Alexander Film Works

The Hero Concept

In Think About It on October 28, 2012 at 3:24 pm

This past weekend was Detroit FanFare 2012, a comics and toy expo, and the chance I had to meet and speak to legends of the comics world, like Allen Bellman, who worked at Timely/Atlas/Marvel Comics starting in 1942, a contemporary of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Joe Simon, Carl Burgos, and Bill Everett, was something we just couldn’t pass up.

I was inspired to write a piece on the concept of heroes, and tie it in with the comics industry… which follows immediately.

***

            We, as story-listeners, always seem drawn to the concept of the mysterious vigilante… the outsider who does what ordinary citizens, or even the authorities, can’t.

The legends come down… Gilgamesh, Beowulf, Robin Hood, Charlemagne and Le Chanson de Roland, tales of Arthur Pendragon and the Knights of the Table Round, the tales of Siegfried and the Rhinemaidens that became Wagner’s Das Ring Des Niebelungen, the labors of Hercules, the Iliad and the Odyssey, Dumas’s The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, the Scarlet Pimpernel, Johnston McCulley’s stories of the wily El Zorro battling the corruption and oppression in Spanish California, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Professor Challenger, the heroes of the “penny dreadfuls” celebrating the non-existent Code of the West, which set the archetypes of the cowboy heroes we see up until now, and especially the four-color heroes, the superheroes and superheroines of the comic books.

With ancestors from the “pulps”, the mass-market books printed on lower-grade paper dedicated to a single subject, like Doc Savage and his five assistants battling the forces of crime, G-8 and his Battle Aces endlessly fighting the Great War in the air, costumed crimefighters like The Spider – Master of Men, The Bat, and, most notably, The Shadow, they burst forth on the consciousness of the public in the 1930’s, starting with a certain red, yellow, and blue figure flashing across the sky, who became the exemplar of truth, justice, and the American Way – SUPERMAN.  His name may have had unfortunate resonances with the theories of Nietsche and the übermenschen that helped inspire a failed artist to attempt the “purification” of Germany and Europe into the Aryan Fatherland, but the execution of the concept of Superman was purely American… not only that, but truly Midwestern American.

Jerome Siegel and Joseph Shuster were both from Cleveland, Ohio when they came up with the concept of Superman… and the Midwestern ethos they were raised with helped inform their creation from his genesis.  He did good deeds, expecting no reward, and used his titanic strength in service to mankind in general.

Following shortly thereafter, from Fawcett Publications, whose lineup before this contained how-to books and the Great War’s anodyne, Captain Billy’s Whiz-Bang, a joke book compiled and published by the founder of Fawcett Publications, William Fawcett, came C. C. Beck and Bill Parker’s take on the super-powered man, CAPTAIN MARVEL.   Where Superman had his powers and abilities for pseudo-scientific reasons, Captain Marvel’s powers came from magic; when Billy Batson shouted the name of the wizard who gave him his powers, a bolt of magic lightning would strike him, transforming him into The World’s Mightiest Mortal, as he came to be known.  The magic word “SHAZAM”, the ancient wizard’s name, granted him the following powers of legendary gods and heroes:

  • S – the wisdom of Solomon
  • H – the strength of Hercules
  • A – the stamina of Atlas
  • Z – the power of Zeus
  • A – the courage of Achilles
  • M – the speed of Mercury

Following these two progenitors came many others… The Flash, Wonder Woman, The Batman, Green Lantern, Hawkman, the Crimson Crusader, Captain America, the Human Torch, the Sub-Mariner, Skyman, the Blackhawks, Doll Man, Plastic Man, Uncle Sam, Airboy, the Sandman, Starman, Green Arrow… The litany rolls on.

The ‘30’s and ‘40’s became known as the “Golden Age” of comics… with such heroes as Captain America, Major Victory, the Patriot, Uncle Sam, Liberty Belle, and other, lesser known red-white-and-blue metahumans, it seemed almost anyone was donning patriotic garb and battling the Axis powers… but it was not to last.  The Congressional investigations sparked by Dr. Frederic Wertham’s 1954 book, The Seduction of the Innocent, headed by Senator Estes Kefauver and his Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, threw many of the comic publishers into disarray; many went out of comic publishing, and those that remained banded together in self-defense, cooperatively instituting the Comics Code Authority.  The CCA lasted until 2009, and in 2011, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, an organization devoted to defending the First Amendment rights of comic artists, writers, and publishers, acquired the intellectual property rights of the CCA, including its seal.

The Seal of the Comics Code Authority

For almost fifty years, this seal was on virtually every comic sold.

After the institution of the CCA, fewer titles existed… Fawcett settled a long-standing lawsuit with DC Comics to suspend publication of Captain Marvel; most of the heroes of the Golden Age faded from sight… and from memory.

Then, in 1956, DC Comics revised and reimagined The Flash, followed by Green Lantern, Hawkman, Wonder Woman, and many others.  In 1961, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby of Marvel Comics (previously Atlas Comics, which sprang from Timely Comics, the 1940’s era publisher of Captain America, The Human Torch, and The Sub-Mariner) started a revolution in the industry with Fantastic Four, heroes with no secret identities, no glamorously perfect physiques (especially in the case of “The Thing”, transmuted Marine pilot Benjamin J. Grimm), and a penchant for arguing among themselves.  This “realistic” approach became the norm in the industry, as time went on.

One can honestly say the world hasn’t been the same since.

And the newer generation just keeps on writing and drawing…

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