Secret Origins #19: Uncle Sam and Guardian

Ryan Daly and new guest Jeff Nettleton review the origin of Uncle Sam from Secret Origins #19. Then, Michael Bailey returns to help Ryan cover the story of Guardian and the Newsboy Legion.

Listen to Episode 19!

Subscribe to Secret Origins Podcast on iTunes!

Sample pages from Secret Origins #19, written Len Wein with art by Murphy Anderson (Uncle Sam), and Roy Thomas with art by Arvell Jones and Greg Theakston (Guardian), and a cover by Jack Kirby and Anderson.

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Check out Michael’s thoughts about Guardian and the Newsboy Legion, as well as Superman-related stories at Fortress of Baileytude

And his reviews of the JSA at Tales of the Justice Society of America

And other comics at Views from the Longbox

And still more comics at Comics Monthly Monday

And, of course, Bailey’s Batman Podcast

“Premonition” (Theme for Secret Origins Podcast) written and performed by Neil Daly.

Additional music this episode: “Revolution” by The Beatles; “I Don’t Want to Set the World On Fire” by The Ink Spots.

Leave a comment, Secret Admirers!

16 thoughts on “Secret Origins #19: Uncle Sam and Guardian

  1. One notable Uncle Sam appearance we failed to mention was the excellent episode of Batman, The Brave and the Bold, “Cry Freedom Fighters.” Sam is in his glory, as he calls upon Batman and fellow Quality Comics veteran Plastic Man to help free the citizens of Qward from the domination of the Weaponeers. It’s a really fun episode, with Batman getting a bit of a patriotic makeover, at one point; plus, Plas’ new rendition of Yankee Doodle. It’s one of the more accessible Freedom Fighter stories.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I feel weird about ever saying anything bad about Kirby, but that shot of The Guardian is, uh, not among his best work. I like the cover concept, but it just doesn’t quite work. If I was a billionaire, I’d hire Alex Ross and Steve Rude to do a new version–THAT would be killer.

    I bought FREEDOM FIGHTERS #1 from a Heroes World catalog (remember those? No?) in the late 70s, having not been familiar at all with the characters. The comic itself was just okay, but I still have a soft spot for the team because of that purchase. Jeff Nettleton did a good job on the story, and I didn’t know any of the back story of the “real” version.

    Bailey is back! Huzzah! Don’t have much to say about the Guardian, tho I do love his logo. That’s a killer font.

    BTW, I have plugged the SOP for the last three weeks on Twitter, but have not been mentioned as doing so during the feedback. Way to make a guy feel wanted, Ryan.

    BTW 2 Ryan, I really enjoyed your recently-released album of Taylor Swift covers. Nice job!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. RE: Twitter. That’s probably me taking a shortcut when I write up the listener feedback section. I go through my Twitter history and find where I plugged the new episode and compile the list based on who favorited and retweeted. If you mentioned/linked the podcast but didn’t include @me in the tweet then it didn’t show up in my notifications and I wouldn’t see it in my very hasty attempt to note everyone who mentioned SOP.

      Thank you for bringing this to Management’s attention. We will work to correct this error in the future.


  3. Characters like Uncle Sam I find very interesting. In my (not particularly extensive) experience it feels like writers take the weight of portraying the embodiment of a nation pretty seriously. As a result characters like this or Captain America seem to only rarely dip into the “Murica Rulez!” blind nationalism that most would probably assume as the default characterization. That said… this origin just made my head spin. So Sam merges with the spirit of a nation that doesn’t exist yet, who is also named Sam and happens to look exactly like him? And that’s not even getting into the fact that the panel of him catching the tank shell looks like he’s urinating light out of a steel phallus.

    I also share Ryan’s views on characters like the Guardian. If a person has the means to take on crime and corruption in their “civilian” life then you need to make MORE effort to explain why they would turn vigilante. It feels like Thomas either failed to properly update the original story again (big surprise if that’s the case) or he assumed that everybody just rolls with “and he put on a mask and fights crime” because comics. Either way it comes across as lazy writing. Which is a shame, as the Guardian is one of those characters I’ve been peripherally interested in since seeing him show up in the Death of Superman storyline and going “wait, who’s that guy with the sweet shield?” Of course I never really dug into the guy because I stopped reading monthly comics before the 90s was over, as you’d know if you were listening to my new podcast 90s COMICS RETRIAL! Check it out! It’s great! Plug plug plug plug! WOO!


  4. I like the Uncle Sam side of this issue just because I think that it is just lushly rendered by Murphy Anderson. It is unbelievably beautiful. Yes the story is pure nationalism. But I am not ashamed to say I am proud to be an American. So let me get a little weepy when reading this. Anyways, beautiful art. Love it!

    As for Sam, my first exposure was from the 70s Freedom Fighters book. I very much enjoyed the U.S. Vertigo mini as a look at national symbols and politics. But for some reason, the most vivid memories are from the Crisis – the Psycho-Pirated Sam punching Steel’s face in Crisis and his telling Lady Quark to try to forgive Pariah and that everyone should team up. I’ll tweet panels.

    As for Guardian, I have just never really liked this guy. I am ready for slings and arrows but I like the Morrison reboot in Seven Soldiers.

    Great episode with great discussion on the history of these characters.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I don’t have this issue. I need to rectify that. To me, the cover works. Kirby was mostly retired at this point, I believe. I think he pretty much left comics after the first Who’s Who and second Super Powers mini-series. So I can forgive him for the Guardian being a bit flat. Anderson’s inks don’t really suit his figure work, anyway.

    I probably met Uncle Sam (the comic character) in All-Star Squadron #31, again by Thomas. The famous “every member (except for Aquaman) present and accounted for” issue. Sam’s on the Jerry Ordway cover doing his Montgomery Flagg schtick. One of my favorite comics.

    I remember reading that Thomas combined the two incongruous Quality origins into one. It seems a bit nuts, but it’s DIFFERENT. You gotta give Eisner and company that. Even in the dawn of the Golden Age, there was a lot of sameness quickly sinking in. I’ve always been a big fan of Murphy Anderson’s stuff, and it is definitely clear from the scans, he does indeed love the Lou Fine characters.

    So great to hear Jeff on the show! I always enjoy his insightful comments on all the podcasts he writes in to, including Super Mates. I’d love to hear Jeff start a DC war comic podcast. Sounds like he was born to it!

    I’m a big fan of the Guardian. I met him when I was too young to read in an old Superman Family that was tying up some of the loose ends of Kirby’s work. I followed him in A-SS (worst comic acronym ever) and then into Superman Annual #2. I know exactly what Mr. Bailey speaks of. There was just something about those characters. When the Superman subplots rolled back around to the Guardian, they always got my full attention. While I don’t agree with Ryan on Dick Grayson’s cop gig, I do get his point on the Guardian lacking proper motivation. I know I keep referencing it, but it seems so odd that Thomas went out of his way to find new rationale for Bruce Wayne to seek justice as a costume vigilante, but most of these “mystery men” are putting on costumes because it’s the “in” thing to do, it seems. I do like Arvell Jones art, and I agree with Michael that he was a shot in the arm on Squadron at the time.

    Great episode, Ryan! From a brand-spanking new voice to one of the godfathers of comic podcasting, this show is really blowing the doors wide open.


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  6. Okay, yeah, I was thinking ‘I Want You’, but ‘Revolution’ will do, sure.

    I could never figure out Gangbuster because of my erratic post-Crisis Superman reading habits, stopping reading for a long period after the Exile in space storyline. So when he showed up again, I always wondered why there was suddenly a real person running around using the second secret identity Superman was using during his nervous breakdown The Guardian worked better and was certainly my favorite of the two DC pseudo-Captains America in this issue. (Not overall, the one in #48 beats them both.)


  7. I encountered the Guardian, via Mal Duncan, in the Teen Titans, when he took the name and put on a version of the costume. That would be it until All Star Squadron; and, then, both the new stories in the post-Crisis Superman and in the Jimmy Olsen comics, which I lucked into finding most of, at my local comic shop. The Jimmy Olsen book is gonzo fun and my favorite of the Kirby 4th World books (though Mister Miracle is a very close second). There’s just so much going on there and it all really opens up your mind. Kirby was also playing with his collages in the book and they are some amazing images.

    I can’t add much to what has been said here. This isn’t the best look at either Jim Harper or the Newsboys. I’m a fan of the man and the boys; but, this doesn’t begin to do them justice.

    This may be a record for shortest comment for me; but, I did get to drone on for around an hour. Thanks again, Ryan, for the chance to join the fun.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Late to the party here, but I really enjoyed this episode so I want to chime in.

    I really don’t have any issues with the cover, I actually like the Kirby Guardian pose here, it is very much one of his stock Captain America poses from his third run tackling the character once he came back to Marvel in 1975/1976, which is an era of Cap I absolutely love (MAD BOMB BABY!!) and so it works me, especially since mixing Uncle Sam’s color scheme with Guardian pretty much gives you Cap. So I’ll take it! The part on the cover that actually bugs me the most is Uncle Sam’s hand, it looks like it’s a little too small proportion wise in my opinion.

    Jeff, great podcasting debut, you’re a natural! Hope to hear more from you in the future.

    I’ve always loved the Freedom Fighters and Uncle Sam in particular, but since DC revived the Freedom Fighters in the 70’s, outside of those Crisis Crossovers, the concept isn’t as executed as well as it could be in my opinion.

    The idea of a past ghost or patriotic spirit guiding and powering a new champion of freedom seemed to be a popular concept, the other pretty popular character at the time that also used that element was Fighting Yank. The Invaders story Jeff mentioned with the Freedom Fighter analogs actually blended Uncle Sam with Fighting Yank. That specific Invaders story was a two-parter that took place in the pages of Invaders #14 & 15. They feature some really neat covers by Kirby, but sadly the interior artwork by Frank Robbins isn’t near as appealing. I actually covered that 2-part story, along with Captain America #193 (MAD BOMB BABY!!!) on episode 13 of my Random Comic Showcase Podcast, which is located here if you’re interested.

    Also, I would like to mention the Uncle Sam 2-Part Prestige Format book by Steve Darnell and Alex Ross from the mid-1990’s. That mini-series was released by Vertigo, and is pretty dark and depressing take on Uncle Sam (and essentially America) and the state the US of A has fallen too. The story is extremely heavy handed with a strong political bias, and while I disagree with writer’s assertion that this is all the result of a single guilty party, and believe that it should have instead been a commentary on just how broken the entire political system is, it is thought-provoking nonetheless. It is an interesting, and heavy read, and features some gorgeous Alex Ross painted artwork when he was at the top of his game (I believe this was his first story after Kingdom Come), so I recommend checking that out. Well there you go, had this all typed up and then Jeff goes and mentions the Vertigo series at the end of discussion.

    And yay Guardian!! My love and introduction to the character pretty much mirrors Michael Bailey’s. Encountered him first in the Post-Crisis Superman books and really had the character resonate with me during Karl Kesel & Tom Grummett’s 2nd run on the Superboy series in the late 90’s. Absolutely loved what they did with Project Cadmus and Guardian in those stories. That really fueled my love for the character and caused me to dive back further into his earlier appearances. I’m actually lucky enough to own a couple of pages of Tom Grummett’s art from that run (inked by Keith Champagne) including a page that features Guardian pretty heavily. I can’t recommend that run enough, I really wish DC would collect that series and give it a proper reprinting. Until then, go pick up the original issues, and be sure to check out the letter’s column in each issue, because there are a bunch of them published from that Michael Bailey guy.

    Because of that love for Guardian, I have always been blind to looking at the premise of his Golden Age origin with a critical view, but Ryan’s take just shattered my nostalgia blinders *cue broken glass sound*. All valid points about why he couldn’t just take down the criminal as a police officer, he isn’t doing anything special in his Guardian persona that he couldn’t have done as a cop. That said, I hope I can completely forget all of those issues the next time I read a Guardian story. But I’m going to guess that like Shag singing the Ewok song, your logical reasoning will forever haunt my brain when I read Guardian stories here on out.

    Great episode!


    1. Thanks for the kind words.

      I do have to disagree, a bit, on Frank Robbins. I seem to be in a minority; but, I loved Frank Robbins on the Invaders. The man knew how to draw action scenes and his fights, especially when Cap dives into hordes of Nazis, were things of violent beauty. Where he really excels is in capturing the period. The book looks like the 40s, especially the 1940s of the Timely Alex Schomburg covers. His Johnny Hazard strip was one of the great adventure strips, post-Caniff. I even like his Batman and Captain America art. Like I say, I seem to be in a minority on that, though he does seem to get some acclaim for his writing on Batman, especially his Man-Bat story, reprinted in The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told.

      One thing about the Freedom Fighters portion of the unofficial crossover; the Invaders analogues (Americommando/Cap, Rusty/Bucky, Barracuda/Sub-Mariner, Fireball/Human Torch, Sparky/Toro) were comic book fans who were transformed into the members of the Crusaders. Well, except Americommando. he was actually the Silver Ghost, the villain who framed the Freedom Fighters, in disguise. The rest were comic book fans who were given a chance to be superheroes. Who were these fans? Their names were Roy, Lenny, Marvin, and Arch. That’s right, they are Roy Thomas, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, and Archie Goodwin! Long live the Bronze Age!!!!!!


  9. I look at the the Secret Origins Podcast as an opportunity to go deep in thought on a couple of DC characters each week. I went into the Uncle Sam episode indifferent to the character, but the more I considered him listening to the show while washing dishes, the more I found myself seething with hatred. Seriously, a half hour later, my girlfriend came into the bedroom while I was just messing about on my tablet, and asked why I was (still) angry/tense. I came to realize that I never liked Uncle Sam because he’s stupid looking with his gaudily colored Colonel Sanders suit and his dumb car lot mascot hat and his Skoal-encrusted facial hair and his Foghorn Leghorn dialogue, plus he’s just another superficial patriotic icon in comic book practice. More generally, though, he’s insidious. Like, in grade school, I always had reservations about the Revolutionary War. I’m a big fan of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, but it seemed to me that was icing on a cake of wealthy landowners using an ocean of distance to revolt against their country to pocket tax dollars and build their own fiefdoms. I remember in history class when I found out tarring and feathering was a real thing done to tax collectors, but not so much rapists or murderers, and I started questioning the morality of that. Also, revolutionary fashion was lame, and their guns were bullshit, so I wasn’t as easily misled by the veneer of cool wartime G.I. Joe gear. Today, I look at those “I Want You” posters, and I think of young boys being conned into losing their lives and limbs under banners of pseudo-morality that were in truth usually about securing and elevating the oppressors in the rich white patriarchy. I love Captain America because he’s one idealized man named Steve Rogers who believes in many of the same things I do and is defined by honor and respect for others. I like the Golden Age Shield, even though I don’t even remember his secret identity, because I had the action figure, he had an interesting costume, and his early adventures were bananas. Uncle Sam, as a dopey looking super hero and a continuation of centuries of wartime propaganda, disgusts me. Him, I’d like to see tarred and feathered into the shape of a bald eagle coated in cancer to truly fulfill his symbolic value.


    1. In my experience, those boys who were “conned” had a clearer idea of who ran things than the average citizen and had few illusions about what they were doing.


  10. Jim Starlin takes a lot of crap because his most famous creation is highly derivative of Darkseid, and furthermore, he’s seeded his career with copies of Thanos across multiple publishers (Mongul, Lord Papal, Synnar, etc.) Less often discussed amidst knee jerk reverence is that Starlin learned this practice from The King himself, Jack Kirby. Captain America is so indebted to The Shield that lawyers got involved, and when Kirby and Joe Simon were fired off Cap, they went to National and self-swiped with The Guardian. And then parodied themselves with Fightin’ American. And then swiped again with Silver Star.

    One of my primary arguments in Captain America vs. Batman debates is that one is a Super Soldier who acts as a one man army, while the other is a super detective who acts as a one man plainclothes division. The Guardian is superficially similar to Cap, but he too is a cop, and not even an especially super one. I don’t think I ever realized before that the name derives not from guarding a city, but being a custodian to the Newsboy Legion, a facsimile Our Gang that carry the strip. Once the Guardian is cloned and working at Cadmus, he’s not even a cop, but a super-security guard. He’s Paul Blart on flaxseed and steroids.

    The Guardian is corporate shared universe detritus. If Black Condor is the Showgirls of super-hero origins, the Guardian is any one of the multitude of stripper thrillers that used to show up in late night edited for basic cable that are technically somewhat more coherent and plausible, but are completely forgettable. Aside from the meta-dig at Marvel (which backfires when you recall the Guardian’s being a knockoff of negligible cultural impact) there is nothing noteworthy in this origin, and in fact it’s almost more poorly constructed than Condor’s, which was insane but has a clear through line. A rookie cop isn’t effective in his job, so he puts on a costume, and he gets involved in the misadventures of some juvenile delinquents. What? And y’know, I’ve had the opportunity to read some Newsboy Legion comics over the years, but I’d toss through them and feel no compulsion to give them my time. If they were in the public domain, no one but maybe Dynamite would bother with them, but because they’re at DC and especially because Kirby starting over at DC on Jimmy Olsen was memorable for fans who grew up in the late Silver Age to write for the late Bronze/early Iron Age, we’re stuck with this loser.

    To me, Guardian and GangBuster are a big part of why I hate Post-Crisis Superman comics. Superman defends Metropolis against every serious threat, leaving the local police to act as crowd control, first responders, and to pick up the criminal scraps in the Man of Steel’s wake. The city shouldn’t need non-powered, street level vigilantes. When these doofuses in their cruddy costumes are beating up some hoods in those comics, it’s usually to spice things up while Clark Kent is putzing around at the Daily Planet or having dinner with Lois or whatever. “Excuse me a moment.” Clark exits panel. Clark reenters panel. “I just did whatever Gangbuster would have been doing for three pages during that panel gutter, but better. And I grabbed us some lattes. While we’re taking this breather, let’s let Imperiex use the pages we saved to set up a future conflict worthy of my involvement.” But not in the ’90s, when the tenured Superman writers would work out their frustration over not getting any bites from the Batman office through tedious Gangbuster and Guardian mini-sodes and then Lex Luthor would hatch some asinine plot that would fail but he’d escape any consequences with absolute impunity because he so smart and Superman so dumbpotent.

    Gah! I don’t want to talk about these “supporting super-heroes” (just threw up in my mouth a little bit.) I just want to imagine cracking a baseball bat over their dubious armor to see how long it holds up before I snap some bone. Oh, and I don’t mind cops as costumed vigilantes so long as there’s a compelling story in their going to those extra-legal lengths. I doubt very many people in that kind of work are 100% above board by the book, and no one else trusts or works well with that sort of super-straight unrealistic stiff. Vigilantism is outright criminal activity though, so it needs to make sense for a cop to take moral grays to that extreme.


  11. Lots to say, but I’ll start with echoing Jeff’s sadness at the loss of Murphy Anderson. A great and really underrated illustrator who was part of the DCU education thanks to his work on Who’s Who and Secret Origins.

    Uncle Sam I first met in the DC Comics Presents Superman/Freedom Fighters team-up. I liked the team immediately, and the Quality strips I’ve read are almost uniformly good. However, I don’t think they’ve been serviced very well by DC over the years. The 70s F.F. series was pretty poor, and the various permutations the heroes have suffered since the Crisis haven’t always been very good, quite the opposite. Jimmy Palmiotti keeps championing them and was responsible for all the 21st century series, but their presence in the New52 seems to be on hold and that whole thread doesn’t look like it’ll ever be resolved.

    I was going to mention the Vertigo series, but someone’s already done that. Then I’ll mention the much cooler reverse Uncle Sam from Vertigo’s Shade the Changing-Man, the American Scream! Now that was good comics.

    And I’ve been asking myself questions about my love of American patriotic superheroes – because Cap is one of my all-time favorite heroes, and I like Uncle Sam quite a bit too – even though my nationality is “other”. I think it’s that they represent the American ideal, which isn’t too far from the Canadian ideal, a reminder of what we should be, and a contrast to what we may have become. I respond to the values if not the star-spangled iconography.

    As for the Guardian, I think the criticism (the simple costume, being derivative, the convoluted Bronze Age-and-beyond origins) stems from a misunderstanding of the character’s function in the original strips. The Guardian may LOOK like someone took an eraser to Captain America, he was really more of a Spirit figure. The strip was the Newsboys’, and he appeared less than they did. He was an excuse to have a superhero there to rescue them or host the stories, but the focus was on their shenanigans. Several heroes of the day followed that structure, focusing on a supporting cast above all. Guardian will and in a way must always be secondary to the Newsboys. No?

    I loved Morrison’s 7 Soldiers Guardian and wish he’d made more appearances. I think it remixed all the elements from the Guardian’s many versions in an interesting and entertaining way.


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