Superheroes and comic books: The two are almost inseparable.
There are more to comic books than superheroes, and those series and genres should definitely be looked at, but when it comes to the big companies and what many creators turn to, it’s superheroes. They’re the flagship titles and bulk of the Big Two, Marvel and DC, as well as others. Moreover, the one comic book that made it onto Time magazine’s list of the 100 greatest novels was Watchmen, a superhero comic.
Superheroes are so prevalent in comic books today because the basic two ideas — the concept and the medium — launched each other. In the late 1930s comic books had been around, but they were either collected reprints of newspaper strips like The Phantom or full-length, illustrated detective stories. Meanwhile, in pulp magazines, proto-superheroes had appeared, including The Shadow, Doc Savage, Operator #5 and The Spider.
But in June 1938, everything changed when Action Comics #1 debuted, featuring a man whose strength and abilities went beyond that of a normal person. This man was Superman. With a vibrant costume and sensational story elements, Action Comics was a hit and in the next decade, dozens, if not hundreds, of new superheroes were created in a booming comic book industry.
Other media followed suit. Today, many big-budget movies tend to be about superheroes — and with The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, this summer will be big in superhero films — and they’ve been adapted to television as well. Heroes like the Lone Ranger or the Green Hornet started out on the radio, not in comic books.
So then, what makes comic books so perfect for the superhero genre?
In a way, it’s the fact that they’re comics. They’re visual, but adaptive. Some mediums like television only allow for one style, but in comics, the style depends on the artist and the tone of the story. The limits of fights, settings, action sequences and characters are only what the writer and artist can think up.
The art adds mood and conveys the story. Captain America, for instance, gets bright colors and patriotic imagery, helping to develop the iconic look as a character, while a Batman story will be dark and Gothic.
Comics are also serial. The superhero works as a concept because it’s a modern epic. By being serial, it gives the hero a timeless feeling, with the idea that the good fight is never over. With good writing there’s room to grow, but the character’s strengths never fail. Many attempts to export superheroes to other mediums get bogged down by trying to cram dozens of ideas into short time frames or never being able to create iconic takes on their characters — something that doomed the television show Heroes.
Superheroes emerged in a dark time. At the end of the 1930s, the world was marching toward war and crime was rampant in the United States and elsewhere. Superheroes served as a symbol that good could prevail over evil. In dark times, there are still heroes. That’s why many of these heroes have continued to be published since the 1940s. That’s why they lasted through the censorship of the 1950s and the social upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s.
It’s why after the turn of the century they began hitting the big screen. In an age of war, terrorism and divisiveness, people need heroes more than ever. And with only a few superhero movies a year, comic books offer weekly doses of heroism and idealism.
And with hundreds of creative teams on dozens of titles, there’s room in the industry to explore and play with the aspects of a hero. There can be brooding avengers or inspiring people of action. There can be deconstructions à la Watchmen or celebrations of the joy of superheroes like Astro City.
Superheroes aren’t just people in tights. They’re an idea, adaptable to every genre from crime to science-fiction; they offer inspiration and thrills. And thanks to their parent medium, comic books, they can have their stories told in an infinite number of ways.
Comics are about more than just superheroes, but it is with the superhero that the comic book shows its full potential as a canvas for storytelling.
Nicholas Slayton is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism. His column “Panel to Panel” runs Thursdays.