While the character has had his ebbs and flows in popularity over the decades, and while others – specifically one other – gets the lions share of the fan awareness, no one should ever forget that The Shield was the first of the patriotic superheroes. First published in the pages of the January 1940 cover-dated Pep Comics #1 from MLJ, The Shield hit the stands two years before America’s entry into World War II. The simmering tensions in Europe and Asia had already erupted into full-fledged conflict, but in America there was still an isolationist movement.
The character Joe Higgins, whose origin would be detailed in Shield-Wizard Comics #1 that summer, was the son of chemist Tom Higgins, who was developing a serum for super strength. The Nazis were, of course, after the secret formula. Tom was killed in an explosion (or Tom is blamed), leaving the serum incomplete. Joe eventually completes the serum, becomes an FBI Agent (with his true identity known only to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover), clears his father’s name, and fully joins the war effort and the fight against crime.
It would be impossible to suggest that The Shield was the most successful of the patriotic superheroes from the World War II era, but he actually did win his first head-to-head battle with Captain America. If you’ve ever wondered why Cap got the round shield in his second issue, it was to avoid Timely losing a lawsuit to MLJ since the original triangular shield looked very much like The Shield’s uniform.
Initially, though, the character was very successful, appearing in Shield-Wizard and Top-Notch Comics in addition to Pep. He even spawned a fan club, the Shield G-Man Club, and items from the club kit remain highly collectible today.
The Shield’s initial slide from the public view wasn’t due so much to a particular decline in popularity as it was to the tremendous success of another MLJ character, Archie Andrews. Soon after Archie’s appearance in Pep Comics #22, the company had a major hit and a new identity on its hands. Eventually, MLJ would become Archie Comic Publications.
While the Shield languished, though, the character wasn’t entirely forgotten. It has been revived and revised several times over the years, some with more success than others.
Among the notable revivals, June 1959 saw The Double Life of Private Strong by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (who later reclaimed ownership of their version of the character) Lancelot Strong, in 1965’s Fly-Man #31 (written by Jerry Siegel) introduced Bill Higgins, son of the original Shield, Legend of The Shield in 1991 brought readers Lt. Michael Barnes as the new Shield for DC’s Impact line, and in 2009 DC’s Red Circle line featured Lt. Joseph Higgins as the title character.
Archie took the characters back over in 2012 with their New Crusaders mini-line, and more recently recommitted to The Shield as the third of their launch titles for their rechristened Dark Circle imprint in 2015. The latest Shield isn’t Joe Higgins, though – a young woman has taken the title for the first time.
Some years back I was honored to write the introduction to a volume collecting early stories of The Shield. While certainly he’s been overshadowed, the character’s contributions should not be forgotten. It will be interesting to see where Archie goes with their new version.
– Robert M. Overstreet