Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked

Written By: Terri Pressley

Where does a documentary about superheroes and comics begin? With Superman himself of course! Superman, created in 1938 by Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster, both 18 years old, combined parts of Hercules, a scientific Moses, and Jerry Siegel's confidence issues. He always had crushes on girls that didn't seem to know that he was alive, so he created a character that everyone would look up to one that women would want and men would want to be.

Unfortunately, for Siegel and Shuster, nobody wanted Superman. Comic strips were huge in daily newspapers, but every syndicated newspaper in the country turned them down. There was still hope though in the form of comic books. A book filled with comics was a relatively new idea back then. Their only purpose was to make a few quick cents by recycling old comic strips collected from newspapers. However, Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson had an idea - comic books with all new material! He knew that, in order to make it work, the content would have to come cheap.

Nicholson looked for talent who couldn’t get hired anywhere else, which only left the inexperienced and those who were too young to work elsewhere (sometimes, as with Shuster and Siegel, because they were Jewish). Nicholson's company eventually sold out and became what is now DC Comics. A few years later, Shuster and Siegel's superhero got his start –Superman’s first appearance in Action Comics #1.


Superman wasn't like any other heroes. He lived in the present day in the city of Metropolis a thinly veiled New York City. He fought corrupt dictators and landlords -- things real people were experiencing. His real draw, though, was that of his alter ego, Clark Kent. Like the Jews of Eastern Europe, who watched their world be destroyed before immigrating to America, Superman became a refugee from a fallen world. He was the all-American immigrant who made good.

Serials, radio shows, and toys followed. Superman was a veritable cottage industry. DC, obviously, wanted to capitalize on Superman’s success. Enter the Batman. Whereas Superman had a progressive social agenda, Batman was merely a crime fighter who saw his parents killed in a botched hold up -- something familiar to Depression Era readers.

A glut of superheroes followed, even from other companies. The rule was that they had to be fantastic and they had to have a costume. Will Eisner relates a story about drawing a small burglar’s mask on a character simply because his publisher insisted on a costume.

One of the many other comic book companies to come out of the woodwork was Timely Comics. While DC had better artists, Timely Comics arguably had better writing, Timely Comics tended to go for the wild ideas such as Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch having a knockdown drag out fight. They pitched it on Thursday and turned it in on Monday. A young Timely writer (17-year-old Stanley Martin Lieber) thought that comics should be expanded to target older teens and young adults. Timely publisher Martin Goodman scoffed at the idea. After all, comics were for kids. That writer would go on to great fame. You may have heard of him -- his name was Stan Lee.

Comics began to reflect this idea that they should restrict themselves to kiddie fare. Batman went from brooding loner to happy father figure when DC introduces Dick Gracen as boy sidekick Robin. Batman's sales doubled after Robin was introduced. Of course, success breeds imitation so we also got Toro - boy sidekick of the Human Torch - and Sandy - boy sidekick of the Sandman - Speedy, boy sidekick of the Green Arrow - and Kitten - female sidekick of Catman. Lee hated the idea of kid sidekicks. He thought a court would throw the hero in jail for child endangerment. Whiz Comics went everyone one better by having a child superhero -- Captain Marvel. When Billy Batsen says the word, "Shazzam!” he turns into Captain Marvel, but it was really just a surreptitious copy of Superman. DC would eventually sue Faucet Publications for copyright infringement causing Faucet to go out of business.

Then WWII began. With most of the comic book writers leaning to the left anyway, the idea of fascism growing in Europe made them uneasy. The Sub-Mariner went from attacking humanity to attacking the Nazis. Superman flew in, grabbed Hitler and Stalin, and delivered them to the League of Nations for justice. Hitler's propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels received a copy of that issue, proclaimed Superman “a Jew,” and said that Jerry Siegel was intellectually circumcised. Timely Comics really went after Hitler, though, with "Captain America," which featured Captain America punching Hitler with a right hook on the cover of its first issue. In the story, Roosevelt supports a secret program to create super soldiers. Steve Rogers, a puny but patriotic weakling, volunteers. The serum he is given turns him (ironically) into the perfect man. The secret of the formula dies with the professor when a Nazi spy assassinates him. Captain America, created by Simon and Kirby, featured real life events woven into the stories. Some proved to be amazingly prophetic. In one issue, Cap and his sidekick Bucky Barnes stop an "Asian" fleet from attacking a U.S. crew in the Pacific. This was seven months before Pearl Harbor. After Pearl Harbor, Cap and the rest of the heroes went to war. Lee says you would think it was government-sponsored propaganda, but they were just trying to do their part. Comic sales skyrocketed to their highest points in history. It was "The Golden Age" of comics.

Then WWII began. With most of the comic book writers leaning to the left anyway, the idea of fascism growing in Europe made them uneasy. The Sub-Mariner went from attacking humanity to attacking the Nazis. Superman flew in, grabbed Hitler and Stalin, and delivered them to the League of Nations for justice. Hitler's propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels received a copy of that issue, proclaimed Superman “a Jew,” and said that Jerry Siegel was intellectually circumcised. Timely Comics really went after Hitler, though, with "Captain America," which featured Captain America punching Hitler with a right hook on the cover of its first issue. In the story, Roosevelt supports a secret program to create super soldiers. Steve Rogers, a puny but patriotic weakling, volunteers. The serum he is given turns him (ironically) into the perfect man. The secret of the formula dies with the professor when a Nazi spy assassinates him. Captain America, created by Simon and Kirby, featured real life events woven into the stories. Some proved to be amazingly prophetic. In one issue, Cap and his sidekick Bucky Barnes stop an "Asian" fleet from attacking a U.S. crew in the Pacific. This was seven months before Pearl Harbor. After Pearl Harbor, Cap and the rest of the heroes went to war. Lee says you would think it was government-sponsored propaganda, but they were just trying to do their part. Comic sales skyrocketed to their highest points in history. It was "The Golden Age" of comics.

However, there was a certain irony to all the success. Steve Rogers (Captain America) was exactly what Hitler thought the human male should be -- blond hair, blue eyes, physically chiseled. The philosophies of the superheroes also paralleled the Nazis - the use of brute force to bend people to your will is not only effective, but also morally justified. Speaking of philosophical differences, one person who had a problem with Nazis was Wonder Woman. Charles Moulton a Harvard psychologist who also invented the lie detector created Wonder Woman. The basic story is that of an American pilot who crashes in the Amazon. Princess Diana meets and then falls in love with him and then realizes that she and the other Amazonians cannot be isolationists/ pacifists any more. They must fight for their freedom. Of course, you can see the S & M aspect to Wonder Woman. Every issue was full of bondage and subjugation, influenced by Moulton's bizarre sex life with his wife -- and mistress.

Superheroes also fought the war in other ways, like encouraging kids to recycle to help ration paper. Ironically, it would be the comic books themselves that would be thrown into the bin first as parents thought them to be frivolous. This is the reason comic books from the WW II era sell for up to $100,000.

After the war had ended, everyone wanted a lighter form of entertainment. Superheroes, which had been turned over to corporate ownership as writers went off to war, became bland and more mainstream. As with the movie industry, comics were supportive of Roosevelt and the New Deal. When it came time to go to war, the government encouraged writers to come up with stories that embraced our new allies -- including the Soviet Union. Then, when the war was over, those very same writers who were patriotic only a few years earlier, were now accused of trying to undermine capitalism and "the American way."

Still, comic book sales rose to a circulation of nearly 100 million. Superman was forced to change from fighting for "truth and justice" to fighting for "truth, justice and the American way." However, it didn't stop them from coming under attack. A psychiatrist named Frederic Wortham, who worked at Bellevue Hospital's Psychiatric wing, began preaching that comic books were causing violence. Wortham went from prison to prison, interviewing violent criminals about their reading habits, most of them read comics. Ergo, comics make people violent. I am not entirely sure how flawless logic like that made it into medical journals. Now, I am not a noted psychiatrist by any stretch of the imagination, but it seems that comic books — books with a lot of pictures in them — might tend to be "read" by those who are illiterate and, might also be possible that those who are illiterate tend to commit, or at least be convicted of, more crimes? Wortham did however come up with a worthy addition to history. "The Superman Complex," which referred to the human desire to watch others being punished while you remain immune. This is nothing new; the Germans have a word called ‘schaudenfraud’, which translates as "taking pleasure in another's misery." Leave it to the Germans to come up with a word for that!

Other targets include Batman and Robin — who supposedly represented a gay fantasy — and Wonder Woman, whose’ behavior ran counter to how women were expected to act. At about the same time as the McCarthy hearings on communism, Senator Estes Kefauver started investigations into the comic book industry. The result was what is now known as "The Comics Code."

After that, Superman started working with the police more often, Batman and Robin started cruising for chicks, and Wonder Woman began hanging out with her boyfriend (in a strictly platonic way, of course). From that point on, authority (parents, police, and government) had to be respected. No longer were werewolves or zombies allowed to be portrayed in comics. Many artists and writers dropped out of the industry and so did many fans. Comic book sales fell by over half. The industry survived, but was in a state of shambles. Only Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman survived at DC. They managed, however, to remake many of their old comics such as the Flash and Hawkman for a new generation. By combining all of their heroes, DC was able to create a successful title in "The Justice League of America" and it became incredibly popular.

On the other end of the spectrum, Timely Comics decided to distance themselves from the silly monster comics they had been producing and turned to a young writer named Stan Lee. Lee looked at the success of the JLA, but he wanted to do it his way and "The Fantastic Four" was born. Unlike other heroes, these people had flaws. Reed Richards was a pompous jackass. The Thing was gruff and unlikable. The Human Torch was arrogant. Lee also made one other suggestion to management: change the name of the company from "Timely Comics" to "Marvel Comics."

Lee specialized in anti-heroes like the Sub-Mariner, who hated humanity for destroying his underwater kingdom. Another was the Hulk, who became a green monster thanks to radiation. Hulk was interesting in that his main nemesis in the early years was the U.S. Army. Of course, this doesn't coincide with the Comics Code except for the fact that they explained that the army thought they were doing the right thing.

Lee's dedication to jaded anti-heroes paid off as fan mail began to come in from high school and college students. Lee decided to capitalize on the teenaged interest with a teenaged character. Marvel was unsure at first because, until then, teens were sidekicks. Lee's creation, “Spider-Man” was relegated to the last issue of the dying anthology series called "Amazing Fantasy."

Peter Parker was a wimpy teen who received powers from an irradiated spider. He could stick to walls, leap moderately sized buildings and had the web creating ability of a spider. However, Peter didn't even want to use his powers to help humanity. No, instead he set out get into show business as a wrestler. When he refused to stop a burglar who robbed the arena, it came back to haunt him when his Uncle Ben was killed by that same man. The lesson was "With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility." When asked where the idea for that phrase came from, Stan Lee admitted that he had no idea.

"Amazing Fantasy #15" proved to be the last of the series, but it was so popular Marvel decided to do a regular series. It was successful because Peter Parker was a more compelling character than Spider-Man. DC was still doing "good guys vs. bad guys," so Marvel's ambiguity was enticing. In fact, an Esquire Magazine poll found that Spider-Man ranked alongside Bob Dylan, Malcolm X, and Che Gueverra when college students were asked about revolutionary figures. When Jim Sterenko joined "Nick Fury: Agent of Shield" in the 1960s, he brought an art style that had not been seen and pop art expressionism became wildly popular.

DC, meanwhile, continued to fall apart. The Batman TV series especially because it made people think it was all kid's stuff. Writer Denny O'Neil tried to capitalize on the feminist movement by taking Wonder Woman’s superpowers and making her more empowered from within. It backfired, though, and DC gave her back her powers a few years later. O'Neil would move on to resurrect Batman's flagging sales by returning the Caped Crusader to his darker roots. It was a huge success.

After that success, O'Neil was paired up with Julie Schwarz to save "The Green Lantern" from cancellation. They brought in "Green Arrow" as the voice of the left. The Green Lantern, who represented the status quo, had his world shaken to the ground when he was accused of being a racist. "Green Lantern/Green Arrow" would go on to cover several controversial topics. One such controversial topic at the time was Vietnam. Most comic book writers shied away from doing Vietnam stories. By the time they did them, it was irrelevant.

Another topic was drugs. The Nixon administration, worried about teen drug use, asked Stan Lee to insert a story on drugs into the pages of Spider-man. He complied, and it became one of my favorites. Spider-man idly saves some kid who got high on drugs and went up to the rooftop thinking he could fly. When a drug pusher gets poor Harry Osborn, Peter Parker's roommate, hooked on junk, he goes insane as well, (and it later leads him to become the Green Goblin). Of course, Lee inserted some left-wing propaganda in there as well, such as a campus activist blaming captain of industry Norman Osborn for ignoring the drug problem because it affects poor folk. Ironically, Lee's work was rejected by the Comics Code, which stated you couldn't mention drugs. Lee countered, "How can you do an anti-drug statement without mentioning drugs?" Marvel stood strong and released the series without the Comics Code approval seal. When the world didn't end, the Comics Code was liberalized.

In the late 1970s, "Superman" became marketable once again thanks to the Christopher Reeve feature film. Also around that time, DC made amends with creators Siegel and Shuster, giving them credit for the series, and paying them modest stipend years after stealing the character out from under them.

Enter the 1980s. Inflation was high. The world was under the threat of nuclear annihilation. That fear reflected in the work of a young Frank Miller, who took over Daredevil. Daredevil went from wisecracking Spider-man wannabe to Catholic vigilante. His girlfriend Karen Page went from cutie-next-door to drug-addicted porn star. The seductive Elektra replaced her as love interest. Miller also brought back the Punisher, who was a tough guy who wanted justice.

On the other side of the pond, "The Watchmen" gained raves for its political complexity and portrayal of heroes as morally ambivalent. It even lit a fire under Frank Miller, who used it as inspiration for "The Dark Knight Returns." Batman and Superman had been friends until Miller got through with them. Superman enforced order, while a jaded Batman simply wanted revenge and if justice was done, so be it. Suddenly, all superheroes had problems. Hulk was abused as a child, Iron Man started hitting the sauce, and mad scientist Lex Luthor became a corporate raider. However, when DC decided to kill off Robin (Jason Todd, not Dick Gracen) it caused a media uproar. That uproar forced them to create Tim Drake. Batman fared better when Tim Burton adapted the series for an incredibly successful series of movies.

The price of comics jumped to $.40 in the 1970s, too much for kids and yet not a high enough price point for newsstands to sell them. Someone realized that shops selling comics as collector items would be a great place to sell new issues and comics became a huge industry once again. After that, comics started specializing in stories that are more adult oriented. Unfortunately, it also led to the comic collector boom. Non-fans started collecting titles they never expected to read because they thought they would be able to sell them for a profit. Marvel and DC started printing huge numbers of issues and special foil covers. Of course, with so many printings, the issues were practically worthless. When collectors realized this, the non-fans stopped buying, leaving a comic publishers in the lurch.

In 2001 the WTC falls. All the major comic companies having used NYC as a backdrop for so many of their comic issues felt they should put out commemorative issues which were used to raise money for families of the victims. However, they were not the uplifting stories of the 1940s. Stan Lee felt that would have been in bad taste. Sales of comic books today have finally fallen off. Even top sellers only sell about 100,000 copies a year. However, many of the superheroes have moved on to new forms of entertainment such as movies and the internet. What does the future hold for the comic book industry? No one knows. As long as we love, cherish, and collect them, they will live on in infamy.

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