Gina Misiroglu is a pop-culture historian, best-selling author, and editor of The Superhero Book: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Comic-Book Icons and Hollywood Heroes (Visible Ink Press, $24.95).

The Superhero Century: It’s Not Just Capes and Spandex Anymore

By Gina Misiroglu, author of The Superhero Book: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Comic-Book Icons and Hollywood Heroes (Visible Ink Press / $24.95).

An advent of the twentieth century and a clear marker of American popular culture, costumed superheroes have achieved historic milestones within the last seventy-five years of American history. Much like in radio, film, and television, several key “ages” have defined comic-book history in general and the superhero genre specifically. Characterized as periods of artistic advancement and commercial success, the superhero ages are generally classified as the Golden Age (1938-1954), the Silver Age (1956-1969), the Bronze Age (1970-1980), the Late Bronze Age (1980-1984), and the Modern Age (1985-present).

The Golden Age: The Birth of the Superhero

In the first four decades of the twentieth century, there were notable and popular fictional characters that foreshadowed and inspired the superheroes to come: Zorro in prose and on film, Doc Savage in pulp magazines, the Shadow in the pulps and on radio, the Green Hornet on radio, and the Phantom in a newspaper comic strip.

DC Comics introduced the first costumed superhero, Superman, in Action Comics #1 (June 1938). Superman’s creators, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, had unsuccessfully tried to sell the series to newspaper syndicates as a daily strip. DC took an enormous risk in 1938 by publishing the untried character, given the depressed economic climate of the day. Siegel and Shuster’s unwavering faith in their superpowered champion never faltered, and readers of the day reciprocated the creators’ enthusiasm: Action #1 sold phenomenally well.

At the time, however, Superman was not labeled or marketed as a “superhero,” even though he perfectly personified the term as it is defined by many comic-book scholars today: a heroic character with an altruistic mission, who possesses superpowers, wears a defining costume, and functions in the “real world” in his or her alter ego. The early comic book heroes of the 1940s were usually referred to by their creators as “costumed characters” or as “long-underwear” or “union-suit heroes.” Nonetheless, the superhero had been established and was about to multiply in number through American popular culture.

The years 1940 and 1941 heralded an eruption of new comic-book superheroes. Included among their legion: DC’s the Flash, Hawkman, the Spectre, Hourman, Dr. Fate, Green Lantern, the Atom, Starman, Green Arrow, and Aquaman; Fawcett Publications’ Spy Smasher, Bulletman, Ibis the Invincible, and the “World’s Mightiest Mortal,” Captain Marvel; plus Cat-Man, Blue Bolt, the Black Terror, Hydroman, the Ray, Plastic Man, Midnight, the Human Bomb, Magno (the Magnetic Man), Daredevil, the Black Hood, the Comet, and Will Eisner’s the Spirit .

Superhero subcategories quickly arose. There were the sidekicks, pre-teen or teenage junior superheroes who worked alongside their adult mentors. Starting this trend was Robin the Boy Wonder. Robin was introduced in 1940 by Batman creator Bob Kane as a gateway for young readers to live vicariously “inside” the hero’s adventures, and as a means to soften the rather gruesome tone of Batman’s first year of publication in which the character, originally more anti-hero than superhero, hurled mobsters off rooftops. The concept of the superhero sidekick was yet another first for DC Comics, and another success. More kid heroes followed, like Toro and Captain Marvel Jr. Superheroines began to appear in the man’s world of superheroics: Wonder Woman, the Woman in Red, Phantom Lady, Lady Luck, and Black Cat were among the first. These two sub>categories dovetailed with the introduction of female sidekicks to superheroes, such as Flame Girl, Bulletgirl, Hawkgirl, Mary Marvel, and Cat-Man’s partner, Kitten. And in the winter of 1940, the superteam was born, as the Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, and other DC superheroes joined forces as the Justice Society of America.

These costumed characters help fight World War II, sell millions of comics to pre-adolescent boys, and righted all wrongs. The end of World War II nearly marked the end of the superhero. America’s heroes had nothing to do, and one by one, superhero titles were canceled. Publishers went out of business, and those that survived did so from the success of new genres like funny animals, Westerns, horror, crime, romance, and science fiction, although those titles sold, at best, roughly half of circulation figures from the World War II boom.


To find out more about what happens to superheroes in the Silver Age, look for Gina’s guest blog next week!

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