Thursday, December 17, 2009

Capes to Cowboys and Back Again- An Essay

The period between 1938 and 1955 is referred to as the Golden Age of Comics and not without merit. During this period, numerous artists and writers set the standard for what would be the hallmarks and tropes of this burgeoning new medium, and they experimented with many genres. Of these, the genre of the superhero would become the most dominant, but it wasn't always that way. In the period of the Golden Age following World War II, the superhero lost its prominence for a time, and other genres took its place. Of these genres, one of the most popular was the western, with numerous titles on the market. However, by the time the Silver Age of Comics was underway (1956-1971), the western had practically rode off into the sunset, and the superhero genre was once more on top. While other genres have had brief spikes in popularity during the subsequent eras of comics, the western, for the most part, has languished. The rise and fall of popularity of the western genre in comics can be directly attributed to the changing style of how superheroes were presented to the reading public. By looking at the history of the Golden Age, we can understand how the western genre waned so quickly and how this waning was different than that experienced by other genres.
In 1933, the first comic books were released to American newsstands. These early comics were simply reprints of popular syndicated newspaper strips. Though lacking in original content, these early comic books proved profitable enough for publishers to consider new material. National Comics (DC Comics’ original moniker) began an anthology series in 1935 entitled New Fun Comics, which featured a multitude of genres, including science fiction, humor, adventure, and, of course, westerns. The anthology format would prevail throughout the Golden Age, giving the reader a wide variety of stories and characters to choose from in any single issue (McGlothlin, 6).
As the years progressed, creators experimented with putting some of their action heroes in gaudy costumes, mostly as a way to spike interest in a book with flagging sales. These "long underwear" types were otherwise little different from their forbearers in the newspaper strips or the pulp magazines, but they set the bar for what was to follow in the Golden Age proper.In 1938, National released Action Comics #1 with a new character starring in the lead feature: Superman, the Man of Steel. While the many elements of Superman, such as the incredible powers, the flashy costume, or secret identity, were nothing new, the combination of all these into one character was groundbreaking, to say the least. The whole proved greater than the sum of the parts, and both Action Comics and Superman were immediate successes. The Golden Age had begun, and the superhero was born. Other creators were quick to capitalize, with Batman being the most notable subsequent success.What is often overlooked, however, is that Action Comics, like its predecessors, was an anthology title. Superman was not the only character, nor was his science fiction flavor of adventure the only genre featured. "The A-G Gang" was a story revolving around Chuck Dawson and his feud with crooked cattle barons. The western would ride side by side with the superhero through much of the Golden Age.
Through the first half of the Golden Age, the superhero more or less reigned supreme. Then, after World War II, the superhero saw a sharp decline. While Superman, Batman, and a few others retained their popularity, most mystery men quickly fell by the wayside. During the war, many superheroes fought Nazis which, as one can reasonably assume, fell out of fashion when the Nazis were defeated in real life. Still, that’s not the only reason for the decline."In hindsight, comic books were victims of their own success. So many were published in such a relatively short time that even in a period as innovative as the Golden Age, repetition became inevitable" (McGlothlin, 11). It certainly didn’t help matters that many heroes weren’t all that super. While some, such as Superman and others, did possess fantastic abilities, a sizeable number were simply everyday men and women in a gaudy costume (McGlothlin, 63). Even those that were superhuman in nature rarely showcased their abilities in any dramatic way. The most common resolution for a superhero story was for the villain to get his lights punched out. Simple, but effective. However, there are only so many times this works before it becomes played out.
Finally, the ever increasing leaps made by science and technology made whatever moderate powers possessed by the heroes of the Golden Age seem obsolete. In an age of supersonic jets and atom bombs, a man who was only a little bit tougher and stronger than average wouldn’t cut it. The curtain seemed to draw to a close on the superhero in 1951, when All Star Comics, formerly the title showcasing most of National’s superheroes as the Justice Society, was renamed All-Star Western. The western genre was riding high in the saddle as cowboy stories became more prominent (McGlothlin, 12).
Why the sudden popularity? In part, this is due to the general popularity enjoyed by the western across all media at the time in America. Radio plays, feature films, film serials, and most importantly television all featured cowboys. Comics, never shy to follow trends, quickly adapted and cashed in. Another reason is due to simple familiarity. As many creators cut their teeth working on daily strips and pulp magazines in some fashion, they were already familiar with the many tropes that are beholden to the western tale. These factors combined to showcase cowboy protagonists in many comics, whether they were adapted from other media, like Gene Autrey or Roy Rogers, or were brand new creations.One could argue that such a shift was simple. After all, many western heroes already operated under some superhero conventions. Characters like Zorro, the Lone Ranger, or Nabisco’s Straight Arrow had secret identities, sidekicks, secret lairs, or some combination thereof. This blurring of the lines between superhero and cowboy is best exemplified in National Comics’ character, Vigilante. While ostensibly a superhero (being a member of the superteam the Seven Soldiers of Victory, alongside characters like Green Arrow), his origins were drawn from the western; he had hunted down a group of stagecoach robbers in order to avenge a kinsman. A Vigilante story from Action Comics #45 further illustrates this. Vigilante and his sidekick Stuff, the Chinatown Kid, foil a group of whites impersonating Chinese Tongs. While it takes place in New York City in the 1940‘s, it could easily be transitioned to San Francisco in the 19th Century.
While the western surged in popularity, it was not the only one to benefit from the dearth of superheroic fare. Romance, humor, and most notoriously crime and horror comics boomed. Of the latter two genres, those stories published by EC (formerly Educational Comics, then Entertaining Comics) proved the most popular. The stories published by EC were often salacious, violent and graphic, but they were also incredibly entertaining to the youth of America. Unfortunately, this popularity invited criticism. In 1954, psychologist Dr. Fredric Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent. In this book, Wertham listed a slew of examples of how comics could lead children into delinquency. While many of the claims are ludicrous by today’s standards, such as how Batman and his young ward Robin promoted homosexuality, Wertham’s academic credentials were enough to lend an air of authority (McGlothlin, 12). Seduction of the Innocent lead to Congressional hearings, and, rather than face censures, the comic book industry as a whole went into a sort of self-policing with the creation of the Comics Code Authority in 1955.
The Comics Code Authority had a strict set of guidelines on what was and was not morally acceptable. Any comic had to be submitted to the CCA before publication; if the book was found to meet the established criteria, it was given a literal stamp of approval, which in turn allowed the comic to be distributed to newsstands. The CCA’s guidelines were very strict and forced many genres to collapse. Restrictions regarding sexual content (regardless of how innocuous) ended the romance books, bans on supernatural elements such as vampires and werewolves caused horror comics to flounder, and rules on how violence in general and criminals and law enforcement in particular were depicted brought an end to crime comics (Johnson & Leitheusser, 6).
However, western comics were relatively untouched by the new regulations. A brief examination at a few pre-Code titles shows how they could weather the change. In the lead feature of Western Roundup #1 (1952), we see Roy Rogers and a passel of old-timers thwart a band of hoodlums. The amazing thing about this is that despite numerous shots being fired from both sides, only one person was hit, and that was in the shoulder. Similarly, in another Roy Rogers tale, this one from Western Roundup #9 (1955, just before the inception of the Code), the only person hit by a bullet was merely rendered "unconscious". Other depictions of violence are limited to fisticuffs and the like, and any deaths that occur happen "off-panel", often before the story itself actually starts.Not only could the western meet the guidelines for violence, but the Code’s rules about providing moral lessons were also upheld by the genre as well. The bad guys were punished, and the heroes stuck to their moral guns, as it were. In the aforementioned Western Roundup #9, one of the villains offers to cut Roy in on the scheme. Roy doesn’t even consider playing along to infiltrate the group; there is a clear line for Roy Rogers, and he doesn’t cross it. Scenes like this and others allowed the western to survive under the Comics Code Authority where other genres withered and died.
"Survive" does not necessarily mean "thrive", however, and another genre proved that it could not only exist under the CCA but flourish: the superhero. When DC (having now changed its name from National) released Showcase #4, the Silver Age hit got off to a running start thanks to a new take on a Golden Age character: The Flash. The significance of the Showcase #4 cannot be understated. First, it rebranded the concept of the superhero for a new crop of young readers. Second, it tied the superhero more closely to that of the science fiction genre. While magic characters would be introduced, the majority of heroes to debut in the next few would have origins in science fiction. Aside from genre conventions, this played into concerns about the space race or the atomic age, with many characters having ties to one or the other. The Fantastic Four were a group of astronauts before they gained their powers, and the Incredible Hulk gained his abilities from a nuclear weapons test. Finally, the Flash and subsequent heroes were clearly superhuman and use of their fantastic abilities would figure prominently into the story.
This signaled the end of the western in comics for a few reasons. While both genres operated under the same restrictions, the superhero seemed to have fewer restrictions. After all, they were only so many kinds of crooks, smugglers, and desperadoes a western hero could front and only a few Code-approved ways in which to deal with them. The superhero, by comparison, had a seemingly endless parade of monsters, aliens, robots, and costumed crooks to confront, and his options for dealing with them were limited only by his power set and the imagination of the creators.Also, the western’s popularity across media ultimately hurt its standing in comics. As mentioned, there were numerous films and television series featuring western stories. The superhero, specifically the Silver Age style, would mostly remain in the comics for several years. A young reader during the Silver age could spend his ten cents on a western comic with stories similar to those he could watch on television for free, or he could buy one of the many Marvel or DC comics, with superhero stories found nowhere else.
As the writing on the wall became apparent, creators working on western titles tried to boost flagging sales with numerous gimmicks. DC’s Tomahawk, a title revolving around a leader of a band of frontiersmen, featured covers pitting the eponymous hero battling aliens and robots and the like; one memorable cover featured Tomahawk battling Indians with the aid of a chimp in a fringe jacket because, as legendary DC editor Julius Schwartz was fond of saying, "Monkeys sell comics". No amount of monkeys or other gimmicks could ultimately save the western comic, and by the Seventies, the genre had ridden off into the sunset. The cowboy had survived the Depression, World War II, and the Comics Code Authority only to be done in by men in gaudy costumes.
Works Cited
Johnson, Seth and Jon Leitheusser. Iron Age. Seattle: Green Ronin Publishing,2007.
McGlothlin, Christopher. Golden Age. Seattle: Green Ronin Publishing, 2006.

No comments:

Post a Comment