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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

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Joseph Campbell fans might think superheroes are popular because superheroes follow Campbell’s monomyth and so are parts of our collective subconscious.

I have my doubts.

A half-century after Campbell published The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the study of “cross-cultural regularities” in folktales and mythologies shifted to cognitive psychology and the search for “a set of conceptual mechanisms that is pan-cultural” and “essentially inevitable given innately specified cognitive biases” (Barrett and Nyhof). So members of different cultures produce similar stories not because they share similar minds, but because they share similar brains.

And those brains are made for superheroes. Here’s why …

Instead of mapping monomythic plot formulas, studies over the last two decades have focused on defining what kinds of ideas are most easily remembered and therefore more likely to be retold. Intuitive ones, ideas that meet our expectations about reality, are harder to remember than ones that violate them. Counter-intuitive ideas require more attention to mentally process and so make a longer lasting impression. Or they do up to a point. Too many counter-intuitive elements and remembering becomes harder again. So, as Justin Barrett and Melanie Nyhof conclude, a being who “will never die of natural causes and cannot be killed” is easier to recall than a being who “requires nourishment and external sources of energy in order to survive” and also easier to recall than a being who “can never die, has wings, is made of steel, experiences time backwards, lives underwater, and speaks Russian.”

In 1994, Pascal Boyer called the conceptual sweet spot the “minimal counterintuitive” or MCI, and a range of research has refined the definition. Ara Norenzayan and his co-authors found that Brothers Grimm tales with two to three counterintuitive elements received more hits on Google searches than Grimm tales with one or none and tales with more than three. Barrett looked at seventy-three folktales and found 79% included exactly one or two counter-intuitive elements. Joseph Stubbersfield and Jamshid Tehrani’s study of the contemporary “Bloody Mary” urban legend found that Internet versions averaged between two and two and a half MCI elements. Lauren Gonce and her co-authors also found that context matters, since counter-intuitive items presented on a list fare worse than intuitive ones (“singing bird” is easier to memorize than “flowering car”), and M. Afzal Upal defines that relevant context in terms of story coherence, showing that study participants recall a MCI element only if it makes sense of the events surrounding it.

Like Campbell’s monomyth, minimal counter-intuitiveness also describes superheroes. According to Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet, the prototypical character has inhuman powers, but those “powers are limited” and the individual is “human,” striking the optimal MCI balance. Stan Lee summarized Marvel’s formula in a 1970 radio interview even more precisely: “these are like ‘fairy tales’ for grown-ups, but they were to be completely realistic except for one element of a super power which the superhero possessed, that we would ask our reader to swallow somehow.”

Other comics superheroes tend to violate only one real-world expectation too: Flash moves inhumanly fast; Hawkgirl has wings; Plastic Man’s body is malleable. When a character has more than one counter-intuitive quality, those qualities tend to derive from a single, unifying concept. The bald-headed Professor X has the mental powers of telekinesis and telepathy. The Wasp shrinks to the size of a wasp, flies like a wasp, and stings like a wasp. Spider-Man has the proportional strength of a spider, climbs walls by adhering to vertical surfaces like a spider, and even has “spider senses”—an unrelated ability made to conform to the MCI conceit by adding “spider” as an adjective.

When a superhero violates MCI, it is most often through narrative evolution rather than original concept. Although Superman can fly, shoot lasers from his eyes, and even travel backward in time, Siegel and Shuster’s original had only advanced muscles. Similarly, Wolverine had no mutant healing powers when introduced in 1974, and Lee and Kirby didn’t add force fields to Invisible Girl’s abilities until Fantastic Four #22. Finally, while one character possessing multiple superpowers violates MCI, a team of superhumans does not. An immortal, winged, steel, time-reversing, water-breathing Russian-speaker is maximally counter-intuitive, but a comic book that includes Superman, Angel, Colossus (who also speaks Russian), Merlin, and Aquaman might merely be “bizarre” (a category Barrett and Nyof distinguish from MCI).

Not only does the superhero character type demonstrate MCI, so does the overall world and story contexts. Although superheroes violate a range of natural laws, Joseph Witek still defines superhero stories as naturalistic because the “depicted worlds are like our own, or like our own world would be if specific elements, such as magic or superpowers, were to be added or removed.” The cohesive nature of superhero stories would also place them in Upal’s “Coherent-Counterintuitive” category because the MCI superpower “is causally relevant because it could allow a reader to make sense of the events to follow.” A traditional superhero story does not simply include a character with a superpower, but features the superpower as the means for resolving the central conflict. Comics writer Dennis O’Neil argues:

“A writer fails the genre when a story depicts superheroes who are weak or do not use their powers. What makes a character interesting (both superheroes and other types of characters) is what he does to solve problems. You give him a knotty situation, and he gets out of it. Well, by definition, superheroes use extraordinary physical means … [we] respond to exhibitions of power. That is what a superhero is.”

MCI then defines the superhero character, the superhero world, and the superhero plot.

Although MCI was coined to explain religious concepts, subsequent studies suggest that superheroes in particular demonstrate MCI and so benefit more than other MCI-character types and narratives. For one of Barrett and Nyhoff’s 2001 experiments, participants read a story about an inter-galactic ambassador visiting a museum on the planet Ralyks. The museum featured eighteen exhibits, six with MCI qualities that are also found in superhero comics: Superman’s supervision; Wolverine’s mutant healing; the Blob’s immovable force; Kitty Pryde’s and Vision’s intangibility; Multiple Man’s duplication; and the Watcher’s omniscience. Barrett and Nyhof also bookend their article with references to the contemporary folklore of the part-goat Chivo Man because “a part-animal, part-human creature violates one of our expectations for animals while maintaining rich inferential potential based on pan-cultural category-level knowledge.” Part-animal, part-human characters are also one of the most common naming tropes in superhero comics.

The “Aesop-like fables” created for Upal’s study also reproduce superhero tropes. Of the six MCI qualities contained in the three “Coherent-Counterintuitive” stories, five duplicated superheroes: a “steel-man,” a “wing-man,” an “invisible man,” an “all-seeing woman,” and a “man who could fly and loved helping others.” The “IncoherenCounterintuitive” examples contained only one superhero trope, which appeared in two stories: a woman and then a man both “made of iron.” Upal replaced the previous tropes with non-superhero variants: “a man who had feet instead of hands,” a “villager who could bend spoons with his eyes,” and “a woman from a neighboring village who had ten heads.” Because the coherent and the superheroic coincide, and because the incoherent and the non-superheroic coincide, Upal’s experiment texts further suggest the intrinsic nature of superhero powers as cohesion-producing story elements.

The fact that both Upal’s and Barrett and Nyhof’s studies reproduced superhero character types also makes the researchers unknowing participants in a larger cultural study. The museum beings and Aesop-like characters could be examples of convergent evolution—meaning their authors duplicated Superman’s X-ray vision and the X-Men mutant Colossus’ steel flesh independent of direct influence—or the authors absorbed superhero characters and characteristics unconsciously and reproduced them unknowingly.

Either way, the experiment texts taken as cultural artifacts reveal superheroes as especially fit cultural competitors—due to their apparent pan-cultural appeal.

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“It’s not the images that come first,” writes Evie Wyld in the opening sentence of her 2016 graphic memoir Everything Is Teeth. Wyld goes on to describe the sounds and smells of her childhood memories, but her first statement is also a metafictional nod to her collaborative process. Her cover credits artist Joe Sumner not as co-author but as illustrator in a font roughly half the size of Wyld’s, proportions that indicate that the story—the memoir content—is Wyld’s. And it is. At least on the surface. But Sumner’s images—even though they come second collaboratively—produce a far more complex and compelling work than if the memoir were Wyld’s alone.

Sumner interprets Wyld’s words, and so her childhood world, in three scales. He renders the six-year-old Evie and her family members in traditional cartoon style: their heads and facial features are enlarged to impossible proportions, and their density of detail is minimal. Their environments, however, appear roughly naturalistic: trees, buildings, streets, even actors on TV screens have more realistic shapes and less simplified detailing. But the highest level of naturalism, at times achieving photorealism, Sumner reserves for images of sharks: the core subject of the memoir, the “something that lurks beneath the surface”.

Although contrasting, the two styles Sumner selects for characters and setting are a comics norm, common since Hergé‘s The Adventures of Tintin and Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy: cartoonishly simplified human figures who people comparatively detailed worlds. But not only does the realism of Sumner’s sharks exceed those norms, he often renders them within shared images to emphasize the impossible contrast.

Wyld’s opening sentence is offset by a country landscape and idyllic harbor—with the meticulous gray tones of a protruding fin shattering the flat black lines of the water’s surface. As the narrating Wylde alludes to undrawn stories about frightened relatives being alone on the water, Sumner instead depicts Evie discovering the simplistically drawn triangle of a shark tooth and carrying it home to show her family. The flat object only takes on shades of depth when it is part of the living, underwater animal.

Sharks are literally otherworldly. Their presence is not only an intrusion into Evie’s childhood reality, it undermines that baseline, revealing it be artificial, a willful illusion of simplicity that can’t be maintained in the presence of real-world threats. When Evie discovers the book Shark Attack!, its vivid renderings introduce the memoir’s first use of color beyond Sumner’s previously subdued yellows and blues. The pages come alive with a literal splash of red. Although Wyld describes a shark survivor’s torso-length scars as “a cartoon apple bite”, Sumner achieves the opposite effect: a photorealistic rendering of the horror that obsesses the child.

Wyld’s verbal images are simple and striking, too. Not only do sharks overturn rafts with “their shovel snouts” and a gored victim feel himself “loose in your skin suit”, but the mundane world is equally eloquent, her father’s skin “milk-bottle white” and her hair turning to “hot bread” in the sun. But nothing is more vivid than Sumner’s underworld of sea life, and the horror of that world proves to be much deeper than any sea.

Even little Evie seems to experience her shark obsession in relation to the mysterious, unexplained violence that lurks just beneath the adult world. She suffers visceral nausea at the family’s killing of a pregnant shark, even as Sumner draws her carrying two of the “puppies back home for frying”. Her father’s inexplicable work life and her mother’s casual insomnia are depths Evie can’t begin to fathom. Two pages after declaring a shark survivor to be “the greatest living man”, Evie’s brother comes home bloodied by bullies, a pattern that continues for much of his adolescence.

Relief seems to come with age, when Evie notices her brother “has become a foot taller than” their mother, but then aging becomes the ultimate threat. Sumner renders the death of Evie’s father in four, full-page images, textually juxtaposed with the now-adult Evie recalling the shark survivor and retroactively understanding the shark not as a monster but a “benign” if “indifferent” force. Her elderly father sits in a lawn chair, then in a hospital bed, until finally only his hat and sunglasses rest on a table framed in white on a black two-page spread.

Aside from two glimpses back into her childhood shark book, the world remains simple. Unlike the swimmer, her father’s struggle with death is a wordless cartoon. If death is the something lurking beneath the surface, it never breaks the water to reveal itself. It never provides the sufferer with a heroic struggle rendered in a more-real-than-real style. Even on his deathbed, her father cannot escape his caricature proportions: an absurdly large head with an absurdly large nose, only now framed in white rather than black lines of hair.

Wyld recounts only one incident in which she wasn’t present herself. “My parents,” she writes late in the memoir, “went deep-sea fishing a long time before I was born.” After catching fish after fish, everyone stopped and “watched mutely as a tiger shark, pale blue and clean, bigger than the boat, passed under, its fin skimming the hull.” Sumner draws the passengers in a thin strip at the top of the two-page spread, while giving nearly 4/5ths of the page space to the black water and the two largest and most fully detailed drawings of sharks in the memoir.

This oddly pivotal moment not only breaks chronology for the first and only time in the narrative, it also places Wyld’s text into the same ambiguous relationship to events as Sumner’s drawings. Like Sumner who receives Wyld’s memories only through her telling, Wyld received her parents’ memories of the fishing trip through their telling. But, like Sumner, Wyld goes beyond her source, rendering the story in her own vivid style. Her eloquence makes it her own—just as Sumner’s artistry makes Wyld’s story his own, too.

[The original version of this and my other recent reviews also appear in the comics section of PopMatters.]

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After appearing gray-skinned in his premiere issue, the Hulk inexplicably turned green in his second. Though the color change had more to do with printing costs than storylines, the gray Hulk had a personality distinctly different from his later version. Marvel writers eventually retconned a distinct and separate character into the premiere issue, turning the gray Hulk into Gray Hulk AKA Joe Fixit.

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When recalling creating the Hulk years later, Lee described the canonical green version: “I just wanted to create a loveable monster—almost like the Thing but more so … I figured why don’t we create a monster whom the whole human race is always trying to hunt and destroy but he’s really a good guy.”

But even after The Incredible Hulk #1, the original Hulk was not loveable and was no good guy. He was a barely controlled monster who posed as a much of threat to the world as the supervillains he fought. After his original six-issue run and a few appearances in other titles, the Hulk’s cancelled series was renewed in 1964 as one of two ongoing features beginning in Tales to Astonish #59, with artist Steve Ditko replacing Dick Ayers for pencils beginning #60, and Jack Kirby co-penciling with multiple artists beginning #68. Stan Lee was credited for all writing, but because of the so-called “Marvel Method” much of the uncredited and unpaid co-writing fell on the pencilers.

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The 1964 Bruce Banner no longer uses his Gamma Ray device to transform into the Hulk, and when Giant-Man comes searching, Banner thinks, “So! The Avengers are still seeking the Hulk, eh? Will they never leave him in peace?”, reflecting the early stages of Lee’s revision. The Hulk himself later laments: “There is nothing for Hulk—nothing but running—Fighting! Nothing—” (#67). The character is still antagonistic and can take “off like a missile”, but he saves Giant-Man when both are targeted by an atomic shell, also throwing it to explode far from the nearby town (#59). The Leader, the primary antagonist from #62–75, was “an ordinary laborer” until yet another “one-in-a-million freak accident occurred as an experimental gamma ray cylinder exploded” transforming him into “one of the greatest brains that ever lived” (#63). Also, as earlier, Banner gains control of the Hulk’s body for several episodes, continuing the struggle of the 1962 series.

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After the January 1966 issue, however, the premise changes. When the military fires Banner’s experimental “T-Gun,” the Hulk is sent to “some far distant future,” a “dead world” in which Lincoln’s memorial statue sits in the ancient ruins of Washington, D.C. (#75). A future commander declares: “We cannot allow a destructive, rampaging brute to run amok in our land!” (#76). This “grim, ominous war-torn world of the far future” recalls Kennedy’s 1963 “war makes no sense” refrain, and when the Hulk returns from it to his own time, he settles into a new, toddler-like personality, no longer posing a threat unless attacked.

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Moreover, as with the Thing and his love interest Alicia, Banner’s girlfriend, Betty Ross, views the Hulk in transformative light: “His arms—so huge—and brutal—but yet, so strangely gentle—!” (#82). Although he has brought her to an isolated cave, she adds: “It’s strange! I find I’m not afraid of him any longer! As powerful, and as unpredictable as he is … I can’t help feeling he’s not truly evil!” (#83).

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Even General Ross, who has hated and hunted the Hulk since his debut, changes attitude: “The strongest … most dangerous being on Earth … but my daughter tells me he rescued her … tells me she loves him …! And yet … somehow … I find myself beginning to understand”. When the military test fires another of Banner’s weapons, an “anti-missile proof” missile and so “the greatest weapon of all!” (#85), the Hulk prevents it from destroying New York.

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With the Hulk’s secret identity no longer a secret, Betty declares: “Now there can be no doubt! The Hulk isn’t a monster—he never was! He was always you!” (#87), and her father now asks for Banner’s help in stopping the next menace and praises the Hulk because “he saved us—from our own folly!” President Johnson sends General Ross an executive order: “If, in your opinion, the Hulk is no longer a menace, you are authorized to grant him full and immediate amnesty, clearing him for all guilt, or suspicion of same,” but because a villain tricks the Hulk into a rampage Ross shreds the order (#88).

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Though the Hulk remains an outcast, the ongoing narrative permanently shifted. Like the X-Men who are also distrusted and pursed by government figures, readers understand the government to be definitely wrong. By losing its monstrous ambiguity, the Cold War superhero formula regained its original Golden Age status of misunderstood hero.

 

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Stan Lee predicted in his original 1961 Fantastic Four synopsis that the unpredictable and monstrous Thing would prove to be the most interesting character to readers. He was right—so much so that after four issues, Marvel premiered a new title that featured a main character based on the Thing:

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The first cover of The Incredible Hulk makes the monster motif explicit, asking “Is he man or monster or … is he both?” Lee combined the standard superhero alter ego trope with the uncontrolled transformations of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Kirby models the Hulk on Boris Karloff in the 1931 Frankenstein. Like those mad scientists, Dr. Bruce Banner is “tampering with powerful forces,” only now his hubris transforms himself into his own monstrous creation. The opening panel features “the most awesome weapon ever created by man—the incredible G-Bomb!” moments before its “first awesome test firing!” Kirby draws its creator with a “genius” signifying pipe as he takes “every precaution,” even as General Ross insults him for cowardly delays. Though Banner risks his life to save Rick, a teenager who has driven onto the bomb site, that kindness is erased by the Hulk who, after his first Geiger-counter-triggering transformation, swats Rick aside, uttering his first words: “Get out of my way, insect!” Lee likens him to a “dreadnought,” the twentieth-century’s most massive battleships, and soon he is speaking like a supervillain, “With my strength—my power—the world is mine!,” and threatening to kill Rick to keep his identity a secret.

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The first issue would be a complete repudiation of the superhero formula if not for the late entrance of another “brilliant” scientist-turned-radioactive-monster; the Soviet Union’s Gargoyle captures the Hulk, threatening the balance of power: “If we could create an army of such powerful creatures, we could rule the Earth!” Like the Hulk, the Gargoyle is controlled by no nation, savoring that his “cowardly” comrades and “some day all the world will tremble before” him.

The Gargoyle is stopped not by the Hulk’s might, but Banner’s “milksop” kindness, reversing the Clark Kent trope that had defined the superhero genre for two decades. The crying Gargoyle would “give anything to be normal!” as Kirby draws him shaking his fist at a portrait of Khrushchev because he became “the most horrible thing in the world” while working “on your secret bomb tests!” As a result, he accepts Banner’s offer to cure him “by radiation,” and in turn destroys the Soviet base and rockets Banner and his sidekick back to the U.S.: “So we’re saved! By America’s arch enemy!” Although Banner hopes for the end of “Red tyranny,” he remains “as helpless as” the Gargoyle against his own “monster”.

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In addition to changing from gray to green, in the second issue, the Hulk seizes control of an alien spaceship to use it for his own purposes: “With this flying dreadnaught under me, I can wipe all of mankind!” and it is again Banner, using his “Gamma Ray Gun” invention, who stops the alien invasion.

These are not the tales of a standard dual-identity superhero, but a Clark Kent battling both external threats and his own supervillainous alter ego. Steve Ditko inked Kirby’s pencils for the second issue, cover-dated July 1962, a month before the premiere of Lee and Ditko’s Spider-Man in Amazing Fantasy #15. Ditko’s Hulk bore an even greater semblance to Karloff, and now Peter Parker looked like a younger version of Bruce Banner. The Hulk does not begin to resemble a superhero until the following month.

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In the third issue, the military attempts to destroy the Hulk by launching him into the same radiation belt that created the Fantastic Four, but instead his transformations, which were previously trigged by nightfall, become unpredictable. Rick briefly gains hypnotic power over the “live bomb” of the now golem-like Hulk, evoking another admonitory fable: “It’s too much for me! I’ve got the most powerful thing in the world under my control, and I don’t know what to do with it!”

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Kirby and Lee could not settle on a clear premise, with the Hulk changing personalities and transformation plot devices every other issue. In the fourth issue, Banner invents a self-radiating machine in order to “regain the Hulk’s body—but with my own intelligence,” which, though seemingly successful, creates a “fiercer, crueler” version of Banner inside a Hulk who is still “dangerous” and “hard to control.”

The new Hulk no longer tries to kill Rick, but now speaking like the Thing, he tells him to “Shut your yap” and to “get outa my way!” before foiling the Soviets’ next attempt to capture him and again build “a whole army of warriors such as you!” Though he prevents another invasion, this time by an underground race led by an ancient immortal tyrant, the Hulk ends his first adventures in the following issue articulating his defining nuclear allegory: “Let ‘em all fear me! Maybe they got reason to!” In the issue’s second story, he thwarts a Chinese Communist general, and yet the Hulk insists that “the weakling human race will be safe when there ain’t no more Hulk—and I’m planning on being around for a long time!!!”

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By the sixth issue, the last of the original, one-year title run, the Hulk has reverted to a supervillain and considers teaming-up with an invading alien against the human race “to pay ‘em all back!” Though the Hulk ultimately defeats the alien, winning a pardon for his past crimes, Banner has less and less control of his transformations, suffering delayed and partial effects with Banner briefly retaining some of the Hulk’s strength and, more bizarrely, with the Hulk briefly retaining Banner’s face. Rick concludes: “The Gamma Ray machine—it grows more and more unpredictable each time it’s used! If Doc has to face it again—what will happen next time?”

“Next time” was delayed by over a year, after the Cuban missile crisis led to a paradoxical drop in Cold War anxieties. After a few appearances in other titles including The Avengers, the Hulk and his cancelled series were renewed in 1964 as one of two ongoing features beginning in Tales to Astonish #59. Both the Gamma Ray machine and Banner’s unpredictable transformation were forgotten, and the Hulk soon evolved into the canonical version of the character: a well-intentioned but toddler-minded creature misunderstood and mistreated by the authorities.

 

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Stan Lee suggested a central “gimmick” in his original 1961 synopsis for the Fantastic Four:

“let’s make The Thing the heavy—in other words, he’s not really a good guy … Let’s treat him so the reader is always afraid he will sabotage the Fantastic Four’s efforts at whatever they are doing—he isn’t interested in helping mankind the way the other three are … the other three are always afraid of The Thing getting out of their control some day and harming mankind with his amazing strength … The Thing doesn’t have the ethics that the other three have, and consequently he will probably be the most interesting one to the reader, because he’ll always be unpredictable.”

Although Ben Grimm is an “ex-war hero,” Lee describes him as “surly,” “unpleasant,” and “brutish,” even before radiation transforms him “in the most grotesque way of all,” making him “more fantastically powerful than any other living thing.” Early issues emphasize the same qualities. While Kirby and other artists had previously drawn superheroes as uniformly handsome, the Thing is “a walking nightmare” with a misshapen body and a face as unattractive as Moleman’s. In the second issue, Sue whispers to Reed: “Sooner or later the Thing will run amok and none of us will be able to stop him!” and Ben, “a juggernaut of destruction,” confesses: “sometimes I think I’d be better off—the world would be better off—if I were destroyed!” Many readers felt the same about nuclear weapons.

Even aside from the Thing, Kirby and Lee portrayed the Fantastic Four as superheroes who produce rather than assuage anxiety. Kirby opens the first issue with an image of frightened pedestrians pointing at the flare Reed has fired to gather the team; police officers remark that “the crowds are getting’ panicky!” and that “[r]umors are flyin’ about an alien invasion!” During their origin sequence, Johnny calls both Ben and Reed “monsters,” before uncontrollably transforming into a Cold War version of the pre-Code Human Torch and accidentally starting a forest fire. “Together,” declares Reed, “we have more power than any humans have ever possessed,” a familiar superhero refrain now given new nuclear-era meaning.

The second issue opens with a three-page sequence of the Fantastic Four committing acts of sabotage, causing news agencies to declare them “public enemies” and “the most dangerous menace we have ever faced!”—an opinion repeated in #7 when a “hostility ray” turns the world against them as “four monsters,” “the worst menaces ever to threaten this land!” The acts of sabotage were actually performed by shape-shifting Skrulls, and though the Fantastic Four are not powerful enough to defeat “the mighty invasion fleet menacing Earth,” they end the “stalemate” by showing the Skrulls other Jack Kirby drawings from Strange Tales and Journey into Mystery and so convincing them that humans have armies of “monstrous” warriors ready to protect them. The first cover features one such monster, only now the Fantastic Four serve as monster-fighting monsters trying to protect the city from it—a defining introduction for the MAD-era superhero type.

The Fantastic Four’s early antagonists evoked similar atomic fears with striking repetition. Moleman targets “every atomic plant” (#1), the Skrulls attack a “new rocket” test site (#2), Miracle Man steals an “atomic tank” (#3), and the 1940s Sub-Mariner vows revenge on the human race when he finds his underwater city destroyed: “The humans did it, unthinkingly, with their accursed atomic tests!” (#4). Dr. Doom, after bringing “forth powers he could not control” (#5), stokes the Sub-Mariner’s hatred, describing “that monster of a bomb” that destroyed his civilization (#6). The Thing mistakes an alien spaceship for “a new missile test,” while on Planet X, “Driven by fear and panic, our people are turning against each other! Soon nothing will be able to stop the riots nothing except the doom which is hurtling toward us!” (#7). Finally, the Puppet Masters controls his victims by carving their likenesses in “radioactive clay” (#8).

Lee’s “gimmick” to include a bad guy within a team of good guys altered the standard superhero plot structure by splitting the heroes’ focus between fighting external threats and containing an internal one. Alan Moore, reading The Fantastic Four #3 as a child, had “the impression that [the Thing] was on the verge of turning into a full-fledged supervillain,” not “the cuddly, likeable ‘Orange Teddy-bear’ of later years. Stan Lee recalls writing the character in a 1981 interview:

“I tried to have Ben talk like a real tough, surly, angry guy, but yet the reader had to know he had a heart of gold underneath … People always like characters who seem very powerful yet, you know they are very gentle underneath and you know they would help you if you needed it.”

Lee’s recollection is of the later characterization, not the Thing of 1961, whose surliness was not a disguise. When Ben says to Sue in the first issue, “Now let’s go find that skinny, loud-mouthed boy-friend of yours!”, Lee scripts her response at face value: “Oh, Ben—if only you could stop hating Reed.” According to Lee’s original synopsis, Ben “has a crush on Susan,” “is jealous of Mr. Fantastic and dislikes Human Torch because Torch always sides with Fantastic,” and “is interested in winning Susan away from Mr. Fantastic.”

Despite Lee’ stated intention, his and Kirby’s rendering and readers’ perceptions of Ben grew more sympathetic. Ben complains to Reed: “At least you’re human! But how would you like to be me?” and Sue herself is sympathetic: “Thing, I understand how bitter you are—and I know you have every right to be bitter!!” When Ben returns to human form for a few moments after passing through the radiation belt again, Torch consoles him too: “She’s right, pal! That was just a start!” In #3, despite renewed fighting with Torch, Ben intervenes to save Reed’s life: “Reed can’t dodge those dum-dums forever, I gotta do something!!”

By #6, Kirby and Lee are no longer portraying overt conflict between the characters, and with #8—coincidentally on sale during the Cuban missile crisis—Ben’s “crush” ends and his character is redefined by the introduction of an alternate love interest. The Puppet Master’s blind step-daughter, Alicia, disguises herself as Sue, fooling all of Sue’s male teammates. Though Ben suffers another temporary transformation to human form, Alicia’s love is permanently transforming: “This man—his face feels strong and powerful! And yet, I can sense a gentleness to him—there is something tragic—something sensitive!” The Thing transfers his affection to Alicia, who reciprocates and humanizes his previously inhuman character: “the clinker is—she likes me better as the Thing!” In the following issue, Alicia calls Ben “my white knight! You are good, and kind, and you will never desert your friends when they need you most!”, prompting Ben to hug his teammates: “us white knights don’t desert their companions in arms! I’m with ya, gang!”

Marvel began with a Cold War plot gimmick that resulted in unplanned character complexity and then ad hoc revision, producing the unified family-like Fantastic Four that would define the series and a new superhero character type that would define the Marvel universe.

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When I ask my students to describe superheroes, they typically call out adjectives like “strong” and “handsome” and “moral.” I usually have the chalkboard covered before someone get around to “violent.” But violence is arguably the most defining quality of the genre.

Beginning with Detective Comics #33 and continuing with Batman #1, DC regularized Batman episode lengths to a Golden Age norm of twelve to thirteen pages. Of those first seven episodes, combat occurs on an average of seven pages—or roughly half of each episode. Beginning with Amazing Spider-Man #3, Marvel regularized Spider-Man’s episodes to a 1960s norm of an issue-length twenty-one or twenty-two pages.  Averaging issues #3-9, combat occurs on eleven pages—or again roughly half of each episode.

If superhero comics draw from ancient myth, they are not mini-odysseys but mini-Trojan wars. Since 1939, Superman has waged “his never-ceasing war on injustices,” and Bruce Wayne has spent his life “warring on all criminals.” Their initial battles against a human criminal class expand to wider conflicts against fellow superhumans in which superheroes, ostensibly motivated to protect society, appear to relish combat itself. When first facing the Joker, Batman declares: “It seems I’ve at last met a foe that can give a good fight!” And Spider-Man laments two decades later: “It’s almost too easy! I’ve run out of enemies who can give me any real opposition! I’m too powerful for any foe! I almost wish for an opponent who’d give me a run for my money!” Comics often fulfill this wish by pitting superhero against superhero, a trope Alan Moore parodies in Watchmen when an interviewer asks Ozymandias about the Comedian:

NOVA: I heard that he beat you in combat, back when you were just starting out …

VEIDT: Yes, well, that was a case of mistaken identity and general misunderstanding. For some reason it happens a lot when costumed crime-fighters meet for the first time. (Laughter)

Mark Waid and Alex Ross extend the theme to its logical extremes in Kingdom Come, which is filled not with “heroes”, but rather

their children and grandchildren. […] progeny of the past, inspired by the legends of those who came before … if not the morals. They no longer fight for the right. They fight simply to fight, their only foes each other. The superhumans boast they’ve all but eliminated the super-villains of yesteryear. Small comfort. They move freely through the streets…through the world. They are challenged … but unopposed. They are, after all … our protectors.

Ross expresses the warriors’ joy of combat through the near-photorealistic grin of a downed superhuman and the maudlin tears of a human child fleeing falling rubble. The photo-like yet somehow still-bloodless renderings also reveal the core contradiction of superhero comics: the simultaneous celebration and avoidance of violence.

While superheroes may evoke ancient epic traditions, their paradoxical approach to violence may place them in a more specific sub-category, what my colleague Edward Adams terms the “liberal epic”: “a revivified heroic tradition” that glorifies “war and violence in the cause of liberty” (22). Adams identifies

two distinctive features of all liberal epics: first, an apologetic strategy for justifying this war as a worthy exception to a general rule […]; second, a concerted effort to limit or sanitize the public’s access to graphic representations of the liberating soldier-heroes’ acts of violence and domination—an effort, moreover, that has foregrounded a concern not to shock. (5)

Although too recent to be termed “universal,” the liberal epic is both multi-national and centuries-long, beginning with the French archbishop Fénelon’s Homer-inspired yet war-critical The Adventures of Telemachus in 1699 and Alexander Pope’s 1715 The Iliad of Homer. Where Homer presents combat in graphic and arguably glorifying detail, Adams argues that Pope’s “concision in translating Homer’s violence,” “his implicit omission of the nonpoetic material reality of Homer’s battle scenes,” and his preference for “more distanced and generalizing heroic couplets” and “poetic verbal analogy” “betrays his fundamental objection to epic” (75).

The superhero genre shares both the objection to and the extended focus on violence. Where liberal epic employs poetic diction to obscure its subject matter, comics achieve similar effects through visual devices. To stop a “blood thirsty aviator” in Action Comics #2, Superman leaps in front of a plane; Shuster draws the plane plummeting out of the frame, but instead of its impact and the death of the pilot, the next panel features another character who “witnessed the crash.” Batman kills his first adversary on the third page of his first adventure, sending a “burly criminal flying” from the roof a two-story house. Bob Kane does not draw the presumably fatal impact but does include the criminal’s barely discernible body on the sidewalk two panels later.

Though most superhero violence is non-lethal, even the broken noses and bloodied lips that would result from real-world punches often go undepicted. The 1966 Batman TV series parodied the comic book norm of sanitized violence by replacing live-action punches with cut-away shots of drawn sound effects such as “POW!!” and “BOFF!!” The stylization literally blocks its own content. Despite the TV parody, superheroes comics maintained the approach. In Green Lantern Co-Staring Green Arrow #77, Neal Adams draws soldiers charging across a mine field and then in the next panel entirely obscures their bodies with a bloodless “BLAM” below the caption, “Some die immediately.” For Wolverine #4, Frank Miller depicts the death of a Japanese crime lord through framing and closure effects. In the penultimate panel of the combat sequence, Wolverine’s claws are sheathed and his fist hovers in front of the warrior’s face; the final panel frames Wolverine’s face, partially cropped arm, and the letters “SNIKT,” the signature sound effect of his extending claws. Miller does not draw the claws piercing the enemy’s head.

Like the liberal epics of Dryden, Byron, Scott, Hayden, and Churchill, which according to Adams “implicitly admit to a deep human pleasure to dominating others—a delight at the surface of Homer—and address the need to control that pleasure” (12), superhero comics began as an oxymoronic genre of sanitized hyperviolence, pleasing young readers by avoiding direct representations of its most central subject matter.

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The 1980s are often recalled as the conservative Reagan years. But they were also a tipping point in the superheroic battle for gay rights. LGBTQ characters in comics began the decade as villains and ended it with a revised Comics Code that championed their “orientation.”

Although England’s Wolfenden Commission recommended decriminalizing homosexuality in 1957, and the American Law Institute made a similar recommendation in 1962, the 1971 Comics Code update remained unchanged from its 1950s version. “Sexual abnormalities” were still “unacceptable” and “the protection of the children and family life” paramount—even after the American Psychiatric Association struck homosexuality from its mental disorder list in 1973. As a result, superhero comics avoided gay characters until the 1980s, and early depictions cast them as villains.

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Beginning in Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man #43, Roger Stern scripted Roderick Kingsley as a thin, limp-wristed, ascot-wearing fashion designer who another characters calls a “flaming simp!” and who is later revealed to be the supervillain Hobgoblin (1980).

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Kingsley is not directly identified as gay, but the same year in the non-Code Hulk Magazine #23, Jim Shooter and Roger Stern scripted two men, one black and one white, attempting to rape Bruce Banner, who escapes a YMCA shower room by threatening to transform into the Hulk: “You hurt me and I’ll get big and green and tear your … head off!”

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Alan Moore and John Totleben recreate a similar scene eight years later in Miracleman #14 when three teens succeed in raping the pubescent Johnny Bates: “You love it. You littul poof. Say you love it.” He escapes by actually transforming into the monstrous Kid Miracleman, who then massacres thousands of Londoners before being forced to transform back, leading Miracleman to murder Johnny to prevent future massacres—all the results of a homosexual rape.

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Early depictions of transgender characters are comparatively positive. Because a character’s consciousness is often depicted as existing independently of the character’s body, superhero comics provide a range of opportunities for fantastical gender-switching. In 1975, writer Steve Gerber introduced Starhawk, a male superhero who exchanges bodies with his female lover, Aleta. Jim Shooter scripted Starhawk in The Avengers #168: “Aleta gestures in defiance as her persona submerges, giving way – as the persona of Starhawk assumes command, the corporeal form they share shimmers… changes.” Although both characters are heterosexual and cisgender, the visual depiction of a woman transforming into a male superhero alters the male-to-male norm established in Action Comics #1.

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Mike W. Barra and Brian Bolland’s 1982 Camelot 3000 introduced a more overtly transgender superhero, the legendary knight Sir Tristan reincarnated into a woman’s body. Tristan rejects a female sex identity until the maxi-series’ conclusion when he chooses to live as a woman with his reincarnated female lover Isolde.

Beginning in the 1987 Alpha Flight #45, Bill Mantlo scripted a more convoluted, multiple body-swapping plot that concluded with the spirit of a previously deceased male character, Walter Langkowski, inside a formerly deceased female body—except when Langkowski transforms into the male body of the Hulk-like Sasquatch for superheroic adventures. Like Sir Tristan, Langkowski, taking the first name “Wanda,” continued a previous romantic relationship with his female lover.

While challenging gender binaries, these early depictions of transgender and gay superheroes also maintain aspects of traditional masculinity and heterosexuality. The female Aleta transforming into the male Starhawk literalizes the emasculated or female-like nature of Clark Kent already implicit in the formula. With Tristan and Langkowski, a female body is controlled by a male consciousness, and the male consciousness is male by virtue of having existed previously in a male body. The physicality of the male body, even when not currently present, is primary. Tristan and Langkowski also treat transgender as a temporary plot conflict resolved by a male consciousness accepting a female sex identity through what visually appears to be a lesbian romance, normalizing same-sex female relationships as fantastical expressions of heterosexuality. None of the narratives present a female consciousness inhabiting a male body or male bodies in sexual relationships. Since only female homosexuality is visually portrayed and because early depictions of gay men are villainous, superhero masculinity remained heterosexual and homophobic.

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John Byrne challenged that norm in 1983 with Alpha Flight superhero Northstar. Because the Code barred openly gay characters, Byrne suggested the character’s sexuality indirectly, for example, introducing his friend Raymonde Belmonde whom Byrne draws in a nearly identical light blue suit and red ascot that Mike Zeck designed for Roderick Kingsley four years earlier. Byrne was either alluding to Zeck or both were drawing on the same cultural stereotype—arguably the blue suit worn by an emaciated David Bowie on the album cover of the 1974 David Live.

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Despite more direct portrayals of same-sex superhero relationships in non-Code-approved issues of The Defenders and Vigilante in 1984, Bill Mantlo continued the pattern of indirection when scripting Alpha Flight in 1985. When he began a 1987 story arc in which Northstar contracts AIDS, Marvel under the editorship of Jim Shooter altered the disease to a fantastical ailment, forcing the character into temporary retirement. Other writers followed a similar approach, including gay characters while avoiding identifying their sexualities overtly. Scripter Al Milgrom in the 1988 Marvel Fanfare #40 moved closer to confirming the relationship between mutants Mystique and Destiny originally intended and implied by Chris Claremont in 1981.

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Paul Levitz, during his 63-issue, 1984-89 run of DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes, also indirectly indicated that the 60s characters Lightning Lass and Shrinking Violet were lesbian lovers, a subplot continued by the next team of writers in 1989. Alan Moore’s 1986 Watchmen memoirist Hollis Mason alludes to two gay superheroes, Hooded Justice and the Silhouette, both of whom may have been murdered for their sexualities.

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DC’s Steve Englehart and Joe Stanton’s 1988-9 The New Guardians featured the flamboyantly effeminate Extrano, who wore a large golden earring and a purple cape but was never explicitly identified as gay. John Byrne also introduced police captain Maggie Sawyer to Superman in 1987, interrupting Superman mid-sentence before he could explicitly identify her as lesbian.

The increase in gay representation parallels gains of the gay rights movement of the 80s. Wisconsin, for example, became the first state to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in 1982, and 600,000 protesters marched in Washington in support of gay rights in 1987. “After decades existing in a subtextual closet of metaphors, tropes, and stereotypes,” writes Sean Guynes, “in 1988 openly gay characters exploded in the pages of superhero comics” (2016: 182). When the Comics Code Authority revised its guidelines in 1989, it reversed its quarter century of anti-gay mandates. The Code’s new “Characterizations” subsection required creators to “show sensitivity to national, ethnic, religious, sexual, political and socioeconomic orientations.” The revision also acknowledged that heroes “should reflect the prevailing social attitudes,” potentially allowing positive portrayals of openly gay superheroes.

As a result, LGBTQ characters transformed radically in the 90s. That happier history is here.

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