Monday, May 7, 2012

On a look at the Red Circle: The Shield

Archie Comics has been doing some of the most risky things in comics of late.  Over in the eponymous books, they're running parallel "Imaginary" stories where Archie marries either Betty or Veronica, and details how the two lives would differ. 

They also introduced Kevin Keller, Riverdale's first openly gay character, a move that has gotten them much publicity and sales.

They've now chosen to get back into the superhero business.  Hot on the heels of DC's latest abortive attempt to renovate the characters, DC is reviving the Red Circle line, and all of its heroes.  As opposed to DC's two tries (I've gone on about the Impact line before), Archie is keeping all the heroes' history in play, as far back as the first appearance of The Shield. 

Again trying new things, The New Crusaders will be available digital-only.  The Red Circle App will be made available on the 16th, where for a monthly fee, readers will not only receive the chapters of the new comic, but get access to a library of the original runs of the characters.  It's a new idea, and one I'd really like to see do well.  After fervent fan demand, they announced the book will eventually be collected into print edition.  But personally, I think the digital release should be the one that gets the attention.  By taking the cost of print out of the mix, Archie reduces their costs to a point that gives them more freedom to experiment. 

Since the characters aren't as well-known to modern readers, I thought I'd help things along with a bit of a run-up on the history of the characters, in anticipation of the new book's premiere this May 16th.

The Shield - G-Man Extraordinary!

Joe Higgins uses a chemical formula, combined with a ray treatment, to give himself super-strength, and fights crime with a flag-styled costume.

Sounds familiar, right?

But The Shield premiered in Pep Comics #1 almost two years before Timely's Captain America, and his origin was revealed a few months later (but still almost a year before cap's) in Shield - Wizard Comics #1

Joe's father was an agent for the army intelligence during World War I, a close friend with J. Edgar Hoover, as well an exceptional chemist.  His son Joe helped with many of his experiments, including one intended to impart a person with super-strength.  Alas, on his last assignment he is kidnapped by German saboteurs, and kept from preventing what became known as the Black Tom explosion.  Fatally wounded in the blast, he tells his story to Joe and his friend Hoover, and urges Joe to continue to work on their strength formula, his last word an enigmatic "SHIELD".  With no evidence, Tom is blamed for the explosion; Joe swears he'll clear his father's name.

Joe grows up in his father's image, a eminent chemist.  Perusing an anatomy book, He realizes his father's last work is an acronym for portions of the human body where the formula must be applied to function.  Preparing a suit to help force the formula into his body, he applies the compound and lays in a harness as a twelve-hour treatment of fluoroscopic rays activates them (Twelve hours under a fluoroscope - gotta love the early days of fiction!)

Upon completion, Both Joe's body and the suit he wears have undergone a startling change.  He's gained amazing strength and near-invulnerability, and his suit has taken on a flag-colored theme.  After a few experimental feats of strength, heads to FBI headquarters and offers his services to Hoover, not in charge of the organization.  Turns out the saboteurs who captured and killed his father are still in action, and with his new powers, Joe tracks them down and squeezes out a confession in record time.  Hoover offers his a position on the G-Men, providing he can pass the entrance exam.

In his first appearance, chemistry played a bigger role - he carried a portable lab where he'd whip up powerful acid to allow him to break through ceilings. He was quite the brutal character, as were most characters in the pre-code days.  In one adventure he doused himself in kerosene and got fired out of a cannon to scare the bejabbers out of the Nazis.  So, pretty damn hardcore.

The Shield was MLJ's biggest hit, spawning a fanclub and everything.  but all things must end, and, well, let's put it this way, the company isn't called "Shield Comics", is it?  The lad from Riverdale would eventually become the star of the line, and The Shield and the rest of the heroes would pass into myth.

Until the 60's, that is, when renewed success in superhero comics by DC and Marvel had everyone jumping back into the book again.  Archie (under the company "Radio Comics" - bringing to mind the Rocky Horror audience joke "What the hell is a Radio Picture?") revived the superhero line.  Starting off with newer characters like The Fly, The Shield returned with a couple more of the old guard (more about them soon) a couple years in including a new Shield.  It's revealed in the first issue of The Might Crusaders that this is Bill Higgins, Joe's son.  The original Shield was killed, turned to an iron statue by The Eraser one of his enemies, who promptly resigned from crime, going out on top.  Bill carried on in his father's name, wearing one of his father spare costumes. Bill didn't have his father's formula, his powers were based in his suit, and varied a bit.  The suit was bulletproof, and he could "magnetically" attract bullets so they'd bounce off the bulletproof parts.  For a brief period (one issue) he could teleport. Joe was a good hero, but not as successful in the real world - he lost jobs regularly, and was laughed out of the FBI's recruiting offices.

Archie brought the Mighty gang back again in the early 80's.  We learn that thanks to the alien science of a fellow Mighty Crusader, The Comet, Joe Higgins, the original Shield was brought back to life.  He retained the density of iron, requiring him to take even greater caution when he fought villains.  Upon his father's return, Bill immediately retired as The Shield, enlisted in the Air Force, and was not heard from again, a dangling bit of plot-thread that New Crusaders writer Ian Flynn has officially declared "Interesting", so...well, draw your own conclusions.

Archie had one more character known as The Shield - Lancelot Strong, created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, the creators of Captain America.  It only lasted two issues (DC claimed he was too similar to Superman; their go to strategy), but those two issues have likely bee reprinted more than any other books in Archie Comics' history.  Joe Simon and the Kirby estate regained the rights to the character in 1999, and while it's presumed he won't appear in the New Crusaders, it's not quite impossible.

It's the original Shield, Joe Higgins, that we'll see in New Crusaders, as the lead hero, guiding the new generation.  The adventures begin May 16th, and I recommend you give it a go.

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