If I told you superhero movies were big in Hollywood right now, would you be surprised?
I’m guessing no. What with FOURTNEEN currently released Marvel Universe films out, several television and streaming series between the major publishers and DC starting their own cinematic universe… silver screen heroes are pretty huge right now. In fact you might say they’re the biggest thing to hit Hollywood since the romantic comedy.
So why then do I feel unfulfilled in my comic nerdery? Why in the face of the lame-duck Man of Steel and Batman v Superman movies am I still willing to stand on my soap box and say Superman is still worth believing in? That’s because a nagging voice in my head, possibly a symbiote, tells me people have forgotten something important about our golden heroes.
I think we’ve forgotten what super heroes were supposed to be about.
It’s impossible to miss the marketing juggernaut the superhero genre has become over the last decade and plans are already in place to capitalise a dozen more popular names in 2017. As such we’re seeing some of the best stories in the medium rolled out pretty quickly, often without the pacing they deserve. But are these classic tales of heroes facing monsters really what made the Golden Age of comics a landmark? Most of the stories we see adapted to film, from Captain America going AWOL to Death of Superman, are lifted from the later (often called Silver Age) of comic books in which flashy stories and big twists were all the rage to keep the medium interesting.
Take a moment to look past these flashy title-grabbers with me and look at what really went into making these heroes, and why they became so popular to span upwards of eight decades; Almost an entire century in popular culture!
If we need a case study in how perceptions have changed for comic leads take a look at our mutant brethren in The X-Men. As a 1960’s publication by Stan Lee the story of societal outcasts banding together and fighting for social justice, pulled apart by two polarising leaders with different ideals, should strike a chord for anyone with basic knowledge of Civil Rights in the USA. The divide between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X fuelled much conflict in an already volatile social situation, with the black population of the States struggling to find acceptance in a world that classed them as ‘different’ and therefore bad. These struggles are paralleled in comic form and work as a brilliant mirror for the state of culture at the time – both the good and the bad.
Knowing this it won’t shock you to learn many superheroes were a reflection of their time period, but what if I told you some heroes actually managed to affect the real world as much as the real world affected them?
Let me tell you a little story about when superheroes were about Hope. Not ‘saving the world from disaster’ kind of hope, but the more human experience that so many people are looking for every day. Let me take you back to the 1940’s, Europe was torn apart by war and the United States- at the time heart of the blossoming comic book industry- was entering armed conflict abroad. Let me introduce you to a little someone called; Batman.
This period is still known today as the ‘Golden Age’ of comic books. The medium was fresh and captivating for young audiences who didn’t have many other outlets. It was literature for the youth at a time where stories of adventure and heroism weren’t as easy to come by. Most think-pieces on the period dive into how comic books (and various other mediums) tried to sell kids on the idea of romantic battlefield adventure, often tied in with ads for War Bonds and the American Red Cross. That was more the fault of the market and comics authority however, not the impact of the characters and their stories. Instead I want you to ask yourself something… Why did Batman need a Robin?
There have been decades of comic fans berating the inclusion of the Boy Wonder and fighting for a more independent and less child friendly Bat. Some of you might consider yourself among this number, but consider this, Batman first hit shelves under the Detective Comics title in 1939. His junior sidekick Robin would later join his adventures in 1940. Just one year later!
It doesn’t take much research to find out why, and the truth is actually quite heart-breaking. As the forties rolled in America sank into the war and a time of loss and sadness gripped the real world. Even prior to ’41 so many people in the States were refugees or had familial ties to the conflict, it couldn’t be escaped. One consistency among thousands of young people at the time was simply not having a father figure- whether they were serving abroad or tragically one of the considerable human losses of war. The lack of paternal role models was at pandemic proportions and it was down to Batman, and numerous other funny book heroes besides, to fill that place in children’s lives.
Robin entered at the beginning of America’s war and acted as a self-insert for young readers; getting to be a part in the thrilling adventures of their heroes, beating bad guys and learning important life lessons with each issue. The Boy Wonder was at his peak during these years and notably hit a similar resurgence around the time of the Korean and Vietnam wars. These were times when children needed something more than just adventure stories. They needed a hero in their lives.
Other franchises didn’t adapt to the times but were instead created by them. They are a time capsule of comic writers trying to communicate a message to their impressionable readers- and none more prevalent than Captain America. Hitting shelves a year after Batman this hero was built from virtues the writers wished to personify about their country. He fights for Truth, Justice and Freedom. Not due to his character, but because everything from his title to his costume to his demeanour was supposed to make children think of America.
This was a powerful tool in the early Captain America comics and an intentional design choice to enforce just how brave and just the war against Axis powers really was to a young and- important to remember- not well informed audience. This was a time period before reporters and camera crews were littering battlefields across the world so the only exposure young people got to the war proper was the propaganda reels in their movie theatres, paper headlines that were strictly controlled for information security reasons, and of course… comic books. Remember that issue of Captain America punching Adolf Hitler (Issue #1, 1940)? This was the first time many kids would have seen what the German Fuhrer even looked like. Mostly because this issue hit shelves an entire year before the United States even entered the Second World War… !
We can see that many comic characters were created as more than just proxies for fighting baddies and having daring adventures. The most timeless of them were created to be something more.
Why then do I still insist that Superman may actually be the greatest of super heroes?
Let’s start by looking at where the ‘Big Blue Boy-Scout’ came from.
As the earliest super hero in the medium Superman was created in 1933 during a climate of fear and oppression around the world- crafted by the offspring of two Jewish refugee families, Jerry Siegal and Joe Shuster. His is the story of extraordinary people forced out of their home and making a life in a strange and often hostile place, people who have strength and potential that often gets overlooked or misunderstood. It’s a perfect ‘outsider’ story from the creative children of immigrant families who fled out of Europe. Many people also insist on relations to the Moses story, of a baby being sent down the Nile to safety; however it’s essential to spot the differences between them. Moses was sent away by innocent peasants and raised by the powerful elite. This is the exact opposite situation to Superman’s tale and recognising that brings us to possibly the most important thing about him…
Superman is the equal of a deity raised by humble peasant folk. The most impossibly powerful man in all the world, yes, but one who’s humanity is his greatest strength.
People have forgotten where Superman’s conflict really lies. It was never about how strong he was, as it was always assumed he was mighty enough to ‘beat’ any enemy, because overcoming villains was never his conflict. Never his deeper story. Superman is the question of what happens if God tried to be mortal. What struggles would he face? What need of morality?
You can tie this in to the very real world fear and prejudice of the time it was created, standing in direct contrast to what Superman as a character was supposed to stand for. We need to consider this hero was written not only as a being of absolute strength but also of absolute Good. Flawed heroes like Wolverine or Batman are easier to humanise because they have more layers to work with, but how do you humanise something that’s better than human?
The greatest advantage of Superman’s premise is also what many perceive as his biggest drawback. He is, by design, flat-out better than anyone else. He’s ‘Super’- as the name suggests. But not because he was trained in advanced krypton ideologies before coming to earth. He wasn’t developed by top government men like so many titular heroes nowadays. He was a baby found and raised by Ma and Pa Kent, two clean living country bumpkins. This is what makes him more than just the circumstances of his time period. Superman doesn’t exist to protect us from a looming threat of his generation- he was a symbol that people can be better. That there is always a chance to be better. It’s crucial to what makes Superman the character he is, raised on the best lessons and morals that we as a society believe in. He was taught about hard work, loyalty and selflessness. That makes a fascinating character when you consider this child could have destroyed planets before hitting puberty.
Over the 80 years of publication there have been many climactic battles, but just as many smaller moments that need to be addressed. A perfect example is 2006 All-Star Superman, in which the man of steel comes to the aid of a young girl on the brink of suicide. No fighting, no super abilities, just the promise of a better tomorrow from a symbol of hope.
The real wonder of this? This story and many others like it have become recurring symbols for World Suicide Prevention Day, with many reports of people finding strength in these fictional tales and helping bring them back from the edge- real life people, not just those on the ink. This shows that the heart of what made the Golden Age of comics so lasting is still alive today, heroes having a real impact on people’s lives.
So perhaps the magic isn’t entirely lost to history. But I think it’s important that people remember just what made superheroes so beloved to begin with, all those years ago. It wasn’t just about what happened on paper but also how these characters reflected and even changed the lives of real people.
You might argue some of these ideals are lost in the modern world. That superheroes aren’t supposed to be about inspiring the audiences, merely entertaining them. That Batman or Ironman don’t need to teach or convey anything, merely distract from the real world. I for one don’t believe it’s too late. People might say Superman is too corny for cinema now. They might say that Batman doesn’t need a Robin.
But that’s the beauty of real Superheroes. Even if we turn our backs on them today- they’ll be there for us when we need them the most.