Friday, April 30, 2010

Comic Book Q&A - pt. 1

[These are notes for the Comic Book Q&A I'll be giving at my library on Free Comic Book Day tomorrow.]
Q: How long have comic books been around?
A: The idea of a comic strip, or a series of drawings that follow each other sequentially to tell a story, has been around for centuries. The idea of taking the conventions of the comic strip and converting them into book form – and filling a whole book with nothing but these modified, longer comic strips – did not come about until 1897. The idea of making a comic book series and publishing it once a month did not come around until 1922 and that was the first comic book published in the form we recognize it today – before that, comic books were always hard-covered books. The idea of publishing all-new material in a comic book and not just reprinting modified material from the newspaper comic strips – the real birth of the comic book you might say – was not until 1933.

Q: What was the first character published in a comic book?
A: The Yellow Kid, Polly and Her Pals, or Detective Dan, depending on which you consider to be the earliest comic book. If those don’t sound familiar, it’s because none of them have been published in many, many years.

Q: Why is Superman such a boy scout?
A: You could say success ruined Superman. In 1938, when Superman first appeared in comics, he was a tough-talking, head-bashing vigilante who didn’t care if bad guys died and had a socially progressive agenda he was actively working towards. And, almost immediately, Superman became very popular. Now, the people who wrote comic books in the late ‘30s could get away with an awful lot – the Arrow was a good guy who shot bad guys with arrows and killed them – because not that many people were reading it. But when Superman started selling a million-plus copies a month, suddenly it became very important what Superman was doing, as there were a lot of kids and a lot of kids’ concerned parents now paying attention. So Superman began to act in a more conservative, law-abiding fashion.

You could also say World War II ruined Superman. As the U.S. began to embrace the idea of going to war, the worldview of its people changed. To rationalize war, people see it in black and white terms of good vs. evil. To fit into this worldview, Superman had to become all-good. So a lot of elements that could be seen as objectionable to some people were dropped. Not that Superman had much to do with the war effort – in the comic books he was barely involved – but by modifying the character to fit the worldview of the times, the publishers ensured the character would remain popular – and publishers have been using this technique ever since, reinventing old characters every time they seem to feel outdated.

Q: Who would win if they fought, Superman or Batman?
A: This has actually been fought out many times over the last 20-odd years, but what makes the answer so contentious is that Batman usually wins. Now, that should seem to anyone to be impossible. Superman is at least a thousand – if not a million times stronger and faster, depending on your interpretation of Superman and how powerful he is in that interpretation. There was even a time when Superman was acknowledged as being smarter than Batman too, so there doesn’t seem to be any way in which Batman could have an advantage over Superman. And that, basically, is why Superman always loses. If he wins, then he looks like a bully picking on Batman. If Batman wins, he gets to look cool -- he’s not a bully because he was the underdog to start with.

Usually, Batman has kryptonite with him to even the odds against Superman, but he has been shown using Judo to hold his own against Superman on at least two occasions – the animated Batman/Superman movie and the New Frontier comic book miniseries.

Q: What was the first team-up of superheroes?
A: Until late 1940, the superheroes that were appearing on the scene never interacted with each other – maybe sometimes on the covers of their comic books, but never in the stories themselves. That changed with the debut of the Justice Society of America in All-Star Comics #3. Though Batman and Superman were, theoretically, reserve members (who almost never appeared in the series), the main purpose of the Justice Society was to push eight of DC Comics’ second-tier heroes until they were popular enough to have their own series. It wouldn’t be until 1964 when Batman and Superman – always DC Comics’ most popular stars -- started regularly appearing in the Justice League of America.

Q: Why didn’t superheroes ever win wars?
A: Actually, there were quite a few stories around 1940 and 1941 when superheroes beat up or stopped Hitler or Hitler-like characters. Even a 4-page story in Look magazine by Superman’s creators back in 1940 showing how Superman would end the war by capturing Hitler and Stalin and turning them both over to the League of Nations to stand trial. You could only do that so many times, though, before it looked ridiculous since the real war just kept going on and on. Although there were many patriotic-themed comic books that came out during WWII, the publishers decided that, for the most part, comic books should remain escapist fantasy and not get too involved in real world events. War comics is itself a genre of comic books different from the superhero genre. The war comics character, Sgt. Rock, fought WWII over 30 years of comic books, so the ability of comic book characters to keep fighting and fighting the war and not make a difference on it, historically, was well-established.

The first comic book series to question this assumption was All-Star Squadron, a comic book from the 1980’s that documented untold tales from the 1940s. Here for the first time, an explanation was given as to why the superheroes never won WWII – Germany and Japan were protected by magic artifacts from direct superhuman intervention.

As for wars after WWII, comic book companies have generally been afraid to get their superheroes involved in wars because public opinion on whether the American people should be involved in those wars has been so divided. Comic books have been made about the Korean War and the Vietnam War, but never with the popularity that WWII comics had. After 9/11, some comic books had a “War on Terror” slant to them, but that was abandoned after being unpopular too.

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