Note: This is a guest posting from Jason A. Fleece, dramaturg for our summer MainStage production of Soon I Will Be Invincible.
Dr. Impossible and Fatale and the other heroes and villains of Soon I Will Be Invincible are original creations of author Austin Grossman, but they are also a distillation of the themes and tropes and ideas of the Superhero. Superheroes, of course, are most closely associated with comic books, and so if we’re going to understand the literary traditions that led to our heroes, we have to go back to the beginning, the Secret Origin of the comic book superhero.
That means going back to 1938, to the beginning of the Golden Age of Comics, and the creation of Superman.
The American comic book preexisted the superhero, but just barely, and with so little distinction that in the cultural mind the medium has always seemed indistinguishable from its first stroke of brilliance. There were costumed crime-fighters before Superman (the Phantom, Zorro), but only as there were pop quartets before the Beatles. Superman invented and exhausted his genre in a single bound. All the tropes, all the clichés and conventions, all the possibilities, all the longings and wishes and neuroses that have driven and fed and burdened the superhero comic during the past seventy years were implied by and contained within that little red rocket ship hurtling toward Earth. That moment—Krypton exploding, Action Comics No. 1—is generally seen to be Minute Zero of the superhero idea.
Michael Chabon, “Secret Skin,”
The New Yorker, March 2008
We could go back further—the first comic book (The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck) was published in 1842, and pulp heroes like Buck Rogers and The Shadow and Dick Tracy and Doc Savage and The Green Hornet had all been around for years by the time Action Comics No. 1 was published and were all certainly influences on Siegel and Shuster’s ideas—but Superman is the first Superhero as we understand them today and is the most influential of them all so we start there.
Two Jewish kids from Cleveland, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, created Superman in 1938.
Siegel and Shuster had collaborated on a few other comic book stories, and were interested in a new kind of hero. Their Clark Kent was an athletic, physical figure, and so Shuster used the uniforms of other athletes of the time, particularly circus strongmen. Those uniforms generally included skin-tight unitards to show muscle definition, high-waisted trunks on the outside of the tights, and a large belt to divide the torso, and high boots. Shuster used these elements as the basis for Superman’s costume. He added a cape to make flight easier to draw, and a large S on the chest to tie the design together. These elements—the tights, the boots, the trunks, the belt, the cape, the chest-emblem—would become a template for the design of other superheroes that followed.
Early Superman was not the paternal authority figure that we think of today. Siegel and Shuster’s Superman was scrappy and violent, less interested in the law than in justice. This Superman was just as likely to beat up a corrupt politician as he was to collar a bank robber. That first Superman story in Action Comics #1 featured our hero breaking into the governor’s mansion and wreaking havoc until the governor agreed to pardon an innocent person facing the electric chair. Early Superman wasn’t all-powerful, either. He couldn’t fly, but instead could “leap an eighth of a mile,” nor was he invulnerable. He was strong and fast, but that was about it.
National Allied Publications bought their first Superman story and printed in in the first issue of Action Comics. Action was an anthology, and the other stories in the issue included “Chuck Dawson,” “Zatara Master Magician,” “Sticky-Mitt Stimson,” and other similarly titled pulp tales. The first issue of Action Comics was a hit, and Superman was a sensation.
National Allied Publications was one of many publishers making comics at the time, all of them little more than fanzines. Of these many contemporaneous rivals, four were particularly important: Detective Comics Inc., All-American Publications, Timely Comics, and Fawcett Comics.
Detective Comics, Inc. published Detective Comics, an anthology comic mostly printing hard-boiled detective stories including Slam Bradley, another creation of Siegel and Shuster that predated Superman. With the success of the Superman feature, the publishers asked artist Bob Kane to capitalize on the success of their rival. Kane and writer Bill Finger would publish their take on the costumed superhero in May of 1939, when the first Batman story was released in Detective Comics #27.
Later that year, National Allied Publications and Detective Comics Inc, merged to become National Publications.
Max Gaines (remember that name) founded All-American Publications. Among All-American’s comics were All-Flash Quarterly (featuring The Flash), Sensation Comics (featuring Wonder Woman), Green Lantern, and Mutt and Jeff, among others. Other characters All-American published included The Atom, Mister Terrific, Sargon the Sorcerer, The Gay Ghost, Hawkman, Doctor Mid-Nite, Wildcat and many others.
In 1944, National Publications absorbed All-American Publications. By this time National Publications was already generally referred to as DC Comics, but they wouldn’t officially take that name until 1977.
Martin Goodman formed Timely Comics in 1939. Timely published the first issue of their anthology series, Marvel Comics, published in October 1939, featuring The Human Torch, Namor, The Sub-Mariner, and Ka-Zar the Great, among others. In 1940, writer Joe Simon and artist Jacob Kurtzberg published their first issue of Captain America Comics through Timely. Kurtzberg, of course, is better known by his pen name, Jack Kirby. Joe Simon became the editor of Timely Comics, and Captain America, Namor, and The Human Torch were hugely successful characters. In 1941, Joe Simon moved on and Stanley Lieber, Goodman’s office assistant and his wife’s cousin, took over as editor. Lieber had already been writing comics by this point, also using a pen name: Stan Lee.
Fawcett Comics is best known for publishing the Captain Marvel character starting in Whiz Comics in 1940. Captain Marvel was highly derivative of Superman—in fact, the directive from Fawcett’s editors had been “Give me a Superman, only have his other identity be a 10- or 12-year-old boy rather than a man.” Bill Parker and CC Beck created the character of young Billy Batson who says the magic word “Shazam!” and becomes Captain Marvel. Captain Marvel quickly became the single most popular superhero in publication, outselling Superman, Batman, The Flash and Captain America by a wide margin. Naturally, National Publications sued Fawcett for copyright infringement, arguing that Captain Marvel’s look and abilities were a direct copy of their Superman character. While the court agreed that Captain Marvel was indeed basically stolen from Superman, National ultimately lost their case because they had failed to adequately copyright their character. This legal battle would continue until 1951, and wouldn’t be the last time that the name Captain Marvel led to warfare in the courts between comics publishers.
Superheroes were popular all through WWII, although not as popular as funny animal comics, particularly those starring Disney characters like Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse. Many superhero comics used the War as story inspiration, exhorting readers to buy war bonds and casting Axis powers as villains for the patriotic heroes. Once the war ended, however, their popularity waned significantly, as other genres like Westerns and Horror and Romance comics became more fashionable.
As the 1950s began in the USA and the oldest Baby Boomers started reaching adolescence, the idea of a “youth culture” in the United States began to take hold. High school attendance was at an all-time high, and the “teenager” emerged for the first time as a consumer demographic. With the advent of the teenager came the immediate fear of this monolithic group that was too young to be responsible and too old to be purely innocent, and suddenly the country was gripped in a panic over Juvenile Delinquency. In 1952, Frederick Wertham, a psychiatrist in Baltimore, MD, published his anti-comic-book treatise, Seduction of the Innocent. In his book and in the public eye, Wertham railed against Superhero comics, claiming that they were subversive and dangerous to children because of their perverse content. Wertham asserted that Batman and Robin were gay, Wonder Woman was a lesbian, Superman was a fascist, and so on.
Another major target for Wertham was EC Comics, founded by William Gaines, the son of Maxwell Gaines (remember him?). EC published horror comics such as Tales From The Crypt and Vault of Horror, as well as a humor anthology comic called MAD. The EC Horror comics were gory and sensationalistic and made a great target.
Gaines testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency in 1954. It did not go well. The backlash to Gaines’ testimony and EC’s horror line caused the Comics Magazine Association of America to form the Comics Code Authority, a way for comics publishers to self-regulate. Comics were submitted to the Comics Code Authority for approval, and those that were not approved were effectively censored as distributors would not carry comics without the Comics Code Authority seal.
The stringent regulations of the Comics Code led to many changes in superhero comics. For example, the code dictated, “Scenes of excessive violence shall be prohibited. Scenes of brutal torture, excessive and unnecessary knife and gunplay, physical agony, gory and gruesome crime shall be eliminated.” Since Superhero comics were specifically about crime and the fighting thereof, this effectively neutered some of the more violent villains and led to the development of the outlandishly ridiculous supervillain plot. The Code also mandated that the law must always be portrayed as being upright and just, which meant that superheroes like Batman and Superman, who had previously operated outside the law, became instead garishly colored police deputies and paternalistic boy scouts. The creation of the Comics Code Authority led to the end of EC Comics; the only title to remain in publication was MAD, which changed format and became a magazine rather than a comic book.
By 1954, while other genres like Westerns and Crime and Horror and Romance were still popular, the superhero was almost gone from the newsstands. Action Comics, Adventure Comics, Batman, Detective Comics, Superboy, Superman, Wonder Woman and World’s Finest were the only Superhero comics still in publication.
Things looked bleak for Superheroes as the Golden Age ended in the 1950s, but every good Death of a Superhero features a Triumphant Return. Next time we’ll talk about the Silver and Bronze Ages of Superheroes.
Until then, True Believers, Make Mine Lifeline!