[It was the late 1930's before comic books] were accepted as fit for children in whose innocence parents were still pretending to believe. Moreover, the children themselves demanded more than parody of the daily scripts in which sex was absent and violence trivialized; they yearned for a new mythology neither explicitly erotic, overtly terrifying nor frankly supernatural, yet essentially phallic, horrific and magical. Such a mythology was waiting to be released in pulp science fiction, a genre recreated in the United States in 1926 by Hugo Gernsback, who published the first magazine devoted entirely to the genre. He did not invent the name, however, until 1929, just one year before a pair of 16-year-olds, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, reviewed Philip Wylie's Gladiator in one of the earliest s.f. fanzines…. (p. 339)
Out of that novel, at any rate, emerged the first and most long-lived of all comic book characters, Superman….
[It] required the imminence of World War II before the supergoy dreamed up by a pair of Jewish teenagers from Cleveland in the Great Depression could reach an audience of hundreds of millions starved for wonder but too ill at ease with Gutenberg forms to respond even to science fiction. Only then did the paranoia that is their stock in trade become endemic—the special paranoia of men in cities anticipating in their shared nightmares the saturation bombing that lay just ahead and the consequent end of law and order, perhaps of man himself. The suffering city, Metropolis, which under various names remains the setting for all subsequent Superheroes, is helpless before its external enemies because it is sapped by corruption and fear at its very heart.
But the old American promise of an end to paranoia is there, too, the equivocal dream that had already created the Ku Klux Klan and the vigilantes and the lynch mob, as well as the cowboy hero and the private eye—the dream of a savior in some sense human still, but able to know, as the rest of us cannot, who the enemy really is and to destroy him as we no longer can—not with technology, which is in itself equivocal, but with his bare hands. (p. 340)
I found pathos as well in the double identity of the hero, that Siegel and Shuster invention, product of God knows what very Jewish irony undercutting what it seemed to celebrate. He was a man of steel in one guise, but in the other a short-sighted reporter, a crippled newsboy, an epicene playboy flirting with a teen-age male companion. Phallic but impotent, supermale but a eunuch, incapable of consummating love or begetting a successor; and, therefore, he was a last hero, doomed to lonely immortality and banned by an ultimately inexplicable taboo from revealing the secret that would make it possible at least to join the two halves of his sundered self and thus end his comic plight of being forever his own rival for the affection of his best beloved. Ultimately, therefore, the Siegel and Shuster Superman turns out to be not a hero who seems a shlemiel, but a hero who is a shlemiel. If this is not essentially funny …, it is because the joke was on all of us and there was no one left to laugh—not even when the war was over and it had become clear that what it had achieved was the end of heroism rather than of paranoia. (p. 341)
Leslie A. Fiedler, "Up, Up and Away: The Rise and Fall of Comic Books," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 5, 1976 (and reprinted in Young Adult Literature in the Seventies: A Selection of Readings, edited by Jana Varlejs, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1978, pp. 338-44).∗