JMS on Red Circle Characters: 'Here They Are if You Want to Play With Them'

By Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service

July 21, 2009 -- One of the most popular writers in fiction will be bringing the very first patriotic superhero to DC Comics – and no, the character isn’t who you think it is, and he’s not coming alone.

Brief history lesson: In January of 1940 – 14 months before Captain America debuted – MLJ Comics launched The Shield in Pep Comics #1. The flag-draped superhero, secretly Joe Higgins of the FBI, proved pretty popular and launched a wave of super-types at MLJ.

Never heard of him? That’s because The Shield wasn’t as popular as another character introduced in Pep Comics two years later: a red-headed kid named Archie Andrews. Archie took over the cover of Pep by 1943, MLJ changed its name to “Archie Comics” by 1945, and funny teens kicked all the old MLJ superheroes out of their respective books by the end of the decade.

But this is comics, and nobody dies forever. The Shield has returned a number of times, and now he’s coming to DC in August, in something called the “Red Circle Event.” What makes this time different? The presence of superstar writer J. Michael Straczynski, creator/writer of Babylon 5, who is just coming off a successful run at Marvel.

“[DC Universe chief] Dan DiDio came to me with the roster after they'd finished acquiring the rights,” Straczynski said, “and basically said, ‘Here they are if you want to play with them’.”

And he did, writing four one-shots, introducing updated versions of The Hangman, Inferno, The Web and, of course, The Shield. But why these four characters, out of the dozens Archie is leasing to DC?

“DC gave me total flexibility in which I chose to go with,” Straczynski said, “and I decided on those four characters that gave me the widest range, from the classic superhero (The Web) to the more supernatural hero (The Hangman), the very American hero (The Shield) and a mystery hero (Inferno). I liked the symmetry of that.”

The characters will be linked in a circular manner – a Red Circle, if you will, with one book leading to the next, one appearing each Wednesday in August. And if you remember these characters from other decades, you might want to look again.

With The Hangman, Straczynski crafted a tale of a Civil War doctor unfairly hanged, whose spirit has been walking the earth ever since to free the innocent and hound the guilty.

“That seemed to be the way to go with the character,” Straczynski said, “as the image of the noose was so closely associated with frontier justice and the Civil War period.”

The next book is The Web, about a spoiled, but brilliant, rich guy who is shamed by the death of his more heroic brother to create a battle suit to fight injustice.

Next up is Inferno, an amnesiac man who can burst into flame.

“Because Inferno started out kind of the least unique and sketchiest, I worked to make him the most unique hero in the bunch,” JMS said. “There are actually two people living in that space, which is why you see a change in appearance when he goes into Inferno mode. He's also living out a mystery: he doesn't know who he is, who this other ‘person’ is, or who's after him, and why. He's a guy on the run, with a mystery behind him that will gradually be resolved.”

Last, and least changed, is The Shield.

"There are some things you change because they merit changing, and some things you leave alone if they work, and much of The Shield's background worked,” JMS said. “One of the conscious choices made in bringing the character back was to set him in the military theater as an instrument of policy, rather than having him fighting in the streets, which separates him out from Captain America. … There aren't a lot of books out there that are set strongly within the current military.”

Two ongoing “split books” will follow the one-shots, with The Shield co-starring Hangman, and and The Web co-starring Inferno. And we may see more re-launches in the months to come, according to DiDio. The big man hints, for example, at resurrecting Black Hood, The Comet and Mr. Justice.

“These characters have a very long history,” DiDio said, “and we want to make sure we’re adding to that. … My hope is that this is not a short-term agreement, [but] something that will have a long-lasting effect on the DCU.”

Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at

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Comment by PowerBook Pete, the Mad Mod on July 27, 2009 at 3:21pm
Hmm, did he give the Web part of the Hangman's origin?
Comment by Captain Comics on July 27, 2009 at 4:09pm
To explain for those just coming in, in the Golden Age the character The Comet was introduced in Pep Comics #1, but killed off in Pep #17. (Probably the first superhero death.) His brother then becomes The Hangman to avenge him.

The new Hangman has a new origin, as described above. At first blush it seems the new Web owes a lot to that original Comet/Hangman story (as well as to Iron Man). But I don't know if that Golden Age sibling relationship was ever described, whereas this one is more fleshed out. And we don't know how it's going to be executed, which could distance it further.

But I see your point, Pete -- we'll just have to wait and see.
Comment by Eric L. Sofer on July 28, 2009 at 8:22am
I was one of about seventeen people in the comic reading world to like the !mpact treatment of these characters. I thought they were, for the most part, pretty fun and a pretty good redesign and treatment (although I have to say that The Web was not exactly to my liking.) Those were the Fly, the Comet, the Black Hood, the Jaguar, and the Shield. They weren't really out of continuity of the original books, as far as I could tell. It's unlikely in the extreme, but I hope that some note or homage is paid to those characters too.

Comment by Don Collett on July 28, 2009 at 10:54am
Eric, I was also one of those seventeen! !mpact was indeed a pretty good attempt at bringing the MLJ characters into modern comics. Like you, I didn't like their take on the Web, but I liked Mike Parobeck's work on The Fly, and I loved reading Mark Wheatley and Rich Burchett on The Black Hood, my personal favorite of the line. I know it won't happen, but I'd be happy if they just brought that version back.
Comment by Rob Staeger (Grodd Mod) on July 28, 2009 at 11:40am
I remember liking the Messner-Loebs Jaguar quite a bit, and I *loved* the Black Hood -- though I thought it owed quite a bit to Grendel at the time. I'm somewhat interested in the revivals (Inferno and the Hangman particularly sound good), but can't afford to buy 'em at the moment. I'm crossing my fingers that enough people can so that I can check 'em out down the line..
Comment by Travis Herrick (Modular Mod) on July 28, 2009 at 12:14pm
Hey, I was one of the seventeen as well. We need to find the others and form a team!
My only problem with this reboot is one month after these one shots by JMS they are launching 2 new ongoing series by different writers. That I assume (I know, I know) will continue what JMS started. I am very leery of buying these two new series sight unseen though. I think they should have waited until we had a chance the read the on-shots first before launching the ongoing.
Comment by PowerBook Pete, the Mad Mod on July 28, 2009 at 1:39pm
Who else remembers the Red Circle comics from the early 1980s?
Comment by Captain Comics on July 28, 2009 at 3:30pm
Ooh, ooh! I want to join the Impact team! I have all those funnybooks -- even the "Who's Who" with the special binder!

And I'm with the general consensus here -- Fly, Black Hood and Jaguar were my favorites. Possibly because of the art; unless my memory is betraying me, the Impact line was blessed with a number of "clean" illustrators like Parobeck who later went on to greater fame. And I like that Jaguar was a woman, because the Mighty Heroes had so few women (just Fly Girl, I think), and because she had a connection to Latin American mythology/folklore, which was educational to my iggorant, ethnocentric American self. And, yeah, the Web wasn't very good (both DiDio and JMS were careful not to disparage it -- no need to insult the creators or whatever fans there might be -- but distanced themselves from that approach strongly.)

And Travis, the Red Circle "line" won't be very expensive -- two books a month. After the four one-shots, they'll have two "split" books like the old Tales of Suspense, Tales to Astonish and Strange Tales. Shield will have 10-12 pages of Shield, and 10-12 of a separate-but-equal Hangman story. And Web will do the same with Web and Inferno. And DiDio told me that other Red Circle characters will pop up in those books (and in the DCU proper) as "try-outs" for their own one-shots or split books, which you might not want to miss. OTOH, you might want to wait until your fellow Legionnaires pass judgment before plunging in.

One thing worth mention that I didn't have room for in my SHNS article is that we won't see The Fly (or Fly-Man, or Fly Man) any time soon. Joe Simon owns the rights, not Archie, and it would require a separate deal. DiDio said that might happen, but they're not pursuing it immediately. For more on what both JMS and DiDio have to say, there's a much longer article in this month's fantabulous Comics Buyer's Guide. "News and info you won't get anywhere else!" Well, except here.

And PP, I've got all the Red Circle comics from the '80s, too! That was driven largely by Rich Buckler, I believe, and we had him as a guest at our first Memphis Fantasy Con. Those were pretty good comics for the time.

And, heck, I've got most of the '60s comics starring these characters, which is just a testament to how old I am! That's why I sometimes call these guys the "Mighty Heroes." Archie ran them first under their "Radio Comics" banner, then later changed it to "Mighty Comics," reflecting the flagship title, Mighty Crusaders. Those really stunk up the place; Joe Shuster was trying to write like Stan Lee without understanding the underlying concept, and Paul Reinman was their tentpole artist, and he was no Jack Kirby! The Web sucked then, too -- he was billed as "the world's first henpecked superhero," which I think gives you an idea.
Comment by Captain Comics on July 28, 2009 at 3:46pm
And since people seem interested in the history of these characters, here's a sidebar to my CBG article following exactly that:

Tracing the Red Circle

* Martin Goodman, of Timely, Atlas, and Marvel fame, publishes various pulp magazines under a Red Circle banner from the 1930s to the 1950s. (This has nothing to do with today’s Red Circle; I mention it simply for clarity.)

* The Shield and The Comet debut in MLJ’s Pep Comics #1 (Jan 40). This is the start of a super-hero explosion at the company that will include The Black Hood, Black Jack, Fireball, The Fox, Mr. Justice, Steel Sterling, The Web, The Wizard, and others.

* The Comet is killed and his brother becomes The Hangman to avenge his death in Pep #17 (Jul 41). This may be the first ever super-hero death.

* Archie Andrews, Betty Cooper, and Jughead Jones debut in Pep #22 (Dec 41). This is significant, because the Riverdale gang will push superheroes out of all the MLJ titles by the end of the decade. In fact, MLJ books begin to call themselves the “Archie Comics” line on their covers beginning in 1945.

* Joe Simon and Jack Kirby launch The Fly in a title revamping The Shield called The Double Life of Private Strong #1 (Jun 59), which is published under Archie’s “Radio Comics” banner. The character graduates in short order to Adventures of The Fly #1 (Aug 59), where he is soon joined by Fly Girl (sometimes Flygirl or Fly-Girl).

* Another Radio Comics super-hero title, Adventures of The Jaguar, debuts in 1961 and runs 15 issues (Sep 61-Nov 63). Adventures of The Fly lasts another year, ending with #30 (Oct 64).

* A revamped “Fly Man” returns, along with The Black Hood, The Comet, and The Shield, in Adventures of The Fly #31 (May 65), which is called “Fly Man” on the cover. It’s part of a general (and campy) superhero revival under Archie’s “Mighty Comics” banner, notable for its ubiquitous Paul Reinman art, which includes a Mighty Crusaders title and eventually the resurrection of a villainous Hangman, a hen-pecked Web, and others. Adventures of The Fly continues as Fly Man for issues #32-39 (Jul 65-Sep 66), then Mighty Comics through #50 (Oct 67), when the Mighty line mercifully folds.

* Archie publishes some non-humorous titles in the 1970s under a new “Red Circle” banner, beginning with Chilling Adventures in Sorcery #3 (Oct 73). The final issues of this incarnation of Red Circle are two digests reprinting Mighty Comics material (1978-79).

* A new Red Circle line resurrects Archie’s super-heroes in a more serious vein, but only lasts from 1983 to 1985. Characters or concepts revived include Black Hood, Blue Ribbon Comics, The Comet, The Fly, Fly Girl, Fox, Jaguar, Mighty Crusaders, Mr. Justice, Steel Sterling and The Web.

* DC Comics leases the Archie super-heroes for its Impact Comics line, aimed at younger readers. Most of the usual suspects appear, although Jaguar is a woman and The Web is an organization and not a solo hero. Impact begins in 1991 and ends in 1993.

* DC again leases the Archie super-heroes for a new Red Circle line in 2009.
Comment by Travis Herrick (Modular Mod) on July 28, 2009 at 3:47pm
Well, I just wish there was a buffer between the one-shots and the ongoing so I could decide if I wanted to collect them or not. Now, I have pre-ordered the one shots, and if those are good I might just pick up the new series'.
I don't have my Previews handy, but aren't they at the $3.99 price point? I can eat a meal at that price, or a full digital album. Adding 2 new series to a monthly bill isn't as easy as it used to be.


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