Sequential Art: Part three. American Super Heroes….and beyond!

Comics Golden Age: (1930’s – early 1950’s)

By 1935 many comic book publishers started to release their first comic strips as a weekly collection. The popularity of the format quickly led to publishers realising the full potential of this genre. This led to writers and artists coming together and creating original full length storylines and comics establishing themselves as an independent form away from the free supplements delivered within newspapers.

This era would also see the birth of the superhero. DC comics where first in line with Superman (created by artist, Joseph “Joe” Shuster and writer, Jerome “Jerry” Siegel) debuting on the front cover of Action comics. Superman quickly established himself as a must read character and would in turn spur other artist and writers to create some of the most iconic American superhero’s we know today, including: Batman (and later Robin) Flash and Wonder Woman to name but three.

Superman was originally conceived as a bald headed, telepathic villain. In his first comic strip he is presented as an egomaniac, intent on enslaving the whole of the human race, (The Reign of the Super-Man.) When the character was not received as well as they had hoped, Siegel and Shuster toyed with the idea of creating a crime fighter without any super powers, but dismissed this idea as they thought such a character would not be taken seriously and be compared to cartoon characters like Popeye. The third idea was to revamp the character completely, turning him into the iconic Superman we know today. However, it would be another six years before Shuster and Siegel found a home for their comic hero at Action comics. During this period the pair developed Superman’s back story.

Born on the planet Krypton. Scientist parents mother Jor-El and Lara. Realising that the planet was doomed for destruction, Joe-el builds a spaceship and send his son, Kal-El to earth just as the planet explodes. The explosion turns the planets matter into kryptonite, (the one substance that can weaken Superman). The spaceship crashes on a farm in Kansas and is discovered by Jonathan Kent and Martha Kent and calls their adopted son Clark Kent. As Clark grows up he discovers his super powers and decides to use them for the good of humanity.

Over the years Superman’s back story has been developed and altered, particularly during the Golden/ Silver age of comics, leading to a wide variety of discrepancies, as did many other DC super Heroes. In 1985 DC comics released a twelve issue limited series, Crisis on Infinite Earths, to tidy up all of their superheroes back stories, and have since published further ‘crises’ titles.

Batman: On the back of the success of Superman, artist Bob Kane and writer William “Bill” Finger collaborated to create the character of Batman. Kane’s initial drawings where considered too literal to the character’s name with Batman having batwings as part of his costume. Batman was also drawn wearing reddish tights and boots, these to where thought to be too similar to Superman. Finger suggested that Kane made the Batman a much darker Character, exchanging the reddish tights for dark gray, removing the batwings for a cape that could open up like wings and give batman gloves so he would not leave fingerprints that would lead to his true identity (Bruce Wayne) being reviled. Unlike Superman, Batman did not posses any super powers, relying instead he relied on his intellect, physical prowess, martial art skill as well as digging into the stash of money to equipped him with a wide range of gadget which grew over the years. After a year of going it alone, Batman was kitted out with his side kick, Robin. Their bromance stirred up a lot of homophobic hatred, and will be looked in further on a piece published in Zhoosh.

During Batman’s reign in superhero folklore, he has had his fare share of reincarnations to put even Madonna in the shade. From his solitary dark hero of the night to ultra camp crime fighter era of the 60’s right back to his dark side in the mid 80’s with Frank Miller’s, The Dark Knight Returns. Tim Burton would also help bring Batman to a wider audience with his Batman films, only for the diminishing sequels to take Batman to his camper days. Over the next couple of decades Batman would also find himself killed off (or so it would seem). But as with Superman, superhero’s never truly die, they just slip off to an alternative universe, get replaced, or re-emerge in a different franchise altogether. But that is the beauty of comics, graphic novels/ sequential art, the only limits is the writer’s imagination and the reader’s willingness to go along for the ride.

Wonder Woman: In a world dominated by male super heroes, Wonder Woman (Princess Diana of the immortal Amazons from Greek mythology) hit the comic pages in December 1941. The initial idea for a female superhero first came from Elizabeth’ Moulton Marston, when her husband, William Moulton Marston, said he was working on the idea for a new super hero who said that he should create a female superhero with all the ability and goodwill of Superman that would appeal to the female readership.

Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are. Women’s strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman. Marston writing in The American Scholar, 1943

From day one Wonder Woman has been bringing her Amazon based ideology of love, peace, and sexual equality and has been championed as a feminist icon.

With the success of DC comics, rival publishers Marvel (first known as Timely Publications) quickly brought in their own set of super heroes who have also dominated the comic genre with characters including: The Flash, The Hulk, and Captain America. The original Flash came in the shape of loser on the football pitch Jay Garrick. Garrick would gain his ability to move as fast as the speed of light after an accident in the science lab where he accidently splashed himself with radioactive ‘hard water’. Garrick was first introduced in his own comic ‘Flash’. Garrick would find himself cut from DC’s comics at the end of the golden age, but four other incarnations would pick up the mantel, including: Superhero fan, Barry Allen who would find himself blessed with the same powers as the flash after being struck by lightning. Wally West (nephew of Allen) would also gain the same powers by the same means. Later Jesse Chambers and Bart Allen would also have the power of speed, having these abilities passed from birth

Weedy Steve Rogers wanted to do his duty and sign up for the war effort, but was just not built for the job. But after agreeing to sign up to be a guinea pig and test the army’s secret serum, Rogers would find himself transformed into the mass body, super strength Captain America. Originally created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1941, Captain America with his stars and stripes uniform and war time storylines quickly found himself a firm fan base. However, after the war Captain America’s popularity quickly waned. But with so many other Comic book heroes after a period of hiatus, new writers and artists created new storylines and Captain America would find a new audience that would keep him firmly in the spot light.

The Incredible Hulk first appeared in his own comic by Marvel in 1962. The Incredible Hulk was first created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby who also drew the Hulk, with Paul Reinman applying the ink. Lee’s inspiration for The Incredible Hulk was a combination between well known monsters Mr Hyde and Frankenstein, the latter of which can be easily seen from the early drawings, where his initial skin colour was grey, this proved a bit problematic for colourist Stan Goldberg, who used a variety of greys in the first print and some green. On seeing the end product Lee decided to make The Incredible Hulk completely green which has certainly led to the Hulk becoming the iconic anti-hero we now all know.

The rise of the superhero among the American population would give rise to what is now known as the Golden Age of comics. These comics and the superheroes that graced the pages allowed their readers a chance to not only escape the misery of the depression era. During World war two the popularity of the Super hero grew and grew and with the introduction of the atom bomb into the mix, so came other superheroes. Characters such as Atomic, Thunderbolt and Atoman gained their superpowers via a nuclear source. The popularity of the superhero would continue right up until the end of World War Two; but after this period the popularity began to wane with many of the superheroes that had been staples in both DC and Marvel comics would find themselves unceremoniously dumped. The war had changed many people who found themselves turning their backs on the super hero in favour of other genres including: westerns, war heroes, crime and horror.

The Silver Age (1956 – 1970) saw a decline in the popularity of the super hero, and crime, horror and romantic fiction story lines became more popular. The crime and horror story lines during the 50’s also came under a lot of criticism, with the comic books being blamed for a rise in juvenile delinquency. This led to publishers introducing guide lines on what could and could not be included within the comic story-lines. Interestingly this led to a resurgence in super hero led story lines from both DC comics. DC created the Justice League of America, made up of Superman, Batman, Aquaman, Flash, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter, Wonder Woman and a host of other super heroes on a rotation bases. Not to be outdone Marvel was quick to create their own league of super heroes in the form of the Fantastic Four who were made up of Mr. Fantastic, Invisible Woman, Human Torch and Thing. It was around this era that Spider-Man would make his debut in issue #15 of Amazing Fantasy.

The Bronze Age (1970 – 1985) would see a real shift in not only how the comics were drawn more lifelike, but there was also a real conscious effort to break away from the restraints imposed by the Comics Code Authority. A large reason for these changers came from many of the original writers and artist either moved into management positions or retired from the business all together, allowing a large group of fresh writers and artists to kick start the comic industry. Throughout the history of the comic books, many of the characters had dealt with many social issues, the Bronze Age would take on subjects that up until then had been taboo. These included alcoholism (Iron Man: Demon in a Bottle) and drug abuse, where the Green Lantern’s sidekick Roy “Speedy” Harper is revealed to be addicted to heroin (Green Lantern/Green Arrow #85-86.) With the relaxing of what could be shown within comic books, the horror genre once again rose from the comic grave yard with titles like Swamp Thing, Ghost Rider and The Tomb of Dracula taking over from less popular super hero’ s.

The Bronze Age also saw a conscious boost to introduce more black and minority super heroes. In the past there had been The Black Panther and The Falcon, but considering the huge number of white male super heroes that had dominated the comic genre, such introductions were a long time coming. Marvel introduced Luke cage, who was followed by Black Panther, Storm (part of the X-men collective) and Blade, the vampire hunter who first made his appearance in Tomb of Dracula (July 73) and would go on to be a super hero in his own right.) Marvel would also pick up the gauntlet and introduce their own black super heroes, including: Bronze Tiger, Black Lightning, Vixen and Cyborg.


The Modern Age (1980 – present). The Modern Age has also been referred to as the dark ages of comics partly due to the more gritty story-lines from titles like Batman, The Dark Night Returns by Frank Miller and Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Within these titles the stories would take the reader deeper into the characters psyche. During the 1990’s anti-heroes would become more prevalent within comic books and the writers would go much deeper into the psychology of why these superheroes, antiheroes and villains behaved in the way they did.

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