THE SUPERHERO: Conscience of the King – Rod Marsden

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Superheroes are often used as symbols, by the artist and writer, for either the way they feel about a situation, or of their country and the direction it is going in. Thus, superheroes can be our guide to how certain people, living in countries such as the USA , the U. K. and Australia , felt and/or feel about emerging social issues and what should be done about them. They can also be used as a kind of social clock, allowing us to view change and alterations in opinion. Writer Rod Marsden explains…

Note: This article begins with the USA because this is where the superhero originated. Also, much of the content deals with the superhero as an American phenomenon because nowhere else in the world did the idea and ideal of the superhero flourish the way it did and still does in America.

Superheroes are often used as symbols, by the artist and writer, for either the way they feel about a situation, or of their country and the direction it is going in. Thus, superheroes can be our guide to how certain people, living in countries such as the USA, the U. K. and Australia, felt and/or feel about emerging social issues and what should be done about them. They can also be used as a kind of social clock, allowing us to view change and alterations in opinion.

It is the dynamic nature of the comic book that our consciences, and those of our leaders, were pricked by the artists and writers very early in the emergence of the superhero. It has often been stated that the very first such hero was and is Superman. Making his first appearance in the June, 1938 edition of Action Comics number one, it was only in the summer of 1939, in the premiere issue of his own comic that his creators, Americans Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, decided to comment on what they saw as the futility and corruption invoked by war.

In this story, Superman pits himself against two warring armies, and a munitions manufacturer growing fat off the ensuing carnage. When it is obvious to the leaders of both small nations that they have no real reason to be battling one another, and that they are only making their countries poorer and the manufacturer of death richer, they decide to stop. Though the countries mentioned are fictitious the message remains clear. This may not rate as the very first anti-war comic book, but it does rate as a fine early example. It is funny since Siegel and Shuster have, at times, been accused of warmongering and indulging in American imperialism simply for having created the man of steel. In effect, they had entered into the debate as to whether the USA, at that particular juncture, should enter into the Second World War and they had made it clear they were against the idea.

Not all American artists and writers, however, were against America’s entry into the war. Well before the 7th of December 1941, the date of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, America was gearing-up for war and the same can be said in the fictional world of her superheroes.

On January, 1940, ‘The Shield’, G-Man extraordinary, was launched on the public in Pep Comics number one. Wearing a colorful, indestructible suit, this masked FBI agent battled fictional spies and saboteurs from fictional countries that had similar attitudes toward freedom as the Nazis. At this stage, it was not possible to directly attack the Third Reich and all it stood for without getting into trouble with the US government, but it was very much possible to shoot off innuendoes and allow readers to read between the lines. Marvel Comics, then known as Timely, had a similar policy.

After the 7th of December, 1941, the kid gloves were off. Captain America, created for Timely by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in late 1940, led the way. With his obviously pro-American costume and dazzling shield he, together with the aquatic, sometimes ally, sometimes enemy, Submariner (created by Bill Everett) and the android Human Torch (created by Carl Burgos) formed an unbeatable, Axis-bashing team.

Nazis became Ratzis. Japanese became Japs or Nips or yellow fiends. Whereas the Chinese were once made out to be strangely twisted creatures of ancient evil in comics such as the March, 1937 issue of Detective Comics, now that America was in the war and on the side of the now, suddenly, brave and robust Chinese, it was just as suddenly the Japanese who were grotesquely inhuman. No one of Japanese heritage, to my knowledge, was shown in the comics of this period to be in disagreement in any way with the emperor. It wasn’t until the 1970s in issues of the Marvel comic, The Invaders, that Japanese-Americans, who fought bravely on the side of all Americans in the war, were given their due.

To be fair to Timely, it can be said that differences were shown between the behavior of Germans who disagreed with Nazi ideals and the Ratzis. At a time when it would have been all too easy to simply lump all with German blood together as foes in need of vanquishing, Simon and Kirby made the effort not to do so in the fifth issue of Captain America Comics in a story titled Killers of the Bund. Here people of German descent in America who refuse to join the Nazi Bund are either beaten up until they do or have their homes destroyed by rampaging heel-clickers.

Bob Shmidt, the friend of Captain America’s youthful partner Bucky and the son of Heinrich Shmidt, a good American of German heritage, comes to Steve Rogers, alias Captain America, and Bucky Barnes for aid. His father has been attacked by the Bundists for being a ‘democratic swine’. After hearing about this from a tearful Bob, Captain America and Bucky decide to go into action and clean up a rats’ nest better known as Camp Reichland and thus put an end to a nasty fifth column set-up in the heart of the good ol’ USA. Bucky enlists his pals, the also youthful gang known as The Sentinels of Liberty to help. In the end, of course, its black eyes all ‘round for the infiltrating bully-boy Ratzis and a pat on the back for Bob and his recovered dad for their continuing loyalty to democracy and the good ol’ USA.

During World War Two, costumed heroes proliferated. They weren’t all super but they did their best to uphold democracy and freedom and put an end to the Axis powers. It seemed that every comic book company in the USA had to have their own batch. Apart from Captain America, the Submariner and the Human Torch, Timely also had the mysterious Vision, the winged Red Raven, the saboteur clobbering Fin, the speedy Whizzer, the knife wielding Black Marvel and Citizen V (for victory). For their part, D.C. had Superman, Batman and Robin, Green Arrow and Speedy, Hawkman, The Spectre, The Hour Man, The Sandman, The Atom, Johnny Thunder and the Flash. MLJ had The Shield and The Wizard.

Not to neglect the female reader, William Moulton Marston, who went under the pen name of Charles Moulton, created Wonder Woman, possibly the first feminist heroine. Coming from a mysterious place known as Paradise Isle, which is ruled by strong warrior women, this exceptionally strong female decides to help the American people in their efforts to preserve democracy and to create a better world for all. Writing Wonder Woman until his death in 1947, Marston kept the stories and their heroine powerful and vibrant. There was some neglect of the character in the 1950s but, then again, most existing superheroes at that time were in trouble.

The year of Marston’s demise showed a marked decline in the fortunes of most costumed heroes, including the super powered. World War Two was over and had been over for some time. Communism was the new world menace but, somehow, it just didn’t seem to be, at first, as menacing as the Ratzis and the Nips had been. Comic companies turned to other material to fill their pages and interest their readers. Only a handful of costumed heroes were to survive. These included Superman, Batman and Robin, and Wonder Woman. Others would resurface in the ‘60s while still others would be forgotten.

Crime comics involving true crime stories, or stories close enough to what was happening in the real world to be considered true, became very popular. Crime Does Not Pay was a title that sold very well.

Then William Gaines came along with a fist full of horror titles for his company Entertaining Comics (formerly Educational Comics) and all of a sudden horror became the go. This unfortunately led to a crisis in the industry.

Doctor Fredric Wertham’s best selling book, Seduction of the Innocent, outlining all that the good doctor could see that was wrong with the then modern comic book, came out in the USA in 1954 and in the U.K., in an updated edition, in 1955.

At first, Wertham was interested only in attacking the crime comics as being totally unfit for the consumption of teenage readers. Then he swiftly moved on to the horror comics which he found to be even worse for the young.

Finally the costumed hero and the superhero comics got a serving. Among other things, Wertham saw Batman as promoting homosexuality and Wonder Woman lesbianism. What’s more, Superman could be seen as pushing the idea of the superiority of the Caucasian type over other types and thus paving the way for the next batch of real life Storm Troopers. Added to this, he felt that the phonetic spelling used in the comics and the fact that the children were reading them in place of what he considered to be better, healthier reading material could well lead in the end to widespread illiteracy.

The threat of censorship against the comics did not begin with the hysterics of Wertham. There had been murmurings before and also attempts to curb what was felt, by some, to be art bad for the industry. It came to a head in the USA, however, with Wertham resulting in the comics industry, as a whole, searching for a way to better self censor before the US government and other governments decided to do it for them. What they came up with was the Comics Code Authority. It put an end to both the horror and crime comic. The costumed hero and the superhero continued but the stories were generally weaker and more human interest driven. Certainly, from the mid-50s onward, there was very little innovation and much towing-of-the-line. Social comment worth anything was, for a time, gagged.

According to Martin Barker’s book, A Haunt of Fears, in the U.K. a campaign led in one corner by British Communists and in another by worried parents and teachers, resulted in the banning of US crime and horror comics material from being sold as either original material or as reprints.

In April, 1950, the comic paper, Eagle, was launched in the U.K. as the answer to safeguarding British children from the more damaging effects of American comic book material. It featured Dan Dare, British pilot and spacefarer of the future.

In Australia, censorship began in Queensland and filtered down and across to the other states, and to the territory. Frew reprints of The Phantom came under heavy censorship and Australia’s most successful hero creation, The Scorpion, came to the end of his run because the artist and writer, Monty Wedd, saw little point in trying to carry on with such restrictions in place.

Timely, now renamed Marvel, took the USA and then the world by storm by introducing a fresh approach to comic book character development. The stories became sequential with continuing sub-plots. What’s more, the superheroes suffered and worked through ordinary, every day problems that all human beings, to some extent, suffer and work through.

From the outset, Spiderman had to deal with the fact that a big time publisher, J. Jonah Jameson, just didn’t like him and would do everything he could to destroy the fledgling super good guy’s reputation. On top of this Spiderman, as Peter Parker, had his school grades to worry about, a bully he could easily trounce if only it wouldn’t instantly give away his secret identity (mind you, he did hit Flash a knock-out blow once when he was in a hurry to change into Spiderman), looking after a perpetually sick aunt and trying to keep a girlfriend despite the fact that he tends to run from danger like a coward so that he can face it as his alter ego. Originally drawn by Steve Ditko and scripted by Stan Lee, the early issues still sparkle with a soap opera like touch of humanity that was missing, at the time, in what was coming out of D. C. and other comic book companies.

The new approach, however, came with the same old politics. As in the 1950s, Reds were definitely to be feared and hated unless, of course, they repented and became born again Capitalists.

In Fantastic Four number one (1961), written by Stan Lee and illustrated by Jack Kirby, we discover that Dr Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Benjamin Grimm and Johnny Storm were caught in a cosmic storm, in a rocket with insufficient shielding, and thus received superpowers, because a team of Americans had to beat the Commies when it came to deep space exploration. In issue thirteen, titled The Red Ghost and his Indescribable Super-Apes, the Fantastic Four encounter a Russian scientist and his trained apes that have, through the power of cosmic rays, become formidable opponents. Whereas it was by accident the Fantastic Four became the Fantastic Four, the Red Ghost, with the glee of a megalomaniac, steered his unprotected rocket into the cosmic rays on purpose.

In The Incredible Hulk one (1962), written by Stan Lee and illustrated by Jack Kirby, Robert Bruce Banner might never have become the Hulk if not for a back-stabbing scientist/spy, by the name of Igor, who does not delay the exploding of the gamma bomb as instructed to do so by Banner.

In Tales of Suspense thirty-nine (1962), plot by Stan Lee, script by Larry Lieber, and art by Don Heck, Anthony Stark becomes Iron Man, not only to save his own life, but in defiance of Wong-Chu, a south Vietnam Red guerilla tyrant. In the process of becoming Iron Man, he is aided by Professor Yinsen, a kindly Vietnamese scientist who wants to live in a world without tyrants. Professor Yinsen is killed by Wong-Chu while giving Stark the time he needs to finish his work on powering up the life preserving armor. Wong-Chu is defeated by Iron Man who then returns to the USA.

For decades, Captain America has served as a symbol for Marvel for the spirit of America in much the same way as D. C. uses Superman. During the 2nd World War, the Captain saw the American soldier through some tough times and then, when the tough times were over, faded away with many of the other superheroes. He made a brief re-appearance in the mid-1950s to do battle with the Commies. Then, in 1963, in an issue of Strange Tales, a criminal disguised as the famous shield swinger fought Johnny Storm, the teenage member of the Fantastic Four and, unlike his ‘40s android predecessor, a living Human Torch. Here Stan Lee, who wrote the story with visual assistance from Jack Kirby, was testing the waters to see if interest in the old costumed character could be revived. Apparently, the response was positive because, not long after it came out, issue four of The Avengers had Iron Man, Giant Man, the mighty Thor and the Wasp come across the frozen body of the original Captain America.

Waking up after a long sleep in suspended animation, the Captain comes face to face with a very new, very different USA than the one he’d previously known. Here was a chance to show America through the eyes of someone ripped from the past. Now, whenever Stan Lee, who grew up in the ‘30s and ‘40s, wanted to compare that age with the present, he had the perfect vehicle in which to do so in the fictional person of either Captain America, or his alter ego Steve Rogers.

Instead of reviving into a slower paced society, the Captain finds the new pace, at first, almost overwhelming. There is plenty of spy-versus-spy action and super criminals to apprehend. Between such happenings, however, there are reminiscences about long ago battles with his arch nemesis, the Red Skull. Strangely enough, the Skull, too, revives from a different kind of suspended animation into the present to face once more his old enemy.

Apart from his time spent in the pages of The Avengers, Captain America was given a spot in Tales of Suspense, beginning with issue fifty-nine. In issue sixty-one, he battles The General, a giant sumo wrestler, in the heart of Vietnam, in order to rescue an American helicopter pilot. Like Iron Man’s foe Wong-Chu, The General is an evil Red with no redeeming features. In 1968, Tales of Suspense came to a close and was replaced by Iron Man number one and the premiere issue of Marvel’s Captain America.

Meanwhile, the import restrictions on overseas comic books and comic papers, which came into force in Australia in July of 1940, had come to an end and so, in the 1960s, the country was flooded with good quality American comic books and good quality British comic papers. The result for the Australian industry was devastating. Not only were the comics generally better drawn but the stories tended to be more intelligent and more up to date. Though the Australian companies, due to cost restrictions, could not be expected to provide full color interiors like the Americans, they could have at least tried to keep up with new refinements in story technique and art coming from the USA. Of the Australian artists of the late‘50s and early ‘60s, only writer/artist John Dixon showed any inclination toward self-improvement and worthy experimentation. Unfortunately, this was not enough.

And so, due to encroaching censorship, artists sitting on their hands as if their livelihood would be forever protected by the government, the infringement of television, and the coming of better overseas material, Australian comic books fell away. All that remains of what had been is the company Frew which continues to put out reprints of Phantom comic stories from America and Europe with the occasional home grown Phantom effort.

Meanwhile, in the U.K, comic papers and comic annuals featuring new adventures of the television hit science fiction hero, Doctor Who, came out. Though technically an alien rather than a superhero, The Doctor nevertheless pushed as he continues to push such British traits as good sportsmanship, respect for one’s fellow creatures and the tongue-in-cheek dry wit the British are known for along with, of course, their absolute joy in the weird and the bizarre.

By the late 1960s, spurred on by anti-war feeling, bands of artists and writers in the USA came to defy the Comics Code Authority. Rather than sending their comics through the usual supermarket and drug store chains where the CCA had power and comics without CCA approval would not be put on the shelves and onto the racks, they developed new markets. Record bars and university and college campuses became the places of distribution. The comics came to be known as Undergrounds and, though the artwork in them, for the most part, was crude, the writing was generally more intelligent than what was on offer by CCA approved comics. From the start, they were making an impact on the overall industry by writing up to their audience and being ‘with it’.

Slow Death, which came out of Berkley and was supported by college kids, was an unabashed horror comic very much in the tradition of the late, lamented E. C. line of horror, but with a modern feel to it. Here, both the USSR and the USA are to be blamed for the nuclear arms race. Here, the question of how to stop blaming and start dismantling is raised. Slow Death also looked unflinchingly, and with absolute grisly honesty, at the bloody history of the Caucasian conquest of the American West. This included unspeakable massacres on tribes, such as that of Black Kettle, who had signed what he thought was a solid peace treaty and was therefore not expecting to be attacked by those he considered his allies. Out of a bloody past and into a bloody present (the Vietnam War), can then the future be anything but bloody?

By the late 1960s, Marvel in general had a change of heart when it came to the Vietnam War. Perhaps the reasons behind it were not as black and white as Democracy versus Communism, good versus evil. What’s more, protesting students throughout the USA and other parts of the Western world might be doing more than just ragging on the establishment. Perhaps they were trying to make their elders see that the war raging was very different from that of previous wars in terms of Western expectations and what could, and should, actually be done by the West for the people of Vietnam. They were crying out for better conditions at colleges and universities, and they were struggling with conservative elements, in peaceful marches and sit-ins, to give disadvantaged citizens more opportunities at a good education.

In issue 120 of Captain America (1969), art by Gene Colan, story by Stan Lee, enemy agents up the tension already prevalent at a particular university where faculty, administration and students are at loggerheads. It takes all of the Captain’s patience and intellect, as well as his muscle, to foil the enemy agents and save the situation from getting completely out of control. Here, neither the faculty nor the administration nor the students are proven to be entirely in the right, and the Captain leaves the campus with all parties simply in a better mood to negotiate, and come to mutual agreements.

In issue 125 of Captain America (1969), art by Gene Colan, story by Stan Lee, the Captain goes back to Vietnam, not to face a loathsome Red warlord bully-boy as before in Tales of Suspense, but to stop a Chinese madman, going by the name of The Mandarin, from fueling the hatred of both sides in the conflict by the kidnapping of the saintly non-combatant, Dr. Hoskins.

In issue 128 of Captain America (1970), art by Gene Colan, story by Stan Lee, the Captain begins a trip across America that will take a fistful of issues to complete. The idea is for both the man and the costumed hero to come to some understanding of the country they have defended for so long and are a living symbol of. Apart from the usual super villains, our hero comes up against crazed bikies, overly conservative cops out to teach young people a lesson or two, in the most vindictive ways possible under the law, and hippies trying to break away from violence but, invariably, being drawn back into it. No single group he encounters seems to have all the answers. And no single group he encounters can make claim to being in total possession of the American dream because, now, the American dream can be seen as being different for everyone. Needless to say, the Captain finds the trip a real education.

The spirit of Martin Luther King was also abroad in the area of modern entertainment. It could be seen in certain episodes of the original Star Trek television series such as Plato’s Stepchildren (1968), where the words of super-beings professing to being virtuous and contemplative rings hollow where slavery of lesser powered beings is involved, and Let That Be Your Last Battlefield (1969) in which two races of the same species but of opposite coloring seem incapable of doing anything other than leading one another to mutual destruction. It could be seen in episodes of the Western television show Bonanza and in Australian television cop shows such as Division 4. It was also in the comics.

Prejudice, racial and otherwise, has at times been handled with great sensitivity, and also with the acknowledgement that misunderstandings are indeed possible. In 1969, in the pages of Spiderman, for example, the African American city editor of The Daily Bugle, Robbie Robertson, had to convince his son, Randy, that J. Jonah Jameson, the publisher, blowing up at him over Spiderman, was not doing so because he hates and wishes to belittle African Americans, but because he hates and wishes to belittle Spiderman and doesn’t like anyone playing fair with the web slinging wall crawler. In a later issue, J. Jonah Jameson comes up against racism thrown at an African American window cleaner/ inventor and tells the person responsible how much it turns his stomach. It turns his stomach, in fact, so much that he goes against an old friendship.

Fantastic Four number fifty-two (1966), art by Jack Kirby, story by Stan Lee, saw the creation of, to my knowledge, the very first African superhero, the Black Panther. Not only was he black and powerful enough to fight the Fantastic Four to a standstill, but as the chieftain of the fictional Wakanda tribe, he was out and out royalty. There followed a whole slew of black superheroes including Captain America’s one time partner The Falcon, the mystical Brother Voodoo, the giant Black Goliath and Blade, the vampire slayer, who has the strength of one of the undead.

Possibly the most controversial and fun was Luke Cage, hero for hire. The first issue of this comic premiered in June of 1972. Here an African American sentenced to a long stretch in prison for a crime he did not commit decides to let Doctor Burnstein experiment on him in the prison lab for a chance at a lighter sentence and early release. The experiment literally creates a man of steel (that is, bullets bounce off his skin leaving bruises) and Lucas, soon to be Luke Cage, breaks out. On the lamb, the now super strong fugitive decides to change his name, lose himself in the big city and earn some bread solving cases. Eventually he solves the crime he was jailed for and becomes a genuinely free man. By then he has changed his superhero name from Luke Cage to Powerman. Here, it should be noted that, like Doc Savage, he had a hard time keeping his shirts from ripping and tearing. Among the wonderful continuing subplots in his adventures was the one involving the coffee machine outside his office. For some reason, the machine didn’t like him very much and, no matter how often he fed it coins, it would give him anything and everything other than the coffee he wanted from it.

During the last season of the 1960s Batman television series, Eartha Kitt played a black Catwoman and in the mid-70s there emerged in the D. C. comic book universe a black Green Lantern.

In February, 1977, the British comic paper 2000 A. D. (eventually to become a comic book) was launched. It came to feature the continuing adventures of Judge Dredd, a law enforcer with the power of life and death over the citizens of domed Mega-City One. Here British writers and artists were not only free to play with the idea that absolute power corrupts absolutely but were also able to play with the idea that the nuclear arms race between the USSR and the USA will, eventually, lead to the world becoming an irradiated mess with only a handful of protected cities safe for humanity to inhabit. Judge Dredd, of course, was grim and dedicated rather than corrupt but this was not always the case with some of his fellow judges. And there were times when Soviet judges either came into conflict with American judges, like Dredd, or found themselves having a hard time not doing so. Knife edge wit and equally sharp, if eccentric, characterization made Dredd, wherever he appeared, an exceptional read. In the early ‘80s, the Judge Dredd adventures found in 2000 A. D. were reprinted in America for American consumption.

In 1980, the first and only issue of Outcast, a glossy Australian adult science fiction and fantasy comic magazine, came out. Within, there was intriguing, if somewhat off-the-wall art and stories, by Patrice Guilbert, Peter Ford and Greg Taylor. Mirrored on American comic magazines such as Heavy Metal, it tried to interest Australians in strong, lively fantasy touching upon questions of morality in a twisted far out multiverse and, unfortunately, failed to get enough initial readers.

Cyclone number one was launched in 1985. Among the costumed cut-ups, there was a superhero team known as Southern Squadron. Written and illustrated by David de Vries, this comprised of Nightfighter, a warrior who gains in strength when ever he gets excited (a bit like The Hulk only not so ugly), Dingo, much like a werewolf, the Southern Cross with his psychokinetic powers, moustache and power cane, and Lieutenant Smith with her combat savvy. The Prime Minister of the day, Bob Hawke, got a cameo. Also there was Dark Nebula, a cosmic superhero who had gained the power of cosmic darkness. Written by Tad Pietrzykowski, and drawn with much energy by Glenn Lumsden, Dark Nebula was reminiscent of Marvel art and story telling of the late 1960s.

There were other experiments to create a new Australian comic book industry but, generally speaking, it was in the area of horror and fantasy that there was some success. In 1986, issue number one of Phantastique, the first Australian horror and Science Fiction comic book for mature readers, hit the streets. One thing to be said for it was that it was up to date. The second issue had, on its cover, a blown apart space shuttle drifting toward the moon. Soon after, it was banned in Queensland.

In the 1980s, both Marvel and D. C. were responsible for comic books with superheroes battling famine in Africa, or at least doing their best to do so, the profits from sales going to famine relief. Around this time, Marvel launched a one shot titled Global Jeopardy in which Marvel’s most nature conscious heroes strive to save endangered wildlife.

In 2000, Superman for the Animals issue one came out. Illustrated by Tom Grummett and Dick Giordano and written by Mark Millar, it is an animal rights comic with heart and not just a little truth between the pages. A young boy uses his reverence for Superman to eventually take a stand against cruelty to animals. The message here: whether a bully picks on a defenseless animal or a smaller human, a bully remains a bully and there’s nothing cool about that. What’s more, standing up to a bully will always take courage and it is something only you can do.

A twelve part mini-series titled The Kents, about the history of Superman’s Earth family, came out between August 1997 and July 1998. Illustrated by Tom Mandrake and scripted by John Ostrander, it was a truly thought provoking examination of what happened in bloody Kansas over a ten year period. It takes in the killing that occurred before, as well as during, the American Civil War over the slavery issue and even has the actor Booth, soon to be the murderer of a president, refusing to sign an African American boy’s theatre program because he feels that no black child could possibly understand Shakespeare. Though Superman only appears as an interested party, helping his father to examine the past via old journals and letters discovered buried long ago in an old barn, there is the spark here of what makes America today great and not so great. Superman, in a sense, is used as a bridge between what were lean, mean times of incredible bloodshed and savagery across the USA, particularly Kansas, and present day USA. The accuracy of civil war weapons and of civil war battles in this mini-series has been much commented on. Whether or not America has learned anything from the violence of a time not so long ago (the last American Civil War veteran died in 1959) has yet to be acknowledged. Out of such turmoil, however, came Superman’s parents who made sure their adopted son grew up with a true sense of right and wrong.

September 2001 saw one of the greatest disasters to confront the world. The Twin Towers in New York were destroyed by Muslim terrorists along with passengers in three doomed aircraft and part of the pentagon. There had been earlier attacks on American embassies, costing thousands of lives, but this was an unmistakable invasion of American soil. The results have been equally devastating. All up so far, changes in American policy and views concerning hostile, and potentially hostile countries to the USA, have resulted in two wars fought by America and her allies for dubious reasons, thousands of people taken into custody, and being held without what once was considered due process, and a general state of paranoia against ‘the other’ which tends to provoke retaliation.

After what has come to be known as 9/11, Marvel quickly put out the glossy comic magazine, Heroes, in which Marvel’s greatest costumed cut-ups pay tribute to the real men and women who risked their own, very real, lives trying to save the lives of others. It came out in December of 2001 and quickly sold out. On page 19, Robert Hayes, Tim Townsend and David Self have Captain America, in tears, being comforted by a young black police officer and a Caucasian fireman intent also on getting him back into the fight to save who could still be saved. On page 53, against the backdrop of Captain America holding up a ragged flag, illustrated by Kyle Hotz with Hi-Fi, Stan Lee writes about the fall of the Twin Towers and the other attacks as leading to an end of a kind of innocence, a loss of heart for all Americans. Please note, efforts were made in the presentation not to blame all Muslims for the acts of terrorism and to make it known that there were Muslims also who perished in the catastrophe. It should also be noted that all sales from this endeavor went to financially aid the families of firefighters, police officers and other uniformed personnel who died.

In February of 2002, Marvel launched a one shot comic book titled A Moment of Silence in which most of the stories come without word balloons. The most moving of them is Moment of Truth, script by Bill Jemas, pencils by Mark Bagley, in which Anthony Savas, a building inspector, risks his life and eventually dies while helping firemen search for survivors. He was given the opportunity to evacuate with the rest of the civilians but his knowledge of the structure of the towers, he felt, was needed and New York, after all, was his city.

D. C. also wanted to help but did not rush into production. 9-11, Volume One, which involved many small press and underground artists and writers, came out January of 2002. As with Marvel, the profits would go to helping out. Much of the material here is thoughtful and thought provoking. On pages 33 and 34, in a Doug Tennapel story titled Pop Grief, an old Beetles song allows a shocked man to come to shed tears for the victims. On page 49, in an unnamed Jamie Rich, Chynna Clugston-Major story, two friends on the internet, who live across the country from one another, express their horror to one another for what has happened but also manage to express their love and sense of solidarity toward one another. On pages 79 to 81, William Stout relates how he met a cabbie in Zagreb, Yugoslavia in 1980, during the making of the first Conan movie, and how the man could not help but express his feelings toward Americans in general. Apparently, after the 2nd World War, he along with other Yugoslav children, was given food and shoes by Care America, and had not forgotten this show of kindness and generosity. It was a simple act but something that had endured. Perhaps this was the America that should go abroad more often and, perhaps, with it, there would be less of a chance of a repeat of 9/11. On page 120, writer Pulido, with art assist from Joan Reis, Joe Pimentel and Hi-Fi, relates how a totally innocent man, a Sikh, was gunned down on September 15th, 2001 because his turban made him look to some redneck as a possible terrorist and thus an undesirable. The Sikh religion, it should be noted, has nothing to do with Muslim beliefs and doesn’t even originate from that part of the world. It originates from India.

9-11 volume two, which came out soon after volume one, had as its cover a Superman in awe of the policemen, firefighters and emergency medical workers who participated in the saving of lives during the Twin Towers collapse.

In Tall Buildings (pages 169 to 171), scripted by Australian writer Chris Sequiera, with art by Tom Grummett and Tom Palmer, a young Australian man, who visited the New York towers in 1995, reflects on his experiences at that time, the shock of the devastation in 2001, and how the towers will continue to exist now, in the hearts of many people from all over the world. Neil Adams, on page 176, calls for more support for the Red Cross. He has Superman nursing the American flag and looking to Uncle Sam who is pulling up his sleeves in order to help clear away the rubble. The words on the plague under Superman are prophetic: ‘First things first then we come for you.’

In A Burning Hate (pages 189 to 194), art by Humberto Ramos and Sandra Hope, script by Geoff Johns and David Goyer, the question of ‘the other’ is raised. Young kids of mixed ethnic background, but not Arab, are in a playground discussing what has happened to the Twin Towers when one of them spots two Arab kids. One of the Arab kids is reading Superman and this is seen, by one of the other kids, as outrageous because Superman is a genuine American hero. The Arab kid disputes this by reminding everyone that Superman actually came from another planet and was adopted into the American culture and way of life. Then Martian Manhunter, Aquaman and Wonder Woman are brought up. As it turns out, none of the superheroes they all admire so much was actually born in the USA but, overtime, have come to love and respect the USA. At the end of the story we find out that the Arab boy, Nasim, and the Arab girl, Amira, were born in New Jersey and are, in fact, Arab-Americans or just plain Americans, depending on your point of view.

In 2002, Marvel began a series of comic books titled The Call of Duty in which the various services, such as the police (The Precinct), the emergency medical service (The Wagon), and the fire department (The Brotherhood), were represented. The various comic books began as an excellent window into New York and how various services cope with various problems. It was interesting, for example, to see the real dangers firemen face in booby trapped crack houses when they are called upon to put out fires in such places. The series, however, eventually deteriorated into super criminals versus super service people and have since faded away.

Since the events of 9/11, Captain America has been on a quest to make America safe from her enemies and Superman has gone back to battling super criminals.

Both Marvel and D. C. have tackled the problem of racial inequality. Marvel led the way in issues of Spiderman and the Fantastic Four. D. C. came through with Green Lantern and Green Arrow.

Marvel has tackled drug abuse in issues of Spiderman (including issue 97 which was not approved by the Comics Code Authority and so has become rare). D. C. had Green Arrow’s partner, Speedy, on the hard stuff.

Marvel has chiefly looked at environmental concerns through issues of Spiderman, the Submariner (when you rule an underwater kingdom, thoughtless surface-dwelling polluters can be a real hassle), Luke Cage, the Defenders and the incredible Hulk. D. C. has looked at such concerns through the eyes of Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and Green Arrow.

After the decline of the Australian comics industry in the ‘60s, various attempts were made at a revival. Some, such as Ink Spots, the original Ozcomics, and Pulse of Darkness, gave Australian artists and writers a place to learn and grow. Some, such as the horror comic, Phantastique, and the costumed heroes’ effort, Southern Aurora Comics, gave Australians the chance at a real voice.

In the late ‘90s, Greener Pastures, though not a superhero comic, delivered an Aussie point of view when it came to university life, ideals versus stark reality and, of course, the environment versus progress.

Around this time, Aussie artist, Antoinette Rydyr, took the Jonathon Swift approach to social comment in her one shot comic, Poor Bitch.

There’s been talk recently of a Hairbutt the Hippo movie. If it retains the tongue-ion-cheek street-wise grittiness of the comics then it’s sure to be a winner.

Ozcomics, the next generation, have been active with characters such as the Pink Flamingo and Killeroo.

Superheroes do best right now in television shows such as the U.K. comedy My Hero and the new adventures of Doctor Who. In the latest American take on Superman’s teenage years, Smallville, the proposition, established in early issues of Spiderman, that with great power comes great responsibility, is re-established for a new audience. Movies such as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Daredevil, Electra, and The Fantastic Four also show the superhero re-energized.

Comic books, at the moment, seem to be losing their popularity, but they can bounce back. This, of course, is up to the artists and writers. It is also up to the buying public – the buying public who really do need artists and writers to speak out about important issues more often.


Captain America, the Classic Years (Marvel)

Essential Captain America Vol.1 (Marvel)

Essential Spiderman Vols. 1 – 5. (Marvel Comics)

Essential Fantastic Four Vols. 1 – 4. (Marvel Comics)

Essential Human Torch Vol. 1 (Marvel)

Essential Thor Vol.1 (Marvel)

Essential Ant-Man Vol.1 (Marvel)

Seduction of the Innocent by Fredric Wertham (1954)

Australia’s Censorship Crisis edited by Geoffrey Dutton and Max Harris (1970)

A Haunt of Fears by Martin Barker (1984)

The International Book of Comics by Denis Gifford (1984)

Censorship by C. L. Taylor (1986)

Various issues of Marvel, D. C., Small Press and Underground comics in my possession.

Catwoman starring Halle Berry, DVD (2004)

The Author:

Rod Marsden was born in Sydney but did most of his growing up while on holidays in the northern NSW fishing village of Iluka where his dad taught him how to fish. It was on these fishing trips he discovered he actually did like to read and wanted, one day, to be a writer. USA artist Gene Colan’s drawings of the sexy, slinky Black Widow made him wonder about becoming an artist. He has a BA in Liberal Studies, a Graduate Diploma in Education and a Master of Arts in Professional Writing. His short stories have been published in Australia, England, Russia and the USA. Rod lives on the south coast of NSW, Australia. Email ::