Superheroes 101: A History

The most recognizable comics characters in the world
The most recognizable comics characters in the world

Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, the Hulk, and countless other comic book superheroes have been in the media for decades. Since their debut in 1938, superheroes have dealt with deep personal, social, and political issues. From drug and alcohol abuse to the horrific events during September 11, 2001, they have brought us a feeling of hope, creativity, and wonder. (Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked) As the time changes, our heroes manage to stay with it, overcoming the many challenges along the way. The story of the American superhero has been a long, uphill struggle, yet they always seem to be relevant with the ever-changing times. They still remain a constant impact on the people and the nation.

The 1930’s was a tragic decade. America had entered the Great Depression, which was filled with poverty and the lack of hope. People did many things to try to escape this terrible reality by either watching movies, attending sporting events, and listening to the radio. At this time, the newspaper was also very valuable. They had all the latest news, interviews, games, and even comic strips. (Once Upon a Time the Super Heroes)

Standard comic strip panel (1930's)
Standard comic strip panel (1930's)

Comic strips are a sequence of drawings, relating comic incidents that typically have dialogue printed in balloons. The first comic strips had stories about cute animals or funny cartoon characters and were largely accepted as a form of entertainment for children. Old comic strips were collected in magazines called comic books. National Allied Publications was one of the first comic book publishers in the industry. Founded in 1934, one of their most popular titles was Detective Comics. (Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked)

The Golden Age
The Golden Age

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were two young Jewish immigrants who lived in New York City. They were fascinated with science fiction, mythology, and art. They were very passionate about comic books and read them on a daily basis. Tired of dreaming of creating their own character, they finally did so in 1933. (Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked) Siegel was the writer and Shuster provided the illustrations. Their character was a hero, who, when he was an infant, was sent in a space ship from the doomed planet Krypton, which crashed down to Earth. The infant was found by a kindly couple from Kansas, and was raised to believe in truth and justice. Being from another planet, he had many unique abilities including super speed, strength, and invulnerability. He donned a blue outfit with a shield on his chest marked with an “S” and a bright red cape. They called him “Superman.”

Siegel & Shuster
Siegel & Shuster

Superman was turned down by every newspaper in the area; the very idea that a man who can lift cars and was “faster than a speeding bullet” was utterly ridiculous. After five long years of rejection, DC Comics (formerly National Allied Publications) took Siegel and Shuster’s creation and put him on the cover of the comic book, Action Comics #1. It sold out every copy. From that day forward, Superman has become a national icon and kicked off what historians would later refer to as “The Golden Age of Comic Books.” (Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked)

Superman was everywhere. By 1940 he had radio shows, cartoons, dolls, action figures, and even a balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. What made Superman unique and relatable was that he was a fictional character who lived in the same world as his readers. He was an immigrant who came to this new world and strived for the American dream. He was especially looked up to by young boys and teenagers. With Superman’s huge success, DC wanted a new hero to follow him. They hired Bob Kane to come up with the story and Bill Finger to provide the artwork. (Once Upon a Time the Super Heroes)

Small beginning. Gigantic effects.
Small beginning. Gigantic effects.

Kane and Finger’s new hero was “The Bat-Man” who made his historical debut in the pages of Detective Comics #27, 1939. (Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked) The Bat-Man was a hero who, unlike Superman, possessed no powers, but had many gadgets including a grapple gun, a utility belt, and shuriken-like weapons called “batarangs.” His origin was much darker than Superman’s: billionaire Bruce Wayne witnessed his parents get murdered when he was just eight-years-old. Wanting to avenge their deaths, he mastered every form of martial arts and donned a black cowl, a mask in the shape of a bat, and chose to fight crime at night on the streets of Gotham City. (Batman) The Bat-Man (later changed to Batman) made just about the same cultural impact as Superman did previously.

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With DC’s Superman and Batman came other companies and their superheroes. Fawcett Comics had Bulletman, newspapers had The Spirit, and Timely Comics debuted in 1939 with heroes named the “Human Torch” and “Namor the Submariner.” Psychiatrist and co-creator of the lie detector, William Moulton Marston criticized DC for “not being all it could be.” DC later hired him and he went on to create Wonder Woman in 1941, the first female superhero. Wanting to appeal to younger readers, DC gave Batman a kid sidekick named Robin. Soon enough, many of the other heroes obtained young sidekicks: Bulletman had Bulletgirl, Human Torch had Toro, etc. (Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked) Fawcett Comics created a superhero who actually was a child. When young Billy Batson yelled the word “SHAZAM!” he’d be transformed into the super-powered hero “Captain Marvel.” Eventually, Captain Marvel started to outsell Superman himself. DC pinned a lawsuit against Fawcett, claiming Captain Marvel was “too similar” to Superman. Finally, after a twelve year legal battle, DC won the lawsuit and Fawcett agreed to stop printing Captain Marvel. (Once Upon a Time the Super Heroes)

"Fighting the good fight."- Captain America

In the early 1940’s, the hot topic was undoubtedly World War II. The nation needed heroes to help fight the war in Europe, and these superheroes fought there, even before the American soldiers entered the war. Timely Comics was the first to enter the subject when their character Namor fought the Japanese in 1940. Soon Batman, Robin, Wonder Woman, Human Torch, and many other heroes started to fight the Axis Powers. DC wrote a story where Superman literally ended the war in two pages, but since they felt that such things could not turn out that easy in real life, they had Superman fight the war on the home front, selling war bonds, instead. (Once Upon a Time the Super Heroes)

All the superheroes were fighting for the American flag, but it was not until 1941 when a superhero actually wore it to “fight the good fight.” There were many evil people out there, but Adolf Hitler was a monster compared to the rest. On the cover of Captain America #1, 1941, the star-spangled avenger gave Hitler a left hook on the jaw. The people loved this new hero, so much so, that he was the inspiration for many young men who signed up for war during World War II. His origin was very straight-forward: young Steve Rogers was a frail, sickly patriot who wanted nothing more than to serve his country. Turned down because of his physique, he entered top-secret project, Operation: Rebirth, and was given a shot of the “Super Soldier Serum.” He transformed into a perfect human specimen. They called him Captain America, and he and his sidekick Bucky went on to fight the evil Nazis for the good of the United States of America and the rest of the Allies. (Captain America)

After the Allies’ victory of World War II, superheroes began to go obsolete. With no more villains to fight, many of the heroes died out. Comic books were taken over by new topics featuring westerns, romances, and horror stories. The only superheroes that were still selling were DC’s Superman, Batman and Robin, and Wonder Woman. (Once Upon a Time the Super Heroes)

What saved and almost killed the industry, all in one little stamp.
What saved and almost killed the industry, all in one little stamp.

In 1954, Dr. Frederick Wertham wrote a book entitled “Seduction of the Innocent” that blamed comic books for corrupting child youth. In it, he made major accusations aimed at Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. He said Superman was a fascist that liked to see people in pain while he himself remained immune, and Wonder Woman was the exact opposite of what ladies are supposed to act like. The wildest accusation, however, was that Batman and Robin were leading a homosexual fantasy and “make boys gay.” “Seduction of the Innocent” almost single-handedly destroyed the comic book industry. In order to cope with people like Dr. Wertham and the many other angry parents, the “Comics Code Authority” was created. The Comics Code made it so comic books had to be approved before they were published. It censored comic books to the point where they could not feature any stories that featured horror, drugs, romance, blood, etc. Superman now worked close to the law, more like a policeman. Batman and Robin spent more time with new female characters. Wonder Woman spent more time with her love interest, Steve Trevor. While saving the industry, the Comics Code also hurt it. Sales plummeted by more than fifty percent after the industry’s short-lived spike. (Once Upon a Time the Super Heroes)

...but the Marvel Age conquers
...but the Marvel Age conquers
The Silver Age begins...
The Silver Age begins...

Trying to get comics back on track, DC had the idea to take their older heroes from the 1940’s and revamp them to more modernized versions. In Showcase Comics #4, 1956, they reintroduced “The Flash.” This Flash was much different than his 1940’s counterpart because he wore a sleeker costume, was younger, and when he was not fighting crime, worked for the police as a forensics scientist. With Flash’s newfound success, DC revamped more heroes like Green Lantern, Hawkman, Atom, and Aquaman. These new heroes, joined by Wonder Woman, and later Superman and Batman, formed the Justice League of America. Timely Comics wanted to get back in the superhero comic-selling game, so they had writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby come up with a team Timely could call their own. In 1961, Timely Comics changed their name to Marvel, and released Fantastic Four #1. (Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked.)

To say Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s partnership was incredible is an understatement. Together they created superheroes like Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Daredevil, and Black Panther (the first black superhero). They also created superhero teams such as the X-Men and the Avengers. They had revived their older heroes such as Namor the Submariner and Captain America (in the pages of Fantastic Four and The Avengers, respectively) to join this new “Silver Age of Comic Books.” (Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked)

Jack
Jack "King" Kirby and his co-creations (minus Spider-Man)
And a worldwide phenomenon begins
And a worldwide phenomenon begins

Stan Lee hated the idea of sidekicks. He believed that if a young person wanted to fight crime, they would do it by themselves. He designed a hero that actually was a teenager to fight crime, but his publisher turned the hero down. (McLaughlin) Lee kept pushing and his hero finally made his debut in the last issue of the failing comic book series Amazing Fantasy. In the pages of Amazing Fantasy #15, 1962, The Amazing Spider-Man was born. (Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked) Peter Parker is a high school student that, after being bitten by a radioactive spider, gained abilities to help him fight crime. After the death of his Uncle Ben, Spider-Man learned that “With great power, comes great responsibility.”

Spider-Man was a cultural phenomenon. Not only was he an awe-inspiring hero, but he was unique in the fact that he had every day problems, much like his very own readers. During the 1960’s Marvel even outsold the likes of DC. DC characters, however, were certainly not overlooked. In 1966, a television program, Batman, starring Adam West and Burt Ward, made its debut and “Bat-Mania” swept the nation. (IMDb) This campy television series was a parody more than anything else, but the readers and audiences alike did not care, as Batman comic sales nearly tripled because of the two-year-long series. (Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked)

DC’s characters and Marvel’s characters were very different from each other. DC heroes were more parental. Superman and Wonder Woman were characters that readers aspired to be, while Marvel heroes, on the other hand, related to their readers and touched more on current events. Spider-Man and Hulk were characters who people already were, minus their super powers, of course. The way both companies wrote their comics was also different. DC would write out their scripts first, so the artist could draw around it, while Marvel would have the artist draw the pages first, then the writers would fill in the script around it. (Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked)

...DC did it better
...DC did it better
While Marvel did it first...
While Marvel did it first...

Throughout the 1970’s readers started to connect to Marvel’s book, X-Men. The X-Men were teenagers who, during puberty, develop “mutant powers.” Lead by Professor Charles Xavier, the X-Men would fight for a world that feared and hated them for being different. The X-Men were a metaphor for just about any minority, whether it was racial, religious, etc. Marvel Comics had such an impact on younger readers that Stan Lee was asked by the Office of Health Education to write an anti-drug story, featuring one of Marvel’s characters. In Amazing Spider-Man #96, 1971, the issue was addressed, but because of the Comics Code Authority, Lee was not allowed to publish it. Finally, with the help of Lee’s publisher, Martin Goodman, he was able to publish the story without the Code’s approval. After this issue hit the stands and sold out, other companies took the hint, and started tackling other issues without the Code’s consent. (Once Upon a Time the Super Heroes)

A few months later, in DC’s Green Lantern/Green Arrow #85, 1971, they went over the effects of heroine abuse. With all these comics touching on all these issues, the Comics Code Authority became obsolete, and was finally lifted. Publishers were now free to write any story they wanted to. In 1978, Warner Brothers and DC Entertainment made Superman: The Movie, the first big-budget film to feature a superhero. (IMDb) Superman became actor Christopher Reeve’s legacy.

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Finally free of the Comics Code Authority, Marvel and DC touched on countless new issues during the 1980’s. Iron Man was revealed to be an alcoholic. Child abuse was revealed to be the reason behind Hulk’s rage. Finally, Superman villain, Lex Luthor, went from being a mad scientist to a corrupted businessman. DC hired ex-Daredevil writer Frank Miller to reinvent Batman to be as dark and gritty as he was in the 1930’s. Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns was the comic that made Batman a force to be reckoned with again. Alan Moore wrote the critically acclaimed Watchmen, which featured everything from murder to sexual impotence. DC’s Sandman #19, 1990, was the first comic to win a World Fantasy Award. (Once Upon a Time the Super Heroes) Comic books now have their own specialty shops and longer comic books were even referred to as “graphic novels.” With the newfound success of Frank Miller’s Batman, Warner Brothers released a new Batman film directed by Tim Burton in 1989. (IMDb)

During the 1990’s older comic books became extremely valuable. People, thinking that new issues would be just as valuable one day, started buying more and more of them. The more people buy, the more comics publishers kept printing. The main reason older issues were so valuable was because they were so scarce. (Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked) Collectors realized this eventually, and they were not buying as much as they used to. New storylines were written specifically to bring old readers back in; including Superman’s wedding to Lois Lane, making Lex Luthor president of the United States, and the famous Death of Superman story-arc. Also, superhero creators can now own the rights to the characters they make, which was very good news to people such as ex-Marvel Editor-in-Chief, Todd MacFarlane, creator of the very famous characters Venom and Spawn. Unfortunately, in the late 1990’s comic book popularity was starting to slip again.

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The New 52
The New 52

In this newer generation, comic book films are becoming more popular and successful. 2000’s X-Men was the first superhero movie to truly benefit from today’s special effects. (Comic Books Unbound) Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man film was the highest grossing superhero film for five years with a worldwide gross of $821.71 million until it was out grossed by its sequel, Spider-Man 3. (IMDb) Christopher Nolan’s Batman film, The Dark Knight, currently holds that record and is the eleventh highest grossing film of all time with a worldwide gross of $1,001,921,825. (Box Office Mojo) It also got a nomination for Best Picture of 2008 and Heath Ledger won the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his portrayal as the Joker, Batman’s greatest enemy. While the comic books aren’t selling as high as they used to, the superheroes are still household names because of these films. As a direct result to the movies doing so well, DC re-launched their entire business and franchises with “The New 52” in 2011, keeping their characters current and up-to-date for newer readers.

With the times constantly shifting, superheroes have almost always stayed true to their roots. Even though the heroes may change slightly with the time, they are still with the public and their critical reception remains unchanged. After almost a century, Superman is still the alien from Krypton who fights for truth and justice. Batman is still the billionaire playboy by day, who avenges his parents’ deaths on the streets of Gotham City by night. Spider-Man is still a science nerd who was bitten by a radioactive spider and has trouble getting the girl. Superheroes are not going anywhere and even one-hundred years from now, people will still read comic books, watching TV and movies, or reading digital comics via iPads or Android tablets to find out what Superman is up to. Superheroes have stood the tests of time. They are here to stay for many generations to come!

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Sources

“All Time Worldwide Box Office Grosses." Box Office Mojo. 4 Apr. 2012. Web. 14 Mar. 2012.

“Batman." DC Comics. n.d. Web. 4 Apr. 2012.

"Captain America." Marvel Universe: The Definitive Online Source for Marvel Super Hero Bio. n.d. Web. 4 Apr. 2012.

Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked. Dir. Steve Kroopnick. Triage Entertainment, 2003. Online Documentary.

International Movie Database. IMDb. n.d. Web. 4 Apr. 2012.

McLaughlin, Jeff. “Stan Lee.” Pop Culture Universe: Icons, Idols, Ideas. ABC-CLIO, 2012. Web. 4 Apr. 2012.

Once Upon a Time the Super Heroes. Dir. Michel Viotte. InnoForm Media, 2001. Online Documentary

"Spider-Man." Marvel Universe: The Definitive Online Source for Marvel Super Hero Bios. n.d. Web. 4 Apr. 2012.

Starz Inside: Comic Books Unbound. Dir. Ed Garcia. Foglight Entertainment, 2008. Online Documentary.

"Superman." DC Comics. n.d. Web. 4 Apr. 2012.

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