Humanity needs heroes. Heroes have been a part of every culture since before recorded history – we know this because by the time someone got around to recording certain legends, those legends were already thought of as old. All the cultures of earth incorporate certain heroic attributes into their heroic legends – bravery, resourcefulness – other heroic attributes are specific to the culture from which the hero sprang forth.
Heroes were once the products of anonymous storytellers, each of whom embellished or interpreted the basic legend in his or her own way. Once modern fiction writing began, after the introduction of the printing press, specific storytellers could be credited with the invention of specific heroes, such as Dumas’s Three Musketeers or DeFoe’s Robinson Crusoe, or with the purposeful reworking of legendary characters – Pyle’s Robin Hood or White’s King Arthur. These specific storytellers were products of the cultures they lived in and geared their heroic tales, whether consciously or not, to reflect the ideals of their cultures.
Fast forward to the comic book medium of illustrated stories. Again we have specific storytellers gearing their heroic creations to the culture (or some subset thereof) in which they live. The super hero genre is, in my opinion, one of the best places to study the evolution of the modern hero. Why? Two reasons. First, there are so darn many heroes in comics, there is an abundance of source material. Second, the comic book medium as a whole, not just the super hero genre, is largely a reactive rather than a proactive medium. Comic book creators react to trends in the other media and in the rest of the culture around them rather than start trends that the rest of the media and the culture then react to.
Not everyone will agree with me. They’ll point to something like Frank Miller’s DAREDEVIL and say “How about this? No one was doing anything like it at the time, It was a trendsetter. But for every such example I can provide literally and cinematic precursors and a trend in comics at the time that influenced any given. Don’t get me started.
To state that the super hero genre is reactive is not to say there is anything wrong or deficient or elementary about it. If anything, it makes the study of modern heroic types and archetypes more practical. By the time something manages to work its way into comic books, it is definitely a full-blown trend and not just a quirk of somebody’s iconoclastic taste.
So, as we view the continuum of super hero types in our medium, three questions occur to me: what trends do we find, how do these trends reflect our culture, and can we predict what super hero types will be in vogue the rest of this decade and into the next? Though super hero comics first appeared I the late 1930s, they did not really get going until the 1940s, so let’s start there.
The cultural climate of the U.S. in the 1940s might best be characterized by patriotism and a consensus that we were right in fighting a war on foreign soil. Most of the major heroes of the decade – Captain America, Superman, Captain Marvel, Human Torch, etc. – were participating in that consensus war, and were viewed as our soldiers were: righteous fighters in a righteous fight. It didn’t matter that it was a conceptual stretch for some of them – why should an alien like Superman or an android like the original Human Torch really care about a war between opposing groups of human beings? Even heroes like the previously antagonistic Sub-Mariner were pressed into ideological service for the righteous cause of America and its allies. The prevailing sentiment of the 40’s was simplistic in its “good versus evil,” “us versus them,” distinction, and the heroes of the 40’s reflected this.
Our culture’s perception of life had yet to become too morally complicated, and our comic book heroes were guys and gals you could get behind and believe in, for they knew how to do the right thing.
The cultural climate in the U.S. in the 1950s might be described as being a product of the Cold War and nuclear paranoia, mixed with a sense of postwar prosperity. Something in that combination virtually drove super heroes and comic books into extinction. Only the very strongest, most commercial heroes survived – Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and they did so in part by having the most innocuous adventures possible. Marvel’s heroes – Cap, Sub-Mariner, and the Torch – succumbed to the times, were relaunched once in the mid-50s, only to die off again.
I was alive during part of the ‘50s and I can’t fully understand why American culture was so deadset against super heroes. Unlike prominent, real life Americans who might have turned out to be (gasp) Communist sympathizers, our super heroes – as works of fiction – could have no secret or sinister sides that might suddenly come to light. Still, Americans like the psychologist Frederic Wertham, upon observing that certain juvenile delinquents read comic books, concluded that comic books cause juvenile delinquency, and did their unlevel-headed best to interpret comic book heroes in their worst possible light. Consequently, comic book super heroes experienced their biggest setback in their existence, before or since.
The U.S. cultural climate during the 1960s was tumultuous – we had the Kennedy and King assassinations, the civil rights and women’s movements, the emergence of the youth counterculture, strides in the space race, the escalation of our’s country’s involvement in Vietnam, and so forth. In the midst of all this, comic books underwent a heroic renaissance. Marvel’s heroes were in the forefront of this renaissance, bringing to the perfect archetypes of the ‘40s a ragged sense of humanity – flaws, foibles, character traits that made the heroes more like the tumultuous society around them. At first, Marvel’s heroes found themselves in stories that would have worked well in the ‘50s, fighting Communists and nuclear threats, but by the late ‘60s these were phased out in favor of homegrown foes.
Besides offering heroes who were less-than-perfect, Marvel presented villains who were less than fully evil. This greying of the moral boundaries was emblematic of the ‘60s and proved to be the legacy for all succeeding generations of super heroes, so far.
The cultural climate of the U.S. in the 1970s was in certain ways reactionary to the ‘60s. Idealism and activism gave way to cynicism and self-absorption. For the first time in history a President resigned. American troops withdrew from Vietnam, peace movements gave way to self-help therapies, rock music was housebroken into disco, and Americans were held hostage in Iran. Marvel’s heroes of the ‘70s were, perhaps not surprisingly, mostly anti-heroes, updates of Victorian Era monsters or their cinematic successors (Dracula, Frankenstein, the werewolf). We also broadened our range of mainstream heroic types with the addition of ethnic heroes (Power Man, Black Goliath, and Shang-Chi) and female versions of previous heroes (She-Hulks, Spider-Woman, Ms. Marvel). Both the Punisher and the new X-Men premiered, though they would not establish themselves as major players until the ‘80s.
The cultural climate of the 1980s was earmarked by a very popular president, a resurgence in national pride, the death of disco and the rise of rap, the emergence of the yuppies and their emphasis on the accumulation of personal wealth, revolutionary modifications of the mass media (the VCR and CD), and the overburdening of our various social institutions, resulting in more homelessness, urban crime, etc.
The new heroes of the ‘80s had two major influences from within the field: the first was the new X-MEN series which made mutants the most popular kind of hero. Although the X-Men had been around since the ‘60s, it was in the ‘80s that they found their audience. There was something about being born different that touched a nerve with a vast audience in a way that accidental acquisition of powers no longer seemed to. Perhaps it was a glorified metaphor for disaffected youth, a generational thing for all those who felt they were, in some way, different from their parents and peers and society in general.
The X-MEN also set the trend for the noble hero “going bad” or “going dark” with the “Dark Phoenix” storyline. Since then, countless heroes have become darker, more sinister versions of themselves, sometimes semi-permanently, and characters who have never had a light side have come into vogue (such as Wolverine and the Punisher).
The other most highly influential comic series of the ‘80s – or at least the title that had its finger on the pulse of the national climate before any other one did – was (believe it or not) G.I. Joe. Before this title, the way to increase a character’s popularity was to increase their power. After the Joes debuted, the way to increase a character’s popularity was to give them a bigger or meaner weapon. This paramilitary hardware fascination, best exemplified by the Punisher, now permeates the super hero genre, influencing every super hero title, including the mutant books, and even characters who would never use a gun.
So what is the cultural climate of the ‘90s? It’s difficult to predict this early in, but the trends of the late ‘80s – mutants and guns – look like they’re here to stay. It seems to me the world is perceived as a harsher place than ever before and, to remain credible, heroes need to be portrayed as excessively aggressive in order to keep up and cope with the times. I fear that society, at best, is going to stabilize with our present day levels of urban violence, economic instability, and moral ambiguity, and more than likely all these things are going to get worse.
I personally can’t see how, in light of the awareness the media affords us, our culture is going to ever be able to back to simpler values, more tranquil times, and a more cut-and-dried morality. Our heroes, then, are going to reflect this, becoming even darker and grimmer as a whole. On the other hand, maybe there’s a limit to how unrelentingly dark we can make our heroes, before they stop being heroic and stop providing us escapism from the realities of our cultural climate.
This is going to be an interesting decade. The fate of the super hero as we know it may be decided in the next few years.