Or – “Joe McCarthy Was A @!*#.”

reviewbubble.jpgred2.jpgComics historians lament the loss of different genres in comic books, and rightly so. Westerns, romances, even TV adaptations used to be viable forms of comic art. Likewise, the historical comic has a long and varied pedigree. Classics Illustrated, for instance, put out more product than Marvel, DC, and every Rob Liefeld vanity publisher combined. That said, the historical is a strange beast, neither fish nor fowl, but with aspects of both. The escapist fantasy of a pure superhero story can undermine historical context, and the framework of most adventure stories can sag under the weight of too many footnotes. Which is why it’s interesting to see DC/Wildstorm give us this book, set firmly within the relatively recent past, yet bearing every hallmark of classic two-fisted adventure comics. The question is, is it fish with wings, bird with scales, or something even Professor Frink would put out of it’s misery, what with the fins and the feathers and the GLAVIN!

red1.jpgDecades ago, when there was still a Soviet Union, and we were all duped into thinking that they weren’t just a group of starving, underequipped cossacks, there was nothing as frightening as the thought of Communists in our midst… During those halcyon days, the belief was that any given person could secretly be a “pinko,” able to single-handedly destroy our American way, curve your spine, grow your back hair and give us, perish forbid, peace without honor. In the early months of 1950, Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed to have a list containing a number of names (reports vary on just what the number WAS) of Communists in the American Government. Several writers have tied this time of strife and paranoia into comics before, (notably to explain why the Justice Society of America just disappeared in 1951), but this comic faces us with a very specific question: “What if a superhero had been forced to testify before The House Unamerican Activities Committee?”

Of course, it takes a certain kind of mind to even want to ask such a question, and a good many comics fans don’t have a lot of love for the period piece. So, you figure the creators of this mini have their work cut out for them. How do you get someone to buy a book with such an esoteric high-concept hook? Well, for starters, you can hit them with the incredibly detailed and photorealistic art of Jerry Ordway. Da Ordster doesn’t do a lot of comics anymore, but he’s one of the most talented creators of all time, in my eyes, and I’ll never turn down a little beautiful Ordway artwork. As for the answer to our question earlier? It’d probably go a little something like this…

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“And have you stopped beating your wife?” Nice work, there, Eugene. Leading questions much? The issue begins with HUAC questioning masked adventurer “The Eagle” (a Captain America patriotic-type) about his activities, and going so far as to ask him to reveal his identity. We’re three pages into the book, and already I’m screaming at the protagonist that he’s a schmuck. That’s either a very good sign or a very bad one. We’ll see how it all goes. The Eagle, being a good American who believes in his people, agrees to unmask in public…

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Very dramatic, and one wonders if he were just some schmuck like Dan Dreiberg or Ted Kord, would that moment have flown? In any case, the committee essentially thanks Eagle for his time, and lets him go. This really surprised me, actually, and Senator McCarthy’s thanks for his heroic acts during the big war are doubly surprising. It’s always enjoyable when a story does the unexpected. The Eagle returns home to find his fellow superhero The Blur (Sigh…) waiting for him, explaining expositorily that the news of Eagle’s unmasking is all over the television and that they even pre-empted “The Lone Ranger” for Eagle’s deposition. I usually like topical references, but this scene comes off forced.

It is explained that Blur’s League of Heroes (Double sigh…) is considering disbanding rather than face the committee, and that The Eagle doesn’t approve. Suddenly, I wonder if this comic wasn’t originally pitched as taking place in standard DC continuity. The Blur is obviously an avatar of The Flash, whose Justice Society did disband rather than unmask for McCarthy in the DCU proper. Blur warns The Eagle to watch his back and races off, as speedsters are wont to do. An indeterminate amount of time later, we see Steve Tremayne returning to the House for additional testimony, setting off my “Uh oh” sensors. The Eagle, being a straight-shooter and patriot, doesn’t have my instinctive fear of being called on the carpet, and cannot fathom that his government might have something up their sleeve. Turns out Mr. Tremayne has a Russian counterpart (The Bear. Biggest sigh ever…) and that while they might have worked together to take out Unca Adolf, their continued friendship afterwards is a decided no-no in Howard Cunningham’s America.

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The dawning horror on Steve’s face there makes me wish Jerry Ordway drew a hundred comics a month. Suddenly, for a simple drink with an old war buddy, The Eagle is branded a commie sympathizer, and the Committee orders him to cease and desist all costumed actions. Soon afterwards, Senator McCarthy is seen crowing in a bar that even FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover is on his side, and that his “Shadow Corps” are on the case to make sure Eagle “stays grounded.” His bird metaphor, not mine. Tremayne, for his part, finds himself unsure of what to do, possibly for the first time ever. His daughter shows up, informing him that her life is in turmoil, she’s abandoned college, and punched out her boyfriend for calling daddy a pinko. Worst of all is the revelation of what (or who) the Shadow Corps are…

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Nazis and lowlifes and goons, oh my! History shows that last week’s enemy may return in a new guise, and in this case, the FBI has a former Nazi (and Eagle foe) on the payroll to help take down Stalin’s Iron Curtain. The Eagle gets punked out by the big feller, thrown across traffic, through a window, and knocked out, and our scene shifts. It would seem that not everyone believes that the white and blue of the Eagle’s suit are only incidental to the Red, as a young telekinetic boy finally gets up the courage to put on HIS bird-suit and take to the streets as “The Grey Falcon.” (I have no Sigh sufficient for that.) Anyway, as with most teenage boy plans, it goes as you’d probably expect.

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Yeah, that’s about right… For a first issue, this book covers some SERIOUS ground, quickly and deftly establishing a timeframe, a specific tone, and, through clever use of comic archetypes, giving us characters we already understand. My only complaint is the prosaic nature of the names. The Eagle? The Bear? The Blur? Worst of all, “League of Heroes…” What, was “Guys In Capes” already copyrighted? I wonder if, given that writers Bilson and DeMeo have worked in television, if this isn’t a movie/miniseries/tv show pitch reworked for comics? Certainly seems possible, and the names seem designed to give you a thumbnail sketch of what the character is meant to be. Of course, it could be that they just suck at naming, too. Whichever.

All told, this is a stunning book, which works better as a historical than a superhero title. To use our previous metaphor, we’ve glued feathers to a carp, which doesn’t make him fly but hasn’t stopped him from swimming. The Grey Falcon plot is an unexpected twist, as well, making me think that it’s also a metaphor for change in the comics industry, with the super-powered new kid taking over as the two-fisted warhorse is forced to step aside. Again, I may be overthinking it… As a huge historical fan myself, I liked the story, but the real treat was the art here, precise and gorgeous, with a sepiatone coloring that makes it FEEL like the 1950’s (or rather what television has made me think the 1950’s should feel like.) Though I might rate it slightly higher on my own predilictions, as a single issue and a gateway to a 6 issue series, Red Menace #1 earns a not-too-shabby 3 and a half stars.

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The Author

Matthew Peterson

Matthew Peterson

Once upon a time, there was a young nerd from the Midwest, who loved Matter-Eater Lad and the McKenzie Brothers... If pop culture were a maze, Matthew would be the Minotaur at its center. Were it a mall, he'd be the Food Court. Were it a parking lot, he’d be the distant Cart Corral where the weird kids gather to smoke, but that’s not important right now... Matthew enjoys body surfing (so long as the bodies are fresh), writing in the third person, and dark-eyed women. Amongst his weaponry are such diverse elements as: Fear! Surprise! Ruthless efficiency! An almost fanatical devotion to pop culture!

And a nice red uniform.

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