Happy Independence Day, fellow Yanks! In keeping with the spirit of the day, The Big Blog o’Fun is presenting an overview of another Golden Age heroine with a patriotic theme: Usa, the Spirit of Old Glory. Don’t feel badly if you’ve never heard of her. Usa was obscure even while her adventures were still being published; these days she’s totally forgotten.
I’m a sucker for heroes and heroines wearing the old Red, White, and Blue; there’s nothing so essentially “Golden Age” as a comic character with a patriotic theme. But it required a deft touch to properly chronicle the adventures of a patriotic hero during that period. When it was done right, you’d get a Captain America or a Pat Patriot: a character who represented patriotic ideals without being too extreme or jingoistic. On the other hand, there were characters like The Flag (who we’ve met before in The Big Blog o’Fun), patriots who exemplified the worst examples of “the end justifies the means”. Have a look at this panel and see if you can guess which direction Usa’s adventures took:
Usa (pronounced YOU-sah or OO-sah; your guess is as good as mine) was often drawn like a cross between the back of an old half-dollar and a poster for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. I’m not versed enough in art history to know how to pigeonhole the style, but it’s a sort of “heroic ideal” rendition not uncommon to the 1930’s. Her adventures ran for seven consecutive issues of Quality’s Feature Comics (the original home of Doll Man) from March 1941 to September of the same year. Usa’s origin story features the typical (for patriotic heroes) trope in which some mystical agency bestows powers upon a worthy individual, but this one has an unusual twist: Usa had to die.
And the little dead girl from 1777 wakes up in 1941, alive, fully grown, and kinda leggy (well, she did have more than a century and a half to mature). By the way, it should not be lost on you that she visits her “Uncle Sam” in the first series of panels and that the guy who finds the locket in the second set of panels looks just like him. This has absolutely zero effect on the plot; I just found it interesting that the artist would sneak it in.
Usa carried two magical “symbols”, her flag and torch, which aided her on her crusade to rid America of all threats, foreign and domestic. The symbols also gave her a convenient excuse for gabbing out loud to advance the plot when there were no other characters nearby:
In the early going, Usa’s stories were little more than disjointed vignettes in which she would fly around and stop random threats to the security of the United States. And how did she know a threat was nearby?
You, there – in the back of the class! Stop snickering!
Please note that the “drooping” flag in that panel is also dragging on the rooftop. Whoops! I can imagine a Boy Scout or an American Legionnaire reading this comic being driven half bonkers by the gaffe.
Usa’s flag was more than just an early-warning device. It was also bulletproof, which was certainly convenient since it made the heroine invulnerable. Her torch functioned as a “magic wand” which she could use for whatever purpose she dreamed up, primarily disarming and incapacitating wrongdoers:
These traits also made Usa pretty boring; as you read her early adventures you knew nothing bad was going to happen to her. In this regard, Usa suffered from the same problem which cripples Captain Future’s Golden Age adventures: if you give a character unlimited godlike powers, he or she instantly becomes deathly dull. It’s a little tough to create dramatic tension in a story when its protagonist is essentially unstoppable.
The bad guys could stall Usa, even if they couldn’t stop her. One particularly creative mug pulled a neat trick during a getaway:
It would seem that Usa can take no offensive action against a foe who was wrapped in the U.S. flag. That’s bizarre but kind of neat as it could create all kinds of philosophical conundrums. Of course, only the really good (and memorable) Golden Age comics were crafted to make the reader actually think, so this was the only time an antagonist pulled this “flag stunt” in Usa’s comparatively humdrum adventures.
Said escapades of Usa’s generally suffered from lazy writing, but also occasionally from the same kind of overzealous writing which marred The Flag’s adventures. A few Golden Age writers seemed to forget the Bill of Rights in their enthusiastic efforts to depict their protagonists as super-patriots. Case in point: the following sequence in which Usa breaks up a “fifth columnist” rally (the speaker is obviously a Bundist – note the swastikas).
It’s important to note that two years before the publication of this comic, the German-American Bund (who were, for all intents and purposes, Nazi sympathizers) held a huge rally in New York City at Madison Square Garden:
This rally, led by Fritz Kuhn, was no trivial thing. Between 15,000 and 20,000 Bundists attended the huge event (the exact figure varies with the source):
The Bund members were given police protection by New York’s finest on their way to and from the Garden, since thousands of angry protestors had gathered on the streets surrounding the building. Like it or not, defending these Nazi-sympathizing idiots from an angry mob is exactly the way freedom of speech is supposed to work. Freedom of speech is a right guaranteed to all American citizens by Constitutional amendment. You may not like what a group or individual has to say, but if you don’t defend their right to say it then it’s a sure bet that one day you’ll be on the short end of the “abridged rights” stick.
If you take another look at that sequence of panels, you’ll notice that the Bund speaker isn’t advocating anything directly treasonous; all he’s really saying is “Join our political party”. Yet Usa comes roaring in and breaks up the rally. Had police been on hand, they would have been duty bound to arrest Usa instead of the Bundist speaker. That’s exactly the kind of overzealous writing which ruined more than one Golden Age patriot protagonist’s adventures (and which we’ve examined before in The Big Blog o’Fun).
Seventy-three years later it’s an issue with which our nation still wrestles, certainly more so now than during the 1930’s and 1940’s. It’s admittedly an odd, even troubling, phenomenon when a Ku Klux Klan or Neo-Nazi hate group stages a public rally full of racial slurs and receives police protection, but a public figure (or even sometimes an everyday citizen) admits to using such a slur privately at some time in the distant past and loses his or her job and income over it. Even more radically, it would seem that lately we’ve sometimes blurred the lines between abridging genuine “hate speech” (discourse which advocates drastic, illegal, and/or violent measures against individuals and groups) and attempting to abridge any kind of speech which has the slightest potential to hurt anyone’s feelings. While the phrase “crossing the line” gets bandied about freely in heated debates, it’s often confusing and difficult to know exactly where the line even lies anymore. To paraphrase the (possibly apochryphal) Chinese proverb, we do live in interesting times.
Returning to the tale, the Bundists are actually plotting to sneak attack Washington, D.C. (in which case one has to wonder why they would be calling undue public attention to themselves with a public rally at the eleventh hour). When Usa attempts to stop them we finally (five issues into the feature’s seven-issue run) see that our heroine has a weakness:
Another point of interest here is the photo of Adolf Hitler on the Bund leader’s desk in the first panel, as well as the swastikas which are on display multiple times in the tale. Contrast this with the depiction of Hitler four issues previously:
Nazi Germany gets a fair bit of mention in pre-war comics. Sometimes it’s quite direct (as with the Daredevil Battles Hitler comic, for my money possibly the greatest single comic book of all time). Sometimes it’s so oblique as to be meaningless (when, for example, an antagonist with a very German-sounding name is described as being from “an aggressor nation”). In the first panel of the sequence directly above, taken from Usa’s first appearance in Feature Comics #42, the guy in the red suit is very obviously Josef Goebbels, Germany’s Minister of Propaganda, while the figure in the center appears to be the Reich’s Air Marshal, Hermann Goering. The airplane in the panel is clearly emblazoned with German insignia. We see Hitler face-on in the central panel, but with what appears to be some badly edited artwork. It would seem that Hitler was originally clearly depicted in the panel, but a badly-inked shadow was later added across his face to obscure his trademark “Chaplin mustache”. Perhaps at that point the publisher was afraid of legal difficulties if Hitler and Nazi Germany were so clearly identified? If that’s the case, Quality Comics more than made up for it later that year in the pages of Military Comics (home of Blackhawk and a large number of other fighters who were taking it to the Axis months before Pearl Harbor) as well as in Usa’s “Bund” adventure. While Germany isn’t specifically mentioned in the Bund story, the swastikas and the desk photo of Hitler make the identity of the foe pretty clear.
The panels in which Usa is stunned by her fall into a pit trap marked the beginning of a process of “humanizing” a character who started out as a very pedestrian “patriotic ideal”. That process continued in Feature Comics #48, which began with Usa acting as a hostess for a USO dance while dressed in a sort of disguise:
It’s a neat sequence in which we learn that Usa has some fighting skills even when she’s not armed with her magical patriotic symbols. She discovers that a serviceman (who is also a general’s son) has been coerced into helping some fifth columnists. Usa helps him out, then dances with him at the end of the tale:
This tale takes some small steps toward correcting a lot of the problems which made the series so drab and uninteresting. Up to this point Usa has been an all-powerful avatar of liberty, who might be kind of sort of maybe inspirational but with whom the reader has no means of relating or identifying. There have been no supporting (or even recurring) characters with whom Usa can interact. Usa has no secret identity, nor any reason to exist except to thwart Bundists and fifth columnists as a full-time 24/7 pursuit. Does the woman eat? Does she sleep? Does she have any kind of emotions aside from her intense outrage when someone tries to besmirch the good name of her country? Hell, we just don’t know. She just shows up long enough to right wrongs (or, as in the “Bund rally” sequence, presumed wrongs), and then she’s off again. But in this story we find her dressed in a USO outfit and we discover that she enjoys dancing (in fact, she rushes back to the serviceman ball so that she can cadge a dance from Private Marshall). But even when she’s dancing, she can’t stop herself from indulging in a bit of moralizing (as she often does at the end of her adventures).
At this point the series shows some promise. Private Marshall might return as a supporting character. We find that Usa is perhaps able to feel something beside patriotically-inspired pride and anger. We’ve learned that she doesn’t always rely on her magic flag and torch to be able to get things done.
And here the series ends.
Just when there’s a glimmer of hope that Usa might turn into something more than just another mystical star-spangled cookie-cutter patriot (like The Flag), the tales come to a halt. Ultimately we’re forced to let Usa. The Spirit of Old Glory, lapse back into a (deserved) obscurity just when the character seemed to be on the road to becoming something more worth reading (and maybe even worth remembering).
Perhaps the proverbial handwriting was on the wall right from the start, as it would seem that Usa was never intended to be anything more than five pages of filler material in each issue. Feature Comics was one of those books which displayed on its cover a plethora of characters which were featured within its pages:
Usa, The Spirit of Old Glory, was never shown on the cover of any issue in which she appeared.
Happy Independence Day! When you’re messing with fireworks, try not to blow any fingers off!
Have fun! — Steve
Copyright 2014, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.