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Posts Tagged ‘WWII

“Fans come to me asking how this works or that works, and I say, ‘It’s a comic book. It’s not real.’ We already have a real world, why do you want fiction to be like that too?”
– Grant Morrison, 2010

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Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Golden Age comics. I know there aren’t many of my generation who appreciate this stuff, and I’m positive I don’t “get it” the way my grandparents did, but the mixture of innocence, desperation, and humanity I find in these old stories is quite compelling.

When my generation imagines old comics we think of Super Friends, but for all its glitter the times of the Golden Age were rather bleak. Thanks to Captain America and Wonder Woman we think the heroes of that first era were framed against the backdrop of WWII. This is not true. While it is true that Superman, Batman, and others came to stand for the American Way their personae were not forged in flames of war, but in the embers of Depression.

“We can do it!” Rosie the Riveter said that for the first time in 1942.  Superman debuted in 1938. We met Batman, Namor, and the Human Torch in 1939. Jay Garrick, Alan Scott, and the Spirit first appeared in 1940 alongside most of the Golden Age crew. Wonder Woman is the only major character to appear after Pearl Harbor, and she also joins Steve Rogers in color coordination. All of these heroes were born into an era scarred by record unemployment and rising crime as the country completed a full decade of economic depression.

People were starting to lose hope and this, my friends, is the world Superman needed to save.

Superman saves a woman framed for murder.

Something I love about the early days of superheroes is the lack of super-villains. Oh, sure there were a few notable bad guys like the Joker and Wotan, but on the whole super-villains were exceptions to the norm of mob bosses, corrupt officials, and street thugs. This is what I meant when I said the Golden Age comics were desperate. America thought the problems of everyday life were bad enough to need heroes.

This reveals a real sense of hopelessness deep in the psyche of that generation. Rampant unemployment. Gang violence on the rise and crime organizing like never before. Times were desperate, and the Common Man felt he was quickly losing his place in the day-to-day life of America.

See, creators like Rob Kanigher and Len Wein saw comics as fantastical tales to thrill an audience with absurdity and bizarre scenarios. Jerry Siegel, Bill Finger, C. C. Beck, and Mart Dellon saw comics as a cathartic escape from the harsh reality of violence, corruption, and black-mail.

They saw comics as a weird mixture of hope and escape.

Never mind the crude drawings and clumsy dialogue. The heroes idolized by my grandfather didn’t need to fight aliens to have meaning. Superman was great because he could stop a lynching. We believed in the Green Lantern because he could expose a mob-boss who had framed an innocent man. These heroes didn’t protect us from the unknown; what they brought was hope in the face of something very real and immediate. Put another way, the Golden Age offered escape from reality simply by solving the problems of poor Americans. I cannot imagine anything sadder or more exhilarating. So, while 1938-1950 may not have produced the best art or the most clever prose, America has arguably never seen comics that had more meaning. And that is enough to make a Golden Age.

-Jonny

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Alan Scott dons his costume to protect innocents from loan sharks.

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“We view the world through our own eyes.” What an obvious statement, and yet not always so intuitive. We love comics, but rarely stop to think of the social and political canvass our beloved characters were painted against.

1941 may have been the most terrifying and uncertain year the Western World has ever seen. This was the year that the Axis Powers went to full scale war with Europe. Germany was invading all of her neighbors. ’41 saw Jews required to wear the Star of David arm bands and was the year Nazi Germany decided to institute concentration camps. Japan invaded French Indo-China and was amassing an army to fly across the Pacific. America was not in the war yet, but everywhere we looked it was becoming apparent we would not weather the storm without bloodshed.

It was in 1941 that Winston Churchill made his famous address to a joint session of congress urging full scale involvement in the European and Asian theatres of war. Winter was also claiming the lives of thousands of Germans as Hitler attempted to take Russia from Stalin. The whole world was realizing that yet another global war was at hand and dreading the long years they knew it would take to achieve peace.

The times also saw a vibrance in creativity in art, fashion, cinema, and music. In 1941 Citizen Kane was released and How Green Was My Valley was a box office hit. Glenn Miller was topping the charts with “Chattanooga Choo Choo” and “A String of Pearls”.

Women’s fashion was conservative as the last dregs of 1920s fashion died out. Men were excited to wear baggy clothes and the zoot suit was returning. For obvious reasons men’s and women’s fashion made prominent use of shoulder pads modeled after military uniforms.

It had been about 15-20 years since cinema had become mainstream entertainment and with the advent of sound in pictures the 1940s began to see remakes of the popular silent films of the 1920s. With this we saw a second age of horror and science fiction at the theatre. Among these famous remakes in 1940 we saw renewed interest in a franchise called The Green Archer. Every week devoted fans would flock to their local theatre to watch a caped Robin Hood-esque man wield his bow and arrows for truth and justice as he diligently worked to stop a murderous band of jewel thieves.

It was in November of this world that the 73rd issue of More Fun Comics debuted the beloved Oliver Queen as The Green Arrow. It seems entirely reasonable in this extraordinarily uncertain time that Americans would reflect back to a percieved time of simplicity and take heart in a world where Truth and Justice were clear, easy, and absolute.

In the same issue America met another classic hero: Aquaman. While all Golden Age comics reflect a desire for simplicity and absolutes, Aquaman demonstrated a different appeal. Arthur Curry didn’t have to be on land with us. He could escape to the sea. His problems were his own. No need to be bogged down with the troubles of the world. Nothing but a vast, silent ocean and friendly sea creatures to entertain and befriend this hero. Despite this option, Aquaman chose to engage the dry land willingly. Perhaps this stemmed from America’s growing realization that Isolatioinsim was truly no longer an option.

Of all the Heroes to debut in 1941 perhaps the most poignant and iconic was Captain America. If Green Arrow and Aquaman demonstrated a desire to escape then it is no surprise the most successful character of 1941 hit the problems of the world head on. When faced with crisis it is only human to spend a few moments reflecting on what might have been, but a testament to the resolve of that generation was embodied in one of comic-doms most epic heroes. Captain America was more than just a simplified equation to solve right and wrong. He was more than escape. Steve Rogers WAS America. He was the strength, the resolve, and the character that Americans were striving to muster so they could persevere through the most difficult time in the history of the world.

Certainly the WWII generation achieved something close to the character we see in Steve Rogers. Whether subsequent generations have is less clear, but what is certain is that even in the 21st century America looks to Captain America and sees in him something noble and admirable. For this we salute the Cap with a raised glass. Most liquor was scarce during the war, but we did have an abundance of rum. Today’s recommended drink is The Hurricane Cocktail.


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