Why Superheroes Matter

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CREATING THE MODERN MYTHOS ONE ERA AT A TIME

The Golden Age (1938-1950)
The Golden Age of Comics saw the emergence of the superhero archetype. The birth of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain America and more helped increase the popularity of the comic book. These characters drew heavily from fantasy and mythology. Superman came from Krypton, Wonder Woman was an Amazonian goddess, and Captain America was given a “super-serum” that made him heroic in stature. These were the invulnerable heroes who were rugged individuals who rarely doubted themselves and would fearlessly battle enemies in the cruel adult world. This was the time where the heroes would join the military under their secret identities and fight the Axis-Powers and defeat the NAZIS.

The Silver Age (1956-1970)
By the time the Silver Age was upon the comic industry the restrictions of the Comics Code Authority and self-regulation was in full swing and restricted how and what content could be presented and in what circumstances. Even though there were limitations, there was Science! The Silver Age of comics grew alongside the Space Race. Science was seen as that answer and the source of every problem. The fantasy-based heroes of the Golden Age were remade in this new image, and new characters were created in light of these new science fiction tropes. In the 1960s Marvel introduced the Fantastic Four who while on a scientific mission to outer space gained their powers after exposure to cosmic rays. The X-Men are a subspecies of human that are born with superhuman abilities who fight for peace and equality between normal humans and mutants where anti-mutant bigotry is widespread. The most interesting of the rise of these new heroes is that they are self-doubting, deeply flawed, and socially aware. They were vastly different from their Golden Age predecessors, they were more real and believable, even though they were in fantasy stories.

The Bronze Age (1970-1985)
Comics were swept up with the continuance of the social revolution from the ’60s through the ’70s. The United States was in the middle of a Cold War with Russia, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, and overall disillusionment with the whole of the United States of America. With all of this happening, character conflict became the rule. Comics were starting to address more mature issues, and the creators were wanting to bring more realism to the Superhero genre. This was the time that the birth of the Graphic Novel was born, and epic story arcs that covered multiple issues became the radical departure from the single-issue self-contained stories of the Golden and Silver Age. The Dark Phoenix Saga was the first storyline that not only put a female character in a Tragic Hero role but ended the storyline with a major, well-established superhero being killed; and just as unprecedented,  her death was not immediately forgotten, but continued to affect the characters who had known her for some time afterward [Howe 183-6].

The Modern Age (1986-present)
Although with some Comic fans would like to separate the Dark Age and the Modern Age into two separate categories, what is important to realize that this is a major turn in the development of the comic industry. The characters and stories became much darker and psychologically more complex. The industry saw the rise of independent comic houses, and Marvel and DC became more commercialized. No matter how one saw the disputes between the creatives and the executives of Marvel and DC over creative rights, the advent of the smaller comic publishing houses lead to new titles, new characters, and better writing [Howe, 273-280]. After DC was purchased by Warner Bros., and Marvel by Disney, the procurement of 65 years of stories and mythos from the realm of the comic hero have started to be told on the silver screen.

Although it is not the purpose of this article to delve into large details about the ins and outs of the overall comic book industry, it is important to note how the industry has changed over time. Like the Greek Mythology of old, the Superheroes and the storytelling of the comic book has striking similarities concerning the telling and re-telling of the stories, and the changing of the technology which has allowed the development of the mythic story and increase of the spread of the modern mythology to more people.

So what are comic books? What is modern mythology? What does the superhero have to do with this?

Just as Folktales, fairy tales, and the ancient myths of the world say something about the culture where they come from, comics and superheroes says something unique about the American culture and present new unique mythology for the culture of our time. Although since their inception, comics and superheroes are no longer an American art form or method of storytelling, the invention of these things says a lot about the culture and the attitude of the culture of the American society.

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