16 October 2011

The Mystery of Superheroes

Captain AmericaMy kryptonite is the common cold. After struggling more than a week with a blasted cold, I ventured out with friends for soup and salad and then movies. Artist friend Steve Rugg loves comic action heroes brought to the silver screen, and one recent addition is Captain America.

I liked the angst-ridden Spiderman and the dysfunctional sibling-like rivalry between Fan4's Torch and the Thing, but other action heroes didn't do much for me. Indeed, I didn't know Captain America possessed any extra-physical powers, but I since learned the movie closely follows the original 1941 story line:

Early in WW-II, the Army injected Steve Rogers with a sort of precursor anabolic steroid to turn him from a 98-pound weakling into a superdude. Otherwise unarmed, he carries a frisbee-like shield made of something like vibraphonium, batteries not included. (Okay, okay, it was actually called vibranium.)

The evil wicked baddie in the Captain America movie was a Nazi named Schmidt AKA Red Skull. For all the world, he reminded me of Jim Carrey's The Mask. I kept expecting him to whirl, pose, and exclaim "Smokin’!"

German Horton Ho XVIII
I was disappointed the Nazis seemed to have all the fun toys: the sleek submarine, the powerful open-top car, the VTOL plane, and the flying wing. The Allies were stuck with, um, motorcycles and blue steroids.

Even if a movie-goer isn't a fan of comic action heroes, Captain America can be enjoyable. Most of us weren't alive during World War II, but from the outside looking in, the film's ambience appears superb from the era graphics to the burlesque stage shows.

Pulp Mystery Comix

From the early days, there's long been a link between 'comix' and crime fiction. Obviously action heroes battle criminals, but the ties run deeper than mere pulp fiction. Like several detectives, Deborah Elliott-Upton's inamorato, Nick Carter, crossed back and forth from radio to movies to comic books. The Falcon crossed boundaries as did everyone's favorite, the Shadow. For reasons I never understood, Batman got his start in Detective Comics.

Great debate centers around superheroes– whether to wear a cape, whether to wear underwear on the outside, how tight are tights, and do primary colors really make the best camouflage? Radiation appears critical in the development of superheroes. It kills ordinary people, but it grows muscle mass in the comicbookly-predisposed.

Fantastic Four
Fantastic Four
The Unfairness Doctrine

Graphic novels require a subtle balance of fairness, or rather an initial imbalance of unfairness, which should tilt heavily in favor of the bad guys. I never bothered to learn why movie fans and critics didn't like the Fantastic Four, but the failure for me was the good-to-bad four-against-one scenario. In the comic books, much of the focus was on the friends 'n' family relationship of the FF, but we need to spot the bad guys a few points before the game's worth playing. That didn't happen in Fantastic Four. Even the perfect performance of Michael Chiklis couldn't save the FF from ultimate Doom.

I was too young for the height of the Doc Savage novels, but an underlying imbalance marred that famed series for me. Savage was smarter than his smartest guy, faster than his fastest, stronger than his strongest. In the two or three stories I tried to read, Doc ended up rescuing them. What was the point of having a team if they got themselves captured like silly schoolgirls?

As an Author

My knowledge of comics and graphic novels is small compared to Steve Rugg or John Floyd, but I have worked on a couple, most recently the English version of Tentara, a sweeping epic starring a little girl, Angal. The fans and subjects of graphic novels are overwhelmingly male and with the possible exception of Wonder Woman, girls seldom flock to action comics.

This mirrors athletics audiences. Women are very selective what they watch and participate in whereas males consume nearly anything sporting. Savvy promoters carefully position women's sports and graphic novels, knowing their female audience may fall short but male spectators could make up for that shortfall.

I enjoy ventures into graphics novels. Once before during a flu-wracked fever, I wrote an unusual story, sort of (don't roll your eyes) an ancient Chinese fable with romantic overtones. It's a pretty good 10k-word story but it's so unusual, I don't have a clue whom to market it to. It doesn't fit into any particular genre and at the moment it's slightly too risqué for children. Recently it dawned on me– it would make a good graphic novel. That's another can of worms: As I've learned, my experience is just large enough to realize difficulties but not great enough to know the solutions.

Seduction of the Innocent

During the middle 1950s, critics sounded the alarm that comic books led to juvenile delinquency. Congress formed another of its endless subcommittees, the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, and held national hearings on the evils of comics.

One of the most heard voices was that of psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, author of an article in Collier's, 'Horror in the Nursery', and the 1954 book, Seduction of the Innocent, subtitled 'the influence of comic books on today's youth.' As an expert witness, Wertham held that violence was obvious, but that images of nudity were hidden in comic panels. He contended Superman was a fascist, Batman and Robin were gay, and Wonder Woman was a lesbian bondage babe. In particular, the German-American Wertham appeared to target beloved artists such as Al Feldstein and Harvey Kurtzman. (Wertham's later writings against racism and violence were largely overshadowed by his anti-comic crusades.)

Even Oscar Wilde noted the poor parenting skills of Americans, but in the post-war fifties, society sought other answers, any answer at all. They blamed rock 'n' roll, they blamed pool halls in River City, they blamed everything except absentee (or simply absent) parenting. Comics became one more target.

Those in the industry derided the hysteria, but parents burned comic books in the streets and the mature comic industry plunged. The entire pulp publication business suffered and dozens of venerable series bit the dust.

One of the primary targets was EC Comics, which owned such titles as Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, The Haunt of Fear, Frontline Combat, Two-Fisted Tales, Weird Science, and the noirish Shock SuspenStories and Crime SuspenStories. Intended for older audiences, themes often dealt with war, death, racism, anti-Semitism, drugs, sex, and political corruption which disturbed many in the McCarthy era.

On the verge of bankruptcy, EC Comics folded most of its comics, but its owner, William Gaines wreaked a sort of revenge with Mad Magazine that subverted such vulnerable children as me. Ironically, Wertham's original and intact copies of Seduction of the Innocent (its own bibliography was censored, ripped from most books), demand top prices at comic conventions. But there's one more story about EC and William Gaines.

In the throes of survival, EC Comics turned to medical and office dramas, but couldn't make the formulae work. Fighting censorship, Gaines strove against the restraints of the Comics Code Authority, which enforced rules that the words 'horror', 'terror' or 'weird' couldn't be used on comic book covers, wiping out many EC titles. Without the CCA seal of approval, wholesalers refused to carry EC's comics. One of those titles was Weird Science Fantasy, which EC tried renaming Incredible Science Fiction, keeping the WSF sequential numbering scheme.

Line in the Sand

Captain America
The final battleground became the February 1956 issue, Nº 33 of Incredible Science Fiction. After the CCA rejected one story, Gaines substituted another, titled Judgment Day. In it, an astronaut visits Cybrinia, a planet of robots that seeks admittance to the Galactic Republic. He finds the robots indistinguishable except that some are sheathed in orange and some blue. The orange have come to dominate the others, reserving privileges for themselves and subjecting the blues to servitude.

The astronaut determines the bigotry is grounds to deny them admittance to the Republic. In the final panel, the astronaut pulls off his helmet, revealing he is a black man.

"This really made 'em go bananas in the Code czar's office," wrote comics historian Digby Diehl, speaking of Judge Charles Murphy, who couldn't stomach the idea of a black astronaut. Al Feldstein responded, "For God's sakes, Judge Murphy, that's the whole point of the Goddamn story!"

Diehl goes on to say "When Murphy continued to insist that the Black man had to go, Feldstein put it on the line. 'Listen,' he told Murphy, 'you've been riding us and making it impossible to put out anything at all because you guys just want us out of business.' [Feldstein] reported the results of his audience with the czar to Gaines, who was furious. [Gaines] immediately picked up the phone and called Murphy. 'This is ridiculous!' he bellowed. 'I'm going to call a press conference on this. You have no grounds, no basis, to do this. I'll sue you.'"

EC Comics managed to get the comic out, but it was the last EC Comics would publish. At last you know why they were in the superheroes business.


  1. Leigh, when I saw your topic for today, I thought, "Oh, no. I'm not at all interested in comics." Then I read it and found it fascinating! Not a comic enthusiast myself, most of my experience with them has been through my sons when they were young and my grandson now. A secret: I read Mad Magazine myself. Please don't tell ANYONE. It would ruin my sweet little old southern lady image.

  2. Judgement Day sounds well ahead of its time!

  3. "During the middle 1950s, critics sounded the alarm that comic books led to juvenile delinquency ..."

    Now I know why I wasn't allowed to read comic books, or even the Sunday comics in the newspaper!

  4. Anon, my mother often burned comic books as 'trash', what would be extremely valuable today.

    Many of us in the mystery world have a love of science fiction for that very reason.

    Fran, many of us loved Mad. It was wonderfully seditious and oh, so clever.

  5. The first comics I read were the funny papers, which helped me to learn to read. My grandmother objected to my reading the funny papers because she said reading them would make me lose my senses. I never figured out how she knew they would make me lose my senses. I never saw her reading them, so how could she know what they would do? Of course, I never asked her.

    One of my closest friends had a large collection of comic books, much larger than my little collection, and we often swapped comics. I don’t think he has any now, and I don’t even read them anymore, though maybe I should.

    I know from experience that the comics may affected a young boy’s behavior. Our heroes were Superman, Batman and Robin, and the Green Hornet. Another friend, when we were about 11 or 12 years old, decided he could fly like Superman. I told him I didn’t think so. He didn’t believe me. He tied a large piece of cloth around his neck, climbed on top of the roof over his porch, and jumped off. Luckily, he jumped on the grass instead of the sidewalk. He didn’t break anything, but he never tried being a superhero again.

    In those days, we Black kids didn’t ask why there were no Black superheroes because, I think, we knew why. Black folks were not smart and strong enough, or so the White folks tried to convince us.

  6. Loved Mad Magazine. "What, me worry?" Sometimes you just have to go for it. And, they did.

  7. I think I actually saw a reprint of that story years ago. I grew up on comics! Excelsior!

  8. RT, Mad was wonderful, wasn't it?

    Louis, I'm still chuckling about your flight-challenged friend. I don't recall black superheroes appearing in mainstream comics until the 1960s, no doubt for the same reasons as Gaines fought against, quite a superhero.

  9. Jeff, EC actually published that story twice and I think it's been repeated since then in anthologies.

  10. Who'd a thunk it?? All that fascinating background ... and the subject is Comic Books. An absolute eye-opener, Leigh.

    And, today, of course, graphic novels are enjoying such a huge resurgence in popularity. Major authors are getting into the game, including Dean Koontz and (I think) Stephen King.

    For my kids, though, it's Manga books: graphic novels from Asia. They open and read from left to right. My family hits the library just about every weekend, and my 16-year-old daughter will pick up 6 to 10 of them (and they aren't small). By the next library visit, she'll have finished them, and she'll get more. All of her friends love them, too. As does my 3rd grade son. He also loves Batman and Spiderman. I have to vet all his books at the library, though. Most of the anthology-like collections of older super hero comics are fine for the little guy, but many of the newer ones (as well as many Manga books) have plot lines or graphic depictions he's not ready for at this age (IMHO).

  11. MAD Magazine featured prominently in my childhood; somewhat surprising for SA in the late 60s early 70s, considering the then government's paranoia over anything even hinting at sedition! (We like to think it went over their heads.)

  12. Anyone remember 'Classics Illustrated'? I learned the plot lines of many a great book there; and even, in some cases, went on to the read the un-illustrated version. Who says comic books aren't useful?

  13. I do remember Classics Illustrated, but I had forgotten. Seems to me I read "The Red Badge of Courage" or something as a CI, too. I must have been pretty young, and can barely remember it. At any rate, I remember the cover showed what I think was a Civil War scene.

  14. Let's not all forget the evolution of the illustrators. The man responsible, although and employee then, Stan Lee the Man that is considered the turning point of popular Comics. I can't think of a greater reward, than at his age to finally be recognized, so many comic book writers were overlooked. But now you have them helping with Movie scripts and video games! I don't know if you have seen the new Batman Video game but they are getting closer and closer to looking more like a movies all the time.

  15. You know, Steve -- you're right. I've seen that game; my kids play it, if you're talking about Arkham Assylum. (Well, my older kids. The younger ones aren't allowed. lol)

  16. I've never been a comic fan, but your article's given me second thoughts. I like the history lesson.

    I'm glad your comment section seems to be working!

  17. Judgement Day sounds well ahead of its time!


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