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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Guest blogger, Ruth Smith.

 

I try to call my dad a few times a week because I know how much a quick hello means to him. Does this usually happen? Well, no. However, when I do call him the conversations are pretty customary following the standard procedure of the hello, how are you, how’s school, are you sleeping, etc. He then remarks how lucky I am to be attending such a fine establishment and we exchange I love yous and continue on with our day.

The other day after class our standard conversation deviated from its normal path. I told my dad about how I had been researching the Cold War for a long time the night before and felt I had an extensive knowledge of anti-ballistic missiles and felt a little tired. I could hear confusion in his voice as he followed my comment with “but wait I thought you were in some sort of comic class…” Well, yeah, Dad, I am, but you see my paper is on…well…it’s on the silver age of comics and pop art and how and why they emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  I realized this probably did not solve his confusion at all and if anything it probably confused him even more. So I tried again (I decided to leave out my awkward stumbles, umms, wells, and awkward pauses).

The late 1950s and early 1960s saw a change in attitudes amongst the American people. The Cold War fledged on, but it was a different type of war at this point. Something changed. McCarthyism and the fear of communism had plagued the 40s and early 50s as did the thought of war, but this didn’t compare to the fears to come. In the 60s confrontation between the two superpowers—the United States and the Soviet Union—erupted as each nation watched and awaited the other’s next move.  After the Soviets developed their first bomb in 1961, President John F. Kennedy declared that it would be “the policy of the United States to proceed in developing nuclear weapons to maintain the superior capability but the defense of the free world agent against any aggressive”.

Massive retaliation was at one point the policy of the United States, but this changed once the Soviet Union had the ability to strike back and the idea of a global nuclear catastrophe became a conceivable reality. The policy of MAD (mutually assured destruction) redefined the Cold War. This period was the closest we would ever get to actually engaging in any sort of nuclear attack, and that generated widespread panic, fear, and anxiety. Americans couldn’t hide behind patriotic superheroes of the Golden Age or lose themselves in the introspective works of Abstract Expressionism. Americans were forced to face the reality of the situation and reenter the ‘real world’.

Cold War satire

The Golden Age and Abstract Expressionism were the comic and art movements loosely paralleling and manifesting post World War II and early Cold War sentiments. During this these periods we see strong heroes saving us from any type of mass destruction, whether it be the Nazis or an atomic bomb, and crusading for our beautiful freedom. The emergence of characters like Superman, Batman, and Captain America defined the superhero and the comic industry. On the other end of the spectrum were the artists throwing their thoughts and feelings into their large scale action and color-field paintings. Their nonrepresentational pieces left behind the traditional object or image and strictly worked to express their feelings. Overall in this time the idea of the ‘real world’ seemed to be left behind and forgotten.

Captain America punching Hitler in the face

Captain America Comics #1 (March 1941). Cover art by Joe Simon (inks and pencils) and Jack Kirby (pencils). First issue of Captain America. Cover depicts image of Captain America punching Hitler in the face.

 

One: Number 31, 1950, Jackson Pollock

One: Number 31, 1950, Jackson Pollock

With this we see of birth of the Silver Age of comics and the Pop Art movement. In the Silver Age, the superhero is redefined and resonates more with the average person. No one wanted the traditional physically-exaggerated tough guy anymore and with that emerged Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four.  Peter Parker was the new scrawny superhero; The Thing was the new . . . well, he really isn’t comparable to anything because he was just so different than everything before.

Aligning with the Silver Age, the Pop Art movement also burst to life. Iconic figures such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein captured the attention of the art world with their objective consumerism creations. The anonymity of abstraction had lost its appeal. Americans had lived in a introverted and pensive state for the last decades and didn’t want to guess what they were looking at anymore; they wanted to know; they wanted to talk about it.  The Pop Art movement and the Silver Age of comics formed as an act of rejection of what existed before them, and ultimately an attempt to find the real world again.

The Amazing Spider-Man #1 (March 1963) Cover art by Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko

 

Campbells Soup Andy Warhol

Campbell’s Soup
Andy Warhol

As I finished explaining to my dad this small monster that’s been consuming me the last few weeks (in a good way of course), I realized almost 20 minutes or more had passed and my father hadn’t spoken one word. I asked him if he was still there and after hearing him let out a long sigh he replied, “Honey, this was my childhood, this was my world, this is how I grew up; I was a cold war kid”.

He proceeded to tell me about how his dad—my grandfather—and he possessed a relationship with few words because World War II really had changed everything, especially the men, and no one wanted to talk about anything; everything was internalized.  He told me about how in school they would practice drills where they would hide under their desks just in case their nuclear nightmare was coming a reality. He told me about how his mother begged his father to build a shelter in the backyard because that is what President Kennedy told the country was essential in protecting one’s family. He told me how different and strange it was when America developed its first “teenagers,” and at the same time great because finally a generation of people had come around who wanted to talk and express feelings and essentially be everything the generation before them was not.  He told me he’ll never forget reading for the first time the The Amazing Spider-Man or The Fantastic Four and how they exploded because they were so different than anything people had read before. He told me that he wished he still had them so he could let me have them now.

He also informed me that he could have saved me a lot of time (probably 3-4 hours) googling stuff about the Cold War if I had just picked up the phone and called a little sooner.

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