Skip to content

The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Golden Age

Picture American culture as an enormous sleeping brain. Movies, TV shows, comic books, those are the dreams and nightmares playing in its 24/7 unconscious. Like any sleeper, it wants to stay asleep. Which means inventing stories when outside noises—slamming doors, gunfire, the Rape of Nanking—try to disturb it.

When it feels threatened, the stories the great sleeping brain of America likes to tell itself often star a gun-toting cowboy or a caped crusader. Powerful heroes who use their powers to protect a vulnerable nation. I’ve been reading Richard Slotkin’s Gunfighter Nation lately, and I’m noticing how the paths of these two breeds of very American heroes weave in and out of our country’s 20th century anxieties.

When a fascist war loomed in Europe, comic books dreamed up Superman. The ultimate fascist-fighter, the Man of Tomorrow was a bit of a fascist himself, discarding due process for a vigilante’s dictatorial self-assurance. Hollywood responded with its own vigilante. The gunfighter, marooned in B movies during the Depression, leapt to feature films the same year Germany invaded Poland. America snoozed more soundly to the sound of superheroes Ka-Powing Nazis across newsstands and the thunder of cavalry hooves riding to matinee rescues.

The gunslingers usually hung out on America’s mythical frontier, that quasi-historical realm writers reinvented as soon as historians noticed the real thing had vanished. That may be why the cowboy had to bow out as soon as the U.S. started slinging real bullets. After Pearl Harbor, the gunfighter and the costumed crime-fighter parted ways. Hollywood’s western frontier gave way to frontline combat movies. But Superman and his superpowered platoon had always been about the here and now. Switching to active duty was easy.

Which might be why switching back was so hard. When the Axis started to fall, so did their overly authoritarian comic book kin. What had once calmed America’s slumber now disturbed it. Once a fascist always a fascist. Superheroes had to go. But not to worry, those sidelined cowboys were ready to tag back in. After Hiroshima, the frontier was once again the perfect escape destination. Just as the Golden Age of Comic Books petered, the Golden Age of the Western took off.

Superheroes tried to battle back in the 50s, but their Commie smashing violence was too direct, too like waking life to lull America’s dozing brain back to sleep. But that changed in the 60s. When Cold War fears turned MAD, the superhero returned. Mutually Assured Destruction was scarier than any enemy. War itself was now the monster, and Silver Age comics offered up a radioactive heap of ambivalent hero-monsters to reflect the mutating times. The Thing, the Hulk, Marvel’s entire radioactive pantheon literally embodies the national fear of nuclear fallout.

Superhero and cowboy battled side by side through the Vietnam War.  But after the My Lai massacre, old school American heroism collapsed. When that war ended, so did the western and its 25 year Hollywood reign. Superheroes survived, but they were changed. Further mutated. Comic books grew darker in the 70s. The Age was no longer Silver but Bronze.

I would have expected the cowboy to have battled back—maybe with the end of the Cold War when the whole comic book industry was in freefall—but that dream is apparently over. Marvel nearly ended in the early 90s too, their fate nearly tied to the vanquished Soviet Union, but they and their superheroes struggled through.

Now the superhero is more a figure of corporate enterprise than cultural soothing. America did not dream in comic book colors when the twin towers fell. Cowboys were not called back from their increasingly sidelined frontier to corral Afghanistan and Iraq.

We are currently living in the Golden Age of the Hollywood Superhero, though I’m not certain what that dream says about us. Like everyone else around me, I’m trapped inside America’s sleeping brain too. I can’t hear our national fears—of economic decline? of international irrelevance?—under the roar of all the flapping capes.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Dr. Doom’s time machine premiered in Fantastic Four #5 back in 1961. Doom flings the FF “centuries into the past” to retrieve Merlin’s gems from Blackbeard’s treasure chest. His evil plan was “mastery of all the world.” The same as any politician. The plan didn’t work (will Dr. Doom never learn?), but, more importantly, it turns out the FF didn’t really return to the age of pirates. Doom’s machine doesn’t travel to other time periods. It creates them. Parallel worlds pop into existence whenever a traveler from our timeline invades the past.

A time traveler like, say, a Republican Presidential candidate.

Rick Santorum describes state education in America as “anachronistic.” Which is funny coming from a guy beaming in his campaign from the 1950’s. He wants to return to a simpler time when wives stayed at home and homosexuals stayed in the closet. Though for his education agenda that means the 1850’s. He wants to live in pre-industrial America, when there was no government oversight or funding and children learned at home or in “little neighborhood schools.”

I’m picturing the one Laura Ingalls attended in Little House on the Prairie. That 1970’s show was based on novels written in the 1930’s about a childhood set in the 1870’s. It premiered in 1974, same as Happy Days, another hit show about another golden age. Change time machine channels and you’re in Santorum’s magical 1950’s again.

But Happy Days wasn’t about the 1950’s any more than Little House was about the 1870’s. Ingalls’ novels sold because her Depression era readers needed an escape. They wanted to live in a time before the problems of their modern world existed. It’s the same today. In their heart of hearts, Republicans are wannabe time travelers. They want to return to the way things were.

Unfortunately, the GOP plan for world mastery relies on a time machine that, like Dr. Doom’s, doesn’t work. You can set the dials for whichever golden age is highest on your nostalgia meter, but you will never get there. Instead, like Dr. Doom, you’ll just create a parallel universe. An imaginary world where everything once was wonderful.

For George W. Bush, that was the 1920’s. And not just because of all the sex and drugs. The top tax rate for the wealthiest Americans was only 24%. The Bush tax cuts were modeled on the Revenue Acts of 1921, 1925 and 1926. Income inequality hit its highmark in 1929—just before the bubble burst and the planet plunged into Depression.

But that’s the magic of the Dr. Doom time machine. You don’t actually go anywhere. You selectively beam in what you idealize about some past moment and then pretend the rest of history won’t repeat itself.

Mitt Romney and today’s Republican establishment have their Doom dials set to 1913. When federal income taxes were first enacted, the top rate was only 7%. Romney had to pay a whopping 14% on the twenty million he made last year, but with him in the White House, the GOP should be able to half that in no time.

While Republicans scour parallel timelines for lower taxes, their Doom Machines are calibrated for a range of golden ages. Newt Gingrich best articulates their cold war nostalgia. Republicans miss Communism. So now they’re busy dressing up the Muslim world in Moscow’s retired gear. Gingrich claims the U.S. is “about where we were in 1946” against the Soviet Union. Those are big boots for Iran to fill, but Gingrich still warns of “another Holocaust” and loves the apocalyptic phrase “if we do survive.” The cold war wasn’t fun but it was fulfilling. Who doesn’t miss the clarity of Ronald Reagan’s evil empire? Things are so much simpler when there’s a supervillain to rally against. As Senator Lindsey Graham recently observed: “Iran has done more to bring us together than anything in the world.”

Santorum figured that out too. Instead of post-war 1946, he set his dial to pre-war 1940’s. Forget Communism. He’s aiming for the greatest supervillain of them all, Adolf Hitler. Iran may look silly in Soviet footwear, but that’s nothing compared to President Obama with the dictator mustache Santorum’s doodled under his nose. He says the President is like “that guy over in Europe” and Americans are sitting on the sidelines like they did while Britain was being “bombed and leveled.” It’s quite a leap, even for Dr. Doom, and Santorum knows it. He lamented how it will be “harder for this generation to figure it out” because there’s “no cataclysmic event.” He’s thinking 1942. His time machine is searching for Pearl Harbor.

It’s no coincidence that the golden age that Conservatives most love is also the golden age of comic books. World War II created the modern superhero. Men dressed in primary colors battling forces of undeniable evil. For once the world could simply be black and white, good and bad, right and wrong. For one moment in American history there were no gray areas. The cold war and Marvel’s guilt-burdened mutants were half-measure imitations. The 40’s Superman, Captain America, Wonder Woman, they were the cartoon embodiment of a unified nation acting with moral clarity.

It never happened before and it’s not happened since. But the GOP’s political machine remains marooned in that magical moment. It’s the gem they want to pull from Bluebeards’ chest. Never mind that all time travel schemes are doomed. Happy Days and Little House on the Prairie made for great escapist TV in the 70’s, but have you tried to sit through a rerun lately? They’re unwatchable. Have you ever read a 1940 comic book? My eleven-year-old thinks the golden age Superman is a jerk.

Times change. Barack isn’t Adolf. Muslims aren’t Commies. Also, state-funded education isn’t anachronistic, gay people aren’t sinners, and massive income inequality isn’t safe. Instead of trying to relive its selective past, our country could learn from it instead. Step one means shelving the time machine. Even Dr. Doom figured out it didn’t work.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Madeleine assured us that the boy in question was not going to the movies “with” her. He was merely attending the same showing, sitting in the same row, in the seat next to hers, after meeting her and a friend in the park outside the theater beforehand.  The word “date” was not used.

They were planning on Transformers 3, but the film broke, so they bought their separate tickets to Captain America instead.  We had seen it as a family the night before. Madeleine joined us out of boredom, risking the humiliation of being seen at a movie with her parents and little brother. She braced at the sight of an acquaintance in the line behind us.

I wasn’t expecting much either. The Golden Age Captain America was the ultimate nice guy, a squeaky clean do-gooder devoid of psychological depth. He started life as a knock-off of the first but now forgotten flag-costumed superhero, The Shield (Jack Kirby redrew Cap’s shield as a circle to deflect a lawsuit), and existed for one reason: To fight Nazis.  And sell comic books. His title was a top grosser during World War II, but even before Hiroshima the market was turning against patriotic violence. Captain America Comics converted to Captain America Weird Tales in 1949 and then was cancelled.

Marvel resurrected him in the sixties, but the universe had changed while he was away. Superheroes weren’t fighting a world war; they were preventing it. The Axis was gone. Heroes were throwing as many punches at each other. Captain America had to grow up too. After Watergate, he traded in his flag suit. He didn’t fight Iraqis after 9/11; he fought the Patriot Act. Comic books aren’t printed in primary colors anymore. They’re darker, grainier, a palette of gradations.

Captain America: The First Avenger returns its two-dimensional nice guy to his old haunts and somehow transforms him into a sweet and fun hero. But like anything nostalgic, the film also reinvents the past, sanitizes it. This Cap doesn’t fight Nazis. The villain’s minions are faceless, and their weapons evaporate bodies in a bloodless flicker of CGI. Even when standard issue rifles are fired, their victims crumple as politely as stage actors. Still better, the U.S. Army has been retroactively desegregated, and a woman can rise to a position of power and respect. Also there’s no sex. The closest you get is Cap’s love interest fluttering her confused fingers in front of his naked chest when he emerges from his transformation chamber.

My daughter had a similar reaction to the middle school boys she hadn’t seen for six months. Our family was in New Zealand during the crucial transformation scene. They’re taller, broader, deeper voiced. The boy who stepped into Captain America’s chamber looked just as gawky. Puberty is a clumsy superpower, a brief and bewildering universe poised between the sanitized past and a weird tales future.

Cap and his love interest never quite come together. They plan a night out, but he spends seventy years in a block of ice instead. When he wakes to another transformed world, he laments to Samuel Jackson: “I had a date.” I was braced for a nursing home reunion, but the credits rolled instead. The particular boy who did not not go on a date with my daughter has liked her for months, possibly years.  I don’t know how it ends, but it’s a sweet story. I recommend seeing it twice.

Tags: , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: