Superhero Part 2:”It’s A Bird… It’s A Plane… It’s A New Medium ! “

Before we start on part two of this topic it is a good idea to re-cap:

  1. Sharon Lamb, Ed.D., a professor, and clinical psychologist, is the author of four books, including the The Secret Lives of Girls: What Good Girls Really Do – Sex, Aggression, and their Guilt. She recently gave a presentation at the 118th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association on how current superhero figures in the movies are impacting on young boys. She perceives “ a big difference in the movie superhero of today and the comic book superhero of yesterday” .

Today’s superheroes send wrong image to boys, say researchers

2. The comic book superhero can be traced back to classical Greek and Old Testament hero templates. These templates wound their way through English literature till they arrived in fertile publishing markets of the American Dime Novels and Pulp Magazines. These templates were re-imagined by American writers for American Audiences and were used to generate what came to known as the Pulp Hero.

3. The first Pulp Heroes and their settings were used in other forms of media – movies, newspaper comic strips, and radio dramas. This further popularized these characters, but in the process first broadened and then shifted the potential target audience. The narratives were simplified and the characters’ appeal to children, especially boys, could be emphasized. This played into a number of potential marketing areas, including toys.

4. Eventually (1938 -39) the Pulp Hero template would be modified again to create unique heroes whose narratives would be presented directly in a comic book format. The comic book superhero template was inspired by pulp science fiction heroes, weirdly disguised pulp detectives, and in particular Doc Savage and The Shadow.

The Comic book Superhero Template

The superhero template was first presented in Action Comics # 1(1938) with the introduction of Superman. The next most famous and effective example of this template was Batman in Detective Comics # 27 (1939).

If you look at these sample pages of the first Superman and Batman stories you will notice that the style and content owes a fair amount to the pulp magazines and the daily newspaper serials. They are intended for a wider audience than say, some of the Radio shows or Saturday Afternoon Matinees which were aimed at the specific demographic of school age children. In effect, even though the comic books were intended for kids the writing style and content could be rather adult and serious.


The reason for the discrepancy in content and intended audience can be explained. Consider the following factors that played into the creation of this new template. First the publishers of these comic-book magazines were either the same people who produced the pulp magazines or connected to the publishers who owned the rights to newspaper strips. Initially comic-books were early compilations of news-strips. It was with the increased demand the publishers needed to generate new material. Because the source of of the new material came from people who were familiar with producing news-strips / pulps they borrowed those codes and conventions. They did not realize that they were creating for what in many ways was a new medium that would have its own codes and conventions, a different constructed reality, and would be much more accessible to a different target audience, a different demographic with different expectations (values, and beliefs).

To get a better sense of how closely those early comics adhered to the conventions of the pulps take a look at Action # 1 (online). The Superman story quickly establishes the protagonist’s background, skill sets, working environment, and personal relationships. It is a bit episodic because the whole narrative was originally envisioned as serialized news-strip. It ends in a cliff-hanger. While the Superman introductory adventure is on the cover and is the lead story, there are a variety of other adventure/mystery, and humour stories in the magazine. There is also a short prose piece that could easily fit into a regular pulp magazine. The most telling feature is that while the Superman story is in colour, most of the magazine is in black and white.

The Bloody Pulps, as they were sometimes called, were know for there bright lurid covers. The interior were however in black and white.

Colour was of significant importance to the comic-book superhero. It is one of the conventions that came from the Sunday comic-strips. Bright and colourful marks the world of characters like Flash Gordan and Buck Rogers. This would become a significant difference between the Pulp Heroes and Superheroes.

In most cases the Pulp Heroes costumes were not much more than a domino mask combined with variations on the American Detective’s hat & trench-coat or the more urbane dinner dress of the rich dilettante detective/thief.

Some Pulp Heroes borrowed from the horror genre for their appearance, like the stone cold faced Avenger or The Spider , with his hunchback and fangs. Doc Savage, an adventurer and scientist with his perfect physique and bronzed appearance, only needed to  get his shirt ripped up. The Man of Bronze did this regularly in his adventures and covers.

Because the comics looked better in colour and it was possible to do so in the smaller cheaper magazines, the characters and their world could be brighter and bolder. In the comic strips, Little Orphan Annie had her bright red dress and orange hair. The Phantom ended up in purple ( click here for an explanation), while Dick Tracy had his yellow fedora.

It is no wonder that Superman’s costume, influenced by the bright “uniforms” of pulp & news-strip space-men, circus strongmen, and then added the stage magician’s cape, was red, yellow, and blue. Nor is it any surprise that he would be followed by a host of mystery men with colourful names and costumes to match: Green Lantern, Red Tornado, The Flash, Starman, Hawkman, and the Green Arrow.

These bright colourful heroes were naturally more cheerful, positive, and youthful than the dark violent seemingly older Pulp Heroes. It was the end of the Great Depression and young men and women in bright uniforms would soon be needed to fight terrible menaces of science , technology, and an alien/foreign world. But didn’t we say that the other core character was that Dark Knight of Gotham, Batman ? How could this masked detective of the night with his brooding pulp magazine atmosphere fit into this world of colour ? Two crucial elements came into play that would quickly influence the other comic-book heroes.

  1. Create adversaries that were colourful and strange appearance and name.
  2. Provide a youthful partner whose costume and name would be more at ease in the world of the comic-book superheroes.

The success of modifying Batman’s  dark pulp component quickly lead to other brightly coloured mystery-men adding youthful assistants. The comics were now the perfect vehicle for building patriotic values and beliefs and strengthen societal ideology in the face of war – Truth, Justice, and The American Way.  All those young children with fathers, uncles, and siblings overseas could fight along the side of bright colourful heroes in their imagination, never surrendering hope.  Nothing to fear except fear itself.

All was right with the comic-book world of the superheroes, then with the 1950’s arose new fears. The old motto was forgotten and the heroes were now the villains. The comics had become as dangerous as the Bloody Pulps. That is a story for another post.

Some interesting links:  Pulp Sunday

The Robert E. Howard United Press Association

Toonopedia

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