First off, Olympic athletes basically are superheroes. Or at least superhumans. They’ve been the standard for physical perfection since Bruce Wayne started his weightlifting regime in the 1930s.
Of course Olympic gymnastics have changed a bit since then:
And though this could be a test whether skimpy little masks can really keep anyone’s identity secret, here’s my superhero in her civilian clothes:
And sporting her favorite bling:
Oh, and in actual flight:
I snipped her ponytail in my image. Otherwise you might notice I flipped one of her photos. Simone Biles prefers to fly upside down.
Aside from all of the Olympic gold medals (she brought home five in August), one of my favorite things about Biles is her height. At 4′ 9″, she’d be one of the shortest superheroes of all-time (excluding of course Atom, Ant-Man, and the rest of the shrinking crowd). Imagine standing her next to one of Rob Liefeld’s creations:
Or, speaking of disproportionate proportions, next to just about any rendering of Power Girl:
At a 104 pounds, Biles is just a ball of muscle. For male superheroes, if not males in general, muscular is pretty much the definition of sexy. It wasn’t always, which means we’re talking culture, not biological programming. For female superheroes, it’s been oddly the opposite. They tend to be strong and yet not look strong. It’s the difference between this:
And then of course you can always leave the fantasy of Photoshop and look at the real thing:
Gold medalist Meng Suping could throw me through a wall. She has literal superhuman strength. But no female superheroes look much like her. Too muscular. Now imagine if Bruce Wayne hadn’t bothered with all that pesky weightlifting and stayed like the skinny guy in all those old Charles Atlas ads:
A scrawny Batman would not look like a superhero. Muscles are part of the standard package:
Though I appreciate the occasional adolescent exception:
So how about an exceptional 4’8″ ball of female muscle joining the next incarnation of the Avengers or Justice League? It would be nice if comic book “physical perfection” included the world’s current definition of actual physical perfection.
If superheroes were real they’d look like Olympic athletes. And world heptathlon champ Jessica Ennis-Hill would be near the top of the league. Here she is in actual flight during the long jump at the 2012 Olympics:
I trimmed away the crowd, filled in her uniform, and experimented with a cape and sash:
The cape didn’t work, but other inspiration did:
For the background I expanded my superhero variation on Warhol’s Marilyn and ran it through a black and white filter:
But the best thing about the image is Ennis herself. She doesn’t need a mask and leotard to look like a superhero. Her body is already superheroic. I made the image because I’ve been writing about superhero bodies a lot lately as I finish a draft of my book Superhero Comics out next spring from Bloomsbury. Here’s a recent excerpt:
Because of the visual nature of the medium, superheroes are foremost their bodies, and their costumes are an extension of their bodies. “The Superhero,” writes John Jennings, “is a symbol of power that is reified as the hyper-physical body,” one that is “perfect” and whose “skintight costume seems directly connected to the display, performance, and execution” of its power (59, 60). Joe Shuster, an aspiring body-builder in high school, partly modeled Superman’s costume on strongmen and acrobat leotards, the thinnest and so most body-revealing of real-world costumes—second only to nudity. When attempting “to delimit the elements of the superhero wardrobe,” Michael Chabon accordingly reduces it to “nothing,” a “pseudoskin” that “takes its deepest meaning and serves its primary function in the depiction of the naked human form, unfettered, perfect, and free” (67-8).
Chabon does not examine his use of the adjective “perfect,” but Jennings acknowledges that a “hyper-physical body” embodies a variety of “cultural and social values” and “belief structures” (59-60). Although narratively superheroes are presumed to be intelligent, the superhero body emphasizes physical over mental ability. James Bucky Carter observes, for example, that “the muscular American body” of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Fighting American is “stressed as an asset over the prowess of the American mind” and that “the American seat of power resides within the vigorous body the creators so obviously favor” (364). The Fighting American, a self-conscious 1950s recreation of the pioneering creators’ 1940s Captain America, is representative of the hyper-masculine body and the plot structure of physical domination that the imagery encourages across the genre. That formula reflects and reinforces a cultural ideology of “machismo,” which psychologists Donald Mosher and Silvan Tomkins define as exalting “male dominance by assuming masculinity, virility, and physicality to be the ideal essence of real men who are adversarial warriors competing for scarce resources (including women as chattel) in a dangerous world” (64). As fantastical embodiments of traditionally defined masculinity, male superheroes express two of the three traits of the “macho personality constellation”: “violence as manly” and “danger as exciting” (61).
Gender ideology also shapes the cultural meaning of the physique. For male superheroes, physical attractiveness and physical effectiveness are merged. As the two qualities are summarized by psychologists Jacqueline N. Stanford and Marita P. McCabe, male superheroes combine “the level to which one’s physical appearance is viewed as pleasing to the eye” and “the degree to which an individual’s body and body parts allow activities engaged in to be successful” (676). A male superhero’s “hyper-physical” body then may be termed perfect in the sense that it expresses both hyper-effectiveness and hyper-attractiveness, embodying the belief that optimal effectiveness and attractiveness should be combined and that a male body is attractive to the extent that it is effective—a concept that reached its apex in the cartoonishly exaggerated male muscularity of 90s superhero art.
Female superheroes disturb gender dichotomies to an even greater degree. If, as Moster and Tomkins write, “affects are divided into antagonistic contrasts of ‘superior and masculine’ or ‘inferior and feminine’” (64), how can a character be both superior and feminine? Fredric Wertham’s 1954 response to Wonder Woman as “a horror type” encapsulates the conflict: because a “superwoman” is “physically very powerful,” she is then also “the cruel, ‘phallic’ woman,” “a frightening figure for boys” and “an undesirable ideal for girls, being the exact opposite of what girls are supposed to want to be”. Although U.S. cultural attitudes have shifted since the 1950s, studies show the same gender discrepancy continuing into the 21st century. Stanford and McCabe report in a 2002 study of mostly white, middleclass U.S. college students that conceptions of ideal male and female bodies differ significantly. Not only were “males’ ideal ratings … larger than for females,” females “wanted to decrease their upper body, while the “majority of males indicated an ideal upper body that was substantially larger” (679, 681). Males also “indicated an ideal middle body that was slightly increased in size,” while females “wanted to decrease it substantially” (679). Despite shifting ideals for female beauty, the expectation of a thin waist has been a cultural constant since the popularity of corsets in the mid-19th century. Ideal female body mass index has also decreased, a trend apparent in Miss American pageant winners from 1922-1999, an increasing number of whom were under nutrition when crowned (Rubinstein and Ballero).
Although a corseted, malnourished body may be physically attractive according to a culture’s beliefs, it cannot be physically effective. Where men combine attractiveness and effectiveness, the two qualities are divorced and even opposed for women. Within the superhero visual system, female bodies are designed to appear weak, necessitating their rescue by strong male bodies. Drawing from centuries of precedents, Siegel and Shuster established Lois Lane as the prototype for the male superhero’s female love interest in comics. In the first six issues of Action Comics, Superman rescues Lois from a firing squad, a flood, a fall from a skyscraper window, and multiple gangsters. In each case, while Lois is unable to protect herself, Shuster draws her stereotypically attractive body in calf-revealing, form-fitting skirts and dresses, and with a strap slipping down a shoulder as she encounters Superman for the first time. Inverting the attractive-because-effective logic of the male body, an appearance of female physical ineffectiveness is attractive specifically because that ineffectiveness invites male intervention. She is attractive because she is weak.
In what sense then can a female superhero have a “perfect” or “hyper-physical” body? Depictions must emphasize one spectrum over the other, and superhero comics overwhelming emphasize perceived physical attractiveness, even when it explicitly contradicts effectiveness. Thus female superhero bodies are, for example, often large breasted, when breast size has either no or a negative correlation to athletic and combat effectiveness. Female superheroes are not drawn to resemble female body-builders—even when the character herself narratively displays the equivalent or greater strength. Superhero worlds provide a range of non-naturalistic explanations for the discrepancy, but when a character is not fantastically enhanced and so not bound by rules of human anatomy, her performed strength still contradicts an appearance of relative weakness through thinly drawn arms and legs. Muscles are somehow not her source of physical strength.
In July 1934, Max Gaines and Eastern Color Printing published Famous Funnies, the first comic strip reprint omnibus in what would become the standard comic book format and so the start point for what has been traditionally called the Golden Age of Comics. The first use of the term is attributed to science fiction author Richard A. Lupoff from his article “Re-Birth” in the first issue of the fanzine Comics Art in 1961.
The Golden Age has no defining endpoint and is sometimes said to be followed by an interregnum period ending with the Silver Age of Comics, traditionally marked by the appearance of the revised Flash in DC’s Showcase #4 (Oct. 1956). According to Michael Uslan, the term originates from a 1966 fan letter in Justice League of America, but the Silver Age division is somewhat arbitrary since it applies only to DC Comics, which was already publishing nine superhero titles in 1956 featuring Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. The new character Batwoman also appeared three months earlier. The new Flash title, however, eventually led to DC’s 1959 Green Lantern in Showcase #22 and the Justice League of America in the 1960 Brave and the Bold #28, which in turn influenced Charlton Comics and Marvel Comics. Though initiated by DC, the Silver Age is most defined by the early 60s superhero comics of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko published by Martin Goodman’s newly rechristened Marvel Comics, previously known as Atlas in the 50s and Timely in the 40s. From 1961-4 the company introduced the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Spider-Man, Thor, Iron Man, the Avengers, the X-Men, Doctor Strange, and Daredevil.
Though less defined, the division between the Silver Age and the Bronze Age of Comics is understood largely as a tonal shift, as reflected by Dennis O’Neal’s relatively realistic scripting of Green Lantern Co-Starring Green Arrow beginning in 1970 and by the death of Gwen Stacy in Amazing Spider-Man #121 (July 1973). The Bronze Age also marks an artistic shift. Jack Kirby left Marvel in 1970, and Steve Ditko in 1966, allowing new artists Neal Adams and Jim Steranko to redefine the dominant style. The creative changes may also be understood as a response to a significant market slump, similar to the slump that endangered comics in the mid-50s and led to the resurgence of the superhero genre.
The Bronze Age is most often said to end when DC’s 1985 Crisis on Infinite Earths restructured the multiverse it unintentionally created with the 1956 Flash, while the 1986 publications of Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen mark a further creative shift to what is variously referred to as the Dark Age, Iron Age, or Modern Age, which either extends to the present or is divided in the late 90s when the darker themes emphasized by Moore and Miller ebbed.
In contrast to the ambiguity and competing interpretations of the comics Ages, the Comics Code Authority provides an objective means for dividing superhero comics into historical periods. The Code was created and managed by comic book publishers in an immediate response the 1954 Senate subcommittee hearings on the role of comic books in juvenile delinquency. The pre-Code era then runs from 1934, with the format-defining publication of Famous Funnies, to 1954. Since the Code was revised twice, the first Code era spans 1954 to 1971, the second 1971 to 1989, and the third begins in 1989. Marvel replaced the Code in 2000 with their own rating system, and DC stopped printing the Code stamp on their covers after their 2011 company-wide reboot—formally marking the start of the current, post-Code era. The third Code era is a transitional one, defined by less restrictive guidelines than those of 1954-1989 and a rise of comic books published without Code approval.
Mapping the two historical systems overtop each other, the pre-Code era and the Golden Age and all but the last two years of the interregnum correspond. The first Code era begins two years prior to the Silver Age, ending with the second Code era in 1971, also a common start point for the Bronze Age. The second Code then extends four years into the Modern Age before establishing clear divisions with the third Code and current post-Code eras.
Without the 1954 Comics Code, we wouldn’t have the Marvel pantheon of the early 60s. No Avengers, no Spider-Man, no X-Men. We wouldn’t even have DC’s Justice League with the rebooted Flash and Green Lantern of the late 50s. The comics industry created the Code in order to avoid censorship legislation after the Senate held hearings on the corrupting influence of horror and crime comics. As a result, horror and crime comics vanished, and superheroes swooped into the market vacuum.
I’ve been writing a lot about the Code lately. My next book, Superhero Comics, is due out next year from Bloomsbury, and the Code defined the genre for most of its existence. Personally I’d like to replace the ambiguous Golden, Silver, Bronze, etc. Ages with Code-defined eras, but more on that later. I’ve also been tinkering with a one-act play based on the Senate hearing transcripts, with the publisher of EC Comics getting grilled by the senators. EC’s line of SuspenStories got literally blown out of proportion and hung on the walls for photo ops. Johnny Craig’s cover is one of the most famous in comics. Matt Baker’s Phantom Lady is up there too.
Because I was looking at these images so much, I decided to tinker with them as images too. That was my first draft.
Perfectly respectful, but not all that thrilling unless you really zoom in to see how the transparent Code stamp overlays with each cover. But I knew I wanted to use the stamp as a main element.
And I knew I wanted to combine it with the comics that the Code put out of business.
So instead of using the entire images, I started isolating individual figures. This is time-consuming but fairly easy in Word Paint.
You keep whiting-out the edges until you have just the parts you want.
Then the fun part starts. Select, copy, and paste new combinations.
I liked the idea of a sheet of stamps, like the kind I haven’t bought at the post office in years.
Then it was a matter of deciding on the best pattern.
And playing with the framings.
Until just right.
I finished another yesterday using superhero comics from the same period.
Now I’m wondering how it might look on the cover of Superhero Comics.
Today’s guest bloggers are Thomas Shepherd and his twin brother William Kaplan. They were conceived by Steve Englehart for the maxi-series The Vision and the Scarlet Witch, which ended with their birth (#12, September 1986). John Byrne reconceived them in Avengers West Coast (#51, November 1989), retconning them out of existence. And then Brian Michael Bendis rereconceived them back into existence in New Avengers (#10, February 2006). Their genealogy is equally convoluted, but I’ll let the twins explain:
Our father used to be the Human Torch, a Frankenstein-derivative android who burst into flames in 1939 before fizzling in the late forties.
Two decades later, an evil robot rebuilt his burnt-out body, and he lived another two decades as the Vision.
But then the original Torch erupted from a secret grave, so now Dad wasn’t him but a copy soldered from his spare parts.
Only, no wait, that’s not it either, because next it turns out the Vision and the Torch really are the same person but split in two when a time-traveling supervillain manipulated their timeline. For a while the Vision half was dead and his identity may or may not have been inhabiting the sentient armor of the evil time-traveler’s non-evil teen-age self.
But that was before Iron Man reassembled the original Vision from the scraps She-Hulk made of him after he’d been reprogrammed by our mom to destroy the Avengers (our parents had a really bad divorce). And don’t get us started on whether his/their synthoid body is the kind with buzzing wires and clanking pistons or the kind with synthetic organs that gurgle and fart.
So does that mean our grandfather is Kang the Conqueror (the time-splitting supervillain), Phineas Horton (the Human Torch’s inventor), Ultron (the evil robot—in which case, Henry Pym, AKA Ant-Man, the guy who built Ultron, is our great grandfather), or Wonder Man? Sorry, forgot to mention Wonder Man. Ultron used his brain patterns to erase the Human Torch’s memories and personality from the Vision’s synthetic brain. There’s also that other Vision, some weirdo from another dimension who came here in the 1940s to fight crime, so I guess Ultron used his name and look for spare parts too.
Our mom is the mutant Wanda Maximoff, AKA the Scarlet Witch, and her side of the family is even worse. For a while we thought our maternal grandparents were Miss America and the Whizzer, two Golden Agers who ran with that other Vision guy. It made sense, since the Whizzer and our uncle Quicksilver have the same superpower, plus all that mutating radiation Miss America got hit with.
But then it turns out, no, actually Magda, the gypsy wife of Max Eisenhardt, AKA Magneto, secretly gave birth to Mom and her brother in some Eastern Block country called Transia. Magda died, and so they were nannied by a lady with a cow’s head, who the god-like High Evolutionary made. Bova tried to pass the babies off to the Whizzer after his wife died giving birth to a stillborn, but he freaked out and split.
Mom and her twin brother went back into suspended animation for a while, then High Evolutionary thawed them out for Django and Marya Maximoff, who named them Wanda and Pietro.
Villagers thought Mom was a real witch and drove her out with pitchforks, and then her real father Magneto adopted her and Quicksilver into the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.
Only, no wait! That’s not it either, because now it turns out the Maximoffs really were their parents, but instead of being mutants, they’re just normal humans that High Evolutionary experimented with. So that’s four sets of grandparents just on Mom’s side.
But if High Evolutionary is our grandfather, then the elder god Chthon is too. He was the Devil before Lucifer drove him out, but he preserved a part of his essence in Mom, which is how she got some of her probability-altering “hex” powers. Since it was her hex powers that allowed her to conceive us, we must be part-Chthon. Though some of that hex stuff must have been High Evolutionary’s mutant-like alteration, so, subtracting our temporary adoptive grandpas Whizzer, Magneto, and Django, we still have two different kinds of reality-bending grandpa magic in our genes. Unless it really was Mom’s channeling the “Magick” of the witches of New Salem when she got pregnant, like she thought at the time. Dad was holding onto her, so when the Magick circled them, his DNA was in the mix too. (Some of the witches of New Salem looked like High Evolutionary’s animal-people, but I think that’s just one of those weird coincidences.)
But, no, hold on, instead of Magick or Chthon essense or High Evolutinary’s mutant-like hex powers, it turns out my brother and I were really pieces of Master Pandemonium’s lost soul, the one he traded to get superpowers from Mephisto (another Devil but not the same Devil as Chthon). Mom grabbed onto them by accident when she was wishing us into existence. When Master Pandemonium got hold of us again, he turned us into evil hand puppets and shot flames out of our mouths.
That sucked. But then Mephisto showed up, and guess what! We weren’t pieces of Master Pandemonium’s lost soul after all—Mephisto just made him think that.
We were really lost pieces of Mephisto’s lost soul, which got shattered by Invisible Woman and Mr. Fantastic’s little boy, Franklin Richards—a kid who, believe it or not, is even more messed up than we are. Since Franklin’s the one who fragmented us into existence as soul pieces, I guess he’s our grandfather too.
Anyway, we only existed when Mom was thinking about us, which meant when she was in the middle of a battle or knocked-out we would fade away—which apparently freaked out a few babysitters. Mephisto stole us back from the Master Pandemonium, but then our mom’s mentor Agatha Harkness came back from the dead and defeated Mephisto by erasing Mom’s memory of us. That didn’t last though, because after a version of Kang—not his teen-self but another version named Immortus—filled her with even more superpower, she goes all crazy and de-mutants most of the planet because she’s so upset we never existed. That’s around when she reprogrammed Dad too.
Only, guess what? We do exist! Because when Mom rebooted things after going crazy, she unknowingly rebooted us too. That time she used the extra power Kang-Immortus gave her, so now he’s on both sides of the family tree, which sounds incestuous but isn’t. Instead of giving birth to us again, Mom sent our reincarnated selves out to be born to completely different mothers. That’s why Tommy’s last name is Shepherd and Billy’s is Kaplan.
So even though we are identical twins, we have three mothers, four fathers, five paternal grandfathers, six maternal grandmothers, eleven maternal grandfathers, and no paternal grandmothers.
Or at least we did until the Marvel universe was wiped out in 2015. Now we don’t exist again, and our parents don’t know who any of us are or were or will be next. How do you draw that on a family tree?
I know, weird question, but I’m not the one asking it. I count a dozen commentators in the last year who think Trump deserves spandex and a cape.
Neal Gabler may have started it in a Reuters headline last July: “Donald Trump is a superhero—but not in good way.” Trump was just rising in the polls back then, and Gabler saw how effectively he was combining politics and entertainment, specifically “comic-book superhero narratives”:
“We live in the age of Iron Man, where an irrepressible, indomitable smart-aleck, able to verbally and physically parry just about anything, is the exemplar…. Trump has gained a following because he understands the power of the superhero narrative, which he has adapted to his campaign. In the superhero era, Trump recognizes that a sizeable chunk of the public is seeking a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoner, politically incorrect avenger who channels their grievances and runs roughshod over their opponents.”
Though Gabler argued Trump and his supporters actually detests democracy, Trump liked the superhero comparison. A few weeks later in August he told a kid: “Yes, I am Batman.” He was giving kids free rides on his helicopter during the Iowa State Fair. Trump didn’t bring his batcopter to the first GOP debate in October, but moderator John Harwood still asked: “Is this a comic-book version of a presidential campaign?”
Come January, Joe Vince reversed the question, asking: “Does Threatening to Sue a Superhero Make Donald Trump a Supervillain?” That was old news though. A caricature of Trump had appeared in an issue of New Avengers back in 2008. He was an “obnoxious, limo-riding bad guy” who threatened to sue Luke Cage for moving the limo out of the way of an ambulance. That same month Globe columnist Scot Lehigh declared that “After keeping his superhero side a secret, Mr. Trump finally revealed [his] impressive alter ego”: “The Incredible Sulk.”
February things got serious. First Judge Michael Carter wrote “America In Search Of A Superhero: Explaining The Rise Of Donald Trump,” repeating Gabler’s comparison to Iron Man:
“Trump closely mirrors the movie adaptation of Marvel Comic’s character Tony Stark, better known as Iron Man. Stark is portrayed as an outspoken, brash, headstrong, single-minded, unapologetic, tough-as-nails, super wealthy celebrity, with a giant ego and playboy tendencies…. And Iron Man isn’t the only superhero Donald Trump is channeling. There is a lot of Captain America in his appeals to patriotism, his kick-in-the-door approach to dealing with ISIS (or is it HYDRA?), his yearning for a simpler time.”
Carter also compared Bernie Sanders to Spider-Man, but the superhero comparison only stuck for Trump. Two weeks later, New Republic posted Jeet Heer’s “Donald Trump, Superhero,” explaining how “The Republican frontrunner has fashioned himself after comic-strip champions and masked crusaders.” Quoting Trump’s “I am Batman” quip, Heer concluded:
“This might seem like a typical Trumpian boast, but the moment was revealing. Trump’s political appeal is based in no small part on the way he fulfills a certain ideal of heroic masculinity that was created in popular culture. Trump is indeed a type of Batman: To his fans, he, like Bruce Wayne, is a brash, two-fisted billionaire playboy who uses his wealth to fight against a corrupt system.”
Three days later New York Times commentator David Brooks likened Trump to “some authoritarian tyrant who tries to govern by clobbering everyone in his way” because his
“supporters aren’t looking for a political process to address their needs. They are looking for a superhero. As the political scientist Matthew MacWilliams found, the one trait that best predicts whether you’re a Trump supporter is how high you score on tests that measure authoritarianism.”
The superhero rhetoric peaked in March, with four new commentaries. Ralph Benko asked: “Donald Trump, on Super Tuesday, proved he had superpowers. But Superhero or Supervillain?” concluding that “A plurality of voters see him as a Superhero.” Nicholas Ballasy interviewed Niger Innis, the national spokesman for the Congress of Racial Equality, who said “a ‘superhero’ Republican presidential nominee would be a combination of Sen. Ted. Cruz (R-Texas) and Donald Trump.” V. Saxena noted that “Bill O’Reilly Kind of Implied that Trump Is a Superhero.” “There are enough Republican voters,” said the Fox News host, “who want an avenger and they’re going to vote for the avenger no matter what happens.” Annika ended the primary month declaring to The Guardian readers: “America’s need for superheroes has led to the rise of Donald Trump,” because “US national culture too often celebrates the swift, brutal justice embodied in the comic-book ideal, leaving a country divided and cinematic heroes at each other’s throat.”
Then the superhero chatter died down a bit with Trump’s competitors. Though unimpressed with the primary results, Kate Andrews did tell her Telegraph readers in May: “America deserves a better superhero than Donald Trump.” Reversing the comparison, Charles Pulliam-Moore explained Marvel’s new HYDRA-hailing Captain America as a product of our political times:
“Now, more than ever, white people feel as if they are more discriminated against and that they’re gradually being edged out of the workforce by people of color. Marvel probably isn’t trying to invite direct comparisons between Donald Trump and a Nazi supervillain, but their characterization of young, listless white men getting caught up in the idea that the Other has somehow made their lives objectively worse has roots in reality.”
A couple of weeks before the Republican National Convention, Huffington Post’s Leo W. Gerard declared Trump a “Superhero to Billionaires,” “a hero to the diamond-encrusted-penthouse-door coterie for his plan to turn the United States into a fiefdom in which billionaires rule for the benefit of billionaires.”
After Trump was officially nominated, Conan O’Brien debuted “Captain Make America Great Again,” but it’s Trump who played the superhero card during his acceptance speech. “I am the law and order candidate,” he said, promising that “safety will be restored.” Our nation is “at a moment of crisis,” with “our very way of life” threatened,” and “I alone can fix it.”
The next morning, David Brooks re-dubbed him “The Dark Knight,” declaring (in a “super-scary movie trailer voice”):
“Welcome to a world in which families are mowed down by illegal immigrants, in which cops die in the streets, in which Muslims rampage the innocents and threaten our very way of life, in which the fear of violent death lurks in every human heart. Sometimes in that blood-drenched world a dark knight arises. You don’t have to admire or like this knight. But you need this knight. He is your muscle and your voice in a dark, corrupt and malevolent world.”
If a superhero in the White House sounds like a good idea, consider comics legend Alan Moore’s take on the genre: “I don’t think the superhero stands for anything good.” Moore told an interviewer that superheroes “were originally in the hands of writers who would actively expand the imagination of their nine-to-13-year-old audience.” But since all they do nowadays is entertain thirty- to sixty-year-old “emotionally subnormal” men, Moore considers superheroes “abominations” and their continuing dominance “culturally catastrophic.”
Moore lives in the UK, and so won’t be voting here in the general election, but fellow comics legend Howard Chaykin agrees with him. “I believe that superhero comics are by nature children’s fiction,” he told a New York audience:
“The idea of a man or woman dressing up in these goofy outfits and going out and fighting crime is absurd…. Batman, at its core, is about a guy that had a bad day when he was eight, and we’ve been paying for it ever since. He’s a guy who, with his billions of dollars, instead of investing in the public sector and private sector, uses all of his million dollars to buy bondage outfits and really cool things to beat the shit out of people that he doesn’t know but knows are bad because that’s the way they look. Like Jews in Germany.”
That’s probably not the Batman the kid at the Iowa State Fair had in mind when he asked Trump about his secret identity. But is it the Batman we could end up with in November?
When did the Silver Age of comics end and the Bronze Age begin? There’s no definite year, but the 1973 “SNAP!” of Gwen Stacy’s too-perfect neck in Amazing Spider-Man #121 is a contender. 1970 is a bigger year, with Jack Kirby’s move from Marvel to DC, plus the start of Neal Adams and Dennis O’Neil’s Green Lantern / Green Arrow. Steve Ditko left Marvel for Charlton in 1966, turning both Spider-Man and Doctor Strange over to new artists for the first time. Marvel veteran Bill Everett took on Doctor Strange with Strange Tales #147, but for me Strange Tales #154 is the sea-changing Silver-to-Bronze moment. It’s the first episode of Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.E.I.L.D. that the recently hired Jim Steranko wrote, penciled, and inked in 1967.
Like other artists Marvel hired in the 60s, Steranko imitated Jack Kirby, first auditioning by inking two of his penciled layouts for a proto-S.H.E.I.L.D story, and then by adopting the Kirby-defined Marvel house style. Gil Kane, who started freelancing at Marvel in 1966, explained during a 1985 panel discussion at the Dallas Fantasy Fair:
“Jack’s point of view and philosophy of drawing became the governing philosophy of the entire publishing company and, beyond the publishing company, of the entire field…. They would get artists, regardless of whether they had done romance or anything else and they taught them the ABCs, which amounted to learning Jack Kirby…. Jack was like Holy Scripture and they simply had to follow him without deviation. That’s what was told to me, that’s what I had to do. It was how they taught everyone to reconcile all those opposing attitudes to one single master point of view.”
After passing his employment test, Steranko apprenticed by inking three of Kirby’s twelve-page Nick Fury episodes. Kirby had co-created the series with Lee in 1965, but after the inaugural Strange Tales #135, nearly a dozen different artists had worked on the title. Kirby also co-penciled the two issues leading up to Steranko’s run, which suggests that Steranko’s credited “illustrations,” “artwork,” “rendering” may include more than just inking. Kirby is credited only for “layouts,” and they certainly look like his. Issues #151-3 are a close match to Kirby’s first Nick Fury episode:
#135: Seven regular 3-row pages
(including three implied 3x2s),
three regular 2-row pages (including two implied and one actual 2×2),
and two full-page panels (including the opening splash).
#151: Ten regular 3-row pages (including four implied and two actual 3x2s), one regular 2-row page, one full-page panel (splash).
#152: Ten regular 3-row pages (including seven implied and two actual 3x2s) one regular 2-row page, one full-page panel (splash).
#153: Nine regular 3-row pages (including seven implied and one actual 3×2), two regular 2-row pages (one implied and one actual 2×2), one full-page panel (splash).
Kirby draws no irregular layouts, so panel heights are consistent on each page and, since three-quarters of the layouts are regular 3-row based, across a majority of pages too. Of the thirty-six 3-row based pages, twenty-six are also 3×2 (typically implied, occasionally actual). The percentage is higher in Kirby’s last two issues, with seventeen of nineteen regular 3x2s. All rows include either one, two, or three panels of equal width. When he does vary from 3-row layouts, he uses 2-rows instead, averaging two 2-row pages per issue. Each issue begins with a full-page splash panel and ends with a 3-panel row in a regular 3-row page. Excluding full-page panels, each issue includes between five and eight pages with a full-width panel; twice in one issue, two full-width panels appear on the same page. Kirby draws no full-height panels or sub-columns, so all reading is horizontal. All panels are also rectangular and framed by gutters. Kirby draws no insets or overlapping panels. The overall effect is lightly varied and highly orderly.
The Nick Fury layouts changed with Steranko’s first solo issue:
#154: Four regular 3-row pages (including one implied 3×2), three irregular 4-row pages, two full-page panels (including the opening splash), one irregular 2-row page, one regular 2×3, one mixed column-row page.
Only three of Steranko’s layouts appear in Kirby’s issues: two full-page panels and an implied 3×2. Like Kirby, Steranko favors regular rows, although not exclusively. Unlike Kirby, Steranko’s 3-row based layouts are a minority, comprising one-third rather than three-quarters of the total pages, and where slightly more than half of Kirby’s pages are 3×2 based, Steranko’s one implied regular 3×2 is the rarity.
Three of Steranko’s regular 3-row pages lightly modify Kirby by including three new elements. First, two rows are divided into four panels; Kirby’s rows never exceed three panels. Second, some panels are irregular, and so their widths vary within the same row; Kirby’s panels are always divided equally. Third, two full-width panels include insets, effectively creating a row of two irregular panels; Kirby draws no insets.
Six of Steranko’s layouts contradict Kirby completely: three irregular 4-rows;
a regular 2×3; an irregular 2-row; and a mixed column-row page. Although the final page features the first instance of vertical reading, the concluding two-panel sub-row echoes the regular 3-panel row that concludes each of Kirby’s issues too.
Despite the range of differences between Kirby’s #153 and Steranko’s #154, most of Steranko’s additions can be found in Kirby’s earlier work:
The Fantastic Four #1 (August 1961) includes irregular 4-row pages, regular 2x3s, rows of four panels, and rows of irregular panels. Fantastic Four #2 include the same variations, but 4-rows and 2x3s vanish afterwards.
With the exception of splash pages, The Incredible Hulk #1 (May 1962) is also entirely regular 3-row based, with only three pages that vary the format with irregular panels or a regular four-panel row.
By The Avengers #1 (September 1963) Kirby’s layouts are also almost entirely 3-row based, with no more than three panels per row, and only two rows of irregular panels; the one irregular 2-row implies a 3×3 grid.
The X-Men (September 1963), published simultaneously, has even fewer variations: a subdivided panel in a regular 3×2, and one row of two irregular panels.
The twelve pages of Kirby’s Captain America feature in Tales of Suspense #59 (November 1964) are even more rigid, containing only regular 3-row layouts, all but one implying a 3×2 grid.
The Nick Fury episode of Strange Tales #135 (August 1965), Kirby’s last new series for Marvel, is comparatively diverse. Becoming the Marvel house style seems to have required Kirby to regularize his layouts, presumably so they could be more easily imitated. Variation and innovation are not qualities easily taught, and they do not produce a unified style across titles.
Although Kirby appears to have curtailed his own style to create the Marvel house style, insets and columns are still rare in his early Marvel work too. Fantastic Four #3 does include one, partial inset with its own gutter, and #5 features a highly atypical 1×3 page—which Steranko echoes in his next Nick Fury issue with a three-column page of his own.
One of Kirby’s very first comic books, the eight-page “Cosmic Carson” in Science Comics #4 (May 1940), includes four sub-columns, but no page-height ones. The following year, Captain America #1 includes sub-columns too.
“Cosmic Carson” also shows Kirby’s early use of a regular 2-row with a top full-width panel; identical layouts appear in Strange Tales #s 135, 151, and 152 as well as Steranko’s later #157.
Overall, however, Kirby uses columns rarely, while for Steranko they would become part of his signature style. His next column concludes #160, then beginning with #166, at least one appears in nearly every issue. #166 includes two: a regular 1×2 and, more distinctively, an irregular 1×2 in which the first column is an unframed, full-height figure defining the panel edges of the second column.
#167 includes no columns—in part because of its seven full-page panels, including Steranko’s innovative fold-out “quadruple-page spread,” which also doubled the price of the issue from twelve cents to twenty-four.
#168 then includes three columned pages in a row: an irregular 1×2 with no panel divisions;
an irregular 1×2 with the first column divided into five regular panels; and a highly irregular 1×2 in which the unframed full-height figure overlaps with the three panels of the second column.
Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D then switched to its own independent title, and #1 featured another irregular 1×2 with an unframed, full-height figure.
#2 includes a lone column and a later half-column of insets on a full-page panel, as does #3, and #5, Steranko’s last, includes a new column layout of a regular 1×3 with only the middle column divided into six irregular panels.
Because Steranko fell behind schedule, another creative team filled-in #4, marking the beginning of the end for Steranko at Marvel. He would leave the following year, 1969, after objecting to Stan Lee’s editing of his work. Steranko’s penultimate issue, Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D #3, bears little relationship to Kirby’s earlier layouts:
1: full-page splash panel
2-3: mixed column-row, a two-page panel with a column of letter-shaped panels
4: irregular 3-row with irregular panels
5: irregular 2-column with three irregular insets over the page-panel
6: irregular 3-row with two insets in the middle row and one inset in the bottom row
7: irregular 2-row with two full-width panels
8: mixed column-row, beginning with a full-width panel, followed by a nearly full-page panel with a two-panel column of insets
9: mixed column-row, an irregular 3-column of full-height columns, with a top row of four regular insets
10: regular 3-row with irregular panels
11: mixed column-row, an irregular 2-row with a two-panel column of insets over a full-width half page bottom column
12-13: two-page panel
14: irregular 3-row with irregular panels
15: irregular 3-row with irregular panels and one inset
16: mixed column-row, an irregular 3-row with a three-panel column of insets over a middle full-width panel
17: irregular 3-row with irregular panels and one inset
18: irregular 3-row with irregular panels
19: irregular 2-row with a column of text beside a nearly full-page panel
20: mixed column-row, an irregular 3-row with a sub-column of two insets
Although nine of the twenty pages are exclusively row-based, only one features rows of uniform height, and six additional pages include a mixture of rows and columns. The complexities are greater when also considering unframed and overlapping panels, but the contrast to Kirby’s last issue, published a year and a half earlier, is already stark:
1: Full-page splash panel
2: regular 3×2
3: regular 3-row with top full-width panel implying a 3×2
4: regular 3-row with middle full-width panel implying a 3×2
5: regular 2×2
6: regular 3-row with middle full-width panel implying a 3×2
7: regular 3-row with bottom full-width panel implying a 3×2
8: regular 3-row with bottom full-width panel implying a 3×2
9: regular 2-row with a top full-width panel implying a 2×2
10: regular 3-row with a bottom full-width panel implying a 3×2
11: regular 3-row with a bottom full-width panel implying a 3×2
12: regular 3-row
Kirby built the Marvel house style on a 3×2 grid and punctuated it with an occasional 2×2. After both Kirby and Steranko left Marvel, Kirby’s flexible page schemes would give way to a norm of irregular layouts, fluctuating between 2-, 3-, and 4-rows, with an open base pattern. Kirby’s Silver Age layouts were gone.