Reign of the Supermen - Holy History Holy History! Mick Setchfield Unmasks the Strange Days of the Superhero, from Superman to the Ultimates

As a kid, I wondered where the supermen were, and why our skies were empty. I breathed two worlds, you see -one real, one titanically unreal, a bright, lurid, glorious world that could only be inhaled through an incense of cheap ink and woodpulp pages. This was the comic book realm, where superheroes ruled and the miraculous routinely rubbed off on my fingers.

“I would be a superhero. I would save people. I would make a difference. I would not look a lemon in Lycra.” Crushingly, there were no superheroes in the real world. No capes, no secret identities, no Batmobiles or Fantasti-Cars, not even the tiniest tingle of Spider-Sense. Dismayed, I vowed to be the first. I would stand for truth, fight for justice and dazzle the chicks by looking oh-so-hot in tights. True, I had no powers, physical exertion was a living hell and I was rocketed from a maternity ward in Cardiff and not the doomed planet Krypton. But no matter. It was surely a question of days before the Cosmic Rays came calling or I felt the fateful nip of a radiation-soaked bug. I would be a superhero. I would save people. I would make a difference. I would not look a lemon in Lycra.

Perhaps you need that kid’s eye to truly comprehend the phenomenon of superheroes. Poised somewhere between Zeus and KISS, they exist on the very cusp of the deeply cool and the painfully absurd. Close that eye and all you see are beefcakes in longjohns, WWF refugees dispensing cartoon morality, as preposterous as their Superpets. Open that eye and you glimpse the new gods. So how did it happen? How did the junk-culture creations of 1930s America come to conquer the global entertainment industry? How did the world end up worshipping these dime store Olympians?

“Superhero comics have always been about wish fulfilment,” says comic book writer Marv Wolfman, creator of such newfound Hollywood icons as vampire slayer Blade and Daredevil’s nemesis Bullseye. “It’s the idea that the small guy, the helpless guy, can take on the world’s biggest problems and solve them, because in real life the geek – which is what we all are, in one way or another – can’t solve the little problems we face daily.”

So superheroes are simply a glorified adolescent power fantasy? “I don’t see anything wrong with glorified adolescent power fantasies!” laughs Batman writer and Smallville consulting producer Jeph Loeb. “Jeny Seinfeld said it best – ‘Spider-Man, Superman, Batman… men don’t see these as fantasies, they see them as career opportunities.” The birth of the superhero is bound up with the comic book, but its roots are embedded in the purple pulp fiction of the early 20th Century.

In 1914 Canadian author Frank L Packard created The Grey Seal, a rich playboy who dons a mask to haunt Manhattan as a nocturnal vigilante Johnston McCulley’s was another dashing masked avenger, dubuting in ‘All-Story Weekly’ in 1919. Most prophetic of all, the hero of Philip Wylie’s 1930 novel Gladiator an all-but-invulnerable superman, possessed of unearthly strength and able to vault a river in a single bound.

Spiritual cousin to the comic book was the pulp magazine. Breathlessly penned, incurably sensational (“When It Rained Corpses – A Novelette Of Weird Doom by Ralph Powers” boasted the November 1938 issue of Eerie Mysteries), the pulps peddled blood, sex and hokum for a thin dime. Their Ace G-Men and imperilled blonde cuties shared the news-stands with a pantheon of masked marvels. Walter B Gibson’s The Shadow was another wealthy socialite who dished an almost supernatural style of justice, while Lester Dent’s Doc Savage was a nobler, more altruistic figure, a daredevil boffin who devoted his life to “striving to help those who needed it, punishing those who deserved it.”

While comic books began as a profitable way to reprint such popular newspaper strips as Mutt and Jeff and The Katzenjammer Kids, they were almost biding time until the birth of the superhero.

Enter Superman. The Big Bang of the superheroic cosmos was the creation of two Cleveland, Ohio dreamheads, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster. “I am lying in bed counting sheep when all of a sudden it hits me,” recalled Siegel. “I conceive a character like Samson, Hercules and all the strong men I ever heard of rolled into one. Only more so.” The pair remembered the name of the evil protagonist in their 1933 fanzine tale, “The Reign Of The Superman”, but this new incarnation would be a hero for the socially wounded America of the post-Depression era: “Superman – champion of the oppressed, the physical marvel who had sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need.”

The orphan of Krypton was an exercise in pure geek power fantasy. Siegel and Shuster’s masterstroke was to humble their god, forcing him to live among men as the meek and clottish Clark Kent. “I had crushes on several attractive girls who either didn’t know I existed or didn’t care I existed,” the bookish Siegel once revealed. “It occurred to me: what if I was real terrific? What if I had something special going for me, like jumping over buildings or throwing cars around? Then maybe they would notice me.” It’s tempting to say that Siegel and Shuster had no idea of the phenomenon they were about to unleash, but they were smart enough to daydream about the merchandising potential. When Superman made the cover of Action Comics 1 in June 1938, poised to hurl a car as hoodlums fled, dumbstruck, the cult of the real terrific had begun.

“The world had never seen a costumed superhero before,” says Jeph Loeb, writer of the acclaimed comic book series Superman For All Seasons. “The idea of a man from another planet who came down here to fight for truth, justice and all that was way ahead of its time. I can only imagine that people gravitated to it because it was new and exciting and in a format – the American comic book – that was just growing and unique to our culture. And in the late ’30s, coming off the Great Depression, you had folks looking for something to inspire them. The outside world was bleak. It was the age of the dustbowl. And here was a world – what did they call it? ‘All In Color For A Dime’ – that literally lit up your imagination.”

Batman was the next irrefutable icon. The creation of Bronx-born funnies merchant Bob Kane and aspiring writer Bill Finger, the Dark Knight debuted in Detective Comics 27, May 1939, a midnight to Superman’s bright noon. Kane was a scratchy, limited artist but his “Weird Creature Of The Night” had an instant, visceral appeal, boostec by some shrewd twists to the superhero formula. While Superman faced down thugs, racketeers and mad scientists, Batman battled a gallery of foes that consistently outmatched him for pure freakiness. The Joker, the Penguin, Catwoman and the Riddler were part of an unbeatable parade of grotesques that would later let the caped crusader eclipse even Superman as a cultural phenomenon. And 1940’s introduction of Robin the Boy Wonder brought the concept of the kid sidekick to the comic book, with a corresponding rise in sales.

The superhero boom had ignited. American news-stands became a battleground of invincible avengers, each whoring the uncanny for a dime a throw. Late 1939 saw the first issue of Marvel Comics, spotlighting the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner. Carl Burgos’ Torch was a synthetic man who could burst into flame, while the Sub-Mariner was Namor, Prince of Atlantis, an ocean-ruling wildcard with a tireless grudge against mankind. “He was an angry character,” confessed his creator, Bill Everett. “He was probably expressing some of my own personality.” Later issues pitched the Torch against Namor in huge, joyously calamitous fight sequences. The two of them tore up Manhattan, the spirits of fire and water incarnate.

The core appeal of these heroes is rooted in the culture that spawned them, even if those roots are now as vanished as valve radios, fedoras and speakeasies. The tights and capes combos may look quaint, even ludicrous to modern eyes – especially Hollywood, which now insists on a credibility makeover in the wardrobe department -but this garb was perfectly cool to ’30s eyes. These were the clothes of circus stars, strongmen and acrobats. The carnival is a forgotten component of superhero DNA. These heroes are really in the grand tradition of the American carny, where daredevils and freaks were paraded for the public in sawdust arenas. Carny posters shared the shameless colours and wild hoopla of comic books, and it’s easy to imagine some Midway hustler barking, “Ladies and gentlemen… The Human Torch! Half-man! Half-inferno!”

Superheroes were also the product of America’s unique social make-up. “Ethnic groups were drawn to comics in the early years,” says comic book artist and historian David A Roach, co-author of the upcoming The Superhero Book. “A lot of the creators were Jewish or Italian. They were all outsiders to a degree, and they might have wanted to stick up for the little men.” It’s tempting to see Superman as the ultimate immigrant, forced to adopt a new identity to blend into a new land. The persecution of minorities in Nazi Germany also fired the creators – but isn’t there an irony that they retaliated with the superman, the Aryan ideal of the ubermensch? “Not necessarily,” says Roach. “In Jewish lore there’s the concept of the Golem, a superbeing sculpted from clay. It was a creation that you would make to defeat your enemy.”

An impatient Joe Simon and jack Kirby sent Captain America to punish the Axis hordes, months before Pearl Harbor hurled the US into war. The cover of Captain America 1 saw the star-spangled sentinel land a mighty right hook on Hitler’s chops. “Captain America was created for a time that needed noble figures,” Kirby recalled. “We weren’t at war yet, but everyone knew it was coming.” America’s entry into combat coincided with a flood of superheroes. “It must be down to the war, that big impetus,” argues Roach. “The comics were popular with the soldiers, so you’d get a Gl sitting there in Iwo Jima with a copy of All-Star Comics in his kitbag. Many of the comic book creators were drafted, and when their fellow soldiers found out, they were treated like stars.”

Superheroes were swiftly called up as propaganda tools. Superman, Batman and Robin were pictured with proud eagles or riding torpedoes to Tokyo and Berlin, urging the public to buy war bonds. Kids were encouraged to join Captain America’s Sentinels of Liberty and spy on their neighbours as suspected saboteurs and fifth columnists. Covers caricatured the Axis forces as dehumanised horrors. The Nazis were hunchbacks, ogres and trolls, the Japanese devolved to demons, cursed with fangs and claws.

The war ended in 1945, and superheroes soon found themselves at odds with peacetime. “There was an overabundance of superheroes,” says pioneer comic artist Joe Kubert, who went from Hawkman to such tights-free titles as Our Army At War and Gl Combat. “Their success was emulated over and over and over again. The redundancy was staggering and the superhero genre became boring.” Comic books were now competing with television and the rise of racy, mass-market paperbacks. The generation that had grown up with masked marvels now gravitated to true crime tales, Westerns, horror or, most red-blooded of all, scantily-clad jungle girls. As comics legend Jim Steranko says, “Superman and Captain America, the icons who shouldered the comic universe, found their audiences during world conflict, but regardless of their bravura ideology, couldn’t find a job a decade later.”

There were comic book bonfires in 1948. The industry was bruised by moralists and pop psychologists, suspecting corruption in its candy-coloured pages. In 1954, Dr Fredric Wertham published Seduction Of The Innocent, alleging a “subtle atmosphere of homoeroticism” in the adventures of Batman and Robin. “Wertham didn’t affect superheroes,” argues David A Roach. “Their time had passed anyway.” The mid ’50s saw a failed attempt to retool Captain America as a “Commie Smasher”, as doomed as the brief revivals of Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch that pitched them against the “ugly, grasping tentacles” of the Red Menace. Only Superman and Batman survived, as fundamentally decent as cookies, even if they endured a blizzard of bizarre tales best summed up by such apocryphal cover blurbs as “Look! Batman is marrying Krypto the Superdog!”

The true Second Coming of the superhero began in the pages of Showcase 4 in October 1956. Julius Schwartz – a comic book writer who had served as literary agent for such fantasy greats as Ray Bradbury and Robert Bloch – chose to remodel classic ’40s super-speedster the Flash. The new Fastest Man Alive was police boffin Barry Allen, who wisely ditched the winged tin helmet of his predecessor. The Monarch of Motion was joined in 1959 by a similarly modernised Green Lantern. “These were superheroes for the Eisenhower age,” says David A Roach. “The art was sleek, modern and clean.” And a sense of ’50s whitebread Americana clung to these heroes. “They were very middle-aged, very respectable,” says Roach. “Barry Allen was shown with his pipe and fedora. He had a wife. You wouldn’t aspire to be the Flash. He was more your uncle.” Other heroes of the day were equally touched by the Pleasantville vibe: “Elongated Man’s real name was Ralph Dibney. Now Clark Kent had a real punch to it, but Ralph Dibney…?”

It was high time for rock and roll, daddy-o. The triumphant sales of DC Comics’ Justice League Of America – a title that teamed the Flash and Green Lantern with such stalwarts as Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman – persuaded rival publishers Marvel to guerilla-raid marketplace. While Marvel shamelessly aped the Justice League with a team title, writer Stan Lee was determined to bring his own creative spin. “It would be a team such as comicdom had never known.” recalled Lee. “The characters would be the kind of characters I could personally relate to; they’d be flesh and blood, they’d have faults and foibles, they’d be fallible and feisty and – most of all – inside their colourful, costumed booties they’d still have feet of clay.”

Dubuting in November 1961, the Fantastic Four were a revelation. They were the Beatles to Superman’s Pat Boone, smarter, hipper and infinitely quirkier than their square-cut, scoutmaster rivals. Mister Fantastic, the Invisible Girl, the Thing and a new, teenage Human Torch formed a magnificently dysfunctional quartet, as petty and brattish as they were nobly heroic. Based in Manhattan, the FF defended a world as comically screwy as our own, where sweet Hollywood film deals collapsed and landlords evicted them on the grounds that opening a portal to the deadly Negative Zone had sent property prices tumbling. Stan Lee wrote with a sly, New York wit, while artist Jack Kirby brought an outsized, incendiary magic to the comic book page.

The Fantastic Four ushered in what Lee would call, with trademark understatement, the Marvel Age of Comics. In league with Kirby, his riotous imagination all but vomited new icons. The Incredible Hulk appeared in the Spring of 1962, a Jekyll and Hyde for the age of A-Bomb paranoia. A riff on popular Fantastic Four man-monster the Thing, the Hulk was a fearsome, misunderstood bruiser in ragged clothes, as far removed from the Superman ideal as it’s possible to imagine. You could sense the long shadow of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the green giant’s radiation-drenched origin, and science remained a dark, capricious force in the Marvel universe. Daredevil was blinded by toxic gloop, while the X-Men explicitly played on public fears of twisted, mutant DNA.

Marvel were on a roll, retooling the genre. Lee collaborated with Steve Ditko to create Spider-Man, who followed the new Human Torch by being a teenager, a concept only recently minted in American society. While Ditko’s art was suitably scuttly, Lee’s scripts played up the concept of moody, mixed-up adolescence, using Peter Parker’s superpowers as a brilliant metaphor for teen alienation. Elsewhere, Marvel resurrected Captain America and the Sub-Mariner, summoned the occult in Dr Strange, retold the Norse myths as cosmic Shakespearean fantasy in The Mighty Thor undercut such heroes as Iron Man with the same “faults and foibles” that had breathed life into the Fantastic Four. Marvel buried the two dimensional superheroes of old, replacing them with characters who were, if not three dimensional, at least engagingly two and a half dimensional.

Comic books were hip in the ’60s, infiltrating both the counter-culture and the mainstream. Andy Warhol and Roy Litchenstein paid homage with the Pop Art movement, while Jim Steranko brought the cutting-edge of the art world to such titles as Captain America and Nick Fury, Agent Of SHIELD. Stan Lee lectured at campuses and the Love generation adopted chrome messiah the Silver Surfer as their own. On TV, a frenetic live action Batman series made superheroes as much a part of day-glo ’60s pop culture as Bond and the Beatles, but when the show was cancelled in 1968 it all but left the caped crusader for dead. Blighted by a lingering whiff of camp, Batman was forced to retreat to his roots as a grim, gothic avenger, a “weird figure of the night” once more.

The second superhero boom was over, but they remained the core of the comic book industry in the 1970s. They rode the fashions, fads and fascinations of the decade. Denny O’Neill and Neal Adams used the pages of Green Lantern – Green Arrow to explore such issues as racism and drug addiction, boldly recasting Green Arrow’s sidekick Speedy as a smack addict. The Sexploitation craze us Black Lightning, Black Goliath and Luke Cage, Hero For Hire, whose badass ghetto cred was somewhat compromised by “Crud!”, “Christmas!” and “Holy Moses!” being his expletives of choice. Ms Marvel cashed in on the feminist ticket while parading in a wet dream of a costume – a proto-Madonna, surely? – but Spider-Woman and She-Hulk were as much canny attempts to protect copyright as they were ideological cash-ins. Foxy mutant Dazzler was a belated ride on the disco bandwagon (foes trembled at her ability to summon the chorus of More Than A Woman from the very air) but by the time she came to boogie in 1981 the glitterball had stopped spinning.

The 1980s were to undo the cosy certainties of the superhero. The rise of the specialist comic book shop robbed the industry of its natural lifeblood, replacing a fresh generation of kids with hardcore, poly-bagging collectors. Creators strove to find a new, mature audience and deconstructed the superhero to do so. Frank Miller followed a violent, electric run on Daredevil with The Dark Knight Returns, a grim commentary on Reaganite America that interrogated Batman’s role as self-appointed vigilante. Elsewhere, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ magnificent Watchmen revealed the weary humanity behind the pure-hearted public persona, while Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke was an exploration of the damaged psyches underlying the toon icons of Batman and the Joker.

“Those books were so well done that they screwed up a generation of writers who let themselves lose touch with the essential beauty of the medium,” argues Marvel Comics President Bill Jemas. “And that essential beauty is that comics are metaphors for real life. Watchmen and Dark Knight were wonderful stories but they are, in fact, derivative works – comics about comics.” And Moore and Miller’s smart deconstruction of the masked myth had other aftershocks – by the early 90s, less gifted talents had recast superheroes as infinitely grim, violent, tortured souls, visibly embarrassed by their boy scout past. It was all stubble, psychosis and leather, an endless brawl between testosterone-fired hard men and deviant serial killers. Ironically, this attempt at maturity seemed even more desperately adolescent than the dean-cut fantasies of before.

The mid ’90s saw a rear-guard action by the Spandex brigade, reclaiming the primary-coloured beauty of the superhero. Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross restored a sense of awe in 1993’s Marvels, a clever retelling of milestone moments in the Marvel universe through the eyes of an ordinary man, photographer Phil Sheldon. “Marvels was just an attempt to tell a good story,” says Busiek, whose acclaimed Astro City series explored similar territory in 1995. “By Astro City, I was more conscious that I was setting out to do something in some sort of thematic opposition to the grim and gritty ’80s. One person at one of the publishers I submitted it to described it as, ‘Like Watchmen… but cheerful!’ More recently, Marvel’s Ultimates line has adopted a scorched earth policy, burning away years of pleasuring continuity to entice a new generation of readers, returning Spider-Man, the Avengers and the X-Men to their iconic roots.

So how do you do it? How do you keep these relics of ancient pop-culture alive in a new century? What possible relevance can these Depression-era champions born of freak shows, circuses and dime fiction have in a landscape of al-Queda, SARS and Bluetooth technology? “That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it?” says Jim Steranko. “Here’s a clue – there are heroes that date quickly and heroes that seem to be immortal. Perhaps the crucial differences between them are not really in their costumes and contrivances, but in the way their spirits harness the mythology of our dreams and desires. Is that too much to ask?”

Marv Wolfman says, “The superhero genre isn’t about realism, it’s about fantasy. You need to give it a veneer of realism but you also need to remember that we’re doing mythology here, not drama.”

Kurt Busiek has his own formula. “Take a powerful, affecting image. Give it flesh. Throw it into conflict with opposing ideas or images. That’s the appeal of the superhero.”

A couple of years ago I was hitting on a girl at a cocktail party. I played the ever dependable ‘boyishly charming’ card and confessed my superheroic fetish (trust me – she asked. And trust me – I was drunk). No, I didn’t insist that she corral me with a magic lasso, or beg her to whisper “Flame on!” in my ear. But I told her that one of my earliest, most primal memories was a page of a Batman comic, where Robin swung from a night sky, danced away bullets and landed a fist on a jaw to save some poor soul from a mugging. I had been transfixed by this saviour in circus colours – he was quite possibly the coolest thing I had ever seen. The girl mused on this as she sipped her Sex On The Rocks. “So,” she said, at last. “You believe in an interventionist God.” I suppose I do. And my God looks good in tights.

Source: MICK SETCHFIELD, SFX magazine