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?
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.
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!