Monday, 1 March 2010

Secret Origins #19

The Secret Origin of The Guardian and The Newsboy Legion

Writer/Adaptor: Roy Thomas
Penciller: Arvell Jones
Inker: Greg Theakston
Colorist: Julianna Ferriter
Letters: Simek & Vesik (Jean Simek and Helen Vesik)
Co-Editor: Greg Weisman
Based on the origin in Star-Spangled Comics #7, 1942, by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby -- and additional material by Roy Thomas, Adrian Gonzalez, and Jerry Ordway in All-Star Squadron Annual #1, 1982.
Cover: Jack Kirby (Guardian elements)
Cover Date: October 1987
Release Date: 07/07/1987
Note: This story comprises the second half of the issue, the first half being a retelling of the origin of Uncle Sam.

January 1942. Rookie beat cop Jim Harper finishes his shift and takes his usual short-cut through an alley when he is jumped on and beaten up by a local gang. Although suffering pain from his beating, he is driven by a need to have his revenge. He enters an unlocked costume shop and constructs a costume from elements of various costumes. Spying a suit of armor, he decides that he needs more protection, and, unable to decide between two different shields, he combines the two to complete his outfit. Recognising the voice of one of the thugs, he tracks the gang to a nearby pool hall where he takes his revenge. Searching his assailants, he discovers they are holding dollar bills with the same serial numbers as from a recenty kidnapping case, and realises that he as apprehended the kidnappers. Naming himself the Guardian, he exits the hall where he is swallowed up by a giant glowing orb. The orb transports him to where the All-Star Squadron are doing battle with an energy-being. Guardian impresses Green Lantern with his skills, and is offered an invite to the All-Star Sqaudron, even though he has no intention of accepting.

The next day, five young newsboys known as the Newsboy Legion are selling papers containing coverage of the Guardian's kidnapper arrest. The Newsboys are looking to gain an edge over rival paper sellers, and rob a hardware store to support their endeavours. Escaping on roller skates, the Newsboys collide with a fruit cart, and Harper is the policeman who arrests them. At the courthouse, the judge's comments to the Legion force Harper to recall his own mispent youth. As a young boy, Harper was a petty thief who was saved from a life of poverty and crime by a kindly sports trainer named Nat Milligan who worked with Harper to increase his fitness and agility. One night, Harper ran into his old thieving partner, who was gunned down in front of him, having become involved in gangs. Harper quits sports and becomes a cop, alienating Nat. Nat also led a double life, helping train members of the All-Star Squadron, until an accident turned him into the energy-being Harper had just fought.

The judge is about to send the Newsboy Legion to an institute when Harper speaks up, offering to take custody of the five and help mould them into better citizens. Despite having decided that his role as the Guardian was a one-time only affair, he realises that his alter-ego can help keep the Newsboys on the straight and narrow. Seeking money, the Newsboys agree to attract a crowd outside a cinema. They soon discover that they are actually aiding the escape of robbers who have stolen the takings. By luck, Harper is present, and overhears the Newsboys make a reference to Frankie the Fence. Realising that they have been duped, the Newsboys confront Frankie, who pulls a gun on them. At that moment, the Guardian comes crashing through the wall and punches Frankie.

That night, Guardian and the Newsboys follow Frankie as he heads to a ship in the docks to report to his boss. Despite being told to stay out of danger, the Newsboys sneak onto the ship only to find that Guardian has been captured and is about to be shot. The five burst into the room, turning the tables and freeing the Guardian. fter a short fight, the Coastguard arrive to arrest the gangsters, having been alerted by the Newsboys who had painted the nearby lighthouse red.

The next day, Harper checks in on the Newsboys. The Newsboys notice that Harper's facial injuries match those picked up by the Guardian the night before, and deduce his secret identity, although they do not confront him about this, instead deciding to keep as close an eye on him as he keeps on them.

By this point in the 1986-1990 volume of Secret Origins readers were accustomed to a double-shot of origins, one from the 'modern-day' and the other from the Golden Age. As is explained in an editorial at the back of this issue, having two Golden Age origins in one issue came about as a result of a backlog of Golden Age origins, and a desire to ensure that all backlogged material would see publication.

This retelling of the origins of The Guardian and the Newsboy Legion is worthy, if a little clunky. First of all, the story is very close adaptation of Star-Spangled Comics #7, and it's a shame that it uses elements from the more recent All-Star Squadron Annual #1. The plot lifted from this comic is the thread where The Guardian teams up with the All-Star Squadron against the Guardian's former trainer, and it is paid little more than lip-service, taking four panels at the end of the Guardian's first appearance, and a page of reminiscing during the courtroom scene. If the story in this issue had been afforded more pages, then maybe this element of the story, and its influence on The Guardian's decision to look after the Newsboy Legion, could have taken more of a center stage instead of feeling rushed and out of place amongst the more down-to-earth elements of the story.

In general I am not a fan of this issue. This is mainly because to me a good origin story should influence the characters throughout their existence. Spider-Man is forever defined by his failure to capture the burglar, the murder of the Wayne's is the one crime Batman can never stop. Here, a two-bit gangster is put behind bars and that's pretty much it. Beyond the spangly costume and the gang of kids, the plot is thin, and more could have been made of the interaction between Jim Harper and the Newsboys, or the reasons why Jim Harper was targeted for assault at the start.

Another unfortunate reason that influences my negative reaction to this issue is how the concepts of the Guardian and the Newsboy Legion were later adapted and reborn with the re-introduction of Cadmus in Superman Annual #2. With the Annual arriving in stores 10 months after this issue of Secret Origins, it is unclear as to wether or not the revival of the 1970s version of these characters had been planned or not, but the prominence they took in the Superman titles between August 1988 and the end of the 1990s overshadows their Golden Age origins. The Cadmus incarnations are certainly the version I 'grew up' with and am most familiar with, and knowing how these characters would be used in the future makes me feel like the origin here just isn't as important. It's also hard to see, in this age of reprints, collected editions, pirated torrents, and wikipedia, how this material would justify reprinting today. The core concept is that Jim Harper is a cop who takes on a masked identity to further fight crime, and becomes the Guardian to a rowdy group of orphans; everything else is just window dressing.

To summarise, this issue, both in terms of plot and purpose, feels outdated to this reader, who is more familiar with Kirby's update of his own characters and the adaptations used in Superman for the majority of the 1990s.

Next on World of Superman: J'onn J'onnz, fearing for the future of Earth, takes it upon himself to monitor the growth of a young alien raised as a human in Kansas. Could it be...?

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