The non-copyright infringing, underwear-wearing hero from the 24th century is a joyous thing to behold.
Despite the threat of global domination by fascists bent on enslaving half the world and killing the other half, not to mention tens of millions dead and eventually, the first and only wartime use of nuclear weapons, World War II was in many ways a much more innocent time. At least when it came to our popular art, anyway. The wartime years were chock full of songs, movies, comics, books and so forth that unapologetically (and for the most part, apolitically) cheered on the war effort, encouraged national unity and also provided some rather fun, morale-boosting distraction in an era plagued by fear and uncertainty.
Superman and Batman and, well, everyone got in on the act, fighting Nazis, defending the American way, and so on, ultimately leading to the creation of a literal defender of America, Captain America. The success of these titles clearly demonstrated there was a huge market to be filled, and if there’s anything that defines America, it’s a willingness to make sure a market is filled until it can’t possibly hold anything in. And so emerged Fight Comics, an anthology title of sorts from publisher Fiction House. There’s no other way to put it: Fight Comics was the 1940s comic book equivalent of movies released to capitalize on blockbusters that have suspiciously similar titles and themes. From 1940 to 1954, if it was being done by a publisher like DC or Timely (later Marvel), Fight Comics would have their own version of it.
Despite this, Fight Comics actually released some interesting stuff covering every popular genre, from war comics, spy comics, adventure comics, even “jungle” comics. A particularly awesome – and in hindsight, hilariously racist – standout is Tiger Girl, a Tarzan meets Wonder Woman type whose adventures confused India with Africa and Sikh with Hindu, and featured a white woman battling evil Arabs. (Yeaahhh.) But of course they also had patriotic super hero comics, which brings us to Super-American, perhaps the best example of not even bothering to think past the first draft when it comes to naming a character ever.
Super-American is exactly what it sounds like: A super-powered American citizen. Kind of like if I became a super hero and called myself “Super Ross.” First appearing on the pages of Fight Comics #15, some six months after the debut of Captain America, the story of Super-American is pure pulp science fiction in the best possible way. In 1941, a brilliant scientist named Allan Bruce is very worried about the ongoing war in Europe and desperate to find a way to help America prevail against its totalitarian enemies. Somehow, he hadn’t been snatched up by the US Government to work on top secret research projects, and so he invents a time machine (which he calls The Chronopticon, possibly the best name ever for a time machine), which allows him to look into the future and communicate with the people who lived there. He quickly discovers that for some reason, everyone has superpowers and dresses like super heroes.
Luckily, the sudden appearance of a man from the past begging for help doesn’t freak future Americans out at all. Millennials, amirite? And so Professor Bruce easily convinces his posterior compatriots to bring his pleas for help directly to the current President of the United States. Where, as it turns out, the largest armed conflict in world history registers as nothing more than an “oh right, yeah I remember hearing something about that once.” from Future POTUS. Just in case you were wondering if you’ll be remembered when you’re gone, you won’t.
Clearly, education standards in the future are abysmal. Sure, I’ll admit that this comic was written before Pearl Harbor, and thus it wasn’t 100% certain we would even be entering the war. But given the climate of the times you’d think the future President would know a bit more about the era than Paris Hilton knows about Nelson Mandela. People still talk about the Greco-Persian wars 2500 years later, though of course they tend to think all the battles were in sweaty slow-motion. Perhaps Future POTUS’ only knowledge of WWII comes from Future Frank Miller’s comics about The French Resistance.
Then again, perhaps with hindsight, we can charitably assume the President is fully aware that the US will emerge victorious from WWII but doesn’t want to say too much, lest he accidentally mess up the timeline. Either way, he’s completely happy to send someone back into the past to help out with the war effort, which suggests Future POTUS clearly doesn’t care about the potential ramifications of sending someone with future knowledge back into the past. Sorry about erasing your existence, Future Americans!
So it goes that Future POTUS selects an average soldier willing to bring the fight for liberty to the past. And just in time too! As it turns out, right as Super-American arrives from the future, a group of nameless “totalitarians” serving a leader called “Tyrannus,” who all look like a combination of Asian and German stereotypes, have risen up in rebellion and are in the process of taking over the country. After a quick pause to allow Professor Bruce to lavishly admire Super-American’s physique- no, really – our hero is off to save the day.
Some of this is almost too good to be true. First, Super-American takes out a hit squad attempting to assassinate several US Senators. Notice the buck teeth?
Next, he saves several communities from flooding after the bad guys breach a dam somewhere in Maryland, and then it’s back to Washington, D.C., where Super-American lets us know he paid attention in history class before he saves both President Roosevelt and Congress from Tyrannus’ forces.
Incidentally, Super-American is absolutely right. We really fucking hate being ambushed, and less than 6 months after this issue was published, we’d begin to prove it.
Finally he flies off to New York City, where he stops an all-out invasion by Tyrannus’ tank and airplane forces with some help from the US Army, and then delivers a rousing, if incredibly brief, pep talk about democracy and freedom.
Super American is obviously a case study in the dangers of difference-splitting. A weird mashup of Superman and Captain America, he lacks anything close to the personality of either. In a more sarcastic time, he would have been given a name like The Golden Mean. Perhaps that’s why he did not take off. He would only appear in 3 further 8-page stories in Fight Comics before being retired and, ultimately, disappearing into the public domain.
But while the concept is weak and the writing positively terrible, the art itself is a remarkable example of how dynamic comics can be. That shouldn’t be too surprising, as Fight Comics as a whole featured some rather cool early work by people who would go on to revolutionize comics, including the great Wil Eisner. But even so, there are pages in this otherwise unremarkable story that should be framed and hung in a museum.
Super-American was created by golden age penciller Dan Zolnerowich, who would later go on to draw T-Man for Quality Comics (featuring the adventures of a US Treasury Agent battling communism!). The comics golden age was a time when everything was on a budget, including space within a comics issue, and Zolnerowich managed to use those limitations to his advantage. His characters spill out over panel borders, he had an eye for drawing your attention to key moments, and he managed to give his pages a kind of trippy, dreamy quality I’m personally more used to seeing in comics from the 1960s onward.
I hated reading this, but his art was kind of amazing, and it’s a shame that Zolnerowich faded into obscurity after the 1950s. As of right now, it’s difficult to determine when he even died. But if we can’t know the man better, we can at least marvel at his work. Even if we also have to stop ourselves from snickering while we do it.
NOTE: slightly edited after publication.
Found thanks to Saladin Ahmed on Twitter.