It’s a bird! It’s a plane! Is that Superman? Nah. It’s just a superhero.
It’s just your run of the mill superhero with gifts out of this world – or a bottle. But is that all there is to this cultural icon that has cleaned up at the box office in recent years, or are their beginnings more humble? Or do they buck the system like an anti-hero?
We’ve already covered heroes, but today we’re going to look at the not-so-ordinary heroes that grace the covers of comics and movie posters. They don’t just live in comic strips, graphic novels, and movies anymore, and have made their way into young adult fiction (predominately).
Let’s talk about what a superhero is and how they stole our hearts.
What is a Superhero?
Before we dive into the essential details of who a superhero is, let’s make sure we know our terminology. Here’s our definition of a superhero:
Superhero: a benevolent fictional character with superhuman powers.
Okay. This sounds too simple, right? Let’s unpack it a bit.
Superheroes have powers that go beyond anything we as humans currently possess. They must have many of the same traits that we like to see in our everyday heroes, things like an abundance of courage.
But our superheroes are not like you and me. They’ve been bestowed a gift from the gods, are from another planet, or happen to be in the wrong place at the right time. Whatever it is, they’ve got an extra something that makes them not quite human.
And they’ve got a long history.
Superheroes weren’t really a thing until the arrival of the comic strip in the US. The first comic book published in the US was a collection of comics in a newspaper titled, Famous Funnies (1938), the first comic book created in the US. It isn’t until 1938 that DC Comics think about releasing Superman, the original superhero.
With that in mind, let’s take a look into the history of superheroes.
The Golden Age (1938-1950)
World War II changed a lot in the comic industry. It introduced US culture to Japan and contributed to the rise of manga. It also sparked a new sub-genre in the comic genre: superhero comics.
DC Comics’ Superman was the first superhero to arrive on the scene (in June 1938). He soon became the prototype for the superheroes to follow, including Batman, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, and Captain America. And none of this would’ve been possible if Superman wasn’t successful.
The Golden Age also oversaw the development of the genre, which included creating sidekicks, pre-teen, and teenage superheroes who worked alongside their adult mentors. We also see the rise of female superheroes and sidekicks.
These early superheroes had secret identities. They obtained superpowers through bizarre, often scientifically-based occurrences, or through the acquisition of power-inducing devices. They also hid their actual identities and wore costumes, engaged in outlandish escapades, and dedicated their lives and abilities to fighting crime.
Why were superheroes so influential?
What made Superman and his contemporaries so popular? Well, they created hope in a hopeless situation.
Picture this, Hitler is taking over Europe. Global Powers, such as England and France, are fighting a losing battle, and it looks like Hitler may win. It’s going to take some daring feats to beat him.
Enter Superman, a person with extraordinary powers. He can fly, crush things easily, shoots lasers out of his eyes. He’s unstoppable, and he’s restoring peace and order to a world ravaged with death and chaos.
The US government also realized that superheroes were a great way to keep morale up and spread propaganda to the public.
The Decline (1950-1955)
After World War II, comic book popularity declined.
The enemy (the Nazis) was defeated, and many writers struggled to find a new villain for their characters to fight. Many comic book publishers went out of business at this point. Those who managed to survive pivoted away from superheroes and into new comics genres like funny animals, Westerns, horror, crime, romance, and science fiction.
The other thing that changed was the new reality that the US was operating under. There were unprecedented issues to deal with, like the Cold War, PTSD, and returning to work. And with this new reality came new themes. Many comics turned their spandex-swaddled heroes focus on beating back the communists across the globe.
The Seduction of an Innocent
According to Britannica, Dr. Frederic Wertham’s The Seduction of an Innocent was published in 1954, and it was a threat to the survival of superhero comics. Dr. Wertham was concerned that comics were causing a rise in juvenile delinquency and moral decay among youth.
In response to his concerns, a Senate sub-committee was established to look into Dr. Wertham’s claims. The comic book industry didn’t want to leave their fate in the US government’s hands, so they founded the Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA). The CMAA immediately went to work adopting the self-censoring Comics Code Authority (CCA), whose 41 standards described strict editorial guidelines for depicting sex, crime, horror, and violence within comic pages.
Despite good intentions, most comic publishers went out of business or canceled series, while those that remained “dumbed down” their stories to meet censorship requirements and appeal to a nation in the thrall of strict moral standards. Sales shrunk even more, as many parents forbade their children from reading comics.
Television also played a roll in decline in comic book popularity. Many families were turning to their small screens for entertainment. While most comics were struggling to grab readers’ attention, Superman didn’t have a hard time.
Why was Superman exempt? Well, he got his own TV show called The Adventures of Superman (1953–57). However, he’d face some challenges on the small and big screens soon enough.
The Silver Age Superhero (1956-1970)
Comics had to turn to other genres, including science-fiction, to survive the 1950s. Science and technology proved to be a popular theme in the comic universe and for dystopian, apocalyptic, and post-apocalyptic authors.
Technological advancements spawned during the atomic age piqued Americans’ imaginations, while the Red Scare created rampant paranoia. Science and Cold War mistrust melded in November 1955 when DC Comics introduced its first new superhero in 10 years.
The new character’s success prompted DC Comics editor Julius Schwartz to revamp some of their other superheroes, most notably The Flash. The updated Flash was so popular that it gave hope to the comic industry and ushered in the Silver Age.
It also made way for a new Green Lantern and the rise of the Justice League. Batman also got a new look during this time and was saved from the chopping block.
Marvel is On the Rise
While Schwartz was basking in his publishing successes, Marvel watched his tactics and made plans to revamp and introduce new characters. At this point, Marvel was limping along on a few monster and thriller series and needed a shakeup.
Enter Stan Lee.
Lee was Marvel’s staff editor and writer at this time, and he was tasked with creating a cast of superheroes that could compete with the Justice League’s success. And he delivered on the directive with The Fantastic Four in November 1961.
Fantastic Four were a success due to its complex characters with relatable personality quirks and problems that pitted this unlikely foursome a family. They became a hit with readers instantly, and sparked an onslaught of new characters, including The Hulk, Thor, Doctor Strange, Daredevil, the X-Men, and Spider-Man.
Marvel also revamped some of their older characters, like Captain America, to fight alongside these new heroes.
Batman Introduces the Superhero to Television
Adam West’s portrayal of Batman premiered on ABC in January 1966 to instant acclaim. The show satisfied a wide demographic — children, teens, and adults alike. The result was “Batmania” and a flurry of new action series.
Superheroes invaded the television airwaves: Captain Nice, Mr. Terrific, Space Ghost, Birdman and the Galaxy Trio, The Green Hornet, The New Adventures of Superman, and Aquaman were among the live-action and animated entries for DC.
As for Marvel, Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Sub-Mariner rotated days on the syndicated Marvel Super Heroes. Both Fantastic Four and Spider-Man appeared on Saturday-morning TV amid a wealth of related toys and consumer-product tie-ins.
A Rivalry is Born
Despite its TV successes, DC was feeling the pressure from Marvel’s new rise to fame. It leads DC to Carmine Infantino in 1967 and the direct order to take down Marvel.
Infantino shook up the status quo by stripping Wonder Woman her superpowers. Additionally, Amazing Spider-Man artist Steve Ditko defected to DC, and superstar artist Neal Adams began to transform Batman into a dark avenger of the night.
But Marvel’s superheroes continued to outsell DC’s at the end of the Silver Age.
The Bronze Age Superhero (1970-1985)
DC’s plan to regain market share rested in the infamous illustrator Jack Kirby, the artist behind most of Marvel’s characters in the 1960s. In 1970, Kirby began working exclusively for DC and introduced a mythic tapestry into its universe.
Kirby’s vigorous artwork and concepts recharged DC with an energy never before seen at the company. But a surge in sales failed to follow, and Kirby returned to Marvel.
DC superheroes become socially relevant.
Green Lantern and Green Arrow took DC a big step forward by adopting ideological ideas to battle against, instead of the physical threat that most comic readers were used to. Unfortunately for DC, readers weren’t ready for this new sophistication, and both series were cut short.
For the first few years of the 1970s, contemporary thematic material became common in many DC books:
- Robin left Batman for college and took on campus unrest.
- Batgirl went to Washington, DC, to tackle crime as a congresswoman.
- The Justice League battled polluters.
Schwartz returned to update Superman and Batman (again). It is during this time that Batman takes a dark twist and starts to love the gothic vibe once more.
Though DC’s Infantino-steered accomplishments narrowed the sales gap between DC and its competitor during the 1970s, Marvel still dominated the decade.
Marvel breaks new ground
In 1971, Stan Lee took on the CCA and won. It prompted the CCA to relax some of its restrictions, like talking about drugs and the undead in comics. The relaxed rules fostered a 1970s horror-comics fad, and Marvel published Ghost Rider, The Son of Satan, Man-Thing, The Tomb of Dracula, and Werewolf by Night during this time. DC published its applauded Swamp Thing series.
Marvel also was behind the push for more “sword and sorcery” type tales. The company was also behind the cinema trend—blaxploitation: low-budget action films starring black actors. It is this trend that inspired writers to create the character of Luke Cage in 1972. He is the first comic book to headline an African-American superhero.
Additionally, Marvel continued to push heroes with “real” problems. This later led to Wolverine and the Punisher (both hit the stands in 1974, the year Nixon resigned). The Punisher and Wolverine were anti-heroes for a cynical generation.
Multiculturalism goes mainstream
By the 1970s, multiculturalism had hit the American mainstream. Non-white actors appeared on TV programs and in movies and superhero comics. For example:
- the African American Falcon became the partner of Captain America
- Wonder Woman learns martial arts from a Chinese teacher
- Green Lantern and Green Arrow start looking for solutions for racism and other social cancers.
Luke cage may have been the first black superhero, but he wasn’t the only one. More black superheroes made their debuts, including Black Goliath, Black Panther, and Black Lightning.
By the mid-1970s, superhero comic books were thoroughly multicultural. The X-Men, for example, was reintroduced with a new roster, including Cyclops (Anglo American), Colossus (Russian), Storm (African), Banshee (Irish), Wolverine (Canadian), Sunfire (Japanese), Nightcrawler (German), and Thunderbird (Native American).
The Modern Age Superhero (1985-Present)
The modern age ushered in a new type of superhero – the dark, determined, and no-nonsense. And they were ready to tackle topics that spanned more than your typical 38-page story.
Frank Miller returned to superheroes with Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986). British newcomers Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons created The Watchmen (1986-87), which destroyed our sense of innocence when it comes to superheroes.
Additionally, comics became more literary. Writer Neil Gaiman rose to acclaim with his award-winning DC title The Sandman (1989–96). However, by the 1990s, these comics weren’t appealing to most kids, and provocative superheroes weren’t holding their interest – video games, television, etc. were.
The industry didn’t get much of a boost until a speculation frenzy hit, leading kids to buy and horde Golden Age comics. They were selling for thousands of dollars, making many royalty-earning or rights-holding artists extremely wealthy.
Female superheroes get a makeover.
This period also saw the rise of “Bad Girl” art, which pushed for strong, positive heroines with attitude. Early precursors of Bad Girl art include Warren Publishing’s dark 1970s temptress Vampirella and Frank Miller’s 1980s assassin Elektra.
In the 1990s, these bad babes included the likes of Chaos! Comics’ Lady Death, Rob Liefeld’s Glory and Avengelyne, London Nights’ Razor, Image Comics’ Witchblade, Dark Horse’s Ghost and Barb Wire, Crusade Comics’ Shi, and a revamped and resurrected Elektra.
Superhero movies become popular
Beginning with director Tim Burton’s blockbuster movie Batman (1989), superheroes maintained constant visibility in film, television, video games, apparel, toys, and the Internet. This media awareness both hindered and helped superhero comic books.
In 1989, DC’s parent company became Warner Bros. and had to feed a media machine. Its superheroes were regularly translated to film, TV, and video. When Warner Bros. restructured DC in 2009, DC Comics became a subsidiary DC Entertainment, which now handles DC’s characters in all media, including comics.
Marvel also had success in live-action motion pictures. Marvel Studios, founded in 1996, co-produced films with other film studios, such as Twentieth Century Fox and Sony Pictures. The company also independently produced such major motion pictures as Iron Man (2008), The Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011), and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011).
After the Walt Disney Company bought Marvel Entertainment in 2009, it began distributing Marvel’s independently produced films, including The Avengers (2012) and Iron Man 3 (2013).
Global and cultural diversity continues in superhero comics
Superheroes seem destined to endure in the 21st century and in culturally diverse ways. Non-Anglo superheroes have increasingly starred in their own comics, and ethnic superheroes and supporting cast members have also become common.
A lot of work has been done over the 2000s to make comics more inclusive for all readers. More “screen time” is being given to female, POC, Indigenous, LGTBQ, etc. characters to entice readers and broaden their impact.
While comics are trying to do right by everyone, they still have a ways to go.
And I’m going to leave you here for today. This post was creeping up to 5,000 words, and I thought I’d save us from some throbbing temples by splitting this into two parts.
Why am I doing this and not just cutting out all of the history stuff? Well, it’s because the history of comics and superheroes is essential for this genre. Superheroes have changed a lot, and some things that you may have liked in the Golden Age era for comics might not be such a good thing to have in your story today.
That’s why I include history lessons in my posts on genres or specific types of characters. I want you to see how that genre has progressed over the years and understand what shaped them.
Next time, we’ll be talking about origin stories, worldbuilding, and how to craft your spectacular superhero.
Did I leave out any significant superhero history moments? Was there anything that surprised you?
Stay safe, everyone.
Until next time.