First Appearance: USA Comics #5 (Summer 1942).
Golden Age Appearance: USA Comics #5.
Modern Appearances: USAgent #3 (referred to).
Dates Active: 1942-?
"Out of the legends of South American history comes the reincarnation of a great liberator, a gay adventurous daredevil who laughs at death, and strikes with mighty fists at any who dare to menace the freedom of peace-loving people."
His origin story begins with him rescuing some natives from a swamp monster, who is revealed as a Nazi wearing a monster costume. The natives are stunned to see what looks like the return of the legendary "South American" hero El Gaucho. The American Avenger doesn't deny this, either, capitalizing on the recognition factor:
Native: "Yes, but El Gaucho lives again! Witness - his statue is gone from the university square!"
El Gaucho: "Yes, to return only when we have made our country safe from the plottings of these new dictators!"
The Avenger's origin is quickly established. He's Don Caldwell, an American exchange student who, "several years before," traveled to Buenos Aires. (This, by the way, would put the country of the American Avenger's adventures solidly in Argentina. The gauchos, of course, rode the South American pampas, which crossed several borders, but were more popularly seen as being a Brazilian creation, rather than Argentinian.) Don Caldwell goes to college in Buenos Aires, and as the years pass "he absorbes (sic) its culture....learnes (sic) its traditions and legends...makes friends..." and generally comes to love the country; he's even described, by the time of his graduation, as "now more South American than Yankee." (We get a nice montage of Caldwell, in gaucho outfit, roping a bull, drinking, and playing polo.)
After graduation Caldwell is talking with his best friend, Carlos Ramirez, who tells him, "Would that you could stay with us, Don. These are troubled times for my country!" Caldwell responds, "Perhaps the legend of El Gaucho returning will come true, Carlos!"
(The early 1940s were in fact a troubled time for Argentina. In a move that was quite controversial within the US, Argentina declared neutrality in World War Two in July 1942. This came after the Avenger's debut, but the move had been in the works ever since the U.S. had declared war the preceding December and Argentina had refrained from doing so. It was also widely rumored in the US that Argentina was filthy with Nazi spies, and the loyalty of the Argentine government, and by extension the Argentine people, was questioned, to the point that, in February 1945, when Mexico hosted an Inter-America conference of all the countries of the Americas, Argentina was quite specifically not invited. I've no way of knowing whether the creative team behind the American Avenger were aware of all, or in fact any, of this, but if not, it was a happy and accurate coincidence for them.)
Caldwell, after leaving Carlos Ramirez, is bidding his farewell to the statue of El Gaucho when he runs into the grandson of a man who fought beside El Gaucho. The grandson, now an old man, says he's been watching the young men graduate from the university, and waiting for--but then he breaks off, and asks Caldwell to try on some clothes. Caldwell does, and he fits the clothes (which are an exact duplicate of the historic El Gaucho's costume) so well that the old man says, "You are El Gaucho come to life!" Caldwell is persuaded by the old man to become the new El Gaucho, and to save the country.
Months later the statue of El Gaucho disappears, and quickly "the city" (presumably still Buenos Aires) becomes alive with the news that "El Gaucho has returned!" The Nazi Baron Girbel, also in Beunos Aires, scoffs when he hears this, but says that he'll be leaving for New York after finishing off some engineers. (Baron Girbel has three strikes going against him in the readers' eyes: not only is he a Nazi, but his name is Girbel, which would have put any patriotic American in mind of the Nazi minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels. Finally, he's got both a monocle and a pencil-thin mustache--two sure signs that he's Evil.)
The Avenger, who is being called "El Gaucho," sweats the location of Girbel's headquarters from the Nazi who'd been masquerading as a swamp monster (remember the swamp monster?), and then goes to the Germans' headquarters. The Avenger fights his way through Girbel's men, making quick work of them, but not before Girbel escapes. Gaucho, somehow knowing (maybe he got it from the first Nazi he interrogated?) that these Argentinean Nazis are getting their orders from America, says that that's where he's going to go. Girbel and his troops board an America freighter with a "valuable defense cargo" and overcome its crew. Caldwell, for his part, happens to be on-board the freighter (which, clearly, must have been the only freighter leaving for the US). The Nazis have the crew cornered, and are about to gun them all down, when El Gaucho (who was awakened by the sounds of the fight) appears and shouts "Por liberto!" (This happens to be the legendary battle cry of the historic El Gaucho.) This rallies the Americans, and together they overcome Girbel and the Nazis. The American Avenger then continues the trip back to his beloved native land, to start fighting the Nazis from and in the US.
And that is the American Avenger's only appearance. Granted, his place in USA was taken by bigger names (Captain America, the Whizzer, and the Destroyer) but given the quality of the art (more on this below) and the uniqueness of the Argentinean setting, I'd have thought Timely would have given El Gaucho at least one more try.
The American Avenger's introduction and only appearance was in USA Comics #5, which as mentioned was cover dated "Summer 1942," which means it would have appeared on the stands in April or May, and have been written, most likely in February or March. My initial reaction to the Avenger was that he was basically a rip-off of DC's The Whip, who was introduced in Flash Comics #1, in January 1940. But, of course, the Whip was an obscure, third-string back-up character--hardly a popular hero who would necessitate a Marvel copy. No, what the American Avenger is a copy of is another, older heroic archetype: Zorro. Zorro is the definitive version of a type of hero who isn't much done any more, but was quite popular during the 1930s and 1940s--so much so, in fact, that he really did establish an archetype. And that's the tradition within which the American Avenger is working.
The American Avenger strikes me as very interesting on a number of levels. For one thing, he's continually referred to as, and calls himself, "El Gaucho," and is given to saying things like "Por liberto!" American comics, on the whole, were very American- and European-centered; acknowledgment of Latin and Central American cultures and countries was quite rare. Actually, with the prominent exception of Fawcett & Captain Marvel, who traveled all over the world, and for whom Beck & Binder clearly did a good bit of research, the foreign climes and cultures in Golden Age comics were, to a large degree, either made up, or relatively stereotyped. The milieu of the American Avenger's adventure is somewhat stereotyped, as well, but it's still paying attention to a Hispanic culture, which was not commonly done in Golden Age comics. Too, the strip's use of Spanish was uncommon; few and far between were the non-American languages that ever appeared in GA comics. The character also makes me wonder about another subtext. The character consciously adopts the persona of the legendary liberator, who helped free his country from--well, it's never quite defined, but pretty clearly they mean that El Gaucho freed his countrymen from foreign oppression. The historic El Gaucho would seem to be modeled on Simon Bolivar, The Liberator, who helped free Venezuela and Colombia from Spanish domination between 1811-1819, and for whom Bolivia is named. There's a sort of stereotype dissonance going on here which I find very interesting. America, traditionally, has taken a paternalistic and stereotyped view towards Central and South American cultures, seeing them as peoples who can't govern themselves and who need America to put them on the right path. And there are a number of negative stereotypes of Central and South Americans which are common in the US (I won't repeat them here). At the same time, however, both DC's The Whip and Timely's American Avenger are consciously and deliberately playing on the Liberator archetype, and setting him up as a Hero, worthy of emulation even by white men. This is a very interesting set of cultural cross-currents. At least, I find it interesting.
The character also embodies another kind of stereotype, though--a less fortunate one, this time. A unique part of American culture has been the recurring stereotype of the white man who goes to a foreign/non-white culture, adopts it (usually by going native), and becomes better at it, and a better exemplar of it, than the natives themselves. This stereotype goes back at least to James Fennimore Cooper's Hawkeye (who, remember, was a white man who was raised by the Mohicans). Examples of this phenomenon include Tarzan, Ka-Zar, John Carter (Warlord of Mars), any number of comic book characters, and the American Avenger.
The American Avenger's creative team is not named within the comic; Steranko credits the strip to Vince Alascia. Alascia is one of those pros who did a wide range of work on a number of books over the years, but is almost completely forgotten about today; he did some work on Captain America and on U.S. Marines In Action, and Six-Gun Heroes. His work here is worth commenting on. The writing, as I've pointed out, is interesting on a number of levels. The art is also worth commenting on; it strikes me as a cross between Sheldon Moldoff and Mort Meskin, and if you know anything about Golden Age artists, you know that those two are names to conjure with. Moldoff & Meskin are among the best of the Golden Age, and whoever did the art on The American Avenger did a damn fine job. There's a greater variation in layout than the usual four-to-six panel grid which was the custom of the time, and the action has some of Meskin's cinematic feel, as well as his knack for expressive faces. It's good stuff.
The Avenger, in his superhero costume, wears blue pants over red boots, a white shirt, a large red scarf/kerchief around his neck, and a black half-mask, which covers his hair and eyes but leaves everything under his eyes free. It's an interesting color combination; it's got red, white, and blue, which the audience would naturally associate with the good old USA, but the black hood/half-mask lends a certain air of mystery to the character. Plus, the Avenger has a pencil-thin mustache, which was (as I think I said last time) a rarity among heroes of that time. It's interesting how fashions change; you rarely see the thin mustaches today, but they were quite common during the 1930s and 1940s. Not in comics, however, where facial hair was relatively rare, except among Mandrake, the Mandrake-influenced magicians, and the bad guys. The Avenger is an interesting exception to this rule; perhaps there was a stereotype of Mexican/Central/South American grandees having these types of mustaches? (As a side note, the Avenger's mustache seems to come and go, depending on the panel, but it's usually there, and its absence seems to be a mistake on the artist's part, rather than a deliberate move.)
The Avenger doesn't have any superpowers per se; he's quite good with his fists (of course), and is an expert with the lariat and a very good horseman.
In short, despite his one appearance, the American Avenger is a lot more memorable than other characters of longer provenance and history. The art is among the best that Timely produced (although they had Kirby, they didn't have much else--certainly not the roster of worthies that DC and Quality and Fawcett had), and the writing sticks in the memory.