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Zap! Pow! Bam!

When Dire Times Called for New Heroes

By Johnna Rizzo | HUMANITIES, July/August 2006 | Volume 27, Number 4

As hard times ravaged the United States in the 1930s, an invincible figure came to buoy American spirits. His name was Superman.

The new superhero was a creation of Detective Comics's line of Action Comics. Batman and a legion of others soon followed. Even when the fights weren't fair, the side of right prevailed in comic books-triumphing over evil every time.

"Everything that was happening to people during the Depression--mine disasters, too-high rents, racketeering, the things that you saw in the newspaper every day-that's what Superman was trying to fix," says Sandy Berman, in-house curator for the Breman Museum's traveling exhibition, "Zap! Pow! Bam! The Superhero and the Golden Age of Comic Books 1938-1950." Funded by the Georgia Humanities Council, the exhibition will open on September 21 in West Bloomfield, Michigan, after closing at the Breman in Atlanta.

Jerry Robinson, chief curator of the exhibition, says comic books offered "some measure of reassurance and meaning to a precarious existence in a hostile world," and their widespread availability and inexpensive form contributed to their success. "The comics were a perfect medium for escapism; even kids could scrape up ten cents," says Robinson. Within a few months of its first issue in 1938, Superman was selling a million copies of each issue. By 1944, circulation was up to twenty million copies monthly.

It helped that parts of the characters were human; it seemed possible that these heroes walked among everyday people in Smallville, Kansas, or Gotham City, or Anywhere, USA. Clark Kent bumbled about; and Bruce Wayne didn't have a single naturally occurring superpower to speak of. But when it came down to it, they would win the day.

Ray Bradbury once touched upon the appeal of a flawed hero: "I recognized myself when I saw him in his reporter's outfit, bloodying his nose as he blundered into that phone booth. . . . As we slip, slide and catapult ourselves, yelling, into the future, Clark Kent will go with us to make sure that Superman will catch us."

Like the rest of the country, the artists and writers who created the superheroes had been desperately seeking work in the economic hard times of the 1930s. "It was hard to get a job no matter what," says Berman. "These were sort of bottom-of-the-barrel jobs.

They were low-paying, and only kids and young men read comics." However, these were jobs that could be gotten. "Anyone who walked in the door who could write or draw was employable" because the comic book publishers "were hungry for talent," says Robinson.

Many were from working-class areas of New York, namely the Bronx and Brooklyn. "They were bookish, socially inept really. They weren't graceful with girls. So they found their outlet in writing," says Robinson.

Coming from disparate work backgrounds, each brought something unexpected to the comics they created. William Marston was a psychologist who had invented the lie detector, and discovered along the way that women tended to be more honest than men. Wonder Woman's lasso of truth was the result.

Max C. Gaines was a novelty salesman who so loved Sunday comics that he convinced Dell Publishing in 1933 to finance a book that contained newspaper strip reprints at half their original size. Within a few years, the books had become so popular that publishers were looking for original material, and the comic book was born. In 1938, Gaines published the creation of Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, who had spent three tenacious years trying to sell the concept of a "superman" to comics publishers.

Jerry Robinson tells of his own accidental entrance into the industry. Playing tennis one day while vacationing near his hometown of Trenton, New Jersey, he wore a white painter's jacket, a style made popular by Princeton students. Robinson had decorated his jacket with cartoons. A man tapped him on the shoulder. It was Bob Kane, the co-creator of Batman. Kane offered him a job. For the next three years, Robinson attended Columbia University and worked on the comic with Kane and Bill Finger, turning in scripts for Batman as creative writing assignments for his journalism classes. He eventually left Columbia, but stuck with the superhero.

Robinson named the boy wonder Robin (after childhood favorite Robin Hood) and created the character of the Joker, the first comic book supervillain, in the spring of 1940. "From my reading of the classics, the Bible, and mythology, I noticed every great character had an antagonist. I wanted to create a villain worthy of Batman. I thought it would strengthen the hero if he could overcome a villain who occasionally outwitted him," Robinson says. He was struck by a deck of playing cards. Robinson wanted his bad guy to be dimensional. The creepy, jolly joker of the deck provided the inspiration. "Memorable characters have a contradiction that makes them memorable. He was a villainous character, but he had a sense of humor," adds Robinson.

"During the Depression, our villains were the economy and Prohibition," says Robinson. But by the late 1930s, a greater evil was lurking: Hitler was rising to power in Germany. Different characters cropped up to address the new issues confronting a world at war. Hitler proclaimed Superman a Jew and prohibited the comic book in Germany; in Italy, Mussolini banned all but his favorite, Mickey Mouse.

In the United States, the comic books gave a general call to arms as early as a year before the country entered the conflict; National Comics's Uncle Sam showed an attack on Pearl Harbor a month before the actual event, prompting an FBI visit to its prescient publisher Busy Arnold.

The comic book heroes enlisted, and Captains America and Marvel, the Flash, and Green Lantern were depicted on the battlefields of Europe; Doctor Fate even addressed concentration camps. Only Superman stayed behind, fighting evil on the domestic front. Not because he was afraid, of course. "DC Comics felt it might be demoralizing to the troops. After all, why couldn't Superman just win the war?" Berman explains.

During World War II, an estimated 80 percent of the reading matter in army camps was comics. They were easy to carry and action-packed, and reinforced what the men were fighting for.

Production of many comic characters ended in the postwar 1950s. Comic book creators tried other subjects. Mystery was hit-and-miss, however; interest in the good of atomic energy soon waned; true crime and romance worked for a while; Westerns enjoyed some longevity. None equaled the selling power of superheroes in their heyday. They had done their job and there was no one left to fight.

Johnna Rizzo is a writer in Washington, D.C.