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SUPERHEROES: WHO THEY ARE AND HOW THEY CAME TO BE – Part 3 – The Dark Age and the Modern Age

Note: This is a guest posting from Jason A. Fleece, dramaturg for our summer MainStage production of Soon I Will Be Invincible.

Last time, we discussed the Silver and Bronze Ages of Superhero Comics. Now we’ll talk about Superhero comics over the last thirty years, leading to what’s happening today.

Like the beginning of the Bronze Age over the course of 1970, the shift to the Dark Age—so named both because of the tone of the material and because of what happened to the industry during this time—is also a gradual one, which took place over the course of the mid-1980s.

One event that ushered in the Dark Age was the elimination of the DC Multiverse. As the Silver Age concept of parallel worlds and multiple versions of characters became too unwieldy for DC’s beleaguered editorial staff to keep straight, they decided to eliminate the concept altogether by publishing a 12-issue epic that destroyed the Multiverse. In a nod to the old Crisis events that would bring the Justice League and the Justice Society together, this event was called Crisis on Infinite Earths, and it was published from 1985 and 1986. By the end of the series, which involved time travel, warping of reality, and the heroic deaths of a few prominent heroes like Supergirl and The Flash (Barry Allen), there existed one DC Universe. In this streamlined world, the Golden Age heroes of the Justice Society had been active in the 40s and then vanished after World War II, the heroes of the Justice League had been inspired by (and sometimes trained by) the Justice Society. Characters DC had acquired from other publishers, like Captain Marvel or The Question or Plastic Man were now contemporaries of the Justice League. History had been rewritten, continuity had been changed.

By this time, the Comics Code Authority had loosened its restrictions, and with the advent of direct market comics sales (comics being sold in specialty stores rather than on newsstands) it had lost much of its power. This meant that comics could get grittier, that elements of horror and true crime that had largely been absent from superhero comics since the 1950s began to creep back in. At Marvel, characters like Wolverine, the Punisher, Elektra—all initially introduced as villains for The Hulk, Spider-Man, and Daredevil respectively—became increasingly popular as heroes throughout the 1980s. These anti-heroes were much more morally gray than their predecessors, willing to kill criminals for the sake of the greater good.

This led to the rise of the two writers who defined superhero comics post-Bronze age: Alan Moore and Frank Miller.

British writer Alan Moore had taken over DC’s Swamp Thing title in the early 1980s, gradually turning it from a fringier superhero comic to a weird horror comic. His first issue featured the hero discovering that his entire existence was a lie and brutally murdering the villain responsible. Moore also deconstructed Superman in his farewell to the Silver Age, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow with classic Silver Age Superman artist Curt Swan, and then Batman in The Killing Joke with gorgeous, detailed art by Brian Bolland. Moore’s magnum opus Watchmen with Dave Gibbons, considered by many to be the greatest superhero comic of all time, deconstructs the entire idea of a superhero, shining a light on the absurdity of the tropes of the genre. At the same time, Frank Miller brought Batman back to his roots with his dystopian The Dark Knight Returns and his hardboiled crime thriller Batman Year One. Miller had also had some major influence at Marvel, with seminal runs on Daredevil and Wolverine. Moore and Miller spawned many imitators, and the mid-80s through late 90s were full of angry heroes with clenched teeth and gray morality.

Moore’s work on Swamp Thing, as well as fellow Brit Neil Gaiman’s unprecedented top-down reimagining of the Golden Age hero Sandman, led to a major diversification at DC Comics. While both stories ostensibly existed within the DC Universe—The Justice League appeared in issues of Swamp Thing, Martian Manhunter and several more obscure DC figures like Hector and Lyta Hall and Dr. Destiny appeared in Sandman—neither comic was really a superhero story anymore, and the events in those series were primarily ignored in the more mainstream superhero fare. In 1993, these comics, along with Swamp Thing spinoff Hellblazer, two superhero comics (Animal Man and Doom Patrol) written by young Scottish author Grant Morrison, and a few other similarly edgy titles, became DC’s new Vertigo imprint. The Vertigo line was labeled “Suggested For Mature Readers” and did not seek approval from the Comics Code Authority.

In 1991, Marvel expanded their most successful franchise, the X-Men. Alongside the longstanding Uncanny X-Men series, they launched X-Men, by longtime writer Chris Claremont and young superstar artist Jim Lee, and X-Force by Fabian Nicieza and Rob Liefeld. Throughout the 1990s Marvel produced more and more X-Men spinoffs: Cable, Excalibur, Generation X, Deadpool, New Mutants, and on and on. The success of this approach was imitated throughout DC and Marvel’s lines, creating expanding franchises out of their more popular properties like Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, and Punisher.

The success of Crisis on Infinite Earths led to more and more “Event” crossovers from both Marvel and DC, such as Secret Wars and Armageddon 2001 and Age of Apocalypse and Invasion! and Maximum Carnage and so on and so forth. Throughout the 1990s, DC Comics killed Superman, broke Batman’s back, and turned Green Lantern into a villain (they all got better).

During this time, Jack Kirby had had a legal dispute with Marvel Comics, shining a light on the relationship between the publishers and the creators. This led a handful of superstar Marvel Comics artists and writers—Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, Marc Silvestri, Rob Liefeld, Jim Valentino, Whilce Portacio, Erik Larsen and Chris Claremont—to leave Marvel and form their own publishing company, Image Comics. Image was founded on the principle that the publisher did not own the intellectual properties, the creators did. Image was immediately very successful, with slickly illustrated new superhero titles like Spawn, WildCATS and Youngblood selling as well as or better than their counterparts at the Big Two. The heroes of Image comics were bold and angry, distillations of Frank Miller’s Batman and Chris Claremont’s Wolverine, all gritted teeth and flexed muscles and crosshatching and pouches.

During the 1990s, comic book collecting had become a business, with older comics selling for hundreds and thousands of dollars. Comic book publishers took note and tried to take advantage of the trend, introducing gimmick covers (Holograms! Chromium! Vinyl stickers! Fold-out posters! Polybags!) and playing up the fact that every first issue could someday be a collectors’ item. Between the ever-expanding X-Men line and its imitators, the success of Image Comics, and the increasing frequency of “event” comics, there were suddenly too many possible “collectors’ items” for collectors to handle, and the focus on collectability led to a marked downfall in quality, and suddenly they all became worthless. The collector market crashed, and in 1996 Marvel Comics—the largest and most popular publisher of them all—declared bankruptcy. Marvel and DC scaled back their publishing output and refocused their lines.

The thing that truly spelled the end of the Dark Age was actually something that happened outside the pages of the comics. In 1998, New Line Cinema released a film adaptation of a little known Marvel Comics character Blade. The film, directed by Stephen Norrington and starring Wesley Snipes, was a surprise success. It wasn’t a smash, it didn’t come close to that year’s hits, but this was an obscure character that was part superhero flick and part vampire movie directed by a relative newcomer with only one other film under his belt, coming out a year after the execrable Batman and Robin had effectively killed DC’s biggest film franchise. Hollywood took notice—comic books were a breeding ground for potentially successful and lucrative film franchises.

As a result of the success of Blade, Marvel found itself with some cachet in Hollywood. In 2000, 20th Century Fox released Bryan Singer’s X-Men, earning almost $54 million in its opening weekend and propelling unknown Australian musical theatre actor Hugh Jackman to superstardom. Two years later, Sony Pictures would repeat that success with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man.

To capitalize on the impending release of X-Men, Marvel introduced the Ultimate imprint, which consisted of retellings of their more popular heroes’ stories outside of the mainstream Marvel Universe, with a more modern sensibility and without ties to Marvel Comics’ convoluted history. They paired veteran artist Mark Bagley with relative newcomer writer Brian Michael Bendis to retell Peter Parker’s beginnings in Ultimate Spider-Man, launching in 2000 as buzz for the Sam Raimi film was building. Ultimate X-Men would launch the same year, and Ultimate Fantastic Four the next. In 2002, Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch created the Ultimate Comics answer to the Avengers, called simply The Ultimates. This ushered in a style referred to in the comics community as “widescreen,” with highly detailed artwork, huge scope, and cinematic bombast. Perhaps in the hopes of enhancing that cinematic feel, Hitch drew the traditionally Caucasian Nick Fury as a photorealistic Samuel L. Jackson, who had given Marvel permission to use his likeness.

As comics reached the new millennium, comics creators who had grown up with the superheroes of the 1960s and 1970s began to use that nostalgia to fuel their work. At DC, writers like Mark Waid and Geoff Johns tried to escape the cynicism and nihilism of the 80s and 90s and return to the optimism and hope that icons like Superman and The Flash and the Justice League had inspired in them in their youth. The TV show Smallville, retelling the early days of Superman, debuted to great success in 2001 and ran for ten seasons. Johns quickly returned the previously evil and dead and undead Hal Jordan to his place as the DC Universe’s prominent Green Lantern. In 2004, Warner Brothers, by now the corporate owners of DC Comics, released Batman Begins, directed by Christopher Nolan. DC started experimenting with form, releasing comics experiments like the newspaper comics page pastiche Wednesday Comics and the weekly epic 52.

In 2008, Marvel released its biggest gamble yet. After the success of the Spider-Man and X-Men films, Marvel decided that its film division, Marvel Studios, would try its hand at production. Previous to 2007, Marvel Studios had only handled licensing of its intellectual properties to other studios—X-Men and Fantastic Four at 20th Century Fox, Spider-Man and Daredevil at Sony, and so on—so producing their own film was an undertaking. They contracted Jon Favreau, whose biggest previous directorial effort was the Will Farrell comedy Elf, to direct a new adaptation of Iron Man, a superhero who had been considered a B-List member of the Marvel pantheon at best. Instead of casting Tom Cruise as Tony Stark, who had been angling for the role for quite some time, he cast the almost uninsurable rehab case Robert Downey Jr. in the role. There was no way that this film could be a success.

And of course it was a revelation. Not since Richard Donner’s Superman in 1979 had the exhilaration of the superhero finally made it onscreen. “You’ll believe a man can fly” was the slogan of the Donner film, but applied even more here. Iron Man grossed over $98 million in its first weekend, the third highest of 2008 (the highest of that year was another comic adaptation, The Dark Knight, which was a revelation of its own kind). Even more ambitious, Marvel Studios immediately began planting the seeds of a shared continuity, similar to their comics line. In a twist of art imitating life (or life imitating art, or maybe art imitating art?), none other than Samuel L. Jackson appeared in a cameo as Nick Fury at the end of the film, hinting at the formation of the Avengers. Downey then reprised his role as Iron Man in that year’s The Incredible Hulk. Marvel Studios immediately started pressing forward with adaptations of other properties—Thor, Captain America, and so on—with the goal of putting them all together in one mega-franchise Avengers film.

Due to the success of Iron Man, the Walt Disney Company, whose intellectual properties were primarily marketed to girls, saw an opportunity to gain the hearts and minds of boys as well and quickly purchased Marvel Entertainment. Much like their treatment of computer animation studio Pixar, Marvel was relatively hands-off, providing financial support but leaving the creative direction of Marvel’s comics and films alone and reaping the financial rewards.

In 2011, DC Comics, still a mess of continuity with its Multiverse (which had returned, since the remnants of it had always remained and were threads ripe for pulling over the previous 25+ years), took a radical step and rebooted its entire line, scrapping previous continuity and starting its titles over with new #1 issues. Even Action Comics and Detective Comics, which had both been published continuously since 1938—Action had recently reached its 900th issue, and Detective was close—were restarted. In keeping with tradition, this change was effected in-continuity due to time travel shenanigans, with Barry Allen once again at the center of it, with the miniseries event Flashpoint. The new initiative was called the New 52 (52 referring specifically to the number of monthly titles they would be releasing and a reference to the very successful weekly 52 miniseries that had run a few years prior).

DC had thus far failed to reach Marvel’s heights on film, but in 2012 they released their own equivalent to Iron Man—an obscure comics property becoming wildly successful in other media—with the debut of the TV show Arrow.

Today, both DC and Marvel—and Image, and Dark Horse and other publishers, but DC and Marvel are still the top dogs—continue to publish. A major emphasis in today’s superhero comics is diversity—Marvel’s notable recent successes have arguably been Ms. Marvel, starring a Pakistani-American Muslim teenager in Jersey named Kamala Khan, and Miles Morales, the Ultimate Spider-Man, starring a biracial African-American and Latino kid following in Peter Parker’s footsteps; DC has been working hard to appeal to teenage girls and young women with their YA-inspired Batgirl and Gotham Academy. Comics are increasingly being sold digitally—both major publishers and many of the smaller ones offer their comics on the ComiXology digital platform, which has been highly successful. Superhero comics reflect 2015 just as well as they reflected 1938.

With all of this change, though, history repeats. Marvel Comics is about to merge its own Multiverse, folding the Ultimate Universe into its main line this summer in a storyline eerily similar to that of DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths. DC will once again retell the origin of the Justice League, this time on film in next year’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Peter Parker still has trouble getting to work on time because of his exploits as Spider-Man.

Minute Zero may have been, as Michael Chabon claimed, the explosion of Krypton. But just as Lex Luthor continues to find new stores of kryptonite, the shattered stuff of Krypton that have traversed the universe to plague the Man of Steel, seemingly without exhaust, 77 years later we still believe a man can fly, we still know that criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot, that with great power must come great responsibility. Minute Zero was 77 years ago, and we’re hurtling toward minute 700,000, with no end in sight.

That’s it, Believers. The whole ball of wax. Next time, I’ll discuss some of the specific characters and storylines that served as inspirations for Dr. Impossible, Fatale, and the rest of the Champions of Soon I Will Be Invincible.

Until then, Make Mine Lifeline!

SUPERHEROES: WHO THEY ARE AND HOW THEY CAME TO BE – Part 2 – The Silver Age and The Bronze Age

Note: This is a guest posting from Jason A. Fleece, dramaturg for our summer MainStage production of Soon I Will Be Invincible.

Just as Action Comics #1 is considered to be the first superhero comic and the beginning of the Golden Age, most historians agree that the first comic of the Silver Age was Showcase #4, published by DC in 1956.

Showcase #4 featured the return of the Flash—or at least the name and basic concept of the Flash. Where the original Flash was Jay Garrick, a college student who was given his super speed abilities from “inhaling vapors from hard water,” this Flash was Barry Allen, a forensic scientist who gained super speed when he was hit with chemicals that had been struck by lightning. Where Jay’s stories, like most superhero comics of the Golden Age, tended toward crime fiction mixed with comedy and a little supernatural thrown in, the adventures of Barry Allen had a particularly science-fiction bent. The new Barry Allen Flash was said, in the stories, to be inspired by the adventures of Jay Garrick, whose comics he’d read as a child. This idea, initially meant to be a quaint nod to Barry’s namesake and predecessor and nothing more, would have major implications both within the stories and in the real-life history of superhero comics and fiction.

This version of The Flash was a big success, and DC started reimagining some of their other 1940s superheroes. Green Lantern was no longer Alan Scott, the man with a magic ring, but Hal Jordan, a fearless test pilot conscripted into an intergalactic peacekeeping force. The Atom was no longer Al Pratt, diminutive tough guy, but Ray Palmer, a scientist who had mastered shrinking.

This led to the creation of the Justice League of America in 1961. There had been superhero teams before—Timely had had Captain America leading the Invaders all around Europe in World War II, and DC’s Justice Society of America had formed in 1940 as well—but the JLA was different. The Invaders had had a specific mission—they were at war with the Axis. The Justice Society had focused less on team-ups—although they did that too—and more on being a group of likeminded individuals sharing their exploits together. The Justice League was a team.

The original Justice League consisted of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, and the Martian Manhunter. Putting these characters in one story together was problematic, though: Superman and Wonder Woman had been members of the Justice Society, along with the original Flash and Green Lantern, Jay Garrick and Alan Scott. The earliest Barry Allen stories had established that, in world of the Justice League, Jay Garrick was fictional, a comic book character who had delighted Barry Allen as a child. How could Superman and company have met and worked with both Barry Allen and Jay Garrick? And if they had somehow worked with the fictional Jay Garrick in the 1940s, presumably as adults in their mid-20s or early 30s, why were they still in their prime twenty years later when they should have been in their 50s or 60s? In order to reconcile these contradictions, the DC Multiverse was born.

It was decided that the adventures of the Justice League and the rest of the Silver Age heroes of DC Comics lived on Earth 1, the “main” universe of DC Comics, while the Golden Age heroes had had their adventures in a parallel universe operating on a slightly different vibrational frequency known as Earth 2. Therefore, the versions of Superman and Wonder Woman who were members of the Justice League with Barry Allen and Hal Jordan were the “main” versions, while the slightly older Superman and Wonder Woman who had been members of the Justice Society with Alan Scott and Jay Garrick were the Earth 2 versions. Occasionally the events of Earth 2 would be subconsciously relayed to Earth 1, which is why Jay Garrick’s adventures could turn up in comics that had inspired a young Barry Allen.

This led to stories of travel between the universes, whenever a “Crisis” would necessitate collaboration between the Justice League and the Justice Society. Soon, there were more than two Earths in the DC Multiverse. There was Earth 3, and evil counterparts of the Justice League like Ultraman and Superwoman and Owlman wreaked havoc as the Crime Syndicate of America. There was Earth S, where the Captain Marvel characters, who DC had acquired when they purchased Fawcett comics, lived on. Earth 4 and Earth X were the homes of characters from other publishers DC had acquired, Charlton Comics and Quality Comics, respectively. The Multiverse was an exciting new story engine for DC Comics, but also a potentially maddening one as it introduced different almost-identical versions of characters and created a convoluted continuity.

While Justice League of America was becoming popular, the former Timely Comics, which had become Atlas Comics in the 1950s and was now called Marvel Comics, had been out of the superhero game for years, instead publishing humor comics like Dippy Duck and Patsy Walker, and sci-fi/fantasy comics like Journey into Mystery, Amazing Adventures, and Tales to Astonish. Martin Goodman, still publisher, saw the success of Justice League of America and asked his editor, Stan Lee, to come up with something similar. Lee worked with Jack Kirby to create the The Fantastic Four, which started publication in late 1961.

The Fantastic Four were another revelation: They had no secret identities, they had no costumes at first, one of their number was a grotesque monster. They bickered and argued and acted like people and had real problems. They were realistic.

The success of the Fantastic Four led Lee, Kirby, and another artist, Steve Ditko, to begin building the Marvel Comics Superhero universe by creating more flawed and “realistic” superheroes. Daredevil, The X-Men, Spider-Man, The Hulk, Thor. Like DC’s Justice League, Marvel assembled the Avengers, a team of heroes mostly created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and within those pages revived their Golden Age success, Captain America. Like DC’s Silver Age heroes, Marvel’s heroes were based in science and the atomic age. Where Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman and The Flash and the rest of the Justice League were godlike figures of authority, however, Marvel’s heroes were counterculture underdogs. Spider-Man might do the right thing and fight crime, but both Peter Parker’s Aunt May and his boss J. Jonah Jameson thought Spidey was a menace. The Thing wore a trench coat and a fedora when he went out for fear of being mocked and jeered at by the Yancy Street Gang, and only felt comfortable dating a blind woman. The X-Men were victims of prejudice, hated and feared by the people they were sworn to protect. Further, where Superman and Batman and The Flash were guardians of fictional cities of Metropolis and Gotham and Keystone, the Marvel heroes lived in New York City—The FF on the corner of 42nd Street and Madison Avenue, Spider-Man in Forest Hills, Queens.

Where the Golden Age superhero costumes were derivative of 1930s sportswear, the Silver Age costumes were derivative of . . . Golden Age superhero costumes. This led to costumes looking like an abstraction of the Superman template, with tights and trunks and chest emblems, but without the basis in real clothing to ground it. Steve Ditko’s design for Spider-Man and Gil Kane’s design for Green Lantern are the purest distillation of the Silver Age superhero costumes—streamlined, sleek, and boldly graphic.

While Action Comics #1 and Showcase #4 are the clear catalysts of the Golden and Silver Ages respectively, there isn’t a single flashpoint that started the Bronze Age. It happened instead over the course of a year, specifically 1970.

In April 1970 the Green Lantern title was changed to Green Lantern/Green Arrow. The addition of a second main character led to a major tonal shift, as writer Denny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams used GL/GA to explore more serious social and political themes like racism and poverty.

Later that year, Jack Kirby left Marvel Comics and ended his partnership with Stan Lee. Kirby went to DC and took over as both writer and artist of Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen and began his Fourth World saga. This epic chronicled the cosmic war between the benevolent New Gods of New Genesis and the dark forces of Apokolips, as the mad god Darkseid sought to subjugate the universe with the Anti-Life Equation. This was a new mythology, full of characters and concepts both awesome and ridiculous, and Kirby went wild building psychedelic cosmic vistas and majestic and terrible creatures.

Also that year, the editor of the Superman titles at DC, Mort Weisinger, retired. His replacement, Julius Schwartz, worked with writer Denny O’Neil and artist Curt Swan to scale back Superman’s powers and make him more vulnerable and therefore more relatable.

Instead of the pulpy, lurid crime fiction of the Golden Age and the candy-colored harmless fun of the Silver Age, the Bronze Age saw the stories in superhero comics becoming more and more adult. Both major publishers began making steps toward diversity, with characters like Storm, Blade, Cyborg, Vixen, John Stewart, and so on. Characters might actually die in the stories, sometimes not even villains—in 1973, Spider-Man’s true love, Gwen Stacy, was killed by The Green Goblin, and future stories would involve Peter Parker contemplating whether and how much he was to blame. The stories became more serialized, focusing on the interpersonal relationships between the characters just as much as the high-concept sci-fi and the fantastical and colorful powers and personas.

In 1971, Stan Lee was asked by the US Government to write an anti-drug comic, and so he wrote an epic storyline in The Amazing Spider-Man about the dangers of addiction. Since depiction of drug use was outright forbidden by the Comics Code Authority, but the government had specifically requested the story, this led to a relaxing of the Comics Code (drugs were now allowed to be depicted, but had to be very clearly shown in a negative light).

This led to a famous story in Green Lantern/Green Arrow called “Snowbirds Don’t Fly,” in which Green Arrow discovers that his sidekick, Speedy, is addicted to heroin. As the storylines got more and more serious, the art style became weightier and more detailed.

The X-Men had not originally been very popular, and by 1970 there was no more new X-Men material being published at all. In 1975, Marvel published Giant-Size X-Men #1, with a brand new team searching for the original X-Men. This multicultural team would include a few new characters, like Storm and Nightcrawler, a few old X-Men characters, and a one-off villain from an issue of The Incredible Hulk the year prior called The Wolverine. The new X-Men comics were much more character-oriented than Marvel’s previous offerings.

The All-New, All-Different X-Men became hugely successful, and DC took notice, revamping its Teen Titans franchise into The New Teen Titans by Marv Wolfman and George Perez with a similarly character-based approach.

As Superhero characters and concepts become more and more complex throughout the Bronze Age, and as the kids who grew up on Silver Age characters were beginning to reach adulthood, superhero comics were about to go through another major shift—and while some of the best comics ever written would come out in the 1980s and 1990s, so would some of the worst.

Join us next time, True Believers, as we explore the period of comics so terrifying we could only call it . . . THE DARK AGE.

Until Then . . . Make Mine Lifeline.


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!

An interview with Jessica Wright Buha

Note: This is a posting from Lifeline ensemble member Amanda Link, dramaturg and assistant director for our winter MainStage production of One Came Home.

An interview with Jessica Wright Buha, the adaptor of One Came Home.


Q: What drew you to the book?

A: Alan Donahue, a Lifeline ensemble member, was the one who recommended the book to me. We had worked together on several shows at Lifeline when I was an assistant stage manager there. I was also his assistant prop designer on Treasure Island. He was always really supportive of my writing. He came out to see shows I had written for Deathscribe, and Whiskey Rebellion and other theaters around town. And one day he emailed me and said that when he read One Came Home, he thought that I should be the one to adapt it. I was in the middle of working on Lyle Finds His Mother for the Lifeline KidSeries and I was so honored and excited that he thought of me.

I immediately fell in love with the language and the world of the book. I am always drawn to lyricism and imagery. The way Amy Timberlake described the landscape of Wisconsin was just beautiful. And I have always been drawn to the late 1800s. I read a lot of Little House On the Prairie growing up. And I really like the mystery genre. I also loved the songs in the book. I was very interested in having actual songs in the show.

I also have an older sister. We are twins but she is technically older by three minutes. She is the more floaty of the two of us. She’s always moving, always changing jobs. She was the social butterfly growing up and I was the studious, quiet, homebody. She went through a phase where she was very difficult to get ahold of. She didn’t have a cell phone for awhile and she was just off doing her own thing. I related to Georgie’s idea that home is a sacred place. I didn’t have the typical teenage impulse of wanting to get away from home. I always wanted to be best friends with my sister but we were always so different. Getting to explore that sister relationship was very appealing.

Q: How did you begin the adaptation process for this piece?

A: I had just finished adapting James Joyce’s Ulysses and it was very dense. I went back to the text a lot while writing. For this one, I wanted to do it differently. I read through the book a couple of times and then on my third reading I took notes, made an outline, and chose snippets of dialogue. After I read it a fourth time, I put it away and wrote my first draft. It took me about two months to write that first draft and then I wrote several more drafts before we started rehearsals.

Q: What was your biggest challenge while writing the adaptation?

A: It was really difficult to take out the first person narration but still keep what I loved about the book. I decided early on that I didn’t want to have a narrator. It works so well in the book but I wouldn’t know how to do it effectively in a play. Georgie has such a great voice but I didn’t want it to turn into us reading the book on stage. I tried to find a way to preserve her voice and capture her emotional journey in a theatrical way.

Q: The Lifeline process is very unique. The playwright is at all of the rehearsals and receives a lot of feedback along the way. How has this affected your writing?

A: It really feeds into my style nicely. I like to crank out drafts quickly and then do lots of rewrites. I have typically experienced a lot of closed rehearsals where the playwright is not welcome and that can be difficult. I really like to be in the room and hear the actors speaking the words. If they are stumbling over the lines, the problem might be with the lines themselves and that is good to know. I trust the actors a lot and it is really helpful to be in rehearsals with them and see where their instincts are leading them. I feel very lucky to be able to change things throughout the entire process.

Q: What are some of your own personal writing habits?

A: I like to write at night when the house is quiet. I like to write on the couch with the dog sitting next to me. I will often put headphones on and listen to the same ten songs over and over again while I write. It’s like when you go to the gym and you listen to certain songs to motivate yourself. I do it to create a rhythm to encourage myself to keep writing. That way I don’t have time to stop and judge myself. I’ll also use music to connect to the emotion of the story. If I’m having trouble with a scene, I’ll step back and start writing paragraphs about it. I’ll describe the setting and characters and just keep writing until some dialogue pops into my head. Sometimes I’ll start acting things out while I’m writing and then my dog will look over at me like I’m crazy.

An interview with Amy Timberlake

Note: This is a posting from Lifeline ensemble member Amanda Link, dramaturg and assistant director for our winter MainStage production of One Came Home.

An interview with Amy Timberlake, the multiple award-winning author of One Came Home, That Girl Lucy Moon, and The Dirty Cowboy.

Q: What inspired One Came Home?

A: I wrote it over a long period of time, so there were many inspirations. I saw a production of The Taming of the Shrew and was disturbed by the relationship between the sisters. After that, I knew I wanted to write a story about two sisters. I had already written a middle grade novel called That Girl Lucy Moon, in which one of the characters is a 68-year-old business woman. I ended up cutting about 100 pages of her from the book, but I held onto her voice. Someone in my writing group suggested I try that voice as a 13 year old girl. She would be a future business woman, sure of herself even at that difficult age. Now I had two ideas but I still didn’t have a setting. That’s when I came across a book on passenger pigeons. I knew a little about this bizarre phenomenon and wanted to learn more. I’m an amateur birder and will occasionally pick up bird books, and this one was amazing. I had to keep reading bits aloud to my husband! It sounded like science fiction at times. And then on one page there was a map of Wisconsin, my home state, with a giant L-shaped blob in the middle of it. It was the site of the largest passenger pigeon nesting ever recorded. It was about 850 square miles, which is about the size of 3 and a half cities of Chicago all put together. I had also been watching a lot of Westerns and I thought, I could set a Western in Wisconsin. Why not?

Q: At our first rehearsal, we went around the room and discussed if we related more to Agatha or Georgie. Do you see yourself more in one or the other?

A: When you write in first person, you end up feeling very strongly connected to that person. I like giving my opinion, but I’m not as dogmatic as Georgie. I actually don’t speak like Georgie at all. My Grandfather talks like Georgie. In my book The Dirty Cowboy, I made my first attempt at my Grandfather’s voice. He had a very Western way of approaching people. He would just tell them the truth and move on and let them do what they wanted with the information.

Listening to stories being told was a big part of my childhood, especially whenever I would visit my grandparents. In One Came Home, Georgie is telling this story to someone. It’s a long story, but she’s a talker so it works.

Q: What is it like for you to see your work adapted into another form?

A: It’s exciting when you’ve written something that makes someone else want to create something. I haven’t seen One Came Home yet but when Lifeline adapted The Dirty Cowboy, it was so much fun! I’ve been to a lot of shows at Lifeline so I trust you guys. You take good care of your stories and it’s clear that you value literature.

I can’t wait to see how you’ll do the birds! And what will Billy look like? I’m looking forward to seeing the show.

Q: When did you start writing?

A: In the third or fourth grade, I wrote a poem. When I showed it to my Dad he said, “You really have a way with that.” And that little comment stuck with me. I was always a big reader. I loved to read. And I thought my library card was like a super power badge that I could use to get anything I wanted. I lived in a small town and I could walk to the library by myself and then use the books to travel to different times and places. The idea that I could write my own book was so cool, but also really intimidating. I had a long path to becoming a writer because it didn’t seem possible. I thought I should do something more practical. I studied economics and then history before I got my Master’s in Writing. But all along the way I took every creative writing class available in high school and college because it was always something I wanted to do.

Q: Do you work on one thing at a time or do you tend to have multiple projects going at once?

A: I always have lots of ideas. I’m trying to get better at working on more than one thing at a time. Right now I have two things. I’m working on a novel and that is my primary focus. The secondary project is a nonfiction picture book. I am in the research phase for that one, trying to see if it will work.

The novel is written in third person and there is lots of humor in it. I don’t want to say too much about it but I will say that one of the issues from One Came Home has come into this book. Telling this story is one way that I am working through a question that I have. All of my writing is like a record of my thoughts through stories.

Passenger pigeons

Note: This is a posting from Lifeline ensemble member Amanda Link, dramaturg and assistant director for our winter MainStage production of One Came Home.

Amy Timberlake’s book One Came Home is set in Wisconsin in 1871 during one of the last great passenger pigeon migrations. The nesting that took place in Wisconsin that year covered an estimated 850 square miles and is the largest one recorded. In his book The Passenger Pigeon: Its Natural History and Extinction, A.W. Schorger proposes that nearly all of the passenger pigeons in North America were present at that nesting. Amy loved the idea of having “a living, breathing setting” for her story.

ochblog1Passenger pigeons were in the news a lot this past year because September 1, 2014 marked the hundred-year anniversary of the death of Martha, the last remaining passenger pigeon. The species is now extinct, but when Europeans first began exploring North America, there were an estimated 3 to 5 billion passenger pigeons. Their numbers are difficult for us to imagine today. A flock could take 3 full days to pass overhead. And they flew so close together that, as John James Audubon described, “the light of noonday was obscured as by an eclipse.” Each spring they migrated en masse from the South to the Midwest and returned in the fall.

The passenger pigeons were quite different from the pigeons we’re used to seeing here in Chicago on a daily basis. They would be more similar in their shape and coloring to a mourning dove. They had short red legs, light powder blue throats, reddish-fawn bellies, rich red breasts, and slate blue heads. Their strong pointed wings spanned two feet. They traveled with great unity of movement at an average cruising speed of 60mph. While flying, each bird’s head was only inches behind the tail of the bird preceding him, and no more than 2 feet from the birds above and below him. The roar of wings and calls of birds could be heard up to 3 miles away. As they grew nearer, the sound grew to frightening proportions. Passenger pigeons required large dense forests and ate acorns and beechnuts. Traveling and nesting in such large numbers protected the birds from their natural enemies by virtue of sheer numbers, but also made them vulnerable to hunters.

ochblog2Professional hunters followed the passenger pigeons around the country. They could easily capture more than a hundred birds with one throw of a net. One gunshot could bring down dozens of birds. Once the telegraph and the railroads were added into the equation, making it easier to find the birds and ship the meat to other locations, the passenger pigeon numbers rapidly decreased. The birds only laid one egg a year. That in combination with over hunting and deforestation quickly led to their extinction.

But that is not the end of their story. There is currently an organization that is trying to bring them back. The Long Now Foundation has started a project called Revive and Restore. They are interested in de-extinction and have selected the passenger pigeon as their test species. The passenger pigeon was chosen because it is “not only feasible to successfully bring back, but also presents enough challenges to push the science forward and open up the possibility of de-extinction to many more species. An extinct mouse would be an easy win for de-extinction, but it does not challenge us to produce the methods necessary to revive birds or reptiles.”

Many people wonder about the repercussions of such an experiment. Scientists do not yet know how reintroducing an extinct species will effect the existing ecosystem. We’ll have several years to debate the issues as the project progresses. This year they are beginning to replace segments of the band-tailed pigeon genome with the essential passenger pigeon sequences. By 2022 they are hoping to generate live passenger pigeons using band-tailed pigeons as surrogate parents. The live birds will then be bred in captivity and eventually returned to the wild with a soft release target date of 2027.

Stewart Brand, of the Long Now Foundation, suggested that “this generation gets to rethink extinction, gets to rethink habitat loss and habitat restoration, and gets to ponder the role of biotechnology in protecting biodiversity. Welcome to a very interesting century.”

Sources include: Hope is the Thing With Feathers by Christopher Cokinos, The Silent Sky by Allan W. Eckert, The Passenger Pigeon: Its Natural History and Extinction by A.W. Schorger,, and the Wisconsin Historical Society.

An interview with Christina Calvit

Note: This is a guest posting from Autumn McConnico, production dramaturg for our fall MainStage production of Jane Eyre.

Jane Eyre’s adaptor, Christina Calvit, is a Lifeline ensemble member and has written numerous award-winning scripts, including the previous version of Jane Eyre. She revamped the script for this new production, and answered some questions for us about her work.

Q: When did you first read Jane Eyre? What got you involved in this adaptation that first time around?

A: I first read Jane Eyre as a teenager. When we did the show back in 1991, it was purely because Meryl Friedman (the director at that time) and I loved the story. In this current production, there are other things that interested us as well… but back then we just thought it was a great book that deserved to be on stage.

Q: I’m curious about how you begin an adaptation. With books of fair length like this one, hundreds of pages, there are so many words, scenes, characters: in the face of making a 100-page script, many may seem like distractions. How do you find the story you really want to tell from a book? What was particularly clear – or challenging – about Jane Eyre?

A: There is usually something thematic that catches at me…for Jane Eyre it was a persistence of childhood trauma. Then I look at the book through that prism and see what pops out. And I normally don’t deconstruct a book in my work, so I look at the way the story is told and try to include what’s necessary to that. And I look at the dialogue to try and find the very best. The hard thing with Jane Eyre is that there are so many, many great scenes. So much great back and forth, especially between Rochester and Jane. It’s hard to choose.

Q: In this show, Jane’s past before arriving at Thornfield is told to us in a rather uncommon way. What brought you to this approach for the people of Jane’s past?

A: The first third of the book is all about Jane’s youth. It’s interesting that Bronte devotes so much space to it. You could make it happen in real time (and some of the movie and TV adaptations do), but I wanted to heighten those experiences and make them more important symbolically. So the show opens with a nightmare mash up of people from Jane’s past: Aunt Reed, Mr. Brocklehurst, the headmaster of Lowood school, and Helen, her best friend at Lowood. They are the inner voices that have shaped her idea of her own self-worth and guide her choices, for good or bad. And they follow her for much of the play.

Q: What are you most excited about for this particular production? Do you have words for fans of the book who might be wondering what they will find in our show?

A: I like the nontraditional casting and staging—exploding the book a bit out of its period. It’s an epic story that people come back to again and again, so it obviously speaks to us beyond the 1840’s. The cast is amazing and the design is like nothing we’ve ever done at Lifeline before. It’s a different kind of Jane Eyre. I’m hoping people will enjoy what they’ve always loved about the story and also see it in a new and deeper way.

Q: What’s next?

A: I’m off to shoot a commercial in Austin for Vitamix! Everyone should have one!

Thanks, Christina!


Note: This is a guest posting from Autumn McConnico, production dramaturg for our fall MainStage production of Jane Eyre.

“Speak I must,” says Jane.

Who is listening to this story? Jane Eyre is subtitled An Autobiography, with Bronte’s pen name of Currer Bell credited as the editor. Jane frequently refers to the reader directly, in the manner of one expecting or assuming kinship:

“I will tell you, Reader, what they are.”
“Reader, here an illustration.”
and once,
“(oh, romantic reader, forgive me for telling the plain truth!)”

Now we have two things: an awareness that this book is presented as an autobiography, having for its fictional frame a (mostly) realistic life; and a sense that its narrator seeks a voice in kind with our hearing, purposefully helping and entreating a real audience.

Linda Peterson describes Victorian and pre-Victorian placement of women outside the field of self-analysis and discovery by compiling a list of religious admonitions, concerns about a woman’s mental and spiritual weakness which may be so significant as to make it impossible for her to safely continue a thorough analysis of anything, especially a Biblical text, without guidance:

“Victorian women did not have the authority to speak the language of biblical types. By Pauline injunction, they had been admonished to ‘learn in silence with all subjection.’ ‘I suffer not a woman to teach,’ St. Paul had written, ‘nor to usurp authority over the man’ (I Tim. 2.11—12). By ecclesiastical decree, they were denied ordination in the Church of England during the whole of the nineteenth century, prohibited from interpreting the Scriptures to a congregation in most Dissenting sects, and banned from Methodist pulpits by the Convention of 1803. John Wesley’s comments to Sarah Crosby, a woman who felt the call to preach, are instructive: ‘Even in public you may properly enough intermix short exhortations with prayer; but keep as far from what is called preaching as you can; therefore never rake a text; never speak in continued discourse without some break, about four or five minutes.’” (Peterson 131-2)

Peterson goes on to define Jane Eyre as a subversion of the further belief that female writing could be both factual and analytical or self-aware. Brontë used the novel as a perhaps satirical means of delineating “between when a woman may apply types and when she may not, between what aspects of a woman’s life are accessible to typological interpretation and what aspects are beyond (or beneath) interpretation” (133).

Harriet Martineau, novelist and philosopher who wrote about feminine roles and sociological frames, and who wrote her own Autobiography to be published after her death in 1877, met Charlotte Brontë later in the latter’s life. Friends of Martineau who knew her life history, upon reading Jane Eyre, told Martineau they suspected she must have consulted in the writing, so close was Martineau’s accounted early life to that of the fictional Jane (and, perhaps by another degree, to Brontë). The events which Jane encountered early in her youth and adolescence might explain Jane’s later choices according to Peterson’s view of Martineau, since she “chooses to trace in the Autobiography the forces that contribute to the growth of a mind—and these forces, while including the internal, consist in greater proportion of the observable and external” (150). The autobiography, for Martineau and perhaps for Brontë, serves as a way of laying out the events of a life and considering them as instruments or guides in a continued development, the causes leading to the mind and situation of the narrator, the autobiographer – the person at the heart of the story who now has the voice to tell it.

“But in the world outside the novel, Brontë assumes no such enlightenment. Jane Eyre’s autobiography makes its way into the world through the offices of a man, Currer Bell, who appears on the title page as the editor and who, according to Victorian convention, selects and arranges what a woman has to say about her life.” (135)

Is this why Jane tells her story so earnestly to a “reader”? Is it a “chick flick” of a book – or play – intended for female audiences to commiserate and nod along with, or take encouragement from? But Jane’s struggle to find listeners bridges gender divides, and falls along lines of authority of all sorts: age, institutional roles, religious and familial tradition. For our part now, knowing the Jane speaks directly to us as readers and, in Lifeline’s production, perhaps to us as viewers, there is an implicit need for a listener who will add another dimension to this conversation. That understanding of a need may place a heavier burden on us as observers, since we appreciate that extra relationship. Watching Jane’s life and the outcome of her repeated attempts to find a listener or kindred spirit, what do we see? According to Carla Kaplan, writing about the complications of reading Jane Eyre as a feminist conversation:

“…A ‘true conversation,’ in which neither partner dominates, controls, coerces, or instrumentalizes the other, in which the partners ‘do not talk at cross purposes,’ is an object of Jane’s narrative desire to the very extent that it is not a feature of her everyday lived experience.”

So, it seems, the fictional world of Jane is not letting her voice resound. Are we to fill that void by giving her an outlet, an audience which will receive her story and use it? Kaplan goes on to ask, “does assuming that the text ‘desires me’ re-perform the essentialism against which this novel strains by assuming that because we can identify with Jane we must be the listener/lover she desires?” Later, we will ask this question of some of our Lifeline collaborators, to see what about Jane’s story impels them to help her tell it. And what about Jane’s story, Brontë’s story, we hope our own audiences will find to consider about us and themselves, and perhaps about the world we inhabit.

Further reading and quoted:

Kaplan, Carla. “Girl Talk: Jane Eyre and the Romance of Women’s Narration.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction. 30(1). Autumn 1996. pp. 5-31

Peterson, Linda H. “Chapter 5. Martineau’s Autobiography: The Feminine Debate Over Self-Interpretation.” from Victorian Autobiography: The Tradition of Self-Interpretation. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.

The Summer of Love!!

Lifeline recently bid sad adieu to the phenomenal intern class of Summer 2014:


Left to right: Julianna Donaher (directing major at DePaul), Browyn Sherman (recent graduate from Loyola), Claudia Roy (acting major, Columbia), Martin Hanna (acting major ISU), Emily Wills (acting major, Northwestern), and Bo Johnson (Comedy Writing & Performance major, Columbia College)

This group excelled in can-do attitude and enthusiasm. Three cheers for Martin, who is on his way to spend a year at Arts University College at Bournemouth, and Browyn, who has now graduated from Loyola and assistant directed Jane Eyre. Look for Bo, Emily and Browyn — you will see them at Lifeline this fall working front of house and driving the shuttle! We hope the rest of intern class summer 2014 will also be back at Lifeline soon! And we cheer them on as they finish their college degrees!

Dorothy Milne
Artistic Director

Education in Jane’s time

Note: This is a guest posting from Autumn McConnico, production dramaturg for our fall MainStage production of Jane Eyre.

“Isn’t she original?”

Jane Eyre. A short portrait of her faculties. She draws in charcoal, colors, and sketches. She debates over philosophy, religion, repentance, duty, and doubt with quite a few characters in the path of her novel. She tells her own story.

If we take her as a product of her period, how unique was Jane Eyre in the education and opportunity she received?

Today let’s talk about Jane’s education. At Lifeline, we have chosen to explore the childhood and early formative experiences – and characters – in Jane’s life as a presence in a way which I won’t tell for you here. You’ll recognize them when you see them. But as a fictional autobiography, JE gives us a large part of a young woman’s life to depict, and much of the earliest parts describe her education. Let us look at one of those early portions of Jane’s life though the lens of history. What was education like for Victorian girls, especially poor orphans?

Public education as we describe it in the United States (since the English term means something quite different) did not come about until well after the 1847 publication of Jane Eyre. Even the idea that all people should be educated took time to gain traction. Meanwhile, education for the poor was best found in parish schools and institutions providing tuition grants (“subscriptions”) by richer donors around the areas. Young orphans or poorer children with protectors motivated to educate them could perhaps depend on these subscriptions if a school with such a program were nearby, and these institutions might be more willing to accept poor pupils in order to expand their ranks – since after all, students could be asked to perform chores at the school. Charlotte herself attended the Clergy Daughters’ School in Cowan’s Bridge, in Lancashire starting in 1824, with a tuition starting at 14 pounds (compared to the 15 pounds for Jane Eyre’s Lowood Institution). From the Clergy Daughter’s educational report from 1842, quoted in Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Bronte:

“The system of education comprehends history, geography, the use of the globes, grammar, writing, and arithmetic, all kinds of needlework, and the nicer kinds of household work – such as getting up fine linen, ironing, &c. If accomplishments are required, an additional charge of 3L. a year is made for music or drawing, each.”

Charlotte and Jane’s educations may have been the exception in the field of female study. Anne Clough, visitor to girls’ schools in the mid-1800s, observed: “A few dry facts are taught, but the life and spirit are too often left out and there is a monotony in girls’ education which is very dulling to the intellect”. Analytical work may be pursued little if at all, and even historical facts and mathematics would make up the vast minority of time compared to calisthenics, sewing, and maybe music and language drilling. Indeed, spiritual and biological general views had for a while held that women lacked the ability to combine a strong memory for facts with a logical faculty for reasoning their causes, chronology, and implications – a slowly fading sense which made emergence of female authors of autobiography or analytical fiction stand out, something we will explore more. According to Clough, Girls’ schools intentionally “accentuating the differences between the sexes” and were valued for improving social graces and displayable qualities, the all-important “accomplishments.” And all the time, conditions of the school, high physical demands and less consistent sanitary conditions, could present further obstacles for students’ deep education.

Cowan’s Bridge was known for poorly managed kitchens, and not all Bronte sisters survived the school before their father removed them from it. Certainly Charlotte admitted to allowing parallels in school life of the novel, as in many other aspects, between her own world and Jane’s. Bronte even tentatively recanted some of her harsher portrayals of Lowood’s conditions – for health of emotion and of body both – because of the condemningly easy connection to her childhood school. From Gaskell again:

“Miss Bronte more than once said to me, that she should not have written what she did of Lowood … if she had though the place would have been so immediately identified with Cowan’s Bridge, although there was not a word in her account of the institution but what was true at the time when she knew it”

Yet Bronte depicted these realities as well as the learning that Jane did get away with. Perhaps she was lucky in her chance to learn French and drawing, reading the works that she did, at a charity school.