Wednesday, January 25, 2017

A Final Salute to The Young Allies

If you're a fan of Timely's Golden Age comics, you may remember the "sidekicks' sidekicks," as I find myself calling them--originally part of the Sentinels of Liberty club, but soon becoming known as the Young Allies, pals of Captain America's partner, Bucky, who went on to fight the Nazis in their own title in 1941 and joined by the Human Torch's young partner, Toro. Over a five-year period, twenty issues of Young Allies were produced before ceasing publication in late 1946--with the youthful group of patriots fading from sight afterward, as many of their Golden Age counterparts did, though Captain America and even the Red Skull would migrate to Marvel Comics and enjoy renewed exposure well after World War II.

Yet nearly seventy years later, writer Roger Stern digs into those past adventures and brings the Young Allies back in a tale that revisits their brief exploits for the uninitiated while also folding them into a memorable, modern-day story that would make a splendid Veterans Day tribute.

The Young Allies were very much products of their time--ordinary kids in wartime America who, thanks to the exaggerated format of the comics medium of the day, stumbled their way into defeating the plans of the Nazis and taking on the likes of the Red Skull and even Adolf Hitler (with both Bucky and Toro pulling their friends' fat out of the fire on more than one occasion, if the issues' covers are any indication). But the Allies' demographic was unmistakable, with no doubt many kids on the cusp of becoming teenagers vicariously indulging their fervor to join the war effort by flipping the pages and seeing what fiendish plot the Allies were determined to foil.

Aside from Bucky and Toro, who need no introduction, the four boys who joined them in their fight against evildoers were:

  • Henry Tinkle (Tubby)
  • Jefferson Worthing Sandervilt (Jeff)
  • Whitewash Jones
  • Percival Aloysius O'Toole (Knuckles)

But before you go committing their names to memory, you may wish to wait a bit while this story unfolds, and learn just how tied to their comic book the "Young Allies" really were.

As mentioned, the four boys were members of the youth group known as the Sentinels of Liberty, whose membership was promoted by Timely in their patriotic-themed comics. In Captain America Comics, Cap was often referred to as the Sentinel of Liberty; so forming a club of young Sentinels that would make the most of his popularity probably seemed like a no-brainer. I don't know how much profit 10¢ per signup was worth in '41, but tack that onto the dime for the mag itself (minus the cost of the membership card and badge) and Timely probably didn't do too badly, depending on how many kids could cough up the change.

(And, brother, those membership kits turned out to be money well spent.)

Presumably before Cap and Bucky were deployed overseas and while the two fought domestic threats, Bucky, having some down time between missions, gets tagged to speak to one of the S.O.L. groups and meets the four boys who would become his close friends. Right away you'll notice a few changes as introductions are made.

Their baptism of fire as an informal team turned out to be just that, when they uncover "a nest of saboteurs" at a pier near Brooklyn and are unexpectedly joined by their fiery future teammate. It looks like the group has struck paydirt when the Red Skull reveals himself and gets the drop on them--but fortunately, backup arrives in the form of Cap and the Human Torch, and those who fight for liberty and freedom prevail. (I suppose I would have been a natural for writing newsreel copy.)

In this story's early stages, Stern begins to tie in the Young Allies as we knew them to the men that they became, by using narrative from the only member of the group still active in 2009--Bucky, who at this point in time has assumed the role of Captain America following the assassination of Steve Rogers. We join "Cap" in a solemn tour of Arlington Cemetery, where his musings reveal the twist that Stern gives the story of the Young Allies--the fact that the four scrappy youths who made up the core of the group were as "real" as Bucky and Toro, with only a tenuous connection to their Golden Age comic book. And aside from their names, we discover that liberties were taken with their ages in print as well as with their adventures.

Cap's reminiscences are a deliberate attempt by Stern to turn the mood of the issue from purely nostalgic to Bucky's desire to touch base with his friends from decades past. Though it's the past we must return to for the moment, where the Allies hold a reunion in Paris in 1944--a gathering which would turn out to be their final meeting together, before the last months of the war would separate them for good. The carefree, fantasy-based nature of their comic book shenanigans has given way to young adults who are enlisted in the armed forces--the good old days, in many respects.

Geoffrey has spotted a Nazi agent by the name of Captain Kleinschmidt, who turns out to be a cell leader in Paris with deadly plans for the city that had been liberated. But he's tailed by experts--and what follows is the last grand adventure of the Young Allies, before they're lost to history forever.

It's quite a fitting scene at this stage of Stern's story, as the memories provide a segue back to the present, where Cap has already tracked both Pat O'Toole and Washington Jones to a veterans hospital and established his bona fides. And the years melt away as three old, seasoned friends renew ties.

Once pleasantries are exchanged, "Wash" and "Knuckles" catch Cap up on the events in their lives as well as their deceased comrades--and you get a sense through Stern of how such characters fare through the years, how life is often the great equalizer. It's a peaceful and reflective gathering between the three, with Bucky's visit being a welcome opportunity of remembrance for all of them.

As Bucky notes, the circumstances of his own life are far more complicated and regrettable--a life of a brainwashed assassin, conscripted by the enemy and forced to take the lives of innocents. A life sharply in contrast with the deeds and memories of his two friends. "You two have led good, honorable lives. I have so much to atone for." he says, holding back little to nothing of his time as the Winter Soldier. But the understanding and acceptance of Pat and Washington are unconditional--and over that timeless bottle of brandy, they coax Bucky back to their circle of the present, and friendship prevails.

The story concludes with news of another sad death, and with the last of this group of allies bringing us full circle--paying his respects at their burial site and giving them a sendoff of sorts, appropriate under the circumstances.

Given the somewhat slapstick nature of the Young Allies stories of the '40s, it's understandable why Stern would need to portray those boys as characters who were based on the "actual" people we've read about in this story. In essence, we're left with more favorable impressions of those we knew as the Young Allies, with their adventures still a part of history--only now we're able to put those adventures in the perspective that's necessary for this kind of story to be crafted around the men that we met through Bucky. It all sets up the powerful closing scene beautifully, and makes this issue--like the Young Allies themselves--a story to remember.

I don't have $4K to spring for a S.O.L. membership kit--
but would you settle for a text adventure of the Young Allies from 1941?
(And check out who wrote it!)

(I'll even throw in this issue's variant cover by Marcos Martin!)

Young Allies #1 (2009)

Script: Roger Stern
Art: Paolo Rivera
Letterer: Jared K. Fletcher


Anonymous said...

Good grief, what a bunch of cliches - the fat one, the upper-class one, the black one and the Irish-American one. And I just knew that "Whitewash Jones" would be black even before I'd read the rest of the post. As a white Brit called Jones I'm fascinated why Jones seems to be the default name for so many American black characters in comics/films/TV/books etc. Of course, I'm delighted that they all have such a magnificent surname but I'm curious as to why. I know that slaves took their masters' names so were most slave-owners called Jones ??

Comicsfan said...

If I had to take a guess, Colin, I'd say that the diversity of the group was due to Kirby and Simon wanting to give the boys a broader audience appeal, while their different backgrounds gave them more resourcefulness to get out of the scrapes they would often find themselves in. As for the Jones surname, I've also noticed it popping up frequently in the Dr. Who series for no apparent reason. Maybe television and film producers think it's catchy? *shrug*

Anonymous said...

I've read that Indiana Jones was originally due to be called Indiana Smith but Lucas and Spielberg decided that Jones sounded better. And I rarely watch the new Dr. Who series so I didn't know Jones appeared so often !

Warren JB said...

I'm in two minds about this. On one hand there's putting a mote sophisticated, modern spin on things, and giving them a proper send-off, as you've gone over in the article. On the other, in my opinion the 'modern spin' is to make stories about costumed heroes overly serious and grim. This story is much less so than some (compared to, say, Bucky himself being retconned to a vicious assassin, even before his Winter Soldier days) but then it's starting from 'goofy' kids' stories about kids. What's the final story of the Young Allies? They're nothing like all their other appearances*, and all died from violence or decrepitude...

* Well, I'll grant you Wash/Whitewash. I can't not grant anyone that.

Comicsfan said...

Frankly, Warren, I would have been surprised (and a little disappointed) if Stern had given the Allies anything but a mixture of endings that reflected living normal lives, despite their heroic backgrounds--and it makes the scenes with Bucky, Wash and Pat far more poignant in terms of their catching up on (and as) old friends. It would be one thing if Stern had decided to focus on Bucky's reflections of the Allies' adventures and history as portrayed in their comics and then ending with the memorial site at Arlington; but instead, those goofy Golden Age comics characters ended up having normal lives that Bucky would naturally be envious of. Perhaps the Allies' final heroic act was to give their friend the confidence to put his tragic past behind him and atone for his deeds without being haunted by them (a scene which I didn't include, but probably should have).

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