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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: World War II

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.

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My son asks variations on this question every week. Who would win, Thing or Hulk? Superman or Thor? Eragon or Aragorn? I used to debate the same basic question with my friends growing up, and so did my dad when he was my son’s age (Tarzan or Buck Rodgers?).

But no one in my family has ever pitted Captain America against Archie before.

And how do I explain to them that Archie actually beat the star-spangled patriot? In fact, he clobbered every superhero he faced.

Just to clarify: Archie Andrews is the red-haired, girl-crazy teen of Archie Comics. He has no superpowers, weaponry, battle training, or strategic knowhow. Aside from a few scrapes with his sports and dating rival Reggie, he is untested in arm-to-arm combat.

Captain America is a super-soldier. He can bench press 1,200 pounds and run a mile in 72 seconds. He also has a super-cool shield he stole from MLJ’s original star-spangled superhero, The Shield.

Actually, Cap had to give that back. It’s the triangular, Crusader-style one he’s holding on the cover of Captain America Comics #1 as he socks Hitler on the jaw. Look at the cover of Pep Comics #1 published over a year earlier and you’ll see where Jack Kirby copied it. Only Irv Novick’s shield is part of his character’s costume. A shoulders-to-crotch breast plate. He’s literally The Shield.

When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, MLJ responded first. Harry Shorten’s first Shield story landed with a January cover date — the equivalent of super-speed in publication time.

The Shield was a trend-setter. The following month, the Eagle debuted in Science Comics #1 and Bill Parker and C.C. Beck’s Spy Smasher in Whiz Comics #2. Of the roughly 200 superhero titles indexed by Mike Benton in Superhero Comics of the Golden Age, about half were introduced in 1940 and 1941. Sales climbed as Nazi tanks rode into Paris and the German Luftwaffe blitzed London. By the time Germany was laying siege to Moscow in late 1941, nineteen more American flag-clad superheroes had invaded newsstands.

Archie was introduced in 1941 too, nine months after Captain America, Timely’s biggest war-time hit. Archie was a back page filler in the lesser-selling Pep Comics. He’s not even mentioned on his debut cover. It’s just The Shield with his superhero buddies preventing a giant, spiked Axis boot from smashing the globe. Archie only wants to impress Betty, the girl next door. The Shield hogged all the covers.

Greg Sadowski, editor of Supermen! The First Wave of Comic Book Heroes 1936-1941, says superheroes became “pretty boring” after 1941: “They spent the war years fighting the Axis powers, then after the war they fell out of fashion.”

That’s conventional wisdom, but that superheroic drop began long before the war ended. Superheroes started losing as soon as the Allies started winning.

By the end of 1942, the Axis were in trouble. Japan had been critically defeated at Midway and Guadalcanal, and German forces were stalled at Stalingrad and in full retreat in Africa. 1942 is also the first year that discontinued superhero titles were not offset by new titles. Where 1941 saw a net gain of thirty-six, 1942 suffered a net loss of six.

The Allies were so optimistic that in January 1943, Churchill and Roosevelt met to plan the invasion of Italy. Rather than spurring superhero sales, the optimism spelled more trouble. For the February 1943 Pep Comics cover, Bob Montana’s Archie Andrews sits atop the shoulders of The Shield and The Hangman for his first cover appearance. Like Churchill and Roosevelt, the pair of superheroes is presenting readers with a promise of a carefree future, embodied by a girl-obsessed teenage jokester who bears no relationship to war.

For the next year and a half, as the planned invasion of Italy became reality and the Axis ceded more and more territory, Archie and The Shield vied for cover space. Archie permanently replaced The Shield, formerly MLJ’s most popular character, during the 1944 liberation of Paris.

Readers were exhausted with patriotic violence. They wanted to watch Betty and Veronica fighting over Archie, not the Allies and Germans fighting over France. No superhero would appear on the cover of Pep Comics again. Teen Romance was the new newsstand victor.

By 1945 Archie had become so popular, MLJ changed their company name to Archie Comics and dropped all their superhero characters. Captain America Comics had bragged nearly a million copy print run during the war, but Timely killed the title in 1950 due to unrequited sales. Romance titles, a minor comic book sub-genre a few years earlier, now wooed 20% of the market.

The 1954 Archie v. Captain America rematch was the superhero’s definitive kiss goodbye. Captain America only threw three issues before knocked out of circulation again. Archie and all his high-selling spin-off titles didn’t break a sweat.

Love beat War to a pulp.

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