I was planning a post on a recent narrative arc in Spider-man, but that will have to wait for another day. A recent spat of news articles, TV news bites, and even a CBC radio interview will no doubt get the older generation shaking their heads and young anxious parents all worried. You see the news media is recycling that old corrupter of childhood minds,…………. the comic book superhero !
Of course this is the 21st century and there has been a revision/updating of this serious social problem, so it might be worthwhile to take a media literate view of the superhero, past, present and future.
In the beginning, there was Beowulf, well only if you start with early English literature. Beyond that cultural island there were Homer’s boys from the Iliad and the Odyssey, various Ancient Greek heroes who got top billing in their own stories, and some heroic fellows from the Old Testament. I know this is very Euro-centric and even within that cultural circle it is very small. I’m not ignoring the rest of the world’s cultural heroes. It is just a quirk of cultural history that the comic book superhero is an American media product whose literary genes can be traced back to these sources.
All cultures produce their own heroes. These mythical, legendary, or fictional figures are invested with the values, beliefs, and ideologies of their creators and the target audience for whom they are intended ( hmmm, ….. sounds like a media principle) The narratives featuring these heroes are transmitted through the most effective media technology the society has at the time. The media forms usually follow some variation of this historical developmental: oral literature ( includes poetry, song, dramatic presentation and dance), written compositions, such as poems, songs or plays, that are initially presented/performed for an audience, and finally short and longer prose narratives that are written compositions that are intended to be read by an audience of individuals.
If you were paying attention to where that development of media forms stopped then you noticed an absence of a number of media. You may as well have pegged the approximate date/era – mid late 1880’s and the flowering of the English novel, mass publication magazines, and penny-dreadfuls. This is a crucial time for cultural expression. Just as the industrial age would create mass production of material goods, it would also create mass production of cultural goods ( the symbolic expression of values, beliefs, and ideologies ). Most of the genre categories that we recognize today in popular entertainment began here: Gothic Horror/Thriller, Mystery-Detective, Romance, Adventure (Contemporary, Historical, Fantasy), Westerns, and Science Fiction.
The 20th century brought new media technology that reshaped the content of print and theatre. In America some very significant media forms came into existence. These media forms would take the popular entertainment genres and make them even more accessible as they taught the immigrants the values, beliefs, and ideology of America. In the process they would weave together the strands of literary genes that would eventually produce the comic-book superhero. These media might not be exactly the ones you are expecting: dime novels – pulp magazines, newspaper comic strips, radio and film.
I guess what some people may not be aware of is the dime novel and the pulp magazines. These American variations on the British penny-dreadfuls would distill the American vision of the hero, first as the cowboy and then as the detective. The pulp magazines would take the genres and showcase them in specialized magazines for a specific market/audience :
Adventure, Amazing Stories, Black Mask, Dime Detective, Flying Aces, Horror Stories, Marvel Tales, Oriental Stories, Planet Stories, Spicy Detective, Startling Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Unknown and Weird Tales.
Pulp magazines and their writers would Americanize genres and create new ones. In the process, they would create fictional American cultural heroes. One of the earliest creations was Zorro. In 1919 Zorro, a creation of pulp writer Johnston McCulley, appeared in All-Story Magazine. Still earlier, in 1912 Edgar Rice Burroughs introduced the world to John Carter of Mars and the planetary romance (sword and ray-gun), a sub-genre of science fiction. The pulps introduced the term science fiction with the first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories. The first famous fictional American space-opera hero, Buck Rogers, debuted in the magazine. Robert E. Howard fashioned the fantasy sub-genre of sword and sorcery and created characters such as Conan the Barbarian, and King Kull of Atlantis in Weird Tales Magazine. Dashiell Hammett created the Hard Boiled Detective in Black Mask Magazine.
As individual characters became popular a magazine would feature the lead character in a novel-length story each issue. In a very competitive market these Pulp Heroes could become powerful brands to sell the magazine. Publishers would encourage the writers to give these leads distinctive names and characteristics. Somewhere in this stew of commercial mass media production and creativity came a blend of mystery, science fiction, and occult/horror that created a new version of a literary hero that could be traced back to the ancient heroes mentioned at the start of this article. The two most significant Pulp Heroes were Doc Savage and The Shadow. They established a template of urban mystery-men that would influence the creation Superman and The Batman.
Many of these genres and characters became content for other media, newspaper comic strips, radio and film. Each medium modifying or influencing the content of the other. An example of this is Zorro. Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford chose the story for the start of their new studio, United Artists. The story was adapted as The Mark of Zorro in 1920. McCulley’s story, re-titled to match the film, was re-released as a tie-in. When the writer created more stories of his now popular hero he modified the character to more closely match the Fairbanks interpretation. The costume and mask were an invention of the cinema not the author. In the case of The Shadow, the pulp character was created in the radio audience’s response to the voice used to narrate stories from The Shadow Mystery Magazine.
So from the earliest onset of the Pulp Heroes there has been a mixing of media. This is understandable when you consider that this new version of a cultural hero coincided with the arrival of new competing forms of media. A balanced was maintained because each medium offered something a bit different from the other. The shared content could be targeted at different audiences. Using the example of Buck Rogers demonstrates this point .
The basis for the Buck Rogers character is Anthony Rogers, the protagonist of “Armageddon 2419 A.D.” by Philip Francis Nowlan in the August 1928 issue of the pulp magazine Amazing Stories. The character was renamed Buck Rogers as a newspaper comic strip, making its first newspaper appearance January 7, 1929. Buck Rogers is considered the first science fiction adventure comic strip. The Rogers strip, and the Tarzan strip that debuted at the same time, borrowed the serialized format used in the pulp magazines and Saturday Matinee Movie Serials. Note that there is a shift in the target audience from prose narratives to comic strips. Many who would not read the magazines because their age/education could obviously follow the strips.
When the character’s adventures are transformed into radio and film serials there is another change in demographic. In 1932, the Buck Rogers radio program began airing four times a week. Intended for school age children, it was broadcast four times a week. The show was designed to sell related Buck Rogers toys. In 1934 the film, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century — An Interplanetary Battle with the Tiger Men of Mars, was presented at the Chicago World’s Fair. The props were the toys that were being sold to the children. When the more sophisticated Hollywood serial was produced in 1939. As a serial it was intended for the Saturday matinee audience of school age children.
The year 1939 marks several significant events. In terms of media, this is the year that Superman and then Batman make their first appearance. Their success spawns many imitations. The template for the comic-book superhero was born. Its target audience was clearly aimed at school age children, specifically boys. This template and target audience would hold until the 1960’s.
Superhero template Files: superhero template superhero template2
To Be Continued ! Return to see Episode XYZ: The Destruction of Innocent Escapism.
Here’s more on Pulp Heroes and Pulp Magazines
Read Samples of the Original Pulps
The WOLD NEWTON UNIVERSE The Wold Newton Family is a group of heroic and villainous literary figures that science fiction author Philip José Farmer postulated belonged to the same genetic family. Some of these characters are adventurers, some are detectives, some explorers and scientists, some espionage agents, and some are evil geniuses.