Proud Symbol of Conservation
(originally published in the Winter,
1993 issue of Once Upon A Dime)
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.
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
reproduction of an advertisement
for Commander Courage's radio show
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
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.
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.
had in mind, but still fun.
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. 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
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
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.
USDA file clerk George Gemette remembers his part
in the brewing controversy. "I was going through
some correspondence in the archives when the words
'Commander Courage' on a folder caught my eye."
The portly public servant smiles. "My older brother
had given me some Commander Courage comics when
I was a kid, but my mom threw them away when I went
off to secretarial school. Anyway, I opened the
folder and saw the letters between this guy Delmer
McNeal and Assistant Chief Edward P. Cliff."
nothing else, I figured that my supervisor might get
a kick out of it, so I passed it on up the administrative
chain. It was just for laughs. How could I know that
(then) Chief (John R.) McGuire had been in boot camp
with the guy who created Commander Courage?"
given rein over Courage
Yes, a chance friendship in 1942 led to great possibilities
for Jackson's "child" thirty-four years later.
McGuire remembered his campmate's tales of what
he would like to do with his character upon his
return from war, and realized that he had the perfect
opportunity to bring that vision to the nation.
Among his proudest accomplishments of the previous
year, he allegedly said in a staff meeting in early
1977, McGuire cited the approval of Commander Courage.
The comic book hero came second only to McGuire's
role in the National Forest Management Act of 1976,
which greatly curtailed rampant clearcutting after
local outrage over activity at Monongahela and Bitterroot
The campaign was to have been simple, beginning
with, of course, a comic book, titled Commander
Courage Carries On.
In an echo of the classic Commander Courage tale,
"Ghost Shaman of Broken Shin," (Commander Courage
Comics #5), an elderly dying bear (specifically
not identified as Smokey) would pass his
sacred charge on to a worthy human. Having spent
his existence ensuring that the essence of Hinoto,
a fire elemental, would not rage unchecked, the
bear needed someone with both the gentle touch of
compassion and the strength of mighty rivers to
assume his mantle. Who better to fit the bill than
the lame Jefferson Dale and his alter ego, Commander
After agreeing to this task, the newly anointed
protector of the ecology finds himself pulled toward
a forest where careless campers have tossed smoldering
cigarette butts near dry underbrush. Soon a conflagration
erupts. Not only must the Commander rescue the foolish
hippies (no, really - that's what he calls them,
in 1977), but he also aids the smokejumpers
who come to battle the flames.
on the panel for more art!
It's a thrilling 21 pages of story, followed by
the obligatory informational games and crossword
puzzles so common to this type of comic. For fans
in the seventies, it was especially exciting, as
this book appeared in that fallow period between
the Utopia Squad of the sixties and the First
Comics revival in 1982.
Amazing Comics, Ltd., while not actually publishing
themselves, took a dimmer view. But as a result
of Delmer McNeal's poorly worded letter (from a
legal standpoint), though Amazing owned the Commander,
the Forestry Service could still do whatever they
wanted with him for as long as they wanted. However,
cruel fate would do right by the copyright holders.
The book appeared in National Park gift shops around
the country. McGuire had plans for further licensing,
and rumor has it that a script was commissioned
for a sequel book that would have teamed Commander
Courage with Woodsy Owl. However, my research has
yet to turn up any evidence of this actually happening.
back cover to
Commander Courage Carries On.
Click to enlarge artwork.
So why don't we see Commander Courage as a symbol
of American Conservationism today? Well, some of
us do. But the simple truth is that the well-meaning
McGuire failed to take into account the court of
public opinion, barely avoiding actual court.
When the citizens of the Village of Capitan, New
Mexico, got wind of the change in Forestry mascots,
they were outraged. Their pain over the loss of
the actual Smokey, whom they considered one of their
own, was too great for this new campaign to happen
Had McGuire waited a year or two longer, the change
might not have stung so much. But he didn't, and
it did. As unofficial Capitan village historian
Chris Brital remembers, "we have two claims to fame
- Smokey and Billy The Kid. If they'd wanted to
replace the Kid, we might not have been so irate."
The citizenry wrote to their Senator, Harrison Schmitt.
Deluged by letters and jars of rancid chiles, the
freshman Senator requested a meeting with McGuire.
At a closed door session, the two had an apparently
friendly discussion over the matter, if you consider
the threat of a lawsuit friendly.
the end, further plans for Commander Courage to
supplant the venerable bear were scrapped.
The initial print run of Commander Courage Carries
On was allowed to sell through at the parks,
but it was agreed that there would be no second
printing. Eventually, the USDA Forest Service reprinted
The Story of Smokey Bear, and gift shops
quietly pretended that the Commander Courage book
didn't exist. (There's still some argument among
Courage fans over whether or not we should consider
it canonical. Certainly, the First Comics revival
made no reference to it.)
In 1984, the U.S. Postal Service cemented the deal,
by issuing a postage stamp depicting a frightened
bear cub clinging to a burnt tree, with the Smokey
Bear emblem in the background. To date, Commander
Courage has not been so honored.