Superhero Part 3:”It’s A Bird… It’s A Plane… It will Rot Your Moral Fibre !”

The first two posts established how comic book superhero template was derived from the pulp hero. This template blended the content of the pulps with codes and conventions of the newspaper comic-strips to create a new medium and genre that was perfect for the 1940’s. The two core versions of this template were Superman and  Batman.

The Destruction of Innocent Escapism

This new medium and genre interacted with the radio and cinema as specific business interests discovered that this genre could be used to reach a specific demographic group (target audience), school age children. All was fine until the 1950’s, when a problem arose. There was a growing anxiety that comic books were undermining society and corrupting the young.

Radio episode: The Silver Clipper

This accusation is a typical reaction to new media a new media content. Part of the concern arose from the content of the comic books. As already pointed out in the earlier posts the line between pulp magazines and comics was at times pretty thin. The publishers in the 1950’s were exploring new content, Mad Magazine, and reaching out to wider audiences with crime and horror magazines. Because comic books blend graphics and text to tell the story, they are more accessible to a wide age group. As a distinct medium, they require a different type of literacy.

The first issue of Mad. Art by Harvey Kurtzman.

Really the problem was control of distribution, but it was treated as a problem of content. Rather than accepting that comic-books could have content and narrative techniques that were appropriate to different age groups, the way movies, radio, live theatre, novels, and television did, the assumption in North America was that comic-books were for kids ( just like Trix cereal). Working from that premise, a whole medium and the related publishing industry became ghettoized. It could only publish content that was deemed acceptable for school age children.

In 1954 this attitude became further entrenched with the publication of Seduction of the Innocent by Dr. Frederick Wertham. Wertham went after the superhero comics. Wertham’s interpretations of the effects of superhero comics on children’s values and beliefs is insightful. According to Dr. Wertham the comic-book superhero conveyed three socially corrosive views of reality/society:

  • Superman has unbelievable powers ( they will believe a man could fly ) = unrealistic expectations of reality

  • Wonder Woman has unbelievable powers ( they will believe a woman could be independent of a man )= an unrealistic role of woman in society

Wonder Woman Then and Now

  • Batman and Robin establishes unbelievable relationships ( they will believe a adults and children could mutually repect each other ) = unrealistic expectations of adults which could open the door to a homosexual relationship.

Batman, Red Robin and Robin


The insight that we gain from this is not about comic-books. It does give us insight into Dr. Wertham’s own cultural and personal biases:

  1. A child’s mind (6 -16 years old) is so immature they have trouble distinguishing reality from fantasy.
  2. A woman’s role in society is very limited.
  3. Children, unlike adults, can not be treated as psychologically whole individuals.
  4. Homosexuality is a mental illness/bad habit that can be acquired ( like alcoholism or gambling).

The consequence of Wertham’s influence was a set of comic book publishing rules that so hamstrung the industry that it nearly killed it.

When we look at the whole attack on superheroes and comic-books from the perspective of media principles we can see that an interesting pattern being played out.

  1. A new medium emerges and is embraced by a young generation that is better able to incorporate new codes and conventions into their literacy skills.
  2. This young target audience offers new business opportunities to media producers and creators.
  3. These business interests will attempt to broaden or expand their market ( target audience) with new content.
  4. The new medium and content will generate intended and unintended messages that can come in conflict with traditional/current values, beliefs, and ideologies. This can create a backlash that can involve industries, various levels of governments, and a variety of communities & social groups.

Now when we consider Dr. Sharon Lamb’s critique of the influence of movie superheroes on young boys we can take into consideration media history and media principles. I would think that Dr. Lamb and Dr. Wertham would not agree on many issues of psychological development of children and teens. No doubt from the perspective the 21st century her views of the role of women in society would be a bit different. She does consider some of the comic-book superheroes positive role models.

Where they do agree is in their assessment that some forms of media have potentially negative impact and an excessive influence the young (see : Packaging Girlhood Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers’ Scheme ). Unlike Dr. Wertham, Dr. Lamb would put emphasis on parents and their children becoming media literate. Dr. Wertham would attempt to impose censorship and create severe financial restrictions on the media industry. Our current mass media saturated society would be Wertham’s a cultural nightmare.

I do think Dr. Lamb has made some errors in her analysis. I am basing this on a very limited reporting of her opinions, but a few things from her published comments struck me as flawed. First of all she is not considering the many changes that have occurred in the comic-book industry since the 1960’s. ( I’ll deal with those changes another post.) Of more importance, some of her concerns appear to derive from one particular movie superhero, Ironman ( Tony Stark ). Being the most current comic-book superhero that would appeal to the young boys she interviewed, it is no wonder that Ironman would be their role model.

I agree that Ironman and the recent Batman movies are not really intended for young children, but then neither are most of the current comics that feature their adventures. Based on these films, I would agree that the superhero role models presented in the movies have a different sensibility from the heroes of school age target audience of the past.

Not all comics are for kids

The Ironman movies contain messages that are not intended for young children. The satiric elements would go over their heads completely. Dr. Lamb is correct in pointing out that marketers are quite willing to use the movie to sell products to a younger target audience that is younger than the movie’s intended demographic. This is not new. I can remember as a child seeing TV ads for toys that were inspired by gadgets used by James Bond. Today’s marketers are just as willing to sell toys as were those marketers that were selling Buck Roger ray-guns and rocket-ships.

Comic-book tie-in to James Bond Movie : Who was the target audience ?

What Dr. Lamb does not take into consideration, is that cartoons and specific comics are being marketed to the younger audience to compensate f or the different sensibilities and business goals.

She also has not considered that Ironman is only the current hero of interest. In a very short time we will see Marvel’s related properties, Captain America and Thor. Both will have a more traditional heroic stature. The first will be set WW II and the other will be based partially in the realm of Nordic Mythology. Considering that this will is all intended to lead to an Avengers movie that will bring all three characters together, I think the positive heroic superhero template has been abandoned the way Dr. Lamb fears.

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