Thursday, October 25, 2018

Superheroes and Supervillains

A few weeks ago I wrote a little about heroes and villains. I would like to write more now about superheroes and supervillains as a lead-in to a series involving Weird Tales.

When we were kids, we read a lot of comic books. Most were superhero comics, and even those that weren't about superheroes were often superheroized, for example, Super Goof in Walt Disney comics, Jughead Jones as Captain Hero in Archie comics, Conan the Barbarian in Marvel comics, and even Warlord in DC comics, who always wore the same outfit and had the same split beard as Green Arrow. We drew superhero comic books, too, and if I can come up with a little time, I'd like to draw more.

Not long ago, someone told me that the word superhero is trademarked by Marvel and DC. I didn't think that could be true. After all, superhero is a word. How can you trademark a word? Especially a word that was in use before there was such a thing as a comic book? So I read a little about it, and I guess Marvel and DC, who haven't always gotten along, jointly own the trademark for a word, or at least they've got everybody scared enough not to challenge them on it. Pretty soon, I guess, you won't be able to use the word marvel without Marvel's (meaning Disney's) permission. Maybe princess will go the same way. Anyway, you would hardly know it today, but there was a time before comic book superheroes. That time was in living memory of people my dad's age and older.

Everybody likes to play the game of firsts. What was the first this, the first that. So who was the first superhero? You could say that Superman was the first superhero as we know them today. If there hadn't been Superman, there would almost certainly have been someone else--that's the way our popular culture was going in the 1930s--but Superman hit at just the right time in just the right way to bring about what is now called the Golden Age of Comic Books. Once Superman arrived, superheroes were here to stay. Some people say that there were superheroes before Superman--Popeye for instance (1929), or The Phantom (1936). I think the Scarlet Pimpernel (1903) is a good candidate for the first superhero, but there are those who would push his origins all the way back to ancient Greece or even to ancient Sumer in the person of Gilgamesh. If we follow a different line of hypostulatin' we might come up with a different answer. As it turns out, that line fits pretty well with what I have found on the origins of the word itself.

I have thought for some time that American popular culture--genre fiction, comics, movies, magazines, sports, etc.--as we know it today began in the 1890s, more or less. The technological, economic, and societal forces that brought that about aren't really the issue here. Instead, if you just look at a few dates, you might agree that there's something to this line of thought:
  • Safety bicycle invented, 1890
  • First color newspaper supplement (Chicago Inter Ocean) in America, 1892
  • First automobile manufacturing company in America, 1893
  • First Ferris wheel, 1893
  • U.S. Golf Association (USGA) formed, 1894
  • First newspaper comic strip (Hogan's Alley by Richard Outcault) published, 1895
  • First movies shown to paying customers in the United States, ca. 1895-1896
  • First all-fiction pulp magazine (The Argosy), 1896
On the other hand, firsts, origins, and beginnings are good cause for fights and debates. So instead of trying to make a case for the 1890s as being the beginning of popular culture in America, I'll just look at the origins of the word superhero and its superkin, superheroine, supervillain, and, yes, superman and superwoman. It won't take long to get back to Weird Tales.

To be continued . . .

Conan was created by Robert E. Howard and first appeared in Weird Tales. The genre inhabited by Conan is now called sword and sorcery or, more to the point, heroic fantasy. We might as well call Conan a superhero, but he wasn't really cast as a superhero until the 1960s or '70s. (Remember that all of the Conan stories published in Howard's lifetime came before the first real superhero comic book.) At the height of the sword-and-sorcery/fantasy craze of those two decades, Marvel Comics began publishing Conan the Barbarian, written by Roy Thomas and illustrated by Barry Smith. The first issue appeared in October 1970 (forty-eight years ago this month). Here is the cover for number 15, from May 1972. Already there were teamups, a feature of superhero comic books, as Conan was joined in this issue by Elric of Melnibon√©, created by Michael Moorcock and first in print in 1961.

Barry Smith, also called Barry Windsor-Smith, is a British artist who came to Marvel Comics with a pop-culture sensibility. I can see the influence of Jack Kirby in his work, but there's also some Jim Steranko there. But then if Mr. Steranko was influenced by Kirby, then there is only an influence once removed. This is the cover for Conan the Barbarian #16, from July 1972.

Shortly before Marvel began issuing Conan comic books, Lancer Books revived Robert E. Howard's original stories in paperback form. The covers of these books were most famously done by Frank Frazetta. I suspect that the Lancer series were the impetus for Marvel's comic book version. In any case, this pair of images from comic book and paperback versions of the same story from the same period is relatively rare. Both have their merits, but I think the Frazetta illustration makes for a tighter composition, greater action, mystery, and intrigue, and a more evocative image. Conan of Cimmeria, from 1969.

Barry Smith left Conan the Barbarian with issue number 24, in March 1973. With him went much of the otherworldly atmosphere and imagery of the series. In his place came a number of other artists, chiefly John Buscema, who had been doing superhero stories at Marvel for many years. Buscema was fast and had a knack for action, composition, and visual storytelling, but in his hands, Conan became more nearly superheroized. Here is the first cover after Barry Smith, number 25, from April 1973, drawn by Gil Kane and Ralph Reese.

Don't get me wrong. I love John Buscema's work, and I read Conan the Barbarian with real pleasure. When we were kids, we even drew our own sword-and-sorcery comic books. But Conan in Marvel's hands was essentially a superhero. Like the Incredible Hulk, he always wore the same torn clothing over his middle section. (Conan's outfit was always brown and furry rather than purple.) Like Spider-Man, he often teamed up with other superheroes, or in the case of Red Sonja, who also always wore the same outfit, a superheroine. There is even in this cover (no. 78, Sept. 1977) a skewed viewpoint, like in the old Batman TV show. Note the red-robed cultists, another throwback to Weird Tales.

Consciously or not, John Buscema evoked an image from another of the Lancer Conan paperbacks, Conan the Avenger, from 1968, again with cover art by Frank Frazetta.

More evidence of the superheroization of Conan: a Marvel Treasury Edition of Conan the Barbarian, complete with a gorilla cover. (Truth be told, gorilla covers came before superhero comic books. See my previous postings, here and here.) From 1978.

Frazetta could do a gorilla cover like nobody else. I think this is one of his most powerful covers for the Conan series, from 1967.

Text copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley

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