Growing up in Canada I always thought of the United States as the land of the comic book. It was the home of DC and Marvel, as well as of all the good alternative distributors. Sure, there were Canadian superhero comics, but while Captain Canuck was readable, it couldn’t hold a candle to titles like: Justice League of America, The New Teen Titans, The Incredible Hulk, The Avengers, the Uncanny X-Men, The Amazing Spider-man, and the list goes on and on.
All of those books were American, and those were the books I bought and read regularly. So, while I’m perfectly aware that there is a long tradition of collected sequential art and illustrated comic book stories from Asia, Europe, and even Canada, given that it’s the fourth of July, today I want to say something about the unique contribution to the comics medium that originated in the U.S.A
The archetype of the superhero is probably the greatest contribution of the United States to the comics medium. The superhero genre effectively begins with the publication of Action Comics #1 in May of 1938 (although published with a June cover date). Much has been written about what the super-hero represents and why the genre of superhero comics was created here in the United States. Everyone from Stan Lee to Grant Morrison has a theory about it, but the facts are these.
Before 1938 comedy was the preferred genre of the sequential illustrated stories collected in magazine form to sell at newsstands. Usually, a new ‘comic’ was a collection of reprinted strips previously published in newspapers. One of the first comics to use speech balloons was the strip ‘The Dandy’ first published in magazine form in 1937 by the Scottish publisher DC Thompson. Older than this, by around eight months, was the American title Detective Comics, which in 1939 would give us Batman but in 1937 was an anthology of hard-boiled detective stories (hence the name). In 1937 the United States was coming out of the Great Depression, and watching with horror as a new war was beginning in Europe. Amelia Earhart had disappeared and the Hindenburg disaster captured the public imagination. It was a time of renewal and while adventure stories like the Phantom were already popular, and characters like Zorro who fought injustice and wore a mask were widely read, the costumed crime fighter with powers was something new.
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two best friends from Cleveland, were probably answering a need of the times when they decided to combine their interests in action adventure and science fiction to come up with Superman. They had been trying to sell a proto-type version of the character, without luck, since 1933. In 1937 their luck changed when DC comics took a chance with their alien hero and the rest is history.
Siegel and Shuster were paid $130.00 to write and draw the first Superman story. When the sales figures came back, DC almost immediately went looking for more superhero characters to publish. Why did superheroes take off in the United States while Europeans preferred Astrerix and Donald Duck? I’d like to think that it has something to do with boldness and daring of the American character. Many Americans are willing to take chances, they are accepting of the new and the different and they want goodness to win out in the end.
Happy Fourth of July everyone!