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 Communist 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!”
Here, 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!
You 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 some 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.
Atlas 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 success 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
Now 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.
Now, 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.
As 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.