Comic Books as we know them today, started as reprinted newspaper comic strip material placed in a book format. This format became incredibly popular and lucrative in the early 1930’s. In 1935, National Periodical Publications (the company that would later be know as DC Comics) seeking higher sales, published the first ever comic book of entirely original material — and changed popular culture forever. Around the same time, prose style pulp magazines were gaining ground in sales and popularity and introducing eager readers to brazen cloaked crime fighters such as The Shadow, exotic adventurers like Doc Savage, space farer Flash Gordon, and Tarzan — the orphaned boy marooned in a deadly jungle and raised to adulthood by a tribe of Apes. In 1938, DC Comics was looking to develop original books with characters like those in the pulps. Fantastic characters that stretched the imagination.
Early attempts showed minimal success with the introductions of Slam Bradley, Dr. Occult, and the Crimson Avenger. These characters were very similar in design to those being utilized in the Pulps. The publishers at DC wanted more. They wanted something more extraordinary, something more fantastical, something more colorful, something…out of this world. In June of 1938, DC Comics was going to realize there goals and more with the release of what would one day become the Holy Grail of comic books — Action Comics #1! The book was an anthology series and contained several different stories within and introduced the world to several colorful new characters…Zatara the mystic; western movie stunt man turned man of action The Vigilante; and the jungle traipsing big game hunter Congo Bill. All of these characters paled in comparison to the final character introduced in that issue. A strong man from another world raised as a child by humble Kansas farmers and wore blue tights and a red cape. He could see great distances; run faster than a speeding bullet; leap tall buildings in a single bound; and was far more powerful than a locomotive. Created by two Jewish teenagers from Cleveland, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman was not only the success that the publishers at DC were looking for, his unparalleled initial success initiated an entirely new genre…the superhero.
However, the conception of this character was not entirely original. Although it was the first breath of an industry in its infancy, Superman’s creation was inspired from many different sources — which ranged from ancient mythology; to Biblical legends; to classical and contemporary literature. Much like the Greek legend of Prometheus, Superman was new to this world; a stranger to humankind who became a virtual demi-god. He travelled from a distant world of superior beings to aid mankind. He was also fashioned after the mighty Biblical hero Samson; and just like the classic Greek warrior Achilles — Superman was virtually indestructible. Although this trio greatly influenced Siegel and Shuster in their design of Superman, his origins and development bore a far closer resemblance to the ancient mythological demi-god Hercules and the Biblical prophet Moses. The layouts in the very first pages of Action Comics #1 mimics events from the Bible. In the comic, two passing motorists on a rural road discover a rocket ship blazing across the sky and landing in a field nearby; the couple investigate and find a young child. In the Bible, Moses is found in a basket floating down the river by the Pharaoh’s daughter.
In essence, Superman was a modernization of Hercules. Both are tremendously powerful and could only perform feats reserved for the Gods. Much like Hercules, the biblical prophet Moses also shares some deliberate similarities with the man of steel.
All three characters were concealed and sent away secretly to protect them from mortal danger. For Hercules it was to protect him from the vengeful wrath of Hera, the mother of the Greek pantheon of Gods, who was jealous of Hercules because he was the offspring of a tryst between her promiscuous husband Zeus and a mortal woman. For Moses, his mother sent him away to protect him from being murdered by the Pharaoh’s men who were sent out into the surrounding lands to execute all first born males. This grotesque action was to circumvent the coming of a prophecy that one of these first born males would one day rise up and eliminate the Pharaoh. Both babies, Hercules and Moses, were discovered by barren women and then secretly adopted by them. Just like these two characters of legend, Superman was sent to foster parents in a rocket ship from his home planet of Krypton in order to avoid the doomed destruction of that world. Given that Siegel and Shuster were good regularly-attending-synagogue Jewish boys, it is not inconceivable that they culled many of their character ideas from their teachings.
Not only was Superman modelled after many great mythological and biblical characters, he also owed a great deal of his origin to classic literature as well. Co-creator Jerry Siegel was a big fan of the 1930 novel Gladiator by Philip Wylie. A book that he once reviewed for his school newspaper. The book tells the grim tale of a man given incredible strength and invulnerability by an injection administered to his pregnant mother while she was carrying him. Recalling this novel several years later, Siegel conceived a character who would be like the main protagonist in the book — and Hercules — and Samson — and all other strong men characters he had ever learned about rolled into one. He then collaborated with long time friend and illustrator Joe Shuster about his idea. Having remembered what he learned about Friedrich Nietzsche and his work Man and Uberman, Shuster suggested the name “Superman” for their mutual creation — the anglicised version of the German word Uberman.
Within just a few short weeks of Superman’s debut, National Periodicals knew they had a colossal hit on their hands. Every issue of Action Comics #1 “flew” off of the newsstands. Very rapidly every publisher and creator in the industry were trying to race to the printing press with the next biggest thing in hopes of characters that would garner lucrative returns like Superman.
In less than a year later, DC would strike oil again with the debut of their next juggernaut superstar…BATMAN!
In May 1939, Detective Comics #27 debuted on the newsstands. It was a crime anthology book that started more than two years prior, and introduced readers to such characters as the racial caricature sleuth Fu Manchu, fists a-blazin’ tough guy cop Slam Bradley, and the masked Crimson Avenger and his dual pistols. None of these character were anything really special and were more akin to the Pulp characters that were popular at the time. With the uncanny success of Superman a little less than a year beforehand, DC Comics was in the market for more cape and tights superheroes to adorn the newsstands. Looking to revamp Detective Comics, and promising a whopping “64 Pages of Action” on the cover, issue number 27 of the series marked the very first appearance of the caped crusader himself, The Batman!
Where Superman was the ultimate science fiction creation, a man of extraordinary ability that came to Earth from the stars, creator Bob Kane wanted Batman to be more grounded as a street-level hero and essentially the ultimate human. The tale of billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne (Batman’s real identity) who was to follow in the traditions of the classic pulp heroes — a man who has endured great tragedy in his life by witnessing the murder of his parents before his very eyes at a tender young age. Out of this unspeakable tragedy, young Bruce vows to dedicate his life to the eradication of evil. He trains himself in all manners of various fighting styles, excels academically and trains himself to be the world’s greatest detective, in much the same manner as the detective of French literature, Arsene Lupin or the British counterpart Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s masterful sleuth Sherlock Holmes.
Bob Kane, a young cartoonist from the Bronx in New York City, had dreamed up Batman some believe as early as 1934. Kane was deeply inspired by the classic sketches of Leonardo da Vinci‘s flying machines and his early designs of Batman were of a man in a gliding bat-winged costume in much the same manner as the famed inventor da Vinci’s layouts. An avid movie-goer, and fan of gothic literature and architecture, Bob Kane loved the caped look of Bela Lugosi as the famous necromancer Dracula in the Universal Studio‘s monster movies. Although it was his collaborating partner, Bill Finger, who brought the Batman to life on the printed page; it was clear that Bob Kane’s designs and influences won out in the end.
Once again revisiting the mythological Gods of Grecian lore, Batman bore a similar theme as Hades — the deity that ruled over the underworld — in much the same manner that Batman is feared amongst the hoodlums and criminals of the seedy underbelly of Gotham City. The character of Batman gained instant popularity and sales of Detective Comics featuring the caped crusader were an astounding success. It even surpassed sales of Action Comics featuring Superman. In 1941, National Periodical Publications began labelling all of their stable of book titles with a ‘DC’ logo — an abbreviation of its most successful title to date…Detective Comics.
Elsewhere in New York, rival editors at Timely Comics wanted to jump into the superhero scene alongside their competitors but were looking for a different feel for their books to have them stand out from DC’s stable of titles. Enter the Human Torch and the aquatic monarch of the depths Namor, the Sub-Mariner. The Human Torch was the creation of young immigrant artist Carl Burgos who had envisioned creating a character that was an artificial man that could burst into flames upon command. Burgos wanted to have this creation become a modern day Prometheus, a life form beyond humans that uses his abilities to aid mankind — much like the titan of myth did when dispensing fire to humans after stealing it from the Gods. Much like his inspiration, the Human Torch spent the rest of his immortal and artificial life alone and forever removed from humanity and those he had sworn to protect. Created by a scientist skirting with the laws of nature, the Human Torch is quite akin to Frankenstein’s Monster. The similarities are very clearly evident within the first few pages of October 1939’s Marvel Comics #1 where the Torch is built by his maker Professor Horton — an analogous version of mad scientist Victor Frankenstein. Due to the hurried nature of Professor Horton’s untested science, the Human Torch is inherently flawed in that he bursts into flames upon contact with the air. Much like the monster is flawed with a criminal’s brain in Frankenstein. The Human Torch was then stored in a vacuum where he inevitably becomes free and in an incendiary rampage sets most of New York on fire while yelling “Help, I’m burning alive! Why must everything I touch turn to flame?” By the end of the initial introduction story, the Human Torch had ignorantly mixed himself up with some gangsters and accidentally killed a man. Just as Frankenstein’s Monster accidentally set the village on fire and drowned the little girl in the classic tale. This was indeed quite the departure from what DC was putting out across town. This was a horror story with a contemporary science fiction backdrop. A confused artificial man, combustible and unstable, the Human Torch was hardly the ideal hero especially when compared to the dignified and wholly altruistic Superman over at DC.
From Timely Comics perspective, if Superman was supposed to be America’s superego than Namor the Sub-Mariner was to be its Id. Created by Bill Everett, and also debuting in Marvel Comics # 1, the Sub-Mariner was a modern day Poseidon and lorded over all undersea creatures and was the ruler of the ancient sunken city of Atlantis. Namor wages war on the surface world when he returns one day from his travels to find his undersea kingdom destroyed by the warring nations involved in World War II. Although his motives had some association with justice, Namor acted more like a villain then a hero; often submerging entire cities underwater to quench his vengeful thirst. Surprisingly, readers loved both Namor and the Human Torch. Undirected anger was one of the biggest products of post-depression society in 1939 and innocent characters driven to destructive rages were indicative of the era. Most notably in films such as King Kong and Frankenstein. Both creators, Burgos and Everett, tried to empathize with the youth of the day. Both heroes spoke in slang and portrayed adolescent attitudes. Their tortured beginnings helped establish the a precedent for the flawed protagonist that became Timely’s (later named Marvel) principle theme for several decades!
With the war in Europe escalating rapidly, many foreign born Americans working in the publishing and comic book industries sensed the mounting tensions overseas. These creators also looked to develop characters oozing in Americana to boost morale both at home and abroad. It was also a chance for them to take shots through their craft at some real life villains, such as Adolph Hitler. In 1941, two Bronx born Jewish creators working for upstart Timely Comics— Joe Simon and Jack Kirby — literally draped the stars and stripes on a character and set him deep inside occupied territories in Europe. This young artist and writer combo weren’t just looking to create just any superhero character. They wanted to make a statement. On the cover of Captain America Comics #1 they did just that…by having their very new creation punch the sweet bejesus out of Hitler — global public enemy number one! Co-creator Joe Simon once said that “the perfect villain existed with Adolph Hitler, it was only fitting that he battle the perfect hero”. This iconic cover was forever etched in the young minds reading the book, some of whom probably entered the war themselves in just a few short months — armed with the image of personally clobbering the Fuhrer right back into the sewer he crawled out from. Patriotic superheroes weren’t anything new by this point, nor did it stop after Captain America…every publishing house in the business had a stable of characters adorned in the red, white and blue. But two characters in particular had longevity and something special, which stood them out above the rest. Timely had a winner in Captain America, and DC Comics hit a homerun with their awesome amazon…Wonder Woman!
As the origin goes, Captain America was granted extraordinary agility, strength, reflexes, and speed to the utmost of peak human capability through the injection of a serum. This was done by a Secret Sect of the Government looking to create super soldiers to enter into the war. Steve Rogers was a frail sickly young man that was deemed ill-fit for conscription in the army, but perfect as the first subject in these super soldier trials. The experiment was a success and Steve Rogers developed into the ultimate fighting machine. The process could not be duplicated, however, because the scientist responsible for the serum was immediately murdered by a Nazi spy. Where many of the comic characters preceding Captain America bore very thinly veiled resemblances to classic literary and mythological figures, Captain America exemplified the strong jaw moral fibre of the leading man hero of film and serials of the day.
Veering in the other direction, not only did Wonder Woman share many of the same traits as the female gods of the Greek Pantheon, much of her origin is steeped in mythological lore as well. Wonder Woman was created by psychologist William Moulton Marston to be the perfect female given life by the gods themselves, her very origin is akin to Aphrodite‘s. As was her beauty. She had the skill and agility of Demeter, and the power of Athena. Raised by the Queen of isolated and immortal warrior amazons, Princess Diana was a born and bred fighter but always sought peace. When a US fighter jet crashed on their island, the Queen of the amazons announced that one warrior among them would travel to America to return the pilot and bring about the message of peace. Originally forbidden to participate in the grueling events leading to a candidate, Diana disguised herself and won every single event. She revealed who she really was and was sent off to America. As this was the first mission off island for any amazon, Diana bore the colours of the American flag in the hopes of being accepted by the peoples there. In her original appearances, Wonder Woman rivaled Rosie the Riveter as an image of female empowerment. As the war ended, she became more objectified and fetishized to appeal to the older male audience; often depicted on the cover of her comic all bound up and helpless.
An unfortunate hiccup in the otherwise remarkable history of one of pop culture’s greatest heroines.
Many other comic book heroes owed much, if not all, of their inspiration and inceptions to ancient mythological gods.
*Rival publisher Fawcett Comics‘ Superman analogue, Captain Marvel, was granted his special powers directly from the Gods. More specifically, the gods that empowered him spelt out the name that he would decree to turn from young lad Billy Batson to the powerful and commanding Captain Marvel…”SHAZAM!” — Solomon granted him great wisdom, Hercules gifted him with great strength, Atlas endowed him with remarkable stamina, Zeus bestowed him with great power, Achilles gave him the courage to face any adversary, and Mercury offered up his incredible speed.
*DC Comic’s The Flash was modelled after the winged helmet look of Hermes, and possessed the gods’ ability of super speed as well.
*There were also numerous different incarnations of Hercules at just about every publisher in the 1940’s.
Mining classic ancient mythological literature for inspiration was part and parcel in the early days of superheroes.
Soon, other more contemporary literature became the source of many many more caped and cowled crusaders.