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History Channel Tackles Comics By Brian Jacks
“Reading comics for me, it was like getting postcards from Oz.” — Neil Gaiman, writer Sandman
Superman. Batman. Spider-Man. The Hulk. The X-Men. For much of the past century, comic book superheroes have captured the imaginations of readers around the globe. They are often dismissed by adults as “kid’s stuff,” but a look beneath the cowls, capes, and brightly colored spandex costumes reveals another story. Comic book superheroes reflect the best and worst of humanity, tackling personal, political, and social stories in a way that no other medium can. Hosted by Shane West, star of the upcoming 20th Century Fox feature film The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, COMIC BOOK SUPERHEROES UNMASKED debuts on The History Channel on Monday, June 23 at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT. The cable network was kind enough to provide Slushfactory.com with a look inside the documentary.
COMIC BOOK SUPERHEROES UNMASKED was granted unprecedented access to comic books published by DC and Marvel Comics from the late 1930’s to the present. Featured are interviews with many of the most influential comic book writers and artists of the past fifty years, including Stan Lee, Will Eisner, Denny O’Neil, Michael Chabon, Jim Steranko, Kevin Smith, Frank Miller, Neil Gaiman, and Joe Quesada. The program was designed to bring visual depth, energy and movement to classic comic book images while still preserving the integrity of the artwork.
In 1938, the first and greatest superhero of them all—Superman—leaped from the pages of Action Comics #1 and into the imaginations of a generation. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two young boys from Cleveland, sold their first Superman story, and all rights to the character, to DC Comics for $130, never realizing that they were launching the Golden Age of Comics. Superman’s exploits sold nearly one million copies every month, leading DC Comics to launch the tales of another costumed hero — Batman. After Batman became another huge success, other heroes quickly followed — The Spirit, Hawkman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, The Sub-Mariner, The Human Torch, Green Arrow, Captain Marvel, and more.
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The superheroes of the 1930’s emerged from a background of New Deal politics and The Great Depression. They were strong authority figures who, unlike the previous pulp heroes, lived in our world. By the 1940’s, these superheroes would go to war with Germany. Long before America entered World War II, Superman was seen defeating Nazis and Captain America was seen punching out Adolf Hitler. During World War II, comic book sales more than doubled. But when the war was over, superheroes faced an even more imposing threat—the United States Senate.
During the 1950’s, superheroes almost completely vanished. They were so closely tied to the New Deal and World War II that most superheroes couldn’t survive the end of those events. Readers were now reading teen comedies, westerns, and horror comics. Those few superheroes who did survive soon faced the wrath of Dr. Frederick Wertham. Wertham, a psychiatrist from New York’s Bellevue Hospital, became convinced that comic books and superheroes in particular, were destroying the minds of children. His 1954 book "Seduction of the Innocent," claimed that Superman allowed children to experience “fantasies of sadistic joy,” Batman and Robin inspired homosexual thoughts, and Wonder Woman was “the exact opposite of what girls are supposed to be.” Wertham’s campaign lead to burnings of comic books, a massive decline in sales, international bans on American comics, and a Senate hearing.
Though Wertham did not succeed in wiping out comic books altogether, they were now published under a censorship code that reduced their content to grade school level issues. Comic books, which had been popular with adults, were now solely written for young children. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that comic books would begin to recover. A new generation of readers who were growing up questioning authority found new heroes like The Hulk, Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, The Avengers, and the X-Men, all of which were created or co-created by Stan Lee. These heroes were appearing on the pages of Marvel Comics, a company that by the end of the decade was selling 55 million comics a year and had surpassed DC to become the biggest publisher of superhero comic books. These heroes were dealing with contemporary concerns about atomic energy, racial tensions, and war.
By the 1980’s, America was facing a rising crime rate, economic downturn, and a feeling of helplessness. Goody-goody superheroes no longer seemed relevant, and a new breed of tough anti-heroes emerged. Daredevil, Wolverine, the Punisher, and the Watchmen became the new standard. In this “grim and gritty” era, old characters were given new problems. Child abuse was revealed as the source of The Hulk’s anger. Batman was re-imagined as a darker and more violent vigilante and even had to cope with the murder of his sidekick, Robin.
Over the next decade, comics continued to develop. Critically acclaimed comics like Sandman by Neil Gaiman exemplified that the majority of comic book readers were sophisticated and wanted adult stories. Comics now frequently dealt openly with political, social, and sexual issues. Yet, despite this growth, the comic book industry nearly collapsed. Speculators saw comic books as an investment and drove the market until the bottom fell out. When it did, the entire industry was nearly ruined. Marvel Comics filed for bankruptcy and thousands of comic book stores were closed.
In the 21st century, superheroes have gained new popularity. Television and film studios are gobbling up superheroes and turning them into big screen stars. On the comic book page, superheroes are finding a renewed relevance to modern life. Comic books are once again a place to explore the best and worst of humanity.
COMIC BOOK SUPERHEROES UNMASKED premieres on The History Channel on Monday, June 23 at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT.