Naked Censorship of Liberty Lad
(originally published in the July,
1976 issue of Once Upon A Dime)
his own courage shortened his career in comics,
Jackson Whitney had a keen grasp of what the burgeoning
superhero field would need. In the very first Commander
Courage story, "The Origin of Commander Courage,"
Whitney had fleshed out polio-stricken junior high
school teacher Jefferson Dale's supporting cast.
No mere crutches these, the staff and students of
Nathan Hale Junior High would each and every one
prove to be crucial to the mythos of Commander Courage.
moreso, perhaps, than Alexander "Dusty" Dale, Jefferson's
nephew and ward. Despite the already popular presence
of figures like Robin, The Boy Wonder, in Whitney's
friend Bob Kane's strip Batman, the doomed
but brave comics creator originally intended this
all-American boy to be just that: an all-American
boy. Red-blooded and true blue, Dusty Dale was something
every schoolboy could aspire to be, and I don't
just mean an Eagle Scout.
Devoid of superpowers, Dusty had heart. Ignorant
of his uncle's heroic secret identity, Dusty still
fought the good fight on the home front by example.
It's quite likely that that very example led to
the extreme scarcity of the third issue of Commander
Courage, for that featured the classic story
in which Dusty spearheaded the Nathan Hale Junior
High war paper drive. What kid could hold onto that
comic book when Dusty had made it clear that saving
comics was just playing right into Axis hands? Our
boys in Europe and the Pacific needed that paper.
When finally, nine months after the strip's creation,
Whitney finally gave in and turned the youth into
another teen sidekick in the superhero canon, it
was perhaps a bit of wish fulfillment on his part.
A justification, if you will, of the artist's desire
to fight for his country himself, not just with
the scathing power of pen and ink.
For of course, Liberty Lad would prove to be Jackson
Whitney's last creation, an act of pulp patriotism
to inspire young men everywhere just before Whitney
became a doughboy and fell lifeless somewhere in
the Forests of Ardenne.
As such, what was done to Liberty Lad by small-minded
men is nothing less than a crime, a dark moment
in the comics industry's past that sadly, few seem
to care about today.
In late 1941, comics were still seen as something
for kids, though many adults did read them. But
they had an innocence, reflective of the time and
America's willingness to still see the best in humanity
in the face of great evil. Jackson Whitney had that
innocence, too, and poured it into Liberty Lad.
By now, the origin of the fair-haired streak of
liberty has almost become the stuff of cliché. And
indeed, in later years, Julius Schwartz would borrow
heavily from Whitney's classic story to allow Wally
West to become Kid Flash, though to this day he
denies the homage.
The story refers to "the dark winter of 1942," clearly
meant to resonate with the anniversary of the day
Dusty lost his father at the treacherous attack
on Pearl Harbor. The plucky orphan visits his uncle
at the Liberty Bell museum, where he finds the older
man has recreated the very situation that gifted
him with the "Mega-will" that makes him Commander
Meaning to provide Dusty with some inspiration,
Jefferson Dale intones the oath he had taken on
December 7, 1941, when lightning strikes twice!
The Liberty Bell tumbles from its moorings, causing
Jefferson to spill the Indian Shaman Waters he carries
with him at all times in memory of his Native American
friends. Mixing with the electrical charge of lightning
and amplified by the conducting power of the Bell,
the water splashes onto a frozen Dusty Dale, who
suddenly finds himself possessed of the quasi-mystic
(Purists will note that this is not an exact
recreation of Jefferson's original transformation;
perhaps Jackson Whitney felt that the presence of
the actual Shaman Mystics a second time would have
been too coincidental. Alas, we will never know,
but it seems like a prudent choice on his part and
thus, a safe conclusion to reach. Besides, comics
creators rejiggered origins all the time, ignoring
elements they found difficult to revisit. Witness
Jack Cole's modest retooling of Lev Gleason's original
red and blue Daredevil within six months of the
character's first appearance.)
any rate, now armed with the same abilities as his
uncle and soon to be superhero mentor, Dusty Dale
dons the famous star spangled top and trunks of
Liberty Lad for the first time.
Wait a minute. Trunks, I said? But we know Liberty
Lad, and he wears tightly cut breeches, not trunks,
Prepare yourselves for a shock. Up until 1953, Dusty
Dale went bare-legged, just like a few other boy
wonders. It was only the terrible but understandable
cowardice of the editor at Amazing Comics, Delmer
McNeal, that caused the change. So deep was his
shame that any comics reprinting pre-1953 stories
corrected the art to bury Liberty Lad's original
Yes, 1984 came early to comics.
The public considered comic books to be harmless
throughout World War II, even useful outlets for
juvenile imagination. But as the Cold War rolled
over the nation with its icy grip, citizens looked
to find the enemy within. And where they looked,
they found four colors for a dime.
By all accounts, McNeal was a genial if not particularly
creative man. Certainly nobody had any unusual beef
with him. If he overworked his staff, it was only
because that was the industry norm, not because
of any particular toughness on his part. He edited
comics, and as far as McNeal was concerned, comics
don't make waves.
When comics turned darker in the late forties, McNeal
was happy to follow the trend, altering even the
adventures of Commander Courage and Liberty Lad.
The misguided but still fascinating Crypt of
Courage dates from this period.
Gruesome horror and explicit violence ran red through
the pages of this so-called children's entertainment.
Some publishers tried to have their cake and eat
it, too. For instance, the classic Crime Does
Not Pay only half-heartedly sold its title message;
readers knew that the mob guys featured in its pages
lived pretty well until Johnny Law caught up with
But after a couple of years of this macabre trend
(even The Marvel Family's Tawky Tawny fought and
fatally impaled a were-tiger), someone who didn't
think that comics were the cat's pajamas was bound
to notice just what was going on within their covers.
That someone, of course, was Dr. Frederic Wertham,
who linked crime and horror comics to an upswing
of juvenile delinquency and childhood psychological
disorders in his book, Seduction of the Innocent.
Part Two of this classic
article, featuring the terror of Estes Kefauver!