The combination of superheroics and patriotism is nearly as old as the genre itself. The emerging popularity of gaudily garbed dudes (and ladies, of course) engaged in a never-ending physical battle against the forces of evil happened to dovetail nicely with the global crusade against fascist militarism (and closed economic blocs).
Funnybooks — like nearly other form of popular entertainment at the time — eagerly hopped on the propaganda bandwagon. While the notion of “patriotic superheroes (or costumed adventurers or mystery men)” is somewhat redundant when discussing the period from 1940 to 1945, some characters were more overt than others when it came to displaying their red, white and blue bona fides.
Where other heroes were content with pimping war bonds or whomping Axis saboteurs, this class of heroes expressed their symbolic patriotism in terms that were blindingly direct even by prevailing genre standards. Folks like Captain America, the Patriot, the Shield, the Fighting Yank (not to be confused with the illegal sex act), the Star-Spangled Kid, and no fewer than two Miss Americas made patriotic pride their narrative hook, line and sinker. Even the venerable (and, more importantly, public domain) Uncle Sam did a some moonlighting in the realm of four-color fisticuffs.
These exercises in star-spangled symbolism were integrally bound to the wartime zeitgeist, and fared even worse than their down-trending “generalist” kin during the immediate post-war era. The Shield and Captain America coasted for a while on their diminishing popularity and Timely’s Miss America was a brief beneficiary of the “good girl” trend, but attempts to repurpose the patriotic hero concept (whether tongue-in-cheek or painfully earnest) for the new strain of Cold War dualism fell flat.
The return of Captain America during the formative years of the Marvel Age of Comics was did not mark a resurgence of trend, but rather the revival of a fallow-yet-previously-popular franchise with direct links to the company’s guiding talent. While Marvel did try to evoke old school us-versus-them mentality in its early offerings, it gradually downplayed the stridency of that geopolitical propaganda in favor of the lucrative vein of melodrama which distinguished the publisher from its competitors. It’s not for nothing (or several nothings) that a good portion of Cap’s 1960s solo adventures were either WW2 period pieces or evoked remnants of that conflict.
The political and social upheavals of the 1960s and early 1970s further complicated the issue of patriotric symbolism by dissolving what fragile consensus there might have been. What does “representing America” mean among a host of competing and conflicting interpretations?
For Cap, it meant long bouts of soul-searching spread staggered across three decades and change, moments of disillusionment salved with personal affirmations of core platitudes. This template has become a springboard for subsequent patriotic-themed heroes, most of which waver between “got smart” cynicism, heavy handed parody, or worst of all…
Where Captain America’s swashbuckler boots and adorable mask wings epitomized the height of Golden Age costume design, Joe’s hightop mullet, Macho Man shades, and “Diceman” Signature jacket embody the inherent gravitas and kicky fashion sense of the Chromium Age.
Mr. Public was one of the roughly bajillion new characters pooped out during DC’s infamous (-ly awful) “Bloodlines” crossover back in 1993. A phys ed teacher by trade, Joe exorcised his shame of over losing out to Demetrius Davis in the 1990 NFL draft by waging a one-man war against Gotham’s drug dealers.
Joe’s mission to bring the word of William S. Sessions to the street brought him into contact with Gotham’s other, non-cruddy avenger of the night. After Joe’s amateur hour antics nearly got the two men killed, Batman suggested the fledgling vigilante go back to doing what does best…calling nerdy kids sissies for not being able to do a proper chin-up.
Mama Public didn’t raise no quitters, however. Showing the same level of prersistance which earned him a slot as a benchwarmer for a Division 3 team, Joe pursued his mission to its logical conclusion…
…which is to say, “until he got frenched by Mr. Ed’s skinless cousin.”
Joe came away from the hot interspecies saliva-swapping session with the ability to steal the vitality of persons nearby and add it to his own, which — come to think of it — is almost as qunitessentially American as the power to unfailingly vote against one’s best interests.
Though Joe appeared to sour on the superhero business by the end of his first adventure (in Batman: Shadow of the Bat Annual #1), he returned — with an oh-so-fly star-embroidered gangsta lid — in issue #25 of the main series to participate in the infamous (-ly awful) “Knighfall” story arc, “helping” the over-accessorized Azrael incarnation of Batman fight a puke monster.
It is said each era gets the heroes it deserves. Lord knows I have no particular affection for the sump hole of history that was the early 1990s, but it certainly wasn’t dire enough to justify a vampiric Rob Winkle for its champion.
In fact, nothing would be dire enough…unless you’re referring to the dankest hinterlands of the Republic of Nobody’s Favorites.