This timeline contextualizes the history of American comic books with larger issues in society
Created by teachinghistoryorg on Apr 7, 2011
Last updated: 03/02/12 at 11:40 AM
Tags: hero comics superhero comic books popular culture history society American
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In simplest terms, a Superhero Registration Act divides the superhero community between those seeking compliance with new federal regulations (led by Iron Man) and those hesitant to become pawns for political reasons (led by Captain America). On a larger scale, "Civil War" appeared after the 2002 passage of the Patriot Act and deals with the dilemma US society faced after 9/11 between freedom and security.
Batman, perhaps more than any other hero, has evolved to mirror American society. From the daring vigilante of the 1930s, to the father-figure of the 1940s, to the zany sci-fi stories of the 1950s and 1960s...Batman continually shifted. By the early 1970s, writer Dennis O'Neill and artist Neal Adams brought a more serious tone to the character in line with a Vietnam-Watergate era of American history. In the mid-1980s, however, writer and artist Frank Miller developed a darker, brooding Dark Knight that has since then shaped the character in comics and films. "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns" and "Batman: Year One" served as bookends of sorts, telling the last and first story of Batman respectively. Today these books remain some of the best-selling graphic novels in the comic book industry.
DC Comics, in a push to introduce more mature themes to its titles, dealt with the problem of teen drug use. Green Arrow discovers that his sidekick, Speedy, had become addicted to heroin in Issue 85 (vol.2), published in September of 1971. Eventually, the story of Speedy (later named Arsenal) is one of redemption. The move to gritty, realistic tales mirrored the more grounded stories from Marvel Comics, although DC continued to explore fantasy (Legion of Superheroes), horror (Swamp Thing), and the oddly amusing (Muhammed Ali vs. Superman in a boxing match).
Marvel Comics (formerly Timely Comics) was a small comic book company overshadowed (like most others) by DC Comics and its lineup of best-selling titles: Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and the Justice League. Editor Stan Lee worked with veteran artist Jack Kirby (co-creator of Captain America) to develop Marvel's own superteam to rival DC's Justice League. Inspired by the Space Race and American fascination with scientific advances, Lee's Fantastic Four appeared in November of 1961 and became an instant hit. The team dynamics between siblings Susan and Johnny Storm, friend Ben Grimm, and Susan's partner Reed Richards offered a fresh approach to the genre. Although the newfound powers that transformed these four friends into the Invisible Girl, the Human Torch, Thing, and Mr. Fantastic awed readers, Lee and Kirby equally focused on the human emotions and everyday troubles of the team. Soon, Lee would develop a new generation of heroes: Spiderman, Iron-Man, the Hulk, the X-Men, Daredevil, Thor, and resurrect (figuratively and literally) Captain America.
DC Comics' Showcase #4 introduced a modern version of The Flash and ushered in a new age of superheroes. After the wildly successful period of the late 1930s and 1940s, superheroes (including the original Flash Jay Garrick) lost their overall popularity. Instead, horror, sci-fi, and western comics became best-selling titles but the entire industry soon faced scrutiny. Facing the additional pressure of Congressional hearings on superhero comics and their effect on youth, largely driven by the 1954 publication of Fredric Wertham's "Seduction of the Innocent," comic book companies struggled to produce comic books that adhered to the new Comics Code authority. DC looked to its past staple of forgotten heroes and revamped The Flash, with police officer Barry Allen in a new suit. Other old heroes such as Hawkman and Green Lantern received similar treatment. The "Silver Age" arrived and would lead to the modern publishing giants of DC and Marvel comics.
William Moulton Marston, credited with the inventing the precursor to the polygraph test, was a feminist theorist and psychologist who defended the educational value of comic books in 1940. This gained him the attention of National Periodicals and All-American Publications (later merged with DC Comics) and the opportunity to create his own hero.
The same month that Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japanese warplanes, Wonder Woman debuted in All-Star Comics #8 and provided comic book readers the first female superhero. Influenced by the women in his life, Wonder Woman became a symbol of feminine strength. One of her unique tools is the "lasso of truth"-influenced by Marston's defense of the polygraph method.
Based on Greek mythology, the Amazonian princess fought for the US during World War II and later earned her own title. Wonder Woman continues to be a character that reflects societal expectations for women, American values, and a fascination with mythology.
A full year before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Timely Comics contracted young artists Joe Simon and Jack Kirby to create an all-American superhero. Captain America was an immediate hit and began fighting the Nazis before US troops. After Pearl Harbor, all the major superheroes joined the war effort and those with costumes bearing symbols of America—such as Wonder Woman—stood out. The All-Winners Squad, later renamed The Invaders (The Human Torch, Sub-Mariner, Toro, Captain America, Bucky, The Whizzer, and Miss America) appeared at the end of the war as the first super-hero group to take on the Axis powers. From a shrewd business standpoint, superheroes fighting the evil Nazis would sell well. On the other hand, many soldiers in Europe and the Pacific cite comic book adventures, especially images of Captain America knocking out Hitler, as a source of welcome entertainment and morale in the trenches.
Up until 1939, comic heroes acted alone and stories focused on singular adventures. Starting with Robin (April) and Toro (Fall), sidekicks emerged as a new element in comics that could appeal to younger readers, as well as soften the titular characters.
Robin, the Boy Wonder debuted in Detective Comics #38 as a nod to Robin Hood and the more swashbuckling adventures popular in cinema. Like his mentor Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson lost both his parents at the hands of criminal elements. Robin, however, softened Batman's appeal through humor and youthful energy. The days of The Batman sporting a pistol were gone.
In Timely Comics (which would later become Marvel Comics), Toro joined his mentor, the Human Torch (no to be confused with a later version and member of the Fantastic Four) in fighting the Nazis during World War II. Like Robin, Toro also worked at the circus before meeting his mentor.
Robin and Toro demonstrate the growing popularity of comic books among young readers. Timely, and later DC, also demonstrated that real world events could produce easy enemies and dangers for American heroes to deal with.
The notion of an arch-nemesis was not new to literature and readers of pulp fiction. Characters such as Dr. Fu Manchu and Professor Moriarity were well-known before comic books emerged. The first supervillain appeared in 1939, as the Ultra-Humanite challenged Superman's brawn with a super-mind. More famously, Lex Luthor appeared less than a year later to challenge Superman with mind and science. Perhaps no more flamboyant, nor famous, villain emerged than Batman's archnemesis The Joker. Created by Jerry Robinson and Batman co-creators Bob Kane and Bill Finer, The Joker was a clear nod to the types of villains created by Chester Mould in Dick Tracy. Supervillains in comic books often define the hero in unique ways. Luthor's brain matches against Superman's brawn; Joker's irrationality and color contrasts with the methodical and somber Batman; (later) Captain Cold's icy heart and freeze gun contrasts with the likeable and super-fast Flash. Sometimes other-worldly, at other times based on real-life evil characters, supervillains continue to hold a fascination with American audiences.
Detective Comics , the flagship comic of the DC Comics, presented a new type of detective in its 27th issue. After Superman's immediate popularity, Dc was in search for a character who could reach a similar level of recognition.
Cretaors Bob Kane and Bill Finger introduced a hero not too dissimilar from other characters such as Zorro and Dick Tracy. The Batman borrowed some of the elements in other comics. Bruce Wayne, like Diego de la Vega, is a boorish millionaire by day and avenging hero at night. Batman, like Dick Tracy, would come to develop a rogue's gallery of flamboyant villains. The Batman employed a range of weapons like the Phantom. He also used his knowledge of science and forensics-learned through intense training driven by the murder of his parents as a child-in a nod to Doc Savage.
What made Batman unique is that he would become known as the one superhero without super-powers. As many subsequent writers would remind readers, Bruce Wayne's mind and dedication to crime-fighting made up for his lack of supernatural powers.
More than any other hero (save Superman or Spiderman... perhaps) ), Batman has permeated American culture through movies, television, merchandise, and other forms of media.
What explains his wide appeal? In the 2005 film Batman Begins, viewers are faced with a question: is Batman, or Bruce Wayne, the true mask of the hero? The psychological complexity of the character has fascinated many over the years. Unlike other heroes, Batman's character is also malleable-shaped by the mood of the nation. Indeed, the current "dark knight" version speaks to America's strength and anxiety in uncertain times. But at his core...Batman never crosses the line between good and bad.
DC comics, looking for new characters to jump start their fledgling company, turned to a pair of young, Jewish creators-Joe Schuster and Jerry Siegel- and agreed to publish the ideas for a superhuman adventurer.
In Action Comics, issue 1, Superman became the latest avenging hero, fighting tyranny at every turn. What few understood at the time was that Superman would become the template for almost every subsequent superhero developed in comic books. Action Comics was a collection of short stories at that time, but the Superman tales proved popular and profitable enough to move to larger, self-contained stories.
Like Zorro, Superman's alter ego-Clark Kent-is a polar opposite of the public hero. Fighting organized crime, as well as tackling societal threats, also derived from characters like Dick Tracy. Unlike these characters, though, Superman is based on mythic heroes like Moses, Samson, and Hercules.
King Features Syndicate launched a new wave of costumed crime fighters, drawing on inspirations such as Zorro, Tarzan, and historic characters like El Cid. Lee Falk's The Phantom first appeared in newspaper comic strips. During the Great Depression, serial adventures in cheap, and mass-produced, serials such as newspapers provide a popular form of entertainment.
A physical specimen, and scientist, Doc Savage quickly gained fame in pulp magazines and served as an early model for subsequent "superheroes".
Based out of New York City, Doc Savage worked out a major building, and he stashed his fleet of vehicles near the Hudson River (later to be seen in Batman comics). He also retreated to the Arctic for solitude at his fortress (an essential element to Superman comics a few years later). Creator Lester Dent sent Doc Savage to exotic locales around the world, where his knowledge of science, as well as his physical strength, allowed him to seek adventures worldwide. In many ways, he also predated the adventures of Ian Fleming's James Bond.
Escapism was popular in Depression-era United States, and Doc Savage's adventures mixed exotic adventure with a growing fascination with modern science.
Inspired by the organized crime dominating headlines in his adopted city of Chicago, Chester Gould modeled his titular hero after the policemen and agents hunting down notorious mobsters such as Al Capone. Dick Tracy, recognizable in his yellow trenchcoat, uses the latest in crime-fighting techniques to subdue colorful villains like The Mole, Flathead, and Big Boy. In Dick Tracy's world, the heroes and bad guys are clearly defined, but women like Tess Truehart seemed to complicate the life of the hero. As decades passed, Gould molded and reshaped the comic to reflect trends in society.
Created by Johnston McCulley, Zorro first appeared the serial pulp publication All-Story Weekly. Dapper aristocrat Diego Vega (later De la vega) is a boorish nobleman by day, and a an avenging hero by night--defending poor villagers against corruption and tyranny. His wealth supplies his attire and weaponry, and he rides into the night with his trusty horse. In the wake of the Great War, heroes avenging those in need becomes commonplace. US interest in Mexico also increases with regular news of the populist revolution south of the border.