Last week, I posted the first part of my online treatise on American superhero comics. Today I finished the second part, which you can read below. This time around, you can expect some paragraphs, and other brain farts, on the subjects of melting pot culture, World War II, reciprocal synergy between comics and superheroes, and the — temporary! — decline in popularity of superhero comics.
Throughout New World history, the U.S. has been a melting pot of nations, cultures and religions — so much so, in fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a unmixed pure-bred American! Germans, Slavs, Italians, Irish, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Protestants, African Americans, Hispanics, and so on are, and were in the 1930s, represented in all walks of U.S. life, engaged in the same trades, businesses, and professions. So too, it follows that U.S. comics artists then had an immigration background — they either were descended from immigrants, or were immigrants themselves, and they sure as hell lived among immigrants. Now, why is it so important to know these artists’ roots? Answer: It’s no stretch to say that the iconography and thematic content of superhero comics have their roots in this melting pot culture, and, as I will argue below, therein lies another component of the superhero’s popularity.
You may recall, in Part I, I talked about reader-identification, about how dual-identity hero narratives are, perhaps, about “who we really are.” Here I want to stress that, through mixing of blood and melting pot assimilation, Americans, more so than, say, chiefly pure Europeans, tend to struggle with questions on self-identity — because for them, it’s very difficult to know who they are, where their parents come from, and what their religion is. Now, while the earliest superhero template, that of the 1930s, was but an emotional stick figure, if you will, with black-and-white morals — after the 1960s, there was finally added another layer of characterization; for from then on the superhero character, too, struggled with identity issues. So that’s probably, definitely, why in later days, the U.S. audiences embraced these costumed superheroes still, or anew. But we’re still talking 1930s superheroes here. So here, I want to entertain the idea that, even in those early days, superhero fiction perhaps really hit home, as well. After all, isn’t Superman, the first, and for long the most famous and best-selling name, of costumed comic book superheroes, an alien immigrant himself, cast into a strange world, unable to return home? And, more generally speaking, is the idea of a hero with a secret identity and superpowers not an apt metaphor for the immigrant’s wish-fulfilling fantasies, i.e., of making it big in the U.S. while remaining true to oneself?
One thing thing is certain, though — from early on, this melting pot culture provided grounds for cultural intertextuality. By this I mean, all these first- or later-generation U.S. immigrants brought their own language, literary heritage, mythology and philosophy into the mix, and this created a rich and diverse reservoir from which artists could draw. The Greeks and Italians obviously brought with them the tales of Hercules and his labors of strength and fortitude, and of the quests of Ulysses and Jason; from northern Europe, there must have come stories of Beowulf, of how he battled with Grendel; then you had your Judeo-Christian and Middle-Eastern heroes, from Moses to Gilgamesh; and, of course, last but not least, there were the modern influences like Wagner’s Siegfried and the Nietzschean concept of Übermenschen — which got so grossly misinterpreted and abused by the German Nazis. I imagine early comics artists, confronted with all these different story ideas and character concepts floating around, taking it as a bit of a joke, picking and choosing whatever, just as they pleased. Then the war broke out, and things got serious. In the years that followed, they had to forge new heroes out of the surrounding discourse that felt fresh, yet familiar at the same time — authentic American, yet vitally close to Old World roots that now needed protection.
Icons of Freedom
This brings me to yet another component of the popularity of, in any case certain, costumed superheroes hinges on unadultered American patriotism. This is obviously obvious in the cases of Superman and Captain America, the former being a defender of the American Way, the latter, its personification — but the same could be said for the likes of Batman. Here, one must know that a lot of these moral supermen, if you will, who combat inequities and injustices in world society, were created by comics artists with roots in European Jewish identity (i.e., most notably, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jack Kirby); and this, in a time, it is well-known, when Adolf Hitler makes a bid for the German “Aryans” to be a master race at the expense of, in the Nazi’s mind, lesser races and people. Then, as World War II broke out, in 1939, these comic book superheroes became more than two-dimensional paper heroes — to the readers, they became symbols of American optimism in this bleak time of war. In the comics, superheroes battled criminals, entire criminal organizations, and even Hitler’s Nazi Empire and the Axis of Evil endlessly over and again — but in the end, they always prevailed. And while so simple a narrative, the people just couldn’t get enough. So much so, in fact, that during the war, the comics audience had such an insatiable appetite for these repetitive heroics and struggles that there was plenty of room in the market for even the most blatant imitations to flourish. I’m talking here of — I’m not making any of this up! — The Shield, Uncle Sam, Minute Man, American Avenger, American Crusader, American Eagle, Fighting Yank, Commando Yank, Yankee Eagle, Yankee Boy, Yank and Doodle, The Liberator, The Sentinel, The Flag, Flagman …
While on the subject of World War II, let us talk about the economics of supply and demand. As stated above, there was an insatiable demand for cheap escapist works, much like in the years before — though now, arguably, even more so. On top of an already sizeable audience of children and workers, there were now also the millions of American soldiers serving in the U.S. Army, many of whom were sent to liberate Europe and defeat the Japanese. They, these soldiers, took to reading comics to combat the long periods of boredom and routine between the short bursts of action, like, e.g., air raids and offensive operations and this, because, unlike, novels you could speed-read comics from cover to cover — which is, of course, handy when you don’t know when it’s go-time again. So there’s that. Then there’s also the context of war-time paper shortage. During the years of war, paper was rationed. While this spelled problems for pulp publishing houses especially, publishers that were also or exclusively engaged in the business of publishing and distributing cheap, thin, flimsy comic books reaped profits, at the former’s expense no less! Indeed, this was a good time to be in the business of comics; for not only was there little outside competition, but there wasn’t much inside competion, either. That is to say, there were plenty of competing comics publishing houses — in fact, in the years following 1940, they even popped like mushrooms; where there used to be but five before the war broke out, there were now thirty or so. But such was the scope of the escapism market, in these years, that there was room aplenty for all these comics publishers to co-exist, and to grow prosperous in their publishing ventures. The only thing holding them back was the paper rationing. That would change after the war — but more on that later.
Let’s talk special effects. While sci-fi and fantasy books often make for pleasant, easy escapist reads — they lack a certain authority and “punch” that only visuals have, and that’s as true now as it was in the 1930s. Hence, the ever-popularity of movies. Now, back then you had your live-action, stop-motion films for audiences who wanted something fantastical or otherworldly. But in those days, there was only so much you could do with special effects, limited as they then were — though, mind you, some of these films, like, e.g., King Kong, ended up becoming classics of 20th-century special effects cinematography! Overall speaking, audiences who wanted greater dynamic realism were being left unimpressed by what they saw, and there was just no way for 1930s-1940s era movie producers to meet their demand. The new comics medium, however, was capable, even in the hands of a so-so artist, of making the fantastic palpable and probable on a visual level. So, that’s another reason for why people turned to comics as a vehicle of escapism.
Here it might be of interest to point out in passing that, of all then-known comic strip genres (i.e., most notably, humor, adventure, romance, detective, science fiction, and the western), the superhero genre was the genre par excellence to demonstrate the possibilities comics medium offered. For those who are not “in the know” — the early-1930s, to be precise, 1933, witnessed the emergence of this new medium of comics — at least as we now know it. Now, back then, comic books didn’t feature any original material tailored to the comics medium and its format, but instead featured only reprints of mostly 4-panel, mostly in black-and-white, newspaper “funnies” stacked on top of each other — hence the term “comic books”, or “comics” for short, a term that stuck and this, even though, in the years to follow, other comic strip genres got reprinted in comics format, as well. While, initially, these comic books were instant successes with readers, they never quite set the world on fire, and eventually, a few years down the road, the public lost interest and sales dropped. A new impetus was needed: something which would excite reader attention, again. From 1935 onward, comics publishing houses committed themselves, now and finally, to publishing comic books that consisted of all-original material, specifically created for the medium — and so the first real actual comic books emerged. Still, nothing earth-shattering. Then, in 1938, Superman was introduced. And everything changed. Now, the U.S. reader audience already was familiar with costumed and masked comics heroes, with, e.g., The Phantom, the first of the “long-john” heroes, being a star of syndicated newspaper comic strips as early as 1936, and The Clock, a masked detective, “starring” in comic books also published in that same year — but Superman was something entirely else, alright. Here you had this superhero in a tight, bright, colorful costume, whose powers were more or less unlimited — limited only by the imagination of his creators, like, e.g., he had superhuman strength, he could fly, he was virtually indestructible, and basically he was a god among men –, and in the comics medium it all just seemed like a natural perfect fit. After all, at the time, his superhuman heroics just simply couldn’t be translated to the silver screen — indeed, it wasn’t until the late 1970s that movie producers were finally able to do so –; and the then-limited color-printing methods, which weren’t suitable for printing imagery of credulous and dreamy nature, were more than adequate for bold, costumy action. And so it was that Superman’s resounding success with readers created a need for original superhero material, exclusively created for the comics medium, and this, then, in turn sparked a demand for comics. This reciprocal synergy led to the creation of a slew of new superheroes (e.g., in chronological order, Batman, the Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch, Captain America) and comics series.
And then along came Jack Kirby, a rising star in the 1940s and 1950s. Nowadays somewhat forgotten, not in the least because the woeful and willful erasure of his creative authority by Stan Lee (of Marvel Comics fame), Kirby was a powerhouse who took the art of comics to a whole new level. It’s no exaggeration to say that he, virtually single-handedly, defined the look and feel of superhero comics for decades to come. Before he entered the industry, comics characters were wooden and the panel and page compositions oozed little sense of motion, or rhythm — but he, before becoming a comics artist, had worked as an “inbetweener” — i.e., drawing the missing in-between frames between the poses in key frames done by a key animator –, and so he knew how to draw panels and sequences with a certain cinematic flair and how to make characters, even those at rest, pulse with tension and energy; so much so, that his comics characters looked even more alive than those on the silver screen! The effect of which was, that his art style, which was widely copied and imitated by most of his peers and later comics artists, further sparked readers’ interest in superhero comics.
There will be no more Golden Age
But, like with everything — all good things must come to an end. After the war was over, in 1946, people were bored with superheroes; and they were bored with their worlds of black-and-white morals. However, the comics market generally was on the rise. The comics audience was still as big as ever; but the difference, now, was that the war-time paper rationing was lifted, and this meant that comics publishers could flood the market with a growing range of genre-comics, so as to provide for every taste. This they did with success, constantly responsive to the ever-changing demand. In 1947, romance comics happened to be especially popular; westerns were next year’s flavor; in the following two years, it was crime comics; and in the two, three years after that, horror comics emerged as the most sought-after comics genre — and at all these times, comics publishers were there to match that demand. So, as you can surmise, post-1945, comics sales skyrocketed. In fact, just to give you numbers — in 1940, about 150 titles were being published on a monthly basis, with a combined circulation of 17 million; by the end of the war the number of monthly published comics dropped to 135 — because due to the paper rationing comics publishers had to trim down the fat –, but overall circulation increased to well over 20 million; in 1953, these numbers had swollen, respectively, to 650 and 70 million! From 1954 on, comics got a bad rep and this, due to changes in the socio-political climate — more on this below. As a result of this, in combination with the advent of television in this very same period, comics sales plummeted dramatically, dropping to early post-war levels. And if this wasn’t bad enough, production costs were soaring because of inflation. This could have been offset by raising the selling price of comics — which, mind you, were still being sold for a dime a piece –, but that would probably result in even fewer sales; and so, the selling price remained fixed for another eight years — and even then, in 1962, the price was only raised to 12 cents! As you can surmise, it increasingly became difficult to turn a profit, and many of the thirty-something comics publishing houses had to close their doors — in the end, only ten remained. Then, in an ironic twist, they, well, most of them, turned again to superhero comics to stay afloat — but that’s a story for another time.
This concludes Part II of my treatise. Someday — next week, probably — I’ll continue with some bits on comics censorship and the consequent emergence of the underground comix scene, and perhaps — who knows? I might even venture into 1960s territory. And by all means, let me know what you think of my writing, so far!