Sunday, June 23, 2013

Science Fiction and Comic Books-Part 3

Science fiction is a genre. Comic books are a medium. You'll need some apples and oranges if you're going to compare them. Science fiction was popularized in the medium of pulp magazines. We know when they began. The date was October 1896. The venue was the first all-story issue of Argosy printed on rough pulp paper. I suspect that science fiction appeared in the pages of pulps almost immediately after that. Eighteen ninety-six was after all plumb in the middle of H.G. Wells' four-year streak of successful science fiction novels. In any case, science fiction became a staple of the pulps, and by the 1930s there were at least half a dozen titles devoted exclusively to the genre.

Comic books lagged behind science fiction (and pulp magazines for that matter) by a generation, but when they finally hit the newsstands in the 1930s, they were almost fully formed. Titles very quickly proliferated. By the postwar period, millions of everyday Americans--and not just children--were reading comic books every month. We would find their numbers almost unbelievable. Print runs in the hundreds of thousands were not unheard of. Like science fiction fans before them, comic book fans wrote letters to their favorite magazines, published fanzines (beginning in the 1950s and early 1960s), and held comic book conventions beginning in about 1964. (I hope someone can help with more accurate dates.) Although comic books can carry any number of genres, today they are identified almost exclusively with the genre of superheroes, Superman being their Adam. Superman however did not originate in comic books but in the genre of science fiction.

In his first incarnation, Superman was a bald villain. Created by Cleveland teenagers Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the character made his debut in a story called "The Reign of the Superman," printed in Siegel's self-published fanzine, Science Fiction: The Advance Guard of Future Civilization #3, in 1933. (Once again, this is an anniversary year: eighty years since Superman's earliest incarnation and seventy-five since Action Comics #1.) Superman's two creators spent the next several years developing their character and attempting to get him in print. They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams when Superman became one of the most popular and recognizable characters in the world. Superheroes poured out of the woodwork during the late thirties and into the forties. It's hard for us to imagine now, but Superman was truly something new. The superhero genre might never have gotten off the ground without him.

To be concluded . . . 

Text copyright 2013 by Terence E. Hanley

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