Monday, May 25, 2015

Escape the Ordinary: Superheroes in Comics

This year’s adult summer reading program theme is Escape the Ordinary, and superheroes are coming to Massanutten Regional Library! (Find out more about signing up to read and win prizes here.) The Main branch in downtown Harrisonburg will be featuring Super Screenings of popular, modern superhero movies all summer long. (Click here for times and titles.)

Personally, I’ve always been a big Batman fan. I’m dating myself here, but I grew up watching Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995). My brother and I must have watched its accompanying full-length movie, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993), a dozen times. However, I’ve never been a big comic reader, largely because I’m the kind of person who would want to read every panel from beginning to end, and I find the sheer volume of issues and story arcs of Batman’s last seven decades a bit daunting, to say the least—and that’s just the caped crusader.

The history of the comic industry is as complex as the stories it generates and the characters almost as numerous. From executives to artists and writers, dozens of people may influence every issue published. Entire books about industry giants such as publisher Martin Goodman and artists Stan Lee and Bob Kane, among others, are available in the library’s collection. This brief and general history of superhero comics probably won’t offer anything new for the established fan, but it should provide a sufficient overview for the uninitiated. 

The Golden Age (1938-1954) 

All DC Comics characters and the
distinctive likeness(es) thereof
are Trademarks & Copyright
© 1939 DC Comics, Inc.
The comic book as we know it today was born in the late 1930s from two popular forms of the 1920s and ’30s—the funny pages and the pulps. (Pulps were short stories—from westerns and adventures to romances and melodramas—accompanied by illustrations and mass-produced on cheap pulp paper.) The first comic series with exclusively new material, New Fun #1, was published in 1935; Detective Comics #1 (the eponymous “DC” of today’s  DC Comics) was published in March 1937. “Comic books were the perfect entertainment form for the Great Depression audiences: their heroic, larger-than-life characters stirred the demoralized masses, and the very format of the magazines themselves—usually sixty-four pages of original material for a mere dime—was a bargain during those times of economic hardship” (Misiroglu 3).

The dawn of today’s superhero coincided closely with the genesis of the comic book. The widely accepted definition of a superhero is “a heroic character with an altruistic mission, who possesses superpowers, wears a defining costume, and functions in the ‘real world’ in his or her alter ego” (Misiroglu 2). Arguably the first superhero according to this definition, Superman debuted in June 1938 in Action Comics #1. He was a natural successor to 1930s heroes of pulp, radio, and other mediums, including Doc Savage, the Shadow, the Green Hornet, the Phantom, the Spider, and Zorro. With the Nazi threat looming in Europe, Americans were in need of a hero, and the appearance of the red and blue-clad Superman was well-timed. By 1941, “he was on the radio, syndicated across the funny pages of every major US newspaper, and selling stamps, greeting cards, coloring books, bubble gum, board games, and war bonds” (Morrison 11).

All DC Comics characters and
the distinctive likeness(es) thereof
are Trademarks & Copyright
© 1939 DC Comics, Inc.
Batman followed closely on Superman’s heels in Detective Comics #27 of May 1939. He was created as a hero of the night in direct contrast to Superman, with visual inspiration coming from many film and literary sources, including da Vinci’s ornithopter sketches. Both Superman and Batman, then published under the imprint of National Comics, were cornerstones for the future DC Comics. One of many shell companies started specifically to latch onto the hero fad, Timely Comics publishing Marvel Comics in October 1939. The Human Torch and Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner were the first residents of the future Marvel Universe. Hero after hero emerged in this Golden Age of comics. In the 1940s, there “was a superhero or villain for every profession, every class, every walk of life,” from lawyers to military men to scientists to taxi drivers to doctors to flower shop proprietors (Morrison 48). (I must interject that, as far as I know, there were no librarian heroes until Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl, came out of the cave in 1967!)

Many early Timely Comics heroes were inspired by historical myths and legends. The Flash (1940) was the first that resulted from a scientific accident, a future Marvel staple. The inspiration for other heroes came directly from WWII era patriotism. One enduring character that emerged from that time was Captain America, who debuted in 1941 and became Timely’s bestselling title even before Pearl Harbor. Captain America and other heroes fought the war on several fronts, fictional and real. On the cover of his first issue, Captain America punched Hitler in the face. Others also fought Hitler and Stalin, as well as a veritable army of stereotyped Germans and Japanese. Many heroes, including Batman, were used to sell war bonds. A sharp decline in the popularity of comics after 1945 may have been due in part to the country no longer needing superheroes after their own victory in the war.

The nail in the coffin of comics’ Golden Age was the publication of psychiatrist Frederick Wertham’s 1954 bestseller Seduction of the Innocent, in which he “blamed the comics and their creators for every social ill to afflict America’s children” (Morrison 54). Among other things, Werthem thought Batman promoted a perverse sexuality (living as he did with both an older and younger man). He seemed especially venomous toward the wholesome Superman, who he feared would seize the respect due to children’s ordinary, hardworking parents and other authority figures. With Wertham leading the way, the moral police of the 1950s saw to the end of the Golden Age of comics. 

The Silver Age (1956-1969) and the Bronze Age (1970-1984) 

The 1956 introduction of the new Flash (who was originally created in 1940) marked the real start of the Silver Age of comics. The Flash’s powers came from a lightning strike hitting chemicals in his lab, and his enemies were “rogue personifications of scientific forces: thermodynamic (Heat Wave, Captain Cold), optical (Mirror Master), meteorological (Weather Wizard), sonic (the Pied Piper), gyroscopic (the Top), chemical (Mr. Element)” (Morrison 83). Boys (then the primary audience for comics) received subtle scientific instruction with their entertainment. William Moulton Marston—progressive professor, creator of Wonder Woman, and believer in the educational potential of comics (“Don’t Laugh at Comics,” Family Circle, 1940)—would have been pleased. Everyman hero and science nerd Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man, also debuted during the Silver Age, in August 1962. This prevalent emphasis on science and technology fit with the sensibilities of the era. Children of the Cold War were subliminally encouraged not to fear radiation, which “was responsible for the origins of the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Hulk, the X-Men, Daredevil, and several other early Marvel superheroes” (Morrison 96).

After DC’s dominance in the Gold Age, Marvel led the way in the Silver Age. DC became the comic of choice for more affluent readers looking for the archetypal good versus evil stories, while Marvel specialized in conflicted heroes on the mean streets. In the 1960s, Marvel also purposefully started the foundations of a coherent universe, while DC still had Batman, for example, in many conflicting storylines across its titles, which eventually led to their multiverse construct.

The period was marked by improvements in writing and art following the market saturation of the Golden Age, which focused more on quantity than quality. As the Silver Age gave way to the Bronze Age in the early 1970s, the content of storylines grew increasingly dark, covering contemporary thematic material such as illegal drug use, feminism, campus unrest, integration, pollution, Indian land rights, multiculturalism, and the like. Reflecting these themes, panels became literally darker as well, with more events happening at night; some also call the Bronze Age the Dark Age. Superheroes had more “real life” problems, antiheroes became more common, old characters were revitalized, and crime fighters became more diverse in race and ethnicity. Some comics became more literary, quoting from or referring to classics. Many independent publishers also joined Marvel and DC during the Bronze Age. 

The Modern Age (1985-present) 

Continued relaxation of the Comics Code (a self-censoring set of guidelines created by comic publishers) has built upon the dark themes of the Bronze Age—child abuse, illegitimate children, prejudice, genocide, impotence, the deaths of primary characters, and other dark subject matter has abounded. The comics of the 21st century have become increasingly dystopian, suggesting the villains have won and the superheroes are fighting an uphill battle. Meanwhile, “the superhero had become a reflection of the world around him: dark, determined, and no-nonsense” (Misiroglu 16). Of course, this could also reflect an aging readership. Early comic readers have reached adulthood, while fewer children start reading comics with a plethora of other entertainment options available. Still, that hasn’t stopped a rise in television, video game, apparel, toy, and internet visibility.

This brings us full circle, to the big story of 21st century comics—the feature film. Of course, many heroes had graced the silver screen before the year 2000. Superman was in both animated and live action offerings as early as the 1940s, and the 1966 TV show Batman spurred a craze for superheroes on screen. Except for the Batman franchise films started in 1989 (which was about to bomb with Batman and Robin), there wasn’t much in the way of superheroes in Hollywood in the 1990s. In the summer of 2000, X-Men was the first of a tidal wave that’s still rolling today. “Technology had caught up with the comics,” allowing superpowers to seem realistic, rather than corny (Morrison 322). New film-only superheroes—such as The Incredibles, Hancock, and the small screen cast of Heroes—began to appear. Major movie companies have taken over both DC and Marvel (Warner Bros. and the Walt Disney Company, respectively). In fact, “the publishing wing of what is now Marvel Entertainment is essentially a loss leader – in effect, a creative R&D lab for potential new movie and merchandising properties” (Bell and Vassallo 102). For now, at least, the movies are keeping the print industry alive. 


With the continued popularity of superheroes in film, it seems unlikely that their panel-bound inspirations are going anywhere. (Just in the next year or so, look for Ant-Man, Fantastic Four, Deadpool, Batman vs. Superman, Captain America, X-Men, Gambit, and more on the big screen.) Heroes and villains, artists and writers have come and gone, and style and themes have changed with the times, but after more than 75 years, the superhero is firmly ingrained in American culture. 

by Kristin Noell

Further Reading
  1. Beatty, Scott, et. al (2008). The DC Comics encyclopedia: the definitive guide to the characters of the DC universe. New York, NY: DK Publishing. 
  2. Bell, Blake and Dr. Michael J. Vassallo (2013). The secret history of Marvel Comics. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books. 
  3. Daniels, Les (1995). DC Comics: sixty years of the world’s favorite super heroes. Boston, MA: Little, Brown. 
  4. Howe, Sean (2012). Marvel Comics: the untold story. New York, NY: HarperCollins. 
  5. Kane, Bob (1989). Batman & me: an autobiography. Forestville, CA: Eclipse Books. 
  6. Lepore, Jill (2014). The secret history of Wonder Woman. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf. 
  7. McCloud, Scott (1994). Understanding comics: the invisible art. New York, NY: William Morrow. 
  8. Misiroglu, Gina (2012). The superhero book, 2nd ed. Canton, MI: Visible Ink Press. 
  9. Morrison, Grant (2011). Supergods. New York, NY: Spiegel & Grau. 
  10. Ricca, Brad (2013). Super boys: the amazing adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 
  11. Wikipedia. “List of American superhero films.”  Accessed 22 May 2015.

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