By Sasha Simic | 30 September 2014
Part one of a special two-part essay
>> Part two is here
Superheroes are popular – and they are big business. The film Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) for example took $600m worldwide and $319m in North America alone, making it the highest grossing film of the summer.
It joins such successes as Iron Man (2008), one of only ten films ever to have taken more than $100m in the first three days of its release, Avengers Assemble (2012) made $1.5bn worldwide while Iron Man 3 (2013) took over $1bn in just 23 days.
The appeal of superheroes seems universal even when the central character seems to have a parochial appeal. Captain America 2: the Winter Soldier made $75.2m in its first week-end box-office outside the US and was the number one watched film in 31 of the 32 countries it opened in. Its biggest overseas take was in South Korea at $10.9mn and in the UK with $10.7mn.
Success has not been limited to the Marvel Comics stable of characters. The Dark Knight Rises (2012) made a worldwide total of over $1.08bn and the latest film incarnation of Superman – Man of Steel (2013) made $125m in its first week-end in the US.
More superhero films are coming. Marvel have Ant-Man and Doctor Strange in the works while DC’s pantheon is gearing up with a Batman v Superman: The Dawn of Justice film in 2016.
And television is broadcasting the adventures of the (Green) Arrow (DC), The Flash, Constantine, and a pre-Batman Gotham.
But the superhero genre doesn’t deserve attention just because of the money it makes. There’s been a concentration and centralisation of the means of production and distribution of superheroes over the last few years.
The Walt Disney Company owns Marvel Entertainment (bought for $4.24bn in 2009). It also owns Lucas Entertainment – the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchise. Time/Warner, the world’s second largest media and entertainment conglomerate (just behind Disney in terms of revenue) owns the DC stable of superheroes.
This raises the issue of the effect of superheroes as carriers of ideology. There have been concerns about what superheroes represent and their influence for almost as long as superheroes have existed. In 1950 Unesco commissioned a report on the genre in order to “protect children” from the “undesirable influences” of superheroes.
The report was commissioned in response to the post-war popularity of American superhero comics in Europe, something that was viewed with deep suspicion by intellectuals and self-appointed moral guardians.
The man in charge of the study was Professor Philippe Bauchard, a “press and radio specialist” who was commissioned to analyse “the Superman”. Bauchard was an old-school social democrat who wrote books on Léon Blum and trade unionism and in 1983 wrote a book called The War of the Two Roses on utopian socialism and social democracy. In the course of his study Bauchard argued:
By undermining or warping the traditional values of each country, the Superman myth is becoming a kind of international monster.
What he had to say is interesting because it echoes many of the criticisms of the genre that followed, while defining the genre to an audience largely ignorant of its conventions. He points out:
The classical superman is most frequently clad in very close-fitting tights of striking hue (red or black). Masks are not obligatory. Embroidered initials are much in evidence.
He didn’t explain that the external “underpants” which are part of most superhero costumes are based on nineteenth century circus costumes: strong-men and acrobatic performers wore tights under their shorts, as you can see in this photo of Jules Leotard from 1850, for example.
Bauchard goes on to list other defining characteristics of the character:
The outer garb of the superman has on occasion been compared with the SS uniform… The superman’s co-operation with the authorities is symptomatic of his “conforming” character. It is exceptional to find a superman who is an anarchist or a revolutionary.
Being above human contingencies, the superman is also free of material difficulties. Not only do no money problems afflict the hero, who does not apparently have to provide for his own needs, but motor cars, buildings, telephones, planes, etc. are used without it being thought necessary to state who owns or maintains them.
(The superman) never grows old, and is always at the height of his powers. He will live forever between the ages of 20 and 30.
Pure criticism apart, therefore, it is difficult to devise any solution for the problem of the superman. He cannot be abolished by legal sanctions; he is rarely pornographic, and is, indeed, generally respectful of law and order, and vaguely altruistic.
So for Buchard the superhero is a “monster” and “problem” which needs a solution. There are more recent criticisms in this vein. This is Slavoj Zizek, reviewing Capitalist Superheroes by Dan Hassler-Forest:
Fantasy characters like Batman, Superman and Iron Man (are) the horrific embodiments of neoliberal capitalism. By making us sympathise with powerful but all-too-human billionaires, these films legitimise the power of the Berlusconis and Rupert Murdochs of the world. …What is hidden behind the superhero’s colourful costume is in fact the true power of Capital.
Many comic professionals are also not fans of superheroes and see them in similar terms. This is the legendary British comic writer Pat Mills (2000AD, Charley’s war, Nemesis the Warlock) talking about superheroes in February last year:
These costumed crusaders have a questionable and unwholesome role in society. They are so much more than a harmless power fantasy designed for our entertainment: (they are) in reality a disguise and an endorsement for much that is wrong on our planet. (They are a) stream of lethal and insidious jingoistic propaganda.
This is Mills writing in April 2013:
My loathing is more for what they represent—nothing wrong with a hero with special powers, if he isn’t just a tool of the establishment.
And this is Alan Moore (Miracleman, V for Vendetta, Watchmen, League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen) writing in July 2013:
I’ve had some distancing thoughts about them recently. I’ve come to the conclusion that what superheroes might be – in their current incarnation, at least – is a symbol of American reluctance to involve themselves in any kind of conflict without massive tactical superiority. I think this is the same whether you have the advantage of carpet bombing from altitude or if you come from the planet Krypton as a baby and have increased powers in Earth’s lower gravity.
Moore has recently described the enduring popularity of superheroes as a “cultural catastrophe”.
Both Mills and Moore are of the left politically but their take on superheroes has been mirrored by figures on the right. Frank Miller was part of a group of innovators like Moore and Mills who reinvented superheroes in the 1980s. Miller’s grim version of the Batman in The Dark Knight Returns (1986) has had a major influence on every interpretation of the Batman – comic and film – since.
In 2006 he announced he was going to write and draw a comic called Holy Terror in which he’d pit the Batman against Al Quaeda. When DC saw the level of Islamophobia associated with the project they withdrew permission for him to use the Batman and he had to re-draw the comic to feature a generic superhero called the Fixer. It was nasty, racist propaganda but Miller had been clear about what he was aiming for from the beginning:
It is, not to put too fine a point on it, a piece of propaganda … Superman punched out Hitler. So did Captain America. That’s one of the things they’re there for.
That’s true. Superheroes were used to disseminate Allied propaganda in the Second World War and featured anti-Soviet propaganda in the Cold War and more recently they were used in the War on Terror.
Not many US defence secretaries in the history of the office have uttered the words: “I present to you… Spiderman” but Donald Rumsfeld did just that on 28 April 2005 at a lavish ceremony in the White House.
He was posing with two portly actors dressed as Spiderman and Captain America to celebrate the launch of Salute Our Troops, a Marvel comic produced as part of Rumsfeld’s “America Supports You” pro-war campaign. 150,000 copies were eventually given away to American military personnel serving in Iraq.
But it’s not just about wartime propaganda.
Some interpreted The Incredibles (2004) as a right-wing parable. Cosmo Landesman wrote in the Sunday Times:
The Incredibles is the story of how the egalitarian drive in modern America killed off the superhero. It’s a passionate and politically incorrect plea for truth, justice and the Nietzschean way.
Peter Hitchens in the Mail on Sunday also welcomed what he saw as Thatcherite propaganda:
Not only does it attack the ludicrous compensation culture and support marriage, but it also takes a surprising stand against the stupid slogans of the egalitarians who claim everyone is the same…If the enormous power of films and TV had been used to support such wisdom for the past 50 years, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in now.
But if superheroes are vehicles and disseminator of right-wing ideology and are conservative when not openly reactionary, sexist, and authoritarian, isn’t their enduring and growing popularity problematic?
Not quite. All the critiques I’ve quoted – from Buchard, Mills, Moore and Miller – are valid. But they’re limited and too general.
It is not the case that superheroes are vehicles of propaganda made in the interests of the ruling order. One can make sweeping generalisations about superheroes but cultural products are not produced or consumed in generalities. Cultural products, superheroes included, are the result of complex historical processes. As Trotsky argued, art “mediates reality in complex ways” and “Marxism alone can explain why and how a given tendency in art has originated in a given period of history”.
Cultural products have a history and are produced and affected by the events going on in society during the specific points in history they appear. We need to look at the development of superheroes in this light.
Superheroes begin with Superman’s first appearance in Action Comics #01, in June 1938. He had precedents, most clearly in the “pulps”. The pulps of the thirties were cheap, mass market literature in a magazine format. There were pulps in every conceivable genre and they gave Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett a vehicle for their talents.
Some pulps told stories about vigilantes with extraordinary abilities who dispensed quick and violent “justice” – the Shadow, Doc Savage, the Black Bat and the Spider. This was the Depression era. People wanted and got “robust” escapist fiction.
Superman was created in 1932 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster – both 18 year olds at the time. They based the character on archetypes and scenarios that filled the science-fiction pulps they both loved to read. They pitched Superman to various newspapers as a comic strip. But their work was constantly rejected. Editors told them they couldn’t draw.
But in 1938 a new form was born. That’s a complicated story in itself but the short version is that printers in New York had spare capacity and some publishers found a way of using it. The comic books – a new, mass-circulation commodity – appeared.
Publishers had a format – they need material to fill it. It didn’t matter if the work wasn’t top drawer. So Siegel and Shuster dusted off their old Superman work and sold the rights to the character to National (DC) comics “to have and hold forever” for $130. They then worked for hire on the strip, being paid $10 per page to a total limit of $130. The deal proved to be spectacularly lucrative – for the publisher.
The first appearance of Superman in Action Comics #1 sold 500,000 copies. When Superman #01 appeared in the summer of 1939 it shifted 900,000 copies. Issue #02 sold out three print runs – over a million copies.
Superman transformed comics from a novelty into a national craze with an estimated 90% of America’s children reading them – along with a sizable number of adults.
But Superman wasn’t omnipotent in his earliest incarnation. He couldn’t fly or press coal into diamonds in his bare fists. More importantly, in the context of the criticisms levied against the character and all superheroes that followed, his early adventures were “left-leaning”.
Siegel and Shuster lived through the Depression and Roosevelt’s “New Deal”. Progressive politics are in those early stories. Superman was a social activist whose enemies were often “respectable” pillars of US society. Superman took on greedy landlords and mine owners and corrupt politicians. He used his superpower to fight for the socially and politically marginalised.
Superman’s success produced hundreds of imitators. This was “the Golden Age” of superheroes or, depending on your point of view, it was a period which produced “Such a carnival of empty… So many variations on nothing”, as Pat Mills’ Marshal Law describes superheroes in Crime and Punishment (1989).
Many characters are justifiably forgotten but DC struck gold again with Batman in 1939 and Wonder Woman in 1942.
Wonder Woman was deliberately created with a political agenda by William Moulton Marston – a Harvard educated lawyer, psychologist and inventor of the lie-detector. He wanted a powerful and positive role model for girls: “psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world”. But Marston’s was a unique form of feminism. He believed that submission to “loving authority” was the key to overcoming violence and that strong women were the hope for a better future:
The only hope for peace is to teach people who are full of pep and unbound force to enjoy being bound… Only when the control of self by others is more pleasant than the unbound assertion of self in human relationships can we hope for a stable, peaceful human society.
These three characters have been in continuous publication since they first appeared. But they were hardly the only superheroes of the Golden Age. DC alone published adventures of Flash, Green Lantern, Atom, Hawkman, Dr Fate, the Sandman, Captain Mid-Nite, and many more.
Other companies rushed in to cash in on the craze. In 1939 Timely launched their Marvel Comics. The lead characters were an underseas anti-hero called Prince Namor and a flaming android called the Human Torch.
Real-world politics entered the genre in April 1940 when the artists Jack Kirby and Joe Simon created Captain America for Timely comics, (which became Atlas Comics and in the 1960s Marvel Comics).
Captain America’s initial stories were, in the context of their time, quite progressive. Both Kirby and Simon were from poor, New York Jewish backgrounds. Their politics were vague and inconsistent but they followed the war in Europe, knew what the Nazis stood for and hated them. Captain America was created to be a modest call to arms against fascism in a period when isolationist politics dominated in other areas of popular culture.
The first issue of Captain America appeared in March 1940 with a cover that showed him punching out Hitler 10 months before the US entered the war. It was a huge success selling millions, attracting considerable hate mail from pro-Nazi Americans, and spawning hundreds of inferior imitators.
The war saw a shift in the genre. Characters were no longer anti-establishment social crusaders but soldiers fighting the Axis. During the war years Captain America was pure propaganda. Children were encouraged to join the Captain’s “Sentinels of Liberty” and help the war effort by collecting scrap metal and buying war bonds: “Remember! Your dime may pay for the bullet which will finish off the last Jap!”
The end of the war meant the end of the Golden Age. The craze for superheroes was over. Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman stayed in publication.
Much of their competition vanished. And even these characters had to adjust to the post-war age. There was a much greater element of comedy in their adventures (see right).
The Batman had been undergoing this process of sanitisation since his origin story. He started out in 1939 as a menacing brooding figure.
He went from this…
…to the 1940s model, with “Boy Wonder” Robin. By the 1950s Batman had acquired a family.
The transformation was partially due to a moral panic about the effect of comics spearheaded by an Adorno-influenced psychologist called Frederic Wertham. In his best-selling Seduction of the Innocent (1954), he blamed comics for a broad spectrum of American social problems. He saved most of his venom for horror and crime comics but he also attacked superheroes.
Batman and Robin would turn your son gay and Wonder Woman would lead your daughter into lesbianism. Wertham argued:
The Batman type of story may stimulate children to homosexual fantasies of the nature of which they may be unconscious…
Only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychiatry and of the psychopathology of sex can fail to realise a subtle atmosphere of homoeroticism which pervades the adventures of the mature “Batman” and his young friend Robin.
Wertham’s arguments and methodology were challenged when they appeared, but it’s only in the last few years that proof has emerged that Wertham simply made up his “research”.
The anti-comics witchhunt he helped ferment led to comic publishers setting up a self-regulating body – the Comic Code Authority (CCA). It put down a set of moral guidelines that publishers had to follow. These demanded that the presentation in comics of “policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions…(mustn’t be depicted) in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority”.
It insisted that “in every instance good shall triumph over evil” and discouraged “instances of law enforcement officers dying as a result of a criminal’s activities”. Specific restrictions were placed on the portrayal of kidnapping and concealed weapons. Depictions of “excessive violence” were forbidden, as were “lurid, unsavoury, gruesome illustrations”.
Vampires, werewolves, ghouls and zombies could not be portrayed or named. In addition, comics could not use the words “horror” or “terror” in their titles. The use of the word “crime” was subject to numerous restrictions.
The code forbade the publication of “sexy, wanton comics”, and the depictions of “sex perversion”, “sexual abnormalities”, and “illicit sex relations”. Seduction, rape, sadism and masochism were specifically forbidden. Love stories had to emphasise the “sanctity of marriage” and those portraying scenes of passion were advised to avoid stimulating “lower and baser emotions”.
Things got boring.
But the CCA restriction also paradoxically led to a new wave of creativity – the Silver Age. Unable to tell stories about reality, American comics gave the superhero another try.
The Silver Age
In November 1961 artist Jack Kirby teamed up with writer Stan Lee to produce the first issue of The Fantastic Four for Timely. 1961 was the year president Eisenhower made his speech against “the military-industrial complex” whose “total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government”.
It was felt in Timely, which was on the cusp of becoming Marvel Comics, as well.
The Fantastic Four was a massive hit. The main characters – a reworked Human Torch, the elastic Mr Fantastic, Sue “Invisible Girl” Storm and The Thing – argued with each other, were located in the real world (New York instead of Superman’s Metropolis or Batman’s Gotham) and would occasionally be harassed by real life problems – in issue #9, December 1962, they become bankrupt. They pioneered a new breed of “superheroes with super problems”.
The Fantastic Four heralded the start of the Marvel Comics Group.
Marvel was to comics what Motown or the Beatles were to the music of the sixties. There was a undeniable freshness and an imagination in their comics.
Over the next three years Marvel produced characters who are now familiar to film-goers the world over. The Fantastic Four were followed by the Incredible Hulk, the Mighty Thor, the Amazing Spider-Man, Ant-Man (later Giant-Man) Iron-Man, the Avengers and The X-Men, Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos – later Nick Fury, Agent of Shield – and Doctor Strange. The introduction of Daredevil in 1964 concluded a burst of creativity unseen since the 1940s.
They were children of the Cold War.
Nearly all these characters received their abilities through radiation. The Fantastic Four become irradiated on an unscheduled space flight to beat the “Commies” into space. Military scientist Bruce Banner is turned into the Hulk by his Gamma Bomb.
Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider to become Spider-Man. Matt Murdoch is blinded by a radioactive canister but has his remaining senses heightened to become Daredevil. The X-Men are born with super-powers – mutations caused by post-war radiation.
And they were all Cold Warriors. The early Marvel Comics are set against the fear of nuclear war and East-West rivalry. No early Marvel comic was without “reds under the bed” challenging the all-American Marvel heroes.
What were the politics of Marvel Comics? In 1975 Writer Stan Lee argued:
(Marvel) includes every shade and facet of the political spectrum…the only philosophies that have no place at Marvel are those preaching war or bigotry.
Lee was probably a Democrat at time of creation of Marvel comics (Kennedy appears in many of his stories in 1962-3). Artist Jack Kirby was a conservative who seems to have bought into much of the Cold war propaganda of the time although he later regretted it. They may have believed in the anti-communism in their work, or it may have been an attempt at “respectablity” – after all comics had been attacked as a subversive commodity only a decade previously.
Steve Ditko who plotted and drew Spider-Man and Doctor Strange in the early sixties was and remains a disciple of Ayn Rand and her ultra-right individualist ideology of “Objectivism”.
Despite co-creating one of the most lucrative characters in popular fiction he lives – in his late eighties – in relative poverty.
End of part one.