WHEN DIRE TIMES CALLED FOR NEW HEROES
AS HARD TIMES RAVAGED the United States in the 1930s, an invincible figure came to buoy American spirits. His name was Superman.
The new superhero was a creation of Detective Comics's line of Action Comics. Batman and a legion of others soon followed. Even when the fights weren't fair, the side of right prevailed in comic books-triumphing over evil every time.
"Everything that was happening to people during the Depression-mine disasters, too-high rents, racketeering, the things that you saw in the newspaper every day-that's what Superman was trying to fix," says Sandy Berman, in-house curator for the Breman Museum's traveling exhibition, "Zap! Pow! Bam! The Superhero and the Golden Age of Comic Books 1938-1950." Funded by the Georgia Humanities Council, the exhibition will open on September 21 in West Bloomfield, Michigan, after closing at the Breman in Atlanta.
Jerry Robinson, chief curator of the exhibition, says comic books offered "some measure of reassurance and meaning to a precarious existence in a hostile world," and their widespread availability and inexpensive form contributed to their success. "The comics were a perfect medium for escapism; even kids could scrape up ten cents," says Robinson. Within a few months of its first issue in 1938, Superman was selling a million copies of each issue. By 1944, circulation was up to twenty million copies monthly.
It helped that parts of the characters were human; it seemed possible that these heroes walked among everyday people in Smallville, Kansas, or Gotham City, or Anywhere, USA. Clark Kent bumbled about; and Bruce Wayne didn't have a single naturally occurring superpower to speak of. But when it came down to it, they would win the day.
Ray Bradbury once touched upon the appeal of a flawed hero: "I recognized myself when I saw him in his reporter's outfit, bloodying his nose as he blundered into that phone booth. ... As we slip, slide and catapult ourselves, yelling, into the future, Clark Kent will go with us to make sure that Superman will catch us."
Like the rest of the country, the artists and writers who created the superheroes had been desperately seeking work in the economic hard times of the 1930s. "It was hard to get a job no matter what," says Berman. "These were sort of bottom-of-the-barrel jobs. They were low-paying, and only kids and young men read comics." However, these were jobs that could be gotten. "Anyone who walked in the door who could write or draw was employable" because the comic book publishers "were hungry for talent," says Robinson.
Many were from working-class areas of New York, namely the Bronx and Brooklyn. "They were bookish, socially inept really. They weren't graceful with girls. So they found their outlet in writing," says Robinson.
Coming from disparate work backgrounds, each brought something unexpected to the comics they created. William Marston was a psychologist who had invented the lie detector, and discovered along the way that women tended to be more honest than men. Wonder Woman's lasso of truth was the result.
Max C. Gaines was a novelty salesman who so loved Sunday comics that he convinced Dell Publishing in 1933 to finance a book that contained newspaper strip reprints at half their original size. Within a few years, the books had become so popular that publishers were looking for original material, and the comic book was bom. …