In part III, I talked about the conservative backlash in the mid-1950s against comics and the resulting comics industry’s self-regulatory standards — standards which were probably more stringent than the preempted regulations that would have been imposed by the U.S. government. And then I went on to explain how this facilitated a new rise of the superhero genre to mainstream market dominance. Well, a few years later, in the 1960s, a reactionary movement started to bubble under the mainstream surface — the underground comix scene. But, as I will make clear, though confined to the underground, its market innovations would challenge the mainstream status quo of publishers, distributors and readership, completely changing the face of the industry. This will give you an overview of the background leading up to where we are now.

Underground resistance
The 1960s are known as a decade of upheaval, both politically and socially, marked by anti-war and anti-establishment protests and the emergence of civil rights, feminist, and black power movements. With all this going on in the background, a tidal wave of 1960s youngsters took to spiritualism, drugs, and free sex to deal with their sores — some real, but, frankly, most fancied. Thus, the counter-culture “hippie” movement was born. This was but a short-lived movement, because, of course, “sticking it to the man” didn’t provide any answers to any “social question” of the time. Nonetheless, it left an undelible mark on history, not so much in that it changed anything in the world — since there was still war, social inequality, and world pollution — as because it gave a boost to creativity. It’s easy to think here of the enrichment hippies and their sympathizers brought to the music industry at large — Janis Joplin, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, Pink Floyd, et al. continue to this day to influence recording artists and bands in all sorts of genres (including, e.g., Blues Pills, Enslaved, Joss Stone, Lenny Kravitz, and Nervecell). Less known, however, are the ways in which the hippie movement shook comics establishment and changed the rules of the game.

prteaseAs early as 1962, but especially from the late-1960s on, writers, artists, writer-artists, and creative teams, who were either themselves involved, or had a connection with people who were involved, in a drug and sex underground counter-culture, started making comics — or, I should rather say, comix, so as to set them apart from mainstream fare — that run deliberately counter to what was dominant in the mainstream, so as to openly challenge the icy, tyrannical grip of the CMAA and the Comics Code. Often, especially initially, that simply came down to them churning out vulgar, tongue-in-cheek, cheerfully sketchy comix, featuring stories no doubt dreamed up while under influence of psychedelic drugs, propagating experimental sex and, of course, also experimental drug use, sometimes with some violence thrown in. In truth, quite a  few of these comix puerile and paltry attempts at wit and humor, at best, or worse — nonsensical waste of paper and ink. But eventually, when all was said done, comix artists, who let their imagination fly in all directions and dimensions, contributed in a positive way to maturing the medium; in any case certainly more than their mainstream colleagues, who were dictated by a desire, not to to express themselves freely but to make competitive commercial products. The former’s ceaseless, curious desire for exploration and experimentation made them unafraid to challenge aesthetic-narrative conventions and push the boundaries of what was thought to be possible in comics, and this led them to explore new styles, genres, and themes. To give a concrete example, while, in the early 1970s, mainstream comics artists were still entrenched in superhero tropes, underground comix artists then experimented with autobiographical comic narratives; and in so doing, they helped liberate comic books from the deathhold that fantasy pulp fiction enjoyed over the medium for so long.

Also, what was uniquely revolutionary about the comix underground was its egalitarian, democratic approach to making and appreciating comix. Comix artists did their thing primarily for reasons other than to appeal to the aesthetic sensibilities or taste in a market; and this no doubt was appreciated by readers, who, I can only assume, were charmed by the rawness and sincerity, and perhaps also the lack of artifice, of comix. Indeed, you didn’t need to have the illustration chops of Jack Kirby, the feel for characterization of Stan Lee, or the visual-narrative skills of Will Eisner (of The Spirit fame), so much is fact — you could be a lousy artist, but as long as you had some vision or imagination, anyone could develop an audience, to which, then, you could, and had to, appeal directly, without the intermediary of major publishers or distributors.

No more intermediaries
This last needs further emphasis and discussion. Initially, comix artists had to go out there and mingle, to make a little name for themselves in the scene; thus, as audience, you could meet the artists personally, and you could buy from them directly, like from their bus stand. Despite being fun, it wasn’t the most sustainable of income generation schemes. But then, in 1972, the market got shaken up for the better. Up until that point in time, comics were supplied to bookstores, newsstands, etc., on a sale-or-return basis, i.e., these comics retail outlets could return any unsold comics for credit. You may wonder what happened with all that excess unsold stock. The answer is nothing — it all went to waste! This, because until then, back-issue collectors had yet to enter the scene; so basically, there was no-one then who could, and who would, relieve retailers or publishers of old merchandise. Now, anyway, in the boom years of the early 1940s-mid 1950s, this wasn’t that big a deal, with comics stock selling in excess of 70 percent, which amounted still to decent profits; but in the years leading up to the 1970s, the return system became increasingly costly to comics publishers, with but one out of three comics sold, which was enough to hit break-even, but with but little, if any, profitability. And then, more than ever, the U.S. comics market became an market which favored only fresh high-impact, high-volume titles aimed at the broadest possible audience. But from 1972 on, following the idea of some Brooklyn convention organizer and comic book aficionado, named Phil Seuling, there emerged a direct sales market, whereby specialty comics shops could purchase comics directly from comics suppliers, be they major publishers, independent publishers, or artist-publishers, at enhanced discounts in exchange for taking the risk of ordering non-returnable merchandise. With this direct sales-and-delivery system, publishers had full control over time and volume — meaning they could now rationalize their efforts, synchronizing sales and print production. Indeed, with this system, it became possible to figure out almost exactly to the number how many copies of a given title needed to be printed and sent out. This, as you can surmise, greatly helped them minimize the cost and waste of returned merchandise — insofar there was any. That’s right; there hardly was any waste anymore, as the buy-through rate (i.e., the percentage of copies sold and not returned) went sky-high, hitting almost 100 percent and this, because, of course, there was little to no incentive to return merchandise for a refund. If something didn’t immediately fly of the shelves, it would sell some other time, and continually so, until, basically, every copy was sold through to the public. This, by the way, was likely to happen because of the then-current recent advent of back-issue collectors. And while speaking of back-issue collectors, comics stores could even retail old merchandise as back-issue collectibles at higher prices than normal, which, of course, only further suppressed the incentive to return merchandise. So anyway, what used to be a very fickle market, marked by scattershot successess and failures, and in which only the strongest survived to carry on business, now became a steady, reliable market to even low-key publishers; indeed, the playing field was leveled, in that the direct sales market gave limited-run and small-lot comics publications, even those aimed at specific audiences, a chance to gain traction in the longer term, thus possibly turning them eventually profitable. Needless to say, comix artists were the first to really embrace this solution of direct distribution — and to great effect!

Here, it’s obvious why comix artists opted in; but it might not be so obvious why they so benefited from it. Well, the thing is, specialty comics shops catered especially to older readers and collectors, ergo, people “in the know,” who were generally just as much, or even more, committed to their favorite artists and works as they were to characters and properties. So, say, you had these people going into a comics store — chances are they were there hoping to find, not the latest and coolest things in superhero comics, but some comix by Robert Crumb, which you could find nowhere else. Thus, it can be argued that these stores’ efforts made it possible for underground artists, like Crumb, to sell millions of copies of their comix, and become household names in their own right.

The Bronze Age of heroes
Green_lantern_85Now, back to the mainstream. By the late 1960s, early 1970s, the people at the Big Two saw the volume of sales beginning to drop off again. They then must have begun to notice that the sex and drug culture was both an undercurrent in society and impossible to ignore. So, both these publishers decided on publishing some edgy, offbeat issues and titles that run counter to the CCA’s guidelines. First, in 1970, a Green Lantern-Green Arrow miniseries featured a dramatic drug-related plot line throughout its entire run of thirteen issues, gaining success both critically and commercially among the comics reading public. This then inspired The Amazing Spider-Man‘s writers to the same a year later; but their efforts met with limited success. But in late 1973, Marvel struck gold again, when they introduced Howard the Duck, a satirical, anthropomorphic character that starred in an eponymous comic book series that could easily have been an underground comix hit, in terms of wit and personal style. So clearly, there was money to be made with flirtations with the underground.

first-wolverine-hulk-180Also, around that same time, the Big Two looked again to 1930s pulp fiction for inspiration. This timearound, though, it was the sword-and-sorcery fiction of the likes of Robert E. Howard, rather than hard-boiled detective fiction, that attracted attention. Perhaps, I assume, to have their artists and writers push the boundaries of contentious issues like, e.g., violence and power abuse openly in comics — just not in a realistic, contemporary setting. But then, between 1973-1974, Marvel dared to venture where DC feared to thread. They introduced a slew of so-called antiheroes (including, e.g., Wolverine and the Punisher), whose fictional worlds were contemporary, and more than anything else — bleak and violent. Now, these antiheroes are something else, alright. I’ve talked before of how Golden Age superheroes are altruistic and humanitarian to a fault, always ready to come to the rescue, and of how Silver Age multi-heroes are only heroes when push comes to shove — but these antiheroes are, seemingly, no heroes at all! You might suspect them of having given up on theworld and its citizens — apart from their want for redress. In any case, they certainly don’t throw their personal squabbles aside in the face of the enemy; they, rather, embrace the conflict and anger within. Bringing such dark, troubled characters into the otherwise always so bright, cheerful superhero genre entailed quite a risk, the risk of tarnishing the house image — but there was no outrage, not even from the conservative elements. These antiheroes were quite popular, however — and would remain so. Yet still, senior DC editors were hesitant to follow suit; though eventually, in later years, they would. However, as CCA guidelines were getting reformed and relaxed during these 1970s years, probably because they would be undermined anyway, to no consequence, DC did venture into the pulp-horror genre, with titles such as Swamp Thing and Demon, presumably so as to have dark heroes of their own.

Now, on a side note: Why did readers have such interest in dark, contentious themes? Well, in the late 1960s, early 1970s, western societies faced an economic and cultural crisis, due to a number of factors, including, e.g., two oil crises and the disillusionment of the 1960s. This made people, including audiences, see the world no longer in black-and-white terms, but only in shades of gray. And so, in the course of the 1970s, more and more professional artists and entrepeneurs in a variety of media began producing morally ambiguous fiction that reflected this new view — and comics publishers jumped on the bandwagon.

Of course, all above-mentioned examples reflect a growing indifference to the CCA and its seal of approval; but the CMAA still, due to their still existing relations with major distributors, had economic power over comics publishers at large. But that was soon to change. As sales still remained on the decline overall, even with the venture into comix and horror territory and the introduction of antiheroes, Marvel and DC now also had to find a market for their surpluses to keep the profits up; so an obvious thing to do was to opt for the underground solution of direct distribution — which they also did. In late 1973, DC was the first of the Big Two to announce their participation therein; Marvel were less in a hurry — and rightly, since by now they had ascended to the top spot of the industry, but eventually, in the early 1980s, they, too, finally made a serious push into the direct sales market. This wasn’t just good for sales volumes, but it also freed up new possibilities. No longer having to rely solely or exclusively on major distributors was indeed liberating, in that it meant that that the need for going through the CCA’s evaluation process was effectively completely eliminated, which, in turn, of course, meant that Marvel and DC could now freely release more contentious and explicit comics onto the market — in fact, indeed, they could print and publish whatever they wanted to put out there, much like in the 1950s. And thus, in effect, the CMAA became a hollow institution for the remainder of its existence.

The Iron Age of heroes
dark-knight-triumphantAll this, everything I’ve talked about so far — the hard-boiledness of first-generation superheroes, the raw satirical stylings of the underground, the emergence of antiheroes, the change to a direct distribution system, and so on, creates the backdrop against which the emergence of a new, different breed of superhero comics is set. I’m talking of those that went beyond what the genre was thought capable of, demonstrating even that superhero comics, and comics in general, could actually be works of literary art! Here, Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen are two that come to mind easily. Well, obviously of course, because these keep popping up in every discussion and in every debate on comics and art — and this, not just because of their genre-novelty, but more so because they are the definitive apotheosis of the genre! Now, Watchmen is the more cerebral of the two, with complex and layered plot lines, and lots and lots of text, while The Dark Knight Returns is more of a visceral read; but both on their own terms, these two titles, like no other superhero comics before or after, offer insight into the gnarled psyches of the superheroes, and make us think of their position in their respective worlds, in terms of whether they bring advantage or harm. But what makes these two particular titles really great works of art is not what they explicitly communicate to the reader; more than anything else, they managed to capture the rebellious zeitgeist of the 1980s — self-reflectingly so. In a word, both comics are about superheroes and, or so I like to think, comics in general making a comeback in society — in the most in-your-face way possible, pushing the boundaries and possibilities of the comics medium to the extreme.

So yeah, if you ask me, they, comics publishers at large, should have stopped publishing superhero comics after Elvis had left the building. Admittedly, that is perhaps too cynical a view; in the wake of 1986 there have published some good and decent — even great superhero comics, like, e.g., Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke, Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, and Sam Kieth’s The Maxx. But, taken on a whole, most of the modern superhero comics are just derivatives of either Watchmen or The Dark Knight or of both together — and bad ones at that! Sure, there’s an argument to be made that even that is not without its merit. After all, Image Comics got to where it is now thanks to derivative superhero shlock, and I don’t know how, but they ended up filling in the vacuum left by the withering Vertigo, a publishing imprint of DC, specializing in adult-themed comic books — but now I digress. The point I was making is this: superhero-wise, comics hit a creative peak in the mid-1980s that they never have topped.

Let’s all go the movies
When it comes to movies, however, there was still progress to be made. As early as the 1940s, there had been various attempts of bringing the superhero to the screen, with overall little success. After all, how many of you can say you have seen or are familar with the the Shadow feature (1940), the 1966 Batman movie, or the television rendition of Spider-Man (1977)? Superman (1978) really launched the superhero genre in film, demonstrating what a good cast and a big budget could do with superhero properties. Though its production was somewhat shaky, its release was a safe effort by movie standards, because after all, a loving, nostalgic tribute to an all-American pop icon was pretty much a guaranteed, sure-fire hit. Then, ten years later, Batman (1989) hit the movie theaters. It shouldn’t surprise anyone why expectations were mixed — Tim Burton’s gothic aesthetic, Michael Keaton in the lead role, an overall bleak script and portrayal of superheroics, but Warner Brothers went along with and well, it ended up opening the door for the current super hero movie boom! No surprise there. Batman just really nailed it on every account — taking inspiration from all the right comics, adding precisely the right amount of kitsch and grit to give logic and credibility to the cartoon-like continuum of happenings on the screen, and in 4223383-batman-1989-batman-confronts-the-jokerso doing it set the template for basically all other superhero movies up to and including our current era. But perfect as it was and still is, in terms of special effects it left something to be desired — and I say this as a fan of old-school, practical effects. By now we have reached the point where special effects are about as good as they’re going to get right now — but I have yet to see a superhero movie, which brings something new to the table in terms of narrative, character, and action.

However, in the interest of full disclosure, I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed Blade II (2002), Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008), Kick-Ass (2010), and I rank Batman Returns (1992) high on my list of all-time favorite films. Hell, I’ve even come to appreciate Batman & Robin (1997) — or, well, at least “those” scenes with Uma Thurman. So, yeah, let it be clear that I’m not a comics fanboy who wants comics material to stay exclusive to comics. Hell, I’d even dare say that some comics-to-movie translations are just as enjoyable as the original source material — and sometimes even more so! The Crow (1994) comes to mind here. And Barbarella (1968).

I just don’t get it, why movie producers and studios are keen on only churning out superhero movies while there are so many other characters and titles that lend themselves perfectly to be translated to the silver screen. Road to Perdition (2002) and A History of Violence (2005), to name but two examples, prove it could be done, and this at little cost — but with potentially relatively high returns!

Actually, I do get it. Disney and Time Warner didn’t acquire, respectively, Marvel Entertainment and DC Comics just for fun, just because. They know there’s money to be made in producing superhero movies — millions and millions, even billions, of dollars. And so they keep on churning out these superhero movies that are all the same stylistically, narratively, and generally, endlessly, one after the other — that is, of course, as long as we keep going to the movie theaters to see them. And for reasons beyond me, people keep flocking to theatres to see these Hollywood movies, regardless of their quality. Spoiler: Most of them suck! Oh! to be sure, I know that some get reviewed favorably — some even very favorably. Nevertheless, let’s face it — if we don’t make a stand here, if we don’t say, “I don’t care how good that movie is!” it’s only a matter of time before all we get to see is superhero schlock.

And that is why I don’t give two shits about Deadpool.


So guys, here’s Part III of my treatise on the emergence, and rise in popularity of, U.S. superhero comics. These were supposed to my last, final, definite, absolute words on why I give two shits about Deadpool, but being concise has never been my strong suit. But hey, I’m not forcing anyone to read any of this. 

A call to arms
Let’s go back to the late-1940s. As stated in Part I of this treatise, there had been since long a preconceived notion, among the U.S. “bourgeois” class, however incorrect, that the “moral being” of U.S. citizenry was under attack from popular culture. Then, in 1947, Joseph McCarthy, a Republican from Wisconsin, was elected to Senator, and from this position he played into the fears, hates, and resentments of the masses, making them, too, paranoid about all the supposed dangers of ruining everything real, authentic American. Between 1950 and 1954, this culminated in a series of investigations led by him to identify Communist550x421x133507-004-884A783E.jpg.pagespeed.ic.1jJu_6Q2Fy sympathizers he believed had infiltrated U.S. government, seeking to structurally undermine the U.S. position in the world, and these had an impact that reached well beyond the Senate chamber. There are plenty of cases of actors, directors, and others active in the arts, and even men of science, who had to face loss of employment after being “blacklisted” for being labeled as a Communist sympathizer. Taken on the whole, however, media-at-large came out of it pretty unscathed; but the comics industry, in particular, came under heavy scrutiny by various Parents’ Organizations as well as the public — but more on that in a bit.

As a direct result of both the post-war baby boom, a period of sharp increase in birth rates, and the overall economic upheaval following the war, which, notwithstanding some inflationary pressures, led to a rise in disposable income for many people, which, in turn, meant children getting more allowance, there emerged a distinct youth culture, with values and norms different from the society outside — including family. Parents, already feeling like they had seemingly lost control over their children’s actions, were, on top of that, bombarded with exaggerated and, in some cases, even false reports on increases in youth delinquency, crime, and prostitution. This, combined with the fear-mongering of the above-mentioned McCarthy, created a climate in which parents saw in popular culture, e.g., Hollywood and rock ‘n’ roll, a threat to traditional American family values — some even thought of the emergence, and rise, of popular culture a Communist plot! Now, parents couldn’t prevent their adolescents from going to the movies or listening to music on the radio; however, they could boycott buying comics for their preadolescents in drugstores, magazine stands, and bookstores, so as to make a statement to the comics publishers and distributors, “Think of the children!”

18cHere, one must know that quite a few, perhaps even most, of the early-1950s comics on the stands were actually pretty out there, with stories of revenge, murder and matricide, featuring gratuitous gore and violence — indeed, a far cry from the innocent, innocuous, and family-friendly superhero comics of yesteryear. In case you’re wondering how it ever came to this, the answer is actually pretty simple. To overcome audience apathy, comics publishers and distributors opted for a throw-shit-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach and, in so doing, happened to end up with grisly horror fare. Added to this is the fact that, in all the years leading up to 1953, there were no regulations whatsoever; publishers could just print and publish whatever they wanted to put out there, and distributors would carry all comics, irrespective of content. It is no wonder, then, of course, that for conservative parents, teachers, religious and civic groups a mere boycott of comic books didn’t go far enough — much more deliberate action was needed. And, thus it went, that conservatives, spearheaded by Fredric Wertham, a psychiatrist and author of Seduction of the Innocent, pressured the government to censor, or downright forbid the sale to children aged 15 or less of, comics — all comics, not just the grisly ones!

5-1You will respect my authority!
The pressure had some success, in that it brought comics to the Senate’s attention. But what could the Senate then possibly do in the matter? In reality, not very much. Agreeing to the imposing nation-wide censorship was de jure impossible; and a store ban on comics was — and correct me if I’m wrong here! — more of a State affair, not a Federal affair. Nonetheless, the pressure was on; and thus, in 1954, to counter any government-mandated restrictions the Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA), a comics industry trade group consisting of only major comics publishers, formed, in a “pre-emptive” manner, a “voluntary” self-censorship authority, named, the Comics Code Authority (CCA). The CCA’s mission, originally, was to merely evaluate, not dictate, the content of comics and give those meeting certain standards a seal of approval; and comics publishers could volunteer to submit comics to the CCA, which they were about to print and publish, for evaluation. However, it didn’t take long before major magazine distributors refused to carry comics without said seal; and from then on, the CCA could in a very real sense make or break sales results — and, by extension, comics publishers. While editors working for publishers aligned with the CMAA, such as, e.g., Atlas Comics (later renamed Marvel Comics), would have you believe 99 out of 100 comics got through the evaluation process with no worse than a minor edit — in truth, in actuality, the CCA smothered creative energies of artists, writers and publishers alike, like no other self-regulated censorship board in the popular industries. To give you an idea of the extent of what was de facto prohibited by censor — there was to be no more nudity or violence or profanity in comics, or mention of corruption or power abuse, and it wasn’t even allowed anymore to have the word “weird” in a title! Now, the CCA’s reign lasted roughly into the 1970s and so, as you can imagine, during all that time, the comics landscape became a conservative creative barren patch.

The return of the superhero
With the CCA’s restrictions in place, many genres (e.g., including crime and horror) were placed off limits, in effect bankrupting numerous specialized comics publishers, leaving only capitulating comics companies to create child-friendly, family-oriented products. For some, this meant a necessary return to the early days, when all was costumey action and adventure, with black-and-white morality. But unless these companies had 416pxwhiz2ka1some backlist goldmines, they still had to face closing down — and even actually having a strong superhero property didn’t guarantee a thing, either! A truly tragic example is Fawcett Comics, who held the rights over the Shazam! property, a comics series that ran from 1940-1953 and which, at its peak durng the Second World War, rivalled, and even surpassed, the Superman comics series in terms of popularity and revenue. They were bankrupted by legal expenses, in 1953, after National Periodical Publications (later renamed DC Comics), the then-biggest shark in the world of comics, filed suit for copyright infringement, claiming that Shazam was substantially similar to Superman — as if they only just found out! Anyway, in short, a harsh dog-eat-dog kind of environment was created in the wake of the CCA, which eventually effected a de facto duopoly between Marvel Comics and DC Comics — but with each riffing off each other’s innovations, the U.S. mainstream comics field became a monopoly of sameness.

1064459-young_men_25Atlas Comics was the first to, or at least attempt to, revive the superhero genre with the Human Torch, Captain America, and the Sub-Mariner, with rather disappointing results. This because their “comeback” stories were written using the same formula that had brought Atlas success years earlier — same heroes, same stories, with only one difference, namely, that now communists, spies, and saboteurs starred as villains. All this while the audience had moved on. When National Periodical followed suit with the revival of the Flash, in 1956, they were at least smart enough to contemporize their formula, by revamping the Flash from the ground up, e.g., by grounding his origin story in science and sci-fi, which were increasingly hot topics in popular literacy; and so their efforts did meet with success, in that readers’ numbers went through the roof, at least in relative terms (i.e., relative to post-1954 levels, not relative to pre-1954 levels). They repeated this su755093ccess three years later with the revival and re-imaging of the Green Lantern, thereby further, and again substantially, cementing the popularity of superhero comics. To no surprise, their prime competitor (by now renamed Marvel Comics), looked to them rather than to themselves for direction in those years, late 1950s-early 1960s. In so doing, this duoply brought about a second great age of superhero comics — the Silver Age. This Silver Age lasted until 1970; and while, obviously, this specific time period didn’t prove as golden and profitable in overall terms as the years between 1938 and 1954, it did witness first the re-emergence of the (social group or) multi-hero and not long after the creation of an entirely new superhero type — the flawed hero, with a little less holier-than-thou attitude, even wrestling with inner demons.

Single or social virtue
1449_4_063Now let’s first talk multi-heroes. Here again, it’s National Periodical that deserves the credits. After having successfully revived the Flash and the Green Latern, they thought it smart to do a crossover of sorts. So, in 1960, they revived the Justice Society of America, a superhero group originally created in 1940, consisting of, among others, early incarnations of these two superheroes; and this new revived group, though now renamed the Justice League, was basically an all-star team, consisting of National Periodical most famed superhero characters, including the likes of Batman and Superman. It was a sure hit. Obviously. How could it not be? But who could have predicted that the Justice League would become National Periodical’s most lucrative superhero property! And so, once more, of course, Marvel took note of this success. A year later they, then, in turn, introduced a superhero group of their own — The Fantastic Four. However, credit where credit is due! It must be said here that Marvel took it one step further — to the next level. Instead of having a bunch of samey lone heroes team up, Marvel’s writers, most notably Stan Lee, made a conscious effort to introduce a group of super-invididuals, each having an identity of his or her own, simmering with the potential for social drama. At the time, in terms of comic book characterization, this was a huge step forwards! You must know here, that National Periodical’s superhero characters back then, while each having a unique individual superpower, all spoke in the same measured, patronizing language, and they all always reacted in the same predictable way, without so much of a hint of individual spontaneity or impulsiveness. Sure, Superman, Batman, the Flash, and the Green Lantern still had a certain “timeless” quality to them; but it soon became clear that these new Marvel heroes (i.e., Mr. Fantastic, Invisible Girl, the Human Torch, Thing) had stolen their thunder somewhat. And indeed, judging by sales and audience hype, with The Fantastic Four Marvel had laid down the perfect template for what superhero publishers needed: modern protagonists who, I already said, battle not just their villainous nemeses, but also identity issues and, e.g., financial hardship, all the while bickering with each other — in short, heroes who are heroes in spites of themselves. 

invincible6rjNow, the flawed hero figure makes for a perfect multi-hero; and this, obviously, because in a group hero story heroism isn’t attributed to just one individual, it’s the sum total of the hero group’s efforts that matters. But in the years following the successful profitable launch of The Fantastic Four, Marvel decided to introduce some new single heroes, as well, quite a slew of them, and all flawed, such as, e.g., Spider-Man and the Hulk. Again, their introduction, too, was heralded with success, thereby proving their formula, or template, for superhero comics a winning one, all across the board.

This is all well and nice, but it makes for tough theorizing. For how to explain, e.g., the simultaneous, and still pervading, success and popularity of both multi-heroes and single heroes? Of course, a simple, but probably just, answer would be to say that one doesn’t exclude the other. But if this is so, then that would mean, that the work and thinking done by people smarter than myself could be thrown overboard. This seems a bit of a waste to me, so the least I could do, here, is to entertain some theories with what we know historically. So — here goes!

A first general idea is that certain times call for certain heroes; one the one hand, multi-heroes tend, though not necessarily, to thrive in periods of uncertainty, transition, or struggle; while, on the other hand, single heroes seemingly flourish in times when there is greater confidence and hope. At face value, this makes sense; when times are tough — when the country faces war and recession, there’s, as you may suppose, an increase in demands and needs on the group; and when all goes well — when the economy is booming, employment levels high, and the country all at peace, social obligation takes a back seat to individualism. But seen against the backdrop of the Great Depression and the following war years, it makes one question whether this holds true.

Consider, after all, the seemingly paradoxical fact that the late-1930s, early-1940s saw the flourish of the single hero type — which is not to say there were no group hero stories back then (there was, as mentioned, of course, the Justice Society of America, and I’m sure there were more), but broadly speaking, the multi-hero was very much absent from U.S. 1930s-1940s popular culture. This paradox can be accounted for, though, by noting that, even then, individualism, more than anything else, was getting praised, celebrated, and honored as the greatest historical moral and political achievement of the U.S. people — indeed, even when they were down, when they were at their lowest points, many then still tended to blame setbacks, financial or otherwise, just and only on their own individual failings. And so it can be understood how single heroes, and not multi-heroes, were so popular in these years.

675191As for why multi-heroes became only popular after the Second World War? Here, theories diverge. Some claim a male malaise set in, in the wake of the war. They say, the war led to a paradigm shift in society that made man doubt his ability to be a master of his own existence. From this it follows, then, that the conceit of a single hero saving the world from disaster went lost to a post-1945 audience, to be replaced, perhaps, by the conceit of a multi-hero who is more likely to require help than to give it. Others, though, take an opposite stance by saying that psychotic dictators, such as, e.g., Hitler and Stalin, rather reinforced the idea that an individual, through wit and resourcefulness, can definitely make the world a better place for all; but left unchecked, will lead the world to destruction. This they follow up by saying that, in the post-1945 period, there was a shift away from a moral focus on individual responsibility and blame towards a focus on sharing responsibility and blame for what goes wrong and praise for what goes well. And this, in turn, then provides an ideal backdrop against which to view the much-welcomed re-emergence, after decades of slumber, of group hero titles throughout the 1960s (and later decades), as witnessed, e.g., by the mass popularity first of The Justice League and The Fantastic Four and soon after The X-Men and The Avengers. So, with everything previously stated, all in all, I think we can understand why it is that multi-heroes came to the fore.

Of course this would leave us still wondering how and why single heroes were during this time still quite as popular as they had been in the early years of comic books. I don’t have any answers here — no fancy theories! no newfangled nonsense! no nothing! You see, I never really got to delve much into the literature on this time period. But I could take a guess and say the answer lies in post-war — hippie? — idealism and optimism. Or just say that one is to look no further than the ever-pervasive preadolescent power fantasy. I don’t know. I’d gladly hear your thoughts on this!

Next week I’ll delve into the Sixties rebellion and the comics underground scene — for real this time. I’ll also write some about antiheroes. And about movies, too.

A Treatise on “Why I Don’t Give Two Shits about Deadpool” — Part II

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.

Melting pot
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 sSuperman_207-4-smarmy-super-pestelf-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 langua116_4_004ge, 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, fighting_yank12in 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 A2147373-eisner_all_about_pgell_cvrmerican 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.

Super visuals
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 tailoredDick-Tracy-Jan-2-and-3-19331 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 Supermaactionn 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.

MM25Vision6And 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!

A Treatise on “Why I Don’t Give Two Shits about Deadpool” — Part I

This friend of mine was telling me how I should really go watch Deadpool and Superman v Batman and Suicide Squad and I was like, “Fuck no, I’ve had it up to here with these superhero movies!” He couldn’t see why someone like me, someone invested in comics, felt no hype whatsoever for any of these movies and I tried to explain as best I could, with me going on about one-dimensional characterization and shallow pastiches … But now thinking back I think I could do with some more explaining. As it happens, I’ve done some writing on American comics history as part of my master’s program, which I never finished — but nonetheless these bits of writing make for a nice read and an introductory argument as to why people should stop praising superheroes altogether! So what follows here is a translated excerpt from a chapter of my unfinished master’s thesis.

First off, American comics today. The past thirty years or so have seen a quite explosive rise of a plethora of comic book genres and styles, so I won’t pretend it’s all “samey-samey” superheroes. Not anymore it isn’t. But, it took mainstream publishers something like fifty years to get to a point where they started branching out in different and experimental directions, e.g., by giving alternative comics and their artists a chance to rise and shine in the mainstream.

In the following, I want to address specifically two questions: 1) How did the superhero genre ever become a staple genre of the US comics industry? 2) What’s the deal with this fascination with superheroes, anyway? But before I get to that, let me examine the backgrounds against which these superhero comics were created.

Unlucky the country that needs heroes
The first thirty years of the twentieth century witnessed vast changes in American life: as urbanization increased at an accelerated pace, so grew the cities’ proletariat; there was a world war which shook the moral to its centre and suspended the influences of religion for a time; and, while the war in Europe was still raging, a devastating flu pandemic struck the country and, in its wake, its survivors were left with an “anying goes” outlook; then, the U.S. economy flourished and the workers with disposable income and jobs that were not physically taxing gave first rise to a popular culture that the cities’ “bourgeois” bemoaned as a descent into the cheap and salacious (i.e., movies, confession magazines and all that jazz — quite literally, there was a lot of jazz going on); in short, there was a lot was going on — some good, some bad. But, taken on the whole, things were looking up and it was good to be an American.

And then came Black Thursday — and the Great Depression followed.

In the 1930s, the U.S. economy was collapsing: banks went bankrupt, businesses and factories closed, and unemployment figures were soaring. It’s a story all too familiar; though, mind you, many accounts of this era are exaggerated. It wasn’t like half of the U.S. population were evicted from their homes, left to rot in the gutters, like some would have you believe. But that the Depression had an impact of everyday life cannot be doubted. A lot of men, who were used to “bringing in the bacon,” now found themselves without a job and felt a sense of humilation and failure, while still others, just anger and resentment for being relatively deprived. Overall, it needs little imagination to understand that, among the working and middle-classes, there rose a demand for cheap escapist fiction. And superhero comics fit the bill perfectly, in that they had the power to transport readers elsewhere where nothing had any real bearing on the gloom of the day — all for a mere dime!

Fig. 1: Tarzan of the Apes; adapted to comics by Hal Foster.

Now, of course, there were also the jungle and Western adventure comics, some of which first appeared as newspaper comic strips, to be later reprinted in comic book format, while others were created specifically for the comics medium, such as Tarzan of the Apes (see Fig. 1), Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, Young Buffalo Bill and Red Ryder to name but some examples. These adventure comics, as well, offered readers an escape into distant settings, like a jungle or an old Western Desert — but in the 1930s, as the Great Depression worsened, it wasn’t just enough anymore to escape from reality through romantic and nostalgic fantasy. More and more, Americans felt wronged and craved for hard-boiled justice, so what was needed was a sort of Aristolelian catharsis, to vent, to release.

The market reacted accordingly. Pulp publishers especially, always quick to seize on demand, flooded the market with hard-boiled detective novels in which gruff heroes with a mean streak battered nasty villains into confession. And to no surprise, their efforts met with success — millions of readers devoured these stories. Comic book publishing houses, which were originally in the business of reprinting only newspaper comic strips, on their part took note of this emerging publishing trend and entered the market with their own offerings: oftentimes sixty-four pages of original material, featuring colorfully costumed, masked heroes with their own brand of justice (see Fig. 2). And for some reason, a reason I’ll discuss below, these particular heroes had more overall appeal than normal, “Everyman/woman” sort of protagonist who seek adventures and set wrongs right.

Fig. 2: Action Comics #1, feat. Superman; created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

First a simple question. Which hero was the first to don a mask? (By the way, when talking superheroes, a costume is like a mask, for all intents and purposes.)

Around the turn of the 20th, across the ocean in the UK, a certain Hungarian-born Baroness Orczy wrote a stage play about a fictional hero of the French Revolution, filled with daring escapes and adventures. The play’s epynomous hero went by the name of The Scarlet Pimpernel, which is the adopted identity of a rather effeminate British aristocrat who, masked by various disguises, valiantly and altruistically saves various French gentry from the guillotine. While arguably not the absolute very first dual-identity hero, the play, and subsequent novel, certainly were the first to popularize the conceit. And so, years later, this Pimpernel fellow would play a big part in the shaping and characterization of basically all American superheroes, though only indirectly. I say “indirectly” because the Pimpernel was a in a very real sense a hero of Old World nobility, and so obviously he never resonated directly with the American masses who take pride in their independence from Old War corruption. To make sense of how we got from The Scarlet Pimpernel to Superman, Batman and all those kind of superheroes in disguise, we need a missing link …

In 1919, just after the close of the First World War, an American writer had a short story published in the pulp magazine All-Story Weekly, called ‘The Curse of Capistrano’. It was a rip-off of The Scarlet Pimpernel, but with less wit and satire — featuring the hero, Zorro, as a swashbuckling champion of the oppressed Mexicans, who stood up against corrupt Spanish officials. Somehow this Zorro story ended up in the hands of Douglas Fairbanks, a then-famous Hollywood actor and producer, who, thinking it had strong movie potential, immediately acquired the movie rights. Not long after, in 1920, he released the self-starring movie, titled The Mark of Zorro. It was a huge box-office success, filling theaters not just in the evenings and on weekends, but also during daytime matinees — for years and years on end! Because, you know, back then there weren’t all that many movies being made. But still quite an accomplishment nonetheless. Anyway, it’s no exaggeration to state that whole generations of American youth, including future comics makers and publishers, grew up with and were influenced by The Mark of Zorro. Of this there is plenty of evidence: there are numerous accounts and interviews with the likes of Lee Falk, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and Bob Kane (Batman) confirming its inspirational impact; but even without their own testimonies, you could easily see how the iconic qualities and make-up of movie Zorro– shoulders square, chest high, head thrown back, arms akimbo, his cape ruffling in the wind — have, later, been translated from the screen to the printed comics page, almost one-on-one (see Fig. 3). And then, of course, there’s Zorro’s deliberately contrasting dual-identity (i.e., much like the Pimpernel — an inept, effeminate, fearful pansy, during the day;  a fearless swashbuckler at night), a character feature first introduced in Fairbanks’ film, which would, later, become a staple feature of basically all superhero comics. Here, we only need to think of Clark Kent, Superman’s alter ego.

Fig. 3: The Mark of Zorro; with Douglas Fairbanks in the lead.

Heroes of the Great Depression
As everyone well knows, success breeds imitation. But in the immediate wake of The Mark of Zorro’s success, there appeared hardly any, if any at all, similarly masked heroes in the movies. Sure, some swashbucklers were released in the theaters, but that’s about it, really — and none of these, save perhaps one, featured a masked hero. It took about ten years before finally a whole slew of Zorro “knock-offs” appeared in various media, e.g., in the then-new, emerging media of radio plays and comic books. All of a sudden you had The Shadow, The Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet, The Phantom, Superman, Batman, and the list goes on and on and on — and most, or even all of them, met with seeming success! Why such sudden popularity? An accidental caprice of market forces or something else? If the latter, what, then, made the 1930s particularly ripe for masked adventures? Had Deperession-era audiences a special need for dual-identity heroes?

This is where things get muddy because, while the context is clear, History isn’t an exact science: there’s not always an obvious, direct correlation of historical cause and effect. It isn’t as easy as saying, “Batman became a popular character soon after his introduction, back in 1938, because Roosenvelt was president around that time.” Although, funnily enough, I remember some historians seeing a strong correlation between how the New Deal regime performed and the extent to which U.S. audiences embraced superheroes. And you know what — it isn’t all that strange a thought. Perhaps the actual, real-life success and ingenuity of Roosevelt, a president born with a silver spoon in his mouth, did make the character Bruce Wayne, a rich orphan cleaning up the town while being dressed up as a bat, all the more believable, I don’t know.

I do know this, though — it would be a cop-out to say that — to stick with the example of Batman — his rise to popularity was all just a coincidential fluke. Now, if it was just them him that got popular — well, this would have ensured credibility to such a claim. But that’s not the case. Over the years, there appeared tens, perhaps even hundreds, of “knock-offs” whose stories all got published and endlessly printed until finally to the point of oversaturation — which only happened after fifteen(!) years of “market flooding.” And today, we’re seventy years removed from the moment when the superhero market nosedived — and still superheroes hold, though much less than before, dominance over American comics! Let that sink in for a moment. My point being, the superhero’s popularity couldn’t just have been a mere market fluke. There has to be a contextual reason, or even reasons, for why superheroes resonated, and still resonate, with the U.S. comics audience.

As stated, I don’t have any exact answers — but I do have some ideas, based on the writings of several historians, sociologists, anthropologists and what-have-you’s, about how to better understand the emergence and rise in popularity of the superhero genre against the sketched context.

But first, this question must be answered: Why have a hero don a mask?

Masked motivation
There are several simple answers to this question. The most obvious, of course, is that masked heroes oftentimes lead doublelives, and a mask makes for a clear demarcation between where one identity ends and the other begins, making things easier for readers. Story-wise, a mask serves several purposes. Firstly, a mask helps hide the identity of the hero so he, on the one hand, can freely operate undercover, on the fringes of the law, protecting society by doling out vigilante justice, while, on the other hand, protecting himself (or herself) from the corrupting influence of society. (The latter goes especially for one whose single powers can shift the balance of life on Earth.) Secondly, while still on the subject of identity, masked justice rarely ever is blind justice — it has a personal agenda; it takes a special kind of motivation to fight crime with a mask on. To the hero, exacting justice or revenge for wrongdoing isn’t enough — to him (or her), it’s about leaving a mark, a visual impression of a special kind, in the mind of the enemy, the villain in the story. Furthermore, sometimes it’s to instil in the fictive universe the hero occupies a sense of continuity. Such is the case with, e.g., The Phantom, a comics series in which the hero once he reaches a certain age passes on the mantle to his son, so as to make it look as if The Phantom figure is an immortal ghost on an everlasting crimefighting mission.

Fig. 4: The Phantom; created by Lee Falk.

Now, let’s look at it from the standpoint of comics creators and publishers. On a practical level, there’s the benefit a mask or a cowl brings to the comics artist, in that it covers up artistic defects, if there are any — so much so, in fact, one doesn’t even have to be a good artist at all! This, in turn, was of immediate and tangible benefit to publishers then, for it meant that they could pick just about anyone from the streets and have them sweat for a lousy salary, endleslly churning out comics. This, by the way, is no exaggeration. Comics publishing houses were actually running sweatshops! These were filled with low-paid, fresh out of secondary school artists who had no ownership over the characters they were working with, and so these artists never got to familiarize themselves with how to draw and render those characters. Also not helping was the fact that there were hardly any seasoned illustrators engaged in the making of comics, simply because there was more money to be made elsewhere, e.g., in advertising, which meant that there were almost no professionals around who could pass on skills and knowledge. Because of this the art form suffered, but publishers couldn’t care less about that, as long as the money kept pouring in — which, obviously, it did. After all, standards were low. It’s not like these comics were targeted to and consumed by a high-culture audience redolent with aesthetical snobbery — no, the bulk of the comis audience consisted of preadolescent children and “simple folk.” Besides that, we’re talking here of a then-new medium — a benchmark work had yet to be created. Anyway, it’s easy to see why publishers went “all in” with these masked adventures.

Now, I’m sure there are bound to be more reasons for having a hero don a mask than the ones listed here, but this is about the gist of it. So, now I want to look into what’s behind the mask.

The superhero within
Some author stated that the conceit of a dual-identity hero who, by daytime, is just your average law-abiding gentleman (or lady!) or a lovable foppish loser, while by night a daredevil adventurer righting wrongs and redressing injustices everywhere, having steamy affairs all the while, provides the perfect metaphor for — well, at least the cinema-going audiences who go out of the light of day into the discreet dark of the movie theater so as to live out their fantasies of romance and adventure of a kind missing from their day-to-day lives. This might perhaps explain why The Mark of Zorro resonated with U.S. audiences then. But here’s the thing: the metaphor of a “rogue” movie audience can’t be transposed to the comics’ own kind of immersion, with comics being mostly consumed at home. So that leaves still open the question of why costumed heroes have become so prevalent in the comics.

Here one might think: perhaps it’s easy for readers, as well, to identify with a masked protagonist, more so than with a protagonist whose face is never obscured; for in the former case, you can just simply imagine yourself being the man (or woman) behind the mask. But is that really true? Well, first-person video games of today’s era oftentimes feature silent protagonists, and this because game developers have long reasoned that having a fully voiced first-person protagonist stifles identification. Could it be something like that? Do fully realized facial features hinder identification in any way? It’s perhaps hard to believe, but that may well be the case. There’s a theory that states that a realistic, fully rendered face will make the reader see the face of another; but the moment you make it more abstract, say, perhaps to the point where you can just make out the outlines and expressions of the head, the reader will see himself (or herself) by projection. Following this line of thought, you could then say that masks and cowls, indeed, enable reader-identification with the comics’ protagonists.

Detective Comics #27; feat. Batman; created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane.

Perhaps we have to look deeper, into ourselves. Various authors and scholars have theorized that the endless paradox of the dual-identity hero (i.e., the seeming weaknesses of his regular identity “covering” the strengths of the other) is a symbolic reenactment of our own identity-games. This goes beyond the fantasy of wanting to be someone else, it’s about the “role-play” we play in our social interactions on a daily basis. We all have our secret sides that we prefer not to show when engaging socially, but within the private confines of our home we are free of our “regular” identity; at home we can give free reign to the hero within, thinking, “If only they knew how special I am!” The reasoning, then, is that dual-identity heroes allow us to believe that we, too, are, or at least could be, so much more than we appear to be.

Would reader-identification, then, be the explanation of why the popularity of superhero comics took off in the thirties? I’m sure its part of the explanation — but there’s a “but” here. Oh, sure, it’s easy to see a 1930s child with a power fantasy and a Depression-era unemployed father identify themselves with their protagonists, but — as competition grew, many of these late-1930s superheroes were dressed in ever more outrageously extravagant costumes as to capture attention from the stands, so that readers were kind of foreclosed from ever really identifiying with them.

What, then?

This concludes Part I of my treatise. Someday — soon, I hope! — I’ll continue with some bits on synergy and branding and cultural chauvinism and who knows what else! In the meantime, you can expect some art work related news soon!

Comic Book Inking: How Do They Do It?

Noeska Smit, a PhD who deals with all things Medical Visualization and Other Things That Are Way Above My Head asked me to write a blog piece on the basics of comic book inking and, more specifically, on the do’s, don’t’s and why’s of it all. And so I did, and it turned into a full-blown essay. Let me know what you think of it! Did I miss anything or leave anything out, or make any mistakes in it?

André Franquin. Hergé. Mike Mignola. Frank Miller. Moebius. Berni Wrightson. Even if you have but a slight interest in comic book art, these names probably ring a bell; though, of course, some more than others. In part this is because, well, they have been of influence in shaping the creative output of various household names. Not without reason of course. They were, or still are, masters in their craft, each in his own right an inspiring, imaginative character-creator and world-builder. They all also had, or have, a very distinctive style of inking. And that’s what I’m going to talk about: comic book inking.

But first, for full disclosure, some expectation management. I am not a scientist like you are. At least I assume you are. Why else would you be reading this blog? I’m but a struggling self-taught illustrator. I haven’t won any Eisner Awards (a.k.a. “the Oscars of the comic book industry”) yet. You know what my last commissioned work was? A t-shirt design for a newly formed death metal band with an online reach of well over … their nuclear families. So, no, I’m not much of a known expert. But I was asked, nonetheless, by the blog’s host to write a thing or two on inking, since comic book-inspired shading and cross-hatching are, I am told, kind of the cat’s meow in the current field of illustrative rendering. And I happen to be reading into this very subject. So what to expect, then? Simple. Nothing but a modest write-up of some general do’s, don’t’s and why’s of inking.

First of all, let’s talk texture. If you look at an object, whatever object it may be, it has a certain look and feel. A wooden plank looks and feels different from a fur coat, as does a brick wall from a rough cotton sweater. But you know this already. Right? Right. When laying down inks, it’s best to try to convey the look and feel of the material represented instead of just using the same lines for different textures. This may seem obvious think to do, but in actuality, only a few, like Wrightson (see Fig. 1), have made, or make, a conscious effort in this area; generally, most artists give little thought to the nature, age and mood of whatever it is they are drawing.

Fig. 1: Swamp Thing #4 (1973); art and inks by Berni Wrightson.

At this point one cannot but mention the ligne claire (“clear line”) style, pioneered and put to excellent effect by Hergé. For those unfamiliar with it, he always used the same unvarying (or, in industry terms, “dead-weight”) lines for any object he drew, whatever its material. Supposedly so as to allow easy identification of characters and their environments by the reader. But that doesn’t fly with me. While Hergé’s drawings are clean, clear and figurative and, of course, obviously iconic, I do very much think something a bit more textured has it advantages visually, especially if one were to remove the colors. Compare, for instance, a panel from Tintin (see Fig. 2) with one from Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, inked by Klaus Janson who used a variety of materials and rendering techniques (see Fig. 3), and note the difference. Wouldn’t you agree that in Janson’s panel its easier to differentiate between focus and context? But, there’s a point to be made. One could argue that Hergé’s clear line style was always more of a narrative device and less of a stylistic device, pushing the attention forward from one panel to the next instead of having of every panel screaming, “Yo’, wuzzup y’all? This artist got the skillz to take any texture to the next level. DAMN!” But then, sometimes a grimy, textured look is as much a narrative tool. As an example, we look at Moebius who’s probably most known for his own clear line style but who also pulled out all stops to portray the sand-dusty plains of the Old West in his Blueberry series (see Fig. 4). Here, a sterile look that is so suited to dreamlike sci-fi extravaganza wouldn’t show off the American West’s rugged desolation and the era’s hardships that made men rough, tough pioneers.

Fig. 2: The Adventures of Tintin #7 (1975); art and inks by Hergé.
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Fig. 3: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986); inks by Klaus Janson.
Fig. 4: Blueberry #19 (1980); art and inks by Jean “Moebius” Giraud.

Line Weight
Another signature mark of the clear line style: the use of the same dead-weight lines for all object lines regardless of position in the image and regardless of distance. Oh, sure, again Hergé made it work, but you will find that most other comic book artists and cartoonists vary line weight lines so as to emphasize perspective and thereby convey the illusion of three-dimensionality; they do this by using thicker lines for foreground objects and thinner lines for background objects (see Fig. 5). And, while on the subject of of three-dimensionality, lighting also comes here into play. It’s a rule of thumb that thick lines represent the shadowy sides or surface junctions while thin lines are used for contour lines of areas facing the light. However, some mainstream artists today don’t follow this rule of thumb. Instead, they juxtapose bold dead-weight contour lines with thinner, interior detail lines to give it a stylized feel (see Fig. 6). So that’s another way of doing it.

Fig. 5: The Walking Dead #4 (2); art and inks by Tony Moore.
Fig. 6: Batgirl #45 (2003); inks by Jesse Delperdang.

Spotting Blacks
So far I’ve talked about inking contour lines. But sometimes you want or need to splurge a little and take it further by laying down some solid blacks. For years now, ever since I was but a sprout of a boy, I’ve been reading comics, and I always assumed “spotting blacks” — which isn’t just a thing to do while watching the Oscar’s but is also a term that many comic book artists and cartoonists continue to use — was a stylistic choice to give an image a distinctive shadowed quality. But now I know better. Now I know that spotting blacks is also done to add solidity to a figure, and perhaps more than anything else, to dramatically frame and emphasize an object or figure. If you were but to look at, say, Frank Miller’s Sin City or Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, you would know too (see, respectively, Fig. 7 and 8). You’d see how blacks can be and are being used in comics as a means of eye focus control. Basically, it comes down to leaving bits of white in masses of black or adding bits of black in spacious white, and this then creates a contrasting tension which immediately and invariably attracts the eye’s attention. So, as you can surmise, a common mistake here is to leave unwanted white space in an area that should be only black, or vice versa, because, indeed, this will result in the attention straying from the focal point (see Fig. 9).

Fig. 7: Sin City: That Yellow Bastard (1996); art and inks by Frank Miller.
Fig. 8: Hellboy: Seed of Destruction (1994); art and inks by Mike Mignola.
Fig. 9: A quickie, done for my own study, that hopefully gets the point across. First though, you might want to imagine someone standing talking in front of a rock, saying “Text … text.”

Screen Tones
The moment you start spotting blacks, you create contrast in values — light versus dark — through which you can create a sense of depth. What is commonly done is to place heavy blacks in the foreground and to drop out all the blacks in the background (see Fig. 10). But of course, this isn’t always possible; sometimes something black or something “focal” occupies a space on a background plane. Here one has to be careful not to position an equally black foreground element, e.g., a silhouetted figure, next to it, because this would make it seem like foreground and background elements are placed on the same plane. Rearranging a panel’s composition is sometimes not an option due to time constraints or because it would break the comic page’s overall structure and layout — i.e., its macropanel or “metapanel,” if you will, to borrow a term from Will Eisner. But just leaving areas unfilled might not be an option either because, perhaps, of critical framing considerations. So what then? Well, back when full-range grayscale printing had yet to become pervasive, it was a common practice to use stippled screen tones to add a tone of gray. This meant that one didn’t have to do all spotting with just blacks or whites. And, like pens and inks, these screen tone patterns could be used, and have been used, for shading, coloring, texturing, framing, and so on (see Fig. 11). And no wonder, for long, the application of screen tones has been, and still is in the Japanese manga — i.e., black-and-white, comic-style paperbacks — arsenal, a staple technique. Anyway, here also, the rule applies that it’s best not to position same-valued elements next to each other. In addition, one has to bear in mind that too much gray is boring; the eye hungers for more tonal contrast.

Fig. 10: Batman: Gotham Knights #1: “To Become the Bat” (2000); art and inks by Jim Lee.
Batman: Black & White, Vol. 3: “Day & Night in Black & White” (2008); inked by Terry Austin.

So, as stated above, sharp contrast makes for makes for dramatic punctuation and that’s all great, but there are times you want to soften the transition between the blacks and whites in an image, e.g., to render the perhaps jarring edges somewhat less attention-grabbing. Now, you could use a palette of shades of gray to smooth things out in a gradient manner, but that just makes for muddy confusion in which nothing stands out as distinct and separate. So how then to give a softer edge between masses of black and white? A common technique here is what is known as “feathering,” which refers to drawing repetitive lines emerging at an angle from a heavier line like barbs from a feather (hence the term “feathering”) (see Fig. 12). This softens up the edges while still maintaining a high-contrast look.

Fig. 12: Batman: Gotham Knights #47: “Riddle Me This” (2004); inks by Sal Regla.

Now, feathering isn’t about just putting down some lines to create a graduating tone, it is also done to bring out the form and volume of the object being drawn. The, if you will, barbs must, namely, follow the object’s dominant shape and orientation (see Fig. 13). Sounds easy enough, right? Still, all too often, it is done wrong. Like when the feather lines don’t blend smoothily into the black edge, but instead meet it at right angles (see Fig. 14, left). This results in something that looks unnatural, especially if the feathered object is of organic nature. What you want is negative white space poking like little needles into the thick black (see Fig. 14, right). Sometimes there’s a need for horizontal feathering. Here you want the feather lines to blend into the black, getting thinner as the graduate out from the shaded area, lest you end up with that looks more akin to ornamental striping than like proper shading (Fig. 15, compare left and right).

feather 2
Fig. 13: Batman: Black & White, Vol. 2: “Stormy Nether” (2003); inked by Tom Palmer.
Fig. 14: This is but a simplified example to illustrate two approaches to feathering, one wrong, the other right.
Fig. 15: Another simplified example, this one illustrating two different approaches to horizontal feathering.

Last, but not least, I want to talk about crosshatching. It’s a technique by which you layer several sets of parallel hatching that crisscross each other, creating a dark mesh-like tone. The rule of “less is more” applies here. However, a lot of artists and their audience alike mistakenly place too high a value on visual busywork as a sign of artistic skill while, in fact, it’s actually the opposite in that, it just distracts the eye from poor figure construction and overall composition; it indeed takes more actual skill to render a scene with as few lines as possible. (Did anyone say ligne claire?) But crosshatching has its purpose and place. But even then, it has be done right; otherwise, the shading looks “off.” Perhaps you think, “How hard can it be, crisscrossing lines,” but it is easy to mess it up. For instance, if the lines in two layers get close to being parallel, the resulting shading looks jarring (see Fig. 16, left). Another example of how not to do it: Say you want to delineate the shadowed contours of the human body. If you put down some same-length lines with intersections at right angles, you’ll end up with a mathematical pattern that looks monotonous and unnatural (see Fig. 16, middle). To get that natural look, something else is needed, namely, e.g., rows of shorter or brokes lines that get heavier as they merge into the black (see Fig. 16, right).

Fig. 16: Three approaches to crosshatching, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

To conclude, some trivia: Have you ever wondered why crosshatching and feathering is commonly seen in American comics and in Franco-Belgian far less so? Well, of course, other than the unhealthy obsession with Olympian-like figures that lend themselves to a bonanza of shading, with their defined muscles and taut tendons, rather than with plain, oval, round-based figures like those seen in say, Asterix, it has everything to do with the economics of printing. In Europe, comics have since long been published in quality editions with quality paper and printing, while overseas in the United States, comic publishers were initially — and for quite a long period — bent on publishing their comics in cheap format, printed on pulp paper and with little color. That meant that American artists had had to work their magic with heavy inks.

Well, uh, that about wraps it up. I hope you enjoyed this read from top to bottom or even found it useful. If not, well, you can just go f… Oh, you know what the music means, our time is up …