Kid Gang Comics: The Boy Commandos

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After quitting Martin Goodman’s Timely Comics over his cheating them out of royalties, the team of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby moved to Detective Comics Inc. (from Martin Goodman to Jack Leibowitz, frying pan to fire). After taking over the in-progress revamp of Sandman, and creating Manhunter using the existing name of Paul Kirk, Simon and Kirby settled upon their niche, becoming the Kings of the Kid Gang Comic.
The first were the Newsboy Legion, modelled on the Dead End Kids of cinema fame, with a Captain America-figure in the shield-bearing Guardian. Then, in March 1942, they introduced the Boy Commandos into Detective Comics. The Commandos were an instant success, getting a second string in World’s Finest Comics almost immediately and then, in December 1942, their own title, which ran for 36 issues and which was Detective’s third most popular series, behind only Superman and Batman. Imagine that.
The Commandos, orphans all, were a pretty international bunch to begin with, as befitted the nations already involved in battling the Nazi menace. Their adult leader was Captain Rip Carter and the boys – four in number, the perfect kid gang, echoing their civilian equivalents – consisted of tubby Brit Alfie Twidgett, French kid Andre Chavard, the quiet Dutch boy Jan Haasen and their leader, the tough American kid with the barely suppressed aggression and the wise-cracks, who had no other name than ‘Brooklyn’.
(Many years later, DC would decide to link Brooklyn to Kirby’s Fourth World titles featuring Darkseid, et al., by equating him to Dan Turpin, the tough, heavy-built, New York, cigar-chewing detective ‘Terrible’ Turpin, who would not let his town be taken over by ‘Super Muk-Muks’.)
The first issue is a fascinating experience, featuring no less than four quite contrasting Boy Commandos stories, plus the debut and origin of that All-American girl, Liberty Belle, about whom I was so enthusiastic when reviewing Star-Spangled Comics. There’s a ghost story, a metafictional story with cameos from Simon and Kirby’s other DC characters, and a story set in China that freely adapts the real-life exploits of Fred Townsend Ward and the Ever-Victorious Army, casting one of Rip Carter’s ancestors in the Ward role, with equivalents of the four boys alongside him.

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The pair set the story in semi-mythical turns, using an old man dying of brutal mistreatment by the Japanese, who recognises Carter and the boys, and who dies with contentment, knowing that Rip had come again, as promised on his deathbed, with China in his heart.
But the most significant story in the issue was the first. It was a bitter, angry, intense story of, to put it plainly, revenge. The Commandos’ celebration of another successful mission is muted as young Jan, the quiet Dutch boy, sits distracted. Jan has received a message from the Underground in Vannders, the once idyllic small fishing village in Holland where he was born, and he is possessed by memories of what the Nazis destroyed, and the people who were killed, including his parents and the little girl next door who might have been.
Needless to say, the Commandos have a mission to go to Vannders where they lead the Underground to drive the Nazis into the ground, but what strikes home is the anger and hatred in the story. This is personal for Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, two of the overwhelming number of Jewish writers, artists, editors, managers, who made up the comics industry. Hatred for Hitler and all he personified runs through this story, which was as personal to its creators as if they, like Jan, had experienced the atrocities they depict.
There’s a disturbing element to this, just as, with Twenty-First Century eyes, there’s a concern about the whole concept. Boys aged… what? Twelve, thirteen, fourteen? Going to War exactly the same as adults, guns in their hands. Where’s the morality in that? How can we justify this, especially as entertainment?
But how can we understand the reality of those days? Especially as, being born ten years after, I have no direct line of experience. No amount of reading, of intellectual appreciation, especially when it’s absorbed from balanced sources who can see a greater picture, can tell you what it was like to live that War. I can have the luxury of concern, about the idea and about the emotions that underpin it, but without being there, I do not have the right to question. Nor did I ever have that conversation with the older members of my family, including my Uncle who fought in the Navy, all but one of whom had gone by my twenties.

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Enough of the heavy philosophising. This is a comic I’m reading. But it’s not a superhero effort, and what motivates it can’t be ignored. Issue 2 was shot from an original signed by Kirby himself, a surprising thrill for what is only pixels, but there you go. This was Libby Lawrence’s last appearance in this series as by issue 3 she had been transferred to her long-term berth, to be replaced by an eccentrically drawn supposedly funny feature titled Jitter’s Jeep, all motion and angularity and incomprehension.
The last story in the issue brought back the mysterious and fearful Agent Axis, the black shadow, the club-footed monster of issue 1, and revealed ‘him’ to be a beautiful woman named Sigrid, who jumped from a castle window rather than be captured. But before that, Simon/Kirby delivered a speech, through Rip Carter, of white-hot contempt and condemnation of Nazism, to her face. It was cathartic, passionate and heartfelt. Politics can’t be absented from these stories but this was dynamite stuff that, for a panel or two, took the comic out of the story and put this part of the story on an elevated plane.
Issue 4 broke the mould by containing only one story, broken up into seven chapters, one of them the usual two-page prose story. It was cover-marked Special Invasion Issue and, most of a year before the real thing, it was the Invasion of Europe, from the Dutch coast to the road to Berlin. Though there’s practically no Simon/Kirby art in it, it was a long, stirring story that wisely chose to end on the edge of mythology, with a statement of intent for the world that incorporated President Rooseveldt’s famous Four Freedoms, as the driving purpose behind the whole War.
It’s hopelessly naïve now, especially in light of what the Right is doing, both here and in America, to drive Democracy from the face of the Earth, but it’s no less stirring for all that. It’s what we should all be committing ourselves to, without question.
Though it was credited to Simon/Kirby, the art was not by their hands, though the set of stories in issue 5 certainly was. According to Wikipedia, at this point in his career Kirby was drawing five pages a day, but Detective’s Jack Leibowitz wanted more. The Boy Commandos were amazingly big. Leibowitz correctly foresaw his two hot creators being drafted and pushed them to stockpile. This was done by rushing jobs through the hands of numerous assistants, such as the young Eli Katz, better known by his professional name, Gil Kane.
By issue 8, it was very noticeable that plain, flat-out War stories, attacks on the Nazis and paeans to freedom and liberty were going a bit on the back-burner as stories about dreams, Norse Gods and gold rushes in the Arctic were starting to take over. It was not a good sign.
Simon and Kirby’s names were on each story, now only three per issue, but their ghosts were firmly in charge of the art, and the art they were producing was ugly rather than the creators’ own brand of energetic grotesquerie. It can’t be helped. Jack Kirby had been called up and he couldn’t hold a gun and a pencil at the same time.
Issue 12, the end of the title’s third year, was cover-dated Fall 1945. In practice, that put it in the closing months, with a reference to VE Day establishing how narrow was the gap between preparation and publication. What would the Boy Commandos do when peace came?
But for the moment, Simon/Kirby put on all the burners for a story during the invasion of Europe, reuniting three old friends – a nurse, a soldier and a medical corpsman, a woman and two friendly rivals for her affections – in the middle of the advance, fighting their utmost in their own ways whilst the Boy Commandos tackled a tough, life-saving mission in which all of them, including Rip Carter, were wounded. It was the best thing the series had produced for ages, with the exact right level of care and respect among the three friends to make the story touching without being sentimental.
What would the Boy Commandos do post-War? They’d turn to the War Diary and fight on in previously unreported actions, of course. Detective Comics’ third most popular series was not being let off the hook that easily.

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And just at that moment, with issue 14, Detective could cash in on that success by upping frequency to bi-monthly, now that paper rationing was being lifted. It was at that point that I noticed that the title was being published by World’s Best Comics, not Detective as I had assumed, nor National as it would become when Jack Liebowitz had finished merging everything. Where did this interloper come from? It’s a name I’ve never heard before, and whilst their editorial offices were in New York, their corporate address was in St Louis. It was an address used by a number of different publishers, so almost certainly an accommodation address, to allow the publishers to take advantage of Missouri State tax laws.
To complicate matters further, issue 13, alone, was credited as being published by J R Publishing.
The next issue saw a change in direction for the series as the Boy Commandos turned crime-crackers. The first story saw the introduction of super-villain Crazy-Quilt, an artist and thief who would in due course become a regular foe for Batman and Robin. Quilt’s gimmick was that he lost his sight when blinded by a bullet from a rival gang boss. Coercing a surgeon to operate, he discovered he could only see in bright clashing colours. His mind snapping, he made bright colour a theme of his crimes and had to be stopped by the Boy Commandos and Rip Carter, now in civvies, except for Brooklyn who had never been out of them.
Rip goes on to be Skipper of the Flying Patrol of the New International Police, the boys go home to Brooklyn and street snowball fights, he re-recruits them and there you go. Or rather he recruits three of them: of Jan there is no sign. According to Wikipedia he was given a home in Holland with relatives, but that must have been revealed in a story in either Detective or World’s Finest.
The publishers of record become National Comics as of issue 20, cover-dated March/April 1947.
There was an even bigger change in issue 21, with Simon and Kirby’s name not appearing anywhere, and despite the efforts of the artist, it would have been a breach of the Trades Description Act if they had. The next thing was Alfy’s departure, at the start of issue 22, to go to college, where the rest of the gang were heading west to Texas to pick up his replacement, unsurprisingly called Tex.
At first glance, Tex was a colourless bust. The issue was filled out by a reappearance from Crazy-Quilt and a guest role for radio comedienne Judy Canova, making up to a reluctant Brooklyn whilst being in real life over twice his age. Do you get the impression of a series that has not just lost its way as deliberately chucked it away?

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But Simon and Kirby were back in issue 23, bringing with them boy genius Percy Clearwater, to take the place of Andre, who is badly hurt in a sabotaged plane before the lead story even gets going. There’s the usual appeal to the readers about whether they want to see Percy again, and Andre’s alright by the second, Foreign Legion set story.
And the creators were gone again next issue and couldn’t we tell? In one story, Brooklyn played Superman. You need know nothing more than that.
Every now and then, and increasingly in the Fifties, various DC titles print stories in which the heroes act like dicks towards women, or girls, pulling the old ‘too-dangerous-for-a-girl’ routine. Having agreed to take on a temporary Commando X, the winner of a competition, Carter is horrified to discover ‘Jimmy’ is really Jennie, and plots to cheat her with a fake pirate raid. Instead, old enemy Mr Peg takes the raid over, kidnapping Jennie who is an heiress.
But this one turned out the unexpected way, as Jennie’s sharp-shooting skills enable her to take out Peg’s gang single-handedly, and even twit him about having grown-ups in his outfit, as these kids are pestering her to death… The other two stories simply demonstrated the increasingly silly depths the series was sinking to, with Brooklyn now irreversibly cast as the comic lead wherever the plot took the boys.
The plain truth was that, without the War, the Boy Commandos had no point, and without Simon and Kirby they had no inspiration and the result was any old mish-mash that would fill twelve pages at a time, irrespective of how stupid it was: dreams of the past, trips into the future, two boys as nonentities. Once again, here is a series dying in leaps and bounds, without any idea why.
Amazingly, after far too many issues by inferior hands, Simon and Kirby dropped by to produce the middle story in issue 29, as well as gave a good influence on the art of the first, though their story was another of the undersea city fantasies that were so out of place.
Another real-life guest star in baseball pitcher Bob Feller turned up next issue whilst a temporary group of substitute Commandos was brought in for another story that month.
Westerns were becoming ever more popular at National Comics and so issue 32 saw the Commandos team up with the Queen of the Westerns, aka Dale Evans, or Mrs Roy Rogers, whose own title at the company had already reached issue 5
We were offered a new Commando in issue 34, this time a canine one, or rather half dog, half wolf, accepted as a member of the team and then not appearing again. An issue later, Brooklyn was completely revised. Badly injured saving a little girl from being knocked down by a taxi, Brooklyn underwent plastic surgery to turn his face cute instead of ugly, and subconscious hypno-speech therapy to get him to pronounce his ‘th’s at last.
And in the second story, Andre is summoned back to France as the only person able to take over the family farm and, a mere dozen issues and two years later, enter Percy Clearwater, boy inventor and detective, to become the new Commando.
This kind of radical re-ordering of the leading character spelt only one thing: desperation at falling sales and, like all such things, too damned late: the series was cancelled with issue 36, November/December 1949 and, considering what it had become since the years of the War and Simon/Kirby, not a page too soon.
It was a sad ending, indeed one I’d go so far as to say ignominious, but it was inevitable from the moment the replacements for Simon and Kirby decided to turn Andre and Tex into cyphers besides Rip and Brooklyn, then turn Brooklyn into a smug-talking figure of fun. Joe and Jack were the kings of the Kid-Gang comic alright, the proof being that the schmucks who followed them had no idea how to produce a fraction of the effect.
But when they were hot, only Superman and Batman were hotter.

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