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Movies on Paper, Cartoons on Screen

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In the first decade of the new millennium, comic book superheroes became one of the dominant engines driving the Hollywood industry. Maybe comic books and movies were made for each other? Cartoonist Jules Feiffer recalls that the first generation of superhero illustrators wanted figures to “jump, magically off the page. Movies on paper—the final dream!”

Feiffer’s remark comes from Empire of the Superheroes, Mark Cota Vaz’s sympathetic chronicle of the inception and ascent of a modern mythology—a pantheon of bizarrely costumed characters with superhuman (if not supernatural) powers. Unlike the demigods of ancient times, squabbling amongst themselves, the superheroes who emerged in the 20th century engaged in Manichaean struggles with supervillains, evil characters with commensurate abilities.

The genre emerged in the 1930s when a pair of Jewish teenagers from Cleveland, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, dreamed of breaking into the nascent medium of comic books. They drew their inspiration for Superman less from Friedrich Nietzsche than from “the emerging mass-media dream worlds of comic strips, motion pictures, radio broadcasts, and pulp novels.” Even the iron-bending Popeye the Sailor was grist for their imagination, as were the adventure stories of the Tarzan and Flash Gordon comic strips. They had an inspired idea, rooted perhaps in the necessity of “passing” in a society that feared or hated you. Unlike Zorro or the Lone Ranger, Superman didn’t hide behind a mask but an alter ego, blending into mainstream America as mild-mannered journalist Clark Kent.

Empire of the Superheroes is fascinating for its account of the business side of comic books. “It was an industry built by Jewish creators, editors, and publishers who were often restricted from high-end advertising and other mainstream fields.” The Mob also had a hand in the distribution and printing end. The comic book industry overlapped with smut and operated from a labyrinth of false fronts that might have baffled Batman. Lawsuits over copyrights are as much a motif of Empire of the Superheroes as capes and tights (whose origins, Cota Vaz writes, came from circus gymnasts).

The first superhero movies were multi-part serials, a live-action Captain Marvel and an animated Superman, both released in 1941. Although a live-action Batman followed in 1943, the superheroes were marginal on big screens before Superman: The Movie (1978) and Tim Burton’s Batman (1989). Even after those successes, the ascent of superheroes came slowly, in steps, with Blade (1998), X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002), the latter grossing over $800 million globally and “cementing Marvel’s cinematic turnaround” after several flops.

Why? Comic book fandom went from geek subculture to mainstream after the ‘70s and provided a readymade audience. But how to explain that? “Supermen and his progeny were heralds of an advanced technological civilization—a possible future,” Cota Vaz writes, “but they were also modern incarnations of dreams humankind has been dreaming since the epic of Gilgamesh was etched on clay tablets.”

David Luhrssen lectured at UWM and the MIAD. He is author of The Vietnam War on Film, Encyclopedia of Classic Rock, and Hammer of the Gods: Thule Society and the Birth of Nazism.

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Mar. 26, 2021

8:36 a.m.