Friday, August 10, 2018

In the Offing: A Forgotten Fictional Hero's Return

The Best of Don Winslow of the Navy

Edited by Craig Yoe  (Annapolis, Dead Reckoning, 2018)

Reviewed by M.C. Farrington

One of the many laudable goals historians pursue is resurrecting heroes of history from the depths of obscurity so that they may be appreciated by a new generation. By reprinting the zany exploits of naval intelligence officer Don Winslow, Dead Reckoning, the new graphic novel imprint of the Naval Institute Press, has made a case about the merits of bringing fictional naval heroes of the past to the attention of today’s readers as well.

Don Winslow of the Navy
started as a newspaper serial in 1934, helped along by future Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, publisher of the Chicago Daily News. During its two-decade run, Winslow’s adventures could also be read in young adult novels, heard in syndicated radio programs and seen in movie serials (with the star of the latter actually joining the Navy and rising to lieutenant commander during the war).  During the character's heyday, thousands of boys signed up to be a members of "Don Winslow's Squadron of Peace," using his official code book to decipher messages broadcast during his radio program. 

The comic book series from whence this collection was based debuted in February 1943. Captain Marvel, who ruled the comic book world long before Superman, personally introduced his legions of fans to Cmdr. Winslow.
Needless to say, Don Winslow did not spring from the mind of Elmer Davis or the War Writers Board. Winslow was fully formed well before the war, the brainchild of a real naval reserve intelligence officer named Frank V. Martinek, who was chairman of publicity for the Navy League of the United States before dreaming up Winslow.  

"Strangely enough, Winslow, the hero in my strip, follows closely in my own footsteps," quipped Martinek, who claimed to have worked for the FBI during the 1920s. "Of course, I have to develop slight variations of my own experiences because Winslow must always be in the thick of drama while I occasionally had a rest from running spies to earth or checking fingerprint clues."

Winslow and his trusty sidekick, Lt. Red Pennington's primary nemeses both before and after the war tended to be stock international villains; a Fu Manchu-type character called The Scorpion, then a felonious femme fatale named Singapore Sal.

During the war years, the plot lines followed pretty conventional detective story tropes as Winslow and Pennington matched wits with diabolical Nazi agents trying to steal battleships and underworld thugs attempting to blow up the Golden Gate Bridge at the behest of their Japanese masters, with diversionary stories set on Mount Everest and Antarctic exploration thrown in for good measure.

Although over two decades would pass before the term “jump the shark” came into common currency, Don Winslow of the Navy began to lose its own way in ever more bizarre ways after the end of the Second World War, as stock Axis heavies gave way to giant multi-colored cannibalistic Amazon warriors and Venusians. 

Comic book heroes have undergone somewhat of a revolution in the last quarter-century, as the demographics of their protagonists have become more inclusive and their flaws and foibles more reflective of those living in the real world, even as their godlike powers have grown ever more estranged from reality.  Those familiar with this progression might regard Don Winslow as somewhat primitive.  Or, to use a phrase I heard at a museum conference a few months ago, he might even be dismissed as "male, pale, and stale." 

Despite his square-jawed appearance, unrelenting earnestness and the absence of any quirks or vices to speak of, Winslow should not be dismissed out of hand. This "ace of naval intelligence" was fighting a secret war against transnational cabals long before James Bond was a twinkle in Ian Fleming’s eye.  His only powers seemed to be great deductive ability and a powerful right cross, yet Cmdr. Winslow was beating up bad guys the old fashioned way with his sidekick Red several years before Batman and Robin, and the bizarre banter between arch-enemies Winslow and Sal is definitely reminiscent of the scenes filmed decades later between Adam West and Julie Numar.       

The long-forgotten Cmdr. Don Winslow might or might not have inspired the creation of some of the most enduring characters of twentieth century fiction, yet his creator Frank Martinek made no bones about the fact that he wanted to inspire young people to join the Navy to experience adventures of their own.  Although it is unclear just how many youngsters sought this kind of adventurous life due to Lt. Cmdr. Martinek's opus, The Best of Don Winslow of the Navy is an interesting slice of popular culture, emblematic of who represented the ideal American fighting man on paper at a time when millions of his very real flesh-and-blood compatriots were called upon to endure less-exotic and more dangerous adventures during a conflict that changed the course of history.


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