-of a car chase . . . except The Shield doesn't need a car! He just runs on foot until he catches up with the chief spy's vehicle, then leaps in front of it and lets the car wreck itself against his armored suit. The chief spy ends up groveling, begging for mercy. The story ends with J. Edgar Hoover congratulating Higgins (who is back in plainclothes) on doing a great job.

Okay, so that was the first published comic book story about the USA's first flag-suited superhero. What valuable lessons can we glean from this trailblazing adventure?

1. If you have a superpowered suit, you don't need to be very good at detective work. The bad guys will come looking for you! (Remiscent of Superman's first storyline, in which he believed the proper way to solve a murder case was to torture a young woman until she "confessed" in order to make him stop hurting her. Who needs

2. Wasting time getting search warrants, wiretap warrants, etc., is for sissies! Just use your electronic wizardry to eavesdrop on any conversation you feel entitled to listen to, and then burn your way into the room with acid! Everything will sort itself out!

3. When you're making arrests, don't bother with anything so plebeian as making sure the violent criminals are safely restrained before you get around to scrutinizing their secret files. After all, what's the worst that could happen? Somebody setting off a few hundred pounds of TNT, for instance? (You'd think a graduate of the FBI Academy would know better than this.)

4. We should always believe what captured documents say. For instance, if a document says something along the lines of, "If you are captured, the Stokian government disavows any knowledge of your murderous actions," then it is a brilliant idea to assume that this should be taken at face value.

5. False Advertising is the American Way! (Okay, so that one may actually be true, but did they really have to rub our noses in it?)

I will explain. Remember that exciting scene on the cover? Our Hero was smashing a robot warrior with one mighty punch? Funny thing -- I actually assumed that this meant that something remotely resembling that scene would occur, somewhere within the pages of this comic book!

It didn't. No robots in sight in The Shield's debut adventure in the front pages of the book. (And all the other material in here is stories featuring other characters -- nothing to do with Joe Higgins in any way, shape, or form.) The implication seems to be: "As long as your intentions are (presumed) good because of your overt patriotism, it is perfectly all right to promise the customer one thing, and then deliver another, and laugh all the way to the bank!"

So here's what we've got: The Shield is gullible, sloppy, and unprofessional; he uses false advertising to take your hard-earned dimes away from you; and he depends upon sudden bursts of dumb luck, combined with the benefits of his superior technological know-how, to help him fight his way through to a victorious conclusion regardless of his character flaws!

I imagine a fair number of the non-U.S. citizens among my readership are already nodding thoughtfully and saying, "Egad, now there's a fictional character who truly epitomizes what his country is all about! Who knew those Golden Age American comic books could be so searingly frank about their homeland's shortcomings?"

But I wouldn't think that was quite the effect that Harry Shorten and Irv Novick were aiming for.

Or was it?

A horrible suspicion has just dawned on me: What if this is exactly the effect that someone wanted to achieve in the minds of impressionable readers? What if Shorten and Novick were secretly in the pay of an undisclosed foreign power, run by a small cabal that wanted to make young American readers feel ashamed of themselves, while glorifying the idea that no matter what happens, the USA should never go to war as a result of bad behavior by other national governments?

Suddenly it all makes sense! This was anti-American propaganda which was thinly disguised as the exact opposite! And to think that I was the first person to ever detect what was really going on . . .


P.S. Just in case you took the above conclusions a bit too seriously, I just want to say:
APRIL FOOL'S!
 
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