by Raman Sehgal
15 July 2014
Growing up, I read a lot (of comics). On a fall day in 1985 I picked up a bound copy of The Fantastic Four from my local library. Originally created in the 1960s, the FF (seen above) told the story of a brilliant scientist, his best friend and best girl, and her younger brother – who all decided it would be a great idea to “borrow” a rocket ship, head into space and check out some “cosmic rays” – which would endow them with powers that were…fantastic. They soon become Marvel Comic’s “First Family” – more than superheroes – explorers and adventurers. And my world would never be the same.
Actually it would. Let’s back up a bit…
In America, comic books have been around since just before the turn of the 20th century. But the “modern” idea of comics (e.g. super heroes) is a relatively new phenomena.
Prior to WWII, most comics were serial dramas, migrating from comic strips, to pulp magazines, to their own dedicated books. Stories ranged from the adventures of cowboys, detectives, space-men, and sorcerers, many in far off, exotic lands. Young boys, the primary consumer target, were often titillated with some light S&M. Soon popular characters – ordinary folk in extraordinary circumstances – rose to the top of the national consciousness. Buck Rogers was just a guy transported to the wonders of the far future. The Phantom was 21st in a long line of masked do-gooders, whose purple costume many say was one of the first super hero costumes. Dick Tracy fought a rogues’ gallery of mob bosses, and has often been seen as a bridge between pulp magazines and comic books. And Conan didn’t really bother wearing much: after all, he was a barbarian in ancient times. These stories were a way for Americans to relate to and escape to something more grand. Readers jumped in the front seat with grown-ups they could identify with, seeing extraordinary things on the printed page – with colorful pictures and outlandish stories. After all, the times were getting depressing.
Then the shit hit the fan. (A phrase, conveniently enough, made popular at this particular point in history).
By the end of the 1930s, worldwide markets had collapsed and would take a decade (and a war) to recover. Political extremism was taking tighter hold across Europe, still reeling from the ramifications of the Great War. Suddenly, there were some extraordinary things in our ordinary world that we were increasingly losing control of. By 1938, two ordinary guys in Cleveland, Siegel & Shuster, began to tell stories of a super-man that could leap tall buildings in a single bound (some would say he was not unlike Nietzsche’s Übermensch or Yaweh’s Moses). There was a man dressed like a bat terrorizing criminals (1939). Soon a man could outrace a bullet. Then a man with a magic emerald ring. All of these men lived in cities that were familiar, yet fictional: Metropolis and Gotham City (representing New York’s east and west side, respectively), Keystone City (Minneapolis), Star City (Chicago), Coast City (Los Angeles).
As Americans, we soon found ourselves drawn more directly in a worldwide conflict, fighting a great evil to preserve our way of life. The average American could build his or her victory garden and send Rosy to rivet, but we were collectively helpless, while our boys fought for freedom “over there.” More of these costumed “super” heroes started popping up to smash fascism, and we cheered them on. It was comics’ “Golden Age.” Extraordinary heroes for our suddenly extraordinary times.
The War ended and our boys came home. So did the capes, fighting at first domestic crimes, but soon things just got Bizarr(o), and quickly went from ridiculous to just plain silly (Mxyzptlk? Bat-Mite?) as more colors of kryptonite were discovered. Giant fighting robots, kooky aliens and talking apes. Although the adventures may not have been deadly, they were, and still are, wildly entertaining. Americans were in a strange new atomic world – with boundless possibilities, but also grave dangers. Comics, among many other mediums, helped readers grasp the fantastic nature of the science, escaping to its weirder corners The extraordinary became…extraordinary-er?
By the time the Korean conflict ended, we were racing into the ‘60s with a whole slew of unrest at home. The war in Vietnam, Civil Rights, and kids with their sex, drugs, and rock & roll. Welcome to “the Silver Age” of comics.
Two New Yorkers (Lee & Kirby) started creating stories about heroes with human problems (and a healthy penchant for accidents of the radioactive variety). You’ve already met the Fantastic Four, but to their readers they were really Reed, Ben, Sue, and Johnny, living in the Baxter Building in midtown Manhattan. Young Peter Parker from Queens struggled to meet girls in school despite his amazing powers. Dr. Bruce Banner had an incredible anger problem. Charles Xavier had a dream (and a giant mansion in Westchester County, NY, with an uncanny fighter jet). Even industrialist Tony Stark, despite his invincible American ingenuity, often let the ladies (and the bottom of a bottle) get the better of him.
These were extraordinary people living in our ordinary world.
Part 2 next week: While most of us would rather forget the ‘70s and ‘80s, comics painted a compelling, ordinary reflection of time with race and drugs. But don’t worry, as the ‘80s became the ‘90s, comics caught on and got crass, commercial, and weird again, leaving us hollowed out and ready for a true revival at the turn of the century.
Raman Sehgal does internet startup stuff @Ahalogy. He’s been to all seven continents, reads a lot, doesn’t write enough, and lives in NY. Learn more at RamanCoke.com.