Sunday, January 24, 2010

Zenith Comics Universe: The Golden Age

This essay is taken from the book "The Golden Age; A Collection of Essays on the Heroes of Yesterday" by Tribune Press, from 1981. These are the thoughts of Air Force Major Amanda Reese, the first female pilot to engage in a dogfight with enemy fighters. Her call sign is "Lady A" after her favorite superhero and role model Lady America.

1. Before The War

The Golden Age, as it has been called by historians, is the age wherein the "Super-Hero" or "Mystery-Men" first appeared. It's official staring date would be 1935, when the Masked Avenger broke up a Chicago gangland gambling den and killed Mob Boss Victor Sciscenti in retaliation for the deaths of nine Chicago police officers. He never took a name, and in fact was given the moniker the Masked Avenger by the papers, based on eye-witness accounts. Although the Masked Avenger was enigmatic, he did from time-to-time come into contact with other members of the Golden Age elite, but her never joined a team, and no one ever found out who he was under the mask.

Within one year of the Masked Avenger's beginning exploits, there occurred an explosion of super-heroes and mystery-men across North America, and in a limited sense overseas. Perhaps some of the most notable of the time were Golden Gloves and Sunboy, who would go on to become Sunman later in the early 40’s. Golden Gloves was nothing more than a boxer turned crime-fighter when the Irish mob began terrorizing non-Irish immigrants in Hell's Kitchen, New York city. Sunboy was the promise of what tomorrow would bring, he was just a teenager from the Mid-West who was imbued with the powers of the Sun, of course he could operate at night, but then only at half power due to the reflected sunlight of the moon. These two set the stage for the rest to come. They were in fact the models that all others would be based for awhile.

The first collection of supers as a team was not heroes, but in fact a group of villains calling themselves the Supergang. Lead by a man named Black Eagle, these villains perpetrated scores of crimes, only ever being stopped, and never captured by super-heroes of the time.

The response to their teaming was the formation of a team of mystery men called appropriately enough, the Gangbusters. Made up of a half dozen of the union suit vigilantes of the day, they would stick together until the war and keep the streets of New York City as safe as could be.

The is also a story that suggests that during the war, Supergang and members of the United Sentinels of America (hereafter: USofA) teamed up to stop a team of 5th columnists called the Swastika Seven from destroying the then Boulder Dam. While there is no proof to back this story, those surviving members of the USofA have never denied it.

One other person of note would be the first woman to don a costume and take up crime fighting. Although she would be the first to retire, in 1942 with a spinal injury causing her to lose the use of her legs, Night Woman was a figure-head for the other women heroes to come. She was in fact the widow of a man who had decided to try and fight crime as Night Man. After about 2 months of action, he was shot by the mob and barely managed to get home, where he died in his wife's arms. Enraged, she chose to extract a measure of revenge on the mob for the murder, and copied her husbands plans and desires. On January 10th, 1940, she made her first move, smashing up the book-making offices of the mobsters who killed her husband. This brought her to the attention of the Masked Avenger, with whom she teamed for almost the rest of her career. Night Woman suffered her injury at the hands of the Mafia connected hitman Hammer Hurricane (who would later gain powers under less than noble circumstance) during a battle in the Bowery section of New York City. Lucky to be alive, she retired and faded from the stage, and was never heard from again. Still she had broken ground and paved the way for other such notable heroines as Silver Sparrow, Grass Hopper, Lady Luck and Miss Liberty, all of whom would have a major impact on the Golden Age, each in her own way.

Silver Sparrow and Grasshopper were the first America supers to battle Nazi saboteurs, In New York on December 21st 1941. This action caught the attention of local newspapers and soon their names were well known to Americans. It is sad how many texts on the time still credit these two as being the first super-heroines, as Night Woman had a very quiet career and disappeared relatively quickly. It is equally sad how Grasshopper, a Japanese-American, was interred during the war, a black spot on our nation’s history to be sure.

The concept of Lady Luck and Miss Liberty was cooked up by the War Department as a way to sponsor war bonds. A talent search was held, and the two ladies who won had their visages plastered all over America. They became an overnight sensation, and did more touring than crime-fighting, but still they managed to make a huge impression and develop a following. An interesting side-note is that neither woman was super-powered in any way, and aside from gymnastics training, neither had any combat related skills to speak of. Still they were invited to join the USofA after the war. In light now of how their lives ended, they may have been on the greatest losses of the aftermath of the Golden Age.

2. Heroes At War

The war was the next major event for the heroes, and it produced the newest form of super-hero, the patriot. Contrary to popular opinion the first flag-wrapped hero did not come from America, but in fact from it's northern neighbor Canada. Already involved in the war, before the Americans, the Canadian Government, along with British support, began a project to create a super-hero under controlled conditions. They labored for a year, and on January 21st, 1940 they struck success by bonding a strange energy to a man who would become the Red Ensign, the carrier of the flag, and the first official super-hero to do battle with the Nazis. The Red Ensign was also without a doubt the most powerful hero of his day, he could lift in excess of 20 tons, rifle rounds bounced off of him and tank shells only knocked him to the ground. He could fly by controlling the winds around him and seemed immune to aging and disease. Only later would it be discovered that the energy that had been fused to him was in fact an air-elemental, and that it was slowly taking over his body.

Although this was the first allied hero, the Japanese, Italians and Germans already had super-powered soldiers in the field. Hengeyokai, Yokozuna and Tsunami lead the charge for the Japanese in 1931 against the Manchurians. Imperator crushed opposition for Italy during the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 and Übermann, Überfrau, Herr Vulture, Wotan and Stuka were unveiled by Hitler in 1938. While these were to be the first Axis supers, they would not be the last, and even benefited from a Soviet super by the name of Vikuz, although she left and joined up with allied supers after Hitler's betrayal of Russia in 1941.

America was not to be left behind in the super-hero race, and astounded Commonwealth scientists by producing not one, but three super-powered soldiers only one year after their success with the Red Ensign. Using a technique that is perhaps still one of the closest guarded secrets in the world, the War Department was able to take four normal people, one man, one woman, a young boy and a teenage girl, and enhance their physical attributes to the peak of human conditioning. The three were rushed into intensive training, and emerged as Major Victory, Lady America, Kid Victory and Spangle.

Once the war was under way, many felt it was important for the heroes to come to the aid of their government and fight in the war, but that would not be. Excluding an elite group of heroes and mystery men, code-named the Victory Squad, put together by the Allies for that purpose, the majority of heroes and mystery-men would never leave North American shores during the war. The reason for this was the belief that the Axis Supers would be drawn into the fray and many lives would be lost. The Victory Squad’s purpose was simple, neutralize the Axis supers. To this end they were joined by a number of European supers, and even an supposed Atlantean called Mermaid. There would be two more mystically inclined supers to join up; from England, the English Knight, a man who claimed to wield the magical sword of King Arthur, Excalibur, and from Greece, Aegis, whose sword, helmet, shield, armor, bow and sandals were supposedly gifts from the Olympian gods of old. Whether that fact was true of not is irrelevant to this text, both men would face foes who claimed to be their mystical antithesis. For the English Knight there was Sir Blood, who claimed to be a vampiric knight empowered by Morgan LeFey. While it was never proven, Sir Blood did posses abilities classically attributed to such undead creatures. Aegis though faced an even older threat; according to his own testimony, Imperator was granted magical artifacts of war by Ares, the Olympian god of war, who wished to see the struggle in Europe continue. While there is much debate as to whether or not these claims were true, most who witnessed the clashing of these titans agree that they did in fact wield powerful artifacts.

Certain heroes even hung up their cowls and joined the armed forces, wanting to fight for their country. Some even ignored the decision from the War Department for them not to engage the enemy and headed overseas anyways. The war certainly was a test of fire for the heroes, as they spent the majority of it protecting the home-front against subterfuge and terrorism perpetrated by the enemy. The largest collection of these heroes and heroines would be the USofA. Formed by Golden Gloves and Sunman, by the war's end almost every home-front hero would be a member. Still, the names of the originals are perhaps the most important of the day, they were Golden Gloves, Sunman, Dr. Dynamite, Grasshopper, Silver Sparrow, Thunder-Man and Doc Titan. These seven would form the backbone of the team and remain loyal to it's ranks until the very end.

Another home-front team that did not fair as well were the Mysterymen. Only three strong, The Mysterymen fought against saboteurs and fifth columnists on the west coast. Comprised of the enigmatic Silver Squid, the hulking Stone and the quantum powered Schrodinger Kid, the team met its end when they were forced off a sea-side road during a high speed chase with Nazi agents, crashing more than two-hundred feet to their deaths. Never incurring much press or media, they still managed to provide an example of all American's desire to what they could during the war.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the war was the loss of a number of heroes in battle at Castle Fear, near the war's end. Lead by the Victory Squad, every Allied hero and Axis super in the European Theatre were there. While the details remain sketchy and classified, it is known that during the battle the USofA arrived to lend a hand, which helped to turn the tide in favor of the heroes. Of the losses, it is known that the British super Hawker was killed by Stuka, Canadian hero Grizzly by Wotan and Spangle was killed at the hands of Überfrau. The falling of these heroes seemed to unleash the fury of the Allied supers against their enemies and more than eight fell on either side, including Major Victory and Kid Victory. Oddly enough, there are reports that some sort of advanced robot, housing the brain of Hitler emerged from a spatial vortex and aided many of the Axis supers in fleeing. While the American government nicknamed this robot the Iron Fuhrer, they did not honestly accept its existence as a reality. Other than the heroes and villains who witnessed the event there is no proof to collaborate their testimony. Regardless of these rumors, the battle broke the will of the Axis supers who were routed, many escaping into the Alps. Those that were captured would go on to stand trial at Nuremberg.

All-in-all the war time took it toll of the population of heroes with some deaths, some disappearances and some retirements, but for the most part they went on strong. In 1949 the USofA held it's last meeting, and official disbanded. Many recall it as a tearful day, and the press covered it almost as much as the day the war ended. For many an era had come to an end, but it was not so, as soon enough many villains, including the Supergang returned to threaten the world. The American people called for their heroes again, and they returned. On a cold October night in 1950 the USofA returned to battle Supergang one last time. Lead by Sunman and Golden Gloves, they were heroes to millions and seen as the only heroes who could stand for all that was good about America. It was not to last.

3. The End Of The Golden Age

The end of America's Golden Age heroes was not one that befit all that they had accomplished. Mired down by paranoid-anti-communist fears, they were soon turned on by those they had sworn to protect, and many voluntarily went into retirement to protect their families. In 1952 the Golden Age truly came to an end when Dr. Dynamite was shot and killed while fleeing police who were under orders to arrest him due to the Superhuman Loyalty Act.

4. Last Notes

I would go into details on the events that ended the Golden Age here, but it is really a tale more fitting the Silver Age. I say this because while it was the close of one age, it was instrumental in the formation of the next. Also, for very personal reasons, I find it hard to write objectively about what I and many others see, as the betrayal of America's greatest heroes, and I shall leave it at that.

I hope that this short treatise will serve to further this document on the history of super-heroes, as it culminates over 25 years of research. My prayer is that perhaps, in these darker times, people can take hope from the past and maybe understand why more than ever the world needs heroes. I hope you enjoyed it and more importantly share it, we must never forget.

Amanda Reese, April 4th, 1981.

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