Shiny, Shiny Superheroes, by Mike Gold
Despite the graphic to the right, this week’s column isn’t another screed against “everything you know is wrong and will be wrong again” superhero plotting. We’ve pretty well strip-mined that topic, and unless I get inspired by original thought I’ll wait for DC and/or Marvel to make the next move.
This column is in the wake of a lengthy and continuing series of conversations I had with my ol’ pal John Ostrander. Having such conversations is the best part of the job; really, if you like talking with knowledgeable and highly creative people, I strongly recommend you become a comic book editor. I can’t quote from these conversations – for one thing, you’ll be seeing some of the results right here on ComicMix, and for another, I understand the Wi-Fi reception down at Gitmo isn’t so good. But I can give you the gist.
We were talking about doing superheroes in 2008. John does a lot of ‘em; depending upon your view of GrimJack and Jon Sable, I don’t do all that much in the genre. But I like it. I’m an American comic book fan and I proudly admit I enjoy a good superhero story. But there’s that “relevance-to-our-times” thing.
Brand-new superheroes were created in two waves: the build-up to World War II (Superman, Batman, Sub-Mariner, Captain America, Captain Marvel) and the cold war build-up to Vietnam (Spider-Man, The Hulk, Iron Man, The Question). There wasn’t a truly successful superhero created in the ten years following World War II, and the only totally original superhero created in the post-Vietnam years that comes to mind is Len Wein and Herb Trimpe’s Wolverine.
It’s easy to understand the element common to each of these two fertile periods: the reader had an overwhelming need for security. In the early “Golden Age” we were in a devastating economic depression with unemployment hovering around 25% and surrounded by massive international inflation. Japan had invaded China, Germany was beginning to engulf its neighbors and nations historically friendly to us were looking to us for war material. We had a lot of unemployed people who could aid their, and later our, war effort.
In the early “Silver Age,” we had a very bad economic recession that started to take on the specter of the depression. On the foreign affairs front, our nation was engaged in an anti-Communist mentality so pervasive it made the Andrew Sisters look like Nazi collaborators. It went much deeper than demanding meaningless loyalty oaths, adding “under god” to the so-called Pledge of Allegiance and blacklisting one-time malcontents; the paranoia levels were so high that most of the news outlets were so right-wing you’d think today’s Rupert Murdoch was a clone.
Hmmm… I’ll avoid the obvious digression.
So what do we have today? For one thing, we have a much older audience for our superhero books. Perhaps our favored costumed creations have no life that is untinged with nostalgia. That’s a very real possibility. For the purpose of conversation, let’s ignore it.
This is another time of potential economic oblivion. We dodged total economic oblivion in 1956 and I’m hoping for the best, but Phil Gramm’s wet dreams aside our economy really sucks and won’t be getting better any time soon. This is another time of severe war fervor. Will we be invading Iran? Sending more troops to Afghanistan? Do we trust North Korea? Do we have enough troops in sufficient shape to hold off a domestic invasion by a highly organized group of Girl Scouts? Hey, there are nearly four million Girl Scouts out there, counting their adult commanders.
So I think we’re staring at the same social bouillabaisse as we did right before the creation of the Golden Age and the Silver Age superheroes. Are conditions right for a brand new round of capes?
What do you think?
Mike Gold is editor-in-chief of ComicMix.