Tag Archives: comics

Shelf Bite: Rat Queens

RatQueens_01_02_finalFangirls unite

‘What’s with men and tentacles? I’m sick of this shit.’

Following the success of Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples’ Saga, Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch’s Rat Queens continues to deconstruct the sci-fi and fantasy genre. Where Saga deals with high concept and more surreal devices, Rat Queens is perhaps closer in tone to Terry Pratchet; simply not justified by a mere ‘Python meets Thrones’; this is balls to the wall storytelling with four of the best female characters to grace the pages of the medium for a long while. Pinup bombshell, Hannah the Elf, fashion hipster dwarf, Violet, atheist human cleric, Dee and the hippy lesbian Halfling thief smash their way through the sword and sorcery sub gene in an effortless read. Inverting the cliché imagery of scantily clad females, Rat Queens is a fresh depiction of various female body types and places the cliché, heroic male as ‘second fiddle’. With the current influx of the fangirl community revitalising comics, it is not hard to see the current trend, even from the big two’s Ms. Marvel and Gotham Academy, yet Rat Queens clearly remains top of the game. Current volumes are: Sass and Sorcery and The Far Reaching Tentacles of N’Rygoth.

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HOAX: Psychosis Blues


Leonardo M. Giron illustrates ‘Life’.

The Art of Collaboration

‘This illness will not claim me, not today.’

HOAX: Psychosis Blues is a work of major importance, primarily in its support of mental illness but also in its expressive collaboration that helps to deliver how sequential art can only highlight the power behind poetry. The result is a limited first edition that acts as a counterpoint to writer, Ravi Thornton’s HOAX: My Lonely Heart, a theatrical production also inspired by her brother, Rob who tragically lost his fight against schizophrenia in 2008. Interspersed by Leonardo M. Giron’s subtle and expressive illustrative style, each year, Ravi reflects on key moments she observed followed by a selection of comic book artists and illustrators (Bryan Talbot and Rian Hughes to name a few) adapting a number of Rob’s poems. Heartfelt and tragic, Rob’s soul clearly resides in his collaboration, which is brought beautifully to life by a sister who has not only produced the ultimate tribute to a loved one but also a project to help others realise they are not alone in their own torment. For more information about the book and other projects, please visit: www.ravithornton.com or www.ziggyswish.co.uk

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75 Years of Batman – Part II


The earliest origin tale is depicted in Batman #1, Spring, 1940.


‘The idea of Batman starts with alienation and acceptance themes. It’s the idea of a kid orphaned by crime.’ Michael E. Uslan, Legends of the Dark Knight: The History of Batman

The privileged son of socialite parents witnesses their brutal murder in a cold dark alley. Traumatised by the horrific events the young Bruce Wayne vows vengeance and invests his wealth to hone mind, body and spirit in his quest for justice. Born out of darkness, as Batman he channels his own childhood fear in to a tempered discipline that aids him in his fight against crime.

Influenced as much by the popular culture of the time as the historic touchstones; Batman’s iconography and persona was also informed by newspaper strips showcasing pulp heroes, The Phantom, The Shadow, Dick Tracey and Doc Savage who lent their sense of high end adventure and secret identities, while classic literary characters such as Sherlock Holmes helped shape him in to ‘The World’s Greatest Detective’. The Golden Age of film presented glamour and dynamic storytelling with The Mark of Zorro (1920), and The Bat Whispers (1930) both of which reflected aristocratic heroes and double identities which left an iconic signature and symbol – other important details that helped shape Batman’s own personality. But it is within wider context and social issues of the time that have been a major, contributing influence on the birth of Batman.

Although the United States had already begun to witness a decline in their gross domestic products it was not until the infamous Wall Street Crash of October, 1929 that its severe effects began to have more visible repercussions. The result was not just a national epidemic but a major worldwide economic crash that marked the beginning of a decade of unemployment that painted a bleak picture of the 1930s. It was during these times that lost opportunities in personal advancement and loss of confidence in the system contributed to an increase in violent crime.


A US newspaper from October 29th, 1929 presents a bleak picture of the beginning of a new decade.

Numerous factors played in to the politics of Depression era America such as high consumer debt and unregulated markets where unrealistic loans by banks drew many parallels to the recent crash of our times. All these major areas spiralled into a reduction in consumerism, lowered production, a fall in confidence and, for many, an increase in fear. To escape the austerity and overwhelming sense of dread and personal anxieties that could often be projected on the younger generation, children and adults alike turned to escapism. As well as the pulp literature of the time and the heyday of cinema; the birth of the first superhero in Action Comics #1 paved the way for a fresh, new art form the Americans could take ownership of.

After the huge success of Superman in 1938, the Editors of National Publications (later DC Comics) began to see the huge potential of the superhero and set their sights on commissioning like-minded creators to develop other characters. Although there are definitive examples of how the idea for Batman was sparked there has been much contention over the years about whether the original creator, Bob Kane came up with the concept all by himself. Early collaborator and writer, Bill Finger referred to how Kane’s idea resembled more of a ‘Birdman’ in his reddish Superman tights and domino mask, which was closer to Robin in origin. With stiff, impractical wings, this precursor to the bat-wing cape was suggested by Bob Kane after he had been inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci’s images of the ornithopter flying machine he had seen as a child.

As with the original creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; both Bob Kane and Bill Finger were the children of Jewish immigrants who had settled in New York. Born Robert Kahn in 1915 his studies in art led to him working as a trainee animator at the Max Fleisher Studio in 1934 before entering the comic book field in 1936 where he worked freelance for editor, Jerry Iger’s comic book Wow, What a Magazine! Having known the Godfather of comic books, Will Eisner since school, Kane had now secured work the following year when Iger partnered with Eisner becoming one of the first ‘on demand’ publishers of the medium. Working exclusively through Eisner & Iger, Kane began to produce work for the three companies, Adventure ComicsDetective Comics and More Fun Comics, all of which would eventually merge in to DC Comics.


The cover of Batman #1, Spring, 1940 already depicts some significant developments. Aside from the addition of Robin the Boy Wonder, Batman displays a tinge of blue, the iconic gauntlets and a slightly less imposing appearance.

Born in 1914, Bill Finger moved from Colorado with his family to New York where he worked as a shoe salesman. His aspirations in writing led him to work for Bob Kane where he was employed as a ghost writer on numerous scripts which led to their initial meeting about ‘the Bat-Man’. Finger’s more informed approach as a writer had built on those important, iconic details that are still associated with Batman today. With Kane’s initial idea, he suggested the cowl, gauntlets and cape instead of wings and removed any distinct colour so he blended in to the night and, although certain personality traits can be linked to Bob Kane and Batman’s alter ego, the secret identity of Bruce Wayne was also created by Finger. Understanding the importance in a name and the resonance it can carry, Finger combined the Scottish patriot, Robert Bruce and another individual who would suggest a colonial reference to the American Revolution with soldier, Mad Anthony Wayne. However, due to Finger’s meticulous details, his research would often result in a slow approach to his work, which led to the Editor of the time, Whitney Ellsworth suggesting to Bob Kane that he should be replaced. During Finger’s absence, Gardner Fox contributed to the scripts that introduced some of Batman’s familiar arsenal such as his utility belt, Bat-Gyro/plane and Batarang. When Finger later returned he added the Batcave and Batmobile that have become synonymous with the world of Batman along with the introduction of Batman’s sidekick, Robin in Detective Comics #38. Although the Boy Wonder contradicted Batman’s motives and morals (essentially placing a child in danger!), Finger believed that his presence would help with a stronger narrative style and help stay in touch with the younger audience. Within the first year, Batman had become a huge, breakthrough success and, in the Spring of 1940, Batman #1 was released.

Without Bob Kane’s initial concept, it is questionable whether there would have ever been a Batman. The creative process of collaborating on a project that is suggested by and then owned by the original publishers can be one of heated debate, however, once an intellectual property becomes a multi-billion dollar franchise, subsequent creative players only help to contribute and own nothing. Bob Kane’s shrewdness and more business-like approach was in contrast to the ‘notoriously tardy’, Bill Finger and over the course of Batman’s first twenty-five years in print, it was a known fact that Bob Kane directed a number of ghost writers and ghost artists to ape his own style.

In 1965, Bob Kane discussed the creation of Batman in an open and heated letter to Batmania Editor, Biljo White where he rebukes a number articles that question whether he was soul creator. After presenting both the myth and the truth behind a number of details, Kane only suggests, Bill Finger was a contributing force on Batman right from the beginning. He wrote most of the great stories and was influential in setting the style and genre other writers would emulate … I made Batman a superhero-vigilante when I first created him. Bill turned him into a scientific detective.’ During this time, Kane’s name had disappeared from the comic book. Due to having signed away ownership of the character in exchange for a mandatory byline on all Batman comics, by the mid-1960s it was the writer and artists who were credited. After artist, Neal Adams had reinvented Batman with Dennis O’Neil in the late-1960s, Adams went on to champion original creators such as Siegel and Shuster which resulted in theirs and Kane’s original byline added once again to the credits. Finger’s recognition, however, was not received in the same light. Limited acknowledgement for his writing of Batman was a result of his contract as a writer and although credited for the creator of the Riddler, he only received his page rate with no further byline. In 1989, Kane would go on to admit:

‘In those days it was like, one artist and he had his name over it – the policy of DC in the comic books was, if you can’t write it, obtain other writers, but their names would never appear on the comic book in the finished version. So Bill never asked me for it and I never volunteered – I guess my ego at that time. And I felt badly, really, when he died’

The Joker's first appearance also in Batman #1.

Batman #1 was also the first appearance of the ‘Clown Prince of Crime’ – the Joker was credited as Jerry Robinson and Bob Kane’s design but acknowledged Bill Fingers writing contribution.

Artist Jerry Robinson, who was also was seen as a major contributor to the Batman mythos and often acknowledged as the creator of the Joker, criticised Kane for failing to share the credit and recalled Finger’s resentment, stating in a 2005 interview with The Comics Journal:

‘Bob made him more insecure, because while he slaved working on Batman, he wasn’t sharing in any of the glory or the money that Bob began to make…he should have credited Bill as co-creator, because I know; I was there. … That was one thing I would never forgive Bob for, was not to take care of Bill or recognize his vital role in the creation of Batman. As with Siegel and Shuster, it should have been the same, the same co-creator credit in the strip, writer and artist.’

Despite many of the disputes surrounding Batman it is clear that both his origins and the processes in which the original creators worked were vastly different to how comic books are produced today. Both Superman and Batman ushered in a fresh medium that had not been practiced before and therefore the legislations in place resulted in creators often losing properties, being discredited or naively signed over to their publishers. However, the origins of the character have as much resonance today as they ever have – a heroic character that fights for honour and the greater good during a time that has its own, deep-rooted issues. Batman endures because writers, artists and editors have not only continued to contribute to his world but, most importantly, have not forgotten that he functions as a man, not a superman and with that are the flaws we all carry.

To be continued in Part III: Mythology

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75 Years of Batman – Introduction


Alex Ross’ Batman is often depicted as lo-tech – highlighting the character’s mystery. In Ross’ universe he still has the rope, the unmarked car and crude weapons. ‘He just appears, which is even scarier.’ Alex Ross, Mythology.

True Detective

‘Criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot, so my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible…a…a bat! That’s it! It’s an omen. I shall become a bat!’ Detective Comics #33, November 1939.

During a time when there were less distractions in the world, those children who first witnessed the birth of the superhero during the harsh climate of Depression era America gave very little thought in parting with their own pocket money. Detective Comics #27 illustrated a new character in contrast to the bright colours and optimism of Superman and instead delivered a dark, demonic figure cloaked in cape and cowl more reminiscent of gothic horror than innocent adventure. The Batman was composed with cinematic verve, a criminal clutched under his arm as he flies on bat-like wings high above the city with perfect grace and strength. As those kids clutched that comic book in their hands for the first time and studied the cover more closely, they realised that he wasn’t flying at all, yet merely swooping on a rope as would any mortal man attempt to traverse the rooftops. Here was a primal, mysterious new character hinted at through his own concealed eyes – nothing more than knife cuts that helped convey an air of menace and, perhaps, secrets that any good Detective story thrived on.

It is questionable in today’s society if criminals are ‘superstitious’ and that modern audiences would accept a hero whose reason behind dressing up as a bat was forged by an omen. There is, however, the gothic undertone that harkens back to classic American literature, such as Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven and therefore the details surrounding his origin bore strong, cultural significance. In subsequent stories, certain details have been altered due to changes in society and audience perception. But what hasn’t changed since Batman’s origin unveiled in both Detective Comics #33 and Batman #1; is his humanity. Omens have been replaced with a more psychological approach that has helped to develop more intention and reasoning behind the actions of one man who wears the mantle of a bat to avenge the murder of his socialite parents.


Batman’s first appearance in Detective Comics #27 is the second highest valued comic and has sold for over 1 million dollars.

The Bat-Man of Gotham, Caped Crusader, Dark Knight, The World’s Greatest Detective – Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s iconic creation of American pop culture has embedded himself in the hearts and minds of generations of children and adults alike for the past 75 years. Much more than a product of his time, the cultural phenomenon of Batman has been shaped by a rich tapestry of historical and contemporary references – a character that has grown throughout the stories and world he inhabits; transcending his medium and gaining the ultimate accolade of global success and universal appeal.

First and foremost it is the journey of alter ego, Bruce Wayne that has helped display the importance of his humanity and a key aspect that distinguishes him from other popular characters within his genre. Where the patriotic Superman lends himself more to classic myth and religious archetypes – a godlike figure that some demographics struggle relating to – Batman represents a more introverted and psychological aspect of the superhero that helps define his nature and make him more accessible. While Clark Kent had no recollection or memory of his parents’ death and was nurtured by his humble, adoptive family, Bruce Wayne witnessed, first hand, the violent death of his wealthy parents and was left in the soul care of his Butler. This defining moment could be seen as the night Bruce Wayne also died, leaving a deeply disturbed individual who has sort solace in avenging his Mother and Father’s death. It is this demon of vengeance that contributes to his own psychopathic tendencies; a vigilante born out of a traumatic experience that has set him on a path of self-discovery and discipline.

Despite his brooding and deeply troubled backstory, it is these very details that have contributed to the myth and legacy of Batman. At the heart of the character he is simply a man and the fact that he relies only on his wit and gadgets is his everlasting appeal – many wish they were Batman while others simply are. His humanity can also be defined by how he has dealt with and continues to deal with his own psychosis. Despite being labelled an outlaw in true American mythological fashion, he attempts to justify his actions by saving the lives of others and following a strict code – that he will never, under any circumstances, kill. But, when one picks up the mask, others follow. Whether it is his allies or Rogues Gallery of villains, Batman sets precedence in his actions and, in some way, is responsible for their creation – the high price a man pays for the personification of vengeance.

It is in this study of Batman that the roots of the character will be explored in order to understand what has made him such an enduring figure – how the icon of the bat has evolved in to an identifiable message that goes beyond the potent imagery of fear and, instead, represents the hero and justice in an otherwise imperfect society.

Part I: Foundations

Part II: Origins

Part III: Mythology

Part IV: Psychology

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The Conflict of Captain America – Part I

J. M. Flagg's 1917 poster was based on the original British Lord Kitchener poster from 1914. Used to recruit soldiers for both World War I and World War II, the concept of Uncle Sam can be traced back as far as the War of Independence in 1812.

J. M. Flagg’s 1917 poster was based on the original British Lord Kitchener poster from 1914. Used to recruit soldiers for both World War I and World War II, the concept of Uncle Sam can be traced back as far as the War of Independence in 1812.

Points of View

‘Patriotism is an instant reaction that fades away when the war starts.’ Mick Jagger

For the European Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th Century, group dedication and the notion of civic virtue conflicted with the loyalty of the Church where they criticised what they believed were the excesses of patriotism. In 1774, the English writer, Samuel Johnson published The Patriot, a critique of what he viewed as false patriotism, stating, ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.’ Although the quote is ambiguous in nature, it is believed that Johnson was in fact attacking the false use of the term ‘patriotism’ by his contemporaries of the time and continued to promote in favour of what he considered ‘true’ patriotism.

There have been many political leaders who have promoted their own ideals and, indeed, fought to gain control over the masses through social conditioning in an attempt to impart their own personal views and behaviours in an attempt to support a state’s decisions and actions. It has often been debated that the devotion to one’s cause, specifically the attachment to your country of origin, is intrinsically linked to nationalism. Karl Marx’s famous words, ‘The working men have no country’ cemented that those who benefitted through capitalism would segregate the class systems further. The ideals of nationalism have become a heated cause for debate; since the Marxists had taken their own various stances concerning patriotism in an effort to promote a socialist world commonwealth, hence the conflicts between capitalist and communist states during the 20th Century.

It could be considered that the patriotic perspective is distinct from other forms of attachment such as a religious standpoint or romantic partner, as the desire for interpersonal attachment and the need to belong is a fundamental motivation in human nature. When studying this more closely, from both a political and social view, there are two main perspectives on the basis for nationalism. One is the primordialist – a reflection on the evolution of humans to organise in to distinct groups based on an affinity of birth. The second is the modernist perspective that requires the structural conditions of a modern society in order to survive.

In today’s modern world, multinationality in a single state has often delivered controversial views on defining what would constitute a nation, which has led to many different strands of nationalism. Therefore, the relevance of patriotism is put in to question more than ever – whether it can truly be accepted as a belief that citizenship in a state should be limited to one identity, ethnic, cultural or religious group. There will always be a minority, whether it is Karl Marx’s worker or racial creed and the adoption of national identity, in terms of historical development, is the result of a response by influential groups unsatisfied with traditional identities. This is due to those inconsistencies between their defined social circumstances often resulting in a particular society reinterpreting their identity by removing elements deemed unacceptable in order to create a more unified community. These developments and responses are more than often the result of internal structural issues or the result of resentment by an existing group towards other communities, especially foreign powers that are deemed to be in control of them.

Despite its complex nature, national personification has never been more prominent in politics through the use of commercial art – a visual approach to distil and represent an entire nation through the use of one, concise image. Predating an Orwellian society, this echo of Big Brother would become a significant part of the cultural landscape, synonymous with what it mean to belong to a particular society. From the famous image of Lord Kitchener’s ‘Your Country Needs You’, to Uncle Sam; the influence of these particular campaigns have drawn nations together, divided societies and sent thousands to their deaths. There is no doubt that the potency of these characters and what they stand for convey a strong message and are an obvious precursor to the birth of the superhero as propaganda tool.

To be continued in The Conflict of Captain America – Part II

The Conflict of Captain America – Introduction

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The Conflict of Captain America – Introduction


Captain America, Alex Ross

Role Models

Keep flying, son. And watch that potty mouth!’ Captain America, Civil War #1

The image of Captain America has stood bold and bright in the public consciousness for over seventy years but until the more recent success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Steve Rogers has never quite connected with a modern audience and perhaps less so with anyone outside the United States. It could be argued that the patriotic heritage has been a thorn in the character’s side – stars and stripes emblazoned across his uniform, his Shield a symbol of protection – he is no Dark Knight, instead the living symbol of liberty and the pursuit of the American Dream, which, in terms of visual appearance can boarder on high camp. Until the release of Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), the costume had never really been explored and it is during the film that the contrast between star-spangled tights and functional fatigues helped to deliver a believable interpretation of the character.

From the birth of the blockbuster to the onslaught and domination of comic book related movies of the past decade, the impact of the superhero has never been more potent and influential on popular culture. Gone are the days when comic books were uncool. Since Marvel’s Iron Man hit the big screen in 2008, what were considered second-rate characters have now become first rate; giving birth to an intricate and hugely successful series of interwoven storylines that has helped build one of the most ambitious events in the history of film.

America, the powerhouse nation that has strived to build its own mythology from the remnants of the Wild West, has always struggled with its history and sense of identity. During the Industrial Revolution the birth of the revolver and subsequent Gold Rush only intensified conflict between individuals who sort control and possession over their plots of land. Some would say a natural human instinct, such prosperous times and the promise of a ‘New World’ had become the foundations of the American Dream. America had eventually sort independence, divided itself in two and eventually built the Skyscraper watching their cities grow towards the sky as iconic landmarks. A nation of great wealth and power, America’s influence upon western society was unrivalled.

Comic book culture was born in America. The US format had never really been imported during the Silver Age of the 1960s and therefore had no real impact or social significance on British culture at the time. Hardly taken seriously in their country of origin, superheroes had no real place in the UK and would take another twenty years before they arrived on spinner racks and then gravitated to specialist shops. Although the British weeklies were enough to satisfy your appetite, during the 1980s it was hit or miss finding the next issue of a US monthly title.

From my own point of view, Captain America had no impact on me growing up. The only Marvel characters I was familiar with at an early age were Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk and this was mainly due to their own television series that aired in the late 70s.

Brought up in the UK and educated by a family of Aircraft Engineers, both my Father and maternal Grandfather had the irreplaceable skillset and knowledge informed by a more pragmatic approach to their life. Both were Fathers without fathers and had taught themselves and although there were stories of adventure from their childhood, both generations had grown up fast and left their fantasies behind. My Grandfather in particular fleetingly showed an interest in commercial art before serving his apprenticeship, entering the R.A.F. at sixteen and embarking on a twenty-seven year career as an Engineer and then a Technical Author for Rolls Royce. Like my Father, the information they both dealt with was hard and tangible facts that kept everything in motion. In some ways they would have related more to Tony Stark’s affinity for all things mechanical than Steve Rogers’ US patriotism – from both their points of view it has always been rather difficult to witness the American stereotype of winning WWII all by themselves.

Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun’s Charley’s War was a meticulously researched account of British soldier, Charley Bourne who, underage, enlists to fight in the trenches. Mills and Colquhoun provided an extremely frank portrayal of the horrors of war and an unforgettable account of the conflict for adult and child alike.

Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun’s Charley’s War was a meticulously researched account of British soldier, Charley Bourne who, underage, enlists to fight in the trenches. Mills and Colquhoun provided an extremely frank portrayal of the horrors of war and an unforgettable account of the conflict for adult and child alike.

Although I have very fond memories of my family’s history lessons, I was an escapist at heart…the fantasist of the family – an only child who was constantly looking for a fix to distract me and spark my own imagination. Comic books were very important to me and in the early years I was attracted to what I recognised from those history lessons and immediate influences – the War Stories, most of which were published in Commando and the British weekly, Battle. Not only did it provide wonderful realism in the shape of Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun’s Charley’s War but eventually the introduction of the more commercial G.I. Joe, branded in the UK as Action Force.In retrospect, with the impact of merchandising and the insidious nature of advertising, it is very easy to see where the interest in superheroes took hold. In my early years I showed very little interest in patriotic characters having now graduated to Batman and The Punisher, and The Uncanny X-Men – the perfect diet for my adolescence. I didn’t care for symbolism at thirteen. All that was important reading comics was the story and the character’s relevance to me. Captain America was no Batman, not even Superman – there needed to be a voice that spoke to the individual instead of a particular society.

Unlike the more universal appeal of Superman, Captain America has survived more as a national hero and it has taken the modern age of comics to help reinvent the way he is portrayed through life, death and rebirth. In a post 9/11 world many important questions were brought to light based on controversial views and conspiracy theories. Despite specific views, most of us would like to think we are united in the belief that terrorism is a war we can’t fight and that real heroes represent something far too complex to summarise in this essay. The world is both the same but different to the outbreak of WWII and it is this same conflict that Steve Rogers has had to contend with as writers have used the current paranoia to fuel intelligent, meaningful stories based on political and social commentary. For once, Captain America has had more to say than ever yet still struggles with the very same problems that some people find in the character. With this in mind, what kind of man should be allowed to wield the shield?

The Conflict of Captain America – Part I

The Conflict of Captain America – Part II

The Conflict of Captain America – Part III

The Conflict of Captain America – Part IV


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75 Years of Superman – Part V


John Byrne’s Man of Steel, 1986.

Origin(al) Tales

‘Krypton bred me, but it was Earth that gave me all I am.’ The Man of Steel, John Byrne, 1986

Delving in to the influences and the DNA of such characters helps to understand what has shaped and refined them. In much the same way as an individual is shaped by their own surroundings and those who imprint on them – we are all as much a result of our circumstances and the environment we are brought up in as the collective knowledge that is passed down to us. It is no different for fictitious characters – this is how they have managed to survive and continue to capture the imagination – a result of both their own inheritance and archetypal nature that has allowed them to relate to their audience. Superman has moved with the times, perhaps not as crucially as his contemporaries, yet, when the time has felt right, his origin has been retold.

In fact, when revisiting the great Superman stories those that often stand out the most are the origin tales. After the publication of Alan Moore’s Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? that ended an era for Superman before his modern reboot in the 1980s during Crisis on Infinite Earths, John Byrne, as both writer and artist, set out to retell a modern origin. In Man of Steel (1986), Superman had acquired such a firm stance in the public’s own consciousness that the iconography was enough to allow for the marketing of another pseudonym and is arguably the most successful incarnation to date, arriving at a defining time in the history of comics alongside Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Where Miller and Byrne redefined the two major linchpins of the superhero genre, Moore redefined the idea of the superhero and in doing so gave birth to the modern age of comics. It took British cynicism to see what made superheroes tick – a real world sensibility that not only delved in to the minds of archetypes but also performed the entire lobotomy. Miller’s Batman was a dark, brooding and brutal force of nature who, in The Dark Knight Returns, had not been seen for a decade – an ‘out of touch’ version of Batman… yet, a Batman who was perhaps more in tune with his roots than ever before. And amongst the darkness and intense storytelling, Superman’s light still burned bright in an effort to make himself heard. This was the antithesis of Miller’s incarnation, where Superman is shown as no more than a government stooge carrying out orders from the White House to bring down his old friend.


Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdon Come, 1996.

Mark Waid’s collaboration with the artist Alex Ross resulted in their Elseworlds imprint title, Kingdom Come (1996) – a lavishly illustrated four part prestige format that harkened back to the work of Norman Rockwell. Told from the point of view of a Minister, the Spectre reveals the repercussions of warring superheroes as they contribute to the encroaching apocalypse. Asked to pass judgment on the superheroes, the Minister is witness to the return of a Superman who had abandoned his cause – one of many reflections of a world without a Superman during these times. On his return, Kal-El reforms the Justice League in his efforts to counterstrike and imprison those superheroes who have grown out of control.


Jeph Loeb and Time Sale’s For all Seasons, 1998.

After their success with Batman on The Long Halloween, Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale went on to tell a story that was a parallel to Byrne’s Man of Steel. For All Seasons (1998) concentrated primarily on the character of Superman – no galactic punch-ups and no full-scale invasion – this was simply a tale told from the perspectives of those who were closest to Clark Kent. Not only did this ground the character but reinforce the humble nature of Superman – a contradiction to how he may be perceived by the world. When we finally reach Lex Luthor’s perspective, a twisted love story of insecurity; where a man of intelligence is often a man who thinks too much…it ultimately leads to a breakdown of the soul and thirst for power. Where The Long Halloween was built around the use of holidays as a structure, Loeb and Sale’s tale dealt with seasons that gave further stability to a more personal rendition of the character.


Mark Waid and Leinil Francis Yu’s Birthright, 2003.

Although Kingdom Come was a critical success, Mark Waid’s own origin tale was to follow almost a decade later, post 9/11 and in light of a world who no longer needed fantasy heroes. Now there was a need for realism and as an extension on Man of Steel and For all Seasons, Mark Waid and Leinil Francis Yu’s, Birthright (2003-2004) explored the journey of Clark Kent as an activist and journalist, much like Bruce Wayne’s own pilgrimage to hone his skills as a crime fighter. Clark Kent would connect with humanity face to face and understand the issues at stake on a global level, while more importantly setting an example to billions. If the world could not be Superman, then he could only aspire to help the people of the world to do their best. Symbolism was key in setting up the character where the reasons he chooses to wear the costume are built layer by layer. The questions we have always asked, such as how no one recognises Superman under Kent’s glasses is beautifully handled and justified before delivering some of the best action sequences illustrated in comics. All the while the ‘S’ symbol is embedded fully within the world building arc helping to present both a clarity to how it is perceived through his own ‘birthright’ and society’s interpretation and their assumption of what it stands for – nothing more than their own label.


Mark Millar’s Red Son, 2003.

As a counterpoint to Waid’s origin, Mark Millar set out to deliver the ultimate Elseworld’s tale – a unique, origin with an imposing twist that sees the infant, Kal-El land in the Ukraine, rather than America. In Superman: Red Son (2003), the mythology of Superman is reimagined under the iron will of the Soviet Union where a Russian Man of Steel rises to power within a communist state where few are able to oppose him. Despite his social circumstances, the spirit of Superman’s is left, surprisingly intact and in spite of the system he’s working in, he attempts at all times to do the right thing. Whilst the outcome of much of what Superman does is questionable, his intentions are sincere. Despite his use as a weapon, he is still the hero of the nation he was brought up in and thoroughly believes in socialism in his attempt to make it work against the last surviving state of capitalism, America. This is not an evil interpretation of Superman…for that would have been too easy a path to take and therefore allows for the character to retain some sympathy.


Geoff Johns and Garry Frank’s Superman imbued with the spirit of Christopher Reeve.

Where Birthright set to build an origin for the 21st Century, Red Son smashed all preconceptions of how such an iconic character could be personified. Where one begged to question, ‘What if?’ the other would only remain canon for a limited time before Geoff Johns’ and Garry Frank’s Secret Origin was released in 2010. Post Infinite Crisis, and to tie in with continuity, the mini series was delivered alongside their run on Action Comics which delivered a number of tales, highly regarded as ‘definitive Superman’. It is no coincidence that Frank’s rendition is more than a homage to the late Christopher Reeve, influenced further through Johns’ own background and knowledge where his initial stories evolved from his collaboration with the original Director of Superman: The Movie, Richard Donner in their attempts to redefine the character. In fact, Johns worked for Donner as his intern gaining experience in the film industry while still maintaining his obsession for comic books, which has more than helped in his position as Chief Creative Officer at DC where he has gone on to redefine Green Lantern, Aquaman and the Justice League.


Steven T, Seagle’s and Teddy Kristiansen’s It’s a Bird, 2004.

It could be said, much like in Steven T. Seagle’s (no relation) and Teddy Kristiansen’s, It’s a Bird (2004), that Superman is the most difficult character to write. Through Seagle’s semi-autobiographical accounts, he not only explores what the icon means to the world and his effects on society but, from his own perspective, delves in to the more than overwhelming and all consuming task of writing a seemingly indestructible character. With a God-like figure there is little conflict that can be found and once an enemy is presented they must challenge and form the required conflict, otherwise there is often nothing left but to duke it out on a galactic scale before it becomes predictable and derivative. In the magnitude of these set pieces, this is where the soul of Superman can be lost. This is where It’s a Bird manages to successfully explore our own mortality through the writer’s eyes; while at the same time dissects the Man of Steel’s mythic importance and in doing so presents both an honest account of the writer’s efforts to do the character justice while at the same time questioning how much a ‘Superman’ means during the modern era.

With the launch of the New 52 in 2011, Grant Morrison and Rags Morales were handed the reins to, yet again, reinvent Superman to fit with a rebooted continuity in the New 52 Action Comics #1. As superheroes are seen with some hostility, Superman’s ‘Year Zero’ begins with a younger incarnation wearing nothing more than jeans, cape and t-shirt in an effort to gain the public’s trust, while at the same time reflecting a more rebellious attitude. Making a name for himself as a champion of the oppressed in Metropolis, he captures the attention of both the military and scientist, Lex Luthor, who are both interested in testing his capabilities as well as discovering what kind of threat he represents. With nods to the original, Reign of the Superman, it is no surprise that Morrison’s depth of storytelling eludes to the importance of his original inception and the iconography that has helped build such an important comic book character. Morrison is a man who submerses himself in the medium on many levels through personal experience and a full understanding of who the ‘man’ is – that portion of the character that is hidden amongst the actions of his ‘super’ powers.

SUPERMAN: ‘I can only tell you what I believe, Diana – humankind has to be allowed to climb to its own destiny. We can’t carry them there.’

FLASH: ‘But that’s what she’s saying. What’s the point? Why should they need us at all?

SUPERMAN: ‘To catch them if they fall.’ Grant Morrison, JLA #4

In Supergods: Our World in the Age of the Superhero, he writes and performs observations about the character that could be seen as extreme yet breaks boundaries in how Superman’s own symbol of hope could be perceived. During the first chapter, ‘The Sun God and the Dark Knight’, Morrison states that:

‘When a god elects to come to Earth, he has to make a few sacrifices. In order to be born, Superman was called upon to surrender a few of his principles. As the price of incarnation, the son of Jor-El of Krypton was compelled to make a terrible bargain with the complex, twisty forces of this material world. That S is a serpent, too, and carries its own curse.’ (Morrison, 2011, p. 16)


Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman, 2005-2008.

The ‘Sun God’, as Morrison refers to Superman, commits the ultimate sacrifice in, perhaps, the most definitive of his stories, All-Star Superman (2005-2008)a tale told with enough depth and poetic virtue that only elevated the actions of a dying hero beyond a the stature of a God…while still remaining the most human at heart, As she spoke, I watched 35,000 dead skin cells scatter like confetti…like promises…like the dust of dead stars.’ Although the Death of Superman during the 90s was a huge success, it was a product of its time – seen by many as more of a crass marketing move to increase sales that reflected the decline in the market that would follow. Morrison’s interpretation was story first and foremost – a version of Superman’s final sacrifice that could be taken as cannon as much as those reading Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Surreal, cerebral and playing against the conventions of comic book narrative, All-Star set out to reconnect with Kal-El through his final days. In contracting radiation poisoning while saving a mission to the sun, Superman, through a series of episodes, comes in to contact with a number of characters who are both his strengths and weaknesses. However, during his contact with them he leaves his mark before making his final sacrifice by reigniting the sun. In his final moments, Kal-El, Man of Steel, Man of Tomorrow…Superman, leaves Clark Kent behind and begins his transition to become the saviour he is destined to be and in doing so becomes the power at the centre of our universe.

To be continued in Part VI: Choices

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75 Years of Superman – Part III


Fredric Wertham’s book, Seduction of the Innocent published in 1954 ended the Golden Age in his cynical, damaging account of the influence of comic books on youth culture.

Truth, Justice and the American Way

‘Superman has the big the big S on his uniform – we should, I suppose, be thankful that it is not an S.S.’ Fredric Wertham

In 1954, German-American psychiatrist, Fredric Wertham’s damaging study on the impact of comics on youth culture was reflected in his book, The Seduction of the Innocent. Not only did Wertham set out to prove that adult content, depicted in popular crime and horror comics, was corrupting youth culture, but also the positive role models of superheroes. It was one point to highlight and attempt to prove the influence of sex, violence and drug use corrupting the children of the time, but Wertham went further in the hidden conjectures of Wonder Woman’s bondage, Batman and Robin’s homosexuality and Superman’s fascism. Although Wonder Woman’s creator, William Moulton had admitted to misogynistic undertones during her early years, Wertham only further documented the evidence, fueling more claims that her strength and independence presented her as a lesbian.

Despite Siegel and Shuster’s left-wing stance that originally championed Superman as a social activist in his fight against corrupt politicians and businessmen, Wertham’s misguided theories were selective at best. Even in light of the Roosevelt era, which tended to lean more towards a more liberal idealism, there was still no denying the good causes that the character continued to uphold – non more so than his battle against the Ku Klux Klan during a 1946 Radio broadcast. Having tapped in to an important aspect of the American identity, made more relatable due to their own Jewish immigrant background, it seemed implausible for fascism to rear its ugly head. But in their links to Neitzche’s influential work and further evidence that Hitler had found relevancy in shaping his own new world order, Wertham stood by his beliefs.


Classical Greek sculpture depicted the battles, mythology, and rulers of Greece. Changes in style saw improvements in the function of sculpture, along with a dramatic increase in technical skill that represented a more realistic human form. ‘Realistic’ in the true, Greek sense of the word – showcasing the perfect human form of a ‘super man’.

Superheroes, have indeed gone on to glorify the physical form in much the same way as the historical, stylised images and sculptures of the Greeks and Romans. The study of human anatomy was one that related to power and godhood as much as understanding the processes involved in depicting the physical form and in looking at theses examples in more detail it is easy to see how vulnerable Superman is to such accusations of fascism. Even when considered coincidental, it is still enough to spark strong debate. His adversary, Lex Luthor is a man of high intellect concerned with domination and the manipulation of society, utilising both science and reason in his efforts to destroy Metropolis or rather bend the utopian city to his own means. Yet, it is Superman, with his sheer strength who prevails in forcing man to surrender his own beliefs in forcing the physically weaker to yield and prevent their twisted ideals. Either way, Wertham used both perspectives of the superhero and villain, only seeing the patriotic stance of, ‘Truth, Justice and the American Way’ as no more than nationalism. Fascists were not the first to use classical archetypes and physically imposing figures to convey a message nor will they be the last. Throughout history there are many beautiful interpretations of human nature that have inspired godlike figures and it is only in the eyes of those who wish to use these examples to empower and dictate that they should be labeled ‘fascist’. Superman reminds us that there is a limit to reason and that this is seen through his enemies in their own blind devotion to an irrational worldview.

Seduction of the Innocent resulted in the establishment of the Comics Authority Code and the banning of major horror and crime titles of the time, which resulted in the death of the Golden Age. Since its publication, Wertham’s theories have been disproven and his own motives questioned in targeting the comics industry. Superman survived the claims and in 1951 his first foray in to a feature length film was released. Superman and the Mole Men rejuvenated the ailing career of George Reeves who went on to star in the hugely popular television series, Adventures of Superman from 1952 to 1958. However, despite Superman surviving fascist accusations, news headlines in 1959 reported George Reeves’ apparent suicide – a mysterious Hollywood case that gave rise to the first, official ‘Death of Superman’. For millions of fans, Superman was dead and the empire surrounding the Man of Steel seemed more at risk than ever before. However, despite his film and television incarnations and the related merchandise linked to the popular series, Reeve’s death had no impact on the comics.


Despite it’s February, 1964 issue date, Action Comics #309, hit the stands in the first week of December, roughly a week after JFK’s assassination and was too late to be recalled.

In their efforts to make the new stories less physical and more emotional, DC comics began to channel the current zeitgeist and build further on their success in channeling the popularity of the space related merchandise aimed at children. The late 1950s were considered to be the beginning of the Silver Age of comics and during the 1960s, Superman became more in tune with the newly elected John F. Kennedy’s values and optimism. However, when another generation grew disillusioned upon his assassination, optimism spiraled in to race riots and militant activism against the Vietnam War. After a more spiritual revival in the aftermath of the Vietnam, the Judeo-Christian allegory was brought more to the forefront – not so much a substitute for a religion but for the underlining mythology that had developed over the years and made Superman such a universal character. The time had arrived to inject the right amount of depth and poignancy and deliver a fresh cinematic vision that would serve the character justice.

To be continued in Part IV: On Screen

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The Black Beetle: No Way Out (1 of 4)

The Black Beetle: No Way Out (1 of 4)

Pulp hero pulls no punches

‘All I can think about is who got to them before I did while I should really be worrying about freefalling from an eighteen story building. Oh, well…’

Eisner Award-winning artist, Francesco Francavella’s creator owned title pulls no punches when it comes to introducing his pulp hero. The less educated are going to make inevitable comparisons to Batman but America’s classic pulp heroes were, as with most iconic characters, a result of their time. I have yet to read Garth Ennis’ rendition of The Shadow and latest series of The Spider – both cvintage pulp heroes that predate The Batman and the subsequent American mythos that followed – with these titles in mind, The Black Beetle is much more than a homage; dripping in lavish inks that capture the noir signatures as effortless as the narration. Colt City holds our eponymous hero in its bowels and during the first issue reveals very little of the cityscape, instead focusing on the set up as our super sleuth investigates an explosion that has killed a number of notorious criminals. The script delivers a delicious narration and sparse dialogue while the atmosphere and mood of the dark alleyways and streets are held together through superb use of layouts and splash pages that build towards a gripping climax centred around a prison. This is much more than a throwaway tale – there is a passion and thirst for the source material that shows a creator building a world around what he knows – and Francavella lives and breathes the smoke and bullets.

For more information visit Francesco Francavella’s official blog over at The Black Beetle.

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