Everyone Needs a Hero: The Comic Reflection of our World

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I was standing in Half Price Books with my typical pile of hidden treasure securely nestled within my handy red basket. I had made the rounds through the sci/fi and fantasy shelves, done some perusing through any new affordable options in leather-bound classics, and had finally made my way over to the comics. A mother and son soon joined me in my pursuit to uncover sought-after jems within the rows of white boxes. The boy’s eyes lit up and he began to dig eagerly through the disorganized titles. He pulled out a few miscellaneous things, each of which he eagerly showed to his mother. She nodded a few times, and then half-heartedly began to look through the titles herself. Pulling one out, something clearly from the 80s from artistic style of the cover, she wrinkled her nose and put it back.

“Why don’t you read something real?” she asked in frustration. The kid looked up at her, confusion written blatantly on his face. My interest now peaked, I shamelessly continued to listen into their conversation. “We are in a book store. Look at all the real books, and you go straight to this crap.” By the tone of her voice, I don’t think that she meant it as callously as it came out. He looked down at the growing pile in his arms with a frown. “Come on,” she said. “Let’s go pick out an actual book for you. Something that won’t rot your brain.”

So I think that was about the point where I had to pick my jaw up off the floor and restrain myself from coming to his rescue. I’m pretty sure that neither the mother nor the store management would have taken kindly to a crazy-lady passionately defending the reading choices of a twelve year old. Since I showed such admirable restraint at the bookstore, please allow me to use this slightly more appropriate time and place to present my platform.

Heroes  aren’t Anything New

Hercules, Botoque, King Arthur, Mulan, Cuchulain, the Three Musketeers, Crazy Horse, Robin Hood, Davy Crockett, James Bond … The listing of all the different heroes of all the different eras and parts of the world could go on for hundreds of pages. Some of these figures are completely made of myth, hearsay, and legend. Others were actual flesh and blood whose legacy made them larger and more powerful than mere men and women could ever be. But there’s a reason that no matter when or where you live your life on this earth, you are most certainly familiar with the concept of the hero.

Mal: It’s my estimation that every man ever got a statue made of him was one kind of sommbitch or another. Ain’t about you, Jayne. It’s about what they need.
Jayne: Don’t make no sense. (
From Firefly – Jaynestown episode)

Makes perfect sense, actually. Why? Because regardless what time period you live in there is something about life that just plain sucks. You need a hero. You need to watch a hero do heroic things. You need to hear about heroic tales. You need to fancy yourself BEING a hero. You need a hero to come and rip the suckiness right from where it looms around you. People need heroes, and heroes therefore become the manifestation of the human spirit as well as the reflection of the particular trials of any given time period or culture.

Comics are a modern method of our cry for heroes (we’ll ignore the ancient Egyptians. They might have thought of it first, actually).  And because heroes are present to reflect the society that they fight within, however fantastic the plot actually becomes, they have also evolved into a type of literature that has consistently tracked American cultural progression since the 1930s. (Or earlier, but let’s just take it from there.)

The Golden Age of Comics

The year is 1938. The Depression is not yet over. War would soon envelop the world. People are elbow deep in the vulgar feeling that, as we said before, life sucks.  While in modern society we love a hero with a dark side and a deep, troubled soul, back in this version of America, they just wanted a man who could do it all. A man who was so pure and honorable that even with infinite power at his finger tips he never felt the temptation to use it for anything but the protection of this world.

Good ol’ farm boy in his youth, determined yet struggling city journalist as an adult, and all-powerful super-being whenever need-be, the Superman comic was born into a world that needed this particular type of hero.  The interesting part of this story, which has been evolving for about 70 years, is how different it was at the beginning. Compare the language, art, and subject matter to what you have seen in comics today. Seriously. Look for yourself, it’s online:  Action Comics #1.

This comic is certainly not graphic in the artwork or language, yet there is nothing “comical” about subject matter at all. This one issue deals with the death sentence, domestic violence, and political scandal. In this vein Superman continued to fight for those who could not always fight for themselves and against enemies that were very real for the dirt-poor Americans trying to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. During this age of comics, plots were simpler and more realistically reflecting actual human struggles. Superman took down corrupt politicians and business men and helped rise up the average Joe.

Greatly due to Superman, super-hero comics began to gain momentum. Other titles emerged that have stood the test of time: Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Sub-Mariner, and one that is getting  particular notice recently: Captain America.

By 1941 America needed a representative in the war who could stand for everything we believe in. He needed to represent our strength, moral integrity, and perseverance. Like several years before with the creation of Superman, the only way we could truly get our hero would be to make the modern legend for ourselves. Through astonishingly advanced 1940’s technology and ingenuity, scientists made the weak, frail, and sickly Steve Rogers into the ultimate soldier. Perhaps in 1941 Americans themselves were still feeling like Steve Rogers pre-super soldier serum. We were weak from the Depression and there was a heck of an enemy on the horizon. Everyone had to step up and be a hero in their own way in order for the country to survive. Comic books were cheap, small, and disposable. They were about triumphing over the enemy and the heroes always won. For all of these reasons comics were distributed to soldiers overseas as a sort of escape and relief from the horrors of their daily lives at war.

There is something inspiring about the Captain America #1 cover. (Read re-digitalized issue here – no subscription needed) Cap is literally punching Hitler in the face. Timely Comics wasn’t messing around with vague symbolism here. While I don’t think there are many people out there who mind seeing Hitler get socked with a firm right hook, Captain America, along with most of the comics of the time period, were incredibly guilty of hopping on the racism bandwagon against America’s wartime enemies. I certainly don’t want to get into the topic of racism in comics at this particular juncture, but I feel that if I am going to poise comics up to be snapshots of American society and culture throughout the past century, I also have to acknowledge that these snapshots are not always flattering. In fact many of the representations of other races are shamefully atrocious. While feeding Americans what they needed to see in the form of superheroes, comics were also used as mediums for propaganda during the war.

But, as you’ve probably heard, the US was on the winning side of WWII. The need for a war hero diminished and Captain America was cancelled in the early 1950s. He would be revived again in a different era and a different kind of America in 1964.

The Silver Age of Comics

Between the mid 1950s until about 1970 the comics industry was booming in what is considered the Silver Age of Comics. After the war, the need for flashy superheroes decreased and many comic books switched to focus on other genres such as horror, romance, mystery, etc. But in 1954 during a time in American history where the outside appearance of morals, propriety, and values was highly regarded, a regulative body known as the Comics Code Authority came along and began to monitor the content of comic books. For some reason (and I’ll readily admit I have no idea why – if you have an answer please offer it on up!) this spurred a renewal of interest in superheroes.

Many of the superheroes from the Golden Age were re-vamped and made shiny again. New and interesting takes on the old stories began to form, such as in the pages of the Justice League of America. DC comic sales were skyrocketing so its competitor, Marvel comics, decided to follow suit. They started with the Fantastic Four then things snowballed: Spiderman, the Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Daredevil, the X-men … and POW! Suddenly another era of enduring and rich comic book characters were born!

Due to the influence of the influence of the Comics Code Authority, as well as the influence of the era, the comic books published during this period were noticeably more juvenile. But, gee golly, just because the books were appropriate and even marketed for kids and young adults, doesn’t mean that there isn’t just as much societal reflection. Personally, I always found the X-men to be a brilliant metaphor.

The X-Men #1 came out in 1963. As the storyline developed so did the metaphor against racism. Without ever having to tackle the issue directly in terms of actual races (though this did happen as the series progressed into later decades), the X-men created their own race of people and dealt with their constant doubts, pressures, and ordeals caused by the prejudices of mainstream America. On top of the issues of racism, X-men took the trials of puberty to a whole new level.

Sure, your voice is cracking along with all sorts of other embarrassing biological issues … oh yeah, and solar-powered optic beams shoot from your eyes so here’s a pair of special sunglasses that you can never take off … but it’s fine. Go ahead and hit on the cute red head.

Stan Lee’s X-men became relatable figures of awkwardness and bullying by the rest of the country, yet they always kicked butt in the end. That’s a nice group of heroes for kids to have. Stan Lee was great at creating that “unlikely hero” in characters such as the X-men, Peter Parker, Bruce Banner and others.

As time passed, though, the comics code became ill aligned with changing values. One particularly important milestone was marked with The Amazing Spider-Man #96–98. The Comic Code Authority strictly forbid any mention of drugs of any sort. Of course the reason was obvious. But the year was 1971 and the issue needed addressed.

 Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Stan Lee was approached by the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to do a comic book story about drug abuse. Lee agreed and wrote a three-part Spider-Man story portraying drug use as dangerous and unglamorous. However, the industry’s self-censorship board, the Comics Code Authority, refused to approve the story because of the presence of narcotics, deeming the context of the story irrelevant. Lee, with Goodman’s approval, published the story regardless in The Amazing Spider-Man #96-98 (May-July 1971), without CCA approval. The storyline was well-received and the CCA’s argument for denying its approval was criticized as counterproductive. The Code was subsequently revised the same year. (http://www.worldcollectorsnet.com/comics/marvel-comics.html)

 The above paragraph from www.worldcollectorsnet.com sums the situation up nicely, though there was a lot more to it than that. I certainly recommend reading those Spider-Man issues if you ever get the chance.

With that, the Silver Age draws to a close. At the risk of completely boring my audience, check out part 2 of this editorial which brings us up to modern times:  http://lytherus.com/2011/04/27/everyone-needs-a-hero-pt-2/

If you happened to zone out somewhere in the middle of this editorial, let me summarize my point:

There’s more to this stuff than first meets the eye! And no, angry mother in Half Price Books, it’s not just a bunch of cartoons about who can beat up whom … though that part’s freaking sweet, too.

Stay tuned, comic fans. Same Bat-time. Same Bat-channel.

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