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DC Comics’ Attempts to Make You Care About the Freedom Fighters: A Brief History

Over the weekend DC Comics announced a brand-new “New 52″ Phantom Lady miniseries, co-starring Doll Man, from the writing team of Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray and drawn by Cat Staggs and Rich Perotta with covers by Amanda Conner. The book is the latest in a line of works written by Gray and Palmiotti that star characters from the Freedom Fighters superhero team, who are among the oldest superheroes in comics and ones DC has been trying to get over with audiences for a long, long, long time now with extremely limited success. The team of Palmiotti and Gray are alone responsible for no fewer than three Freedom Fighters projects in the past, and with DC’s umpire giving them a fourth chance at bat it seems like a pretty good time to look back at some of the publisher’s previous attempts at getting fans interested in these characters.
With a name like Quality, they’ve gotta be good!

The characters who would eventually be referred to collectively as the Freedom Fighters were originally part of a family of comics published by Quality, which operated from 1939 to 1956. Quality’s books were characterized by their better-than-average artwork, thanks in large part to the number of Golden Age greats who worked on them: Will Einser, Jack Cole, Reed Crandall and Lou Fine, among others, working on characters like Plastic Man, Uncle Sam, Blackhawk, Kid Eternity, The Human Bomb, The Spirit, Spirit clone Midnight and scores of others.

Among these ranks were The Phantom Lady, a 1941 creation of Arthur Peddy, and Doll Man, a 1939 creation of Eisner and Fine. The former was one of the more scantily clad heroines of the era (if not all time), a bored but brilliant socialite who fought crime with martial arts and high-tech “black-out” beams emitted from her wristbands. The latter was a scientist who developed a formula that could shrink him to the size of a human doll-and give him the strength of 20 human-sized humans.


Both characters lent themselves to pretty striking covers, like this Matt Baker image of The Phantom Lady, or pretty much any cover from Doll Man, which often featured the heroic homunculus being menaced by common household objects, or using them as terrible weapons.

Quality folded in 1956, with company president Everett “Busy” Arnold selling the titles to DC Comics in a somewhat murky deal. After toying with an unsuccessful Plastic Man revival in the 1960s, the Quality heroes didn’t really appear in DC Comics until they were brought into the DC multiverse.

“Introducing The Freedom Fighters

In 1973′s Justice League of America #107 and #108, writer Len Wein and artists Dick Dillin and Dick Giordano presented “Crisis on Earth-X,” in which the Justice League of Earth-One and the Justice Society of Earth-Two met The Freedom Fighters, an original team composed of Quality heroes Phantom Lady, Doll Man, The Ray, Uncle Sam, The Human Bomb and Black Condor. They came from a world where the Nazis had won World War II, yet they continued to — you guessed it — fight for freedom.

In 1976, this group received its own series, created by Gerry Conway, Martin Pasko and Ric Estrada. The premise of the book was that while they had made it to Earth-One, the Freedom Fighters were thought for some reason to be criminals and were fugitives from justice. The series didn’t last terribly long, being one of the victims of the infamous 1978 “DC Implosion” (They did manage to fight off-brand versions of Captain America, Namor and the other Inavders before calling it quits, though).

The Freedom Fighters also made a few appearances in the early run of Roy Thomas and company’s 1981-1987 All-Star Squadron series, which was set on Earth-Two in the 1940s.


Post-Crisis, Pre-Other Crisis

After DC collapsed its multiverse into a single Earth during the 1985-1986 Crisis On Infinite Earths event, the Freedom Fighters of Earth-X were all shifted into the “Golden Age” period of the new DC Universe, set more or less around World War II, when they would have been operating at the same time as the Golden Age versions of The Flash, Green Lantern, the Sandman and the rest of DC’s famous All-Star lineup.

In the 1990s, Quality heroes and new “legacy” versions (descendants of the originals or younger heroes inspired by them) of some of the characters began appearing with great frequency. These included a new version of The Ray, who was first drawn in a 1992 miniseries by a promising young artist named Joe Quesada (Say, whatever happened to that guy?), and who eventually earned an ongoing series that lasted 29 issues; Black Condor, who kept his ongoing series a year; and Firebrand, whose series lasted only nine issues.

The Quality characters fared better in Vertigo miniseries, like Grant Morrison and Duncan Fegredo’s Kid Eternity (which birthed an ongoing) and the Steve Darnall/Alex Ross Uncle Sam, or as supporting characters in DC superhero books like Impulse (in which Max Mercury figured prominently) and Starman, which served as DC’s luxurious rest home for the heroes of yesteryear.

In the previous decade, writer Geoff Johns (now DC Entertainment’s Chief Creative Officer) developed a reputation as a sort of “character doctor” shortly after coming to DC, and by the 21st century had revived dozens of Flash villains and other semi-obscure characters in the pages of The Flash and JSA. Johns also managed to sell characters who were thought to be difficult (and/or completely radioactive) for readers, including Hawkman, Green Lantern Hal Jordan, the Teen Titans and, most recently, the long-fallow Barry Ballen version of The Flash, Martian Manhunter and Aquaman. Johns reformed a Freedom Fighters squad in the pages of JSA: Our Worlds at War, a 2001 one-shot special tied to a Superman crossover story. Within it, the Patriot — the then-current, more politically correct/less jingoistic version of Uncle Sam –teamed up with the Human Bomb, the Human Bomb-like exploding hero Damage, and the legacy versions of The Ray, Black Condor and Phantom Lady. Within the pages of JSA, this Freedom Fighters team served as the U.S. government’s very own superhero squad.

Johns’ version was extremely short-lived. The Freedom Fighters were decimated by the supervillain team known as the Society at the beginning of Johns’ own 2006 event comic Infinite Crisis, clearing the way for a new new version.


Palmiotti and Gray’s Freedom Fighters

In 2006, Jimmy Palmiotti & Justin Gray began their long association with the Freedom Fighters with the eight-issue miniseries Uncle Sam and The Freedom Fighters, one of the books that was part of DC’s ill-fated “Brave New World” branding effort (Trials of Shazam, OMAC, Martian Manhunter, etc), and one of a handful of books based on concepts and redesigns devised by Grant Morrison (along with Duncan Rouleau’s Metal Men and the Gail Simone-written The All-New Atom). This FF featured new versions of Firebrand, The Human Bomb, The Ray and Black Condor. Its Doll Man was now a G.I. Joe-like action figure assassin, and its Phantom Lady was a brand-new character who hewed close to the original conception, with an extremely revealing, rubbery skintight suit courtesy of Daniel Acuña, who provided the art for this series with his trademarked slick, effects-heavy style that falls somewhere between painterly and computer-affected photorealism.

This title was followed quickly by a second eight-issue Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters miniseries in 2007, also written by Palmiotti and Gray, but with Renato Arlem now providing art. The result was some of the most embarrassing artwork DC has ever published, as Arlem relied on using duplicate images of characters so often that whole scenes resembled Dinosaur Comics.

Despite luke-warm sales and neutral critical reception for these minis, DC was satisfied to the degree that the publisher green-lit an ongoing Freedom Fighters series by Palmiotti & Gray and artists Travis Moore and Trevor Scott. This book began publication in 2010, just a few months before DC’s line-wide superhero reboot “The New 52″ was announced. Freedom Fighters lasted just nine issues — only one issue longer than each of the previous minis. At the time, low sales seemed the obvious culprit (According to sales estimates, the first issue launched at sales under 20,000 units, and it plunged to just over 8,000 unites by its last issue), but in retrospect it’s likely that Freedom Fighters was affected by DC’s plans to purge and reboot its entire superhero line. Indeed, if the continuity reboot was doing away with the histories of all of DC’s Golden Age characters from the 1930s and 1940s, that meant all the legacy versions of those characters — all of the existing Freedom Fighters — would not have a place in the New 52 universe.

Now operating within the New 52 paradigm, Palmiotti and Gray returned to one of the Quality/Freedom Fighters characters with this year’s The Ray miniseries, which just shipped its fourth issue. This new Ray had a new costume, a new secret identity, and a new story, sharing nothing but the name with the previous Rays. The book has been one of the more perplexing aspects of the New 52 initiative, because what little value there is in the name “The Ray” is mostly associated with the existing character(s), not with the name itself, causing some to question why DC would bother with a Ray seres that even the few Ray fans didn’t have a pre-existing connection to?

Unsurprisingly, this The Ray miniseries didn’t exactly set the sales charts on fire, or earn much in the way of critical attention… or any attention, really. Whatever you think of the creative decisions, the book was lost in the mainstream media blitz that accompanied the original wave of New 52 titles and other subsequently launched miniseries featuring more popular characters, like The Huntress and The Shade.

As announced over the weekend, DC has once again recruited Palmiotti and Gray to roll out another four-issue miniseries that reboots a Quality/Freedom Fighter character, The Phantom Lady. Like the Ray project, this one will have nothing to do with previous versions of the character, and also seems to remove everything potentially recognizable about her as well save the name (and, I guess, the cleavage). However, the book features a female lead, a female artist and a female cover illustrator, which is rather a good thing to see in superhero publishing.

We’ll have to wait until August 29, when Phantom Lady #1 is released, to see how the story turns out. And we’ll have to a wait a few months after that to see if DC’s strategy pays off and sales are any better than the previous Palmiotti/Gray Quality/Freedom Fighters books. And given what’s come before, the smart money says we’ll only have to wait until December for the publisher to announce its next four-issue miniseries rebooting another of this family of Golden Age characters. I’m going to call it for Black Condor.

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