Every few months, certain images cluster on my Facebook newsfeed. You’ve seen them, of course: memes featuring Captain America, Wonder Woman, and other red-white-and-blue clad figures modeling for us the proper way to punch Nazis. I can imagine the accompanying audio commentary. Lean into it! Aim beyond the jaw to maintain your motion! You’re representing freedom and democracy, so don’t hold back! These heroes rose to prominence during the Golden Age of comics, when the United States was neck deep in World War II. In 2018, Yoe Books released Super Patriotic Heroes, a collection of stories from that time starring these flag-draped figures, and, boy, were there many. The Shield, the Patriot, Major Victory, the Defender, Miss America, the Super-American, the Flag, the Minuteman, the American Crusader, the American Spirit, and others exploded off the page, each delivering the old one-two to Nazis or any fascists threatening our blessings of liberty.
Most adept at the art of punching, arguably more so than Captain America, is Will Eisner’s Uncle Sam, who first appeared in National Comics #1 (July 1940). When Sam rolled up his sleeves, readers knew it was going to hit the fan for the Third Reich. He’s that Uncle Sam, the very image seen on US Army recruitment posters, not an imitator cosplaying Uncle Sam, but the real Uncle Sam. He’s a blend of King Arthur and Tinkerbell, because he rises during national crises, but he needs our collective belief in democracy and freedom, our hope, to fuel his powers and keep him active, from fading back into the Realm of Ideas. Sam is nothing without the power of the people, much in the way Tinkerbell needs audience participation to stay bright.
Eisner created Uncle Sam and other characters that appeared in titles under the Quality Comics imprint. Jack Cole’s Plastic Man belonged to this group, as did Eisner’s other great hero, the Spirit. In 1956, Quality closed shop and sold most of its properties to National Periodicals, now DC. Years later, Len Wein and Dick Dillin reintroduced Uncle Sam and select heroes as the Freedom Fighters for Justice League of America #107 (October 1973), making them inhabitants of Earth X, an alternate reality where the Nazis had won World War II. The team included the Human Bomb, the Black Condor, the Phantom Lady, Doll Man, and, yes, their leader – Uncle Sam. Remember those wonderful annual Justice League-Justice Society team-ups during the Silver and Bronze Ages? Those years before Crisis on Infinite Earths when multiple Earths existed on different vibrational frequencies? Recently, DC has returned to portraying multiverses, but the concept was truly magnificent back then. Earth 1 was the Justice League’s home turf, Earth 2 featured the Justice Society, and the Crime Syndicate of America reigned over Earth 3. Some Earths were home to heroes from companies DC had purchased, like Earth X (Quality Comics) and Earth S (Fawcett Publications, that brought us the Shazam Family). Complicated but fun!
The Freedom Fighters have morphed through various retcons and reiterations since 1973, including the CW’s crossover Crisis on Earth X, part of their Arrowverse television shows (2017). But now writer Robert Venditti and artist Eddy Barrows have brought the team home, spring-boarding from “Mastermen,” the story Grant Morrison included in his Multiversity, with Freedom Fighters: Rise of a Nation (2019-2020). You’d better not bring your kids. Venditti and Barrows pull out all stops with grim imagery, executions, torture, everything you’d expect from a United States ruled by Nazis. Venditti credits Germany’s victory to Overman (cough . . . Superman . . . cough), a superpowered alien whose ship had crash-landed in 1930s Czechoslovakia. Then decades later, the Reich would execute one version of the Freedom Fighters. Today, their heirs – the Human Bomb, Doll Woman, the Black Condor, and the Phantom Lady — commit acts of resistance to fire up the populace, to reignite the hope needed to wake up Uncle Sam, who’d slipped back into the Realm of Ideas after German conquest brought nationwide despair.
The Fighters inspire people a bit more with each victory, defying the repressive and genocidal regime, at the head of which sit Adolf Hitler’s descendants, both reprehensible reflections of their dynastic founder. The Fighters get right down to the business of punching Nazis. An aspect of Plastic Man enters the narrative as well — the terrifying “PlaSStic Men” (SS . . . get it?). This is not just a about punching Nazis, but about punching Nazis to wake up citizens, to get them working together, hungry for democracy. Uncle Sam, then, represents our national ideal, but he can’t manifest the dream alone. He needs us all to fight and sacrifice as well.
While reading this twelve-issue mini-series, I thought about groups operating within the real America, such as Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, grassroots organizations dedicated to voting rights, and others empowering underrepresented populations. Our united dedication sustains Uncle Sam. Such dedication sustains all who choose to resist. These are Venditti’s themes, and these are our goals. And you know what? I believe.