Current Reviews


Red Circle--The Shield #1

Posted: Saturday, August 29, 2009
By: Thom Young

J. Michael Straczynski
Scott McDaniel (p), Andy Owens (i), & Tom Chu (colors)
DC Comics
"We've gone back to the original incarnations of the characters, which were introduced in the '40s and '60s and such. . . ."
--Dan Didio explaining what DC's latest version of the MLJ/Archie characters would be during an interview posted on Newsarama on July 29, 2008.

"I think itís a tone more than anything else, and the nature of their origins and characterizations. Any time you return to the mouth of the river with classic characters, thereís a certain purity of intent that comes into the picture thatís hard to quantify, but itís definitely there."
--J. Michael Straczynski answering the question "What separates Red Circle heroes from traditional DCU heroes?" in an interview posted on Comic Book Resources on May 26, 2009.
MLJ's (Archie's) The Shield was created in 1939, first appearing in December of that year in Pep Comics #1 (cover date January 1940)--not only making the character one of the first comic book superheroes (preceded by a handful at DC and Timely), but the first with a patriotic theme (preceding Captain America by 14 months).

After first reading J. Michael Straczynski's "original incarnation" version of The Shield in which he "return(ed) to the mouth of the river" (the "river" being not only Pep Comics # 1 but also Shield-Wizard Comics # 1), I wasn't surprised that he deviated from the MLJ origin of the character. I was surprised by the alternate origin he chose instead--but I'll address that a little later.

In Pep Comics #1, the origin of The Shield was written out in a banner caption that ran along the right side of the two-third-page splash panel of the first page. In it, we learn that The Shield is Joe Higgins, "G-Man Extraordinary (sic)"--his true identity being known only to J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

We learn two other important elements in that summary of The Shield's un-shown origin. First, his father was killed in the 1916 Black Tom Explosion that preceded the entry of the United States into World War I by nine months. Second, his Shield costume, which is "of his own secret construction, not only is bullet- and flame-proof, but gives him power to perform extraordinary feats of physical daring and courage. Wearing his shield, he has the speed of a bullet and the strength of a Hercules."

That's some costume! It's like he not only preceded Captain America by 14 months as the first patriotic superhero, he also preceded Iron Man by 23 years as the first costume-powered superhero! Of course, there's no explanation how his costume is able to give The Shield these amazing powers, but the story was written (and written very poorly) by Harry Shorten for 10-year-old boys in 1940 (which was the year my dad was 10 years old).

Reading this mini origin of The Shield called to mind my P.F. Flyers I wore when I was 10 years old (and younger). Those were truly amazing shoes that allowed me to run faster and jump higher than I otherwise could--all because P.F. Flyers had an amazing Action Wedge that was built right into the shoe!

However, as interesting as that origin summary for The Shield was in Pep Comics #1, it wasn't the origin summary that I had read for the character on a Web site devoted to him. The origin I had previously read about was much more similar to the eventual origin of Captain America--involving a secret formula that gave the hero his powers.

Obviously, The Shield's origin had been revised sometime after Pep Comics #1, and I suspected that it must have been revised after the publication of Captain America Comics in 1941. After all, I was sure Jack Kirby and Joe Simon wouldn't have also "borrowed" the origin of the first patriotic-themed superhero when they created Captain America (who originally carried a shield that looked nearly identical to the shield that The Shield wore over his torso).

However, I was wrong. The Shield's "secret formula origin" was printed about six months after Pep Comics #1--or about eight months before the debuted of Captain America. In Shield-Wizard Comics #1 we learn the true, never-before-seen origin of The Shield. It opens with Army Intelligence Officer Lt. Tom Higgins (The Shield's father) getting orders to protect the Black Tom's Island munitions depot from saboteurs.

Not only is Lt. Higgins an Army Intelligence officer (who wears civilian clothes), he's also a brilliant chemist who performs cutting-edge chemistry experiments in the basement of his house. In fact, before proceeding on to his assignment on Black Tom Island, Lt. Higgins stops by his house to check on his 10-year-old son, Joe, who is hard at work on his father's experimental formula for creating a "superhuman."

Lt. Higgins then leaves young Joe to "stir the mixture" as he departs from their home to head off to Black Tom Island--which the US Army would not have bothered to guard at the time since private companies owned the island and the storage facilities there. The government was not involved in the operation of the munitions depot, nor of the ships operating out of it. Those munitions shipments were heading to Great Britain and France as war materials (after Great Britain had set up a blockade to prevent US companies from shipping munitions to Germany during the war). Still, it makes for an interesting origin story to have The Shield's father associated with the Black Tom Explosion in a way that is more intriguing than if he had been a private security guard on the island.

Anyway, immediately after Lt. Higgins leaves his house, he is attacked by "two foreign looking men . . . on a lonely street." Apparently, they knew he had been assigned to guard the Black Tom munitions depot, and so kidnapped him so that he couldn't prevent their act of sabotage. Yet, after going through his pockets, they found the superhuman formula he was working on. However, a second formula that complements this first was missing!

Where did the missing second formula go? No one will know for another 23 years. However, as a resourceful Army Intelligence Officer in Civilian Clothes, Lt. Higgins is a resourceful man who quickly engineers an escape--with the good fortune of being kidnapped by agents of the Kaiser who were renowned for being horrible shots at point-blank range!

Arriving at a Jersey City pier in a convertible Ford Model T, Lt. Higgins quickly appropriates a rowboat from a man fishing off the side of the pier--considering the Black Tom Explosion occurred shortly after 2:00 AM, we have to wonder what that man with the fishing pole was actually doing on that Jersey City pier at that hour of the night, but I'm sure that's another story entirely.

Knowing he doesn't have seconds to spare, Lt. Higgins rows frantically toward Black Tom Island--but he's too late! The massive explosion occurs, and Lt. Tom Higgins is mortally wounded by flying shrapnel (some of which severely damaged the nearby Statue of Liberty, which resulted in the closing of the arm and torch to this day, 93 years after the event).

Later, on his deathbed, Lt. Higgins sees his young son who was brought to the hospital (presumably in Manhattan or Jersey City) by close family friend J.E. Hoover--who would have been 21 years old at the time and getting ready to complete his final year at George Washington University while working at the Library of Congress. In the presence of the young future Director of the FBI, Tom Higgins tells Joe the secret of the missing second formula--"Anatomy formula S-H-I-E-L-D! Carry on, Joe!"--and then he dies.

From that point forward, Joe Higgins devotes his life to chemistry in order to discern his father's cryptic code for the superhuman formula. He earns a PhD in chemistry (probably around 1933, by my estimation) and then spends the next few (six) years working on his father's formula--without success. By chance, he is glancing trough an anatomy book one day and sees his father's code in front of him.

Dr. Joe Higgins had essentially known the first formula since he was 10--having helped his father create it in their basement lab. Now he knew the second formula that had been missing for 23 years! He needed to rub the chemical solution produced by the first formula on his body--but not just anywhere on his body. He needed to rub the solution on his Sacrum, on his Heart, on his Innervation, in his Eyes, on his Lungs, and on his skin (er his Derma).

How he was able to rub the solution on his sacrum, heart, innervation, and lungs is not explained.

Then, with the chemicals working on the pertinent points on his body, Joe put on a special skintight white leotard tunic (sans tights) along with a white cowl and bathed in the x-rays of a fluoroscope for 12 hours. When the process was completed, he was a superhuman!

Surprisingly, his special skintight white leotard tunic and cowl had been stained red, white, and blue in a design reminiscent of the flag of the United States! Even more surprisingly, the skin on his legs and arms had apparently been stained red--making him look awfully peculiar, I guess, whenever he strips down to his birthday suit.

So . . . it wasn't his costume that gave him his powers after all. It was his father's superhuman formula. It not only made him nearly invulnerable, super strong, as fast as a speeding bullet, and able to leap down from tall buildings without killing himself, it also turned his skintight tunic into an American flag shield-like design while staining the skin on his arms and legs red! It was obviously a superior formula to the one that would be injected into scrawny Steve Rogers over a year later.

Joe's first act as a superhuman was to leap from his skyscraper apartment to a diner for a cup of coffee. His second act was to break into a meeting between J. Edgar Hoover and one of his FBI agents.

After hinting that the agent should leave, The Shield changed into his civvies to reveal that he was really the son of J. Edgar's old best friend, Tom Higgins. At that point it was decided that Dr. Joe Higgins, professor of chemistry at a prestigious university (probably Yale), would become an FBI agent--and that he would also be the FBI's secret weapon: The Shield, G-Man Extraordinary (sic)!

All of this history means that The Shield not only preceded Captain America as the first patriotic-themed superhero, he also preceded him as the first to gain his powers through a secret formula and as a government agent--becoming a G-Man Extraordinary (sic) a good 25 years before Captain America began working for the government organization led by Col. Nick Fury. What was it called?

Anyway, once again--as with all of his other "purity of intent" versions of the MLJ characters--Straczynski completely ignores the character's "original incarnation" in order to provide a new origin completely. Like I stated way up at the top of this review, I thought it was a good idea at first for Straczynski to change the origin--before I read Shield-Wizard Comics #1.

My initial thought was that even if The Shield was created by a super-soldier formula before Captain America (which he was, as it turns out), readers new to The Shield would have just viewed a slight revision of the original version as a rip-off of Captain America. However, after reading Shield-Wizard Comics #1, I now think Straczynski could have (and should have) kept that origin--with the major revisions being an updating of the concepts.

Rather than have Tom Higgins as a Lieutenant in the US Army's Intelligence Division who was assigned to the Black Tom sabotage case, he could have been stationed at The Pentagon during the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001--where, of course, he would also have been killed. The Black Tom Explosion was the second worst attack in the US by foreign operatives. The worst was the September 11 Attacks (Hawaii was a territory in 1942, not a state, so Pearl Harbor doesn't count as the second worst in the United States proper).

Rather than being a 10-year-old boy who was helping his father in his basement lab, Joe Higgins could have been an 18-year-old university student majoring in biotechnologies (following in his dad's footsteps) when his father was killed in the terrorist attacks. From there, the origin could have proceeded as it was with nanites being injected into (rather than a solution being spread on) the pertinent points in his body, et cetera.

Of course, that would make creation of The Shield's powers similar to what Steve Niles did in his revision of The Creeper's origin when he replaced Ditko's superhuman formula with nanites. Oh what the hell, just use the secret formula and the x-rays again. To hell with updating the origin with nanites!

However, updating the origin with nanites is exactly what Straczynski did--but not nanites substituted for the formula in the MLJ origin of the character. Instead of giving The All-New Shield an origin similar to that of The All-New Creeper, Straczynski essentially just updated the origin of the patriotic-themed superhero that Jerry Conway and Don Heck created for DC in 1978--Steel, the Indestructible Man (later re-named Commander Steel to distinguish him from the Iron Man character in the Superman family).

Just as Conway and Heck's Steel was a soldier critically injured in a war (World War II) and re-built as an Indestructible Man (essentially plagiarizing the origin of The Six Million Dollar Man that was based on Martin Caidin's novel Cyborg), Straczynski's All-New Shield is a soldier who is critically injured in a war (the one in Afghanistan, which was the result of the September 11 Attacks, of course).

Like Conway's Steel, Straczynski's All-New Shield is then rebuilt. However, he's rebuilt with nanotechnology--the 21st-century update to Caidin's old school bionics (and Conway's even older school bionics). These nanites give him the ability to generate a nearly indestructible costume from out of his skin.

At least I think that's what happens. His skin doesn't become indestructible, but it generates an indestructible costume (weird, I know, but I guess it was Straczynski's attempt to maintain that weird costume element of the MLJ version).

The nanites also give The All-New Shield extraordinary strength; full access to infrared, ultraviolet, and other high-spectrum data (infrared is actually low-spectrum light, and I wasn't aware that either infrared light or ultraviolet light were "data," but whatever); and the ability to monitor communications on every known frequency (I guess the nanites weren't able to change his inner ears into radios that could monitor "unknown frequencies," whatever they might be).

However, what's most surprising is that the nanites have somehow given The All-New Shield the power of "limited flight." My guess is that the nanites must be composed of the antigravity Nth-Metal that gives Hawkman his flight abilities--but, of course, Straczynski doesn't bother to provide that explanation. Thus, I'm going to award myself a No-Prize!

What? Wrong company? Uhm . . . well, he's still sort of like Captain America and his name is sort of like the name of the super-spy organization over at Marvel.

Anyway . . . yes, once again Straczynski has not only departed greatly from the MLJ versions of these Red Circle characters, he has actually just managed to make a character that is nearly identical to one that DC already owns.

What's more, the grandson of Steel, the Indestructible Man is currently running around the DC universe as "Citizen Steel"--and is supposedly going to figure prominently in a future Geoff Johns project (in Adventure Comics, if I remember correctly).

Thus, I am still left wondering why DC bothered to license these Red Circle characters from Archie if they weren't going to actually use the "original incarnations" (albeit updated) and were, instead, going to have Straczynski re-create the characters as doppelgangers of characters that DC already owns.

However, it's not my money going into Archie's coffers--and, now that this four-issue Red Circle series is over, it also won't be my money going into DC's coffers for more stories about these characters.

While I'm giving this issue three bullets because it was an average pedestrian comic book story with serviceable dialog, exposition, and illustrations, I would give the entire four-issue Red Circle series only two bullets due to Straczynski's inability (or at least disinterest) in crafting the four issues into an interconnected story beyond the 4-by-100 relay race in which the baton is exchanged at the end of the first, second, and third lengths with the next issue's art team doing the last page.

Predictably, the first-issue art team of Tom Derenick and Bill Sienkiewicz illustrated the last page of this issue. However, the story doesn't actually come full circle and show us who the supposedly supernatural figure was that turned Dr. Robert Dickering into the Spectre . . .er, into El Diablo . . . I mean into The Hangman.

Still, Dr. Dickering did make an appearance in the final two pages of this issue, and he did make a strange statement to Dr. Tom Higgins.

(Do you see what Straczynski did there? In the original MLJ version, it was the father, Tom Higgins, who was an Army Lieutenant, and his son Joe became a PhD who worked on the process through which he turned himself into the superhuman Shield. However, in this version, it's Joe who is an Army Lieutenant--and his father is the PhD who worked on the process that turned Joe in the superhuman All-New Shield. And here I was thinking that Straczynski didn't maintain much of MLJ's original version.)

Oh, that strange statement that Dr. Dickering makes to Dr. Tom Higgins? Here it is:
The data I gave you came from a very long line of research into bioenergy dating back to the Civil War. Back then, if you said bioenergy to someone, they'd think you were talking about spiritualism or ectoplasm. Now we're informed enough to see it otherwise.
So, we do sort of have a completion of the circle as the implication of Dr. Dickering's statement is that he now realizes that it wasn't an angel or a demon who gave him his supernatural powers; it was a bioenergy being. What's more, his powers aren't supernatural; he now sees them as bioenergetic.

I'm glad that's clear.

Nevertheless, I would have preferred a circular plot in which the terrorists in Inferno were somehow connected to the gangster on Long Island and to the Taliban in Afghanistan. Of course, it's possible for them to still all be connected--but I wanted to see a tighter plot in this four-issue series.

However, Straczynski stated in an interview that it's up to other writers to connect those dots that he made with this series. If they ever are connected, I won't be there to see it.

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