The superhero genre and the comic book industry are dominating the market right now. However, that wasn't the case in the 1930s, when comic books were widely viewed as children's reading materials, despite having story-lines that clearly isn't just for kids, but for everyone as well.
I have never read a full comic book issue yet, mainly because I was never bought one as a child and American comic books aren't available where I live. I never really understood people's obsession with comic books before. I just knew that some see it as cheap entertainment, whilst others consume it obsessively. Unlucky for me, I guess, that most people I know don't really realize the true value of the comic book story they consume (movie or otherwise), which is why my interest was piqued when Marvel made a movie adaptation of Thor - I love Greek mythology.
As Dr. Michael Uslan said upon making a syllabus for the first ever college accredited course on comic books in the 1970s, at the Indiana University in Bloomington:
“I wanted to present the concept that the superheroes today are truly our modern day mythology. It's our contemporary American folklore. Whether it's Odysseus, or Hercules, or Beowulf, or Superman, it all pretty much comes to the same thing. It's great warriors battling the demons and dragons of their day.”
I love history, but even greater than my love for history is my passion for stories and epics. Some tales of history can be so boring (well, if you only focus on specific mundane stuff) but comic books were never boring. This is the reason why I signed up for The Rise of Superheroes and Their Impact On Pop Culture (POPX1.1x) at edx.org, even though my knowledge about superheroes is just limited to the movies I've seen...
The first time it was advertised, it really caught my attention because it was free learning, and it features Stan Lee! Plus, it kicked off on my birthday so it's a win-win.
The first wave of the course ran for 5 weeks, and each week, every Tuesday there are new materials added on the courseware. The only challenging part of the course was having to make your own comic book story from the panels and instructions (or you can make your own) provided by the end of each week. That's the only final project that will be graded, so naturally, I had plenty of time to procrastinate. However, when I really started watching everything from The Secret Origins of Comic Books to After The Golden Age, I became inspired to continue. After all, Batman would never give up.
Unlike wave 1, PopX1.2x now has homework deadlines in the form of essays or comic book panels. The courseware is still the same with PopX1.1x, but you have to submit your responses on time. There are two tracks now - the historical analysis track, and the creative track. Now, everyone will receive feedback from peers, as well as upvoted projects.
I'm happy about these new changes because I won't need to make superhero panels and stories anymore. I am planning to take the course for the third time. But for now, I have decided to take the Historical Analysis track. The homework was about the American life during the Depression and the global build-up to World War II. We were asked to identify reasons for the creation and immediate growth of comic books, discussing the audiences and reception, its role as an escapist fare, as well as its drawbacks and advantages.
The Great Depression
The stock market collapse came in October,1929 when English interest rates were raised to 6.5% in order to bring home needed capital that had been attracted to the United States by high speculative profits.
As a result, many European holdings were thrown on the market, and prices began to sag. Frightened at the prospect and no longer able to borrow at will, American speculators also began to unload. In spite of optimistic efforts to maintain that the stock market collapse was purely paper loss, which would not seriously undermine the fundamental soundness of American business, a period of unparalleled depression had begun..
Prices dropped sharply, foreign trade fell off, factories curtailed productions in many cases just shut down. There was no new construction and wages cut drastically as unemployment figures began to mount.
All were suffering; the rich became penniless overnight and the average American out of luck. If your family was having one soup meal per day, consider yourself fortunate because others went without food for days. Hundreds of thousands of young men and women were just dreaming their lives away...
Comic books are cheap
Americans were desperately in need of a diversion. Even movies had become a luxury. Most family's TVs and radios were probably bartered for food. So, the only source of information would be from newspapers, radio broadcasts and telegrams from soldiers.
Then came along comic books, circa 1933-35. They were made from newspaper strips and pulp fictions that are finally made into books. The stories behind the characters and comic books reflect the world people are living in. One of the main reasons comic books became so massively popular is because they're not costly and can be read anywhere. Secondly, people needed to have escape outlets to lighten the ghastly mood brought by the war. Once you own a comic book, you can read it over and over. Basically, comic books are a readily available source of entertainment. Even without electricity, you can still find entertainment value in each issue you read.
Everybody Needs A Superhero
During this time, America was hungry for people who could save them from the evil menace of hunger, hopelessness and crime. We must not forget that the Great Depression spawned real life villains. Out of desperation, people committed desperate acts that made organized crime thrived like never before. Americans needed something good, powerful and compassionate to lean on. Comic books reflect what the people needed and wanted the most at that time: a hero that can solve all the problems their country is facing. This American atmosphere is a perfect catalyst for comic book illustrators and writers to create superheroes. During this time, comic books sales soared; the Americans backed these superheroes as if they were one of them. They joined in their adventures, struggles, and sometimes misadventures. This was the Golden Age (circa 1938-50)!
Superheroes provided the optimism and hope people drastically needed during the war. Even when villains won, their victories were temporary and the good always triumphed over evil!
As I've said in my essay, perhaps the only drawback that I could see was the tendency of people to fantasize about being a "superhero" without really doing anything to combat common evil. Although there are people who mimic acts of heroism, there are still more who would rather do nothing and just fantasize. We, as regular people, don't need to don costumes (although you can, if you want to), or find and fight criminals - however, we can lessen the burden of other people by doing random acts of kindness or defending those weaker than us. It can start from little things, and these little things may mean the world to others.
More than anything in my understanding of the lessons I've learned about superheroes is the reason why they became so popular. It was because they made readers feel included in the fight against evil. With every story and every panel, you feel what the heroes feel. It is an indescribable feeling. The themes of comic books shed light to what's happening with the world in the 30's, hence if the subject gets too complicated and harsh for kids to grasp, they still get an idea of what's truly happening around them. The heroes we read about in comic books inspire us to be the best version of ourselves. They help us develop ourselves and contribute towards eradicating forms of cruelty and evil in our own simple ways.
After completing the first offering from the Smithsonian about The Rise of Superheroes and Their Impact On Pop Culture, I have a newfound respect for the industry. I appreciate the stories more and most importantly, I finally figured out why they seem so familiar! The parallels of ancient mythology, including Biblical stories, are ever-present in superhero backgrounds.
Indeed, comic books are one of the best contributions America has made to the world of modern literature, it just took me a while to realize it.
P.S. The Rise of Superheroes and Their Impact On Pop Culture is a really fun course offered by edX.org
Some of what you'll learn includes:
- The history and origins of the first superheroes and comic books, and how they changed over time
- The evolution of American society from the Depression to today, as viewed through the lens of the comic book genre
- How the current globalization and diversity of the next generation of superheroes impacts our storytelling across all mediums
- How to apply historical examples to create superheroes for the present day
Week 3 just turned live so enroll now!
Source: edX Superheroes