The 20th century needed a new group of heroes that reflected then-modern sensibilities. During the Golden Age of comic books, superheroes belonging to DC Comics (then named National Periodical Publications) such as Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman fulfilled this need with their wild superhuman exploits that captured the imagination. By the post-war era in America, DC’s superheroes were pretty much the standard: the Establishment.
By attempting to have the most likeable characters, DC’s superheroes had no character or emotional flaws, and the stories gravitated towards plot-driven, farcical adventures rather than character-driven stories.
In the wake of DC’s success, other comic book companies were founded and tried to emulate DC. Out of the many companies, only Timely Comics had staying power and here we are celebrating the 75th anniversary of that company that will later become Marvel Comics.
The Flawed, Science Heroes: Comics changed forever with the start of the so-called Marvel Age. The birth of the Marvel Universe took place in the early 1960s. This was a period that people were in awe with all of the wonders of science and space exploration. The Space Race and the Cold War were on the minds of the people. The Zeitgeist was the fear of the imminent Red Invasion and the Promise of Science- where will it take us?
The core of the first generation of Marvel superheroes were essentially Science Heroes. With the exception of Dr. Strange, the rest of the Marvel Universe was largely a world of weird science and science fiction. Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Captain America, Giant-Man, the Wasp and the Hulk were Radioactive Heroes. Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider. The astronauts from Reed Richard’s group were exposed to cosmic rays during their maiden voyage into outer space. In an unfortunate accident, Dr. Bruce Banner was hit with the full blast of Gamma Rays. Tony Stark built an electronic-laden armor with tons gadgets and abilities. Captain America was a patriotic hero that survived World War II by being frozen due to his exposure of Vita-Rays; part of the catalyst that transformed Steve Rogers from a skinny kid to an athletically proportioned hero. Giant Man and the Wasp benefitted from Hank Pym’s size magnification and reduction experiments, along with side studies in insect communication and gene splicing.
Great concepts- ahead of its time- but what made the Marvel Universe different, however, was not only the science aspect, but rather the fact that these Marvel heroes were emotionally flawed, imperfect, and fallible. Tragedy strikes as often as victories. Moral dilemmas were as large as the threat.
Spider-Man wins the battle with the big bad villain, but he can’t get enough money for his rent and he blew a date with either Gwen Stacy or Mary Jane Watson. Captain America is back in the modern world, but he feels lost like a fish out of water. The X-Men have astounding abilities, but they are persecuted and feared by society, who view mutants as aberrations, and treat them as outcasts. The Fantastic Four’s Thing has great power, but he also has this great fear that his blind girlfriend Alicia won’t accept him if she ever regained her sight and found him ugly. But the Thing- AKA Ben Grimm, is very human despite his rough exterior, with a heart that endeared him to readers. Dr. Strange was a callous, money-loving jerk; a celebrity physician until a terrible traffic accident ended his career. This gave him pause to reflect and improve on his past behavior as he was now invested to learn the mystic arts to save the world from an ancient evil. And the list goes on and on with the great flaws that these characters have, but that is what made these characters appealing. That in particular was something that comic book readers became very attuned to, and why they identified with them. Continue reading