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Flying the Flag for Uncle Sam

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The Freedom Fighters were among the most obscure heroes at DC until 2006, when they returned in a blaze of glory in their own limited series. A second 8-part series later, Retroflect takes a look back at where they came from…

The 1940’s was the Golden Age of comics which gave the world Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, the ‘A’ list of superheroes, still fighting for justice even today. But of course, there were also… the others. The Fin, Strong Man, the Black Marvel and a hundred more. These were not so much the ‘B’ list types—sporting the likes of Aquaman and Green Arrow—but more like the ‘Z’ list ones, the ones who will never, ever make into onto lunch boxes or t-shirts. And because comics are a medium which attracts fanatics and trivia freaks amongst readers and writers both, somehow a lot of them just refused to fade away. Such was the case with the Freedom Fighters.

Originally, the Freedom Fighters were solo ‘stars’. Uncle Sam. Black Condor. The Ray. Phantom Lady. Doll Man. The Human Bomb. All were  published by Quality Comics, the company also responsible for the better known Blackhawk and Plastic Man. All featured in their own series, some long lived, some not. All, somehow, just slightly…lame. And then the Golden Age ended, and Quality folded. End of story. Or at least, so common sense should dictate.

Cut ahead though to 1973 and these second-rate superstars made a surprising comeback. DC had owned the entire Quality stable for some years by then, but with the exception of Blackhawk they’d done nothing with them. So it probably came as something of a surprise to the few who remembered them when, in the Len Wein-written Justice League of America #107-108, these six heroes of yesteryear resurfaced.

Collectively, they were now the Freedom Fighters-the greatest heroes of Earth X, a parallel world where the Nazis had won World War II and these plucky stalwarts had been fighting them ever since (kept youthful by Uncle Sam’s influence, we later learned)! The JLA and their comrades, Earth 2’s own Justice Society, rallied to the cause and helped the FFer’s free Earth X from Nazi tyranny, but the Freedom Fighters didn’t reappear again until early 1976. When they did though, it was in their own title!

Freedom Fighters #1 (April 76) saw the FFer’s forsake Earth X (which had become boring since peace broke out) for new adventures on Earth 1. In retrospect, this may have been a mistake since Earth 1 already had more than its fair share of superheroes and Uncle Sam and company therefore lost some of their uniqueness. But then, they had a struggle ahead of them as it was if they wanted to have any kind of credibility Superheroes are by nature larger than life, but some of the FFer’s were, when you looked into them, quite absurd even by the standards of the 1940’s.

The Ray for instance had been a journalist who gained electrical powers after being hit by lightning in a hot air balloon, while Richard grey Jr had been orphaned in the mountains as a child and raised by a flock of wild condors who taught him to fly (!), eventually rejoining society and living a double life as both the Black Condor and “Thomas Wright”—an identity borrowed from a murdered senator who had been his exact double! Handy, but a little improbable all round, really.

Still, the freedom Fighters had something. Whatever it was it was hard to define, yet despite a continually changing creative team (listing the artists alone would take a column in itself) the Freedom Fighters quickly gained a loyal following as, over the next 15 issues, the team faced the likes of the sinister Silver Ghost (the arch-foe they’d been missing until now), the rather silly Skragg the super sniper, the Cat Man and four super powered native Americans called The Renegades, among others.

They also teamed up with Wonder Woman, Batwoman and Bat Girl at various times, and in #12 gained a new recruit in fellow Earth X refugee (and former Quality character) Rod Reilly, AKA Firebrand. Probably their most entertaining ‘crossover’ though, came in FF #7-9, in which the team faced a group of wannabe superheroes called ‘The Crusaders’. This team—Americommando and Rusty, Fireball and Sparky and the Barracuda—bore an uncanny resemblance to rival publisher Marvel’s wartime superteam, the Invaders.

A very curious string of events, since around the same time, by a staggering coincidence, the Invaders were in their own title fighting the Spirit of ’76, Tommy Lightning, Thunderfist, Captain Wings, Ghost Girl and Dyna-Mite, a group of wannabe superheroes also called ‘The Crusaders’ who bore an uncanny resemblance to the Freedom Fighters! Marvel’s Crusaders were eventually revealed to be dupes of the Nazi’s. The Freedom Fighters’ versions were, of course, dupes of the Silver Ghost, who had been behind Americommando’s mask all along.

There were some strong storylines (including one in which Doll Man is framed for murder by a corrupt assistant DA) and the FFer’s were engaging characters with some interesting character quirks. The scantily-clad Phantom Lady, for instance, displays a curiously dated 50’s housewife mentality throughout which at first seems like poor writing until one recalls that a couple of decades of women’s liberation never occurred on Earth X, while Firebrand was a suspected former Nazi collaborator who fled Earth X to save his own skin (of course, his reputation was quickly redeemed and the pink ballet suited daredevil a hero in good standing once more).

But none of this could save them when in mid 1978, the infamous ‘DC Implosion’ resulted in numerous titles being summarily cancelled. The Freedom Fighters’ trailing storyline (yet another Silver Ghost plot) would be concluded, readers were assured, in Secret Society of Super Villains #16, while The Ray would get his own solo series, a backup in Black Lightning from #11. Unfortunately, Secret Society of Super Villains also bit the dust with #15, and while The Ray was indeed in Black Lightning #11, there was no #12.

The contemporary Freedom Fighters were not seen again until 1983, when DC Comics Presents #62 brought back all but Phantom Lady (supposedly retired) and Firebrand (supposedly dead along with the Silver Ghost, according to a Bob Rozakis-penned explanation on the letters page) for a team-up with Superman.

In the meantime though, Roy Thomas had already reintroduced 1940s versions of several of them in his All-Star Squadron series, and would go on to retcon their history, explaining that they were, firstly, not the first group of Freedom Fighters (that group, also founded by Uncle Sam and including the Invisible Hood, Magno, Miss America and Red Torpedo amongst others, had been slaughtered by the Nazis) and secondly, that they were actually residents of Earth 2 who had ‘emigrated’ to Earth X in 1942! It was all rather confusing and while 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths series wiped out their whole history anyway, it also established that Firebrand and the Silver Ghost were still alive.

Still, we were soon assured that the Freedom Fighters had somehow existed as a team in the new DC timeline, and the late 80s and early 90s saw second generation versions of Phantom Lady, The Ray and Black Condor launched into their own series’ (Phantom Lady in Action Comics Weekly, the others in their own titles), later joining Uncle Sam and the Human Bomb as a new incarnation of the Freedom Fighters in the pages of JSA.

    

It wasn’t until after the apparent slaughter of this group though, in Infinite Crisis #1 (2005) that the FFer’s (the surviving originals and several new recruits) finally got their second chance in a title of their own, an 8-issue limited series in 2006 and then again in 2007. It seems that in the end, Quality always endures...

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