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Commander Courage:
Proud Symbol of Conservation

When Jackson Whitney created Commander Courage, the young artist threw in a lot of his personal obsessions. A dash of patriotism runs through that classic original run, of course, just like many comics of the time. Keeping pace with those early stories is a deep sense of our nation's history, far more accurately portrayed than most superhero comics of the time, even with a sensationalized (by modern standards) portrayal of the attack on Pearl Harbor. That wound was still too fresh, and too little really known about it at the time.

The one aspect of Commander Courage's world given short shrift would turn out to be the thing that set the character apart from other popular heroes like Captain America, The Shield, and Superman. From the very beginning of the strip, Jackson tried to ensure that his hero represented a deep reverence for nature, just as the Wisconsin autodidact had developed through his own studies.

Pieces of it survived editorial suggestion and outright meddling, as Native American shamans were present at Jefferson Dale's initial transformation into the buckskinned defender of liberty. There's some anecdotal evidence that Amazing Comics editor Delmer McNeal wanted the character's background to be strictly scientific, better reflecting the superiority of American know-how. That jingoistic editorial hand would later bedevil Ken Meehan's Burning Eye strip, which owed a great debt to Jackson Whitney's original vision.

Though Jackson took no small pride in the success of Commander Courage, he privately confided to friends that he wished he could do more to lead his young readers down the path to what we would now call conservationism. The occasional nod to Dusty's Eagle Scout status was not enough.

Sadly, Jackson would never win the battle with McNeal, abandoning the strip after eight months to fight a bigger enemy.

Other writers and artists tried to follow in Jackson's footsteps, but the results were half-hearted, though certainly entertaining. At worst, these efforts culminated in characters like the "Ancient Indian Imp" (Amazing Comics' epithet, not mine) Jinxor, who called upon the powers of the Great Spirit to meld animals together in order to cause chaos in general and bedevil Commander Courage and Liberty Lad in particular.

In a 1955 effort to prove Amazing Comics all-American (long after All-American Comics itself had been cancelled), McNeal contacted the USDA Forest Service to offer them the use of Commander Courage. Yes, in an incredible feat of irony, the man who had tried to squelch the character's environmental aspects capitalized upon them to give his company's image a better coat of paint - bright red, white, and blue with a touch of forest green.

Foolishly, in hindsight, McNeal promised in a letter that the Forest Service could use Commander Courage at no charge for as long as they liked. Though that offer would later haunt the holders of Amazing Comics' copyrights, McNeal never saw the results.

At the time, the venerable government agency rejected the desperate editor and publisher out of hand. They already had a character, the stern but loving Smokey Bear.

Originally created in 1944, Smokey had been literally brought to life in 1950 when a bear cub was rescued from a devastating forest fire in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico. Nicknamed Smokey by the firefighters who had rescued him, the cub found a home at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., where he became so popular with schoolchildren that Congress passed a law in order to govern the commercialization of his image. No wonder the Forest Service had no need of a superhero.

However, all things must pass, even anthropomorphized animals. When the "real" Smokey died and was subsequently buried at the historical park that bears his name in New Mexico, the Forest Service found itself at a bit of a loss.

It was 1976. The nation had just celebrated its bicentennial, and perhaps, some in the Forest Service wondered, it was time for a new image.

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Donald Swan

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