It was in the first of these novel "comic books" aptly titled New Fun Comics that the writer-artist duo of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster would make their debut. Not long after, in 1938, Siegel and Shuster created a new character inspired by the Clark Gable and Kent Taylor films in their theaters and the sci-fi pulp stories they chatted about in their fan magazines. Thus, when they first designed the man who would become Superman, they weren't trying to make a "superhero"; that concept didn't even exist. They were simply going for an action sci-fi story.
Because Superman became such a runaway success, however, an entire bastard genre (to borrow a term from famed scribe Greg Weisman) formed like a crystals in a solution around this one character. What became known as the "Golden Age" of the 1940s, with its huge boom of so-called superheroes, effectively codified an entire genre from repeated riffs of what was originally a hodgepodge concept. Companies sprang up en masse in ways not matched until the 1990s boom. A medium that had beforehand been restricted to the newspapers (Superman himself had been pitched and rejected as a news strip character) had colonized an entirely new format, the comic book, with an entirely new type of character. Superman riffs, ripoffs, and homages, from Marvel Man to Stardust the Super Wizard to Captain Marvel transformed one character into an odd template for an entire industry.
|From Golden Age Character Reference: Alex Ross w/ InCase Studios|
Once you added Batman to the mix, you added riffs on riffs. Batman was formed when National Publications asked Bob Kane for another Superman. Kane (controversially with no credit) brought on Bill Finger, and together they swapped out the action flick sci-fi of the Superman character for noir and opera theater, and once Batman met Robin you couldn't count on both hands how many comics aped the "costumed adventurer and boy sidekick" format.
What I'm pointing out is that the "super"—the person with the fantastic powers causing changes to the world—isn't something inherent to the genre as it is. Stories don't need to take the same "secret identity, punch stuff" format just because Superman began that originally almost 80 years ago. The Fantastic Four especially (and ironically, given the way Warren Ellis set them up as symbols of a superheroic rot in the comics medium within his book Planetary) are a perfect example of this.
While it's become popular to imagine the Comics Code—a self-regulating content rule set up in 1954 to censor books in the wake of moral backlash—as this big "holocaust" of creativity that crushed the medium, killing off the Golden Age heroes due to a red panic (this view has been fictionalized in Watchmen and The New Frontier), in truth it was the opposite: the code was what ALLOWED the heroes to come back.
By the end of WWII, around the dawn of the 1950s, the hero boom caused by all those crazy ripoffs and companies that you now see on public domain sites had collapsed. The Rise and Fall of the Axis Powers had caused the superhero to become seen as a kind of creepy violent and fascist concept (and, in truth, they kind of had a point). For example, Wonder Woman only existed as a result of National Comics' public relations campaign to have a "psychologically validated" hero character that was safe for children's consumption. William Moulton Marston's interview article in Family Circle defending the comics is what got him the gig, despite the fact that it was heavily fabricated by his interviewer (who, by the way, was the secret polyamorous lover of Marston and his wife). Marston himself had done similar work for Universal Studios back in late 1920s, and Wonder Woman was built as part of an effort to stem the tide of a moral panic that would eventually collapse the industry.
Couple that with a changing postwar market that was shifting away from the war-tinged violence of the Golden Age, and superheroes, like other innovations (in modern terms think of the dot-com bubble and the video game crash) ultimately imploded.
|From Family Circus: Olive Byrne w/ Dr. Willian Marston|
|The Fantastic Four #1 cover: Jack Kirby w/Dick Ayers|
The "Marvel Age" of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby began with The Fantastic Four, which was a mixture of all those out-of-place odd comic concepts from the interregnum period: the sci-fi adventure of Challengers of the Unknown, the soap opera dynamics of Young Romance, the crazy-ass kaiju monsters of the Atlas books, and of course the classic "long underwear" heroes that even at the time were seen as somewhat retro. What the folks at what was now being called Marvel Comics had learned then is the same lesson that the films are now learning: people with fantastic settings, odd powers, and new ways of dealing with the world can be fit into all manner of stories. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had been able to take the most-liked aspects of the post-superhero era and, by injecting them back into the the classic formula, spark a revival of the idea that was stronger than the original. Whereas DC had begun a so-called "Silver Age" by remaking their old Golden Age heroes to be in line with more modern tastes, Marvel, with books like Spider-Man, had instead redefined the entire idea of what a "super" was and could be.
It seems that something this new version of Fantastic Four and that Mark Waid and Josh Trank truly understand is that the characters never really had to be superheroes. They were super, of course, but they were also adventurers and sci-fi characters. They didn't have secret identities or even costumes at first, and they became an axis for an entire era of antiheroes, monstrous good guys and just plain weirdness that led Marvel to dominate the comics industry on and off for the next 6 decades. When I see Trank talk about The Fly and Scanners as influences, I'm reminded of Siegel and Shuster (creators of Superman) going on about this new character who was a fusion of John Carter but in reverse, who lived in a City of Tomorrow like Fritz Lang's Metropolis and did crazy action stunts like Douglass Fairbanks. What Trank is doing in Fantastic Four is taking this wide and wondrous "super" concept and stretching it beyond the idea that it always has to come from the Superman-derived format.
Characters who could be narrow-mindedly put into one type of story slot have the potential for far wider-reaching stories. Think of Wonder Woman, who has fantastic powers and is dealing with the responsibility of being a messiah figure for an alien culture yet is also a young woman looking for love and adventure. You have Green Arrow, who has evolved over the years into a 1970s-style kung fu action hero, a vigilante fighting drug dealers and ninjas in a hard-edged setting. The X-Men are an entire race and culture of people with powers beyond normal men who must live and act in normal society. Multiple characters, stories, and narratives can flower from the core premise of "this person has abilities beyond the norm" into an endless series of possible stories and concepts.
If you take the basic of idea of "four astronauts gain fantastic mutations" and spin that through the lenses of many concepts and iterations both from comics and our cultural sphere as a whole, you have a metric ton of shit on the platter for Fantastic Four. What Trank's Fantastic Four film represents is the potential dawn for "post-heroic supers"—not in the cliché Watchmen style of taking the superhero idea and deconstructing it, but by expanding it. Marvel already teased this with their suite of MCU films, bouncing from spy thriller to heroic fantasy to 1970s-style sci-fi romps, but what Fantastic Four represents is the potential for us to take fundamentally fantastic concepts and use them outside of an heroic formula that has become mundane. With this new push for super ideas beyond the superhero, I'm thinking the flicks are looking pretty bright in the future, especially as a glut of comic adaptations will be under more and more pressure to find a niche in an increasingly crowded market.
|COPRA #9 : Michel Fiffe|
In the end, we're on the crest of what could be a wave, where all of the "super" concepts that we've made up in the past 80 years or so have a chance to thrive and grow in ways we haven't yet expected.
What new forms of comics can we expect in the future? Perhaps more importantly, how can the idea of the "super" person expand its scope beyond the comics scenes across film and into original pieces such as Chronicle and Unlimited, and what new horizons do films like Trank's Fantastic Four present for adaptations of genre work in the future?