Superman, batman, Wonder Woman, Spiderman, Ironman. Marvel Girl, all of these bring up thoughts of adventure and selfless heroism. I was born in a time when superheroes were on the outskirts of accepted entertainment for young minds. Under McCarthyism and with the influence of the book Seduction of the Innocent they had gained a bad reputation after only really being around for 33 years. However not long before I was born the comic book superhero would enjoy the beginning of a renaissance that still contuse today.
I wish I had a time machine and could travel back to New York City in the year 1938. The world was still in the throes of the Great Depression but with Roosevelt in The White House people were beginning to hope better days were ahead. These were the days when newspapers and magazines were sold on newsstands on the streets. Big boxes made of plywood which opened up with racks of colorful magazine covers or the black and white print of newspapers. One day in April a new magazine would appear on these racks. It had a man dressed in red and blue wearing a cape and he lifted a car above his head seeming to shake the occupants out of it. This was Action Comics number one dated June of 1938, but to give the magazine a long shelf life the magazine was released three months earlier than its cover date a practice still used by comic books today, the man in the colorful clothes was Superman.
Superman was the granddaddy of all the superheroes that would follow. He is the standard that all superheroes are still measured by. Superman is timeless and remain popular throughout some of this world’s toughest times. He survived The Great Depression, The McCarthy era, social reform, and every other fad that society could throw. Superman adapted and grew.
Today’s Superman looks much like the original figure from 1938 but he has changed. Originally Superman could jump an 8th of a mile or has a high as a building but he could not fly. He had great speed, was invulnerable, but things like X-Ray Vision, Heat Vision, super breath and remaining in outer space in just his uniform were years in the distance.
Superman was a hero for the people. Stopping corrupt politicians, catching murderers and stopping executions of the wrong man were more of his everyday work. His alter ego Clark Kent has also changed over the years. In the 30s and well into the 80s Clark Kent was a klutz, sometimes afraid of his own shadow and always involved in a three-way relationship between himself, Lois Lane and Superman. After the yearlong event Crisis on Infinite Earths. Clark changed. The glasses were still there but he was no longer the weakling that everyone could walk upon. He would reveal his identity to Lois Lane and the two would marry.
Superman is as relevant today as he was in 1938. He has changed with the times and in those times a lot has happened. Women’s Liberation, Racial Equality, Equality for all people regardless of skin color, gender, or sexual preference. Superman has met each of these challenges in one form or the other not though super heroics, but by treating every individual he meets as an equal. Worthy of respect just for being human. We could all learn a lot from Superman.
Batman, however, is not Superman. Batman created in 1939 by Bob Kane and Bill Finger is totally human. He has no super powers. He has trained his body to perfection and honed his mind in the same way. He is an expert at hand-to-hand combat and with simple weapons. Like Superman Batman has a no kill creed. He brings criminals to justice.
Batman is a story of tragedy. Superman a story of hope. Superman is sent from his dying planet to earth to be raised by Kansas farmers. Superman grew up with good moral teaching and with two loving parents. Batman saw his parents gunned down and was raised by the family butler. His mind is always set on his mission that no one will go through what he went through. In his original origin story young Bruce Wayne vows by candlelight to avenge his parents death by warring on all criminals.
Batman is a study in psychology. What do you do when tragedy strikes? How do you react to it? Batman goes to the extremes. His parents left him wealthy, he can afford to do as he wishes so he studies and grows strong to begin his war on evil. But it leaves him a half person. Batman in many ways cannot really love because he has left no room for it in his obsession. He likes other people but in today’s comic stories he seems more interested in how an individual can help his cause than about the individual themselves. This is why there have been four Robins each leaving Batman in one way or another to find their own way and not be caught up in the obsession.
Superman and Batman were created in the late 1930s. Now we jump up 20 odd years to the early 60s. Comics lost favor with the public in the 1950s and almost all the heroes hung up their capes and masks. But in the late 1950s DC Comics made the decision to resurrect their comic book heroes. But they would do it in a whole new way. Gone were the original Flash, Green Lantern, and Hawkman and born were the new versions, streamlined with new origins that had a healthy dose of science fiction too add to the colorful heroes.
Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman were the only three heroes to survive the 50s but soon they banded together with the new heroes and formed The Justice League of America. The JLA became a very popular title and came to the attention of the editors of Timely Comics soon to become Marvel and one editor told a young Stan lee to come up with a team of heroes that would rival the JLA. Lee was about ready to leave the comics business, but he took on this assignment and created The Fantastic Four and new era in comics began.
With the publication of The Fantastic Four comic book heroes began to grow up. The Fantastic Four argued with each other, had obvious character flaws, and sometimes split up. Sarcasm and anger were a part of every issue and the heroes seemed more human. This new way or writing superheroes would spawn The Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, and Spiderman.
Spiderman made his appearance in August of 1962 in the last issue of Amazing Fantasy. He was the collaboration of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko and became an immediate success. Young angst laden Peter Parker gets bitten by a radioactive spider which give him the powers and strength of the arachnid. It doesn’t however remove the social problems of a teen age boy and Peter finds it hard to be Peter made fun of by his classmates and Spiderman who is praised by the same people. He is hurting and lonely and yet he always stays in the fight. Tempted to give up by never giving in.
Superheroes are our modern mythology. They are the Hercules, Ulysses, and Perseus of the 20th and 21st century. We need fictional heroes. They are important and they serve the function of passing on moral values. They do this is a way that entertains and enlightens us without whacking us over the head.
Superman is embodiment of all things good. He provides hope in a world that has gone very dark. His primary-colored costume of red. Blue and yellow are a joyful expression of heroics and of light over coming darkness.
Batman is different. Batman does not inspire hope of goodness as much as he shows the potential of every individual. He takes it to the extreme, but he is the lesson of us becoming anything we want to be if we work hard enough to pursue it.
Spiderman, in his origin tale allows the man who would ultimately kill his beloved Uncle Ben to get away. When he learns that because of his in-action tragedy struck he comes to the understanding that with great power comes great responsibility. Spiderman goes on to become a hero and that’s great but the lesson he leaves behind is that we need to hold those in power over us to that same thought. From the President of the United States to your boss the power they hold is a responsibility and the responsibility is to do good with what you are given. To not serve yourself but to serve others.
To not serve yourself but to serve others is the message of all good superhero stories. We are put on this earth for only a brief period of time, and it is what we do for others that makes us human and what makes life worth living. The more you reach out a hand to those in need, the more you will become aware of a sense of self satisfaction.
We are about to enter the holiday season. Now more than ever the words of Charles Dickens ring down through the years that “Want is keenly felt and abundance rejoices.” Do you have an abundance? Share something with those in need. Go into your closet and give away the clothes you haven’t worn in a year. Go through your house and whatever you don’t need give away. There are a lot of people hurting in the world if you and I can gather the resources that we have at our disposal and choose to help those who are in need we will be superheroes.