Friday, February 14, 2014

Why the World Needs Comic Books

Comic books have been around since the late 1930s with most famous examples being the comic strips found in newspapers. In June 1938, publisher Detective Comics -- which would go on to be named National Comics and, now, DC Comics -- released its first issue of Action Comics for ten cents ($.10). And gracing that cover would be the superhero to end -- or rather lead -- all superheroes: Superman. 

Jewish creators writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster first envisioned Superman as a villain, bent on world domination; this was mostly because the character was inspired by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's Ubermensch concept. However, Siegel re-envisioned Superman as a hero and he was soon designed after pop icons of Siegel's and Shuster's day: actor Douglas Fairbanks Sr. inspired the look of Superman, while the look of Clark Kent (named after movie stars Clark Gable and Kent Taylor) was inspired by silent film actor Harold Lloyd and Shuster himself. As for Superman's story, that would take inspiration from a very biblical place. The story of a little baby being jettisoned away from his home land and sent to a strange place is no stranger to our history. Superman -- or Kal-El as is his birth name -- was placed by his parents in a small spaceship as a baby and rocketed to earth so that he may be saved the doomed fate of his birth planet Krypton. This closely resembles the origin of Moses -- that's right, the Ten Commandments Moses. Moses was born at a time when an Egyptian Pharaoh, out of fear that males might grow up to help the Children of Israel bring his defeat, ordered that all male babies be killed by being drowned in the Nile River. Moses' mother Jochebed hid her son but soon decided that in order to truly save his life, he would need to be somewhere else. So she placed Moses on a small boat/craft and floated him down the Nile River. Moses was found by the Pharaoh's daughter and raised as her son.

But it's not just biblical origins that touch comics. Greek mythology has paved the way for the superheroes we currently know and love. Hercules was inspiration for Superman, while Wonder Woman, born from Hippolyta, received her powers as such: the beauty of Aphrodite, strength from Demeter, wisdom from Athena, speed and flight from Hermes, eyes of the hunter and unity with the beasts from Artemis, and sisterhood with fire and the ability to discern the truth from Hestia

Superman's journey was not to become king -- or god -- of the land, but rather to help mankind with his special superpowers that the earth's yellow sun gave him (yes, Superman is solar-powered). While there have been many iterations in different pop culture of why Superman was sent to earth, the one that sticks has been played out many times and is best captured by Superman's father Jor-El in this trailer (it seems as if the words could have been spoken from God to his son Jesus):

"Even though you've been raised as a human, you are not one of them. They can be a great people, Kal-El. They wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason, above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you, my only son."

After Superman's introduction to the world, fans everywhere craved more. Thus, Batman was born -- as a counterpart to Superman -- in May 1939. Unlike the superpowers of Superman, Batman is human and all of his powers are self-obtained through physical training and education, as well as the hundreds of special gadgets he owns. Batman, who is billionaire Bruce Wayne, was born out of the cold-blooded murder of Bruce's parents right in front of him when he was a little boy. His need for justice and vengeance made him become a crime-fighting vigilante. This may shock contemporary fans, but, in the early days of his comic, Batman was even prone to use a gun! This was soon written out because of Bruce's aversion to guns as a result of his parents' murder weapon being a gun (this would inspire other writers to create famous pop characters who do not use guns and hate the use of them, such as Buffy Summers and The Doctor). 

Soon after Batman's introduction, a new publisher named Timely Comics entered the fray, with its anti-hero Namor the Sub-Mariner and many others. Timely was soon renamed Marvel Comics, and when founder Martin Goodman hired his wife's cousin, Stan Lieber, in 1939 to be a general office assistant, little did Goodman know it, but he would be starting a new revolution in the comic business. Lieber would eventually come to be known as Stan Lee, who is responsible for the creation of every major Marvel character popular today: Spider-Man, Daredevil, Thor, The Hulk, the X-Men, Captain Marvel, Iron Man, Silver Surfer, and the Fantastic Four ... just to name a few.

I could go on and on about all of these characters' origins and how significant they are to the fans who read them, but, instead, I would like to delve into why these characters and their stories are so vital to our lives today and what we as a society can learn from them. What was first considered "kids stuff" has now developed an entirely new fan base -- with adults making up more of the readership. Why is that? Why are adults -- some of which are actors, singers, novel writers, comedians, philosophers, artists and even politicians -- reading these comics? I'm here to answer why comics are some of the most socially-relevant, important pieces of literature in today's society. 

This panel comes from the third volume of The Uncanny X-Men issue #1, in which Cyclops confronts The Avengers about how mutants (which the X-Men all are) are treated by regular humans.

When Stan Lee first created and published the X-Men (Angel, Beast, Cyclops, Iceman and Marvel Girl a.k.a. Jean Grey) in 1963, he admits that he had in mind the true-life inequality at that time of minority races and creeds. Lee had the revolutionary idea of taking a large group of people and giving them something that made them different from other humans. They would each have a different ability which could be used for good or bad, but would make them stand apart from "normal" society. Dubbed mutants, these special people would ultimately have a gift; even though their ability often sets the mutants apart from "normal" humanity, it still makes them special and unique. What once started as a metaphor for the racial divide in this country has now expanded to represent anyone who is treated differently for who they are -- from the racial minorities to the bullied to the gay and lesbian community to different religions. Of course, all of these types of people are not different -- they're human. We all have the same types of feelings, we all bleed, we all love, and we all die. And comics like the X-Men help society -- especially kids from a young age -- to see that. From the moment we start reading comics -- whether young or old -- they can help us to be more open-minded and understanding of each other. The topic of the exchange between Cyclops and Captain America above could perfectly be representative of any contemporary hot topic, whether its prejudice against race, sexuality, religion, or simply for being seen as "goofy," "stupid," "dorky" or "weird." Cyclops, who has usually stood for good, is at a breaking point and he lays out all of his frustrations to The Avengers. However, the uniqueness of the mutants and of human differences is not to be hidden. It is to be shared with humanity. After all, it is often the rebels, the risk-takers, the ones who are "different" who make a lasting imprint upon this earth. 

Comics give its readers a visual peek into the best and worst of humanity -- even if characters are non-human. There are good guys and bad guys, but comics also address the "gray areas" -- those situations with which a person or an act isn't always what it seems. Anti-heroes such as Batman, Sub-Mariner (Namor)The Punisher, Catwoman, The ShadowSpawn, Wolverine, John ConstantineJesse "Preacher" CusterMichonne, and "V" (from V for Vendetta) are characters who know that the world and its people are morally ambiguous and not every issue is simply black or white -- and they act accordingly. 

Since the introduction of the X-Men, other comic characters have helped the abused, bullied and abandoned feel like they had a place with which to turn when the real world was cruel. Comic book artist Dean Trippe needed a way to convey his feelings about being molested as a child. He ended up drawing the short comic called Something Terrible. In this autobiographical comic, Trippe shows with minimal dialogue how he was molested as a kid, and considered suicide, until he watched the 1989 Tim Burton movie adaptation of Batman. Then, he decided to become a comic book artist and it was the many characters (featured in his epic drawing) who helped him escape his pain and open him to the possibilities of living a life undiminished by what was done to him. Trippe also wanted to prove that not all children who are sexually molested become offenders themselves.

To read the entire panel, click here!

Here is a bigger pic of the epic character panel:

How many comic characters can you pick out? Even other famous characters such as Doctor Who, the Ghostbusters, Robocop, Speed Racer, Obi-Wan Kenobi and others have been adapted into the comic book format.

This comic proves that it's not simply the superpowers which give all of these heroes their importance and meaning; it's what they represent. Hope, loyalty, courage, doing what's right when everything goes wrong, being honest even if it can get you in trouble, and helping others. In a time when it's so easy to go the easy route and not care about others or do what's wrong to make more money or get out of trouble, these characters keep our morals in check. They remind us that doing the right thing is not always the most popular or easiest choice ... but it is what's right.

At times when people are divided over partisan politics, hot button issues and one group of people thinking they're way is the right way, it is important now more than ever to look to these characters written with carefully mindful tolerance and understanding. Most of the comic page's famous characters take the time to actually see both sides of a story. Especially Superman. That is why I find him the most interesting and inspirational. The most given excuse or reason I get from people who don't care too much for Superman is that he has so many powers, he has it too easy. However, I would say they're wrong. There is a certain character -- who is a fan favorite of many -- who does fall into the category of "having it too easy": Wolverine. The guy hardly ages, has a metal skeleton, iron claws, and heals from anything. The guy has survived everything thrown at him. Superman at least has Kryptonite to kill him. Wolverine has nothing really -- except, maybe, decapitation. And while Wolverine is still somewhat human, because of his human genes, he can have a connection to people if he chooses. Superman, on the other hand, is a true alien. If he ever even slightly uses his powers the wrong way, he is blamed by a good majority of the human race. There is no one else like him -- until Supergirl and Superboy came along -- not even thousands of other mutants. Kal-El (Superman) knows that he can never have children with the woman he loves, and he can never truly fully be himself without the fear of losing control or putting those he cares about in danger. Mostly, what separates Superman from Wolverine is that whereas Wolverine has a "screw 'em" mentality to anyone who disagrees and often gives in to his anger, Superman -- who gets just as angry (when his eyes go red, watch out!) -- can think out a situation and do what is truly best depending on said situation; Superman also is responsible when it comes to having to bury his anger and temptations for revenge. And if there's anything I've learned, there is a time to fight (albeit rarely), but there are also times -- more often than fighting -- when it's better to walk away or simply listen. It sounds like a lame, cowardly way of thinking, but it is anything but that.

This leads to the supposed uproar in comic news when DC Comics decided to take out the last part of Superman's motto. You know? He fights for "truth, justice and the American way?"

Well, DC Comics decided to take out the "American Way" portion. A particular group of people hated DC's decision and thought Superman would turn into a "communist," a "socialist," or simply a "traitor." But ... if those critics had read the issue in which Superman renounces his U.S. citizenship, maybe they would have understood his reasoning for doing so:

In Action Comics #900, Superman renounces his U.S. citizenship.

Superman, sick of the way Iranian leaders are treating their people, flies to Iran and stands -- without fighting or talking -- between soldiers and protestors for 24 hours straight. Because of Superman's association with America, the Iranians look at it as unwanted American involvement and see his act as an "act of war" from the President of the United States. Superman decided to disassociate himself from America because he was the one who made the call to intervene against Iran -- not America. Superman also realizes that his mission of doing what is right is not simply an "American way," it's a humane way. He serves all the innocent people, all of humanity ... no matter what nationality. This is proven in the final panels:

Sure. It's a bold piece of writing and -- what some might say -- seemingly unrealistic. But it proves that Superman believes in every human life, not just ones who are born in America. And let's not forget that in Action Comics #1 from 1938, Superman not only captures and beats up a rapist, but also rescues Lois from a firing squad, frees foreign captives of a war who are being tortured, and goes after a U.S. lobbyist promoting war to a U.S. senator. Superman finds out which company the lobbyist works for (who turns out to be a U.S. munitions manufacturer magnate), and forces the magnate to enlist in the army and be sent to the very war that his company is manufacturing weapons for. When the magnate actually has to be in the war, on the front lines, he shouts to Superman, "This is no place for a sane man -- I'll die!" Superman quickly retorts, "I see! When it's your OWN life at stake, your viewpoint changes!" The magnate begs Superman to be returned to the U.S., and Superman agrees -- but only if the magnate promises to quit manufacturing munitions. The magnate agrees and is free to go (reference).

Fortunately, it's not just Superman who's breaking barriers. Marvel Comics' X-Men further stepped into the 21st century and addressed a hot topic social issue by introducing the first openly gay character in comics -- Northstar -- and his boyfriend Ken, and having them married on the cover of Astonishing X-Men issue #51.

At DC Comics, Batwoman was revealed to be a lesbian -- even though DC Comics has come under some flak because the company had decided to not follow through with Batwoman/Kate Kane's marriage to Gotham City detective Maggie Sawyer.

Nevertheless, DC also revealed in its Earth 2 that the Green Lantern Alan Scott is gay.

While some may not like or enjoy these storylines, it is a true testament that the comic writers are writing for a broad range of different people in today's culture. However, this concept in comics is neither so contemporary or so strange. When DC Comics' Green Lantern and Green Arrow teamed up in the 1970's, there was a controversial cover that tackled drug addiction. It was when Green Arrow found out that his sidekick, Roy Harper a.k.a. Speedy, was shooting up heroin:

There are other times when some events are so monumental that the comic industry cannot help but address it. When World War II (WWII) broke out and finally touched America on December 7, 1941, both DC Comics and Marvel Comics were there to help keep up morale for the troops overseas who had dreams of fighting and defeating Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler themselves, as well as helping soldiers believe what everyone already believed -- that the soldiers themselves were the heroes.

Another tragic real-world event -- something no mighty superhero could prevent -- would impel superheroes and their creators to step up and help in any way to alleviate a worldwide heartache.

Marvel's universe was especially affected due in large part that nearly all of its superheroes reside in New York City (whereas DC's characters are in fictional representations like Gotham City, Metropolis, etc.).

In 2004, DC Comics shook up the Justice League of America (JLA) with a morality crisis in its seven-issue run of the "Identity Crisis" storyline. In the story, Sue Debny, the wife of the Elongated Man, is killed.

SPOILER ALERT: When the JLA discovers it is villain Dr. Light who killed her and previously raped her, they vote on erasing the memories of Light and other villains who have discovered the secret identities of Superman, Batman and the rest of the JLA. The only person who disagrees with the mind-wipe is Batman. In the end, it is discovered that Atom's (Ray Palmer's) estranged wife Jean Loring killed Sue -- however, by accident -- and the mind-wipe of Light was uncalled for and unjustified. END SPOILER: The story showcases how far heroes are sometimes willing to go to protect loved ones from danger ... but at what cost? The heroes cross a line that becomes a big question of whether it should be crossed in the first place or not. Sure, Dr. Light is a despicable villain, but should his mind be entirely wiped clean? Most of the JLA seem to think so, but their decision will haunt them from this point on -- and it causes a rift with Batman, whom will go on to monitor them all in future issues.

Some of the stories featured in comic books became some of the most metaphorically deep storylines which would eventually go on to be used in contemporary TV series and films. One such story was the "This Man ... This Monster" story featured in Fantastic Four #51.

 In the story, Ben Grimm -- The Thing -- is transformed into a normal human again while someone else poses as Thing to try and kill Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic). The sub-plot is that Grimm gets to feel normal again and propose to his longtime girlfriend, Alicia Masters. However, Grimm gets to her door and is about to knock when he is abruptly transformed back (after the imposter Thing sacrifices himself to save Richards) to Thing, making him back out of the proposal. The story is intriguing and heartbreaking all at once. It teaches of humanity and selflessness. It's these kinds of storylines (such as Grimm's not feeling "good-looking" or normal enough) that appeal to readers everywhere.

As previously mentioned, Superman's origin involves being an orphan, immigrant, and feeling alienated, which caused many readers from other countries -- as well as orphans and those who feel alone -- to relate to the superpowered alien. Those who were not born in America but dream of becoming citizens often hold Superman in high esteem (one such admirer is KISS frontman Gene Simmons, who was born in Israel and emigrated to New York City when he was 8-years-old).

In Spider-Man's origin, Peter Parker -- after having received his superpowers -- purposely ignores a thief fleeing the scene of a crime. Later, that same thief shoots and kills Peter's father figure, Uncle Ben. Amid his guilt of inadvertently causing his uncle's death, Peter learns the hard way that there is a responsibility that comes with not only having powers but also with being a good person.

"At school, even in kindergarten, [adults] teach [children] to behave in the world. [Adults] teach [children] not to fight with others, to work things out, to respect others, to clean up our mess, not to hurt other creatures, to share and not be greedy. Then why do you go out and do the things you tell us not to do? You are deciding what kind of world we will grow up in. Parents should be able to comfort their children by saying 'everything's going to be alright,' 'we're doing the best we can,' and 'it's not the end of the world.' But I don't think you can say that to us anymore. Are we even on your list of priorities? My father always says, 'You are what you do, not what you say.'" This quote was taken from then-12-year-old Severn Cullis-Suzuki when she spoke to the United Nations Earth Summit in 1992. Superheroes in comics teach and provide those same lessons. But in an age when wars are waged for the wrong reason and/or under false pretenses, people are insulted and/or harassed for their beliefs, personal freedoms are taken away with the signing of an act, and the less fortunate and less wealthy are treated with suspicion, disrespect and inhumanity, one has to wonder where all of the morals, kindness, respect, tolerance and compassion that is pounded into our heads as children by not only those around us (parents, relatives, friends, teachers, etc.) but also the heroes of literature, television, movies, and music, are today. Someone was so gracious and compassionate to the less fortunate that he once said, "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. ... It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." That was Jesus (Mark 10:21-25). And not only did he preach -- and live -- that way, but he also healed the sick, hung out with sinners and miscreants, and invited the poor to dine with him.

We are raised to have compassion, understanding, patience, kindness, respect, courage, and critical thinking when we are young; and, yet, when we grow up, and if we still cling to these concepts, we are blasted by those who are in opposition when we show these traits, with words such as "naive," "misinformed," "communist," "socialist," "confused," "wrong," "pinhead," "hippie," "fanatic," "freeloader," "idiot," "lazy," "stupid," and "unpatriotic" -- just to name a few. Unfortunately, these vocal name-calling opponents are the ones who are abundantly heard, thanks to "news" and social media graciously being a platform for such talking heads. When it comes to these such people, luckily, comics also can also teach us how to deal with them too. In the first panel below, Superman's enemy, Lex Luthor, may speak with an extreme hatred but his thinking is not far from those who spout hatred and separation on TV, radio, social media and in books. Here is a sample of Lex Luthor's hatred for Superman, with whom Lex hates because Superman is an alien:

Lex Luthor (who, in the DC Comic universe, even becomes President of the United States) may be a bit extreme of a metaphor, but it nonetheless is appropriate for the obsession with certain groups and types of people in this world -- on any issue from any side of the spectrum -- who think the world should think and live the way they do. But, those people, like Luthor, miss the point. Others may say that these talking heads are simply "putting on an act." But if they are feeding into that act and putting out negativity for profit, then they are no better and no different than the people who really feel those negative feelings and think those thoughts. In the end, comics and its denizens teach us an important lesson in trying to change people through intimidation, name-calling and bullying. Here is one such example as evidenced in the 2013 Superman film Man of Steel:

It's not just Superman we can learn from. In the pages of Spider-Man comes the famous quote: "With great power comes great responsibility." In Gotham City, as easy as it would be for Batman/Bruce Wayne to kill the Joker so he could save a countless amount of lives in a future that didn't have Joker, Batman refuses to do so because it goes against his morality of not killing people. In the 1987 graphic novel Watchmen -- written by the recluse comic book genius Alan Moore and the only graphic novel/comic to be featured on Time magazine's "All-Time 100 Greatest Novels" list -- the central characters are all former superheroes who are either retired or working for the U.S. government. Each of their lives are by no means perfect and each has their own personal struggle to overcome against the backdrop of one of their own -- now a government mercenary -- being murdered and trying to solve why he was murdered and who is responsible.

SPOILER ALERT: When the heroes find out it is one of their own -- Ozymandias -- who is responsible for the murder, and that he is unleashing a giant squid in Manhattan (in the movie version, he plans on detonating multiple nuclear bombs in major cities) to unite the world in peace, Nite Owl, Dr. Manhattan, and Silk Spectre all agree to stay silent of Ozymandias' guilt and plan so that the world would unite with -- and support -- the U.S. (which was previously in danger of war with Russia). The only hero not willing to compromise is Rorschach (think of a mix between Batman and The Punisher), who is less utilitarian and believes that the sacrificing of one life for the safety of millions is not justified; every life counts. Rorschach plans on exposing Ozymandias' scheme and thus putting the new world peace in peril. When confronted with his imminent death at the hands of Dr. Manhattan, Rorschach rhetorically asks, "What's one more body amongst foundations?"

Comics provide just as much philosophy, imagination, metaphor, relatability, and entertainment as regular literary novels. But what's more is that comics not only have great stories and great writing -- they also have some of the best artwork seen. From older comics ...

This one is a personal favorite -- and a great issue ("Who is Scorpio?") -- from 1968: Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., drawn and written by Jim Steranko, who drew some revolutionary images and layouts for the comic industry in the late '60s.

... to the inbetween ones ...

Frank Miller's 1986 cover to his introduction to the darker Batman in The Dark Knight Returns.

... to the newer ones.

Alex Ross (who paints the most realistic versions of comic book characters) submitted this masterpiece for Uncanny X-Men #500 in September 2008.

The beauty of comics today is that no matter what you as a reader are into, there's a comic for it. Do you like superheroes? Of course they're there. Like super-heroines? They're there.

My youngest daughter is named after Supergirl's (and the contemporary Starbuck's from Battlestar Galactica) birth name: Kara.

Do you like comics that are not about superpowers? They're there! 

Do you want comics based on classic novels? They're there!

Do you want comics either based on -- or adapted into -- your favorite TV shows? They're there!

There's every kind you could think of. Even though they may not be mainstream, it's out there and just needs a bit of searching to find.

And if there's ever any reason whatsoever that our world needs superheroes, it's because they provide a contemporary mythology for our times and our country, as well as providing imagination, hope, and inspiring people of all ages with courage and compassion.

Thanks to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, San Francisco transformed into Gotham City for a day to make 5-year-old Miles Scott's dream come true. Scott, who has leukemia, donned the Batman costume -- calling himself Batkid -- and set off throughout the city to save lives and fight bad guys.

The late Karl Nawskon often wore his Superman shirt when going through chemotherapy treatments.

These window washers dress up as superheroes when going out to wash the windows of patients at a children's hospital.

"You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you; they will stumble, they will fall. But, in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders."

In the end, comics have grown to paramount heights since their introduction in the late 1930s. They're not just "funny pages" or "kids stuff" anymore. Comics are an artistic -- in every sense of the word -- way to convey a society's national conscience while also holding up moral questions that should be asked in any day and age. They make us feel, learn and have a better understanding for those who are different from us. And in a world where one-sided thinking seems to rule -- or, at least, dominate -- our social and mass media, leaving millions to be bombarded with such narrow views, that's a welcome sight for anyone hoping to live in a better, more understanding, symbiotic world.

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