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Paradigm shifts in comics; or why Superman isn’t the Great American Superhero anymore!

by  in Comic News Comment

Hey, you know those posts where I talk out of my ass and everyone berates me because I don’t have insider knowledge about, say, Marvel’s romance comics of the 1950s?  Those are fun, aren’t they?  Well, it’s time for another one!  Sharpen your knives, ladies and gentlemen – sharpen them well!

There are bunches o’ people out there in the cyberworld (you know who you are!) who are a bit peeved by the portrayel of Superman in the latest movie.  Then there are those who are cranky about superheroes in general (thanks to our evil rivals for the link; confound them for their keen journalistic eyes!).  Those people need to chill.  Why?  Because it borders on “that’s not how it was done when I was a kid!” whining, but more importantly, it’s because of my fancy word in the title – it’s a paradigm shift.  And we shouldn’t worry about those!  They’re harmless!

I want to look at these shifts and how mainstream comic books reflect the zeitgeist and occasionally lag behind it a bit.  Comics are, after all, part of popular culture, and popular culture is not created in a vacuum.  We may bemoan the loss of Superman’s heroism, but don’t blame the creators – blame the zeitgeist!  It’s more fun, because you get to use words like “zeitgeist.”

So, with absolutely no research, let’s begin!

1938-1941: The worship of heroes.  Why 1938?  Come on, people, Action Comics #1!  Sure, there were comic books before then (not long before then, but before then) and there were “heroes,” but let’s set a nice starting point, and that is Action Comics #1.  It appeared in June of 1938, and its signature hero, Superman, was created by Siegel and Shuster.  They created Superman in 1934, but it took a while to sell the idea.  Superman, however, was a smash.  Why?

Well, in 1938 America needed heroes.  FDR’s big social programs had failed to pull the country out of the Depression, which was actually worse in 1937-1939 than it had been under Hoover.  Europe was troubled, and the U.S. no longer looked like the Paradise it had seemed only a decade earlier.  The pulp heroes of the 1920s reflected Americans’ fascination with organized crime and the men who fought it, and this continued into the 1930s.  But Americans were looking for someone to worship, and Siegel and Shuster gave them a purely American god.  I’ve mentioned before the pairing of Superman and Batman as the Zeus and Hades of our American mythology, and the Christological aspects of Superman, even in the beginning, cannot be ignored.  This was a wholly American deity, and Americans embraced him.  When Batman appeared, as he had to, a year later, the pantheon had its opposing poles.  Superman was Zeus, lording over us all and dispensing lightning justice, while Batman ruled the underworld, dragging souls down with him.  The fact that they were both orphans made them attractive to Americans, too, reflecting the American soul, which rejects ancestry in favor of individuality.  Superman was powerful because he was an alien, but the point was that he was unique.  Batman was a self-made hero, and we responded to both of them.

Is this the Superman that people cling to?  Possibly.  He fought very few super-villains, however, and spent most of his time battling corrupt politicians in favor of labor unions.  Yes, this Superman was a socialist!  That’s not terribly surprising, given the attitude of the country and the ethnicity of his creators.  I’m sure Gerard Jones has explored this in much greater detail and depth than I ever could (I own the book but haven’t read it yet), but let’s consider the times.  Superman is a farm boy, and farmers were hit hard by the Depression.  Siegel and Shuster were Jewish and probably more accepting of socialism than many other Americans would be.  The Depression was seen as the failure of capitalism.  Politicians had caused it and hadn’t fixed it.  Is it any wonder that Superman would reflect these attitudes?  Kristallnacht occured in November 1938, too, and two Jewish boys must have wondered what was going to happen to their co-religionists in Germany.  Superman was the hero who would protect those who could not protect themselves.

This duality of hero-worship – Superman and Batman – was added to when Captain America came onto the scene.  While Superman embodied American values, he wasn’t American, and while Batman was American, he was still rich and therefore vaguely untrustworthy.  Captain America was created by two Jews, Kirby and Simon, perhaps specifically to carry out their wish-fulfillment.  The famous (and arguably greatest of all time) cover of Captain America #1, of course, shows Cap punching Hitler – and it came out months before Pearl Harbor.  The United States, stung by the petty squabbling of the Powers at Paris in 1919, had retreated into isolationism while fascism rose in Europe, but the Jewish contingent in New York paid attention to events in Germany, and while Superman is a desire for a god to rescue us, Captain America is a desire for a soldier who could fight the Nazi threat.  They were explicit archetypes of a specific time period, and they were functional for only a few specific things.  This is what the article I linked to above is wishing for – a time when heroes beat up bad guys, because the bad guys were easy to find.  It’s certainly easy to beat up Hitler.  It’s a little more difficult to fight fascism.

1941-1949: The patriotic era.  World War II was a goldmine for superhero fiction, and again, this might be the era that complainers today want to return to.  It’s strange to look back at a horrific event with fondness, but it seems like that’s what many people do – this was a “good war,” and wouldn’t it be nice to go back to that time?  Perhaps it’s not so strange – December 1941 was, after all, the last time we have actually declared war – isn’t it nice to know that we haven’t been in one since then? – and our armed conflicts since then have tended to be a bit messier than this one.  Maybe that’s why people recall the superhero comics of this era fondly – they were simpler, not unlike the war.  It’s nice to have an enemy, after all, and a fleet from an actual country attacked us, so we could focus on a real enemy.  Superheroes had an enemy, too, and Captain America was the perfect hero to fight the war.  The times demanded absolute devotion to the American ideal – there was no more time for even the slightest moral ambiguity, which is what we had a hint of in early Superman comic books.  Superman gained a nemesis (Lex Luthor), other heroes showed up to fight agents provocateurs and other vile enemies of the American Way, and comic books became flag-waving propaganda pieces, not unlike a lot of popular culture.  Not only was it unpopular to point out American failings, it became downright dangerous as the era went on.  Americans finally had their heroes, but as in the aftermath of September 11 (for a brief time), they didn’t want to hear about bad things that might be happening in the country – there was an external enemy to fight!  In a way, World War II was a devastating blow to superhero comics, because any slight maturing of the art form was jettisoned in favor of proving patriotism.  By the time comics moved slowly back toward exploring other areas of fiction, the country’s mood had changed again, and they didn’t have a chance.

1950-1961: We bury our heads in the sand.  The 1950s are, of course, the idyllic time for many people who are growing older (baby boomers) today, because those were the days in which they grew up, and most people think the age in which they grew up was the best time ever.  Hell, I think the 1980s were the greatest time ever.  Because of the overwhelming number of baby boomers, however, the 1950s take on even a greater patina of American innocence, despite many problems with the age.  You could argue that this was still a patriotic time, and I wouldn’t argue with you, but the reason I would differentiate this from the immediate post-war era is because of the Korean War.  McCarthyism had already begun to take shape in the late 1940s, and by the time Senator Joe got around to it, he just gave it a name.  But the fear of Communists that was there in the late 1940s took a form in the 1950s with the aggressive expansion of the Soviet Union, the Korean conflict, and the crushing of the Hungarian rebellion in 1956.  All of these events, combined with an uneasy feeling about the bomb, gave the 1950s a more paranoid edge than the 1940s.  We still wanted superheroes, but we were beginning to distrust the “other” more and more, so we wanted our superheroes to be completely divorced from reality.  This is, of course, the Silver Age, and this is, I think, what many people are talking about when they lament the loss of heroism in comic books.  Again, I could be wrong, but it seems like most of the bitching about Superman and his ilk always includes a rant about how “that wouldn’t have happened in the Silver Age!”  I picture these comic book fans sitting on their porches trying to keep their false teeth in while hitting whippersnappers with their canes.  Comics simply reflected the prevailing culture, which wanted to turn away from the carnage of World War II, the fear of the bomb, and the ambiguity of the Korean War (the first war since the War of 1812 that we didn’t “win”).  Television reflected this, movies reflected this, and music reflected this.  We may fondly remember it, but if you look at much of 1950s popular culture with a critical and not a rose-colored eye, it’s not that good.  I Love Lucy?  Please.  It’s crap.  Complete escapist entertainment – not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s not something that stands any test of time.  The comics are the same way.  If you read those comics today (I haven’t read many of them, to be honest, but I’ve read a few), the thing that strikes you is how immature they are.  Again, you can argue that they were written for children, but the people today who long for a return to the Silver Age are not children and do not want comics for children today.  There’s nothing terribly wrong with Silver Age comics, but they reflect the fears of that society.  Therefore, heroes fought aliens, because we were convinced that things from another world (including “things from other worlds” on our own planet – meaning Commies) were trying to destroy our American way of life.  The 1950s were a weirdly insular time, despite America’s new role on the world stage.  It was as if the United States was accepting its global role but its people could not quite do that yet.  The superheroes of the 1950s are quite possibly the most irrelevant versions of the archetype ever.  Yet the clamor is for their kind to return.  Why?  I’ll get to that.

1961-1969: Atomic energy and space flight!  Then Marvel decided to change everything.  Fantastic Four #1 reflects the two new fears and/or obsessions in America – the growing threat of nuclear annihilation, not only from an external enemy but from an accident on our own soil, and Kennedy’s desire to go to the moon.  The comics also reflected the perception of Camelot – a brightness that was undeserved, perhaps, but we’re talking about perception here, not reality.  Marvel’s early comics are steeped in radiation – both its wonders and its horrors.  Sure, Peter Parker gets radiation sickness, but the symptoms of that sickness are pretty freakin’ cool, even if he doesn’t think so.  Straight “superheroes” had become increasingly irrelevant - the DC stories we remember from the 1960s weren’t the straight superhero ones, they are the ones like Drake’s Doom Patrol.  Marvel and DC are perfect examples of how the culture was changing.  Despite using creators from the 1940s (Lee and Kirby), Marvel was, like a great deal of the culture, obsessed with the future, and their stories reflected this.  Even after Kennedy’s assassination and the increasing troop presence in Vietnam, Americans in the 1960s looked confidently toward the future, something they had done every since World War II, but now they had gotten over their fears about it to a certain degree.  The science fiction aspects of the 1960s no longer show a lot of anxiety about alien races and the future, but more hope.  Marvel’s comics reflected that, as well as the break with tradition that new rock bands represented.  If Marvel was the Beatles, DC was Pat Boone.  During the 1960s a great deal of people still feared the “other” and resisted change, and DC, for much of the decade, showed this.  Again, they were behind the curve, but so was a great deal of the country.  As the decade moved forward, though, even the old guard had to come to terms with the fact that we were now in space, we were hopelessly lost in Vietnam, and those damned kids weren’t shutting up when they were told to!  What to do????

1969-1986: The rise of the counter-culture.  Marvel, you could argue, was on the cusp of the counter-culture prior to 1969, but I would reject that argument, because despite the freshness of the early Marvel stuff, it was still pretty unhip.  It embraced newness, sure, but the newness of the establishment, not of the rebellious.  That changed in 1969, as both Marvel and DC decided to embrace the counter-culture, just as other forms of pop culture did the same.  The two best examples are, of course, the Spider-Man drug issues – whether Code-approved or not – because it actually dealt with something that was relevant, and the O’Neil/Adams Green Arrow/Green Lantern pairings, because it tried to examine the country and what was happening in the country.  We can also look at Cronin’s favorite, the all-new Wonder Woman, because even though it sounds like those Diana Prince stories were a bit ridiculous (yes, they also sound awesome, but something can be awesome and ridiculous at the same time), it was a bold move by DC and signaled a break from the past.  In the 1970s comics went a bit weirder, and even though I don’t know a lot about the period, I do know that Steranko’s influence extended outward to others, and Starlin, Gerber, Wrightson, Kirby, Ditko, and others flexed their muscles.  The late 1960s and 1970s are a bizarre lost gold mine of wonderful artistic direction – television gave us Laugh-In, All in the Family, the Mary Tyler Moore Show, and others, while directors were given a freedom by major studios that they never had and never would have again.  Music was expanding, too, with weird prog bands like Yes and Genesis rambling on for what seemed like hours (have you ever actually listened to Tales From Topographic Oceans?) while disco exposed mainstream America to gay culture for pretty much the first time.  Marvel and DC reflected this weirdness, even in their icons. Jim Roeg can probably talk about this in much greater detail than I can, but even I know about Clark Kent’s move to television, and Batman, of course, went all dark on us.  O’Neil’s decision to make Batman more of the creature of the night is important, because although the Seventies were a time of great creativity, it was also a dark time for the country.  We finally realized that our government was not only capable of betraying us, it did betray us.  Vietnam went FUBAR, the economy went in the tank, and the Starland Vocal Band had a big hit.  Oh, the humanity!  It’s not surprising that comics took a darker turn.  They, like a lot of pop culture, reflected this anxiety that we were feeling more and more.  Americans didn’t really want a hero anymore, because our heroes had let us down.  In the 1930s, our heroes let us down but we still believed in a deus ex machina.  By the 1970s, we had torn down the curtain and realized that the guy pulling the strings was a pathetic loser.  Is it any wonder comic books started to become more cynical?  In the early 1980s, this trend continued even though we had a bit of an upswing in patriotism under Reagan and thanks to the 1980 Winter and 1984 Summer Olympics.  However, it was patriotism tinged with that cynicism, because once lost, innocence can’t be regained.

1986-Present: The Information Age!  You’ll say that this era of comic books begins with Dark Knight and Watchmen.  You, however, would be wrong!  The foundation for this strange age of comics we now currently live in is Crisis on Infinite Earths.  With Crisis, comics entered a brave new world in which the old heroism was no longer viable but fans looked back on it with nostalgic longing.  This corresponds with the explosion of information sources, which makes heroism less likely.  I’ll explain.

With the rise of the Internet and the fracturing of the monolithic television and print journalism sources, we are privy to more information about any one thing than ever before.  This is both good and bad.  It makes it much more unlikely that a politician can get away with stuff that is unconstitutional or even bad policy – someone is bound to call him or her on it early in the process.  This is a good thing, but this can also go to the extreme – and we as Americans love extremists, no matter what we claim – and hamstring people who are actually trying to make a difference.  In this age, each president – Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II – has discovered that it’s a lot more difficult than it used to be to get policy through.  We are exposed to hundreds of television stations, so we can find stuff on the tube now that we could never before.  We don’t have Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite telling us how it is – we can figure this out for ourselves.  In comics, this makes it much less likely that something will come from out of left field and stun us – but it also means we have much more access to a variety of types of comics.  It also means we can comb through archives of comics much more easily and discover things we couldn’t before, which makes us continuity nerds.  It also means writers have to come up with better stories than “Superman beats up an alien and saves the world,” because we know it’s been done 7000 times before.  This information overload has also had a curious effect on our view of the future.  We no longer embrace the future, as we did in the 1950s and even into the 1960s. Part of the inspiration for this post came from an article in the June 2006 issue of History Today, in which the author argues that we have grown to fear the future.  Whether you agree with the thesis or not, it’s interesting to see how the sci-fi genre, especially, has dealt with this.  We got from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Blade Runner to The Matrix.  A definite paradigm shift.  In comics, we go from the somewhat benign Thanagar of the early Hawkman adventures to the police state of Hawkworld.  Krypton shifts from a world of marvels, where everyone has superpowers (as the first page of Action Comics #1 tells us) to a cold, emotionless, poisoned place.  This fear of the future manifests itself as a love of the past, and this is when the information age combines with nostalgia to have a crippling effect on comics, and we get reboots and resurrections because no one wants to allow these heroes to move on.  Comics, again, reflect the culture, and the culture no longer sees the future as something bright and shiny and, most importantly, good.  It is something to be feared, and therefore we retreat into the past, where everything was “simple” and “better.” 

As for heroism, in an age where we can find out every single thing about every single person, heroism becomes much more subjective.  To use a hypothetical example, what if there had been a firefighter at the World Trade Center who rescued, I don’t know, 25 people single-handedly?  Yay, he’s a hero!  Back in the day, that would have been enough.  Now, we can dig up everything on this person.  Would he still be a hero if he had killed someone in a drunk driving accident 20 years earlier?  Would he still be a hero if he cheated on his taxes?  Would he still be a hero if he beats his wife?  We will know all of these things in this new age, if we want to know.  Our cynicism of an earlier age has matured into a belief that nobody is a pure hero.  We go back and re-examine “heroes” from an earlier age.  We discover more and more things about our history, and we learn that we have always been this way, but it was much harder to discover these things.  I’m always amused by a certain segment of the population decrying “revisionist” history.  “Leave poor George Washington alone!” they say.  “He’s an American hero!”  The point is that all history is revisionist history.  We are constantly discovering new things about all sorts of history, and to ignore it is dishonest.  But these people who want their history books full of dead white men (and, I should note, I LOVE dead white man history, but I also recognize that there’s a lot that we miss if we only concentrate on that) are also the ones who want their superheroes to act like the pure heroes of yesteryear.  In this culture, however, that is impossible.  Not difficult.  IMPOSSIBLE.  If we were to get a superhero who acted purely like a hero, we would dismiss it as “childish” and “anachronistic.”  The closest we get to it – All Star Superman, I suppose – is done so a bit ironically.  That’s not to say it isn’t done well, but it’s certainly done with a bit of tongue in cheek.  Angst sells, nobility does not.  It’s the same in every medium, and it does not matter how much certain people rail against it.  We will never have a Silver Age Superman again, and we will never have Jimmy Stewart again.  We will never have Michael Landon again.  We will never have Fred MacMurray again.  The Cleavers are dead.  Long live the Simpsons!

September 11th changed the culture just slightly.  It was unlike Pearl Harbor in that a specific country did not attack us, and therefore we could not focus our anger on a specific target.  We didn’t declare war on anyone.  We looked for heroes and found them in the people who helped with the rescue efforts and even those who are currently fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.  But like my hypothetical example above, we learn that not everything is as it seems.  We yearn to look to our government to be the heroes, but unlike World War II, we can’t, because of this constant stream of information coming at us.  Would we have been able to follow FDR unreservedly if we had known some of the less noble aspects of his character?  Possibly, because of the very real threat of Japan and Germany.  But we can no longer do that, because every time Bush or his government makes a mistake, it is instantly transmitted and magnified.  I’m not saying that’s wrong, I’m simply stating a fact.  Deep down we might want heroes, but possibly deeper down we want to tear them down.  It’s the same thing in comics.  On the one hand, we have this uncomfortable feeling of nostalgia for a golden age we may or may not have experienced (how many comic book readers today were even alive in the 1950s?), but on the other hand, we buy up Civil War by the truckload, a book in which no one is acting heroically (I haven’t read them, but I have flipped through each issue, and it doesn’t look like even Captain America is acting heroically).  Again, there’s nothing wrong with this – it’s just a different way of looking at the world.  But the world of pure heroism is gone for good.

Personally, I have no problem with that.  I have read comic books from the past, and they were for children.  If we want comic books to be for adults, we have to make up our minds that they are going to be for adults.  DC and Marvel could publish exclusively comic books for children, and that would be fine.  I wouldn’t read any of them, but that would be fine.  A culture’s mythology changes to fit that culture until that culture dies.  The Greek gods are static only because no one tells new stories about them.  If we want our superheroes to remain an ideal, then we have to stop telling stories about them, because they are always going to reflect what we are feeling as a society.  I will take that.  I will take today’s Batman, even with all his angst, over the alien-fighting, walking-down-the-street-in-broad-daylight, getting-pies-thrown-at-him Batman.  I will take Deadwood over Gunsmoke.  I will take Arrested Development over The Honeymooners.  I will take Foo Fighters over Bill Haley and the Comets.  I will take Uncanny X-Men over “Flash of Two Worlds.”  If these things make you unhappy, you should start building that time machine, because it’s the only way you’re getting them back.

Thoughts?  Vitriol-filled rants?  How off base am I?  This is a friendly, open blog where everyone can rant equally even though I’m sure that, despite my complete lack of research into this phenomenon, I’ve already convinced everyone I’m right!