Saturday, July 05, 2014

Superheroes - Modern Myths

Superheroes have become an entertainment juggernaut the like of which the world has never seen before.  Characters like Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man have become fixtures in modern media around the world to an extent that eclipses even Mickey Mouse in his heyday. It is not unusual to see their likeness plastered just about anywhere, be it hawking merchandise in stores or teaching kids morals in schools.
The staying power of costumed crusaders alone is a feat that has barely been achieved in history. Batman and Superman first hit pages more than seventy years ago and they are as popular with kids today as they were back then. It is not just that these heroes have endured, it is that they continue to grow more popular as time marches on. In this regard it could be argued that they have already eclipsed some of their fictional peers such as pulp characters like Tarzan and cartoon hall of famers like Bugs Bunny. Today’s heroes occupy a realm alongside the great myths of the old world. It is not impossible to imagine that in the future Superman will be held in the same esteem as Hercules and other myths are today.
DC Comics more or less started the ball rolling in 1938 when Superman made his debut in Action Comics #1. From there DC was off to the races, introducing nearly all of their characters who we still know today, such as Batman, Wonder Woman, and Flash, over the next few years. Marvel Comics would jump on board with the introduction of Captain America in 1941 but would have to wait nearly twenty years to assemble a roster that could compete with DC’s. It wasn’t until 1962, when a young man named Stan Lee entered the scene, that Marvel would recruit its most well known characters like Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, and The X-Men.
There are generally considered to be four main eras in superhero history. A fifth age, sometimes dubbed “The Platinum Age”, constitutes comic books before Superman. The superhero archetype began with Superman in what is now recognized as the beginning of “The Golden Age” of comic books. Superheroes sprouted up in a more conservative world and one engulfed in World War II. As such, heroes were wholesome and patriotic while villains were generally one dimensional and unsympathetic. These more straight forward stories rarely dealt seriously with social issues and represent a simpler, more innocent time in popular entertainment.
Comics transitioned in to “The Silver Age” at the start of the Sixties. This period is marked by comics embracing their capacity to be a vehicle for social discourse. In the changing world of the 1960s, comics and superheroes began to first navigate the choppy waters of culture and society.  “The Bronze Age”, considered to run somewhere from the early seventies to late eighties, more aggressively confronted rampant social issues such as alcoholism, drug use, and racism.
Since the late 1980s comic books have widely been considered to simply be in “The Modern Age”. A more nuanced and specific analysis reveals two different trends for superheroes at the turn of the millennium. “The Dark Age” of comics began in the late eighties with super hero stories taking a more grim and violent turn with writers like Grant Morrison and Todd McFarlane. An emphasis on the occult and demonic was a trend at the time with characters like Spawn, The Crow, and Blade rising to a new level of prominence.
In the 2000s super heroes invaded the big screen and took over the Hollywood market with a consistent string of big budget, box office home runs and an overwhelming flood of nearly any comic title movie studios could get their hands on. While super hero movies had been big before with knock out hits like 1978’s Superman starring Christopher Reeves and 1989’s Batman directed by Tim Burton, it wasn’t until Marvel Comics took a stab at cinema that things really took off. 2000’s X-Men performed above expectations and when Spider-Man shattered records in 2002 the wheels officially came off. Since 2000 there has been more than fifty (!) super hero movies including ground breaking hits like The Avengers and The Dark Knight. There is no end in sight either, as Warner Bros. and Marvel Studios have multiple hero movies a year already scheduled almost all the way up to 2020.
Comic books from this time reflect the shift and have begun to transition to what I have dubbed “The Blockbuster Era”. In an attempt to hook fans of the movies and appeal to the ever expanding market of new kids growing up in the hero craze, books have generally moved away from the bleak exploits of “The Dark Age” and have adopted their big screen counterpart’s penchant for family appeal, accessible stories, and a heavy focus on action and spectacle.
The library is a natural home for super heroes, who despite their far reaching influence in to all realms of marketing are still at essence characters of media. From page to screen, we have superhero fans of any age covered. There is even a brand new “Superheroes” display in the Graphic Novel section on the main floor highlighting a rotating selection of the most popular and significant titles. Whether you are a longtime fan or a rookie looking for something to read, come to the library today to spend some time with your favorite heroes!
Posted by Terry Pierson, Library Clerk