Chapter One Part Four: He is This Madness! (part 2)

11 Mar

This is the second part of a post that will probably work better if you read the first part HERE. This whole blog probably works better if read in order. I’m trying to build something here.

 

The Joker struck a chord with readers, and returned to the pages of Batman and Detective often. Like the Caped Crusader, the Joker has gone through many permutations. In the TV show he was played by Cesar Romero as a petty thief with a gimmick. Even though the 1989 Tim Burton movie was inspired by the dark version of Frank Miller’s work, Jack Nicholson hammed it up as the Joker. He was more dangerous than Romero, but still primarily an over-the-top clown. Miller portrayed him as a psychopath with no morals, leaving behind a huge body count as the punchline of his jokes. In Grant Morrison’s original script for Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth graphic novel, released in 1989, the Joker cavorts around in fishnet thigh-highs and a bustier, commenting on the possible sexual connection in his obsession with Batman that was hinted at by Miller (DC toned down the eventual release of this book).

Perhaps the apotheosis of the Joker was Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland in 1988. There had never been a deadlier, or crazier version of the character. In this story he casually shoots and cripples Barbara Gordon (who was Batgirl, as well as the daughter of Commissioner Gordon). We see an origin story for him that may or may not be true. The end of the story is controversial for many reasons. Did Batman simply laugh at the joke, even though his friend Barbara had been maimed? Or did he finally end his arch enemy’s life by pushing him off the roof? This was originally meant to be an out-of-continuity story, so the latter ending is possible. Either way, Moore overtly makes the point that both Batman and the Joker are probably insane.

The Killing Joke was one of the primary sources the late Heath Ledger used as a base for his portrayal of the villain in the 2008 film, The Dark Knight.

Whatever portrayal of Batman you prefer his status as the dark mirror to Superman remains. It is difficult to talk about either of them without addressing the existence of the other. They truly represent two heroic archetypes that run throughout storytelling and literature.

I grew up as a fan of both the legends of King Arthur and the stories of Robin Hood. The Howard Pyle version of the latter was one of the first real books I ever read, somewhere around third grade. Robin Hood was a huge influence on me (and I’m still drawn to the imagery). In delving into my memory this may have been responsible for my first attempts at writing. I wanted to stage a play of Robin Hood and cast all my friends in the roles. This was not simply playing in the woods. This was an actual, “Hey, let’s put on a play in the barn” moment, only I didn’t want to do it in the barn. No, this was going to be outdoor theater-in-the-round. I wrote scripts based on the novel and cast my friends (I was going to be Robin, of course) and gave them lines to memorize. Though some of them seemed excited by the project and others indulged me nothing ever came of this. It was way beyond my ability to organize and make real.

As an aside… in sixth grade I was cast as Will Scarlet in a musical version of Robin Hood that my school put on. I’m pretty sure being the only redhead in the class was my primary qualification.

Anyway, as an adult I have read many more versions of each of these characters and delved pretty heavily into their history and symbolism. At some point I began to question why both of these spoke to me. And not only to me, but to generations of people. They seem, at base, to embody completely contradictory paradigms. After a lot of thought I came to the conclusion that it is because they both speak to ideals we have that aren’t really contradictory at all.

The stories of King Arthur, the Round Table and Camelot speak to the desire we all have for just leadership. We want the world to be fair. We want our leaders, our elected officials, our bosses, and our teachers to be just, to protect the weak and keep us safe from harm. Someone who will establish a golden age.

The eventual downfall of Arthur’s kingdom in the legends serves to remind us this probably isn’t possible.

And because we know that, the image of Robin Hood resonates as well. He is there to remind us that governments, or our bosses, or teachers, or anyone can be corrupt and that there are times we need to stand up against their rule and take our power back into our own hands.

King Arthur and Robin Hood are the balancing act of our societal desires. While they appear to be on different sides of the law, if nothing else, they both serve as an ideal of what we want the world to be. We want both, someone in power to save us, and the ability to be that savior ourselves.

Of course, I discovered that I was not the first person to conceive of this idea.

Film theorist Robert Ray, in his book A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980, introduces the concept of the Thematic Paradigm, wherein he refers to these ideas as The Official Hero and The Outlaw Hero.

The American Monomyth is a 1977 book by Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence, which I talked about in more detail in an earlier post. To briefly recap, it expands on the idea of the Thematic Paradigm by saying that there is a distinctly American narrative that calls for a reconciliation of these two ideas. They argue for the existence and cultural importance of an American Monomyth, as a variation on the classical monomyth as proposed by Joseph Campbell in his classic book, The Hero With 1000 Faces.

Campbell’s monomyth was made famous in the 80s in a series of interviews with Bill Moyers released as The Power of Myth. In it he describes The Hero’s Journey: a hero ventures from the normal world into a supernatural one, winning a decisive victory there and returning with a ‟boon.” There are probably millions of pages written about the Hero’s Journey, so I won’t go into it here (the Wikipedia article at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monomyth is a good introduction to the idea if you haven’t been exposed it).

In contrast, Jewett and Lawrence define the American Monomyth as: ‟A community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil; normal institutions fail to contend with this threat; a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task; aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisiacal condition; the superhero then recedes into obscurity.”

America is a melting pot, based on the idea of the rule of law and the need for a unified community. ‟We the People” is in our founding document. E Pluribus Unum, a Latin phrase meaning ‟One From Many,” is on the great seal of the United States. That very term, United States, speaks to our cultural belief in the idea of an Official Hero, someone who represents the common good.

But we’re also a nation founded by the idea of rugged individualism. We were founded by those brave enough to leave their old world and travel to an unknown future. We’re a nation of ‟pull yourself up by your bootstraps” pioneers. The first distinctly American culture heroes were figures like Paul Bunyon, Johnny Appleseed and Pecos Bill, solo heroes all (not counting a certain blue ox). The solitary cowboy, the lone gunslinger, was almost our official mascot for years. This individual spirit makes the Outlaw Hero a very appealing figure as well.

Jewett and Lawrence’s thesis is that the American concept of the hero is an attempt to reconcile these seemingly conflicting ideals. The lone gunslinger saves the community, but then no longer has a place in it. Cue the ride into the sunset. Thanks, solitary heroic figure, for allowing the rest of us to have order.

Superman and Batman, of course, fulfill these roles. In Miller’s Dark Knight Returns we see an expression of the Thematic Paradigm with Superman in the role of Official Hero and Batman as Outlaw Hero. In this version, Superman has become the official hero and representative of the American government. It is “Truth, Justice and the American Way” taken to jingoistic extremes. This is visually represented in his first appearance in the story when we see the stars and stripes of the American flag resolve into the red, yellow and blue of the Superman sigil. In this world Superman has become little more than the imperialist tool of a corrupt government (one led by an obvious avatar of Ronald Reagan… this was the 80s after all). To be a superhero at all in this world one had to be approved by this government. As a result very few were left. The big blue boy scout had become the big blue stormtrooper. This was obviously an example of the official hero becoming corrupt, something the outlaw hero needed to step up and address.

Enter Batman, who had refused to become a government stooge and had instead, retired. When the Dark Knight returns, he does so as the outsider hero, stepping up to save the community in a final epic battle with Superman. He wins, of course (aided, not coincidentally by Green Arrow, the DC avatar of Robin Hood, who had also refused to work for the government), and then leaves again, founding a resistance movement that exists in hiding. The hero redeems the community and leaves, fulfilling the tropes of the American Monomyth.

Though Batman is the hero of the piece, and Miller’s disdain for the government and Superman’s role in it is obvious, Batman is not presented as entirely without blame. He may be the redeeming Outlaw Hero in this tale, but remember, this is the story that makes the point that his existence is what brought the evil to town in the first place. In this case the appearance of the Outlaw Hero is what motivates the true outlaws, like Two Face and the Joker. The government may be corrupt and overstepping its bounds, but villains like the Joker represent a true evil and chaos that will destroy not only order, but society in general.

While we yearn for the ideals of both the Official and the Outlaw, there are obviously dark sides to both of these ideals as well.

What freedoms are we willing to sacrifice to a ruling body in order to be safe?

Does taking the law into our own hands only lead to more lawlessness?

The superhero allows us to embrace both. In most stories Superman is not a government toady, but works outside of the law, following his own moral code. Only by a long history of good works is he not considered an outlaw. Batman on the other hand, has an ongoing relationship with Commissioner Gordon, and is a member of the Justice League, giving him official status as well.

The superhero has straddled this fine line pretty much from the beginning. The secret identity marks them as outsiders and outlaws. Their preservation of the status quo marks them as official.

Whatever your preference in type of hero, or in portrayals of Batman, there is more to the idea of madness than the dark side of the concept or wondering if the hero is crazier than the villain. The term Bat-Mania used to describe the craze that accompanied the television series is appropriate. The word fan comes from fanatic, which implies a level of crazy devotion.

The initial success of Superman and Batman in the late 1930s, of the concept of the superhero, was immediate and overwhelming. Sales of comic books skyrocketed, and the superhero was the primary cause. Suddenly everyone was publishing superhero comics and the craze began.

The Superman had arrived.

Lightning had struck.

The madness had begun.

Chapter One Part Four: He is This Madness! (part 1)

10 Mar

He is This Madness

 

Around the same time that I dressed like the Flash for my first grade Halloween party another classic superhero was being seen in homes on a regular basis. The television series Batman, starring Adam West in the title role and Burt Ward as his sidekick Robin premiered in 1966 and ran for three seasons. It was incredibly popular. Played as a high camp comedy, this show inspired a level of devotion that was called “Bat-Mania.” It also helped plant in the public consciousness the idea that the superhero was nothing but parody. This light-hearted presentation of the character, while owing a lot to the portrayal of Batman in comics throughout the 50s, was not representative of what was happening in the Batman books in the late 1960s. The character had taken a darker, more serious tone, with stories that focused more on the detective angle than on wacky death-traps and light-hearted banter.

But Adam West’s dead serious delivery of the most absurd lines in the most ridiculous settings struck a chord of some kind. This image of Batman became the most widely recognized version of the character, even though it was pretty much in opposition to the original conception.

In the wake of the popularity of Superman in 1938 it was only natural that DC wanted to replicate his success. Batman was originally created by artist Bob Kane, though writer Bill Finger made several suggestions that led to revisions of Kane’s original design. The Bat-Man, as he was called then, made his first appearance in Detective Comics #27 in 1939. From the beginning Batman was a creature of the night, a much darker creation than Superman.

His origin story is one of tragedy. Young Bruce Wayne watches as his parents are gunned down before his eyes while leaving the theater. Orphaned, he decides to dedicate his life to stopping crime. This obsession leads him to forego a normal childhood in pursuit of his goal. Unlike Superman, he has no super powers, so he pushes his body to the limits of human capacity, gaining strength and agility. He masters many fighting skills. He does the same with his mind, becoming the world’s greatest detective.

It has been pointed out that Superman’s origin is one of tragedy as well. His entire planet was wiped out, after all. The difference is that young Clark Kent was raised by a loving family, protected from the evils of the world. He grew up with hope. In most versions of the story he doesn’t even become aware of his extraterrestrial origins until he is an adult, and even then, it is just a story to him. He never knew Jor-El and Lara, his biological parents. Jonathan and Martha Kent were his real parents in every significant way.

Bruce Wayne saw his real parents bleed out in a dirty alley. In every new iteration of the tale the killing seems to become more brutal, more traumatic to his psyche. Though he has been through many interpretations, including the campy TV series, the most common one of the last thirty years, and in the earliest days of his career, is that of a man driven by his demons. He has sacrificed everything in pursuit of his goal. He has foregone anything resembling a normal life or normal relationships. Stopping criminals is the only thing that gives his life meaning.

From the beginning, the primary weapon in his arsenal was that of fear. He decided that he needed a costume to wage his war on crime, one that would strike fear in criminals, because, “Criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot, so my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night. Black. Terrible.” It was then that a bat flew in the window, providing his final inspiration.

Never once did my 6-year-old mind think of Adam West as “Black” or “Terrible.” Neither did the rest of the world.

I don’t think Kane and Finger sat down to create the perfect counterpoint to Superman, but that is exactly what they did. These two heroes are, in many ways, the template for every superhero that has come since.

If Superman is the god of the sky, then Batman is the god of the underworld, as Hades is to Zeus. Superman is the god of light, Batman the god of darkness and shadows. They are Yin and Yang, the two sides of the same coin.

They represent the extremes of the superhuman experience. Superman is the embodiment of unattainable godlike powers. He was born with his gifts, and as the sky god is more removed from our human understanding. No matter how much we strive we humans can never have his powers. In contrast, Batman is the epitome of human achievement. Everything he has he has worked for (except his wealth, of course, the thing that makes his other achievements possible). There is the belief, illusion though it may be, that with enough hard work and training, any of us could be Batman. This makes him a more relatable character for many people.

He is also more flawed. At base, Batman is a damaged individual. The innocence of young Bruce Wayne died in Crime Alley as surely as Thomas and Martha Wayne did. Batman was born that night, though it took time for the persona to fully manifest.

Before we go any further I think we need to address the issue of which Batman we’re talking about in this, or any other analysis of the character. Anytime we talk about Batman, or any other character that has existed for a length of time, we need to specify which Batman. Batman is a concept that holds many definitions, which I think is part of the appeal and his continued growth and popularity. Frank Miller’s Dark Knight is not only not the 1966 TV series Batman, he’s also not the Batman of the current New 52 continuity (though there’s a closer comparison there).

There is a general, public perception of Batman these days that has nothing to do with any specific story or presentation of the character. This is probably shaped more by the movies and media than by the actual comics. More people have seen the absolute worst episode of Gotham than have read any of the N52 comics, or Frank Miller’s for that matter. Batman has become a sort of modern archetype, a bat-shaped container that holds everyone’s conception of the character but not dependent on any one specific iteration.

This is more amorphous. As a result it’s more difficult to pick out specific ‟canonical” instances to back up any claims or statements made about him. There is no ‟Canon” for Batman any more, only ‟canons.”

Some writers have stated that they believe that Batman sees every criminal and villain as a potential Joe Chill (the name that was eventually given to the thug who killed his parents; the movie version that blamed the Joker for this crime is not part of the comics continuity). If this is true it makes his mission one of vengeance. Since no amount of criminals stopped and punished will ever bring his parents back it is a never-ending war with no resolution in sight. Any war on a concept… crime, drugs, or terror, is doomed to failure because these ideas will never go away. One definition of mental illness is repeating the same maladaptive behaviors over and over and expecting a different result. That sounds like a good description of Batman, given this set of parameters.

When Grant Morrison took over the writing reins of JLA (as the Justice League of America was known in the late 90s), there was an article in Wizard Magazine that printed his thoughts on each of the characters. He addressed this issue of Batman and vengeance. I can’t find the actual issue, so I’m paraphrasing here, but I remember being impressed by his vision of the character. Instead of seeing every villain as a potential Joe Chill who needed to be stopped, he believed Batman saw every citizen as an eight-year-old Bruce Wayne who needed to be protected. That may seem like a subtle difference but it is one I find profound. Rather than being motivated by personal vengeance against something, this shift in focus more firmly entrenches him in the category of protector of the innocent. It is a more heroic stance. The first is a selfish motivation that only benefits society as a side effect of his actions. The second is an act of heroism.

But the truth of Batman’s portrayal, at least in the last three decades, is that he is usually seen as the dark knight of vengeance and the god of fear. This is a far more successful take on the character and for some reason, the one that resonates most strongly with people.

I see this reaction in the comics shop every day. Readers want Batman to be dark. There has been a now decades long backlash against the Bat-Mania of the 60’s and the camp version of superheroes, at least among actual comic book fans. Anything that seems to backslide into that view has a hard time winning favor with them. The 1997 film Batman and Robin, while a box office success, is universally reviled among comic book fans precisely because it slipped too far into the realm of parody. Fans of the superhero want their genre to be taken seriously, and while I think most would agree that there is a place for humor, they don’t want to be made fun of. The TV show and 1990s movie franchises did just that. The source material was not taken seriously. There is a difference between a parody of superheroes and superheroes being perceived as a parody.

It can be difficult to see the difference, even for the fans. Part of the reason for this is that Batman has been all of these things, and each is a legitimate interpretation of the character. As an icon, as a fictional character, there are any number of interpretations of him. Within a single run of issues Batman can change depending on who is writing the series at any given moment. The Batman of Grant Morrison is not the Batman of Tony Daniels, though these interpretations ran concurrently in 2011. Neither of them is the Batman of Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams in the 1970s, though technically they are part of the same continuity. Readers who have only seen the “Grim and Gritty” Batman of the last three decades cannot accept the Batman of the 1950s (even though Morrison has done his best to incorporate many of those elements into his modern work).

The phrase “Grim and Gritty” became a cliche to describe a trend in comics in the early 1990s, and part of that movement began with Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (though Batman had been taking a darker, more “realistic” approach in comics since the late 1960s). Miller’s Batman is acclaimed for many reasons, but primary among them is that it was one of the comics that made the rest of the world sit up and take notice in the 1980s. The story was much more adult and literate in tone than most people thought comics could be. This was certainly not the first or only comic to achieve this (Maus was being published at the same time), but because it was Batman, who everyone outside of comics still thought of as that quaint, goofy TV series, it was noticed.

Set in a non-specific near future (though the president is pretty obviously meant to be Ronald Reagan), Batman has not been seen for ten years and Gotham has descended into a crime-ridden hellhole. Yes, even more so than usual. Circumstances conspire to bring him out of retirement. This Batman is more violent and reactionary than ever before, the embodiment of the outlaw hero (more on that idea in a moment). Batman’s reappearance serves to bring the Joker out of retirement as well, which, as you may imagine, leads to nothing but trouble.

Perhaps one of the biggest issues that Miller addresses in this series is the idea that the very presence of Batman in Gotham is what motivates the supervillains in the first place. He is a magnet for this type of behavior. The average street thug or petty criminal can be handled by the police. But the crime sprees of people like the Joker, Two-Face, and all of the other costumed madmen seem to be inspired by their personal vendettas against the Dark Knight. They simply wouldn’t exist without him. In this view, Batman’s presence has caused more problems for Gotham than it has prevented. This is certainly a darker idea than anything Adam West ever had to deal with.

Miller introduced this idea through the voice of the Joker’ psychologist:

Batman’s psychotic sublimitive/psychoerotic behavior pattern is like a net. Weak-egoed neurotics like Harvey (Two-Face), are drawn into corresponding intersticing patterns.

You might say Batman commits the crimes… using his so-called villains as narcissistic proxies…”

That has been one of the primary themes and influences on how Batman has been presented ever since. I don’t think that Miller intended this to be a defining characteristic. The psychologist is a weak man and seen to play right into the Joker’s hands. But this concept, out of context of the rest of the story, seems to resonate with people.

In the same story Harvey Dent is committing crimes as Two Face. When Batman stops him it is revealed that a plastic surgeon has fixed his face. The excuse that he has always used for his behavior is gone, but he still sees himself as scarred. When we see him through Batman’s eyes his entire face is monstrous, not just half of it. Batman sees him as a monster because of his actions, not because of his scars. What’s most telling about this scene is that there is a panel interspersed between the whole and monstrous images of Harvey of the giant, frightening and monstrous bat Bruce saw in the caverns when he was a child, the thing that inspired him to be fearsome. He says, when he looks at Harvey, that what he sees is, ‟A reflection.”

Which seems to imply that Batman is aware that he is perceived as monstrous by some.

But this version of Batman, at least in theory, has been there since the beginning. As well known as the TV version is, it doesn’t represent the true history of the character. In his very first appearance Batman punches businessman and murderer Alfred Stryker and knocks him into a tank of acid where he dies. Batman’s response?

A fitting end for his kind.”

This was pretty typical for a while. Batman, who had no prohibition against carrying and using a gun in his early days, regularly ended up with dead opponents.

While Superman continued to square off against gangsters in pinstripe suits and fedoras, corrupt politicians and businessmen, Batman’s foes very quickly began to exhibit a tendency toward the macabre. It was an initial creative impulse that Miller eventually used as a theme. If Batman was a darker, creepier hero, then his villains needed to reflect that. In Detective #30 we meet Dr. Death and his manservant Jabah. Dr. Death apparently dies in a fire in that issue, but in #31 he returns, horribly disfigured. In the next issue Batman fights a crimson-robed figure, a vampire known as The Monk (and fights an overly large gorilla in the process). He meets a man without a face, the strange menace of Dr. Hugo Strange, and a horde of giant man-monsters.

Chief among these strange foes was the character destined to become Batman’s arch villain. The Joker debuted in the very first self-titled issue of Batman in 1940 with no explanation for his strange appearance. While his motivation at the time seemed to be simple robbery he used a gas that killed people and left a death rictus smile on their faces, effectively signing his crimes. This was a motif that would become a regular trope for many of Batman’s villains.

The Joker was created by Jerry Robinson. Robinson was hired by Bob Kane’s studio as an artist and worked initially as an inker on the Bat books at the time. Robinson is also usually credited with the creation of Robin, the Boy Wonder, who first appeared in Detective #38. Both characters would, of course, go on to have significant influence on the superhero genre.

*****

And now for a personal aside…

In August, 2011, I was privileged to host an appearance/book signing at the Pittsburgh Toonseum by Jerry Robinson. There are many online resources that tell his story better than I can. A book from Dark Horse called Jerry Robinson: Ambassador of Comics would be a great place to start. Jerry was 89 at the time and though a little frail his mind was still sharp. He gave a slide presentation and regaled us with stories and anecdotes from the entire span of his career. I was supposed to interview him but I ended up asking very few questions. Though I asked him to elaborate on a couple of points for the most part he covered everything I wanted to ask in the course of his presentation. At the end, when I did ask him a couple of things he gave long, wonderful answers.

He was, quite simply, an amazing presence. Rarely do I find myself in the company of someone who awes me. His career, and more importantly his life, embodies so many of the things that have given my life meaning: art, writing, scholarship and integrity. It goes so far beyond his connection to Batman and any fanboy reaction I may have had (and I did feel a little fanboyish).

Jerry Robinson died a few months later in December. I believe I was the last person to interview him. At 90 he embodied a life well lived.

*****

The Joker struck a chord with readers, and returned to the pages of Batman and Detective often. Like the Caped Crusader, the Joker has gone through many permutations. In the TV show he was played by Cesar Romero as a petty thief with a gimmick. Even though the 1989 Tim Burton movie was inspired by the dark version of Frank Miller’s work, Jack Nicholson hammed it up as the Joker. He was more dangerous than Romero, but still primarily an over-the-top clown. Miller portrayed him as a psychopath with no morals, leaving behind a huge body count as the punchline of his jokes. In Grant Morrison’s original script for Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth graphic novel, released in 1989, the Joker cavorts around in fishnet thigh-highs and a bustier, commenting on the possible sexual connection in his obsession with Batman that was hinted at by Miller (DC toned down the eventual release of this book).

Perhaps the apotheosis of the Joker was Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland in 1988. There had never been a deadlier, or crazier version of the character. In this story he casually shoots and cripples Barbara Gordon (who was Batgirl, as well as the daughter of Commissioner Gordon). We see an origin story for him that may or may not be true. The end of the story is controversial for many reasons. Did Batman simply laugh at the joke, even though his friend Barbara had been maimed? Or did he finally end his arch enemy’s life by pushing him off the roof? This was originally meant to be an out-of-continuity story, so the latter ending is possible. Either way, Moore overtly makes the point that both Batman and the Joker are probably insane.

The Killing Joke was one of the primary sources the late Heath Ledger used as a base for his portrayal of the villain in the 2008 film, The Dark Knight.

*****

This has gone on longer than I intended and there is more to come on this topic. Check back for more He is This Madness, same blog time, same blog channel…

Chapter One Part Three: He is This Lightning!

26 Apr

HE IS THIS LIGHTNING!

I started first grade when I was six years old. This would have been 1967, the Summer of Love and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I went to a very rural grade school in my home community, a small village called Nineveh (named after the Biblical den of iniquity that Jonah was trying to avoid when he was swallowed by the whale… I never did quite understand the connection). Our school had three classrooms and a small common area used as a gym and auditorium. Each classroom had two grades in it. I sat in one of two rows of first graders, next to three rows of second graders. The teacher, Thelma Baldwin (who had also been my mother’s teacher, and my Mom was forty when I was born, so that gives you some idea of the age of this woman), split her time between the two halves of the class.

As I mentioned earlier I learned to read from comic books, well before beginning first grade. This led to a lot of very boring days in school as Miss Baldwin taught the alphabet and basic reading skills to my peers. And yes, I got in trouble a few times for not paying attention. One instance in particular stands out, when I was reprimanded for actually reading something I had taken from the classroom bookshelf instead of listening to her teach the alphabet.

Anyway…

We had a Halloween party at the school that year and I knew exactly what I wanted to be.

I wanted to be The Flash.

The Flash I’m talking about is the Silver Age Flash, Barry Allen, clad in red with yellow lightning around his arms and waist and a lightning bolt sigil slashed across his chest. He was a super speedster. His first appearance in Showcase #4 in 1956 signaled the beginning of the Silver Age of comics. There had been a character named the Flash in the 1940s, also a super speedster, the first in the literature of superheroes, but I didn’t know that at the time. I had apparently been reading some Flash comics in the Summer of Love.

I’m pretty sure none of my classmates or my teacher knew who the Flash was. My Mom was supportive in my desire, as she has been throughout my life, no matter what fool idea I dragged through the house. She was the one who turned me on to comics in the first place, after all. We bought a Flash costume at McCrory’s department store in Waynesburg. The mask was one of those Ben Cooper plastic affairs that make you sweat. I wasn’t satisfied with the costume that came with it though. It was a plastic sheath that featured a picture of the Flash, running of course, on the chest. That confused me. Flash wore a red and yellow costume with a lightning bolt on it. He didn’t wear a picture of himself, so how was this thing supposed to be his costume? I didn’t want to wear the Flash’s picture. I wanted to wear his sigil. I didn’t want to advertise the Flash. I wanted to be the Flash.

So Mom got out her sewing machine, a ritual that would be repeated many times in years to come, and we began. We got red and yellow cloth and began to cut and sew.

I was pretty specific with what I wanted. In all of the pictures I had of the Flash, even the dumb one that came on the costume we bought, the yellow part of his costume streaked out behind him as he ran. I now know that these were drawings by comics legend Carmine Infantino, and that the streaks were meant as an illusion, a drawn replica of the afterimage one would have if the Flash ran by at super speed. At the time, all I knew was that I wanted the yellow part of my costume to be fashioned out of long trailing, lightning-shaped strips of cloth.

It would make me look like I was running really fast, you see.

So, the day of the Halloween party came, and we held a small parade down the only street in Nineveh. There I was, all red and yellow drooping cloth, not looking like I was moving very fast at all, holding hands with some kid in a devil costume.

I was supposed to be a superhero, and they paired me up with the Prince of Darkness (no wonder Jonah wanted to avoid Nineveh). They just didn’t get it.

My obsession with comics and superheroes is something most people wouldn’t get for a large portion of my life.

Given what I now know about symbolism and the history of comics I find it fascinating that the very first time I ever donned the costume of a superhero (the first time I put on the cheap, plastic skin of my secular, Pop Culture gods), it was one with a lightning bolt on the chest.

I don’t claim to be the first to notice the proliferation of the lightning bolt as a recurring motif in superhero comics. But when I was putting together my lectures I found it was a great symbol to tie together many different movements in the genre. I had never read anything that tied very specific instances of lightning into one narrative thread that ran throughout the last eight decades.

In Supergods Grant Morrison outlines much of the same sequence of symbols. I’m not saying he, Prometheus-like, stole lightning from me. He mentioned some I didn’t, and I have a couple he missed. As I said, I don’t claim to be the first to notice this. But I found the similarities in our lists, and more importantly the context in which he talked about this, to be wonderfully synchronous. This was one of the specific similarities my student was referring to when she said his book was “Just like my class.”

Okay, so with that explanation and justification out of the way, what exactly is the significance of the lightning bolt symbol in superhero comics, and given the preponderance of its appearance, what are these noteworthy instances?

Lightning is an important symbol in many mythologies. It’s easy to see why. In prehistoric times a sudden burst of jagged fire from the heavens that contained destructive powers must have seemed completely magical. Imagine that you believe in gods who live in the sky, and suddenly the heavens darken, there is a storm, and the guy next to you gets hit by a bolt of lightning that also sets fire to your village. That guy must have done something to really piss off the sky gods. No wonder so many of them appear in our mythologies with bolts of lightning as weapons.

In western culture the Greek god Zeus, and his Roman counterpart Jupiter, are the most obvious examples. They are both sky gods and the fathers of their pantheons, known for their short tempers. Both of them are usually pictured wielding lightning bolts. Thanks to comics and the recent movie, Thor, the Norse god of thunder is now more well-known than previously, though manifestations of him have appeared frequently in modern literature. His hammer, Mjolnir is a physical manifestation of thunder and lightning.

But the symbol exists in lots of lesser known mythologies as well. The Hindu god Indra is known as the god of lightning and carries a thunderbolt as a weapon. The Celtic god of thunder is Taranis while the Irish is Tuireann. The Maya represented their god Huracan with three thunderbolts. The Cherokee tell stories of the Thunder Beings. The Ojibway believe that thunder is created by the Thunderbirds, and they can be either helpful or harmful to man.

So lightning has a long association with the gods and higher powers. But there is more to it than that. It is the symbol of sudden insight and enlightenment. We say that an idea came to us “like a bolt out of the blue.” We have all felt “thunderstruck” by something unexpected. The classic comic strip representation of a sudden idea is a lightbulb appearing over someone’s head, and what is a lightbulb but a container for lightning in the miniature form of an electric spark?

In this context lightning can be seen as divine inspiration. There is a Zen Buddhist concept known as Satori (what the Goth band Bauhaus referred to as a “Kick in the Eye”). It literally means “Understanding” and is seen as a sudden awakening to one’s Buddha nature and enlightenment. It is the first step on the road to Nirvana. Satori has been described to be like lightning; a sudden insight into the Divine that changes ones life. It is the glimpse of the Holy Grail that launches a lifelong quest for our higher selves. It is the bright light that converts Saul into Paul on the road to Damascus. It is a message from beyond, briefly illuminating our potential.

But like actual lightning, it can be dangerous. It brings change and destruction of the old. Once seen it cannot be unseen (and that’s a concept I plan on revisiting when I talk about the classic “Injury to the Eye” motif).

This symbolism of lightning and its relationship to insight and inspiration is obvious. I find it fascinating that modern science has taught us that all thought and brain activity is carried through our brains on flashes of electrical energy.

There are consequences to consciousness and enlightenment of course. The story of Prometheus illustrates this. In Greek mythology Prometheus is said to have stolen fire from the gods and given it as a gift to humanity (and there are variations on this theme/story in mythologies from around the world). Prosaically speaking the taming of fire by our ancient ancestors was one of the first steps that allowed us to evolve. Heat, light, cooking, and eventually metallurgy all stemmed from this discovery. In all likelihood, the very first fires mankind learned to use were started by lightning strikes. It was natural to see this as a gift from the heavens. Symbolically, this is seen to represent the fire of self-awareness, the first stirrings of our consciousness. It is the spark of intellect that lifts us above the animals and makes us more enlightened, more god-like.

But the gods were jealous and apparently didn’t want to share the gift of divine light. It had to stolen from them but one of their own and given to man. Prometheus was punished for all eternity for the temerity of giving this gift to man.

Speaking of being punished for all eternity, in some versions of the Biblical story Lucifer is known as the Lightbringer, which implies the same idea. In many interpretations of the story of Genesis the fruit of forbidden knowledge was self awareness. It was when Adam and Eve went from being innocent to being able to question the god that created them. Once they were aware they were naked they could never again return to the state they were in before. What had been seen could not be unseen.

Maybe it was appropriate for me to be paired up with the Prince of Darkness in that first grade Halloween party after all.

I want touch on some of the high points of this chain of lightning that stretched across comics history. Some of these will appear again, in more detail and in different contexts, in later discussions. But for now I want to at least launch the spark.

Morrison says that Superman’s “S” shield symbol can be read as a stylized lightning bolt. While the curved path of the S can be seen as the jagged path of lightning even I think that is stretching the metaphor a little. That said, in the 1990s there was a period of time when Superman had electric based powers and the S on his costume then (designed by artist Ron Frenz), was very definitively a lightning bolt. This was the form Superman was in for a significant portion of Morrison’s run on JLA.

The Golden Age Flash first appeared in Flash Comics #1 in January 1940. The comic bore the legend, “Lightning fast action, mystery and adventure.” A yellow lightning bolt, his personal sigil, slashed across his chest and down the side of his leg, indicating his power of super speed. But it was the rest of his costume that tied Jay Garrick into the iconography of classic mythology. His winged helmet and boots were the clothes worn by the Greek god Hermes. We can still see this image in the corporate logo of FTD Florists. Here’s a case of one of the earliest superheroes specifically donning the symbolism of the god he wished to embody.

Hermes is the messenger of the gods. As a messenger he brings the word of the divine to the world. He is the carrier of divine inspiration, insight or satori. He is a psychopomp, literally a “conductor of the souls of the dead.” He connects the physical realm of earth with that of both Olympus and Hades. This ability to travel at will between the realms, a power none of the other gods have, is significant and as we will see ties in more specifically with the Silver Age Flash. Hermes is a trickster figure, credited with the invention of music and writing. He is the god of travelers, or anyone on a journey, physical or spiritual. With Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, he sires a hermaphrodite, symbolically uniting the male and female principles, the same way he unites the upper realms of Olympus with the underworld. He is a god that unites the opposites.

Flash was not the only superhero, then or now, to wear the lightning bolt sigil, and a comprehensive list is not what I’m attempting here. Sorry if I leave your favorite one out.

The next significant character from the 1940s to emblazon the lightning sigil across his chest is the original Captain Marvel. First appearing in Whiz Comics #1 cover-dated February 1940 Captain Marvel would go on to be the most successful superhero comic of the decade. Captain Marvel titles regularly outsold Superman (which may account for DC’s ongoing legal battle against the character that would last until 1954).

Captain Marvel was originally young Billy Batson who was granted the powers of the gods by speaking the magic word SHAZAM. When he did so a bolt of lightning from the heavens would strike his body and transform him into “The World’s Mightiest Mortal.”

There is a lot more about this character I want to talk about. I plan on spending significant time on the symbolism and significance of Captain Marvel’s origin story in the next chapter.

There were many more. As I have said, sigils and symbols of all kinds appeared  on the costumes of these colorful new heroes. The Lightning bolt was one of many, but it appeared with an amazing frequency.

As we’ll see, after an explosion of new superheroes during the years of the Second World War, they ceased to flourish in the post-War years. Crime comics and Horror comics and Romance comics had taken the lion’s share of the comic market and that would remain true until the advent of the Comics Code Authority in 1954. The only superheroes published consistently through this time period were Superman, Batman and Robin, and Wonder Woman.

Then, in Showcase #4 in 1956, a new era in comics was signaled by the arrival of the Silver Age Flash, Barry Allen (the one I dressed like in first grade). Leaping off the cover in a sleek new costume comics fans were once again witness to the rebirth of Hermes in the form of a superhero speedster. This version was more sleek and modern than his predecessor. The lightning bolt sigil on his chest remained intact, but the Greek helmet had disappeared. In its place were a pair of wings that stood out from his head like the hood ornaments of that ultimate symbol of 1950s prosperity, the automobile. The car can also be seen as a symbol of those other classic elements of Hermes, speed and travel.

The imagery of that cover is interesting for a number of reasons. On it we see the Flash running toward the reader, leaping out of a roll of movie film on which we see multiple images of him. There is nothing in the story that connects the Flash with movies, so we have to assume this image was meant purely symbolically. The motion picture implies motion, of course, even though this is an illusion. A film is composed of static images given the semblance of motion by the speed at which they are projected. Conveying motion on the screen is easy, but comics are a static medium. How does one convey motion at all, let a lone super speed, in a medium that doesn’t move?

Barry received his powers when he was hit by lightning and dowsed with chemicals. Originally he had the same powers of super speed as his predecessor, but over time this changed. By vibrating the molecules of his body he was able to pass through solid objects. As this power grew, eventually he was able to cross into other realities (and with the help of an unlikely device called the Cosmic Treadmill, to travel through time). He was the first hero to step into another, alternate version of our own Earth where he met Jay Garrick, the original Golden Age Flash. In Barry’s world Jay had existed only as a comic book character and had in fact inspired Barry’s choice of his superhero name. This created a meta-fiction that justifies the current usage of the term “Meta-Hero” for super-powered characters.

This power to cross dimensions and enter other worlds makes Barry Allen a psychopomp in a much more overt fashion than any previous character. The scientific concept of the “multiverse” and the mythic ideas of the various realms of being were beginning to converge.

Showcase #4 marked the beginning of something new. Editor Julius Schwartz had decided to resurrect the name of an old character and update him for a new generation of readers too young to remember the original. This flash of inspiration proved incredibly successful. After languishing for years the superhero genre was reinvigorated, leading to what we now call the Silver Age of Comics. DC relaunched many of their old characters in brand new incarnations. Many of these new characters were teamed up in the Justice League of America, creating a new pantheon of Pop Culture gods in comic book form. Flash, of course, took his place among them.

The superhero genre came back in force in the late 1950s and early 1960s, eventually replacing almost every other genre in comics. During this time there were many new characters with lightning or electricity based powers who wore the sigil on their costumes. In Adventure Comics #247 in 1958 Superboy was visited by three members of the Legion of Superheroes from 1000 years in the future. One of them was called Lightning Lad. It was eventually revealed that he had a sister, Lightning Lass. It wasn’t the lightning that gave them the power to travel through time, but this is still a connection with the powers of a psychopomp. The existence of Superman is what inspired the Legion to form in the future, and Superboy’s interaction with them helped inspire his future career as Superman.

DC’s renewed success with the superhero was noticed by rival company, Marvel Comics, who quickly began to create their own stable of new superhero characters. Fantastic Four #1 was released in 1961. The very first words in that seminal story were, “With the sudden fury of a thunderbolt, a flare is shot into the sky over Central City.”

In this way a thunderbolt launched the Marvel Universe as well. It wasn’t long before the Mighty Thor, the actual Norse god of thunder, joined the ranks of Marvel superheroes. He first appeared in Journey Into Mystery #83 in 1962. Like the Golden Age Captain Marvel, a mortal man, Dr. Don Blake, was transformed into a god in cave, “bathed in blinding light!! Like a fiery bolt of lightning!” He also regularly journeyed between the realms, from Earth (Midgard), to Asgard to Jotunheim and beyond.

Thor was an original member of the Avengers, Marvel’s answer to the Justice League, at least in terms of putting several of their most powerful characters together in one book. When Thor left the team, taking his lightning-based powers with him, one of the new heroes who replaced him was a super-speedster with a lightning bolt sigil named Quicksilver. Quicksilver is the old alchemical name for the element Mercury. Mercury is, of course, the Roman name of the Greek god Hermes.

In 1975 Marvel introduced a new team of teenage mutants in Giant-Size X-Men #1. Prior to this the X-Men had been one of Marvel’s marginal titles, but this relaunch was the beginning of one of the most successful franchises in comics history, and as a whole, introduced characters, concepts and storytelling techniques that are still influential today. While there was no one who wore a lightning sigil, the character of Storm controlled the weather and used lightning bolts as a weapon on a regular basis.

In the 1980s the comic book marketplace was changed forever by the advent of direct market sales. This opened the door to an explosion of new publishing companies and new characters. Lightning was everywhere. The cosmic hero/assassin Nexus, created by Mike Baron and Steve Rude, wore a yellow slash of lightning from his left shoulder down across his chest. Scott McCloud, who would go on fame as the author of the seminal book Understanding Comics, would create a book called Zot! The title character wore the red and yellow of the Flash and the Golden Age Captain Marvel (who he also resembled in terms of features and drawing style). Zot’s chest sigil was a small, stylized lightning bolt that could also be read as a mirror image of his initial, Z.

In Matt Wagner’s series Mage: The Hero Discovered, his protagonist, Kevin Matchstick wears a black and white t-shirt version of the Captain Marvel lightning bolt. This was a character who represented a generation of comic book readers who had begun to wear the symbols of their favorite characters. Kevin was doing what comics fans were doing; he was donning the clothes of his pop culture gods in an effort to channel their power. Not that this was conscious on his part any more than it was to those of us in the real world. But it was a conscious decision on the part of Matt Wagner to reference the history of superhero symbolism. The fact that Kevin eventually embodied and channeled a mythic power, that of the Arthurian Pendragon, tied the modern superhero into a much larger literary tradition as well.

By 1985 DC Comics decided that their multiverse, the concept of multiple earths first introduced when the Silver Age Flash travelled to Earth 2 and met the Golden Age Flash, had grown too large, complicated, and confusing to new readers. The way they handled this perceived problem was a giant, twelve part sprawling story called Crisis on Infinite Earths. Characters from all of their worlds teamed up to try and stop a threat that was destroying the multiverse, one reality at a time. The end result was all of the worlds and their complex histories were compacted into one cohesive whole (that was the plan, anyway. Cracks in the logic of this and plot problems arose almost immediately, some of which were never resolved). Many characters died. The foremost among them was Barry Allen, the Silver Age Flash. This signaled the definitive end to the era of comics that began with Showcase #4, and Barry’s death was symbolic of that.

The result of this Crisis was that many of the characters and stories in the DC universe were rebooted to fit this new continuity. One of the first new books, with a brand new #1, was The Flash. This time it was Wally West who wore the lightning bolt. Wally had been known as Kid Flash, the former sidekick of the Flash. He had received his powers in an amazingly coincidental way by being hit by lightning and dowsed in the very same chemicals as Barry.

It was later revealed that instead of dying in the Crisis, Barry had become one with something called the Speed Force, the source of power for everyone in the DCU with super speed. By being one with it Barry was able to transcend space and time in undreamed of ways, literally becoming the lightning bolts that had empowered both himself and Wally. Like the Flatland analogy, Barry was able to see reality from a higher plane and move at will anywhere along the timeline, expanding the powers of the psychopomp.

1986 has been called “The Best Year in Comics, Ever!” There are a number of reasons for this, which I’ll get to when the time comes. One of those reasons was the publication of Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. This, along with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons Watchmen both completely changed the way superhero comics were done. In terms of art and storytelling, and in the case of the Dark Knight, format, the influence of these titles cannot be underestimated. If you have only read superhero comics since then you have only read stories influenced by these two books. And this change was announced by the sheer graphic intensity of the cover of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns #1. Miller was able to distill the concept of Batman into the simplest of black silhouettes against a background image of a realistic flash of lightning. No comic had ever looked like this before and the power of its imagery jumped off the racks immediately.

The end of the 20th century saw the creation of a new kind of superhero team. Born out of the ashes of Stormwatch, a second or third tier book from Image Comics, The Authority represented the next evolution in the concept of the superhero and set the stage for the way we approached them in the 21st century (that’s a bigger topic for later). The essential part of this for right now is the leader of the Authority, Jenny Sparks. Jenny had superpowers based on electricity. Nothing new there, but the underlying concept of her character ties together much of what I have been talking about in this chapter.

Jenny Sparks was one of several characters in her universe (Wildstorm Studios, at the time. These characters are now owned by DC and their status in current continuity is unknown), known as “Century Babies.” They were all born on January 1, 1900, and age more slowly than normal people. Each of them serve a specific purpose for the world. Jenny Sparks was the “Spirit of the 20th Century.” As such, she died on New Year’s Eve, 1999, and a new spirit of the 21st century, Jenny Quantum, was born. It was suggested that there has always been a Jenny, a living spirit of each century in history, with powers that represent the world at that time. The 19th century had Jenny Steam.

Jenny Sparks was the embodiment of electricity, the single most influential technology of the last century. Before then the world was dark. Through our technology we captured lightning and encased it in bulbs to illuminate our homes and streets. We send messages, words and pictures and music and information, around the world and into space on currents of electricity. Hermes, the god of communication, races around our world at the speed of light, to bring the light of information to all. Powers that once were magical are now a common, everyday experience for most of us. Like the sky gods of old, we all wield the power of the lightning bolt.

Though Jenny Sparks represented the previous century we have not left the symbol behind. Though we have moved into a Quantum age, as represented by this century’s Jenny, we are not done with the sigil of lightning. A symbol with this history, extending back into our prehistoric past, is powerful and has a life of its own.

Just recently DC has once again decided, just like in the days of Crisis on Infinite Earths, that their universe had become too unwieldy to be understood by new readers. They have recently rebooted their entire universe with a brand new continuity. Of course, a Flash had to be involved.

Barry Allen had been resurrected a couple of years ago and he, Wally, and Jay Garrick were all running around the DC universe using the name The Flash. A villain from the future, Professor Zoom, the Reverse Flash, went back in time and changed the entire history of the DCU, leading to an event called Flashpoint. By the end of it Barry was able to defeat Zoom and undo his interference in the timeline. When history corrected itself most things were restored, though there have been major changes. This story arc is the justification for the relaunch of all of their titles. Barry seems to have some lingering memory of the old timeline. Whether this will have any impact on the future of DC is yet to be seen. If it does it will be one more instance of our lightning powered psychopomp bringing about change.

One of the new titles launched in the New 52 is called Earth 2. This is a reference to the stories in this title taking place in an alternate universe to the one portrayed in the other titles in the line. In a previous continuity Earth 2 was where all of the Golden Age DC stories took place and the home of those characters, including the original Flash. In the new series, rather than continue telling stories of these characters set in the 1940s they have decided to recreate them in a modern context. The first new hero to appear is Jay Garrick, the Flash. In this iteration he does not simply wear a costume that references the god Hermes. In this story Hermes himself appears to Jay. The old gods have all been killed defending the world from invasion. Hermes is the last of them and knows that their powers must survive. He infuses Jay with is essence, igniting the spark of god-like powers, super speed, in a mortal. We have come full circle with this story>

One last observation before moving away from this topic

Recently there was a documentary called Real Life Superheroes. The film is about real people in America who put on costumes and go out onto the streets to fight crime. The very first person we meet calls himself Mr. Extreme. He wears a superhero costume while going out and patrolling the streets of San Diego. When we meet him in his “Extreme Cave” (his tiny apartment), in his secret identity he is wearing a cap with the team logo of the San Diego Chargers Football team.

A lightning bolt.

Chapter One Part Two: Behold, I Teach You The Superman!

1 Apr

 

BEHOLD, I TEACH YOU THE SUPERMAN!

The title of this section is part of a quote from the philosopher Friederich Nietzsche, from his seminal book, Thus Spake Zarathustra. The full quote is; “Behold, I teach you the superman! He is this lightning! He is this madness!” It has been used before in relation to comics of course. Alan Moore used it in his 1980s deconstructionist superhero work Marvelman (published in the United States by Eclipse Publishing as Miracleman for trademark reasons that I’ll get into in a later section of the book). Grant Morrison used it as the opening quote of his 2011 book, Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human. It’s a great quote, and fits the themes of superheroes incredibly well.

Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1938, wearing bright primary colors and creating the tropes of the superhero genre and archetypal imagery we will forever associate with it. The story of his creation by Siegal and Shuster is well known. They were two young men of Jewish descent from Cleveland, Ohio who wanted to create a comic strip of their new character. After being rejected by the newspaper syndicates they took their creation to National Publications where they were working as writer and artist for the comics features Federal Men and Dr. Occult, among others. They sold the rights to National for $120 and the rest is history.

Much has been said and written about Siegal and Shuster’s legal wrangling with DC Comics over the rights to Superman over the years. It is a complicated issue and without a doubt they were mistreated and ripped off. But at the time, this sort of deal, fair or not, was the industry standard (and stayed that way for a very long time). For good or ill, if they hadn’t taken that $120 the world may never have seen Superman and the subsequent growth of the comics industry. We would all have been poorer if that were the case.

But I’m not here to discuss the moral and legal complexities of this issue (though I’ll certainly touch on it in the context of creator’s rights later). At this point in my story I want to teach you the Superman.

The editors and publishers at National Publications didn’t have very much faith in Superman. Remember, this was at a time when no one had ever seen a super-powered hero in bright tights and a cape before. The powers that be thought he looked silly next to the more traditional detectives and Pulp heroes. Superman didn’t appear on the cover of Action again for several issues, and then only sporadically. But sales on Action were phenomenal. Anecdotal stories came into the National offices that kids everywhere were asking specifically for “that comic with Superman in it.” Beginning with issue #19 he appeared on the cover of every issue.

I want to stress something here; before Action Comics #1 there simply was no such thing as a superhero in the way we think of it today. Siegal and Shuster had created a brand new, never-before-seen genre, one that would explode in very short order and successfully continue, with occasional dips in popularity, to the present day, with no signs of it ever ending. The form changes over time, as I’ll address in great detail later, but the basic form endures.

Though Superman arrived as the proverbial bolt out of the blue he was not without his literary and mythic precedents. Siegal and Shuster were both readers and fans of Pulp fiction and the burgeoning Science Fiction and Fantasy genres that were a part of it. They acknowledge that a book entitled Gladiator by Phillip Wylie was a huge inspiration on Superman. They were part of a culture that read the heroic fiction of writers like Edger Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard. They were being weaned on characters like Tarzan, and John Carter. They were visiting the strange worlds that were being presented in Weird Tales magazine.

The name Clark Kent can be traced very specifically to two of these Pulp hero precedents. Clark Savage is better known as Doc Savage, the Man of Bronze. The Shadow’s real name is Kent Allard.

As Jews they were also versed in their cultural heritage and the legends and myths that accompany it. The concept of a Messiah, the perfect man who would one day arrive and save us all was a familiar refrain (and I realize what a tremendous simplification of Judaism this statement is). Surely they knew the legends of the Golem, a protector of the Jewish people, brought to life by the word Truth being inscribed on its forehead (does this tie in symbolically with Truth, Justice, and the American way). The name Kal-El, Superman’s Kryptonian name, translates as “All that is God.”

Elements of the story of Moses are also evident in Superman’s origin. At the time of Moses birth the Pharaoh has ordered all Jewish babies to be drowned in the Nile (similar to what was happening to Jews in Nazi Germany at the time). Moses’ parents set him adrift in the Nile in a small boat. He was found by the Pharaoh’s daughter and thereby saved. Kal-El’s home world of Krypton is dying. To save him his parents place him in a small space ship and launch him into space to save his life. He is found on Earth by Jonathan and Martha Kent.

Superman is also, symbolically speaking, a Sun God. The mythic precedents for this idea show up in most mythologies around the world. Superman gains his powers from our yellow sun. He stores this energy in the cells of his body and converts it into strength, invulnerability and all of his other magical powers. He is Ra the Egyptian God of the Sun with the all-seeing eye of daylight (heat and x-ray vision, anyone?). He is Apollo, the Sun God who flies his chariot across the sky, the very embodiment of life-giving light. He is the lightbringer who banishes the darkness, (e.g., Evil). Medieval paintings feature saints and deities with a shining halo of light around their heads, indicating their divine nature and the light of inner wisdom. He is warmth and comfort. This mythic archetype touches some of the most basic of human needs as well as points to higher planes of being and awareness.

As the first superhero, Superman is the Ur-Hero of the modern pantheon, the one from which all others are descended. In addition to being the Sun God, this makes him the symbolic father of the gods as well. He is Zeus the lightning-bearer, Odin the All-Father, both destined to replace the gods of a previous pantheon, just as Pop Cultural mythology has, culturally at least, replaced the old gods of traditional religion for many.

I don’t really think that teenagers Siegal and Shuster, sat down and thought about all of these things at the time of Superman’s creation. Whatever the case, they tapped into some very universal concepts that have resonated with people for thousands of years. But there were more practical reasons for Superman’s resonance with the audience of America in 1938.

Superman’s origin can be seen as the American Immigrant Story. He came to America from a dying world. In the case of Krypton it was literally dying, in the apocalyptic, being blown to pieces sense. Europe wasn’t literally exploding, though the rise of Nazi Germany proved to be just as apocalyptic. America was the land of opportunity, where you could leave behind your old identity and forge a new life. No matter how poor or destitute or homeless you were, in America you had the chance to create a new life and be successful. Kal-El came from the Old World (Krypton) and became Clark Kent, Americanized in name as well as culture, just like so many of those who passed through Ellis Island. He was raised in Kansas, the geographic center of America’s heartland with the simple values of hard work and a simple and practical moral and ethical code. He was the farm boy who moved to the big city to pursue a professional career, proving that anyone, no matter how humble their beginnings could aspire to the highest levels of success in America. His job as a reporter was part of the mythology. It is a reporter’s job to uncover the Truth. You know… the magic word that brings the Golem, the protector of the people, to life.

And this was all as Clark Kent! These symbols of success had nothing to do with his superpowers. This was an idea that spoke to people on many levels.

But the dream simply didn’t come true for many immigrants. While opportunities did exist here for many, America was in a state of economic depression. Crime and ethnic prejudice were rampant. Many people were faced, day-to-day, in addition to the fears of actual crime, with the petty offenses of corrupt politicians, landlords and businessmen. In his earliest stories, these were the very criminals Superman engaged most often. He was striking a blow for the little man that most people could relate to. The concepts of the larger-than-life, apocalyptic cosmic threats that have become the mainstay of superhero fiction of the last few decades were not present in the later years of the Depression. Losing your home to a corrupt slumlord was a much imminent threat to most people than large scale death from above (that would change with the advent of the Atomic Age). Superman confronted these evils in both of his identities.

Which brings us the idea of the secret identity.

There were precedents for the secret identity of course. It had been appearing in the Pulps with characters like the Shadow and the Spider. Zorro first appeared in 1919 with a secret identity. Reverend Syn, the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh appeared in a series of novels by Russell Thorndike beginning in 1915. The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emma Orczy appeared first as a play in 1903 and the novel followed soon after, providing the first literary precedent for the idea of a conscious duel identity. Robert Louis Stevenson dealt with the idea in The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Once introduced in the Superman mythos it became one of the most common and defining tropes of the superhero genre.

The reason for the secret identity most often given in comics by the characters usually involves the idea that anonymity allows them to operate in private, giving them far more autonomy than working within the boundaries of law-enforcement agencies. There is also the common thread of protecting their families. If the superhero’s enemies discover who they really are then they could use threats against the hero’s mother, father, aunt, siblings, children, or whoever to stop the hero.

Much has been said about the psychology behind this. Anthropological studies of the mask have been part of that branch of academic literature for decades. By wearing a mask one not only identifies with a higher power, whether a god or a spirit animal or whatever, but also takes on their characteristics. Donning a mask and a costume literally transforms the normal person into a superhero. That shaman drawn on cavern wall at le Trois Freres is wearing the skins of animals. This isn’t just a fashion statement. It is a magical attempt to become one with the gods. It is ritual and ceremony designed to physically embody the powers of the Divine. The examples of this type of ritual and belief are widespread and continue in various forms to this day, in both religious and secular arenas.

Perhaps no single Mythological construct has been applied to superheroes as much as Joseph Campbell’s idea of The Hero’s Journey, first introduced in his book, The Hero With 1000 Faces. I’m not going to rehash those ideas here. They are covered in great detail in many sources. As a really brief description I will say that in essence it is an exploration of how the same images, ideas and themes concerning the idea of God or the gods can be found in religions and cultures all over the world. The contention is that each of these are symbols that point back to one underlying, common idea. Campbell followed this with a series of four books collectively titled The Masks of God. These were an exploration of the many ways the Divine has been seen and represented around the world. Even if you accept the idea that all of these symbols represent the same basic concept it is fascinating to see the manifestations. If the Divine is ineffable it must cloak itself in the masks of any given culture to be perceived at all. Authentic identity was subsumed by cultural identity.

To circle back to the idea of Superman being the American Immigrant story, many of those new to American shores took on new identities. Their old lives were gone, as irretrievably as Krypton. The people they were had transformed into something new. They were Germans, or Slovaks, or Italian, or whatever, but now they were also American. Balancing the needs of these two identities, maintaining a sense of ethnic pride and connection while making a new life in a new country was difficult at best. Many of those who passed through Ellis Island were given new, Americanized names and identities. To fit in, many ethnicities tried to hide their cultural background so as to avoid discrimination in the new land of equality and opportunity. This was especially true in the Jewish community, a fact that many early comics creators were extremely familiar with. Ask Jerry “Segalovich” Siegel, Max “Ginsberg” Gaines, Jack “Kurtzburg” Kirby, Stanley “Lieber” Lee, and dozens of others about this.

Of course, in Germany in the 1930s, Jews were suffering a much more horrendous cultural upheaval thanks to a very different manifestation of the concept of the Superman. The ideas I’m about to talk about are not new ones. The connection between the Nazi ideal of the Superman, their misinterpretation of the writings of Nietzsche, and the American superhero have all been made before, in greater depth than I plan on going into here. But, there are aspects of this that deserve being touched on.

In the original German, Nietzsche introduces the terms Ubermensch and Untermensch. Literally meaning “Overman” and “Underman.” So, the original quote is more literally translated as, “Behold, I teach you the Overman.” Throughout his writings he plays the terms Over and Under against each other. The translation as “Superman” loses this wordplay and diminishes what Nietzsche intended.

He used the terms as part of his concept of Master mentality and Slave mentality. While this is debatable, and volumes of commentary and analysis on Nietzsche are available, the basic ideas are very simple. Most of humanity, every one of us at times, is susceptible to Slave mentality. We accept our roles in life and go about our daily business as if we have no control over our own destiny. Everything is someone else’s fault, or too big for us to have any control over. So whatever is wrong in our life, whatever is keeping us down, is beyond our ability to change. When we live with this slave mentality we are making ourselves the Untermensch, the Underman.

The Master mentality, by contrast, refers to the person who is able to take control of his own situation and change it for the better. It is the person who recognizes that they do have the power to change their lives and take the responsibility to do so. By actively attempting to better yourself one becomes the Ubermensch, the Overman. One overcomes his own tendency toward a slave mentality and masters his own life. Nietzsche terms the ability to achieve this the “Will to Power.”

Now even within this incredibly brief description there is the possibility of not only misinterpretation, but there is also room for abuse of power. A deeper reading of Nietzsche reveals that his Will to Power refers primarily to power over oneself. It is claiming the power of your own life and overcoming your own self-defeating tendencies. It is overcoming that which keeps you under. Many people have misread this to further their own agenda of power over others. The Will to Power can easily be read as Might Makes Right. The idea of mastering your own base nature can all too easily be misconstrued as mastering others. It is easier to psychologically project our own slave tendencies onto others than to change them within yourself.

From within this context rose the manifesto of Nazi Germany. The idea of mastering oneself became the concept of a Master Race. The Slave mentality was then shuffled off to all those who were not part of that Aryan ideal, specifically the Jews (though obviously, the Gypsies and Homosexuals, and anyone else seen as an inferior race suffered as well). The irony here is that blaming the problems of the world on someone other than yourself is a slave mentality.

But unfortunately, this irony led to suffering and the deaths of millions. As a symbol, the concept of the Master Race as espoused by the Nazis was successful, whether it had anything to do with Nietzsche’s original concept or not. Millions of Germans fell under its spell and were able to commit atrocities in the name of being superior. In the end, they were all slaves to a symbol and a power beyond themselves. Average citizens were sold a bill of goods that not only made them feel better about their situation, but gave them a scapegoat for their woes.

The inherent problem with identifying with our higher selves, the Ubermensch in Nietzsche’s terms, is then seeing ourselves as above everyone else. The moment we do that we have once again become the Untermensch. There is a reason that Superman’s secret identity is Clark Kent, a humble and unassuming Everyman (Jedermensch).

I think we have all felt the somewhat schizophrenic pull of the different aspects of our lives. We all must wear the masks that are expected of us in the roles we play. We wear the mask of our job for forty-plus hours a week, and then have to don another one to be a parent. There’s our Saturday night out-drinking-with-the-guys mask and our Sunday-Go-To-Meeting mask. It can be easy to play these roles so completely that we forget that we are playing roles and believe our masks are our true faces. Our real identity becomes secret, even from ourselves.

There is a famous Zen Koan that asks, “What did your face look like before your parents were born?” It is an attempt to get at the core of authentic identity.

For Superman it is important to remember that Kal-El, the Kryptonian with all the superpowers is his true face. Clark Kent, the common man, is the false identity, though “false” is perhaps the wrong way to look at this. Clark is the morally centered, good man the Kents raised him to be. It is a core part of his true identity and cannot be separated from who he is as Superman. This eventually becomes true with a lot of the more iconic heroes. Bruce Wayne is his birth name, but it can be said that Batman became his true identity. Bruce is the mask he wears to protect the Dark Knight, and is in many ways, far less important to who he is than Clark is to Superman.

We all have those parts of ourselves we wish to hide. We all, at times, are guilty of  “hiding our light beneath a bushel” because we all have parts of ourselves that are greater than we think we are. We all wear costumes and masks: the business suit, the wedding gown, the football jersey, the t-shirt with a band logo or the symbol of our favorite superhero… each of these allows us to identify with and take on the powers of those we emulate. Outsider culture (and comics culture has until recently been outsider culture), creates its own costumes and the identities that go with it, so much so that the accepted modes of expression in these outsider groups, whether Punk or Hippy, Bikers or Drag Queens, end up being much more restricted and impersonal than the culture they are rebelling against.

And then there is the phenomenon of Cosplay, but I’ll talk about that later.

It’s appropriate to ask why Superman, the very epitome of the middle-class Caucasian appealed to the American immigrant. On the surface he exhibits nothing that defines him as any ethnicity whatsoever. Superman is so white that it’s difficult to imagine how so many people of all races came to embrace him and relate to his ideals.

It could be that his very bland whiteness is the quality that allowed everyone to project themselves onto his image. Scott McCloud makes the argument in Understanding Comics that the more simplified a drawing of a person is, the more iconic, the easier it is for the viewer to see himself in it. A photograph is of a very specific person, someone other than yourself. The simple line drawings of Charlie Brown can be seen as the Everyman. The earliest drawings of Superman are simplified, but certainly not to the level of Peanuts. But then that was true of most comics at that time. But it is Superman’s essence that seems to be the simplified, iconic image. Superman is the conceptual equivalent of the smiley face, a template in which we can all see ourselves, a mirror for our self-image.

Immigrants of all kinds could see in Superman the American ideal that they had endured hardship to obtain. In the process of becoming American they needed to let go of their old, ethnic identities (to some extent, at least), and their old cultural mythologies to embrace a new, American cultural identity and mythology. As a relatively new country, and the proverbial Melting Pot of ethnic diversity, this identity was still developing. The only real archetypal precedent to the superhero in American culture were the heroes of Tall Tales, such as Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, and Pecos Bill. The latter of these was a superheroic version of the Cowboy, which had seen tremendous success in Dime Novels and pulp fiction. The Cowboy stands out as perhaps the first, distinctly American character type and while actual cowboys and western types were as ethnically diverse as all of American culture that wasn’t seen in any of its earliest depictions.

What all of these had in common is that they are all rugged individualists, forging their own paths in the world. They are the epitome of the can-do, “Pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps” attitude that characterized the American self-image. These figures were not bound by tradition or cultural roles. They were ethnic blank slates, in spite of their overt Caucasian features.  Some of this can be blamed on the monolithic white culture of the times, but the cowboy shares the same qualities of the ethnic blank slate as the superhero. American immigrants could project their experience onto this. They were the ones, after all, who had walked away from their roots to seek a new and better world. They were the ones who took their destiny in their own hands and struck out on a new path, where they could succeed or fail on their own merits instead of being trapped by the weight of the past, in theory at least.

In their 1977 book of the same title, authors Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence outline what they call The American Monomyth. Though it is a variation on Campbell’s Hero’s Journey they see a scenario that they believe is specific to American heroic fiction.

The general outline of the story goes like this;

A community is threatened by evil. The usual sources of order, such as the police or community elders, are unable to deal with this threat. An outsider appears, turns his back on the temptations of a normal life (usually represented by the possibility of love and stability with a marriageable partner), and confronts the villain. Typically in possession of some special gift, or aided by fate, his victory is decisive and returns the community to its previous state of peace and prosperity. At this point the hero, unable to live in the community, leaves. It is the traditional riding off into the sunset scenario, never to be seen again.

Much can be said about this trope (and Jewett and Lawrence do so in their book). In brief, it seems to speak to our mixed belief in the efficacy of a lone savior figure who will miraculously save us from anything, as well as our inability to incorporate this type of figure into our sense of community. We all believe in the strength of the individual, but someone with these abilities threatens our stated belief in the equality of everyone. The gunslinger with the skills of violence necessary to save us from our oppression is not welcome in our paradisiacal abode once the enemy is dispatched. He is not only a reminder of our own weakness and inability to cope with the problem, but the very skills that saved us are now threatening once the original evil has been vanquished.

No figure embodied this idea of individualism better than the superhero (as I see it. This kind of conclusion can obviously be debated or dismissed and I’m okay with that). Superman appeared with a symbol on his chest, a logo that said, “This is who I am, and no one else is Superman.” The stylized “S” was a personal monogram. It was a symbol that embodied strength. The shape of the symbol was that of the classic shield. Not only did this conjure the image of the chivalric knight in shining armor, it was also personal identity serving as protection. The emblem was also diamond-shaped, a subtle allusion to both invulnerability and great value. In later stories Superman would frequently squeeze a lump of coal in his hand with enough pressure to form a diamond. The symbolism of this is the classic alchemical idea of turning lead into gold. Base material can be transformed into something valuable. Every poor immigrant can become a wealthy and successful American. Every Untermensch can become an Ubermensch. Every humble Clark Kent is, in actuality, a Superman.

In our current society the concept of personal branding is well-known. Everyone who aspires to celebrity of any kind is aware of that kind of power. No one buys Under The Dome, they buy the new Stephen King book. People will go see a Tom Cruise movie, no matter what it is about, because it is a Tom Cruise movie.

But when Action Comics #1 appeared on the stands, with Superman wearing his own, personal symbol, this idea was new (though the precedent of a familial Coat of Arms certainly existed). It immediately became one of the most enduring of the superhero tropes. Soon, super people were wearing their personal symbol on their chests for all to see: Bats and lanterns and stars and lightning bolts (more on that specific symbol in the next section). These symbols served to illuminate a characters identity and his abilities. Putting on the costume, wearing the symbol, was wearing the essence of the powers one wanted to emulate. Like the ancient shaman at La Frere Trois, a hero would don the raiment of the gods to manifest their power in the world. The mask and costume that hid their identity is the thing that allowed them to be individuals.

No discussion of this idea would be complete without addressing the corporate nature of comics. The Superman “S” symbol is one of the most recognized symbols in the world. It is also a trademarked logo. It may have once symbolized the individualism of a new kind of hero, but it is also a symbol owned by a giant mega-corporation, in this case Warner Brothers.

Grant Morrison has talked at length about the idea of the Sigil, a symbol that embodies and propagates magical ideas. It is usually defined as a symbol designed for a specific magical purpose. In his definition of the word, corporate logos are magical sigils. Everyone recognizes the golden arches of McDonalds. This is more than a simple logo; it is a meme that gets into people’s heads and changes the way they think about the world. Any successful symbol is the same, corporate or not. The Soviet Hammer and Sickle, the American flag, the Nike slash and the logo of the Pittsburgh Steelers are all sigils, given this definition.

The Christian Cross and the Jewish Star of David are sigils. So is the Nazi Swastika. While Superman was wearing his “S” to identify himself as an individual, Jews in Germany were being forced to wear the Star of David to identify them as undesirables.

We here in the West simply cannot see the Swastika without immediately associating it with fascism, Nazis, and the atrocities committed in the name of Adolph Hitler and the Third Reich. But that wasn’t always the case. The image of the Swastika is found in cultures from around the world, going back to ancient times, and in most cases the associated meanings are positive, pertaining to ideas of luck and good fortune. It was used as the coat of arms for many Japanese families and is a symbol used widely in Buddhism. A simple internet search will yield a wealth of information on this topic. But in spite of centuries of use as a positive symbol it only took a period of a few years for it to become charged with such negativity as to forever change it’s meaning. To use magical terminology (and this is in no way meant to devalue the genuine horror and human suffering that took place), the Nazi Party performed a blood sacrifice to empower their sigil. Though they were defeated the Swastika still encapsulates their regime, and unfortunately still inspires many people to follow their twisted path.

In the world of superheroes, the emblem emblazoned on a character’s chest serves as a sigil. When Tim Burton’s movie version of Batman premiered in 1989 the first promotional poster to appear featured nothing but the Batman symbol and the release date for the film. Nothing else was needed. The symbol is a meme that has entered the symbolic consciousness of the public (at least the public who were the target audience). This idea informs Morrison’s DC Comics series Batman Inc. wherein Bruce Wayne publicly announces that he is the financial supporter of Batman and that it has now become a global network. Batman recruits people from around the world to be his agents, so that the symbol of the bat is recognized and feared by criminals around the world instead of just in Gotham. In the DC universe the bat symbol is a force of good and represents an attempt to fight crime. In our real world it appears on posters and lunch boxes and t-shirts; it is a marketable, money-making trademark far more than an inspiration to fight crime. Transforming the one idea into the other, and maintaining both meanings is a remarkable piece of sigil magic.

But in the big picture, no matter how these logos and characters are used to turn a profit (and I don’t even really have a problem with that), the underlying ideals of the superhero are larger than their strictly commercial application. When people buy and wear their Superman t-shirts, or get a tattoo, or don the S-shield in any manner, they are embodying their ideal of Superman more than they are the ideal of corporate profiteering. The same is true of band logos or sports jerseys. As much revenue is generated for the corporate owners of these brands the people wearing them are participating in the same behavior as primitive man in Lascaux. We are donning the skins of our sacred beings so that we may better identify with the positive qualities we believe they embody. We want to be Troy Polamalu, not the corporate entity of the Pittsburgh Steelers. We want to be Superman, not Warner Brothers.

The psychologist Carl Jung used the term Participation Mystique to talk about the psychological connection between people, and between people and things, specifically symbols. It is a term borrowed from the anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl and means, literally, a “mystical participation.” The controversial subject of mysticism aside, there is something powerful about the connection people feel with their symbols. Ask any stadium full of people wearing their team colors about this experience. This isn’t a team; this is My team. They didn’t win; We did. By wearing their colors, by donning their symbols, we become them. We participate in their glory.  Symbols come to represent very powerful beliefs and values, and the more we identify with them the more powerful they become. People die for the flag or for the cross. Canny leaders can easily manipulate the belief in those symbols to get people to do most anything.

The nature of a true symbol is that it encompasses a very complex set of ideals. Ask any ten people who wear the Christian cross and you will get ten different definitions of what it means to the person wearing it. Likewise, the idea of Superman is larger than any one iteration of the concept. The idea of the superhero has entered our collective unconscious as a modern avatar of eternal ideals. The best of them, and Superman still holds that title, continue to grow and change with the culture around them. For any myth or legend to remain relevant they have to. The Superman of the 50’s TV show was not the Superman of Action Comics #1. Nor are the various cartoon versions, or movies. The Smallville television series was a pretty radical reinterpretation of all of the classic elements of the Superman mythos but was popular enough to run for ten seasons (I have some thoughts on the reasons for this that tie into a much larger, and much later in this book, conversation about the transformation of the superhero over time).

In 2012 DC Comics launched its New 52. This is a company wide relaunch of their entire line, with every title being a new #1. Action and Detective, the two longest running titles in comic book history, are both being renumbered (this leaves Archie as the one remaining comic from the 1940s being published with its original numbering intact). Part of the mission statement behind this relaunch is the need for DC characters to grow and change to better meet the needs of a 21st century readership. There is a recognition that for things to survive they need to change to reflect the times.

The Superman that burst onto the scene in 1938, the symbol of the American immigrant, is not the Superman the world needs anymore. At that time his story spoke to the psychological needs of a vast group of people, in subtle ways that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster could never have imagined when they first committed their ideas to paper. Over time he has, through many changes in culture, continued to speak to generations of people.

But, increasingly, the idea of Superman seems to have gone out of fashion. His inherent goodness has become more and more difficult to relate to in our ever more cynical world. His credo of Truth, Justice, and the American Way seems naive. He has been derided as a “big, blue boy scout.” As an image and an ideal his standards are difficult to live up to.

Batman wishes to inspire fear in his enemies (“Villains are a superstitious and cowardly lot” as the saying goes). Superman is a beacon of hope, an icon of the very best we can be. In our post 9/11 world fear is a more palpable and concrete concept than hope. It is easy to be cynical in the wake of suicide bombers and collapsing buildings. It is easier to seek revenge on those we blame for our fear than it is to aspire to be better ourselves. It is easier to be afraid than it is to be hopeful. Belief in fear is rewarded immediately. Hope is a slipperier thing to grasp, more difficult to feel rewarded for, harder to maintain. It is far easier to maintain the personal mindset of the Untermensch, to blame others for our woes and feel we have no power, than it is to master our own base natures and take personal responsibility for the world we live in.

But I believe that it is times like these that we most need to pursue and adhere to our higher ideals.

In Christianity there is a tradition known as Imitatio Christi, or the Imitation of Christ. While countless volumes of writing exists about this concept, in essence it boils down to a phrase that can be seen on bumper stickers all over; “What Would Jesus Do?” Stripped of all of the conflicting theologies and biblical interpretations, what is the essence of the life of Christ? It is a higher ideal, one comprised of authenticity and compassion (truth and justice). The life of Christ is seen as a model for right behavior toward others. The true and simple lessons of Christianity can easily be twisted for personal and political reasons. All of the preaching and pontificating and quoting of scripture means nothing if your heart is filled with hate and vengeance. But, in the day-to-day, aspiring to the simplest teachings of love and compassion in all we do should be enough. Strange how these simple concepts, like hope, are so difficult to manage.

In Buddhism this notion is expressed through the concept of Buddha Nature. This is the realization that all beings have the potential for enlightenment. The person of Gautama Siddartha became the Buddha by awakening from his ignorance and gaining transcendent wisdom and peace. But this transcendence is available to everyone. It is a higher ideal to aspire to. Everyone can be the Buddha. Everyone has a Buddha Nature.

The image of the superhero, Superman very specifically, is the modern, secular equivalent of these ideas, stripped of religious raiment and the cultural biases against them. The ideals can be restated:

“What Would Superman Do?”

“Do I have a Superman Nature?”

“Does Everyone have a Superman Nature?”

In the 1930’s Superman provided the blank slate for a generation of immigrants to project their ideals on. Perhaps the relevance of Superman to our current society and its needs is to be the blank slate on which we can project our better nature. Superman is our higher self. We need to wear the ideals of his symbol on our hearts instead of simply on our chests. Wearing a cross is nothing but fashion if one does not act as Christ would. Wearing a Superman symbol is nothing more than corporate advertising if one does not embrace and exhibit his qualities.

Superman, as a concept, has always been bigger than any specific manifestation of the character. Admittedly, this makes his image difficult to live up to. The need to always be “Super” puts one under a lot of pressure.

But remember, that pressure is what turns the base material of coal into a diamond.

Chapter One Part One: Origin Story

23 Mar

ORIGIN STORY

I came into this world in June of 1961, the same year that Reed Richards and his family stole a spaceship and embarked on their hero’s journey to the stars. Through an accidental exposure to cosmic rays they stole the fire of heaven and returned to Earth empowered. Their story helped launch a new age of comics and changed the way we saw our brightly costumed heroes.

I knew none of this at the time, of course. I was just starting on my own hero’s journey. Comic books have been my fellowship of trusted companions for most of it.

I learned to read from comic books. I say that here at the beginning to let the reader know the degree to which comic books have been influential in my life. I simply do not have any memories of not reading comics. People will ask me what my first comic book was and I truly do not have an answer. My Mom was an avid reader who read to me a lot when I was young. Comic books were simply part of the whole, along with children’s books and nursery rhymes. This was probably unusual in the early 60’s, a time when comic books were looked down upon as sub-literate and even dangerous by a lot of society.

This built in me a love of story, and a love of reading and art that continues to this day. In addition to loving comics and books I have always wanted to create them as well, long before I knew anything about the process of actually doing so. There was, and is, something about that magic interplay between images and text that appeals to me like no other art form. When comics are done well they work a very specific kind of magic that no other storytelling medium does (and this is where I point out that this is true of every storytelling medium at its best).

My earliest memory of “creating comics” was in church with my grandmother when I was little. I mean really little, like four or five years old little. The memory is vague, of course, but I’m making the assumption that I was fidgeting and bored. She gave me a notepad and a pencil (maybe a pen) to keep me occupied. What I drew is the primary part of the memory, and I’m sure my mind’s eye and the many years since have warped the actual visuals, but…

I rendered a stick figure rendition of the Fantastic Four. I don’t have memories of which issues of FF I had seen (I was six the year the FF cartoon premiered, and this memory has to predate that, so it must have been the comics). But that stick-figure image is burned into my brain. Only now do I think it significant that while sitting in church listening to tales from the Bible I was drawing icons of my own, secular pantheon.

About once a month in my Sunday School classes we were given a small booklet that I remembered being called Pix. A little internet research has revealed to me that it was first published starting in 1949 by the David C. Cook Publishing Company. It was originally called Sunday Pix. The title was changed to Bible-In-Life Pix in 1969 and then to simply Pix in the 1990’s (PIX is also the shorthand name for the Pittsburgh Indy Expo, an annual convention focusing on independent comics creators and publications… get used to this sort of tangent in my writing). These were not the fire and brimstone fear and guilt-inducing pamphlets by Jack Chick that most people are familiar with. The primary content of Pix was comic book adaptations of stories from the Bible. I devoured these just like I did any comic. They were the thing about Sunday School I most looked forward to. The sermons lost me as a child, and the language of King James seemed designed to befuddle more than enlighten (I still kind of feel this way), but Pix was filled with exciting adventure stories about heroes and villains and supernatural creatures… you know, just like all the other comics I read. The moralizing was a little more overt, but really not all that different from the morals I was learning from the superheroes at Marvel and DC.

At the time I didn’t differentiate between Pix and the other comics I read. They were all the same to me. I certainly didn’t analyze any of this. Only as an adult did I start to have the suspicion that many of my attitudes toward organized religion may have had their origins here. I’m not involved in a church of any kind, but the core morality I have is in concert with most of the world religions (which, I believe, at base are all saying the same things). The mythologies from which these major belief systems are derived share remarkable similarities. They share the same thing with comics. Because of the comic book format I’m pretty sure I read all of these things with the same attitude. The stories in Pix were no more “real” or “sacred” to me than were the adventures of Superman or the Avengers.

And those things were very real and sacred to me.

As a child, and on into my teens and adulthood I filled sketchpads with drawings of superheroes. I still do this. At first, like so many artists, I copied my favorite drawings from the comics, as well as from other sources. I remember doing a decent reproduction of the Cherokee Indian Sequoyah from the cover of one book of a series of American biographies for kids I was devouring from the library at the time. This would have been around third grade. These were not tracings. I would look at the art and draw freehand. I was determined to someday have drawn every superhero that had ever existed. At the time I had no idea what that would actually entail.

Not content with the number of characters that already existed, I also created my own… lots and lots of them. I think most people who read comics at that age have done something similar. Some of them go on to professional work in comics and introduce characters that had their origins in the brains and sketchbooks of ten-year-olds. I wanted to create my own stories, with my own characters, not simply write what other people had already created.

And other people had created a lot. The history of comics is a long one, if we define comics in the most basic of terms as “telling stories with pictures.” When I started making notes for my class lectures I ran into the question of where to begin. How do you narrow down something with this rich of a history to a specific starting point? Where does the history of comics really begin?

There’s a Bugs Bunny cartoon called This is a Life? (Warner Brothers, 1955. It was a parody of a popular show of the time called This is Your Life!). In it Bugs is asked to recount his life. Elmer Fudd asks him to start at the beginning.

“Well,” says Bugs, “in the beginning there was no life. The Earth was forming… BOOM! The Earth shimmered from earthquakes! Mountains forming! Oceans boiling! Then… all’s quiet. A little pool of water forms. In that pool, two tiny amoeba, the start of life.”

Comics are a lot like that.

This seems to be the best place to address the concepts of time and space, at least in terms of how they relate to comics. It has been pretty well established scientifically, beginning with Einstein, that the concepts are inseparable. To travel in time one must also travel in space. The Earth simply does not occupy the same space in the universe that it did a million years ago. Or a thousand. Or yesterday. Or when I wrote that last sentence. To physically travel to the past or the future you need to not only be able to move in time but in space as well. Greater mathematicians than I have worked out the formulas. But from our perspective we exist in linear time. This leads us to talk about history as a sequence of events. But history is much more complex than that. The causes of an event can sometimes only be seen in retrospect… outside of time.

There’s a famous book from 1884 called Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edward Abbott Abbott that describes the existence of two-dimensional beings living in a two-dimensional world. They have no concept of the third dimension, the one we live in. Because of this, we can have higher level insights into their world than they will ever be capable of.

Our lives, and movies, exist in time. We are carried along by the ticking of the clock at 24-frames per second. Comics exist in space, but we impose on them the illusion of time. We read the words, we view the action from panel to panel. The creators use various techniques to speed up or slow down the pace, and can play with the sequencing with flashbacks and other conventions. But the words and images exist on a plane in space. At any time we are able to jump around in time by changing the space on the page we observe. We can be reading page fifteen of any given comic and skip ahead to page twenty-one, or back to page five. For that matter we can go directly to a page in an earlier issue of the comic, or of a completely different book altogether. By doing this we can draw connections and conclusions never intended by the original creators. We have a higher level of awareness of the whole than any single issue. Actually, historians do this with research all the time.

I bring this up because this is the way I tend to approach the topic of comics history. This book will follow the general, linear outline of comics history, but to make the points I want to make we’ll be jumping around a lot. Consider it a manifestation of the power of time travel.

Now, where were we? Oh yeah…

“Well, in the beginning there was no life. The Earth was forming…”

“BOOM!!!”

Although comics and comic books are a relatively recent invention, the concept isn’t new. We’ve always told stories in pictures. The famous cave paintings discovered in the underground caverns in Lascaux, France tell the stories of great hunts from thousands of years ago. These are adventure stories on display. There is speculation that they were acts of magic as well, an attempt for the hunters to get in touch with the spirits of the animals they hunted.

But some of it could have simply been an ancient artist, telling his story with pictures on a wall.

Though Lascaux Caverns are the most well known, they are not the only paleolithic examples of cave paintings. At a cavern known as Le Trois Freres there is a famous depiction of a being clothed in animal skins, no doubt a shaman figure, a magician of great power. He is wearing the skins of the animals that they depended on for life, the symbol of the animal powers of the world. Animals were the first gods. Is this the first superhero? Is this the first depiction of the idea of a human imbued with divine powers? We’ll never know for sure, but I find it to be a fascinating conjecture.

This is an image I plan on coming back to when I discuss the origin of the Golden Age Captain Marvel. This ancient shaman and the rites of initiation that are believed to have taken place in those caverns bear an uncanny resemblance to the hero’s journey of Billy Batson.

The Egyptians told stories in Hieroglyphics (Greek for “sacred carving”), though this was moving in the direction of an alphabet wherein pictures stand for specific words. We can see it on most of their pyramids and tombs. The Mayans in South America did the same. Jumping ahead many centuries we can see William the Conquerors rise to power over all of Europe told in great detail on the Bayeux Tapestry.

The earliest forms of writing seem to be examples of people drawing pictures or making marks to represent things they saw in the world. We call these pictographs, literally “picture writing.” Eventually these marks became more and more abstract. The need for the marks to represent more complex concepts in language demanded they do so. Eventually these marks began to represent specific phonetic sounds instead of concrete objects or distinct concepts. This was a far more abstract construction and was much more facile in its adaptability.

Thus was born the alphabet.

And really, our alphabet is nothing more than a series of pictures that represent different sounds. Put them in different sequential order and you can tell any story you want to tell. If comics are given the definition of “pictures in deliberate sequential order to convey a story or complex ideas” then all written language can be called comics.

I fully realize what a sweeping, controversial and arguable statement that is. Just trying to make a point here.

So the idea of telling stories with pictures is nothing new. But Comics as we know them are more recent. Illustrated text, caricatures and political cartoons have appeared almost as long as there has been printed matter. Broadsheets with sequential pictures detailing criminal activity were all the rage in Europe in the 17th century.

In the 1800s we began to see words added to the pictures, first as captions, but eventually, thanks primarily to a cartoonist by the name of Rodolphe Töpffer, in word balloons issuing from characters mouths.

But in 1895 something happened that would change everything. A recurring feature called Hogan’s Alley appeared in Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper, the New York World. It was the first true comic strip, and featured the creation of the Yellow Kid, the first recurring comic strip character (the racial stereotype of the character cannot be completely overlooked by today’s standards. Not to excuse this, but it was a different time then. No fear… we will be returning to the issue of racism in comics eventually). It proved to be incredibly popular, so much so that Randolph Hearst hired the creator, R. F. Outcault to produce the strip for his competing paper, the New York Journal American. Pulitzer hired another artist, George Luks, to continue the strip for him, so that two versions of Hogan’s Alley ran simultaneously. The notoriously unscrupulous publishing practices of these two giants became known as Yellow Journalism, named after the Yellow Kid.

This happened again. Rudolph Dirks created the comic strip The Katzenjammer Kids for Pulitzer and Hearst hired him away as well. Harold Knerr was hired by Pulitzer to continue The Katzenjammer Kids while Dirks produced the renamed Captain and the Kids. This strip is still running by the way, though no longer drawn by Dirks.

I bring up both of these instances not only for the obvious historical significance of the Yellow Kid but to introduce the concept of corporate ownership of creative properties and the concept of creator’s rights. This is an issue that will continue to pop up throughout this narrative.

The artistic stakes of comics were upped in 1905 with the appearance of Little Nemo in Slumberland. Created by accomplished political cartoonist Windsor McKay, Nemo was a triumph of art and storytelling. The full page Sunday strips were masterpieces of finely rendered art with an eye toward surrealism. McKay was also responsible for the first animated film, Gertie the Dinosaur. An original cell from this film is in the permanent collection of the Pittsburgh Toonseum.

We now skip ahead about twenty years. Comic strips continued to develop, but for my purposes here that is a separate topic. The main thing to know about that right now is that the earliest comic books were reprinted collections of comic strips. The generally accepted “first true comic book” was Famous Funnies #1 in 1929. This was a collection of comic strips that had previously appeared in newspapers. A man named Max Gaines decided to print them on cheap paper and sidestitch staple them as a cheap pamphlet to be given away as premiums with the purchase of another product. The anecdote goes that the promotion had not gone well, so he had lots of these left over in the office. Gaines stuck a ten cent price sticker on them and hand distributed them to newsstands. They sold out and the newsvendors clamored for more. Gaines gave it to them.

So was born an industry.

Most of us today, surrounded by easy access to TV and the internet and DVD’s and pretty much any amusement we desire have no frame of reference for this. It’s probably difficult for us to understand the public hunger for cheap entertainment and distraction at the time. 1929 was the year of the Stock Market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression. A magazine full of comic strips for ten cents was a book of dreams for those who read them.

These comics sold well, but it wasn’t until 1935 that the first comic book featuring all new, original material appeared. New Fun Comics, published by National Allied Publications was an anthology title featuring several different stories and characters. Two young men from Cleveland, Ohio, Jerry Siegal and Joe Shuster, made their comics debut in this issue on a strip called Federal Men. This was the first detective/crime comic developed specifically as original material for a comic book.

The details of the initial period of experimentation and growth of this new industry is well-documented in a variety of sources. In my class I talked a lot about the cultural milieu of America in the 1930s. The Great Depression was of course the overriding concern of the day. In spite of this, immigration continued as the situation in Europe grew worse with the rise of the Nazi Party. There seemed to be a fascination with the war on crime and people like John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde became folk heroes. J. Edger Hoover, director of the F.B.I. commissioned a strip called War on Crime in 1936. This and Federal Men were stories based on real crime with details supplied by the F.B.I. Hoover wanted the heroes of the stories to be fairly anonymous agents instead of colorful characters (Dick Tracy was a very successful comic strip at the time). It was his belief that it was the agency, the F.B.I., and the cooperation of a vast network of agents that should be featured instead of glorifying any individual. He thought this would appeal more to the masses. He was wrong. This lasted less than a year. Anonymous agents couldn’t compete with the more colorful Tracy. People wanted heroes.

In 1938 they got one.

Introduction

8 Mar

“Every profound spirit needs a mask.”

Nietzsche–Beyond Good and Evil

 

“Oh, I’ve wasted my life.”

Jeff Albertson (also known as Comic Book Guy)-The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror VIII

 

This not the book I meant to write.

For years I have said I wanted to write the High Fidelity of comic books. You know… the 2000 movie starring John Cusack based on the book by Nick Hornsby. Both of these struck a nerve with me for a variety of reasons. I’m a huge fan of music and have a collection of albums and CD’s that impress a lot of my friends who are not as into that hobby (my collection pales next to a number of people I know). I gleefully leaned over to my companion in the theater at one point to inform him that the vinyl album the characters were refusing to sell to a customer was in fact Safe As Milk, the first Captain Beefheart album, and that it featured a fifteen-year-old Ry Cooder on guitar. My friend just as gleefully told me to shut up.

The themes of High Fidelity and the lifestyle of the music fan were both ideas I related to strongly. But even more important was the depiction of the life of a retail clerk in a small, hobby-based industry. I work at a comic book store in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh, the Eisner Award-nominated Phantom of the Attic. The store has been in a variety of locations on the same block of South Craig Street, sandwiched between the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, since 1983. The incidents and customer interactions of the main character of High Fidelity rang as absolutely true. I have thought for a long time that the same sort of thing could be done with my experiences in the world of comics retail.

I found the quote from Nietzsche that begins this volume and part of what I wanted to do with it clicked. The idea of a mask, as it relates to comics, is obvious. There is also a larger symbolic and psychological meaning to the mask that I wanted to use as part of the theme. But the most important part of the quote was the reference to the “profound soul.” I like that idea, not only because of the direct relation to the concepts underlying the superhero, but because of how I viewed comics fandom.

The comic book fan has the weight of a tremendous stereotype on his back. Everyone can picture the awkward, socially-inept young man, living in his parents basement, anal-retentively bagging, boarding and filing his comics collection while watching Star Trek. He has often been beat up by his peers, is afraid of girls and probably the world. The comic book retailer has also been codified in the minds of the public, primarily by Comic Book Guy on the Simpsons. He is arrogant and rude, the arbiter of obscure and meaningless trivia.

But I know from personal experience that these images are not, for the most part, true. I have been a comics fan all of my life and a comics retailer for a significant portion of my adult years. I have never been any of the cliches represented by Comic Book Guy, and neither have most of the customers and other fans I have met over the years. Don’t get me wrong; the above stereotype exists for a reason. I don’t deny the existence of these awkward misanthropes within our ranks. But most of the comics fans I know are regular folk, with jobs and families and responsibilities, who happen to like reading stories told with pictures. Thanks to the negative press comics have had for much of their existence these regular people have, at times, needed to hide their hobby. Until recently, the last decade or so, being seen reading comics labelled one as a mental deficient of some sort. Our hobby was relegated to small comic book stores. Most of us would wear the mask of respectability and deny our love for this media. We wore the mask of Clark Kent in public and hid our superhero nature within.

What I hoped to do with the book I wanted to write was to play up this dichotomy. I hoped to address the stereotypes, not to deny that they exist or to make fun of them, but to show the humanity that existed within: the profound soul behind the mask.

What has stopped me from writing that book is a lack of structure and plot. High Fidelity is a romance novel, set in the world of music retail. The love-life of the protagonist is the through-line that holds the narrative together. I looked for years and found nothing that really worked for me. I wrote anecdotes, made notes on actual interactions with customers, and tried to integrate a story structure with these ideas.

Nothing. It all felt contrived.

Several things have happened in my life since I first thought of this idea. Comics have become more of the mainstream. The cliches, while still existing, have diminished somewhat. Geek culture has been embraced by the media and superheroes have ruled the box office for several years now. The images and symbols of our hobby have become Pop Culture iconography (though fewer and fewer people seem to actually be reading the comics themselves).

Comics are being studied academically and given their just due as a legitimate art form. My own status as an amateur comics scholar (the only status available to someone with the geek-like tendency to research and study comics the way I did until recently), has changed to a more professional one. In spring of 2011 I taught a 300-level course on Comics and Pop Culture at Chatham University and wrote two academic articles on comics for a major publisher. I have become a regular resource person for the Toonseum, one of only three museums dedicated to the cartoon arts in America.

As a result of this my next thought about writing a book about this topic was to take the academic approach. A friend of mine, a professor at Carnegie Mellon at the time, said that I should be aware that as I was putting together my lecture notes that I was also compiling an outline for a textbook. I thought about it for awhile, and while this is true, I am nowhere near the level of academic he is, nor do I have the interest or skills to present this topic in that format. Besides, there are a lot of books out there already that cover comic book history in far more detail than I ever could. Much of what I would present would be a duplication of that work.

While my class certainly covered the history of comics and hit on all of the major touchstones of the industry, what seemed to resonate most strongly with my students were the anecdotes I told relating my personal history with the medium. It made the industry come alive for them in ways that textbooks couldn’t (and maybe I was just using the wrong textbook). In addition to my personal history I added my own thoughts about mythic symbolism and social trends. What the class ended up being was a melange of comics information filtered through my personal lenses. Perhaps this is not the most academically professional approach, but I’m old enough to have given a lot of time and research to what I presented, and comics scholarship is young enough to stand up to new ways of being presented. Comics have always been bright and loud, forging their own literary and artistic path. Perhaps comics scholarship should be the same.

2011 saw the release of Supergods:What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human by comics superstar writer Grant Morrison. It was exactly the kind of approach I had been trying to find. Now, Grant has a much deeper connection with the day-to-day life of a comics professional, and he has had a… let’s say stranger, life than I have had. Still, I think I have a lot to add to the discussion. I have been a comics fan my entire life. I have been a comics retailer at a successful store for a decade and a half. I have been a professional comic book artist and publisher. I approach this topic from a number of perspectives.

I started making notes for the type of book I now wanted to write, incorporating all of these elements. I was still having doubts about the validity of this project until one of my students (my star pupil, who had just spent the summer as an intern at Marvel Comics), said to me that her impression of Supergods was, “It was just like your class last spring.”

That sealed it. I have procrastinated writing my book about comics for too long. The time is now. I need to get this down before all of my thoughts are covered by someone else.

This isn’t the book I intended to write, but it’s the one that needs to be written.

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