10 January 2010

Boy Commandos and a Killer in the Big Top

This cover to Detective Comics, #65, shows Batman and Robin welcoming a new team to the magazine: the Boy Commandos, created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Judging by art styles, it looks like Jerry Robinson drew the Dynamic Duo, and Simon and Kirby drew the commandos.

The Boy Commandos were a logical outgrowth of a trend that started in early 1940, apparently following market research that said many readers of superhero magazines were boys. Suddenly publishers introduced Captain Marvel, Robin, and a host of other wonder boys and kid sidekicks. Simon and Kirby joined that parade, creating Marvel Boy for Daring Mystery, #6 (Sept 1940), and Bucky as a sidekick for Captain America (March 1941).

What might be even more marketable than one boy? A whole gang of boys! Gangs of kids had roared through comics since the days of Hogan’s Alley, but Simon and Kirby used them for adventures rather than humor. First came the Sentinels of Liberty/Young Allies, featuring Bucky, Toro, and a set of stereotypes. Then the Newsboy Legion, featuring a set of stereotypes. And in 1942, with World War 2 raging, the Boy Commandos—international stereotypes on a mission!

Soon that team was popular enough to join Batman and Robin in Detective Comics—they actually arrived in issue #64, possibly a last-minute addition since the cover didn’t even feature a small picture of them, just a banner. The Boy Commandos remained in the magazine past the end of the war to 1949, but they never knocked the Dynamic Duo off the cover.

That wasn’t Simon and Kirby’s only brush with Robin the Boy Wonder, however. After the war they contracted with Harvey Comics for a new superhero comic called Stuntman, with the first issue dated April 1946.That hero’s origin story starts with a crook trying to shake down a traveling circus. The circus manager refuses the crook’s demands, and the star aerialists, the Flying Apollos, shrug off the threat. But at that evening’s performance, the Apollos’ trapeze breaks. The newest member of the trio, Fred Drake, sees the other two performers fall to their deaths.

Later that night, Fred stumbles across evidence that the trapeze didn’t break by accident. He narrowly escapes being killed for what he knows, then bumps into a rich, handsome man who leads a secret life investigating crime. That man makes Fred his partner, encouraging him to fight crime while wearing a mask, cape, and brightly colored costume.

Sounds rather familiar, no? There are significant differences:

  • Fred Drake is a young man, not a boy, and not related to the other members of the Flying Apollos.
  • The rich man is movie star Don Daring, who dabbles in detective work as a hobby. He has no secret identity, nor much detective skill; he becomes the stories’ comic relief.
  • Daring hires Fred as his stunt double at the studio—thus creating Stuntman!
Despite those differences, it’s clear that Simon and Kirby were recycling Bill Finger’s origin story for Robin from six years before.

The Stuntman comic entered a market glutted with other magazines after the end of wartime paper rationing. It lasted only two issues, so we never saw the promised arrival of Stuntboy.

Stuntman’s origin story and dozens of other comics in many genres have been restored and reprinted in the oversized anthology The Best of Simon and Kirby.

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