Once regarded as one of the lower forms of mass entertainment, comic books are today widely considered to be potentially capable of complex and profound expression as both literary and visual art forms. Whereas Dr. Fredric Wertham's 1956 diatribe Seduction of the Innocent warned parents against the mind-warping influence of comics on children, many commentators now study the modern myth of the hero as found in Superman, while others are looking to Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics for messages promoting global capitalism. Taking into account the psychological impact of gestures, visual styles, and montage effects possible with sequential art, critical inquiries also address the visual aspect of comic books, especially the adaptation of Hollywood film techniques to the panel-by-panel language of comics.
While most comic books are composed of formulaic stories drawn from various genres, including superhero, science fiction, western, war, horror, romance, and humor, some creators have exploited this mass-medium to bring socially-relevant tales to their audience. For example, the comics Two-Fisted Tales, Shock SuspensStories, and Weird Science, all produced during the 1950s by EC Publications, featured stories that dealt seriously with issues of racism, bigotry, and war. Another EC comic, Mad, ushered in a new era of satire through parodies of popular American culture. As an example of the social-consciousness of the early 1970s, writer Denny O'Neil and artist Neal Adams broached the subject of teenage drug abuse through a Green Lantern/Green Arrow storyline.
In step with the sexual and political revolutions of the 1960s, underground artists—many inspired by the EC comics of their childhood—used the comic book as a forum for frank depictions of changing lifestyles. R. Crumb, creator of Fritz the Cat and one of the founders of the psychedelic-inspired Zap, was a prolific contributor to undergrounds and continues to draw autobiographical stories that often render, in clinical detail, his unconventional sexual obsessions. During the 1980s Raw magazine editor Art Spiegelman aspired to bring comics to a new level of sophistication by publishing avante-garde works by European and art-school-trained cartoonists. Spiegelman's own Maus, which was inspired by his father's Holocaust experiences, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992, and proved to critics that comics could be a viable medium for serious literature.
Phantom Lady 17 (superhero) 1948
Donald Duck Four Color 9 (humor) 1942
C. C. Beck
Whiz Comics 2 (superhero; debut of Captain Marvel) 1940
Plastic Man 1 (superhero) 1943
Zap Comics (underground) 1967-
Spirit (detective) 1940-52
Marvel Comics I (superhero; debut of Submariner) 1939
M. C. Gaines
Famous Funnies 1 (first monthly color comic book; humor) 1934
William Gaines and Al Feldstein
Haunt of Fear (horror) 1950-54
Shock SuspenStories (suspense) 1952-55
Weird Science (science fiction) 1950-53
Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez
Love and Rockets (adult) 1982-96
Detective Comics 27 (superhero; debut of Batman),
Animal Comics (humor) 1942-47
Pogo Possum (humor) 1949-54
Jack Kirby and Joe Simon
Captain America Comics 1 (superhero; debut of Captain America) 1941-47
Mad (satire) 1952-55
Two-Fisted Tales (war) 1950-55
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Fantastic Four 1 (superhero; debut of Fantastic Four) 1961
Amazing Fantasy 15 (superhero; debut of Spiderman) 1962
William Moulton Marston
All Star Comics 8 (superhero; debut of Wonder Woman) 1941
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (superhero; graphic novel) 1986
Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster
Action Comics 1 (superhero; debut of Superman) 1938
Maus, A Survivor's Tale: My Father Bleeds History (graphic novel) 1986
Maus, A Survivor's Tale: And Here My Troubles Began (graphic novel) 1991
Little Lulu Four Color 74 (humor) 1945
SOURCE: "The Spawn of M. C. Gaines," in All in Color for a Dime, edited by Dick Lupoff and Don Thompson, Arlington House, 1970, pp. 21-43.
[In the following essay, White profiles an early history of comic books, culminating in the creation of Superman and Batman.]
It's a story which has grown into modern myth—a myth which in some respects equals and parallels the myth of Superman himself—the story of how two boys, Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster, fresh out of high school, sold their dream comic strip and achieved world fame.
As science fiction fans, Siegel and Shuster had published an early science fiction fan magazine, the title of which was, not so surprisingly, Science Fiction. It was a mimeographed publication and appeared in the early 1930s. In many respects, including the poor paper on which it was published, it resembled more closely fan magazines being published by s.f. and comics fans now than it did most of its contemporaries. Most of the material was written by Siegel, and all the illustrations were by Shuster.
As the myth has it, while still in high school, science fiction fans Siegel and Shuster dreamed up their science fictional superman: a man come to Earth from another planet, metabolically adapted for a greater gravity and far harsher environmental pressures than ours. Here on Earth, the superman would find his powers vastly multiplied, just as we would find ours greater on, for instance, the Moon.
According to the story, sample art and scripts for Superman were drawn and prepared for submission as early as 1935. M. C. Gaines remembered seeing it while he was associated with the Dell line of comics, but could not find a place for either the original concept or the crude rendering, in books that were then given over entirely to Sunday comics reprints.
The tale of Superman's round of rejections is very much like the story of the best seller rejected by 26 publishers before finding its home with the 27th—perhaps not entirely true, but certainly too colorful to ignore in the retelling. In any case, the team of Siegel & Shuster had sold some half dozen other original strips before finding a home for their baby Superman.
Let's backtrack for a minute, though. To understand the peculiar success story of Superman, one must have some understanding of comics publishing in the 1930s.
Newspaper comics were born around the turn of the century, and it was inevitable that someone, sooner or later, would begin collecting the daily and Sunday newspaper strips into book and booklet form. This began in the 1920s, with a variety of nonstandardized sizes and formats. On my shelf of oddities there is a five-by-seven "book" of Little Orphan Annie sitting next to a ten-by-ten collection of Mutt & Jeff, both products of the late twenties, and both printed in black and white.
In the early thirties, while young Siegel and Shuster were day-dreaming in math or science class over their Superman or their fan magazine, a man named M. C. Gaines created the comic book.
It was called Funnies on Parade, and it was the prototype for the successful Famous Funnies: it measured (approximately) seven by ten inches, was printed in color on newsprint, and was devoted exclusively to reprints of the popular Sunday comics features of the time, usually reprinting a complete Sunday feature on each page.
Gaines has simply taken the dimensions in which the Sunday comics were printed, and proportionately reduced them so that his book could be printed on the same color presses and use material prepared for Sunday comics publication. It was less a master stroke than eminent common sense.
Funnies on Parade was a trial balloon. It was followed by Century of Comics (so named because it contained 100 pages; it was a dime-store giveaway and had no price on it), and one or two other one-shots, including Famous Funnies. Apparently both idea and format were a success, because soon Famous Funnies was a continuing title and other publishers were coming out with imitations. (Famous Funnies outlasted its competition and survived into the mid-fifties, long after the other reprint titles had given up.)
At that time comics were published by newspaper syndicates, by pulp publishers (like Dell), and by distributors. One such distributor was the Independent News Co., whose trademark was an inconspicuous "IND" on the cover of many comics and magazines for a number of years. Independent owned Detective Comics, Inc., the publisher of Detective Comics (not surprisingly), More Fun Comics and Adventure Comics.
I have found it difficult to pin down M. C. Gaines's movements from company to company in those early years. One might almost suspect he was the Johnny Appleseed of comic books, because he seemed to go from company to company, launching comic book lines at each new place. It appears that he did not stay long with the Famous Funnies people, and by 1935 he was with Dell, in time as I mentioned, to see and to reject Superman. By 1938 he was associated with Detective Comics, Inc., although apparently as a publishing partner with a line of his own.
I am not being totally frivolous calling Gaines the Johnny Appleseed of comic books. Gaines was dedicated, in principle, to the comic book concept. His fervor was almost religious. At this time, remember, comics as such were not specifically juvenile. Comics were spawned in the newspapers, and presumably were read by the whole family. They were easy to grasp, and yet capable of conveying a considerable quantity of information. "A picture is worth a thousand words" must have been one of Gaines's favorite maxims. It was in this same period that the mass media as a whole were undergoing an entire revolution toward the visual, the pictorial. The year 1936 had witnessed the birth of Life magazine and "photo-journalism." Perhaps the linkage of words and pictures represented a new democratic ideal for the time. In any case, Gaines was more than a fast-buck artist looking for an easy way to millions. He was a dedicated man—as we'll see later.
But we are still setting the stage. Gaines had invented the reprint comic book: what about the original-material comic?
It's hard to pin down the origins of the "all-new" comics. I suspect the reason was a simple one: in a short time the reprint material was used up and there was nothing left for new titles. Some enterprising publisher made the decision to buy new material, written and drawn especially for the comic books, at first to pad out his reprints (still the headline attractions), and then, later, to replace them.
The early comic book originals were, for the most part, awful. They set out to imitate the reprints, and often a six-page story would have a running head on each page, in imitating of the Sunday reprints, each page of which required a running head originally. But surely the artists and writers who produced the new material were far more poorly paid—even if they received the same amount which the creator of reprints were paid. The reprints were earning their big money from newspaper syndication; the new material made what little it did solely from comic book publication. Standards quickly fell, and I think it is significant that even now they have not been entirely regained. Today, in most cases, the comic book is no more than a training ground for newspaper-strip artists.
It must also be said that comic book publishers were, all in all, a thieving, grasping lot. Not to dwell too long upon the point, they were crooks. In many instances, they were men with a good deal of money, recently earned during Prohibition, who were seeking legitimate businesses into which they might safely move. Comics—and pulp magazines—seemed like a good bet. These men had learned their so-called business ethics in a rough school. They applied them across the board in their new businesses.
The first rule was, Do it cheap. Find cheap labor, pay cheap prices. Low overhead. Tie up as little money as possible. Take out as much money as possible. The results were predictable—in a few short years the bad drove out the good.
Put in simple terms, most of the work being done for comic books by 1940 was being done by teenage boys, some still in high school, some dropouts. Many were enormously talented, but most came from lower-class backgrounds, were willing to work cheap (the Depression was still being felt), and were easily exploited.
The publishers became millionaires—no comic book writer, editor or artist ever did.
By 1936, Siegel and Shuster were selling strips to Detective, More Fun and Adventure Comics. These included "Dr. Occult," "Federal Men," and "Radio Squad." Later strips included "Slam Bradley." The art on the early strips was crude. Shuster's work had none of the finesse or quality of an Alex Raymond or a Hal Foster. It was, to speak plainly, amateurish. Siegel's scripts were little better. The plots were rudimentary, the dialogue and captions were in basic English and barely functional at that. Had they never produced Superman, I doubt whether anyone would remember them today.
Meanwhile, Superman was growing tattered in his trips through editorial offices. Conceived as a comic book original, he had been cut apart, redrawn, repasted, and redone as a daily strip for possible syndication. When, in 1938, M. C. Gaines heard that the publisher of Detective Comics wanted to start another title, he recommended Superman for it, and the daily strips were again recut, repasted, and reworked back into comic book pages.
The publisher bought it. Superman was launched in the first issue of Action Comics.
The first four Superman stories in Action Comics were later reprinted in Superman #1. In either form it is easy to detect the lines where pasteups occur, to see where panels were extended or added, and even to find different styles of art in adjacent panels. (Later stories, reprinted a year or so later from published newspaper strips, still carried their ben-day shading over from the black & white medium.)
Judged by current standards, the stories were rudimentary and the art crude. Indeed, National Comics will today not reprint the oldest Superman stories in their present reprint titles because they fall below acceptable standards. Nevertheless they were full of a raw kind of power which made them an instant success. They were, after all, stories about a superman.
It was 1938, and the country was shuddering its way out from the crippling blow to its economy in 1929. The air was full of talk of war in Europe, and of the mad clown named Hitler. Technocracy was preaching that science could rule the world and end all Man's problems, while the Communists were seeking One World under socialism in a dictatorship of the proletariat. It was a time of idealism and of shattered ideals. We were down but not out. Our world had crumbled, but we knew we could build a better one.
We hadn't grown up yet.
Born on the planet Krypton, and sent to Earth in a rocket by his father shortly before that planet exploded, Superman landed on Earth while still a baby, was adopted by the Kents, and grew into a super-healthy young man.
But he could not fly. He was vulnerable to gas, to oxygen starvation, and to some rays. His skin was tough, but not so tough it couldn't be pierced by "a bursting shell." In his first story, he was described in this fashion:
As the lad grew older, he learned to his delight that he could hurdle skyscrapers … Leap an eighth of a mile … Raise tremendous weights … Run faster than a streamline train [which is to say, faster than eighty miles an hour]—And nothing less than a bursting shell could penetrate his skin!
That last piece of description was over a panel which showed a doctor saying, "What th'—? This is the sixth hypodermic needle I've broken on your skin!" To which Kent replies with a grin, "Try again, Doc!"
The passing away of his foster parents greatly grieved Clark Kent. But it strengthened a determination that had been growing in his mind. Clark decided he must turn his titanic strength into channels that would benefit mankind.
And so was created—
SUPERMAN—champion of the oppressed, the physical marvel who had sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need!
You'll note that Superman was a little more human in those days. Although he could not fly, he could leap "an eighth of a mile," or over a skyscraper, and this was in itself no small novelty in the world of 1938. He could race trains or lift a car, and bullets and knives bounced harmlessly from his skin. It was enough.
(When that page was reprinted in 1960 in the Giant Superman Annual #2, billed as "rare, out-of-print scenes from the very first Superman story!", the editors couldn't keep their hands off it. The art appears intact, but the blurb about Superman's skin has been altered to read, "… And not even a bursting shell could penetrate his skin!" Thus is history rewritten.)
For a man who was setting out to "help those in need," Superman had a remarkably pedestrian mind. For the most part he did not occupy himself with sweeping social change; instead he battled crooks and racketeers, uncovering corruption in low places. One of his favorite tactics was to race ahead of a fleeing car of crooks, and then stop dead in front of it. The car would slam to a stop against Superman's body as if he were a brick wall.
When the crooks came tumbling out of the car, half-stunned, Superman would grab the ringleader and leap into the air with him. There he might simply swing the terrified man about with acrobatic ease. Or he might leave the man clutching fearfully to the top of a telephone pole or the peak of a roof. The object was to frighten the man into subjection. (I'm afraid the Supreme Court would today take a dim view of any confession extracted by these means.) Quite often, as Superman and his captive were falling back to earth, the man would be screaming, "You're gonna kill us!" or something like that.
It's fortunate for Superman that neither Siegel nor Shuster had absorbed much from their high-school science classes, or, for that matter, from the science fiction of that time. Had the laws of inertia been in force while Superman was standing steadfast before a speeding car, the outcome might often have been quite different. And if Superman had actually had sufficient internal mass to stop a speeding car, I hate to think of the holes he would have kicked in the sidewalks with each of his aerial leaps.
But those were simpler times. And if the comic book had not originally been aimed at a specific age group, it had certainly found one: the kids. How many kids knew the science that would debunk Superman? How many kids, knowing it, would have cared?
Superman was a myth-figure: he was our dreams personified, even as he must have been Siegel and Shuster's. Superman was, almost literally, the perfect Boy Scout. We still believed in Boy Scouts then.
Most of the Superman myth was established within the first year of Superman's publication. (He appeared monthly in Action Comics as the lead story.) As Clark Kent, he went to work for the Daily Star (soon to be the Daily Planet) as a reporter. Perry White became his editor, and he quickly found a rival in fellow reporter Lois Lane.
Most of those early stories dwelled, with what I can only describe as a magnificent sense of wonder, upon Superman's physical attributes. (These soon broadened to include an early version of his x-ray vision.) The pages in which Superman did little but outrace trains or cars, leap buildings, or toss crooks around ("Look! The bullets bounce right off a him!") probably outnumbered those in which the plot (if there was one) was materially advanced.
But war was coming. Everyone could see it. In several 1939 and 1940 stories Superman found himself in mythical European countries fighting off invasions of one sort or another. In one of these stories an evil, world-conquering scientist was introduced. His name was Luthor, and he had red hair. The plot of the story in question was probably borrowed from Flash Gordon. Usually Superman, as Clark Kent, would find himself a war correspondent on the scene. When danger threatened, the mufti was doffed and Superman made quick work of the enemy's squadron of airplanes, fleet of tanks, and small army of soldiers. Yeah! Just as we Americans could mop up any real trouble.
Then came 1941.
Suddenly, we were at war. It must have thrown Superman's publishers into a tizzy. Here was this marvelous man, this superman, who had already demonstrated his ability to handle almost any size war—what were we going to do with him? If he went to war against Hitler, how could we explain the fact that America had not instantly won?
The solution was ingenious. As Clark Kent, Superman went down to his local draft board to enlist. But in his nervous desire to get into the Army, he accidentally employed his x-ray vision during the eye test. Instead of reading the chart before him, he read the one in the room beyond! He was flunked out as a 4-F. The shame—!
Why this should keep Superman as Superman out of the war they never explained, but it at least solved the real-life problem. While Captain America, Sub-Mariner, and a host of other superheroes or quasi-super-heroes in the comics went off to war, Superman stayed home to deal with fifth-column saboteurs and war profiteers, and to continue helping little old ladies safely across the streets.
As time went on, Superman lost his early fragility. Rays, gasses, and even bursting shells no longer bothered him.
Although he continued to leap into the air in his peculiarly characteristic way, resembling a leap-frog in motion, somehow he had found the power of sustained flight. His relationship with Lois Lane mellowed somewhat, and indeed led briefly to marriage.
(The episode in which Superman and Lois Lane married is one of the most hushed-up in the history of comics. It occurred in the daily Superman newspaper strip, shortly after the war.
The marriage was intended, by the writer and artist on the strip, to be real, and it lasted for a period of weeks, until someone over at the comic book end happened to discover it. Since the comic book publishers controlled the strip—a reversal of the usual procedure—they dictated an abrupt change. It was explained that it wasn't the same Lois Lane, and that it was all happening on an alien, but parallel, planet, and the marriage was therefore a fraud.
Since then, Superman and Lois Lane have "married" a number of times, but always in what the editors of the comic books have charmingly called "Imaginary Stories"—stories outside the true, real, mythos—"what-if" stories. But more of these later.)
By the mid-forties Superman was Big Business. Within a year of his first publication, he was selling over a million copies of the titles he appeared in, and he revolutionized the comics industry as a whole. Very quickly everyone was imitating him, usually poorly. Detective Comics, Inc. became Superman-D.C., and sued the first imitator, Will Eisner's Wonder Man (a Fox Features comic), out of business. But soon the flood was beyond control, and Superman-D.C. (now National) was reserving its legal guns only for the biggest game. It was ultimately National's lawsuit which drove Fawcett to drop Captain Marvel, although I suspect drooping sales were an equal factor.
If Superman was such a hit, surely spin-offs of Superman would do equally well, or so the publishers reasoned. Thus, Superboy—the Adventures of Superman when he was a Boy. Although this required considerable revision of the mythos, Superboy was introduced soon after the war in More Fun Comics, and soon transferred to Adventure Comics (More Fun was dropped), where he remains today (as part of a "Legion of Super-Heroes").
Early "Superboy" stories tried to be faithful in their fashion. The young Clark Kent wore a miniature Superman costume, but he was concerned with boyish pursuits. One cover showed him shooting marbles with his awed pals; a story in another issue of Adventure concerned soap-box racers—a plot closer at heart to those in the boys' books than to comic book superheroes. If Superman was a young man in 1938, then his boyhood must have occurred in the late twenties and early thirties. The earlier artists and writers remembered this; later it was forgotten.
By the mid-fifties, Superboy seemed to live in the present (the cars were all modern, and clothes and plots equally so—every home had television), coexisting with his older self.
By the late fifties, he had time-travel completely under control, and was spending most of his time in the future with that Legion of Super Heroes (about which the less said the better), and had established a high-school enmity with the youthful Luthor (long Superman's nemesis) who had already lost his hair in an unfortunate experiment.
Of course, by then Superman himself was hardly recognizable. He was, we were told, totally invulnerable to anything except Kryptonite and—get this!—magic.
Kryptonite was introduced in the mid-forties (on his radio program, I believe) because Superman was, even then, becoming too powerful to be easily dealt with by his writers and artists. There was no excitement in a story about a man capable of doing anything required (including travelling in time) to right whatever was wrong within the first two pages of any story. It was decided, therefore, that if gas, rays, or automobiles no longer affected him, perhaps bits of radioactive material from the core of his exploded home planet, Krypton, might diminish his strength.
The early Kryptonite was green. Sometimes its radiation seemed only to strip Superman of his extraordinary powers; on other occasions it seemed to be able to kill him through a cumulative weakening process. In any case, it was always there when Superman was in danger of getting out of his creators' control. Sometime around 1950, Luthor learned to synthesize it, and for a while Kryptonite was as common as old comics under the bed.
In the late fifties Kryptonite mutated into a whole spectrum of materials: Red Kryptonite, Gold Kryptonite, etc., each with its own special powers over Superman. The authors of Superman stories have since gained a good deal of mileage from these convenient new forms.
In addition, they have given us Supergirl (another survivor of Krypton), Superdog, Supercat, and even Superhorse. They have provided a Phantom Zone full of old Kryptonian criminals; a miniaturized Kryptonian city, Kandor, in a bottle (a large-ish bottle, it must be admitted); and even a Fortress of Solitude in the North for Superman's home away from home (this was stolen directly from Doc Savage without so much as a by-your-leave). The mythos has become cluttered.
Indeed, if one wants to write a Superman story today, he will find little if anything of the original Siegel-Shuster Superman has survived. His story must fit within the ever more constrictive net woven by the interlocking mythos of Superman, Superboy, Supergirl, the stories in Superman's Girl-Friend, Lois Lane, and the stories in Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen, to say nothing of the shared Superman-Batman adventures in World's Finest Comics.
It is not altogether surprising that the best stories published in the last six to eight years have been the Imaginary Stories. In these stories the author can depart from the mythos. He can pretend Superman has married Lois Lane, and go on from there to see what might happen next. (For a while there was a parallel mythos building around Superman's children by Lois Lane in a series of Imaginary Stories.) One of the best of all the stories was "The Day Superman Died." In it, he really did die. Clearly, an "Imaginary Story."
But, what nonsense, really! The proprietors of Superman have virtually painted themselves into a corner with their overwhelming mythos of sub-characters and sub-plot situations. Detail has been piled upon detail until the character and quality of Superman which so endeared him to us have been totally submerged.
Siegel and Shuster are long gone. Shuster apparently stopped drawing Superman in 1939 or 1940. Larry Ivie, a most scholarly Superman-phile, says that he has found the work of at least six other artists in the stories published in that period, and by 1941 or 1942 the style was recognizably different.
The principal artist on these stories was Shuster's assistant, Wayne Boring. Boring drew many of the comic book stories and most of the syndicated newspaper strips throughout the forties and fifties, and still does a story once in a while today.
Shuster did some of the work on the earliest Superboy stories, and pencilled for various substandard horror and crime comics in the early fifties. Rumors are that he has lost much of his sight, and his work on the syndicated Funnyman (with Siegel, in the late forties) was the last to show his style or carry his name.
Siegel continued to write many of the features that had been started before Superman, and to write the early Spectre stories for Bernard Baily. But his writing seemed to lose its fire when divorced from Superman, and on the other stories he was only a competent hack. In the mid-forties Siegel decided that, although National owned all rights to Superman, and was paying him a comfortable royalty, he had been cheated. He approached M. C. Gaines, and briefly enlisted his support in a legal battle against National. It was at this time that the familiar Siegel & Shuster by-line balloon, which had appeared largely as a courtesy on the Superman stories, was dropped. Funnyman was to be a comeback for the team, after they lost their lawsuit, but despite a promising start with both newspaper syndication and comic book publication, it failed. Since then Siegel has continued writing comic book stories, some of them, ironically, for Superman; others, for lesser features for other publishers. A collection of his stories for the Archie comic group's superheroes was issued several years ago as a paperback book titled High Camp Super Heroes. In addition he continues developing new comic series concepts, hoping once more to make the kind of hit he did thirty years ago.
And what of M. C. Gaines?
Although Gaines certainly was responsible for Superman's ultimate appearance in print as well as for the very medium in which Superman was published, he was not Superman's publisher. He began his own line of superhero comics, also bearing the Superman-DC imprint, but none of them won him as much success as Superman brought his partners. (The best known of Gaines's superheroes were Flash, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman. All are being published today by National.)
In 1941, Gaines, convinced of the importance of comic books, and of the need to fashion the right products for their youthful readership, began publishing Picture Stories from the Bible. In 1945 he sold his other titles (the superheroes) to National, and began his own firm, Educational Comics, Inc. There he continued Picture Stories from the Bible, adding Picture Stories of Science, Picture Stories from American History, and Picture Stories from World History.
These "good" comics may have been what Gaines thought the customers ought to want, but as has happened so many times in the popular media, they weren't what the customers bought. None made money, and when Gaines was killed in a boating accident a few years later, his business manager quietly folded them. Another Gaines comic, Fat and Slat (an imitation of Mutt & Jeff done by Ed Wheelan of Minute Movies fame), was converted into International Crime Patrol, and EC floundered about among the third-, fourth-, and fifth-rate comics until M. C.'s son, William Gaines, took an interest in the company and launched "New Trend" comics in the early fifties, the best-written and best-illustrated comic books ever produced. This line of comics led to Harvey Kurtzman's brilliant Mad, and ultimately to the magazine Mad of today. William Gaines sold his company to a Wall Street holding company in the early sixties for a reputedly large sum of money, remained as publisher of Mad in the bargain, and has since watched the holding company sell his company (which now publishes only Mad) to National in a bizarre sort of full circle. Today, in turn, the Kinney System owns National.…
If Superman was the product of youthful dreaming, his partner, Batman, is the product of sharp contrivance. Unlike Siegel & Shuster's Superman, Bob Kane's Batman was put together in 1939 to meet a need—it was National's own answer to Superman's success, and it is significant that Batman shared the honors with Wonder Man as the second superhero published.
As I mentioned, National quickly sued Wonder Man out of existence; both Wonder Man and Batman first appeared on the stands the same month.
Bob Kane was a second-rate cartoonist whose sole claim to fame before Batman was a series of single-page "funnies" and a poorly drawn adventure strip. (Most of the stories in the new material comic books were adventure strips of varying sorts.)
Batman was not Kane's idea; it was dreamed up in an editorial session. Kane did not write the first story; it was written by either Gardner F. Fox or Bill Finger (reports vary). If Kane even drew the early stories, it was with considerable help from artists like Jack Cole (Plastic Man), Jerry Robinson and Bob Wood (Daredevil). By the time of its early success, the stories were being drawn by Robinson and his friends. Although Kane's name appeared on every story until the mid-sixties (and the birth of the "New Look" Batman), his sole function was to subcontract the inking and the pencilling to other artists—and the subdivision of payments seemed to guarantee substandard art.
Nevertheless, Batman was in most respects a better strip than Superman, and was a better-conceived character, as well.
In these days of pop art, camp trivia, and lingering memories of the Batman television program, it is a little difficult to remember that Batman was originally something of an innovation, and certainly one of the best-realized of the early-forties comics characters.
Properly speaking, Batman was not (and is not) a superhero. He wears a costume, but he is only an ordinary human being: he has no super powers. As such, he was not the first in comics. National was publishing The Crimson Avenger (in Detective Comics) before either Superman or Batman first saw print. But The Crimson Avenger was basically a copy of The Shadow, an already famous pulp and radio character, as was also The Sandman (Adventure Comics), and the other masked crime-fighters of the period.
But Batman was of a new genre—the costumed comic-book hero. Like Superman, he not only had two identities, but when in costume he appeared as an awesome figure, quite transcendent over mundane humanity. Masked, his cape spread over his shoulders like two great bat-wings, his costume all greys and blacks, he must have been one of the most potentially frightening heroes in comics.
And this is how he often appeared—avenger-like in the night, sometimes in menacing silhouette, or with his shadow cast before him, twice life size. He did things with that cape of his. Superman's flapped behind him like a red bath towel, but Batman's blue-black ribbed cape enfolded him like a cloak, often hiding his muscled body from view.
Batman, like Superman, was an orphan, but his parents were normal Earth humans. The Waynes were coming home from a night out when a crook named Joey Chill shot and killed them. Their son, Bruce, somehow survived and vowed vengence when he was grown. He studied law, criminology, and forensic science, and he trained his body. He also either inherited a great deal of money or earned a lot fast.
Finally, clad in his smoking jacket, pipe in hand (the very picture of what comic book artists might aspire to be), he speculated on the way in which he would Strike Terror Into The Hearts of the Underworld. A bat flew in the open window, and inspiration struck—he would become The Batman.
And so he did. A pair of grey flannel longjohns, black boots, black gloves, a cowl, mask, and the long, ribbed cape, and he was indeed The Batman.
I have my doubts about the terror such an outfit would strike in the hearts of the underworld, but no doubts at all that for a boy poring over a Batman adventure in Detective Comics, this was exciting stuff indeed.
Part of it was in the drawing. After the early awkward illustrations (perhaps actually by Kane), the style evolved into sombre, night-tinged moodiness, replete with great shadows and an implacably stern-visaged Batman. Batman did not toss crooks into the air to frighten them; occasionally he shot them, (He did not, however, often carry a gun. Very few costume heroes in the comics have ever carried guns of the normal, lethal variety.) More often, he found himself in a fight, usually with the odds against him. Sometimes he won; sometimes he did not. (He usually lost in the earlier pages and won in the later pages of a story; it balanced out.)
The writing was important. Not for the actual prose in which the stories were told, but for the use that was made of plots and situations. Batman didn't have Superman's superabundance of muscle—occasionally he had to use his brains. Batman was much more of a detective. (Superman appeared in Action Comics; Batman in Detective Comics; somehow that did not seem entirely coincidental.) As a result, Batman seemed more at home fighting common hoods, sticking up for the corner shoeshine boy, or the shopkeeper who wouldn't pay protection. When the war began, you didn't expect him to hop the first plane to Europe to put a quick finish to the whole mess.
Batman was human.
It is my firm conviction that the years 1940-46 were Batman's best—in terms of both art and stories. I believe my judgment is unclouded by nostalgia, since I began reading Batman comics in the late forties and encountered the earlier stories only much later.
Actually, by the time I became acquainted with The Batman, he had already lost the definite article and was simple, familiar Batman, and had embarked upon a series of science-fictional adventures which were jarringly out of place in his own nocturnal milieu. The slide downhill into the fifties was a quick one. The art deteriorated noticeably, the old plots were replaced by visitors from the future, or aliens from other planets, etc. Even the one "legitimate" use of time travel, Batman's voyages back in time through hypnosis (were they dreams, or were they real?) was abandoned. By the early sixties, alien menaces were Batman's stock in trade.
Then the "New Look" Batman was introduced, not long before he made his TV debut. The titles (Detective, Batman) were transferred to another editor, and Carmine Infantino (one of National's major artists at that time) was not only assigned Batman stories, but allowed to sign his name to them. The only costuming change was to place a yellow bulls-eye around the bat symbol on his chest, and, truthfully, for all the change in art I don't think that the stories were that much better. But the alien menaces were shelved, and if Batman had not yet recaptured his old menace and mystery, he was at least functioning as a detective once again.
I've ignored Batman's sidekick thus far, because he deserves treatment on his own.
Robin ("The Boy Wonder") was one of the first—if not the first—costumed sidekick, in comics. Ostensibly a boy aerialist with a circus troop, Dick Grayson was orphaned in mysterious circumstances, adopted by Bruce Wayne and trained to be his assistant. (In many respects this "origin" parallels the way in which the Human Torch picked up his sidekick, Toro—ah, but it's a small world!)
The notion of giving a superhero a boy sidekick was probably born of a desire to give the comics' youthful readers someone they could identify with. As such, it was a mistake. Boys don't identify with boys in mystery-adventure stories; they identify with men—especially when one is the real hero of the story. Robin was often excess baggage in Batman's stories, just as were Captain America's Bucky, Green Arrow's Speedy, Aquaman's Aqualad, et al. But for a while, during the first wave of the superhero boom (1940-43), you could hardly find a comic book without a costumed boy sidekick in it. Blame Batman—he started it.
He also caused himself a little extra trouble when Dr. Wertham stated, in Seduction of the Innocent, that the relationship between Batman and Robin (which is to say, between Bruce Wayne and his ward, Dick Grayson) was sexually unhealthy. Dr. Wertham was of the certain notion, which became well publicized, that not only was the relationship homosexual, it was obviously homosexual to the comics' youthful readers! One shudders to think what the good doctor would have made of the Boy Scout Handbook, with its wholesome enthusiasm for exactly the same sort of "comradeship" between the boy scouts and their counsellors.
It's fashionable today to sneer a little and to chuckle at the Boy Scout image, at the goody-two-shoes approach.
It's fashionable to see rampaging homosexual lust in every man's hand on a boy's shoulder, but I wonder if in our cynicism we aren't cutting ourselves off from a part of the innocence of childhood.
I'm certain that Dr. Wertham must have had no knowledge of the ideals and conditioning we had as boys and Boy Scouts. These ideals have permeated boys' books of the last four generations, and their reflection in Batman's fatherly comradeship with Robin was not only innocent, but touchingly inspiring. No boy I ever knew read more than that into Batman's relationship with Robin, and I doubt anything more was intended.
It seems inevitable that if a comic book feature becomes successful, its lead character will accumulate additional supporting characters. Batman also had a butler, Alfred, who began as a roly-poly sort of man, but soon slimmed down into the dignified prototype of an English servant. Alfred shared the knowledge of Batman's and Robin's civilian identities. (He was also Bruce Wayne's butler.) Alfred was popular enough in the mid-forties to warrant his own featurette in Batman, but it lasted only a few years. More recently, the "New Look" killed Alfred off, but, because of demands made by the TV producers, he was brought back to life in a bizarre fashion (he was possessed by an alien spirit).
Another long-time supporting player is Commissioner Gordon. His role has been unswerving—he has served throughout the years as Batman's liaison with the police force, and has personally manned the giant searchlight which for years flashed the Batsignal on the heavens to summon Batman. (In recent years, post-"New Look," a "hotline" phone has taken over this function. One wonders how a line was strung into Bruce Wayne's home without tipping off his identity as Batman.…)
There have been a number of girls, none of them lasting more than a few years, despite the valiant attempts of each to become Batman's Lois Lane. Considering what a pest Lois has been to Superman for all these many years, perhaps that's just as well.
But the most memorable supporting characters in Batman's life have been the villains.
He met the Joker in 1940. A fantastic harlequin figure, face chalk-white and rouged like a clown's, the Joker was originally a contract killer, and he and Batman played for keeps with each other. Since the initiation of the Comics Code Authority, however, the Joker has become more of a clown and less of a menace. Like Batman, his best setting was the nocturnal mystery of the 1940s stories.
The second most memorable figure would undoubtedly be the Penguin. A fat figure of a man (and most splendidly portrayed on television by Burgess Meredith), his crimes usually involved birds or umbrellas, or both. He has changed very little through the years, coming on stage in the mid-forties; he now seems to be in semiretirement.
The Catwoman was originally known only as The Cat, but as she developed during the forties she became Batman's most intriguing opponent. Ruthless and a gang leader, she was also beautiful and romantically intrigued by Batman's square jaw. She reformed in the early fifties, and subsequent adventures have not been quite the same.
The list at this point degenerates into recent repeat villains. Only a few remain from the older days. The best was Two-Face, a demented ex-DA, scarred on one side of his face by acid thrown at him in court, who pitched a half-defaced coin to decide if he would commit a crime. If the defaced side landed upright, he became a criminal; if the clean side turned up, he would refrain from the crime. It was a classic case of split personality, and ultimately he was cured and his face restored by plastic surgery.
The Riddler, exhumed by television to good effect, had appeared only twice, in 1948, in two consecutive issues of Detective Comics, before his quite recent revival. I think I can safely say that (in the pages of contemporary comics at least) he would have been better left alone.
In the late fifties and early sixties, Batman, apparently doomed forever to play second fiddle to Superman, had the entire Superman Syndrome wished upon him: a Batdog, a Batwoman, a Batgirl, even an alien pixy, Bat-Mite. "The New Look" scuttled all that, and rightly so, along with a series of "Imaginary Stories" supposedly written by Alfred the butler about the Batman of the future, the grown-up Robin, and Batman's son.
There is something about the Superman and Batman stories of the early forties which, for all their technical crudity, puts them head and shoulders above the slick but empty products of today. Part of it was freshness, newness. Part of it was the youthfulness of the men who created them. And part of it was simply a product of the times. The books were crude, but vital; less realistically rendered, but far more faithful to the idealizations which each character represented. Superman and Batman gave comic books—those which printed new material—their first real commercial viability, and pointed the way for almost three decades of sometimes chancy publishing in the field.
Until 1938, the best comics, and the comics which sold the best, were the reprint publications. Their material was better, and produced to higher standards. Quality, despite the iron-mongers and beer salesmen who publish the comics, has always been what sold comic books.
Superman and Batman changed all that. Each in his own way set standards as yet unexcelled for the field. Each was prototypal. Each also set sales records. Publishers never argue with sales records.
They also set comic books solidly as children's fare: locked the seven-by-ten color-printed newsprint format Gaines devised into a rigid style aimed solely at teenagers and children. So far, all experiments to publish comic books in this format or any similar format for adults have failed. The biggest reason they have failed is public opinion.
The public seems to feel that comics—once the direct competitor of the now-gone adult-oriented pulp magazine—are for kids … no matter how many adults sneak-read them. What intelligent, self-respecting man would admit to reading about men who run about in colored tights and capes, Fighting Crime and Righting Wrongs?
Only kids still believe it might be possible.
Perhaps M. C. Gaines would have been happy for at least that much.
SOURCE: An introduction and afterword in The Great Comic Book Heroes, edited by Jules Feiffer, The Dial Press, 1965, pp. 11-45, 185-89.
[In the following excerpt, Feiffer offers opinions about the comic strips of his childhood, their artists and publishers, and the controversies they inspired during the 1930s and 1940s.]
Comic books, World War II, the depression, and I all got going at roughly the same time. I was eight. Detective Comics was on the stands, Hitler was in Spain, and the middle class (by whose employment record we gauge depressions) was, after short gains, again out of work. I mention these items in tandem, not only to give color to the period, but as a sly historic survey to those in our own time who, of the items cited, only know of comic books.
Eight was a bad age for me. Only a year earlier I had won a gold medal in the John Wanamaker Art Contest for a crayon drawing on oak tag paper of Tom Mix jailing an outlaw. So at seven I was a winner—and didn't know how to handle it. Not that triumph isn't at any age hard to handle, but the younger you are the more of a shock it is to learn that it simply doesn't change anything. Grownups still wielded all the power, still could not be talked back to, still were always right however many times they contradicted themselves. By eight I had become a politician of the grownup, indexing his mysterious ways and hiding underground my lust for getting even until I was old enough, big enough, and important enough to make a bid for it. That bid was to come by way of a career—(I knew I'd never grow big enough to beat up everybody; my hope was to, somehow, get to own everything and fire everybody). The career I chose, the only one that seemed to fit the skills I was then sure of—a mild reading ability mixed with a mild drawing ability—was comics.
So I came to the field with more serious intent than my opiate-minded contemporaries. While they, in those presuper days were eating up Cosmo, Phantom of Disguise; Speed Saunders; and Bart Regan, Spy, I was counting how many frames there were to a page, how many pages there were to a story—learning how to form, for my own use, phrases like: @X#?!; marking for future reference which comic book hero was swiped from which radio hero: Buck Marshall from Tom Mix; the Crimson Avenger from the Green Hornet—
There were, at the time, striking similarities between radio and comic books. The heroes were the same (often with the same names: Don Winslow, Mandrake, Tom Mix—); the villains were the same: oriental spies, primordial monsters, cattle rustlers—but the experience was different. As an apprentice pro I found comic books the more tangible outlet for fantasy. One could put something down on paper—hard-lined panels and balloons, done the way the big boys did it. Far more satisfying than the radio serial game: that of making up programs at night in bed, getting the voices right, the footsteps and door slams right, the rumbling organ background right—and doing it all in soft enough undertones so as to escape being caught by that grownup reading Lanny Budd in the next room who at any moment might give his spirit shattering cry: "For the last time stop talking to yourself and go to sleep!" Radio was too damn public.
My interest in comics began on the most sophisticated of levels, the daily newspaper strip, and thereafter proceeded downhill. My father used to come home after work, when there was work, with two papers: the New York Times (a total loss), and the World-Telegram. The Telegram had Joe Jinks (later called Dynamite Dunn), Our Boarding House, Out Our Way, Little Mary Mixup, Alley Oop—and my favorite at the time: Wash Tubbs, whose soldier of fortune hero, Captain Easy, set a standard whose high point in one field was Pat Ryan and, in another, any role Clark Gable ever played.
For awhile the Telegram ran an anemic four-page color supplement that came out on Saturdays—an embarrassing day for color supplements. They so obviously belonged to Sunday. So except for the loss of Captain Easy, I felt no real grief when my father abandoned the Telegram to follow his hero, Heywood Broun to the New York Evening Post. The Post had Dixie Dugan, The Bungle Family, Dinky Dinkerton, Secret Agent 67/8, Nancy (then called Fritzi-Ritz), and that masterpiece of sentimental naturalism: Abbie an' Slats. I studied that strip—its Sturges-like characters, its Saroyanesque plots, its uniquely cadenced dialogue. No strip other than Will Eisner's Spirit rivalled it in structure. No strip, except Caniffs' Terry, rivalled it in atmosphere.
There were, of course, good strips, very good ones in those papers that my father did not let into the house.
The Hearst papers. The Daily News. Cartoons from the outlawed press were not to be seen on weekdays, but on Sundays, one casually dropped in on Hearst-oriented homes (never very clean, as I remember), and read Puck, The Comic Weekly, skipping quickly over Bringing Up Father to pounce succulently on page two: Jungle Jim and Flash Gordon. Too beautiful to be believed. When Prince Valiant began a few years later, I burned with the temptation of the damned: I begged my father to sell out to Hearst. He never did. My Hearst friends and I drifted apart. My cause lost its urgency; my attention switched to Terry and the Pirates—in the Daily News—more hated in my house than even Hearst. Why, I must have wondered in kind, was it my lot to be a Capulet when the best strips were Montagues?
It should have been a relief, then, when the first regularly scheduled comic book came out. It was called Famous Funnies and, in sixty-four pages of color, minutely reprinted many of my favorites in the enemy camp. Instead, my reaction was that of a movie purist when first confronted with sound: this was not the way it was done. Greatness in order to remain great must stay true to its form. This new form, so jumbled together, so erratically edited and badly colored, was demeaning to that art—basic black and white and four panels across—that I was determined to make my life's work. I read them, yes I read them: Famous Funnies first, then Popular Comics, then King—but with always a sense of being cheated. I was not getting top performance for my dime.
Not until March, 1937, when the first issue of Detective Comics came out. Original material had previously been used in comic books, but almost all of its was in the shape and style of then existing newspaper strips. Detective Comics was the first of the originals to be devoted to a single theme—crime fighting. And it looked different. Crime was fought in larger panels, fewer to a page. Most stories were complete in that issue (no more of the accursed: "to be continued …"). And a lot less shilly shallying before getting down to the action. A strange new world: unfamiliar heroes, unfamiliar drawing styles (if style is the word)—and written (if written is the word), in language not very different from that of a primer:
In every large city there are G-Men. In every large seaport there are G-Men known as Harbor Police. 'Speed' Cyril Saunders is a special operative in a unit of the river patrol.
So began story one, issue one of Detective Comics.
The typical comic book circa 1937-38 measured about 71/4 by 101/4, averaged sixty-four pages in length, was glisteningly processed in four colors on the cover and flatly and indifferently colored on the inside, if colored at all. (For in the early days some stories were still in black and white; others in tones of sickly red on one page, sickly blue on another, so that it was quite possible for a character to have a white face and blue clothing for the first two pages of a story and a pink face and red clothing for the rest.) They didn't have the class of the daily strips but, to me, this enhanced their value. The daily strips, by their sleek professionalism held an aloof quality which comic books, being not quite professional, easily avoided. They were closer to home, more comfortable to live with, less like grownups.
The heroes were mostly detectives of one kind or another; or soldiers of fortune; here and there, even a magician. Whatever they were, they were tall, but not too tall—space limitations, you see; they were dark (blonde heroes were an exception, possibly because most movie heroes were dark; possibly because it was a chance for the artist to stick in a blob of black and call it hair. The blonde heroes, in every case, were curly-haired. The dark heroes, when full color came in, turned blue); they were handsome—well, symbolically handsome. The world of comics was a form of visual shorthand, so that the average hero need not have been handsome in fact, so long as his face was held to the required arrangement of lines that readers had been taught to be the accepted sign of handsome: sharp, slanting eyebrows, thick at the ends, thinning out toward the nose, of which in three-quarter view there was hardly any—-just a small V placed slightly above the mouth, casting the faintest knick of a shadow. One never saw a nose full view. There was never a full view. They were too hard to draw. Eyes were usually ball-less, two thin slits. Mouths were always thick, quick single lines—never double. Mouths for some reason, were rarely shown open. Dialogue, theoretically, was spoken from the nose. Heroes' faces were square-jawed; in some cases, all-jawed. Often there was a cleft in the chin. Most heroes, whatever magazine they came from, looked like members of one of two families: Pat Ryan's or Flash Gordon's. Except for the magicians, all of whom looked like Mandrake. The three mythic archetypes.
That first Detective Comics, aside from its ground-breaking role, is memorable for the debut of Creig Flessel, not then a good illustrator, but within the first half-dozen issues, to become one of the best in the business—a master of the suspense cover. And another debut: that of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, then in their pre-Superman days, weighing in with a slam-bang, hell for leather cross between Victor McLaglen and Captain Easy (with a Flash Gordon jaw), appropriately named Slam Bradley, because slamming was what he did most of the time. Always, of course, against bad guys—and always having a wonderful time. It was this action-filled rawness, this world of lusty hoodlumism, of Saturday movie serials seven days a week that made the new comic books, from their first day of publication, the principal reading matter in my life. That, plus the pragmatic insight that here, in a field where they hardly knew how to draw at all, I could make my earliest gains.
I studied styles. There was Tom Hickey who lettered with disconcerting open W's; who used an awful lot of dialogue ("printing," was the hated word for it in my neighborhood) to tell a painfully slow-moving story, full of heroes named Ian. Too thin-blooded. Too English.…
The problem in pre-super days was that, with few exceptions, heroes were not very interesting. And by any realistic appraisal, certainly no match for the villains who were bigger, stronger, smarter (as who wasn't?), and, even worse, were notorious scene stealers. Who cared about Speed Saunders, Larry Steele, Bruce Nelson, et. al. when there were oriental villains around? Tong warriors lurking in shadows, with trident beards, pointy fingernails, and skin the color of ripe lemons. With narrow, missile-like eyes slantingly aimed at the nose; a nose aged and curdled with corrupt wisdom, shrivelled in high expectancy of the coming tortures on the next page. How they toyed with those drab ofay heroes: trap set, trap sprung, into the pit, up comes the water, down comes the pendulum, out from the side come the walls. Through an unconvincing mixture of dumb-luck and general science 1, the hero escaped, just barely; caught and beat up the villain: that wizened ancient who, in toe to toe combat was, of course, no match for the younger man. And readers were supposed to cheer? Hardly! The following month it all happened again. Same hero, different oriental, slight variance in the torture.
Villains, whatever fate befell them in the obligatory last panel, were infinitely better equipped than those silly, hapless heroes. Not only comics, but life taught us that. Those of us raised in ghetto neighborhoods were being asked to believe that crime didn't pay? Tell that to the butcher! Nice guys finished last; landlords, first. Villains by their simple appointment to the role were miles ahead. It was not to be believed that any ordinary human could combat them. More was required. Someone with a call. When Superman at last appeared, he brought with him the deep satisfaction of all underground truths: our reaction was less, "How original!" than, "But, of course!"
The advent of the super-hero was a bizarre comeuppance for the American dream. Horatio Alger could no longer make it on his own. He needed "Shazam!" Here was fantasy with a cynically realistic base: once the odds were appraised honestly it was apparent you had to be super to get on in this world.
The particular brilliance of Superman lay not only in the fact that he was the first of the super-heroes, but in the concept of his alter ego. What made Superman different from the legion of imitators to follow was not that when he took off his clothes he could beat up everybody—they all did that. What made Superman extraordinary was his point of origin: Clark Kent.
Remember, Kent was not Superman's true identity as Bruce Wayne was the Batman's or (on radio) Lamont Cranston, the Shadow's. Just the opposite. Clark Kent was the fiction. Previous heroes, the Shadow, the Green Hornet, The Lone Ranger were not only more vulnerable, they were fakes. I don't mean to criticize, it's just a statement of fact. The Shadow had to cloud men's minds to be in business. The Green Hornet had to go through the fetishist fol-de-rol of donning costume, floppy hat, black mask, gas gun, menacing automobile, and insect sound effects before he was even ready to go out in the street. The Lone Ranger needed an accout-remental white horse, an Indian, and an establishing cry of Hi-Yo Silver to separate him from all those other masked men running around the West in days of yesteryear.
But Superman had only to wake up in the morning to be Superman. In his case, Clark Kent was the put on. The fellow with the eyeglasses and the acne and the walk girls laughed at wasn't real, didn't exist, was a sacrificial disguise, an act of discreet martyrdom. Had they but known!
And for what purpose? Did Superman become Clark Kent in order to lead a normal life, have friends, be known as a nice guy, meet girls? Hardly. There's too much of the hair shirt in the role, too much devotion to the imprimatur of impotence—an insight, perhaps, into the fantasy life of the Man of Steel. Superman as a secret masochist? Field for study there. For if it was otherwise, if the point, the only point, was to lead a "normal life," why not a more typical identity? How can one be a cowardly star reporter, subject to fainting spells in time of crisis, and not expect to raise serious questions?
The truth may be that Kent existed not for the purposes of the story but the reader. He is Superman's opinion of the rest of us, a pointed caricature of what we, the noncriminal element, were really like. His fake identity was our real one. That's why we loved him so. For if that wasn't really us; if there were no Clark Kents, only lots of glasses and cheap suits which, when removed, revealed all of us in our true identities—what a hell of an improved world it would have been!
In drawing style, both in figure and costume, Superman was a simplified parody of Flash Gordon. But if Alex Raymond was the Dior for Superman, Joe Shuster set the fashion from then on. Everybody elses super-costumes were copies from his shop. Shuster represented the best of old-style comic book drawing. His work was direct, unprettied—crude and vigorous; as easy to read as a diagram. No creamy lines, no glossy illustrative effects, no touch of that bloodless prefabrication that passes for professionalism these days. Slickness, thank God, was beyond his means. He could not draw well, but he drew single-mindedly—no one could ghost that style. It was the man. When assistants began "improving" the appearance of the strip it promptly went downhill. It looked like it was being drawn in a bank.
But, oh, those early drawings! Superman running up the sides of dams, leaping over anything that stood in his way (no one drew skyscrapers like Shuster. Impressionistic shafts, Superman poised over them, his leaping leg tucked under his ass, his landing leg tautly pointed earthward), cleaning and jerking two-ton get-away cars and pounding them into the sides of cliffs—and all this done lightly, unportentiously, still with that early Slam Bradley exuberance. What matter that the stories quickly lost interest; that once you've made a man super you've plotted him out of believable conflicts; that even super-villains, super-mad scientists and, yes, super-orientals were dull and lifeless next to the overwhelming image of that which Clark Kent became when he took off his clothes. So what if the stories were boring, the villains blah? This was the Superman Show—a touring road company backing up a great star. Everything was a stage wait until he came on. Then it was all worth-while.
Besides, for the alert reader there were other fields of interest. It seems that among Lois Lane, Clark Kent, and Superman there existed a schizoid and chaste menage a' trois. Clark Kent loved but felt abashed with Lois Lane; Superman saved Lois Lane when she was in trouble, found her a pest the rest of the time. Since Superman and Clark Kent were the same person this behavior demands explanation. It can't be that Kent wanted Lois to respect him for himself, since himself was Superman. Then, it appears, he wanted Lois to respect him for his fake self, to love him when he acted the coward, to be there when he pretended he needed her. She never was—so, of course, he loved her. A typical American romance. Superman never needed her, never needed anybody—in any event, Lois chased him—so, of course, he didn't love her. He had contempt for her. Another typical American romance.
Love is really the pursuit of a desired object, not pursuit by it. Once you've caught the object there is no longer any reason to love it, to have it hanging around. There must be other desirable objects out there, somewhere. So Clark Kent acted as the control for Superman. What Kent wanted was just that which Superman didn't want to be bothered with. Kent wanted Lois, Superman didn't: thus marking the difference between a sissy and a man. A sissy wanted girls who scorned him; a man scorned girls who wanted him. Our cultural opposite of the man who didn't make out with women has never been the man who did—but rather, the man who could if he wanted to, but still didn't. The ideal of masculine strength, whether Gary Cooper's, Lil Abner's, or Superman's, was for one to be so virile and handsome, to be in such a position of strength that he need never go near girls. Except to help them. And then get the hell out. Real rapport was not for women. It was for villains. That's why they got hit so hard.
The problem with other super-heroes was that the most convenient way of becoming one had already been taken. Superman was from another planet. One of the self-denigrating laws of all science fiction is that every other planet is better than ours. Other planets may have funny looking people but they think better, know more languages (including English), and are much further along in the business of rocketry and destruction. So, by definition, Superman had to be super: no outer-space weakling had ever been let in. The immediate and enormous success of Superman called for the creation of a tribe of successors—but where were they to come from? Not from other planets; Superman had all other planets tied up legally. Those one or two super-heroes who defied the ban were taken apart by lawyers—(nothing is as super as a writ).
The answer, then, rested with science. That strange bubbly world of test tubes and gobbledy-gook which had, in the past, done such great work in bringing the dead back to life in the form of monsters—why couldn't it also make men super? Thus Joe Higgins went into his laboratory and came out as the Shield; and John Sterling went into his laboratory and came out as Steel Sterling; and Steve Rogers went into the laboratory of kindly Professor Reinstein and came out as Captain America; and kindly Professor Horton went into his laboratory and came out with a synthetic man, named, illogically, the Human Torch. Science had run amok!
And not only science. With business booming comic book titles, too, ran amok: Whiz, Startling, Astounding, Top Notch, Blue Ribbon, Zip, Silver Streak, Mystery Men, Wonder World, Mystic, Military, National, Police, Big Shot, Marvel-Mystery, Jackpot, Target, Pep, Champion, Master, Daredevil, Star-Spangled, All-American, All-Star, All-Flash, Sensation, Blue Bolt, Crash, Smash, and Hit Comics. Setting loose a menagerie of flying men, webbed men, robot men, ghost men, miniscule men, flexible-sized men—men of all shapes and costume blackening the comic book skies like locusts in drag.
Skyman, Sky Chief, The Face, The Sub Mariner, The Angel, The Comet, The Hangman, Mr. Justice, Uncle Sam, The Web, The Doll Man, Plastic Man, The White Streak—all scrambling for a piece of the market. Their magazines were competitively dated months ahead, so that if Big-Shot released an issue in January and dated it March, in reprisal All-American would date its February issue August. Aficionadoes began to check: comic books not dated a minimum of four months in advance were deemed shabby. One was hesitant to be seen with them.
Understandably, this Pandora's box of men-of-steel was viewed gravely by Superman. One story of the time, denied by everyone, but for years a legend in the business, and reported as such, was that rival impresarios worried lest the Superman people bring legal or marketing reprisals (their distributive arm circulated not only their own, but most other comic books) volunteered certain major concessions. Such as capes. It was granted that Superman, being the premiere danseuse of superheroes, was the only one entitled to wear a cape. All others were, with appropriate ceremony, circumsized. (One could imagine the scene: The Shield, G-Man Extraordinary, standing in a field, his modest emblem, the American Flag, plucked from his burly shoulders, folded in half, then in quarters—neatly—so that no part touched the ground. Buried in Arlington, a choked up marine playing taps; J. Edgar Hoover, a prominent character in the strip, standing alongside. Rumor had it that he sent flowers).
The most savage reprisals in comic books were, just as in revolutions, saved not for one's enemies but for one's own kind. If, for a moment, Superman may be described as the Lenin of super-heroes, Captain Marvel must be his Trotsky. Ideologically of the same bent, who could have predicted that within months the two would be at each others throats—or that, in time, Captain Marvel would present the only serious threat to the power of the man without whom he could not have existed?
From the beginning Captain Marvel possessed certain advantages in the struggle. In terms of reader identification, Superman was far too puritanical: if you didn't come from his planet you couldn't ever be super—that was that. But the more liberal Captain Marvel left the door open. His method of becoming super was the simplest of all—no solar systems or test tubes involved—all that was needed was a magic word: "Shazam!"
"Pie in the sky!" retorted the pro-Superman bloc, but millions of readers wondered. If all it took was a magic word then all that was required was the finding of it. Small surprise that for awhile Captain Marvel caught and passed the austere patriarch of the super-movement.
More than that, Captain Marvel was gifted with the light touch. Billy Batson, the newsboy, who Captain Marvel truly was, was drawn by artist C. C. Beck as an oval faced, dot eyed, squigly-haired boy familiar to any child who ever sent for a how-to-draw-heads course. The magic for readers in Captain Marvel was that not only did it appear easy to become him, it looked easy to draw him. Deceptively so. Captain Marvel was better drawn, really, than Superman. C. C. Beck followed in the tradition of Roy Crane's Wash Tubbs, drawing with a virginal simplicity that at times was almost stick like—but still there was style. Villains ranged from mad scientist, Dr. Sivana (the best in the business), who uncannily resembled Donald Duck, to Mr. Mind, a worm who talked and wore glasses, to Tawky Tawny, a tiger who talked and wore a business suit. A Disneyland of happy violence. The Captain himself came out dumber than the average super-hero—or perhaps, less was expected of him. A friendly fullback of a fellow with apple cheeks and dimples, one could imagine him being a buddy rather than a hero, an overgrown boy who chased villains as if they were squirrels. A perfect fantasy figure for, say, Charlie Brown. His future seemed assured. What a shock, then, the day Superman took him to court.
Happily, I did not learn of the Superman versus Captain Marvel law suit until years later. It would have done me no good to discover two of my idols, staunch believers in direct action, bent over, hands cupped to lips, whispering in the ears of their lawyers. No one should have to grow up that fast.
The Superman people said that Captain Marvel was a direct steal. The Captain Marvel people said what do you mean; sheer coincidence; isn't there room for the small businessman; we don't know what you're talking about. It went on that way for years, but the outcome was clear from the start. Captain Marvel fought hard but he was a paper tiger. One wondered whether he was beginning to drink. He was losing his lean, Fred MacMurray look, fleshing out fast in the face, in the gut, in the hips, moving onward and outward to Jack Oakie.
Then too there was great disappointment in the word "Shazam!" As it turned out it didn't work for readers. Other magic words were tried. They didn't work either. There are just so many magic words until one feels he's been made a fool of. How easy it became to hate "Shazam! Shazam! Shazam!" That taunting cry that worked fine for Captain Marvel but didn't do a damn thing for the rest of us.
I had the vague feeling that Captain Marvel was making fun of me. More and more his adventures took on the tone of parodies—item: Billy Batson being turned into a baby by mad scientist Dr. Sivana and thus not being able to say the magic word, it coming out "Tha-Tham!" I was not prepared for frivolousness on the part of my super-heroes! When the Captain Marvel people finally settled the case and went out of business, I couldn't have cared less.
Batman trailed Superman by a year and was obviously intended as an offshoot, but his lineage—the school of rich idlers who put on masks—dates back to the Scarlet Pimpernel and includes Zorro, and The Green Hornet, with whom Batman bears the closest as well as most contemporaneous resemblance. Both the Green Hornet and Batman were wealthy, both dabbled in chemistry, both had super-vehicles, and both costumed themselves with a view toward striking terror into the hearts of evildoers. The Green Hornet buzzed; the Batman flapped-—that was the essential difference.
Not that there weren't innovations: Batman popularized in comic books the strange idea, first used by the Phantom in newspapers, that when you put on your mask, your eyes disappeared. Two white slits showed—that was all. If that didn't strike terror into the hearts of evildoers, nothing would.
Batman, apparently, was in better physical shape than the Green Hornet; less dependent on the creature comforts of super-vehicles, or the rich man's use of nonlethal gas warfare. Batman got more meaningfully into the fray and, in consequence, was more clobbered. Though a good deal was made of his extraordinary stamina much of it, as it turns out, was for punishment—another innovation for super heroes: there was some reason to believe he had a glass jaw.
But Batman was not a super-hero in its truest sense (however we may have liked to think of him). If you pricked him, he bled—buckets. Superman's superiority lay in the offense, Batman's lay in the rebound. Whatever was done to him: whatever trap laid, wound opened, skull fractured, all he had to show for it was a discreet patch of band-aid on his right shoulder. With Superman we won; with Batman we held our own. Individual preferences were based on the ambitions and arrogance of one's fantasies.
The Batman school preferred a vulnerable hero to an invulnerable one; preferred a hero who was able to take punishment and triumph in the end to a hero who took comparatively little punishment, just dished it out. I suspect the Batman school of having healthier egoes. In my own case the concept of triumph over adversity was never very convincing. My own observations led me to believe that the only triumph most people eked out of adversity was to manage to stay alive as it swept by. With me, I didn't think it would be any different. I preferred to play it safe and be Superman.
Another point: I couldn't have been Batman even if I wanted to. If I were ever to be trapped in a steel vault with the walls closing in on all sides, I was obviously going to have to break out with my fists because it was clear from my earliest school grades that I was never going to have the know-how to invent an explosive in my underground laboratory that would blow me to safety. I was lousy at science. And I found the thought of having an underground laboratory chilling. My idea of a super-hero was some guy, bad with his hands, who came from an advanced planet so that he didn't have to go to gym to be strong or go to school to be smart. The sort of super-hero I admired had to be primarily passive, but invulnerable.
What made Batman interesting then, was not his strength but his story line. Batman, as a feature, was infinitely better plotted, better villained, and better looking than Superman. Batman inhabited a world where no one, no matter the time of day, cast anything but long shadows—seen from weird perspectives. Batman's world was scarey; Superman's, never. Bob Kane, Batman's creator, combined Terry and the Pirates-style drawing with Dick Tracy-style villains, e.g., The Joker, The Penguin, The Cat Woman, The Scarecrow, The Riddler, Clay-Face, Two-Face, Dr. Death, Hugo Strange.
Kane's early drawings, pretentious and stiff, coordinated perfectly with his early writing technique—a form of florid pre-literacy so typical of comic books of that day.… [An] example from a Kane feature of that time [Clip Carson, Action Comics]:
Africa—the dark continent whose jungles teem with insects, beasts, fever, and wild natives. A land of terrible secrets no man can read … up the river to the shore of Kenye, Clip Carson, vagabond adventurer, paddles his canoe.
Despite it all, I remember Clip Carson warmly—and who, having once noted Batman smart-assing his way through a fist fight, has not forever been taken with him? Kane's strength, as did Shuster's, lay not in his draftsmanship (which was never quite believable), but in his total involvement in what he was doing (which made everything believable). However badly drawn and crudely written, Batman's world took control of the reader. If Kane said so, men did pose stroking their chins whenever they weren't fighting, running, or shooting in such a way that hand and chin never quite made contact; if Kane said so gangsters did wear those peculiar styled hats and suits—bought off the rack from a line nobody in the world had ever seen before; if Kane said so heads were not egg shaped, but rectangular; chins occupied not the bottom sixth of a face but the bottom half—because Kane's was an authentic fantasy, a genuine vision, so that however one might nit-pick the components, the end product remained an impregnable whole: gripping and original. Kane, more than any other comic book man (except Will Eisner who will be discussed later), set and made believable the terms offered to the reader.
Batman's world was more cinematic than Superman's. Kane was one of the early experimenters with angle shots and though he was not as compulsively avant grade in his use of the worms eye, the birds eye, the shot through the wineglass, as others in the field he was the only one of the Detective, Adventure, Action Comics line who managed to get that Warner Brother's fog-infested look.
For just as the movie studios had their individual trademarks, their way of lighting, their special approach to subject matter by which they could be identified even if one came in at the middle, so did comic books. National who produced the D.C. line, was the MGM of the field. It had the great stars, the crisp-brittle lighting, the elder statesman touch—smoothly exciting, eschewing the more boisterous effects of its less wealthy competitors. Superman was the best, but the most humorless of the super heroes (befitting his position); Batman was the best, but the most wooden of the masked heroes (a bit of early Robert Taylor there)—neither was quite touchable. They were State Department White Papers of the mind. And National, who issued them, was the government in power.
The opposite extreme was Fox—the Monogram Studios of the industry. Fox had the best covers and the worst insides. The covers were rendered in a modified pulp style: well-drawn, exotically muscled, half-undressed heroes rescuing well-drawn, exotically muscled, half-undressed maidens. The settings, often as not, were in the conventional oriental-mad scientist's laboratory—hissing test tubes going off everywhere; a hulking multiracial lab assistant at the ready to violate the girl; the masked hero crashing through a sky light, guns, aimed at nobody, flaming in each hand; the girl, strapped to an operating table screaming fetchingly—not yet aware that the crisis was passed.
Since the covers of Fox books were drawn by good men and the insides drawn by bad men, the hero on the cover could only be connected to his facsimile on the inside by the design of his leotards. Fox, like Monogram, had few stars and a deeply felt plot shortage. It pushed hard on the Green Mask, a slender, inadequate looking hero who beat up slender, inadequate looking criminals. While this business of fighting crime within one's weight division had something to recommend it, The Green Mask, somehow, never caught on.
To recoup, Fox made a star of the Blue Beetle, another Green Hornet derivative (in this case, a cop in real life), who, in order to fight criminals outside the reach of the law liked to dress as a beetle, this being his idea of a symbol that would strike terror into the hearts of evildoers—(not the first cop to work outside the law, but one of the few who had the decency to take off his uniform while doing it). As it turned out—and unpredictably—evil-doers were impressed with the Blue Beetle. His sign—the shadow of a great beetle projected into the evildoer's line of vision struck terror into their hearts. He wore a Phantom-type uniform, with scales—rather unpleasant looking without being impressive. He was a great favorite for a far longer time than he deserved.
Fox titles included Mystery Men Comics, Wonder World Comics, Science Comics, Fantastic Comics—all of them washed out, never looking quite alive or quite finished—existing in a mechanical limbo. The good men working for Fox soon moved elsewhere. Fiction House, a better outfit by inches, was often the place. As Republic was to Monogram, Fiction House was to Fox. Its one lasting contribution: Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, signed by W. Morgan Thomas (a pseudonym), drawn and very likely written by S. R. Powell who was later to do the best of the magician strips (not excepting Mandrake): Mr. Mystic.
Sheena was a voluptuous Tarzan who laid waste to wild beasts, savages, and evil white men in the jungle of her day, always assisted by her boy friend, Bob, a neat, young fellow in boots and jodpers who mainly stayed free of harms way while Sheena, manfully, cleaned out the trouble spots. Not as unfair a division of labor as you might think once you saw the two of them back to back, for while the boyfriend was supposed to be taller and more muscular, it was Sheena who gave the impression of size. Standing proud in the foreground, challenging an overmatched lion to hand to hand combat while her admiring young man stood in the tree shadows, holding her spear.
Sheena was the star of Jungle Comics, a book I looked at only when there were nothing but novels to read around the house. Beating up lions did not particularly interest me; my problem was with people. Nor did the people Sheena laid out interest me very much: they were the usual crop of white hunters in search of the elephant's graveyard, a strip of land so devout in its implications to jungle book fanciers that one could only assume the elephants took instruction in the church before dying.
Fiction House books had a boxed, constipated look. Balloons were rectangular, restricted looking. Anybody knew—or should have known—that good balloons were scalloped bubbles floating light as air on the tops of panels. Free and imaginative. Rectangular balloons were depressants—something architectural looking about them; something textbooky. They were no more to be trusted than those cartoons that gave up balloons entirely and ran an open narrative across the bottom of the panels—cartoons trying their damnedest not to look or sound like cartoons—set in the past tense, full of he saids and she saids. The past tense was a violation of comic book decorum—(and newspaper strips too). Comics were too immediate an experience to subjugate the reader to a past tense. Written narratives posed a deliberate similarity to real books: those wordy enclosures that threatened knowledge, threatened advance, threatened a hold on one's soul so that he could not keep it to mark time with, but must move ahead; learn; grow—all dubious outside values. (Prince Valiant too, was guilty of that bookish style but it was set in King Arthur's day. So I learned to live with it. But I couldn't put up with it in Tarzan and I could barely tolerate it in Flash Gordon. And I didn't like it anywhere else).
Fiction House put out Fight Comics, Planet Comics, Wing Comics; its one attempt at innovation was an outsized black and white book called Jumbo Comics—an unworkable hybrid of conventional comic book material and conventional newspaper material. Its single feature of interest was Hawk of the Seas, signed by Willis Rensie (Eisner spelled backwards). Hawk was a pirate feature, notable only as a trial run for The Spirit, full of the baroque angle shots that Eisner introduced to the business. Eisner had come to my attention a few years earlier doing a one shot, black and white feature called 'Muss 'Em Up' Donovan in a comic book with the flop-oriented title of Centaur Funny Pages. 'Muss 'Em Up' Donovan was a detective, fired from the force on charges of police brutality (his victims, evidently, were white). Donovan is called back to action by a city administration overly harassed by crime who feel it is time for an approach that circumvents the legalistic niceties of due process. Such administrations were in vogue in all comic books of the thirties and forties. The heroes they culled out of the darkness operated, masked or not, outside the reach of the law. Their job: to catch criminals operating outside the reach of the law. In theory, one would think a difficult identity problem—but as it turned out in practice, not really.
Heroes and readers jointly conspired to believe that the police were honest, but inept; well-meaning, but dumb—except for good cops like Donovan, who were vicious. Arraignment was for sissies; a he-man wanted gore. Operating within the reach of the law a hero could get busted for that. So heroes, with the oblique consent of the power structure ("If you get into trouble, we can't vouch for you"), wandered outside the reach of the law, pummelled everyone in sight, killed a slew of people—and brought honor back to Central City, back to Metropolis, back to Gotham.
'Muss 'Em Up' Donovan was one such vigilante, a hawk-nosed, trench-coated primitive, bitter over his expulsion from office, but avid to answer the bell when duty once again called. Pages of violence: 'Muss 'Em Up' beating the truth out of a snivelling progression of stoolies; 'Muss 'Em Up' kicking in doors; 'Muss 'Em Up' shooting and getting shot at—a one man guerrilla war on crime. A grateful citizenery responded with vigor. 'Muss 'Em Up' was reinstated—allowed to 'Muss 'Em Up' in uniform once again. In those pre-civil rights days, we thought of that as a happy ending.
Will Eisner was an early master of the German expressionist approach in comic books—the Fritz Lang school. 'Muss 'Em Up' was full of dark shadows, creepy angle shots, graphic close-ups of violence and terror. Eisner's world seemed more real than the world of other comic book men because it looked that much more like a movie. The underground terror of RKO prison pictures, of convicts rioting, of armored car robberies, of Paul Muni or Henry Fonda not being allowed to go straight. The further films dug into the black fantasies of a depression generation the more they were labelled realism. Eisner retooled this mythic realism to his own uses: black fantasies on paper. Just as with the movies, it was labelled realism. Eisner's line had weight. Clothing sat on his characters heavily; when they bent an arm, deep folds sprang into action everywhere. When one Eisner character slugged another, a real fist hit real flesh. Violence was no externalized plot exercise, it was the gut of his style. Massive and indigestible, it curdled, lava-like, from the page.
Eisner moved on from Fiction House to land, finally, with the Quality Comic Group—the Warner Brothers of the business—creating the tone for their entire line: The Doll Man, Black Hawk, Uncle Sam, The Black Condor, The Ray, Espionage—starring Black-X—Eisner creations all. He'd draw a few episodes and abandon the characters—bequeath them to Lou Fine, Reed Crandall, others. No matter. The Quality books bore his look, his layout, his way of telling a story. For Eisner did just about all of his own writing—a rarity in comic book men. His stories carried the same weight as his line, involving a reader, setting the terms, making the most unlikely of plot twists credible.
His high point was The Spirit, a comic book section created as a Sunday supplement for newspapers. It began in
1939 and ran, weekly, until 1942, when Eisner went into the army and had to surrender the strip to (the joke is unavoidable), a ghost.
Sartorially the Spirit was miles apart from other masked heroes. He didn't wear tights, just a baggy blue business suit, a wide-brimmed blue hat that needed blocking, and, for a disguise, a matching blue eye mask, drawn as if it were a skin graft. For some reason, he rarely wore socks—or if he did they were flesh colored. I often wondered about that.
Just as Milton Caniff s characters were identifiable by their perennial WASPish, upper middle-class look, so were Eisner's identifiable by that look of just having got off the boat. The Spirit reeked of lower middle-class: his nose may have turned up, but we all knew he was Jewish.
What's more, he had a sense of humor. Very few comic book characters did. Superman was strait-laced; Batman wisecracked, but was basically rigid; Captain Marvel had a touch of Lil Abner, but that was parody, not humor. Alone among mystery men the Spirit operated (for comic books), in a relatively mature world in which one took stands somewhat more complex than hitting or not hitting people. Violent it was: this was to remain Eisner's stock in trade—but the Spirit's violence often turned in on itself, proved nothing, became, simply, an existential exercise; part of somebody else's game. The Spirit could even suffer defeat in the end: be outfoxed by a woman foe—stand there, his tongue making a dent in his cheek—charming in his boyish, Dennis O'Keefe way; a comment on the ultimate ineffectuality of even superheroes. But, of course, once a hero turns that vulnerable he loses interest to both author and readers. The Spirit, through the years, became a figurehead, the chairman of the board, presiding over eight pages of other people's stories. An inessential do-gooder, doing a walk-on on page 8, to tie up loose strings. A masked Mary Worth.
Not that he wasn't virile. Much of the Spirit's charm lay in his response to intense physical punishment. Hoodlums could slug him, shoot him, bend pipes over his head. The Spirit merely stuck his tongue in his cheek and beat the crap out of them; a more rational response than Batman's, for all his preening. For Batman had to take off his rich idler's street clothes, put on his Batshirt, his Batshorts, his Battights, his Batboots; buckle on his Batbelt full of secret potions and chemical explosives; tie on his Batcape; slip on his Batmask; climb in his Batmobile and go fight the Joker who in one punch (defensively described by the author as maniacal), would knock him silly. Not so with the Spirit. It took a mob to pin him down and no maniacal punch ever took him out of a fight. Eisner was too good a writer for that sort of nonsense.
Eventually Eisner developed story lines that are perhaps best described as documentary fables—seemingly authentic when one reads them, but impossible, after the fact. There was the one about Hitler walking around in a Willy Lomanish middle world: subways rolling, Bronx girls chattering, street bums kicking him around. His purpose in coming to America: to explain himself, to be accepted as a nice guy, to be liked. Silly when you thought of it, but for eight pages, grimly convincing.
Or the man who was a million years old—whose exploits are being read about by two young archeologists of the future who discover, in mountain ruins, the tattered remains of an old Spirit pamphlet, which details his story: the story of the oldest man in the world, cursed to live forever for being evil, until on the top of a mountain, in combat with the Spirit, he plunges into the ocean and drowns. "Ridiculous story," say these archeologists of the future as they finish the last page; these being their final words, for coming up behind them is that very old man; his staff raised high to crush their skulls, to toss them over the mountain edge into the ocean, and to then dance away, singing.
I collected Eisners and studied them fastidiously. And I wasn't the only one. Alone among comic book men, Eisner was a cartoonist other cartoonists swiped from.
I created a Spirit swipe (The Eel) and a Flash swipe (The Streak) a Lone Ranger swipe (The Masked Caballero) a Hawkman swipe (The Vulture) and even a Clip Carson swipe (Gunner Dixon: "Gunner Dixon is not meant to be a bold super athletic math genius who with his super powers turns to do good in this war-tom world—NO! He's just an ordinary guy, he's no mental giant, he can't lick an army with his bare fist, but he can hold his own in any fight. All he is, is an American").
Though I may have pirated the super-heroes I never went near their boy companions. I couldn't stand boy companions. If the theory behind Robin the Boy Wonder, Roy the Superboy, The Sandman's Sandy, The Shield's Rusty, The Human Torch's Toro, The Green Arrow's Speedy was to give young readers a character with whom to identify it failed dismally in my case. The super grownups were the ones I identified with. They were versions of me in the future. There was still time to prepare. But Robin the Boy Wonder was my own age. One need only look at him to see he could fight better, swing from a rope better, play ball better, eat better, and live better—for while I lived in the east Bronx, Robin lived in a mansion, and while I was trying, somehow, to please my mother—and getting it all wrong, Robin was rescuing Batman and getting the gold medals. He didn't even have to live with his mother.
Robin wasn't skinny. He had the build of a middle-weight, the legs of a wrestler. He was obviously an "A" student, the center of every circle, the one picked for greatness in the crowd—God, how I hated him. You can imagine how pleased I was when, years later, I heard he was a fag.
In Seduction of the Innocent, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham writes of the relationship between Batman and Robin:
They constantly rescue each other from violent attacks by an unending number of enemies. The feeling is conveyed that we men must stick together because there are so many villainous creatures who have to be exterminated.… Sometimes Batman ends up in bed injured and young Robin is shown sitting next to him. At home they lead an idyllic life. They are Bruce Wayne and 'Dick' Grayson. Bruce Wayne is described as a 'socialite' and the official relationship is that Dick is Bruce's ward. They live in sumptuous quarters, with beautiful flowers in large vases.… Batman is sometimes shown in a dressing gown.… It is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.
For the personal reasons previously listed I'd be delighted to think Wertham right in his conjectures (at least in Robin's case; Batman might have been duped), but conscience dictates otherwise: Batman and Robin were no more or less queer than were their youngish readers, many of whom palled around together, didn't trust girls, played games that had lots of bodily contact, and from similar surface evidence were more or less queer. But this sort of case-building is much too restrictive. In our society it is not only homosexuals who don't like women. Almost no one does. Batman and Robin are merely a legitimate continuation of that misanthropic maleness than runs, unvaryingly, through every branch of American entertainment, high or low: literature, movies, comic books, or party jokes. The broad tone of our mass media has always been inbred, narcissistic, reactionary. Mocking Jews because most of the writers weren't; mocking Negroes because all of the writers weren't; denigrating women because all of the writers were either married or had mothers. Mass entertainment being engineered by men, it was natural that a primary target be women: who were fighting harder for their rights, evening the score, unsettling the traditional balance between the sexes. In a depression they were often able to find work where their men could not. They were clearly the enemy.
Wertham cites testimony taken from homosexuals to prove the secret kicks received from the knowledge that Batman and Robin were living together, going out together, adventuring together. But so were the Green Homet and Kato (hmm—an oriental …) and the Lone Ranger and Tonto (Christ! An Indian!)—and so, for that matter, did Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers hang around together an awful lot, but, God knows, I saw everyone of their movies and it never occurred to me they were sleeping with each other. If homosexual fads were certain proof of that which will turn our young queer, then we should long ago have burned not just Batman books, but all Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Judy Garland movies.
Wertham goes on to point to Wonder Woman as the lesbian counterpart to Batman:
For boys, Wonder Woman is a frightening image. For girls she is a morbid ideal. Where Batman is antifeminine, the attractive Wonder Woman and her counterparts are definitely antimasculine.
Well, I can't comment on the image girls had of Wonder Woman. I never knew they read her—or any comic book. That girls had a preference for my brand of literature would have been more of a frightening image to me than any number of men being beaten up by Wonder Woman.
Whether Wonder Woman was a lesbian's dream I do not know, but I know for a fact she was every Jewish boy's unfantasied picture of the world as it really was. You mean men weren't wicked and weak? You mean women weren't badly taken advantage of? You mean women didn't have to be stronger than men to survive in this world? Not in my house!
My problem with Wonder Woman was that I could never get myself to believe she was that good. For if she was as strong as they said, why wasn't she tougher looking? Why wasn't she bigger? Why was she so flat-chested? And why did I always feel that, whatever her vaunted Amazon power, she wouldn't have lasted a round with Sheena, Queen of the Jungle?
No, Wonder Woman seemed like too much of a put up job, a fixed comic strip—a product of group thinking rather than the individual inspiration that created Superman. It was obvious from the start that a bunch of men got together in a smoke-filled room and brain stormed themselves a Super Lady. But nobody's heart was in it. It was choppily written and dully drawn. I see now that my objection is just the opposite of Wertham's: Wonder Woman wasn't dykey enough. Her violence was too immaculate, never once boiling over into a little fantasmal sadism. Had they given us a Wonder Woman with balls—that would have been something for Dr. Wertham and the rest of us to wrestle with!
In the years since Dr. Wertham and his supporters launched their attacks, comic books have toned down considerably, almost antiseptically. Publishers in fear of their lives wrote a code, set up a review board, and volunteered themselves into censorship rather than have it imposed from the outside. Dr. Wertham scorns self-regulation as misleading. Old time fans scorn it as having brought on the death of comic books as they once knew and loved them: for surprisingly, there are old comic book fans. A small army of them. Men in their thirties and early forties wearing school ties and tweeds, teaching in universities, writing ad copy, writing for chic-magazines, writing novels—who continue to be addicts; who save old comic books, buy them, trade them, and will, many of them, pay up to fifty dollars for the first issues of Superman or Batman; who publish and mail to each other mimeographed "fanzines"—strange little publications deifying what is looked back on as "the golden age of comic books." Ruined by Wertham. Ruined by growing up.
So Dr. Wertham is wrong in his contention … that no one matures remembering the things.
His other charges against comic books: that they were a participating factor in juvenile delinquency and, in some cases, juvenile suicide, that they inspired experiments, ala Superman, in free-fall flight which could only end badly, that they were, in general, a corrupting influence, glorifying crime and depravity can only, in all fairness, be answered: "But of course. Why else read them?"
Comic books, first of all are junk. To accuse them of being what they are is to make no accusation at all: there is no such thing as uncorrupt junk or moral junk or educational junk—though attempts at the latter have, from time to time, been foisted on us. But education is not the purpose of junk (which is one reason why True Comics and Classic Comics and other half-hearted attempts to bring reality or literature into the field invariably looked embarrassing). Junk is there to entertain on the basest, most compromised of levels. It finds the lowest fantasmal common denominator and proceeds from there. Its choice of tone is dependent on its choice of audience, so that women's magazines will make a pretense at veneer scorned by movie-fan magazines, but both are, unarguably, junk. If not to their publishers, certainly to a good many of their readers who, when challenged, will say defiantly: "I know it's junk, but I like it." Which is the whole point about junk. It is there to be nothing else but liked. Junk is a second-class citizen of the arts; a status of which we and it are constantly aware. There are certain inherent privileges in second-class citizenship. Irresponsibility is one. Not being taken seriously is another. Junk, like the drunk at the wedding, can get away with doing or saying anything because, by its very appearance, it is already in disgrace. It has no one's respect to lose; no image to endanger. It's values are the least middle class of all the mass media. That's why it is needed so.
The success of the best junk lies in its ability to come close, but not too close; to titillate without touching us. To arouse without giving satisfaction. Junk is a tease; and in the years when the most we need is teasing we cherish it—in later years when teasing no longer satisfies we graduate—hopefully, into better things or haplessly, into pathetic, and sometimes violent attempts to make the teasing come true.
It is this antisocial side of junk that Dr. Wertham scorns in his attack on comic books. What he dismisses—perhaps, because the case was made badly—is the more positive side of junk. (The entire debate on comic books was, in my opinion, poorly handled. The attack was strident and spotty; the defense, smug and spotty—proving, perhaps, that even when grownups correctly verbalize a point about children, they manage to miss it: so that a child expert can talk about how important fantasies of aggression are for children, thereby destroying forever the value of fantasies of aggression. Once a child is told: "Go on, darling. I'm watching. Fantasize," he no longer has a reason.) Still, there is a positive side to comic books that more than makes up for their much publicized antisocial influence. That is: their underground antisocial influence.
Adult have their defense against time: it is called "responsibility," and once one assumes it he can form his life into a set of routines which will account for all those hours when he is fresh, and justifies escape during all those hours when he is stale or tired. It is not size or age or childishness that separate children from adults. It is "responsibility." Adults come in all sizes, ages, and differing varieties of childishness, but as long as they have "responsibility" we recognize, often by the light gone out of their eyes, that they are what we call grownup. When grownups cope with "responsibility" for enough number of years they are retired from it. They are given, in exchange, a "leisure problem." They sit around with their "leisure problem" and try to figure out what to do with it. Sometimes they go crazy. Sometimes they get other jobs. Sometimes it gets too much for them and they die. They have been handed an undetermined future of nonresponsible time and they don't know what to do about it.
And that is precisely the way it is with children. Time is the ever-present factor in their lives. It passes slowly or fast, always against their best interests: good time is over in a minute; bad time takes forever. Short on "responsibility," they are confronted with a "leisure problem." That infamous question: "What am I going to do with myself?" correctly rephrased should read: "What am I going to do to get away from myself?"
And then, dear God, there's school! Nobody really knows why he's going to school. Even if one likes it, it is still, in the best light, an authoritarian restriction of freedom: where one has to obey and be subservient to people not even his parents. Where one has to learn concurrently, book rules and social rules, few of which are taught in a way to broaden horizons. So books become enemies and society becomes a hostile force that one had best put off encountering until the last moment possible.
Children, hungry for reasons, are seldom given convincing ones. They are bombarded with hard work, labelled education—not seen therefore as child labor. They rise for school at the same time or earlier than their fathers, start work without office chatter, go till noon without coffee breaks, have waxed milk for lunch instead of dry martinis, then back at the desk till three o'clock. Facing greater threats and riskier decisions than their fathers have had to meet since their day in school.
And always at someone else's convenience. Someone else dictates when to rise, what's to be good for break-fast, what's to be learned in school, what's to be good for lunch, what're to be play hours, what're to be homework hours, what's to be delicious for dinner and what's to be, suddenly, bedtime. This goes on until summer—when there is, once again, a "leisure problem." "What," the child asks, "am I going to do with myself?" Millions of things, as it turns out, but no sooner have they been discovered then it is time to go back to school.
It should come as no surprise then, that within this shifting hodgepodge of external pressures, a child, simply to save his sanity, must go underground. Have a place to hide where he cannot be got at by grownups. A place that implies, if only obliquely, that they 're not so much; that they don't know everything; that they can't fly the way some people can, or let bullets bounce harmlessly off their chests, or beat up whomever picks on them, or—oh, joy of joys!—even become invisible! A noman's land. A relief zone. And the basic sustenance for this relief was, in my day, comic books.
With them we were able to roam free, disguised in costume, committing the greatest of feats—and the worst of sins. And, in every instance, getting away with them. For a little while, at least, it was our show. For a little while, at least, we were the bosses. Psychically renewed, we could then return above ground and put up with another couple of days of victimization. Comic books were our booze.
Just as in earlier days for other children it was pulps, and Nick Carter, and penny dreadfuls—all junk in their own right, but less disapproved of latterly because they were less violent. But, predictably, as the ante on violence rose in the culture, so too did it rise in the junk.
Comic books, which had few public (as opposed to professional) defenders in the days that Dr. Wertham was attacking them, are now looked back on by an increasing number of my generation as samples of our youthful innocence instead of our youthful corruption. A sign, perhaps, of the potency of that corruption. A corruption—a lie, really—that put us in charge, however temporarily, of the world in which we lived; and gave us the means, however arbitrary, of defining right from wrong, good from bad, hero from villain. It is something for which old fans can understandably pine—almost as if having become overly conscious of the imposition of junk on our adult values: on our architecture, our highways, our advertising, our mass media, our politics—and even in the air we breathe, flying black chunks of it—we have staged a retreat to a better remembered brand of junk. A junk that knew its place was underground where it had no power and thus only titillated, rather than above ground where it truly has power—and thus, only depresses.
SOURCE: "Deconstructive Comics," in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 25, No. 4, Spring, 1992, pp. 153-61.
[In the following essay, Schmitt analyzes comic books as a mixed medium of word balloons and illustrations, and discusses their relationship to linguistic development.]
Comic books have been and continue to be one of the most marginalized of art forms. The assumption that the "reading" of comics is a frivolous and inferior activity seems a given even among those who do not see them as a threat. But in fact, those conservative educators who do see the effects of comic books as a threat are probably more correct in their assumptions than those who dismiss this very influential and powerful art medium of the 20th century as frivolous. The effects of comic books on youngsters are quite subversive but not in the moral, behavioral sense which conservative educators perceive but rather in their effects on traditional, hierarchical modes of reading and on the entire notion of literacy.
In the academic community, little has been written about comic books. What little research has been done centers almost exclusively on issues of content rather than analyses of form and while it is impossible to abstract one concept from the...
(The entire section is 45852 words.)
Reinhold Reitberger and Wolfgang Fuchs
SOURCE: "Super-heroes," in Comics: Anatomy of a Mass Medium, translated by Nadia Fowler, Little, Brown and Company, 1972, pp. 100-29.
[In the following essay, Reitberger and Fuchs analyze the modern mythology of super heroes, concentrating on the powers, foes, companions, and female counterparts of Superman, Batman, and others.]
Superman—the man of steel, helper of all those in distress, defender of the weak and oppressed, strongest of all men, invincible, handsome as a god, noble and gentle—in short, a man far superior to any other human being. He is the ultimate...
(The entire section is 17654 words.)
SOURCE: "Underground Comics," in Comix: A History of Comic Books in America, Bonanza Books, 1971, pp. 165-80.
[In the following excerpt, Daniels studies the origins and development of underground comic books and surveys the major figures who published in this genre during the late 1960s and early 1970s.]
[Underground] comics, which have existed in one form or another for as long as the medium itself, have come into new prominence through the concentrated efforts of a handful of dedicated practitioners. The underground publications are indisputably the most controversial comics ever to be produced, and what makes them controversial...
(The entire section is 20281 words.)
Clinton R. Sanders
SOURCE: "Icons of the Alternate Culture: The Themes and Functions of Underground Comix," in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. VIII, No. 4, Spring, 1975, pp. 836-52.
[In the following excerpt, Sanders considers the social, political, and commercial aspects of underground comic books.]
Much of the popular culture literature is devoted to the discussion of the theoretical constructs and methodological approaches which are most useful in the study of "non-elite" cultural products. I agree with Gillespie that clarity will not be achieved until standardized interpretive concepts are developed. This framework can be built only when...
(The entire section is 33470 words.)
George S. McCue and Clive Bloom
SOURCE: "The Moderns," in Dark Knights: The New Comics in Context, Pluto Press, 1993, pp. 55-66.
[In the following essay, McCue and Bloom trace the development of comic books during the 1970s and 1980s, in terms of both their subject matter and marketing strategies.]
Comic books in the early 1970s looked surprisingly like those of the early 1950s. The medium was dominated by heroic action books and sales were dropping rapidly. Social relevance had failed as a direction for the medium. Other sources of comic book art were beginning to find a market and underground comic books began making real inroads into the...
(The entire section is 13706 words.)
Barrier, Michael and Williams, Martin eds. A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981, 336 p.
A collection of reprints from the history of comics, from Superman and Little Lulu to the lesser known Scribbly, are presented with short introductions, plus a bibliography.
Estren, Mark James. A History of Underground Comics. Berkeley, CA.: Ronin Publishing, 1986, 319 p.
This reissue of a 1974 edition is arranged impressionistically rather than for scholars, with historical and bibliographic information on underground comix.
Gifford, Denis. The...
(The entire section is 1538 words.)