Guest Post – Chris Strange November 2, 2012Posted by thehypermonkey in Book talk.
Tags: books, chris strange, don't be a hero, reading, superheroes
We’re going to switch things up a little with a guest post. I’m delighted to have Chris Strange, the author of The Man Who Crossed Worlds and Don’t Be a Hero doing the honors.
Pop Culture and the Superhero
by Chris Strange
In the early hours of June 18th, 1938, a young magazine vendor somewhere in America stacked his newsstand shelves with the first issue of a new comic book from National Periodical Publications. In Europe, war was rumbling on the horizon. The shadow of the Great Depression still lingered throughout the world. Like many, the young magazine vendor was looking for hope. He didn’t find it in the newspapers, so he turned to the new comic book he was putting on the shelf.
This new book was reminiscent of the pulps, but it was unlike anything he’d seen before. On the cover was a man dressed in tights like a circus strongman, a red cape billowing behind him. This caped man was effortlessly holding a car above his head, smashing it against a boulder. Around him, other men ran screaming, driven mad by the sight of this tights-wearing car-smasher. Who was this caped man, and what did he have against cars? There was nothing to indicate whether the man was a hero or a villain. The screaming men carried no weapons or bags of loot to indicate they were mobsters. The caped man’s expression was neither gleeful villainy nor a heroic grin, just a look of determination. Aside from the date and the issue number, the only text on the cover was the title of the series, Action Comics, and an “S” emblazoned on the caped man’s chest. This striking image was the world’s first look at Superman.
The superhero had been born.
The superhero, born from the pulp magazines of the twenties and thirties, was more than human. He was brave, powerful, often gruff, but most importantly, he was good. No one could have predicted how successful this new type of hero would become. Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, certainly didn’t. They sold the rights for Superman to Action Comics for a mere $130. But Superman was so successful that he soon got his own self-titled comic book. More heroes followed. Less than a year later, the hero known as “The Bat-Man” graced the cover of Detective Comics #27, another comic book from the same company. The immense success of these early superheroes bred hundreds of imitators. Soon, comic books were filled with these strange, cape-wearing heroes. America was enthralled. Other Western countries soon caught superhero fever as well.
The early heroes were not without their faults; looking back now it is easy to see the influence of a culture that embraced the idea of a masculine white male upholding Western values. But in spite of this—or perhaps because of it—the heroes thrived. Though the comics were for children, these were truly heroes for the working man living in the shadow of the Great Depression. The heroes were always ready to root out corrupt politicians and take down criminals who preyed on hard-working citizens. But the world was about to change, and the heroes were needed elsewhere.
In 1939, the world went to war again. People were no longer afraid of gangsters and corrupt politicians. They were afraid of armies marching through their homelands and bombs flattening their cities. As they would do time and again throughout their long history, superheroes went to fight what society feared the most. Characters like Superman shipped out for Europe and the Pacific, fighting the Axis powers (or at least their racist caricatures). New wartime heroes appeared, Captain America among them. Patriotism was the new cultural zeitgeist, and the heroes led the way. The scene in the new Captain America movie where Cap sings and dances to sell war bonds isn’t too far from the reality of those wartime comics.
When the war was over and the heroes came home, they found a new challenge waiting for them. With a generation of children raised without fathers, the world had become fearful again, and the new horrors were juvenile delinquency and sexual deviancy. To save itself from the fire-and-pitchfork wielding mob, the comics industry adopted the now infamous Comics Code. Statutes of the code included:
“Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals.”
“Inclusion of stories dealing with evil shall be used or shall be published only where the intent is to illustrate a moral issue and in no case shall evil be presented alluringly, nor so as to injure the sensibilities of the reader.”
And of course: “Sex perversion or any inference to same is strictly forbidden.”
With the new restrictions, the popularity of the superhero dropped sharply. To stay in business while remaining completely inoffensive, superhero stories became increasingly silly. Luckily, the psychedelic sixties were fast approaching, and some superheroes found a new way to reflect culture. The rise of the atomic age brought along a new wave of heroes with powers derived from science and radiation: the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man, the X-Men. This was also the age of the Adam West Batman TV show, which many modern superhero lovers accuse of betraying Batman’s grim nature. But the TV show’s popularity carried the Dark Knight through a time when superheroes were at risk of becoming no more than a cultural footnote, and without it Batman wouldn’t be the pop culture phenomenon he is today.
Like Batman, Superman weathered the hard times and remained part of popular culture, even starring in several movies that hit it big in the box office. Other heroes were not so lucky. As the decades rolled on and the Comics Code lost its teeth, the other superheroes began the long climb back into the public consciousness. As society became more cynical again, so did the hero. More and more anti-heroes began to emerge, including the Punisher, Wolverine, and the freshly de-camped Batman. And at the height of the Regan Era, Alan Moore’s genre-changing Watchmen came onto the scene. The heroes in the Watchmen universe were the very antithesis of the Comics Code: sociopathic, violent, antisocial, and sexually depraved. The superhero had become what everyone feared he would.
It was nearly a decade until superheroes found their idealistic origins again. As Batman’s popularity continued to rise with the success of Tim Burton’s movies and the Batman Animated Series, the public once again embraced the brightly colored spandex-wearing heroes who weren’t afraid to stand up for what was right. After years of deconstruction, creators were reconstructing the hero, creating new universes such as Kurt Busiek’s Astro City. The superhero exploded out of comics and into movies and TV shows. Their images were plastered across T-shirts, lunchboxes, video games. The Internet gave the superhero a new way to spread through the culture, reaching people who would never pick up a comic book.
Now thousands of people each year attend Comic-Cons dressed up as their favorite superheroes. Incredibly, Marvel’s The Avengers has grossed $1.5 billion internationally at the box office. For a superhero movie to become one of the highest grossing films of all time was unthinkable just a few decades ago. Somehow, against the odds, the superhero has emerged as one of the strongest pop culture icons of our time. And he doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.
Something about the superhero enchants us, crossing lines of nationality, age, and gender. Perhaps it is the power fantasy, or perhaps the desire for protection and security in an uncertain world. Perhaps we just like watching living gods beat the snot out of each other. Or maybe we’re not that different from that magazine vendor back in 1938. Maybe all we’re looking for is a little hope, a little reassurance that no matter how dark it gets, there will always be someone there to carry us through.
Maybe we simply want someone to fight for truth, justice, and all that other stuff.
Thanks to Chris Strange for being on the blog! Please visit him on
Buy Don’t Be a Hero at: