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!