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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

THE GOLDEN AGE SUPERHERO: TWO TYPES IN ONE

Before commencing with more analyses of the superheroine, it's necessary to make a few basic statements about the nature of the superhero, irrespective of gender, as the figure took shape in the late 1930s.

While I've gone on record as stating that I think many types of genre-creations belong to what I term "the superhero idiom," it's obvious that "superheroes" constitute their own independent genre.  This genre is determined the same way as any other, on the presence of repeated, recognizable tropes that fit certain expectations of the audience.

Steranko's 2-volume HISTORY OF THE COMICS remains one of the best resources in terms of exploring the multitude of influences upon early comic books, including then-contemporary films, radio shows, prose-stories in books and magazines (particularly the pulps), and of course comic strips.  But of all the generic hero-types that influenced the normative superhero, two types seem particularly influential.

The first I term the "miracle hero." The term "hero" here connotes only "protagonist," for many of these characters-- who without exception possess some sort of super-ability or talent-- are not heroic in the moral sense of the word. Wells' INVISIBLE MAN remains one of the earliest of the "miracle heroes," though in terms of his persona he conforms to what I term "the monster."  Another, whose persona-type is also less than heroic, is the super-strong Hugo Danner of Philip Wylie's GLADIATOR, which may or may not have been an influence on Siegel and Shuster's SUPERMAN.

The second I term the "urban avenger."  This type need not have any uncanny or marvelous propensities whatever; it can include masked types like the Green Hornet, but also all manner of cops, detectives, spies, or general troubleshooters, as long as their main beat is the city.  One may generalize that when the "avenger" type is transported to other climes-- ranging from the Lone Ranger's "Old West" to the Phantom's "Bengali jungle"-- that these might be termed "exotic avengers" insofar as they contrast with the environment of the urban centers from which most popular culture is promulgated.

While there are a handful of other contributing genres, these two genre-types influence the early superhero-- and superheroine-- more than any other.  That said, even characters who had super-powers-- Superman, the Human Torch, the Sub-Mariner-- do not tend to explore their own miraculous natures in depth.  They are quickly dragooned into the pattern of the "urban avenger," of patrolling a given city in search of injustices to avenge.

This early pattern will be seen to have particular impact on the ways in which early superheroines were first constituted, and how this would change in the Silver Age.

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