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Comic-book heroes

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 1990. Comic book heroes. Canadian Forest Service, Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. Staff Newsletter, January:17–19.

An important 50th anniversary occurred in 1989: in 1939, the comic-book character "Batman" made his first appearance in Detective Comics. The occasion of this anniversary was marked by the production of Warner Brothers' Batman movie, which went on to generate more box-office income in the first 10 days of its release than any other movie in history. This is quite apart from the millions that were generated before and after the film's release by a variety of marketing ploys. If you haven't read a Batman comic book during your lifetime, you are probably a member of a small subgroup of the North American population, and you probably wondered what all the fuss was about.

Over the years, I've read more than my share of comic books, and withstood a fair amount of contempt from my wiser peers, many of whom spent their time more profitably engaged in following the afternoon soap operas or the evening sitcoms (a word that I consider to be an abbreviation of the phrase "sit comatose"). Most of my critics became less vocal when I pointed out that my investment in comic books was, as of the last time I looked into prices, appreciating at a rate of up to 20% per year; you'd have to look carefully indeed for a mutual fund that consistently offered that kind of growth. [A look back from 2005: Comics are no longer the hot property they once were, though some rarer issues still fetch amazingly high prices at auction.—GH] More to the point, after a long hiatus during which I read no comic books at all, I rediscovered them when I attended university in 1979 and found out what many of my friends had discovered long before me: comic books have grown up and have even, believe it or not, achieved the status of an art form that has received serious academic study.

But first, a little history. Comic books arose from the genre of pulp adventure stories, so called because the stories were printed on crudely manufactured paper in which the original tree fibers (the pulp) could often still be seen. Pulp fiction was, by and large, pretty awful stuff, even when one considers that it was targeted primarily at a very young audience.

Most of the pulp authors vanished, mercifully without a trace, into the depths of time; others, such as H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Jules Verne, achieved immortality when subsequent generations learned that it wasn't correct to judge a book by its cover, let alone by the material it was printed on. As with any branch of literature, "Sturgeon's law" applied. This law states, simply and cynically, that "97% of any written material is crap". One may debate the figure of 97%, but suffice it to say that the majority of any genre of writing doesn't reach any high level of quality, however you measure quality.

Nonetheless, time is the final judge of something's value, and it seems to be a truism that great art is never appreciated while the artist is alive. I don't want to give the impression that comic books inevitably represent great art, yet the survival of such classic heroes as Batman over 50 years indicates that perhaps there is something being overlooked by the more sophisticated public. Early Batman stories were distributed during World War II, and were often little more than crude propaganda vehicles. Nonetheless, there was often much to commend amidst the propaganda. For example, the generations of children who grew up reading Batman comics learned (and commonly accepted as gospel) the fact that "crime doesn't pay" and that police and other law enforcement officers were to be respected, despite their human flaws. Similarly, in much of the early work by Batman creator Bob Kane, minorities were given fairer treatment than by most popular culture of the day; in one instance from the 1950s, a black teenager is being refused permission to play sports with his white schoolmates until Batman reminds them that the kid is both human and American, and deserves to be treated as such. The situation is resolved more happily than in real life at the time, but perhaps a few of the young readers who remembered this incident later became the civil rights activists of the 1960s.

The older (pre-1970s) Batman comics were hopelessly naive by modern standards; good and evil were always black and white issues, criminals always lost, and the protagonist always won his struggle for truth, justice, and the "American way". It is fascinating to read through reprints of old issues of such comics (the originals now cost too much to be read) to see how they reflect on North American culture at the time; some of the changes that occurred over the years were dramatic mirrors of changes in society at large. Here are a few examples: Early Batman stories inevitably included the  stereotypical Irish cop on the beat, something of an "in" joke in New York earlier in this century, with few female law-enforcement officers other than in the secretarial pool; modern stories have featured a woman as police commissioner. Early criminals were simple, uneducated bank robbers; modern criminals are computer criminals, cocaine dealers, and even politicians. Early scientists were depicted as near-infallible but scatterbrained dabblers in mysterious technologies; modern scientists have become people with both good and bad sides, who are not always right and not always using technology that would be perceived as good. Early superheroes were little more than cardboard cutouts with fast fists and square jaws; modern superheroes struggle to pay the rent and have problems with their love lives. In short, over the years, the characters in the comic-book universe have become more and more real.

The attitude towards science and technology particularly interests me, because it shows how we have become progressively disenchanted with technology because we have begun to recognize its darker side (e.g., pollution).

Some of the best of the modern comics have achieved national recognition as literary works of art. The Watchmen, a particularly bleak and gritty view of an alternative version of modern history in which Richard Nixon was never impeached and is still president today (after a constitutional amendment to permit this), has won numerous literary awards and praise from such austere sources as Time and the Washington Post. The Dark Knight, a treatment of Batman as the grim vigilante he had become by the 1980s, also won several awards. (It's interesting to note that we, as a society, have become less and less confident in the ability of the police and the justice system to protect us from criminals over the past few decades. Coincident with this change, vigilantes became ever more popular in print and in film, including Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry films, the Rambo films, and, of course, the Batman film.) Other fine comic books have achieved widespread respect for the quality of their illustrations, the innovation demonstrated in their plotting and writing, and even for the message in the story they tell. From a form of writing that was once thought fit only for children, comics have become a genre in which adults now comprise more than 50% of the readers.

Why have comics become so popular? I suspect that comics have always been popular, but only recently have they achieved respectability. Joseph Campbell, perhaps the best known and most widely respected student of the myths of mankind, has published a seminal work on mythology entitled The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Central to this work is the recognition that for as long as mankind has written or has had an oral tradition, there have been mythical superheroes who served as examples to be emulated or saviors who would save a culture from its enemies. In the past century, under the blazing light of scientific scrutiny and rationalism, we have largely dispensed with our heroes; who, in modern society of the last century, lives up to the example set by Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Beowulf, King Arthur, Roland, and Robin Hood? It has been argued that the comic-book hero of the 20th century, in conjunction with sports celebrities and actors, has replaced these figures, has filled some sort of inborn need that we all have for heroes to look up to. However, it's hard to seriously compare the accomplishments of a sports figure with those of, say Odysseus—but the exploits of comic-book heroes come close. In modern times, with "evil" events occurring all around us (e.g., the Chinese massacres in Tiananmen square, the impeachment of Richard Nixon, the trial of Oliver North, the wealthy Colombian drug lords), is it any wonder that we seek escape in a mythical world in which superpowerful fellow human beings, superheroes of the old style, protect us from such evils?

If you haven't read a comic book lately, the Batman comics of the late 1980s and early 1990s would represent a good place to start. The tales are real in the sense that a Tom Clancy novel is real, and the morality plays in some of them will give you much to think about. Anything that stimulates one to think can't be all bad, can it? If you look at the subtext of many modern comic books, you'll find much to ponder on what this reflects about modern society. If you once felt contemptuous of those who read comic books, borrow some from your children and try reading them. I suspect that you'll be pleasantly surprised.

©2004–2018 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved