Glory in Excelsior!

Superhero comics gave Stephen Mumford the reading bug at an early age and a passion for the form he retains to this day. Even in the blockbuster era, he says, panels can't be beat...

December 22, 2011

If you could have one superpower, what would it be? This is a popular question in team-building exercises. Flight? Invisibility? Super strength? Would you want to be able to hurl balls of fire, communicate telepathically or run faster than a speeding bullet? Sometimes we imagine possessing the powers of other animals: flying like a bird, leaping like a tiger or swimming like a fish. Other times we imagine having supernatural powers, such as telekinesis or an ability to shape-shift, that as far as we know nothing has nor could possess. We might just imagine having more of what we've already got: strength, speed or heightened senses.

I can declare a degree of knowledge in such matters, having read superhero comic books from my early years. There were no books in the house when I was little, but a few pence bought the adventures of the Hulk, the Fantastic Four and, my favourite, Spider-Man. Initially my older sister read them to me, putting on different voices for each character. But they provided the perfect incentive for me to learn to read for myself.

The myth of the superhero and their supervillain counterparts appears firmly enshrined in popular culture, but the superpowered beings that are recognisable the world over today are relatively new. Superman dates back only to 1938, with merely a few prototypes preceding him. Yet the superhero may be merely the modern manifestation of a more persistent archetype.

Among the Greek demigods was super-strong Hercules; the Romans had wing-footed Mercury; and Norse mythology had the hammer-wielding Thor. Is there a human need to invent such superpowered characters? Should believers in God think of their own omniscient and omnipotent deity as one such creation? Why would we want to create such myths?

We humble humans have no superpowers, but we do have powers. We have all sorts of mental and physical abilities, and for the most part it seems that we find pleasure in exercising them. Children run and jump around the schoolyard for no other reason. Humans enjoy being useful, creative and productive. We make art, for instance, not because it is much use for anything, but because we have the ability to do so.

Sport, meanwhile, is a form of practice in which the full extent of our embodied powers is tested to its limits. Our finest athletes fascinate us not because they make a useful contribution to society but because they are the closest thing we have to superpowered beings.

It may have been no coincidence that the modern fantasy superhero emerged during troubled times. In the late 1930s, there were ominous political developments as the storm clouds of world war gathered in Europe and Asia.

Following the success of Superman and Batman, a Jewish New Yorker and founder of pulp publisher Timely Publications was keen to cash in.

Martin Goodman was always on the look-out for a fast buck and quickly rushed out Marvel Comics (#1) (October 1939), filled with a hastily assembled cast of heroes. That first issue showcased the debuts of the Human Torch, a flaming android; the half-man, half-fish Sub-Mariner; jungle boy Ka-Zar; and the surprisingly flightless Angel. The comic sped off the shelves and Goodman had a hit on his hands. He got his act together and Marvel Mystery Comics was soon a regular monthly.

Such was the demand, Goodman commissioned new superheroes. One of the biggest hits was Captain America, a character who began in his own eponymous title in March 1941. Right from the start, "Cap" was anti-Nazi at a time when such a stance was politically contentious. Nine months before the US would enter the Second World War, and with strong domestic voices urging American neutrality, it was bold to depict the super-soldier punching Adolf Hitler in the face on the cover of Captain America Comics (#1). Many of Goodman's creators were Jewish and they had heard the anti-Semitic propaganda disseminated from Europe. They thought it should be confronted and combated forthwith. Superheroes were anti-Nazi counter-propaganda, a stance vindicated once the US finally entered the war.

Young Allies was a particular favourite, featuring the sidekicks of Cap and the Human Torch in the form of James "Bucky" Barnes and Thomas "Toro" Raymond, plus a host of other youthful characters who were able to travel to Europe under their own steam and cause havoc in Naziland.

With the end of the war, there seemed little need for superheroes any more and they declined in popularity during the 1950s. Comics remained but often followed popular fashion into western, romance, comedy, horror and science fiction genres.

Goodman had long ago entrusted the creative side of the business to his young relative Stan Lieber, known by his pen name Stan Lee, who had been editor-in-chief while still a teenager.

By the early 1960s, Lee felt disillusioned and decided to get out of the business. However, his wife convinced him to have one last try with superheroes.

He thought that if he was going to write them, he would do it his way. He wanted them to have a human side. The older "supers" were not really believable. He wanted heroes that, apart from their superpowers, were just like us. That way, it made it far easier for the reader to imagine having those amazing capabilities.

On 8 August 1961, Fantastic Four (#1) hit the news-stands (with a November cover date to give it a longer shelf life). It featured four believable characters who, after being accidentally bombarded with cosmic rays, acquired superpowers. Ben Grimm (The Thing) was super strong but physically deformed; Sue Storm (Invisible Woman), as her alter ego's name suggests, was able to turn herself invis-ible and could project powerful fields of psionic energy; the team's leader, Reed Richards (Mr Fantastic), could stretch and bend his body; and the fourth member, Sue's brother Johnny, was able to burst into flame at will, just like the original Human Torch.

Lee's characterisation did the trick. The world took to these new heroes and others quickly followed, including the tragic Hulk (May 1962) and the Norse god Thor in superhero form (August 1962). That same month, the nerdy teenager Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider, gaining the powers to become Spider-Man.

Unlike the original supers, these characters had real problems with which their readership could identify. It was never plain sailing for them: for example, Parker's newfound arrogance on acquiring spider-powers led to the death of his dear Uncle Ben, the man who had raised him from childhood. We soon had Ant-Man, Iron Man and the mutant X-Men. Old campaigner Captain America even made a comeback when he was found in the ocean, preserved in a block of ice, an icy embrace that the super-soldier serum had enabled him to survive.

The company had newfound success and in 1963 rebadged as Marvel Comics, a brand name that stuck.

There are many reasons why comics were desirable little things, although cheap, fragile and flimsy. They would come out monthly with serialised stories; no one wanted to miss an episode of the soap operas they depicted. They thus became - and still are - highly collectable. Full of vivid colours and containing such wonders between their pages, they were self-contained worlds of fiction. Readers kept their interest long after joining the adult world. Each issue offered escape from people's relatively mundane lives. But these reasons alone don't explain the tight connection between the comic book format and the superhero genre.

The connection is a real and intrinsic one. Our sense of marvel at the idea of the superpowered hero is something that we could, until recently, visually realise only in the comic book form.

Throughout the 20th century, comics were the only effective way for us to fantasise about what superpowers would be like. The artist could draw Spider-Man walking on the ceiling and swinging from a web, Mr Fantastic stretching across the street, Thor's hammer, Mjolnir, returning to him after smashing an alien menace. And for the heroes to display their powers, they needed good reason. The titles therefore featured a cavalcade of supporting and superpowered villains - just as in sport, competition provided the motive for the heroes to display their powers. In the comics, it was easy and cheap to depict a silver man riding a surfboard through the cosmos, a tentacled mad scientist, shape-changing aliens or an evil god of mischief.

To see how well comics suited our superpower daydreaming, and how there really was no credible alternative, one has only to watch some of the early television and film adaptations of the stories. Spider-Man and the Hulk were victims of low-budget productions with embarrassing special effects, betraying just how premature they were. There was also an ill-judged Fantastic Four movie that was never released.

If the idea is that we consider superpowers as a profound extension of our own empowered embodiment, then we had better not die laughing in the process. Comic books were perfect for the task. The incredible could be depicted credibly.

This connection between the comic book and the superhero now faces a challenge, however. In the 21st century, we have the ability and resources to depict superpowers credibly on the big screen. The recent Spider-Man movies utilised special effects that were clearly capable of realising Lee's vision for the character: Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2 (2004), featuring Spidey versus Dr Octopus, was a particular triumph. Does this mean that the existence of the comic book is under threat?

Fortunately, it doesn't. Comics have adapted since the early 1960s superhero revival. Lee wanted to tell fantastic stories and the artists he employed were primarily storytellers (Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko were the best in the business at achieving this). They were able to envisage the incredible elements of Lee's imagination. But then there came a new wave of creators who had greater artistic aspirations.

The first was arguably Jim Steranko, who introduced elements of Salvador Dali and Op Art into his rendition of Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD (a comic about an espionage hero in the James Bond mould).

The story-telling also gave way to literary pretensions: Alan Moore, probably the greatest writer in the industry's history, co-created Watchmen with Dave Gibbons in 1986-87, the only comic to feature on Time magazine's list of the world's 100 all-time greatest novels. Moore also had an epic run on the DC title Swamp Thing, the story of superpowered flora.

The comic books of today, produced by writers and artists such as Ed Brubaker and Emma Rios, continue to provide an artistic experience that is likely to see them flourish.

So an impressive superhero film is unlikely to kill off the comic: indeed, sales should be boosted by the film spin-off. With a comic book, the reader is in control. They can decide when to move on to the next panel or page. If they want to spend a few moments contemplating a clash of superpowers, they can. If they want to "pause" the narrative and imagine what it must be like to swing across the New York skyline, they are free to do so.

A relatively small creative team can put together a hero or fantasy story in a matter of weeks, in contrast to a movie that needs years of planning and millions in financing. As a source of new fantasies, the comic book is likely to endure, therefore. It will almost certainly remain the primary source for new flights of the imagination in which we consider what might be if only we had such powers at our disposal.

I stuck with Spider-Man and have kept my collection going. At times I wondered if he provided my inspiration. Peter Parker pursued an academic career. As well as teaching me to read, comics were the first place I heard about universities. I saw that there was a role in the world for the nerd who studied hard.

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