Ask Chris #247: The True Story Of American Independence
Q: For the holiday, what have been the best appearances of the founding fathers in comics? -- @rj_white
A: This is a bit of a tough one. As much as I like seeing historical figures show up in comics, my preference has always been for Abraham Lincoln appearances rather than anyone who was around during the Revolutionary War days. I mean, really, if you'd just asked about the greatest moments in American history, we could talk about the time in the '70s that the Flash had to go a thousand years into the future to stop a clone of Honest Abe from being assassinated by a cybernetic John Wilkes Booth, only to have Lincoln himself bust out some pro wrestling holds and make Booth II tap out to his dreaded Illinois Crab. That, my friends, is a comic book that actually exists, and I'm going to go ahead and assure you that there's nothing the founding fathers have ever done in comics that's even remotely as awesome as that.
But since you asked, there is one story of the dawn of American Independence that comes to mind: The time that Herbie Popnecker teamed up with George Washington's sentient teeth and started up the Revolutionary War.
If you're not familiar with Herbie, there's probably a good reason for that; he only really appeared in a handful of stories from ACG in the late '50s and '60s. In the past decade or so, however, with the rise of comics blogging and people sharing goofy, out-of-context panels from old comics for a few laughs, he experienced a resurgence in popularity that culminated in the entire series getting reprinted in a set of hardcovers from Dark Horse. It makes sense that he would, too --- it's not much of a stretch to say that Herbie was a series composed almost entirely of goofy, out-of-context panels that often seemed like they were linked up into a larger story only in a theoretical sense.
Here's the basic idea: Writer Shane O'Shea --- one of the many, many pseudonyms used by writer and ACG editor-in-chief Richard E. Hughes --- and artist Ogden Whitney created Herbie in the pages of Forbidden Worlds, a nominally "horror" based comic that, like similar titles in the days of the comics code, was more about vaguely spooky stories and halfhearted twist endings than anything else.
The first Herbie story was sort of a parody of the genre, with Herbie, this weird, lollipop-obsessed lump of a kid, literally floating from one weird happening to the next, dealing with savage zoo animals and an alien invasion before proving that he's even weirder than all of them, only to report back to his exasperated father about his quiet Sunday afternoon.
The story was an unexpected hit, and after bouncing around from Forbidden Worlds to its sister title, Unknown Worlds, Herbie eventually got his own ongoing series that was formulaic in the most bizarre ways possible.
The big gag of the series was that Herbie was not only basically omnipotent, with powers that included flight, teleportation, invulnerability, super-strength, the ability to speak to animals, and complete mastery over time and space, he was also incredibly famous throughout the known universe and the entirety of history. He was always being called upon by the President to deal with something, he beat the Devil in a fistfight, and dragons and bears were always apologizing to him for mistaking him for someone they thought they could tangle with.
The only person who seemed to be completely unaware of Herbie's status as the godlike master of reality was, of course, his constantly disappointed father, Pincus Popnecker, who consistently berated his son for being a "little fat nothing" and who frequently had to be bailed out of situations caused by his own ego.
Which brings us to the story of George Washington's Teeth.
This one comes from Herbie #8 --- the same issue that introduced Herbie's superheroic alter-ego, the Fat Fury --- and right from the start, I am not quite sure what's going on. I think the gag here is that monocles are very popular in England in 1965, but honestly, your guess is as good as mine.
Incidentally, here's a pretty amazing line about Ogden Whitney's art from Dan Nadel, author of Art out of Time: Unknown Comic Visionaries, 1909-1969, that Tom Spurgeon put up back in 2006:
"Ogden Whitney is currently my absolute favorite cartoonist in the world. I'm obsessed. I've been buying up original art, everything I can find. It's a mix of Whitney and the guy who wrote them all, a guy named Richard Hughes. I swear to God, Whitney was using clip art more than any other artist ever. ...
"If you read his romance comics --- which I didn't include in there because I ran out of room, although I really wish I had --- they're the weirdest romance comics ever. And the greatest, I think, except for [Jack] Kirby's, which are unbelievably good. His version of men and women courting is men and women terrorizing each other for eight or sixteen pages. Pure terror. Psychological warfare."
Given what we see of Romance in the pages of Herbie, I have no trouble believing it.
Monocles aside, we get to the plot pretty quickly: The Popneckers are hosting a British guest for dinner, who insists that the Revolutionary War was entirely the fault of George Washington, who savagely bit the kindly British ambassador who was trying to straighten things out with the colonists. Herbie, with his absolute knowledge of all history, disagrees, and in punishment for contradicting a guest, Pincus locks up Herbie's collection of lollipops and forbids him from eating them.
That kind of aggression will not stand, so after advising readers not to do what he does, Herbie steals the key so that he can get one of his Time-Travel Lollipops, climbs into his flying grandfather clock, and heads back to 1776 to see if he can prove that he's right.
It turns out, however, that Herbie was only half right: The ambassador was bitten, but not by Washington. It was Washington's sentient teeth, which, having been insulted, took it upon themselves to leap free of Washington's mouth and bite the ambassador right on the face, thus provoking him into war. So naturally, it's up to Herbie to stop everything.
It's worth noting that despite his big talk about wanting rights, Washington himself was a completely unwilling to fight, leaving all the terrible work of war up to Herbie. That said, in this case, the horrors of war mostly revolved around distracting the British with pizza.
So this is where it gets weird. Despite having inside knowledge of the British troop locations, forces and materiel, the continental army is still getting creamed. They need additional troops, so to bolster the war effort, Herbie strikes a deal with what is unquestionably the single most horrifying cow in the history of comics --- and in case you've forgotten, I would like to remind you that there are comic books that have featured a cow that got bitten by Dracula and became the Dracula of cows. This thing makes that thing look like a Far Side cartoon.
Horrifying cow aside, the patriotic animals turn the tide in favor of the American army, and, well, you know the rest. Harried by patriotic birds and the horrors of American bovine soldiers, Lord Cornwallis would surrender in 1782, reportedly saying, "aw shucks, Herbie, if I knew it was you I never woulda fought!"
That is exactly how it happened, and never let any "history book" tell you different. They might have other "facts" listed in there, but you just listen to your heart, and ask yourself if there is anything more American than someone who would alter the course of history in order to have unlimited access to candy. I submit to you that there is not.