Saturday, May 9, 2015
The Double Life Of Lancelot Strong!
By the time Joe Simon and Jack Kirby worked together on Archie Comics' The Double Life of Private Strong, a reboot of the classic Shield superhero concept, they had dissolved their studio and were simply two artists collaborating on a single project, along with a host of other great talents. The cover above is certainly a distinctive one, with an apparent military man revealing himself Superman-style while high-tech invaders plunder in the background. The oddball faux-filmstrip banners across the top and up the side seemed to obscure in many ways that this is a superhero book.
As can be seen by the first page, a great poster-style shot by Kirby, Lancelot Strong is a hero with a host of powers, a hyper-human who can withstand extremes of weather and environment and even unleash lightning from his hands, a powerful and exceedingly "super" hero indeed.
Clearly he was intended as an Atom-age reboot of the vintage World War II MLJ hero The Shield, an attempt to update the brand of the very first patriotic superhero in comics. They do so by borrowing from many of the classic origin stories and creating a shiny new mishmash. There are similarities to Doc Savage's uprbringing by his scientist father, echoes of Superman's farm family life, whispers of Amazing Man's hyper developed humanity, a smidgeon of Lash Lightning's energy bolts, and even by the end some of vintage Captain America dual identity conundrum.
The story begins some fifteen years before the then present day of 1959 (I think) as Commies plot to steal the secrets of a scientist named Fleming who has made significant breakthroughs in the ultimate capacities of human beings, finding a way to tap into the legendary ninety percent of the human brain which appears to go unused by most of us. To that end he has raised his son in a hermetically sealed room with oddball equipment on his head to trigger his potential. The Commies send Agent Four to see Fleming who recognizes the danger and takes his son and flees, but dies in a car wreck. Agent Four carelessly imagines everything to have been lost and leaves the scene, but Fleming's son had indeed survived and crawls out of the wreck to be found by a good-hearted farmer named Abel Strong who takes him home to his wife Martha. The pair decide to raise the boy as their own after naming him "Lancelot".
Fifteen years pass and Lancelot Strong along with his pal Spud find the wreck car which long before had brought him to his current home hidden in a ravine. Lancelot climbs into it and finds a costume which seems to fit him perfectly. Meanwhile an alien force strikes Sputnik and causes it to crash to Earth. Once on Earth, the alien begins to grow and grow becoming an every-increasing menace, starting fires and whatnot. Lancelot sees the fires and goes to help, innately using his superpowers to battle the menace, ultimately creating a vacuum with his great speed depriving the alien of the oxygen which triggered its growth. Spud alas was killed in the fires, leaving Lancelot alone with the secret.
Or so he thought as later when he returns to the wreckage he finds it gone. In the interim Agent Four has returned and gathered up the wreckage from Fleming's disasterous crash so many years before. Lancelot realizes the enormity of what has happened as memories flood into his hyper-mind and he tracks down the spies stopping their escaping submarine with his vast array of super might. After his victory he is stunned to discover on his return to the home of Abel and Martha Strong that he has been drafted into the army.
As part of the vast military of America's Cold War machine, Lancelot Strong, now "Private Strong" proves to be a problematic recruit, a hayseed to seems to rub training Sergeant Griper the wrong way. A new atomic tank goes out of control and Private Strong becomes "The Shield" to stop it and save General Smith and his daughter Georgia. The trio are kidnapped along with the atomic tank by Doctor Diablq who uses a squadron of tiny soldiers to do his bidding. He shrinks Private Strong and the other two and puts them along with the tank into a shoe box. The Shield later escapes at the evil Doctor's lab and has to battle chameleons, cats, and wrestle with handguns to try and save the day. Eventually he and the Smiths are returned to full size and return to base with the tank, though Georgia seems more smitten with the mysterious Shield than with Lancelot.
Here is an ad for the second issue of The Double Life of Private Strong which appeared in an issue of Archie's The Fly following a two-page teaser story starring Lancelot himself in which he foils an enemy sneak attack from the air.
This saga has been reprinted twice, once in 1978 in one of Archie's hero-themed digests.
And again in 1984 when Archie sought to revive its heroes under the Red Circle brand. By the time Blue Ribbon Comics #5 was published the Red Circle had been dropped and the effort would end.
More on The Double Life of Private Strong next week.