Frontier Psychiatrist

Up in the Sky, Down in the Shadows: Batman, Superman, and America

Posted on: February 13, 2012

The following is an excerpt from Jared Thomas’s upcoming book, Up in the Sky, Down in the Shadows: What Batman & Superman Can Tell Us About the American Spirit.  Read more from Mr. Thomas here.  

Prologue: Down in the Gutters, Up to the Stars

Myth begins in the gutter.  It comes to life as folktales.  It’s what the Germans call Volkgeist; the Spirit of the People. The Priests and Poets come later.  It always starts with the stories.  They can be refined, re-worked, written down, re-vamped, re-told, re-booted but never actually altered because Myths are always true.  They are forged in the crucible of the People’s predicament.  They are told because they are necessary.  They exist because they must.

Homer was a blind man who wrote down the stories of shepherds and cutthroats.  Geoffrey of Monmouth took the strange Welsh songs of a peerless hero who fought giants and cat-monsters and turned it into the defining myth of the United Kingdom.  Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were academics who recorded the morbid morality tales of Central Europe.

Achilles.  The Trojan Horse.  Helen of Troy.  Arthur.  Lancelot.  Gwyneviere.  Sleeping Beauty.  Cinderella.  Little Red Riding Hood.  They come as freely to the modern mind as they did centuries ago and they will continue to until we no longer have need of them.  Like it or not, these are our defining stories, and they didn’t come from the Literati or the Tastemakers.  They sprung from the Volkgeist and help to illuminate the Spirit of the Age.

Now, add two more names to that list:

Superman. Batman.

Sprung from the bowels of the Great Depression, The World’s Finest have existed for over 70 years, morphing through time to best reflect the ever-present Now yet always possessing the same truth at their cores.  One, the stranger from another planet gifted by our yellow sun with powers far beyond mortal man, raised in the heartland of America to be the best of us; the other, a child of tragedy who pledges unlimited will, talent and resource to the war against injustice, they are the twin archetypes of the American Century.  In them, we may see the old stories re-invented, re-told, re-packaged.

They both offer us protection, justice, hope but in different ways.  One descends from the sky; the other ascends from the streets.  One patrols the day-world of high technology while the other polices the archaic night, each explicating their side of the great debate:

From whence will salvation come, above or below?

And they were born from a medium which, for most of its history, has been uniquely positioned to best reflect the Volkgeist at its most primal.  The comic book has always been a trash form.  Beginning with Richard Outcault’s The Yellow Kid (the first full color newspaper strip and the basis for the term “Yellow Journalism”), American comic books have neither aimed for nor often achieved high literary value.  It’s always been a throwaway medium (in the case of many heartbroken young boys whose parents forced them to march their comic collections out to the trash, this is a very literal truth).  While the comic books of Europe became the Graphic Novels of Belgium and France, widely accepted by the literate public, American Comics could only march in step with the crass vigor of the United States.

Much like modern Hollywood, the early publishers in the Golden Age of Comics (1938-1949) were primarily concerned with devising the most powerful way to grab the attention of the marketplace.  In practical terms, they’d print whatever it took to get the kids to hand over their nickels.  The pulps were fine for the grown-ups but children have shorter attention spans and, besides, there was a new shark in the waters and it had moving, talking pictures.

It’s important to remember the past was just as vulgar as the present.  As popular entertainment proliferated through the 19th century into the 20th, it tended to best reflect what the largest part of the audience was interested in.  As it turns out, what they were interested in then is what they’re interested in now; action, sex, crude morality and heroic power fantasies.  The cheap pulps, filled with half-naked women and intensely misogynistic male protagonists were selling hundreds of thousands of copies in the first two decades of the 20th century.  Radio and film, though decidedly more tame, were practically dripping with undisguised aggression and barely disguised libido as the Thirties reared its depressing head.  The world of mass entertainment, in the time before World War II, was as far from the forcefully sterile landscape of the 1950’s as ours is today.  And it was this world which birthed American comics.

The first comics were nothing impressive.  It was mostly just reprints of newspaper strips, mainly featuring broadly comedic caricatures with more than a dash of odd and disturbing racial stereotypes.  But, when the reprint well ran dry, the publishers had to find new faces to fill the panels.  Thus, by 1935, they were throwing anything and everything at the comics reading public.  Funny animals, historic adventures, futuristic police stories, bumbling cavemen.  The novelty hadn’t worn off yet so the kids would still buy just about anything and each book had 64 pages to fill.

In New York City, strange little sweatshops sprung up, packed shoulder to shoulder with young men, most of them poor, many of them immigrants (or sons of immigrants), some of them talented, all of them hustlers.  They’d cram into grubby Midtown publishing offices and hunch themselves over desks to crank out make-believe bullshit for the yokels in Dubuque.  They were tough kids making a tough living but they weren’t doing what their fathers did.  They weren’t digging ditches or chopping meat.  They were making their way through the Great Depression drawing dreams and that was better than most.

As the 20th century turned, an age of technology was upon us.  The restless spirit of the pioneers was still playing out while the great urban centers welcomed fresh blood from across the Earth.  As the global engines of commerce belched wealth and advancement, the rise of easy media gave birth to an accelerated culture.  Even World War I, with all its terrible, pointless death, gave rise to a flowering of American arts and letters and a new-found swagger in the public stride.  Gangsters, Glitz and Guns.  Opportunity Everywhere.  Skyscrapers rose and jazz filled the streets but the Stock Market Crash of 1929 not only wiped fiscal stability from the ledger of America, it rattled a confidence central to the national ethos.  Manifest Destiny, that glorious and terrible phrase and the post-Enlightenment dreams of a newer, greater society had been replaced by breadlines, desperate public works projects and immigrant ghettoes with no more West to conquer.

The air got let out of the balloon.  All that dynamic energy so ingrained in the American Spirit seemed to fritz out like an electrical wire not connected to anything.  Those smartly dressed young men were forced to sell their pocket watches and stand in line for work.  The first generation immigrants whose parents had abandoned their worlds so they might inherit a better one found a gaping hole where the American Dream was meant to be.  For ten years, the roar of America became a whimper.

And then, Superman happened.

Try to imagine the visceral thrill of being a kid and opening up a comic book in 1938.  These were children born into gloom.  They had never known the swinging trumpets of the Twenties or the unbridled optimism of Edison’s electrical age.  They were Depression kids, bred on privation and managed expectations.  Radio was the dominant medium.  Film was still in its monochrome infancy.  Awash in gaudy color and unceasing action, invincible men crumple tanks between their fingers like a portal to some other, better reality where the spires never cease and nothing is impossible.  But, this was not the exotic jungle of the Phantom or the distant Mexico of Zorro.  These were the streets and tenements the increasingly urbanized population could recognize.  And the superhero world shared our problems.  Superman fought bank robbers and crooked union officials.  Batman’s streets were filled with muggers and hoodlums.  It was not the future.  It was not the past.  It was not another planet or a fantastical realm.  It was right here, right now (and part of the longevity of superheroes is their omnipresence; they always exist right here, right now).

But, unlike our world, a hero was coming to save us.  The drab businessman in the glasses and three-piece suit would take off his tie and snatch us from the path of a speeding car.  The vapid Rockefellers of high society took to the rooftops and kept watch against the night.  There were magic lanterns and men with wings.  No one ever starved or suffered wrongs these gods could not right.  In the blink of an eye.  In a single bound.  It was pure and crude heroic mythology.

The idea of the superhero isn’t exactly a new one.  Hercules was, after all, stronger, faster and smarter than normal humans with his own rogue’s gallery of colorful villains (The Nemedian Lion, The Lernaen Hydra, Cerberus, etc.).  Robin Hood had a secret lair (Sherwood Forest), an arch-nemesis (The Sheriff of Nottingham) and even his own heroic gimmick (master archer).  Arthur possessed a magical sword bequeathed him by a wizard with a whole team of heroes who banded together whenever the peril was too great for any one knight alone.  Not to mention the masked adventurers which filled the pulp pages of the early 20th century, many of whom are still recognizable (Zorro, Green Hornet, The Shadow).

But in the Kryptonian, there was something different at play.  Debuting in Action Comics #1, dated June, 1938, Superman had no precedent.  In fact, it had been centuries since the West had created a potent hero who was so blatantly more than a man.  Bullets bounced off him.  He was practically invincible.  He feared nothing for he had nothing to fear.  There is something charmingly simple to Superman’s essential premise:

What if a seemingly weak man was secretly mighty?

It would be easy to reduce this profound formulation to the wish fulfillment it represented to Superman’s creators.  After all, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were bookish Jews from Ohio.  But the artists of a society can often predict its direction.  Sometimes through genius, sometimes through inspiration, sometimes through simply grabbing into the air and coming down with which the way the wind is blowing.

When Superman debuted, America was still crawling on its belly.  Seven years in the future, it would be the greatest military power the world has ever seen.  It would control the atom bomb and be the center of the new world economy.  It would stand astride the Earth, its flag waving proudly in the wind, bound by nothing save its own code.  So, let’s re-work Superman’s essential premise:

What if a seemingly weak country was secretly mighty?

After his debut, Superman was quickly rushed to radio and the matinee houses.  His symbol adorned everything from lunch boxes to belt buckles.  Supermania swept the country and in the blink of an eye, it seemed as though superheroes had always been among us.

They represented a unique blend of high imagination, crude wish fulfillment, unwavering, puritanical morality and melodramatic mythography.  The men in tights (and save for a very few notable examples, they were always men) were forthright, endlessly energetic, attractive, ultimately unbeatable and generally tremendously clever (or at least, more clever than the supervillains, which often wasn’t saying all that much).  Coming out of the decade long horror show dubbed The Great Depression and headed straight into the conflagration of World War II and the American Century, they were everything we wanted to be, everything we thought (or perhaps hoped) we were and everything we pictured ourselves becoming.

By this time, the top comics were selling in the millions.  By 1945, The Market Research Company of America reported 70 million people read comic books (that was roughly half the population).  Of children between the ages of 6-11, 95% of boys and 91% of girls identified themselves as comic readers.  41% of men and 28% of women, ages 18-30, were reported as regularly reading comics.  Make no mistake, this was mass culture.  By the time World War II began, comics were being shipped to G.I.s on the front.  A whole generation of children was learning what it meant to be a hero between the pages of a comic book.

The appeal of the superhero as a concept is as easy to understand as kids playing pretend in a parking lot.  It speaks to basic childish wish-fulfillment.  By putting on the costume, we can imagine ourselves to be bigger than we are, more powerful, more just.  Our battles become Wagnerian with morality etched in unambiguous black and white.  Even the garish color palate of the uniform, though probably chosen to grab the eye of young children, set the superhero apart from drab world of the 1930’s.  The secret identity allows us to be someone else yet remain ourselves.  It lends us the strength of a secret.  If only the pretty girl knew there was a god behind these glasses.  If only the world could see the remarkable abilities hidden beneath this mundane disguise.

Superheroes are both an expression of impotence and a totem of potential.  They speak to the difference between how we seem and what we truly are.  On one hand, they’re voyeuristic fantasies, allowing us to do in imagination what we dare not do in life.  On the other, they give us the courage to dare.

They serve the same function as hero myths have always done.  They give us something towards which to aspire.  We can never be as powerful as Superman but we can be as good.  We can’t do the things Batman does but we can possess the same unwavering commitment to justice.  Our heroes tell us who we are and what we value.  They reflect our culture’s idealized notion of itself.  The criticism leveled against superheroes is they’re nothing more than adolescent power fantasies but America is a young country.  We lack the deep and varied mythic systems of the Old World.  Our heroes didn’t exist so we had to invent them.

A list of superheroes published before 1945 number in the high hundreds, if not the thousands.  From Ma Hunkle to the Human Bomb, no gimmick, power or design element went unused.  There was literally an army of super powered do-gooders marching across the globe.  Most of them are long forgotten.

Stories and Truth are murky things, Myths and Truth even murkier.  Of all the superheroes invented in the Golden Age, only a handful made their way into the public consciousness.  The People are fickle.  They’ll let every story into their hearts but only a few get to stay.

What is it about Batman and Superman which makes them so essential?  Across a century, they have morphed into global icons whose ideographic value is higher than ever.  Through a strange and energetic alchemy, they were imbued with a core potency which defies easy explanation.  Each generation re-invents them yet they remain unchanged.

Batman is still Bruce Wayne.  He still has a trusted Butler named Alfred and a brightly attired boy sidekick named Robin.  He still lives in a house on the hill while descending nightly into the smoke to protect and avenge the innocent.  He is still matching wits with a mad clown.

Clark Kent is still Superman.  He is the adopted son of Kansas farmers, sent to Earth by his scientist parents from a doomed planet.  He is still ludicrously powerful yet impossibly moral.  He is still a newspaper man working alongside a strong, intelligent and beautiful woman called Lois Lane.  He is still grappling with a bald tycoon.

Stop anyone on the street and they’ll most likely be able to tell you some or all of these details.  Superman and Batman have become ingrained in our national psyche.  Their stories are part of our internal machinery.  In them, we might discover ourselves; who we are as a people and a country.  Like it or not, Superman is our Arthur, Batman our Lancelot and their Camelot is called America.

Jared Thomas is an author and scriptwriter living in Brooklyn. His works include The Street Dreams of Electric Youth, The Last Amesha, and Gre & The Devil. His column “Words & Pictures (for sub-literates)” appears regularly on Frontier Psychiatrist. He can be reached for correspondence at


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