by Dan Swanson
Bonnie Marlowe Drake and her young son Jack had also had an interesting day. Bonnie was pleased that Todd and Tomas had not noticed her unusual interest in Captain Democracy the other night; she had almost given herself away then. She thought she might have a lead on this guy, and when she had developed Red Rocket’s pictures, she was certain.
This morning, after Red Rocket had left, Bonnie headed down to the storage room in the basement. Leaving Jack to play outside the room to protect him from dust, she searched through several storage boxes of her stuff, finally finding the trunk she was looking for.
Bonnie was a pack rat who saved almost everything, and this trunk contained gifts and mementos she had received from prior boyfriends. She had originally been reluctant to show these things to Todd, but she was sure that by now Todd was secure enough in their marriage that seeing these things wouldn’t bother him. But showing him all these mementos of her past wasn’t what she had in mind right now; she needed to find a very specific item.
It was right there on top — a long, shallow box with a hinged top. She opened the clasps and then opened the box. Inside was something wrapped in canvas that almost filled the box, and sitting on top of that was something that had been carefully wrapped in wax paper. She put aside the item wrapped in paper and gently picked up the canvas. She removed it, revealing a rectangular item wrapped in cheesecloth. She pulled the cloth away to reveal an astounding painting.
Set in a simple wooden frame was a painting of a young woman: blonde, dressed in red, white, and blue, fighting against a half-dozen German soldiers. Bullets bounced from her voluptuous body as she flew toward them, wielding the turret of a German tank like a club, grasping it by the gun barrel. The wrecked tank was in the background, and it had clearly been torn apart by hand.
The heroine was wearing a cape, and the art was beautiful. And, most amazing of all, she looked exactly like Bonnie. There was a brass name plaque on the frame that read Miss Victory, circa 1943. Bonnie grinned; she knew Todd would love this. How could she have left it in storage for so long?
She carefully unwrapped the wax paper from the other item. Inside was a comic-book called The Adventures of Miss Victory. It was Volume One, Issue One, dated August, 1941. The cover boasted “All In Color,” and “4 Complete Stories,” and the price was a nickel. It was obvious from a glance that this was not a low-quality, mass-produced magazine. The art was in the same style as the painting. It was hand-drawn, hand-lettered, hand-inked, and hand-bound, and Bonnie Drake knew there were no other Miss Victory comics anywhere in the world.
Her mind drifted back to the beautiful summer day in 1950 when she had received the painting and the comic-book as a gift.
‘C’mon, Bonnie, let’s go! Time’s a-wastin’!” Al, her current boyfriend, was fifteen minutes early, but Bonnie Marlowe had come to expect that from him. He was always early, always in a hurry. Fortunately, today’s outing wasn’t one she had to dress up for: a street fair and art show over on the South Side.
Al was sitting in his car, a brand-new Nash-Healey, revving the engine and enjoying the looks he got from her neighbors. Al thrived on being the center of attention.
Bonnie had barely got in and shut the car door when Al burned rubber away from the curb. He tore around a corner and headed south, weaving through traffic, laughing at the people who honked at him when he cut them off, avoiding deadly collisions by inches. Bonnie screamed at him to slow down, and he did, immediately. “Sorry, darlin’ — I thought you liked fast guys and faster cars!”
She was dismayed at this remark. Al had taken her dancing the other night, and they had both had a few extra drinks. Somehow, riding with a maniac driver was a lot more exciting after a few drinks. And the bit about fast guys? Well, they had been necking a little — well, maybe more than a little, she conceded. Bonnie was a gal who liked to take some risks, but she liked to be in control of herself, too, and suddenly she had realized that she was out of control.
Al had been a perfect gentleman, driving her home and kissing her chastely on the cheek at her door. She had spent the rest of the night worrying and wondering if he had been insulted, if he would ever call her again, if she had lost him by being a prude (her friends would have laughed about that one), what would she do if he didn’t call, what would she do if he did call and wanted to pick up right where they had left off, what if he didn’t want to pick up there — until she finally realized that she was still a little drunk, and went to bed. How should she respond to this remark?
She decided to laugh about it. “Not today, Al! I want to dance in the sunshine and eat too much and maybe buy some paintings. And my friend Rick is the drummer in one of the bands that is playing today!” Al laughed with her, and the awkward moment passed.
The annual South Side Art Festival and Street Fair was an all-day event, and they arrived midway through the morning. They wandered through the booths for a couple of hours. The bought hot dogs and ate as they walked. At two P.M., the bands began to play, and Bonnie and Al danced for an hour or so. Then they headed for the booths again.
Al stopped at the dart-throwing booth, and within minutes had popped a dozen balloons. The booth owner came up to them. “Hey, buddy, youse cleanin’ me out! How about a deal, huh? You stop making with da darts, and youse get your pick of da prizes — and den you go play some udder game. Whatta ya say?” Al picked a stuffed lioness, life-sized, and immediately gave it to Bonnie. They decided to drop off their accumulated loot back at the car, so they headed to the lot, with Al carrying the lioness. But on the way they saw a booth that neither could pass by.
This booth was owned by a local artist. He seemed to have a flair for the fantastic — the booth was filled with exotic landscapes from other planets, futuristic cars and airplanes, monsters and men in space suits, all reminiscent of the covers of the ’30s and ’40s pulps, as well as magazines like Astounding Science Fiction. This guy was very good; looking at his pictures was like looking through a window into another world. Most fantastic yet, on the back wall of the booth, mostly hidden from the street, were a series of action-shots — paintings that showed super-heroes in action.
The artist, a tall, skinny blond man, noticed their interest. “I call this my ‘Patriotic Captain Collection,'” he said, pointing out one series to them. “As you can see, all of these heroes are wrapped in the American flag, so to speak.”
And indeed they were. Each picture showed a sturdy man, dressed in a red, white, and blue costume, fighting German or Japanese soldiers, or some other menace. All of the costumes were different, all of the men were different, yet it was clear that all shared something, something more than the colors of the costume. Each painting had a name plate. Though it was hard for Bonnie to remember each and every name six years later, she remembered that the first painting had been of Captain America, and the rest of the paintings had been other captains with patriotic names, such as Captain Patriot, Captain Flag, Captain Star… and perhaps also, she later thought, Captain Democracy.
The reason the first painting still stood out in Bonnie’s mind was that on the table underneath it was a comic-book. It was titled Captain America.
Bonnie turned to the artist. “I don’t recognize any of them.” Each hero was depicted so realistically that he had to have been taken from real life, and yet she had never heard of any of them.
“They’re all imagination, Miss — my imagination. Variations on a theme, perhaps, or wish fulfillment. Many years ago, I was fortunate enough to paint a portrait of Minute Man. That’s what inspired me. All of these paintings show American super-soldiers fighting for their country as I was unable to do.” She noticed sadness and longing tinging his voice, and more than a little bitterness.
“I’m sorry, sir, but I don’t understand,” she said, responding more to the tone of his voice than to his words.
“Sorry, it was a long time ago, and I suppose I ought to be over it by now, but… my country was at war. Our armed forces desperately needed every warm body they could sign up. But they turned me down! Can you believe it? No one was more patriotic than I was; there wasn’t anyone who wanted to fight more than I did. And they turned me down! So I’ve been making my living as an artist ever since.”
Bonnie was a little uncomfortable with the man’s anger. She touched the Captain America comic and changed the subject. “Who published this? Did you do the art?”
“Indeedy I did, Miss. But nobody published it, unless you count me. That’s a one of a kind; there’s nothing else like in anywhere else in the world. Take a look!”
Bonnie quickly realized that this wasn’t just another comic-book. It had been created from scratch — the art was hand-drawn and hand-inked, and she could tell it had been hand-bound. She examined the cover again.
“Captain America Comics number one,” she read. The cover showed Captain America smashing Hitler with a right cross, and it promised “The Secret Origin of Captain America,” along with “4 Original Adventures in this issue!” She paged through it and saw a story about a skinny blonde kid (who looked surprisingly like the artist himself) classified 4-F, who was given entry into a secret government super-soldier program. Becoming a muscular he-man thanks to some kind of pseudo-scientific experiment, he donned a patriotically themed costume, carried a round shield, and operated as a one-man army platoon. (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: This is a somewhat different version of Captain America than the one who first appeared in “Case No. 1: Meet Captain America,” Captain America Comics #1 (March, 1941), mostly notably because of the absence of his young ally Bucky and his use of a circular shield from day one rather than the real Captain America’s temporary use of a more traditional-looking shield.]
Bonnie was thrilled. “This is beautiful! Much better than any comic I’ve ever seen. Did you do this all yourself?” It was obvious he had, but Bonnie was hoping that telling her about the comic would help him forget his anger.
“Well, sorta. I drew it, lettered it, colored it, and bound it,” he boasted. “I sorta wrote it, too, but I can’t claim all the credit. I think those are real folks, somewhere far away, and some magic lets me see them. I just close my eyes, and there they are, better than TV! All of them wearing a flag, all of ’em fighting the Germans and the Japanese in World War II. Just like I painted ’em! Just like I would have done — if they’d let me! I don’t have comic-books for all of ’em yet, but I’m workin’ on it. ‘Course, makin’ a comic-book takes a lot longer than the painting does.”
Al had been examining another series of patriotic heroes. All of these pictures showed women wrapped in the flag. They were also fighting in World War II scenes. He had taken one picture off the wall and examined it more closely. He seemed quite excited.
“Holy mackerel, Bonnie! This one is you!”
The artist looked from Bonnie to the painting and back again. “Yup, sure looks like her. But I’ve never seen Bonnie, here, before. The lady in the picture is named Joan Wayne, alias Miss Victory. (*) I haven’t written her story yet, but I know her better’n I know most of my friends.”
[(*) Editor’s note: Miss Victory’s adventures were published beginning with Miss Victory, Captain Fearless Comics #1 (August, 1941) — and actually take place on our version of Earth-Four; the version of Miss Victory depicted here is slightly different.]
The artist had tried to insist on giving the painting to Bonnie, but she wouldn’t take it; she couldn’t afford to pay the asking price, and she refused to take any kind of discount. She sort of hoped that Al would step up and buy it for her, but Al had vanished as soon as the discussion had reached money. Suddenly, the artist had come up with a solution. Bonnie traded him the stuffed lioness for the painting, straight up. They shook hands and introduced themselves, both parties professed how pleased they were, then parted ways.
She had anticipated that Al would want a repeat of the other night, but when Bonnie told him about the trade, he said quietly, “That’s great!” and drove her straight home — quickly and safely. He walked her to the door, kissed her, and got back in the car. He squealed tires pulling away from the curb, and out of her life. Over the next six years, she had never heard from him again.
But she had received one further surprise. About a month later, a small package had arrived for her in the mail. There was no return address, no card, and no way to identify who sent it or where it had come from. Inside was, of course, a comic-book — Volume One, Issue One of The Adventures of Miss Victory.
Bonnie’s mind returned to the present. She had hoped that seeing the painting and the comic-book would help her remember the artist’s name, but she was still drawing a blank. Well, she was going to find out today. Her intuition was telling her, yelling at her, actually, that this mysterious artist was somehow connected with Captain Democracy.