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[GUEST POST] Gina Misiroglu on The Silver Age of Superheroes

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 (2nd edition, Visible Ink Press). To find out more about what happens to superheroes in the Silver Age, look for Gina’s next guest blog coming soon!

The Silver Age: Heroes Reemerge

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

In 1956 DC Comics, struggling to find new concepts that might attract readers, introduced a “tryout” title, Showcase. “The first three Showcases “flopped,” editor Julius “Julie” Schwartz recalled in his autobiography, Man of Two Worlds: My Life in Science Fiction and Comics (2000), “and we were at an editorial meeting trying to decide what to do in number four when I suggested that we try to revive the Flash.” This renewal was given the green light despite the trepidation of other editors still battle-weary from the demise of superheroes several years earlier.

Schwartz steered the project into a fresh direction. Jay Garrick, the Flash of comics’ Golden Age (1938-1954), was ignored-for a time, at least-and a new character, police scientist Barry Allen, obtained superspeed in his initial excursion in Showcase #4 (September-October 1956). Given a sporty costume by artist Carmine Infantino, the Flash mixed action, style, and imagination, an attractive alternative to DC’s other series and to then-current television fare, where special-effects limitations made such superactivity impossible (or laughable when attempted). Brisk sales warranted three more Showcase appearances before the “Fastest Man Alive” sped into his own magazine.

At the time, DC, Schwartz, Infantino, and original Flash writer Robert Kanigher merely had in mind the creation of a new product that would generate readers and profit. Their efforts, and the Flash’s runaway success, marked a vital moment in comic-book history: the beginning of its eminent Silver Age (1956-1969). Without the success of the Flash, publishers might have given up on superheroes, leading the genre into extinction.

In 1958, Schwartz’s colleague Mort Weisinger, editor of DC’s Superman franchise, guest-starred the Legion of Super-Heroes-one of the first times the term “superheroes” was used on a comics cover-in the Superboy strip in Adventure Comics #247. Cosmic Boy, Saturn Girl, and Lightning Boy (later renamed Lightning Lad) were superpowered teenagers from a thousand years in the future who traveled to the past to recruit the Boy of Steel into their club of heroes. Weisinger added a new superpowered member to Superman’s family in May 1959, when Action Comics #252 introduced the Man of Steel’s cousin Supergirl, a survivor of the planet Krypton.

Schwartz’s next volley was the reintroduction of Green Lantern, another DC Golden Age great. As he did with the Flash, Schwartz took the superhero’s name and power-in this case, his power “ring,”the source of Green Lantern’s almost limitless abilities-and premiered a new version of the character in Showcase #22 (September-October 1959). Robust reader response to the hero led to the release of Green Lantern #1 in 1960.

With the acclaim for the Flash and Green Lantern, Schwartz took an ambitious step in The Brave and the Bold #28 (1960) by combining them, along with DC’s other major superheroes-Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and the Martian Manhunter-into a team called the Justice League of America, another revamp, this time of the Golden Age’s Justice Society of America. Continuing Schwartz’s winning streak, the “JLA” was a smash, and the editor next overhauled both Hawkman and the Atom in 1961. Also that year, he published the momentous “Flash of Two Worlds” in The Flash #123, introducing the concept of a parallel world-“Earth-Two,” where the Golden Age Flash still operated, while the current version of the Flash existed on “Earth-One.”

Over the next few years, Schwartz offered exposure to more Earth-Two heroes, alongside their Earth-One counterparts: meetings between the Silver Age and Golden Age Flashes, Green Lanterns, and Atoms became common, and the Justice Society began annual crossovers in the pages of Justice League of America. Beyond those appearances, more Golden Age DC heroes won their own tryouts. Starman and Black Canary teamed up in The Brave and the Bold #61 and #62 (1965), Dr. Fate and Hourman joined forces in Showcase #55 and #56 (1965), and the Spectre was revived in his own solo series beginning with Showcase #60 (1966), soon moving into his own comic.

Batman’s New Look

Batman and Detective Comics teetered on the brink of cancellation in 1964, stagnant from years of mediocre stories and art. DC’s editorial director, Irwin Donenfeld, assigned the books to Schwartz with the mandate of “saving” them. Schwartz realized that Batman had, in his own words, “strayed away from the original roots of the character.” The editor returned the element of mystery to Batman’s tales, incorporating clues into the stories that invited the reader to solve the whodunit along with the superhero. Schwartz’s most commercial alteration was in Batman’s appearance: The Caped Crusader’s costume was streamlined, and a yellow oval was added around his chest insignia, simulating the look of the sky-illuminating Bat-signal. This facelift, called “The New Look” Batman by fans and historians, sold solidly and rescued the “Dynamic Duo” from the chopping block.

Although these new Silver Age superheroes generated stronger sales than DC had been earning on many of its titles, circulations were still considerably lower than during the medium’s heyday. “By 1962 less than a dozen publishers accounted for a total annual industry output of 350 million comic books, a drop of over 50 percent from the previous decade,” reported author Bradford W. Wright in his book Comic Book Nation (2001).

The Marvel Age

Julius Schwartz indirectly contributed to a yet another substantial event: the advent of the Marvel Age of comics. Justice League was commanding such strong sales in 1961 that it afforded bragging rights to DC publisher Jack Liebowitz during a golf game with his contemporary, Martin Goodman. Goodman, the publisher of Marvel Comics-then limping along in the marketplace with a handful of monster and thriller series-did indeed tell his staff editor writer Stan Lee to create a group of superheroes to compete with Justice League. Lee had considered resigning from Marvel at the time of Goodman’s directive, but was encouraged by his wife to challenge himself to try something new with this assignment. Lee, along with artist Jack Kirby, created Marvel’s premier superteam, and its flagship title, in Fantastic Four #1 (November 1961).

The Fantastic Four’s complex characters-stuffy scientist Reed Richards, a.k.a. the malleable Mr. Fantastic; his shy fiancee, Sue Storm, the disappearing Invisible Girl; her fiery-tempered teen brother, Johnny, better known as the new Human Torch; and Richards’ brusque friend, ace pilot Ben Grimm, the grotesque man-monster called the Thing-each had personality quirks that frequently thrust the “FF” into verbal and physical conflict, yet they set their differences aside in times of crisis. They were a family, and the most realistically portrayed comic-book superheroes readers had ever seen. Fantastic Four instantly became Marvel’s best-seller.
The Fantastic Four may have been inspired by the Justice League of America (JLA), but they shared no other traits. The FF was the JLA through a refractive lens: the Justice Leaguers exemplified camaraderie and teamwork, its members (except for Aquaman) concealed their true identities behind their colorful superguises, and its heroes lived in fictional cities (Metropolis, Gotham City, Central City, and others); on the other hand, the FF bickered incessantly, they saw no reason to conceal their superpowers behind alter egos, and they resided in the “real” world city of New York.

Over the next few years, Lee-with Kirby, Steve Ditko, and other artists-unleashed a plethora of problem-plagued powerhouses, including the gamma-irradiated Incredible Hulk; the mighty Thor, god of thunder; the occult-based Doctor Strange; the sightless superhero Daredevil; and the outcast society of mutants known as the X-Men. Golden Age stalwarts Sub-Mariner and Captain America were rejuvenated and fought against and”or alongside the newer Marvel characters. The breakaway superhero in the burgeoning Marvel universe was the Amazing Spider-Man, who, behind his webbed mask, was actually an angst-ridden teenage nebbish named Peter Parker. Marvel’s offbeat, flawed superheroes were embraced by the 1960s counterculture, particularly on college campuses.

With each new series, the differences between Marvel’s and DC’s titles became progressively apparent. “DC’s comic books were the image of affluent America,” noted Wright, while Marvel’s plopped its heroes onto the dirty streets of Manhattan-and sometimes its boroughs-where average Joes were often frightened by or angered at these strange beings. DC’s villains were usually stereotyped scofflaws with gimmicky weapons, whereas Marvel’s bad guys were cold war spies, grandiloquent warlords, and rotten rabble-rousers with superpowers of their own. DC’s heroes usually met as allies when battling a common enemy, but Marvel’s heroes generally clashed within moments of an encounter. DC’s stories were more traditionally based good-versus-evil yarns, while Marvel sometimes dealt with issues like campus unrest and corrupt politicians. Even the editorial tone between the two publishers varied: DC’s letters columns featured articulate, sometimes chiding, and usually faceless responses to readers, while Marvel’s-generally in Lee’s voice-were amiable and teeming with good-natured hyperbole. DC’s stories were largely uncredited, but Marvel’s creative staff, from the writer down the chain to the colorist, got their due in print, with endearing nicknames attached (Stan “The Man” Lee, Jack “King” Kirby, and “Jazzy” Johnny Romita, to name a few).

Reflecting the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Marvel pioneered the racial integration of the formerly all-white superhero genre. Lee and Kirby introduced the first black superhero in mainstream comics, the Black Panther, in Fantastic Four, who was followed by Marvel’s first African-American superhero, the Falcon, in Captain America.

Superheroes originating or returning to action during the Silver Age include Charlton Comics’ Captain Atom; Dell Comics’ atomic ace Nukla; Gold Key Comics’ Magnus Robot Fighter and Dr. Solar, Man of the Atom (revived in the 1990s by Valiant Comics); ACG (American Comics Group)’s Magicman and Nemesis, starring in the anthologies Forbidden Worlds and Adventures into the Unknown; fly-by-night M.F. Publications’ Captain Marvel, an appropriation of a classic appellation, featuring a superhero who split his body into separate parts by yelling, of all things, ” Split!” (similarly, M.F. ripped off other Golden Age heroes’ names for its villains: Plastic Man and Dr. Fate); Harvey Comics’ Spyman (who fought bad guys with his “electro-robot hand”), Jigsaw (a “splitting” hero, like M.F.’s Captain Marvel), icy Jack Q. Frost, and aquatic Pirana, plus reprints of legendary superhero series The Spirit and The Fighting American; Archie Comics’ Mighty Crusaders, the Fly (later Fly-Man), and Jaguar, as well as superhero versions of its teenage characters, Archie as Pureheart the Powerful and Jughead as Captain Hero (Archie’s girlfriend Betty even donned a guise to become Superteen!); and MAD magazine’s superhero parody, Don Martin’s Captain Klutz.

Two small comic-book publishers distinguished themselves with thought-provoking takes on the superhero genre. Tower Comics’ lauded T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, which featured artwork by renowned comics artist Wally Wood; and Charlton Comics’ “Action Heroes” line, which included Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, Sarge Steel, Nightshade, the Question, Judomaster, and Peter Cannon-Thunderbolt.

1966 was the year of the superhero. Batman (1966-1968), the kitschy send-up starring Adam West in the title role, premiered on ABC in January of that year to instant acclaim. The show satisfied a wide demographic spread-children, mesmerized by its action; teens, especially girls, for the fashions and heartthrob Burt Ward as Robin the Boy Wonder; and adults, in tune with the camp humor and double-entendres that eluded kids’ understanding. Universal exploitation of Batman made “Batmania” an inexorable phenomenon.

Superheroes invaded the television airwaves during the mid-1960s: Captain Nice, Mr. Terrific, Space Ghost, Birdman and the Galaxy Trio, The Green Hornet, The New Adventures of Superman, and Aquaman were among the live-action and animated entries. Many of Marvel’s characters starred in cartoon programs: Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Sub-Mariner rotated days on the syndicated Marvel Super Heroes, and both Fantastic Four and Spider-Man appeared on Saturday-morning TV and in a wealth of toy and product licensing.

The superhero craze fizzled by 1968, driving some smaller publishers out of business. Even the oldest comics company got a rude awakening, as DC was overtaken by Marvel as the industry leader. Popular artist Carmine Infantino was instated as DC’s art director, with the mission of making the line’s covers more appealing to the potential consumer. Infantino was soon appointed editorial director and elected to take on Marvel to regain his company’s former stature. He shook up the status quo in some of the superhero books-Wonder Woman was stripped of her superpowers; Amazing Spider-Man artist Steve Ditko defected to DC to launch the offbeat superhero comics Beware the Creeper and The Hawk and the Dove; and superstar artist Neal Adams began to transform Batman from a masked detective to a dark avenger of the night.

But Marvel’s superheroes continued to outsell DC’s by the end of 1969. DC ended the Silver Age with the same dilemma it faced at the beginning of the era: how to make its superhero comics popular again.

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 (2nd edition, Visible Ink Press). To find out more about what happens to superheroes in the Bronze Age, look for Gina’s guest blog next week.

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