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Prehistory of the Superhero, part 8: A Farewell to Capes

2 Aug

by Alex Buchet

Art by John Romita,Sr, and Mike Esposito

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.– Paul the Apostle,1 Corinthians 13:11

Over the past seven chapters of this article, we have traced the evolution of the superman from the eighteenth century up to 1938 and the coming of the Superman comic book character: our history stops there, as the comic book medium was soon awash with superheroes, and would remain so until the present day.

Indeed, it is depressing to note, the commercial comic book is overwhelmingly dominated by the superhero at the expense of other popular genres. And the comic book superhero is at present — by  consensus of its aficionados — in a state of decadence.

We’ve seen , with the death of the dime novel, of the newspaper serial and of the pulp magazine, how entire pop media can shrivel away. The comic book magazine may be fated to join these dinosaurs in extinction.

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Prehistory of the Superhero part seven: Reign of the Superman

2 Aug

by Alex Buchet

Art by Joe Shuster

Once commentators could discuss the “Superman”, the “Super-Race”, and the “Super-Society” without drawing connections back to the philosophy from whence it sprang, the Uebermensch proved to be a concept able to accommodate any number of competing moral viewpoints. And once Nietsche could become a thinker with answers but no questions, and his philosophy a celebration of power rather than a testament to the need for human wonder, the Uebermensch’s naturalization into American intellectual and cultural life was successfully under way.

Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, American Nietzsche

See you in the Funny Papers

In the 1890’s an extremely successful new pop medium took off: the newspaper comic strip.

Millions of readers delighted in the daily comedy antics of the Katzenjammer Kids, Buster Brown, or Mutt and Jeff. The strips ran in black-and-white, but in 1897 the New York Journal published the first full-color Sunday comics supplement. Continue reading

Prehistory of the Superhero, part 6: The Fabulous Junkshop

2 Aug

by Alex Buchet

In our last chapter, we focussed on the Western, particularly as presented in the cheap, pamphlet-formatted magazines known as dime novels.  Of course, westerns weren’t the dime novel’s sole adventure genre: tales of pirates, spies, and detectives abounded; the most durable dime novel hero of all was probably Nick Carter, Detective— his adventures ran, in various media, from 1886 to the 1990’s.

Before leaving the Dime western, however, I wish to dwell on one of its heroes who was a precursor of the modern, cross-media, branded intellectual property character: Buffalo Bill. Continue reading

Prehistory of the Superhero (part 4): Elementary, my dear Morlock

2 Aug

by Alex Buchet

Holmes and Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls

“My mind,” he said, “rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants. But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation. That is why I have chosen my own particular profession, or rather created it, for I am the only one in the world”– Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of the Four

 

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Prehistory of the Superhero (part 3): Verne, Villains, Vril

2 Aug

by Alex Buchet

“Professor,” the commander replied swiftly, “I’m not what you term a civilized man! I’ve severed all ties with society, for reasons that I alone have the right to appreciate. Therefore I obey none of its regulations, and I insist that you never invoke them in front of me!” — Jules Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea

When it’s steam engine time, people steam engine. — Charles Fort

 

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Prehistory of the Superhero (part 2): Vampires, Victorians, and Vendettas

2 Aug

by Alex Buchet

It happened that in the midst of the dissipations attendant upon a London winter, there appeared at the various parties of the leaders of the ton a nobleman, more remarkable for his singularities, than his rank. He gazed upon the mirth around him, as if he could not participate therein. Apparently, the light laughter of the fair only attracted his attention, that he might by a look quell it, and throw fear into those breasts where thoughtlessness reigned. Those who felt this sensation of awe, could not explain whence it arose: some attributed it to the dead grey eye, which, fixing upon the object’s face, did not seem to penetrate, and at one glance to pierce through to the inward workings of the heart; but fell upon the cheek with a leaden ray that weighed upon the skin it could not pass.

—from The Vampyre: A Tale, by John William Polidori

One summer night in 1816, a group of friends gathered in the Villa Deodati, on the shores of Lake Geneva, and entertained themselves by reading ghost stories. They then determined to write each a tale of horror.  Ironically, the two most renowned writers in the party– the poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and George Gordon, Lord Byron — never completed their tasks; while the unknown Mary Shelley subsequently wrote the justly famous novel Frankenstein: or, the modern Prometheus (discussed in part1).

One other of the group, John William Polidori (1795-1821) produced another classic of horror fiction: The Vampyre: a Tale (1819). It had enormous success and influence, and contributed to another classic literary incarnation of the superman.

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Prehistory of the Superhero (part 1): Waltzing with Frankenstein

2 Aug

by Alex Buchet

                                                      Manfred on the Jungfrau, by Ford Madox Brown

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         “In any case, one can state that much of the so-called Nietzchean ‘superhumanity’ has as its origin and doctrinal model not Zarathustra but the Count of Monte-Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas.”

Antonio Gramsci, Letteratura e vita nazionale, III, ‘Letteratura popolare”.

This quote  comes from Umberto Eco‘s introduction to the French translation of his 1978 book of essays, Il superuomo di massa. 

As Eco  elaborates:

 I found Gramsci’s idea seductive. That the cult of the superman with nationalist and Fascist roots be born, among other things, of a petty bourgeois frustration complex is well-known. Gramsci has shown clearly how this ideal of the superman could be born, in the nineteenth century, within a literature that saw itself as popular and democratic:

“The serial replaces (and at the same time favorises) the imagination of the man of the people, it is a veritable waking dream (…) long reveries on the idea of vengeance, of punishing the guilty for the ills they have inflicted (…) “

Thus, it was legitimate to wonder about the cult of the right-wing superman but also about the equivocal aspects of the nineteenth century’s humanitarian socialism. [tr:AB]

The French title of Eco’s collection is, aptly, De Superman au surhomme–  ‘From Superman to the superman’.

But what of the reverse — how did we go from the superman to Superman?

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