Superman turns eighty next year. You wouldn’t know it by looking at him, but the definitive superhero has been starring in four-color tales since 1938. Even more mind-boggling is the fact that he’s been starring in at least two magazines since 1939. Wanna get even crazier? Each of those magazines contained at least two separate Superman stories apiece until around the 1970’s. Then, just for fun, factor in the years since 1960 when he’s starred alongside the Justice League, his other series that cropped up in the 1980’s, enumerable mini-series, one-shots, spin-offs, spin-offs of those spin-offs, television series, blockbuster films, radio shows, fashionable footwear…well, you’re left with a sea of super that begs the simple-yet-hardly-raised question: “How?”
How is it that Superman (or any superhero, for that matter) has survived into the modern day with new, exciting stories still being told every month (and, in Superman’s case, at least twice a month)? How is that even humanly possible? How do we even still care? We, as a species, have grown up and consumed stories with definitive points of beginnings, middles, and ends. We’re used to stories being told and then ending. The hero rides off into the sunset and then we move on to the next story. Except when they don’t.
We’ve discussed this previously, but superhero stories are inherently different from the standard adventure tale and this stems from the genre itself being intrinsically tied to the medium it was created in (something we’re going to have to discuss later, I’m sure). No other genre is as influenced by its medium as the superhero and we can see proof of this in the way superhero stories have been told over the years.
When the American comic book was created, it was, from the beginning, designed as a disposable medium. They were printed on the cheapest paper you could find outside of the pulps, they were a dime apiece, and they told simple, easy to digest stories. They catered to a younger audience who could be swept up in the four-colored adventures of their favorite heroes and, when they were finished, could throw them away. These could then be easily pulped down and recycled for use in future issues. They weren’t designed to last forever. And the stories reflected that.
For most of his career, Superman has starred in Action Comics and his own, self-titled magazine. Every month, kids from all over could grab an issue of Action or Superman and be treated to two-to-three stories an issue, all plots nicely resolved by the end of an eight-page tale. So long as you knew who Superman was, you could pick up a comic and enjoy what you read. There weren’t continuity notes or No-Prize’s, the writers were making it all up as they went along (not to mention having to somersault through the myriad rules of the Comics Code). You wouldn’t have to keep Superman #134, because nothing in that issue would influence Superman #135. Comic book characters of the Golden Age were essentially cartoon characters, inhabiting this weird world of publishing that wasn’t dependent upon ongoing narratives. They were branded pretty early on and the consumers would jump into a story like they would a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Ten minutes of entertainment, that’s all that stood between an issue of Superman and a trash can.
So, this is where our earlier question begins to get asked, though, not as loudly as one would expect. How is Superman still around? How is he still carrying a narrative that is, at this point, almost eighty years old? Well, honestly, if the medium had remained as it was in the 1930’s through the 1950’s, I don’t think he would. Superman would be relegated to the likes of the aforementioned Looney Toon, Bugs Bunny, starring in the occasional television series or being continuously published in comics as reprints or one-shot stories aimed at children. There’s only so long a character can cater to a disposable audience like the ones in the Golden Age before they become so much background noise. It’s why many pulp heroes have fallen into obscurity. The Lone Ranger, the Green Hornet, Zorro, Doc Savage, the Shadow, the Phantom, Buck Rogers, the Spider…who still reads about those characters with the excitement seen in fans of the Marvel characters? These heroes never rose above their disposable roots, and, as a result, have become background noise in the world of publishing. It doesn’t matter what the Shadow did last month, because he’s right back where he started this month. Which is where he was last year. And the decade before that. It’s an unfortunate fate for these admittedly fantastic characters, but one that was inevitable.
The same fate was waiting for Superman, Batman, and all the rest. In fact, it was already beginning to happen in post-war America. The superhero was seen as a fad that had begun to fade into history alongside the pulp heroes of old. It took the Marvel Age of Comics to save them.
In 1961, an under-the-radar publisher called Marvel Comics launched a brand-new comic series called the Fantastic Four. It was about a team of superheroes, something I’m sure many consumers in the sixties rolled their eyes at. The superhero was done. But those fantastic pages contained the birth of an entirely new universe of superheroic possibilities. Before, Superman dealt with having his head turned into a lion’s until he fixed it by page eight. Cue the next story. Now? Now, the Fantastic Four had to deal with not only giant monsters erupting from the bowels of New York, but their lease was almost up on the Baxter Building. If they didn’t get the money, they could be out on the streets! They may have beaten the monster this month, but how are they going to get the money? Marvel wouldn’t give you that bit of info until the next month, True Believer! If they missed an issue, anyone who checked into Fantastic Four #35 would find themselves aching to read Fantastic Four #34. How did the FF end up in this one?? And, hey, who’s that Spider-Guy who showed up in FF #26? You better believe you needed to check out Amazing Spider-Man #6 to see what he’s up to!
Marvel built a universe. There’s no other way to describe it. They designed their stories around a singular continuity, where one event directly influenced what came next. Fantastic Four #15 lead straight into Fantastic Four #16, and the fallout may even affect Daredevil #4! Actions had consequences, relationships were built and destroyed, and nothing would ever be the same. Marvel realized that, instead of cycling through an audience every five years or so, they could keep the same audience for years to come, even as they attracted new eyes to their nascent playground. This previously disposable medium now demanded attention. You couldn’t throw away your latest issue of Journey into Mystery after you were done with it. The story mattered.
On top of producing solid adventure stories, Marvel also began what has come to be known as the famous Marvel Bullpen, where the editors would interact with the fans. Here they would answer letters, promote upcoming releases, and build a community around their comics. At the same time their universe was growing, so too was the Marvel fanbase. It felt like talking with old friends in the Bullpen. Reading the letters column let the reader feel as if they weren’t alone in their love for these characters, like you got to have a conversation about your hobby. Those Bullpens were full of life and I’m convinced that Marvel itself wouldn’t have made it to the new millennium without it.
Sales began to skyrocket and DC began to take notice. Granted, it took them a little longer to catch up, viewing Marvel as just another fad that would soon fade into obscurity. But, by the 1970’s, DC was playing Marvel’s game. Their stories continued from one month to the next. Actions mattered, characters died, worlds were changed forever. Their versions of the Bullpen never quite caught on like Marvel’s, but at the very least, Superman and his friends were saved from limbo.
This is how a disposable medium turned into a collectible one. Whether that’s strictly a good thing or not is a topic for another time, but the transformation has saved fan-favorite characters from becoming dusty relics of the past. Thanks to Marvel Comics, you can tune in each and every month and read five different Spider-Man titles (again, a topic for another time).
The comic book medium was never meant to last. It was a cheap form of entertainment that would have inevitably turned into a collection of reprints and underground magazines that wouldn’t garner an NPR retrospective, much less a Hollywood blockbuster. But things have changed. Through innovation and sheer determination, the superhero has a longevity that isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
And you can thank Stan and Jack for that.