Friday, March 27, 2009

Comic History History Highlights, Part 1

I've been posting to the DC Comic Boards for a while now, and in particular posted quite a bit in 2008 on the topic of Grant Morrison's run on Batman. Some of the good posts there have expired, so I wanted to create a place where I could leave my thoughts in a permanent archive.

To kick things off, I'll take on a big topic: What I consider to be the biggest influences in superhero comic book history -- that I have read. I have to plead ignorance regarding the stuff I haven't read, and there's quite a bit of that. I also have read mainly DC and very little Marvel -- the reasons for that will be the topic of an upcoming post which will be, I think, pretty interesting.

So, here are the biggest influences in comic book history. Not always the best stories (topic for yet another post!), but the things I'd like to see in one big volume that would give a reader a good overview of the history.

1) New Fun Comics #1-6; More Fun Comics #7-??

Plain and simple: This is the beginning. It starts in the spring of 1935. It compiles lots of varied material: Comedy, Western, Detective. This is the soft clay from which superhero comics were formed.

Among the many features, there was one that was in the truest sense of the phrase ahead of its time: Doctor Occult, a work signed with pseudonyms by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Doctor Occult was an ordinary man who had a magic amulet and ran into weird and supernatural menaces in every adventure. Sort of Mulder without a Scully, until his gal-pal Rose Psychic came along. In particular, a story in which a magical belt gave him the power to fly put a lot of the elements of superhero comics together in one place (he even had a cape, but no shirt). But the seed wasn't ready to grow yet. It would be a year and a half before the defining superhero would debut, thanks to the same creators.

2) Detective Comics #1-??

A lot of the same kind of material in More Fun (which was up to issue #19 by the time Detective debuted) but with the focus squarely on the detective stuff. Very like the film noir movies you might catch at the cinema in the years to come. It wouldn't be until issue #20 when the first masked crimefighter would appear, and by that time, the defining superhero had appeared elsewhere.

Siegel and Shuster wrote a regular feature called Slam Bradley, about a guy whom Shuster drew exactly the way he later drew Superman. Slam won every fight he got into. Like other detectives in these stories, he overcame adversity in the end every time, but he had to struggle a bit to get there. Somewhere or other, the idea arose that maybe the winning was more what kids were reading for instead of overcoming adversity. Pretty soon, they'd be writing about a hero with Slam's chiseled looks who skipped past the adversity, who instead just triumphed over everything. Is that idea immature or brilliant? Let me know the next time you see a kid dressed like Slam Bradley on Halloween.

3) Action Comics #1-??, Superman #1-

Let's put a pinpoint on where things start -- it starts with the mention of a scientist on a far-off world, a character who would later be named Jor-El. Because Krypton was an advanced civilization, it skips ahead past the world of 1938 into an imagined future when science could triumph over everything, even (by saving one child) the end of the world.

The legend is part Moses, part Hercules, part Jesus, and part Slam Bradley. The ultimate survivor and the ultimate embodiment of the American Dream -- the foreigner who prospered because he was from another place. A very tempting fantasy for two Jewish youths whose people faced elimination in Europe. Perhaps the real inspiration was giving Superman a "weak" identity that he could switch out of at will, a great set-up for wish fulfillment by readers who felt they had something special inside that the world never got to see.

Next time: Crimson Avenger, Batman, and more.