This is fly. Hi.
Remember how you used to like to talk about early Marvel and that the bulwark of early Marvel was the exploitation of the theme of alienation?
Spidey was alienated from his peers, from the law and from the Press. Mole Man and the Thing were paragons of alienation right there in FF#1. Let's not even talk about the X-men.
Okay I will. The X-men really aren't about race or gays or liberals or communists and the alienation they faced. What the X-men were was this. Stan found out alienation sold because lots of comic readers felt alienated. So he invented the X-men as the alienated heroes that could have their cake and eat it too. They were alienated and persecuted like their nerdy readers, but at the same time they were living the life of a popular peer group in crowd.
So it was the best of both worlds, the reader gets to have his alienation and escape from it to, into a fun peer group of cool teens.
It didn't have anything to do with racial or any other kind of persecution besides nerd persecution. It's closest analog would be black persecution because blacks are alienated but not by each other.
But that's not what interests me today.
Remember your study of Silver Age Superboy comics? And you revealed that alienation was a potent theme used in a Krypto story and in a Superbaby story. Remember?
Well I've found others. Rebello the rebellious robot which was like a replay of the extremely poignant first Bizarro story.
I'm chasing after a hot tip here, I've got a new theory that I'm testing. But do you know how many other times these alienation themes were used in Superboy comics?
I don't remember other DC comics dwelling much on alienation and persecution but we've found a few in Superboy.
Weren't Superboy comics almost or more popular than Superman comics
during the fifties?
Friday, June 27, 2003
Sorry for taking so long to reply to your email about alienation in comics. I got caught up recently in burning CDs (I just got my CD burner hooked up this week) and have been downloading music and compiling CDs and burning them -- just like I used to do with tape cassettes forever.
Anyway, on to your letter. Did you happen to watch the History Channel documentary on superheroes recently? They touched upon a few things that you mentioned. Somebody (maybe novelist/comics-fan Michael Chabon?) mentioned in the show that many different type readers could relate to the X-Men's alienation: blacks, gays, and even just nerds. He made the point that the X-Men were "alienated but special." So any nerd who felt "special" but nerdy could relate to them. The intelligent kids probably the most, I would think, the ones who liked to read (not many kids do), for example. Their "gift" didn't make them more popular with their peers, so it seemed like they were being punished for being special.
There wasn't so much of this "Whoa is me" mentality in the DC heroes. They didn't moan about their lot in life like today's celebrities bemoan the fact they are rich and famous. Perhaps DC and Marvel's heroes could be compared to old Hollywood and new Hollywood. The old Hollywood stars were seemingly happy to be our immortal icons, while today's celebrities seem to gripe about being photographed and so on.
My nephew has to use the computer for a while....I'll follow this up in another letter later...
Saturday, June 28, 2003
I can see that's some of the appeal of the X-men in that sometimes that what is alienated is envied greatness or 'specialness' as they put it on the show. A crueler way to put it is that the X-men stroke the egos of the alienated, letting them see themselves as 'alienated because they fear our superiority'. Let's keep in mind that the X-men call themselves 'homo superior' like they were a seperate species even though all of them are completely sexually compatible with all humans.
Any group of animals that is completely sexually compatible is considered to be all one species. These powers that the X-men have developed have not created a genetic wall between having babies with normal humans, so these powers are the equivalent of red hair, blue eyes and fair skin developing in Europe. It didn't make us a separate species.
But I'm digressing.
The X-men call themselves 'Homo Superior' and yet they are persecuted. In other words they are persecuted for being superior or 'special' as the TV show said. This is a much more sophisticated way to stroke the egos of the nerdy youthful readers, but still much the same as the basic comic book package that was inherited from the Scarlett Pimpernel.
The Scarlett Pimpernel was a foppish wimp who was secretly something like Zorro or Batman, he only acts like silly spineless twit. He pretends to be just another helpless sheep being manipulated by a tyranny to protect his identity as a bold and brave fighter of that tyranny. My thesis is that the kind of people that liked reading the adventures of the Scarlett Pimpernel were more like silly spineless twits than they were like bold and brave fighters of tyranny. I say that the Scarlett Pimpernel stroked the egos of generations of spineless twits that longed to fight against the forces in life that oppressed them, but were too scared or intelligent to do so. Since most brave and bold acts border on criminal behavior and don't really get you much more than a slapped face, a good beating or stay in jail.
So the Scarlett Pimpernel and Zorro were fantasies that allowed the Walter Mitties of the world to escape into a life of alpha maledom without every having to lose a tooth or a fight. James Thurber, who contended that such escapism was fine and regaled the critics of his time who hated escapist fiction, nonetheless revealed the silly underpinnings of escapist fiction better than any of the critics with his character Walter Mitty. Walter Mitty was the bumbling Casper Milquetoast character that constantly escaped into a fantasy via escapist fiction where he was a swashbuckling rogue. Thurber had Mitty switching back and forth between fantasy and his reality to explosive comic effect. This gag of switching a meek character from mundane reality to escapist fantasy has been ripped off from Thurber so many times that the people doing it don't even know where it came from originally.
Calvin and Hobbes used this gag constantly and I doubt the author was aware he was ripping off Thurber. One can not really analyze the appeal of comic books to their readers without first dealing with Walter Mitty and Thurber, who laid it all out for everyone to see without having ever read a comic book. (Walter Mitty first published in 1939) Thurber knew exactly why people are attracted to such stories, it's to let meek people let the hallucinations of fiction stroke their battered egos.
Comic book conventions are the gathering of thousands of the grandchildren of Walter Mitty, (apparently Walter Mitty was more successful with the ladies than anyone knew).
Thurber said this to encourage readers to use fiction to escape the drab regimentation of modern life 'Run, don't walk to the nearest desert island'. But with Walter Mitty, Thurber did a stinging revelation of the uses of escapist fiction. Thurber revealed us as all Walter Mitties, Thurber refuses to let us escape at all. When one picks up a comic book, what one wants to escape the most is the fact that we are Walter Mitty. More than any other facet of the drab regimentation of modern life, we want to get away from the reflection in the mirror that reveals us to be Walter Mitty.
So I am sorry, Rob. Any treatment of the appeal of comic books Marvel or DC that does not start with Walter Mitty and work up is lacking and pandering to some extent. I am glad I held off on my latest ideas on the roots of alienation in Marvel and DC and it's use in making the Super Hero comic book more appealing to Geekdom until I spoke to you. I knew that the convoluted extra-folded brain of yours would deepen and amplify my own understanding, since you were the first person to point out the use of the alienation themes to me by Marvel, and you mentioned this was the basis of the heightened appeal of Marvel. Up until then I thought that Marvel was more accessable because the characters argued and Spidey had problems.
Starting with the Pimpernel (1905) and then Zorro (1919) we have the secret life of the effeminate fop that is a ruse for a dashing hero. This hook of the secret identity allows the reader (who is more fop than dashing hero) to more easily transform himself in his mind into the dashing hero than he would if he were reading Tarzan (1912). The reader is lulled into the story, "Zorro and Pimpernel pretend to be someone like me to blend into the crowd, maybe I'm really something like them."
The reader hooks into Tarzan in a different way. "Tarzan was abandoned in Africa with the apes, maybe I'd be more like Tarzan if I'd been raised by apes." In other words the reader can hook into the Tarzan fantasy by rationalizing that his bad civilized upbringing is all that's holding him back from being Tarzan.
But readers of escapist fiction like the writer to allow some easy escape hatch to bridge the gap between their drab world and the colorful world of escapist fiction. My contention is to agree with the TV special that Stan Lee developed a better hook to allow the geek reader to escape.
Superman (1938) took the Scarlett Pimpernel/Zorro concept and put it in the modern world. Clark is still the wimp, but he's no fop. He's more 'mild-mannered' than effeminate. The concept of a secret identity is being tailored by people that are more aware of it's significance as an escapist bridge for the reader. They have this fantastic hero that the reader would love to imagine himself as being, at the same time the reader is nothing like the hero. How do we get the reader to identify with the hero? Voila, the Zorro concept of having the secret identity that's very much like the reader.
Clark may be an wimp but he's no silly idiot, so Siegel has started the refinement process of the Pimpernel hook. Clark is also in modern times and is in this country, a further change from Zorro and Pimpernel to entice the modern American reader to identify. One other important modification. Clark is the one that wears the mask, a subtle hint to the reader that Clark is the fake identity, a goad to the reader that inside he's really Superman. But Pimpernel was fighting a tyranny, what tyranny is Superman fighting? You could say the tyranny of crime and oppression, but more and more it's becoming obvious that Superman is really fighting the tyranny of really being Clark Kent, that afflicts his readers more than himself.
Batman (1939) also adapts and modifies the Pimpernel format to balance reader identification with reader escapism, and try to better maximize both. The fop identities of Pimpernel and Zorro obviously had some money. Batman takes this further since Bruce Wayne is very rich. Here's where the Batman concept gets very sophisticated, it's no fun at all being Clark Kent but it's almost as fun being rich Bruce Wayne as it is being Batman, and it makes sense you'd have to have Wayne's money to have the time and resources to be Batman. So Batman's escapist aspects are well developed, Bruce Wayne is much more fun to be than Don Diego or the Pimpernel's alter ego.
But how can the reader hook and identify with Batman? Bruce Wayne still pretends to be silly Playboy with his money, which is the most the readers would be if they had that kind of cash. And Bruce Wayne is really an angry little kid that got mangled by bullies in the worst way, getting his parents killed. Kids identified with Wayne that way. Bruce Wayne inside was still an angry little kid on a revenge trip that had been beaten down by bigger thuggish people. Batman haunted by the angry boy inside opened a highway for put-upon nerds to enact revenge fantasies when they read Batman.
So angry young Bruce Wayne is the identification draw for the young readers that Superman didn't have. Then they upped the ante bringing about Robin (1941). By then the creators were clearly consciously aware of opening avenues of identification between their creations and their audience. When Baron Orczy invented the Pimpernel I don't think she was aware of the Walter Mitty effect she was utilizing. When Superman was invented I don't think that Seigel was aware his readers would identify as much with Clark as they would with Superman. But when Robin was invented the creators knew exactly what they were doing. It was only three years into Super hero comics and the creators already knew their target audience and were trying to exploit that knowledge.
Unfortunately by specifically targetting the boy readers they alienated the adult readers, but that's another subject.
Next we have Captain Marvel (1941). By now the trick of using the secret identity to open an avenue of identification between the reader and the fantastic hero was well known. Clearly Fawcett sat down and said, "How can we help the kiddies believe they can change into Captain Marvel? How about making it a kid that changes into Captain Marvel?".
All these improvements offering more youthful bridges of identification to adult super heroes were making inroads into Superman's market share. Superman had to do something about the competition. So they invented Superboy. The youthful Clark Kent and Superboy were more easy for the younger reader to identify with. Young Clark was the good boy that respected his teachers and parents and in the long run things worked out for him despite his struggles against bullies and the popular people. In the short run, the bullies and popular people got the best of him, but that was okay since it was all an act anyway. This was perfect for young geeks of the 1950's to identify with. It said to them to put up with the bullies and the cool kids and listen to teacher, you'll land Lois eventually while your adversaries land in jail.
Young Clark was much easier for me to identify with than Billy Batson, Dick Grayson or young Bruce Wayne. I think a lot of other kids felt the same way.
But Peter Parker was even easier to identify with that young Clark.
Now let's deal with the orphan aspect of all this. Everyone mentioned so far is an orphan. Clark Kent was doubly orphaned, Peter Parker was 1.5 times orphaned, Bruce and Dick lost two sets of parents between them. Even young Clark has been orphaned once. Billy Batson was orphaned. What's with that? Why is the orphaned character more attractive a fantasy figure than the one with living parents? Most of the kids reading the books had parents.
The explanation may well be that kids love their parents but are as bullied by their parents as anyone. So the fantasy character gets the parents out of the way so they can have more say in their life, and the reader also gets to feel sorry for the poor orphan. What about young Clark? His parents are dead but he has new ones, what fun is that? Simple. Young Clark's relationship to the Kents was rather strange. To begin with he frequently referred to them as 'The Kents" although they were his only parents from his earliest memories. By early teen age Clark was patronizing them more than heeling to their rebukes.
Young Clark not only didn't have a time he had to be home by, he was allowed to roam into other time periods. For all his goody-goody act, young Clark was the most out of control teen ever. He had no limits or boundaries besides his own conscience. He didn't have to go to sleep unless he wanted to, he didn't even have to eat or breath air. He could romp in Outer Space with his dog or take a bath in the Sun. He listened to no one and made his own decisions outside of putting on the meek Clark act. If a bully bothered him he'd zap him in the ass with heat vision and then whistle like nothing happened.
Well, not exactly but pretty close to that. The main function of the Kents was to make dinners for him. He had a few chores but he could do those at super speed if he liked. The Kents were very lenient with him, more like Grandparents than parents. They looked like Grandparents too. Superboy was always a little like 'What if your folks died and you got to live with your fun Grandparents forever!'.
Okay that's enough for this email. Sorry it's so long.
The next installment will go into:
(1) The real allure of the X-men.
(2) How Stan Lee ripped off the ideas for alienated heroes like The Thing and The Hulk from Superboy comics.
You'd better keep talking to me on this one. I want to really hammer these ideas out before presenting them in manifesto form on the message boards.
Of course you will get full credit for your colloboration. I was going to give you that anyway even if you didn't write back since you were the one that:
(1) first taught me that alienation was Marvel's big hook over DC
(2) first taught me that alienation was a theme in Atlas monster mags as well as early marvel.
(3) that the Thing and the Mole Man were characters featuring alienation
(4) that the Thing was the embodiment of Atlas monster made into Marvel Hero
and most importantly you (and Fenris) were the one that stressed:
(5) that alienation was a frequent theme in Superboy comics.
Sorry for taking so long to get back to you. I am constantly amazed by how much you put into your posts.
Anyway, on to alienation as a theme in Superboy comics. I don't know... I'm not quite sure where you remember me talking about that. The one thing I do remember is the theme being used in various covers, although mostly from the later 1960s Bob Brown era, inspired by the more "realistic" (melodramatic?) Marvel comics of the time. The ones where Superman/boy was shown to be a "menace" to those around him, no longer the beloved hero. Protestors would tell Superboy to get lost and get out of town. An early example would be the imaginary story in SUPERBOY #95 (March 1962) which shows the ordinary humans forming a mob to tell Superboy and his Kryptonian parents to leave Earth. A young Perry White of The Daily Planet is shown leading the charge against the family, telling them, "How do we know you won't use your powers to take over Earth? ...I think it's my paper's duty to warn everyone against you and get you to leave Earth!" Later, a brick is thrown through the home of the Kryptonian family, and a mob outside yells, "We don't want to live next to freaks!"
The cover of SUPERBOY #139 (June 1967) shows Superboy leaving Smallville as trash is thrown at him, even from his own parents. "Yesterday I was a hero," he thinks, "Today I'm a bum." The idea was repeated on the cover of SUPERBOY #168 (Sept. 1970). Perhaps the ultimate alienation cover is SUPERBOY #160 (Oct. 1969) which shows Superboy crouching upon the surface of the moon, looking back at the planet Earth in the distance, saying to himself, "After what I did, no punishment's bad enough! I've got to exile myself from my family, my friends, my earth FOREVER!"
The covers of these Superboy/man covers were intended to shock the reader into buying the comic, as true-blue friends were depicted as enemies and traitors. Even Superboy's own dog Krypto is shown turning against him on the covers of such issues as ADVENTURE COMICS #266 (Nov. 1959) and SUPERBOY #118 (Jan. 1965).
Clark Kent's relationship with his foster parents, Ma and Pa Kent perhaps foreshadows the happy relationship of Peter Parker and his Aunt May and Uncle Ben before he acquires his super-powers. Peter Parker's origin story brings an element of the Batman and Robin origin stories into a Superboy family arrangement. I do think that the teenage Clark Kent is a kind of prototype for timid Peter Parker. A teen Clark Kent who was secretly Batman instead of Superboy.
In "The One-Man Team!" (SUPERBOY #88, April 1961), Clark Kent watches from the stands as Metropolis is beating Smallville in a football game. Cheerleader Lana Lang turns to the bowtie-wearing Clark Kent, asking why he doesn't try out for the football team. When the bespectacled youth begins to stammer a reply, Lana waves him away, "Oh, yes... I forgot! You wear glasses! You can't go out for football! Forget that I ever asked!" Shortly after, underneath the bleachers, Clark changes into costume, thinking, "Little does Lana know that sports-shy Clark Kent is really her idol, Superboy!"
In "The Superboy Revenge Squad!" (SUPERBOY #94, Jan. 1962), Clark Kent must pretend to be terrified in gym class when he is tangled up in a rope while climbing it. As Clark pleads for help, Lana Lang remarks, "Well, if that isn't typical of timid Clark Kent! He's so nervous about falling that he has to be rescued like a frightened kitten who's climbed too high on a tree!"
This irony was also used later in Stan Lee's Spider-Man stories -- for example, the cover of Spidey's first appearance, AMAZING FANTASY #15 (August 1962), where the hero states, "Though the world may mock Peter Parker, the timid teenager, it will soon marvel at the awesome might of Spider-Man!"
Spider-Man stories were known for their emphasis on money woes, with Aunt May being forced to sell to a pawn dealer in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #1 (March 1963), but the Kents were shown trying to make ends meet in a story published several years earlier. In "Incredible Superboy Auction" (SUPERBOY #45, Dec. 1955), while Superboy is away, the Kents' General Store catches on fire. As he sees the flames, Pa Kent says, "Our store -- on fire! And I neglected to send in the check for insurance! We -- we must save what we can ... every cent we own is going up in flames!" The next panel shows a doctor hovering over an unconscious Ma and Pa Kent as they lay in stretchers on the street in front of their store. The doctor notes that the two have come down with smoke poisioning and will need to spend "a few days in the hospital." We later see a wheelchair-bound Pa Kent talking with a bed-ridden Ma Kent. Pa Kent says, "We -- we're penniless... everything ruined!" Superboy could solve this problem, they acknowledge, but they refuse to ask him, instead being forced to sell off family momentos for money. Ma Kent says, "We must teach him never to use his super-powers for selfish reasons!" This is the lesson that Peter Parker learned in his origin story.
Well, hope some of that is of some use to you.
Your email was exactly the sort of thing I was hoping for. I am certain it was you that talked to me about alienation as an important theme in Early Marvel and how the theme of alienation was also important in the Timely Monster Mags. Later you talked to me about alienation in Superboy stories pointing out some particularly plaintive tales of Superbaby being rejected. I think that Fenris has pointed out to me some sad stories about Krypto being rejected and facing alienation and even execution, really gut-wrenching stuff if you look beyond the silly characters. I read a letters to the editor about one of those cruel Krypto stories scolding the editors for allowing such a mean story to be printed, her younger sibling cried and had nightmares about Krypto's plight.
Now I'm holding back on you, I have discovered a bit of a bombshell. I think I can 'prove' that Stan Lee was reading these Superboy stories about alienation and cribbing from them. You pointed out an example of the same, but in this particular issue I've discovered, I think I can prove that Stan Lee based a chunk of FF #1 on this comic.
But there's no reason to rush this, I'd like to do more research and I very much appreciate your help in this matter so far, in as much as you planted the seed in my mind long ago.
I mean, I've just been reading the books without really thinking about them.
When I was really young, a teen, I did a little thinking. I noticed all the characters that were popular were orphans and the more orphaned the better. I've told you this many times. Batman and the Robins have many sets of dead parents between them, Superman had two sets of dead parents in the old days. Peter Parker and 1.5 dead parents. So I did a little thinking. But you gave me that nudge when you pointed out the themes of alienation in Marvel and then later noted the same themes in what people might have considered the silliest DC stories.
I wonder if Otto Binder is responsible for these alienation stories? To me the greatest of all these stories is the first Bizarro story. It is the single most plaintive story this side of the Gaimen Hellblazer story about hugging the ghost of the homeless man. Otto Binder wrote the Bizarro story. I also discovered a similar story about Rebello, a rebellious Superboy robot. Rebello's story is similarly woeful and sad, the poor alienated robot.
The odd thing is that Superboy is clearly portrayed as almost a boneheaded legalistic villain in these stories.
By the way I'm currently writing a parody of the Rebello/Bizarro stories. I'm hoping it goes well. I've got the plot in my head, it's very good and of course very strange. Sick and all that. I don't want to give away too much just now. Maybe I'll write it on the plane to California.
So I'll have to put off my projects until I get back. Or really I should say our projects because all I'm doing it amplifying ideas that you have given me.
Don't worry I won't mention your name in conjunction with the parody story about Rebello and Bizarro.
I'm going to keep up on the boards as the crackpot bad boy of the boards as is my hobby, but more and more I am interested in the history of comics. But not in the way of just memorizing facts, more like spotting trends and themes like you do. And in how a creator puts together a character. They do not create these characters out of the whole cloth. It's interesting to see how they do gather the parts to assemble a new whole.
What else is interesting is what they will admit to in their snitching and what they won't own up to. When I finally reveal to you the secret origin of FF #1 and Hulk #1, I hope your jaw drops open a bit, and even more important I hope you agree with me!
Your comments on the origins of Peter Parker, Aunt May and Uncle Ben are exactly the sorts of things I am interested in. The parallels between the Kents in the fire story and the first Spiderman story are right on the money what I was talking about. I was already certain that Stan Lee was cribbing from Superboy, this only makes me more sure. I also want to follow Otto Binder's hand in this. Was he always the author of the alienation stories?
Don't forget another alienation classic, the original Supergirl story. The Supergirl that Jimmy wished up for Superman, it's the same old story. This Supergirl, like Bizarro, Superbaby and others, was screwing up everything. She didn't mean to. But she was screwing up everything. It was tearing her apart. Superman was cruel to her. She sacrifices herself tearfully lamenting that it was all for the best. It's a heart-breaking story if you take it seriously and Superman comes across near as cold and cruel as Superboy did to Bizarro. Who says they aren't the same character?
I think the Supergirl story is Otto Binder, and it's about a teen character or a young character unsure of themselves. Likewise Bizarro, Rebello and Superbaby are all about young characters too. So Binder linked youth and alienation. He remembered all too well how alone and desperate a young person can feel. I seem to remember that Superboy was selling like gangbusters in the fifties, which would be what would attract Stan Lee's attention. I think Lee zeroed in on the alienation of youth in these stories and realized it was dynamite. Lee would make the alienated character the main character and make them permanent. Binder was making the mistake of making the sympathetic alienated character a one-shot that then dies at the end of the story, or an imaginary story. These stories were emotional dynamite, but Binder exploded the dynamite by the end of the story and the powerful feelings of alienation were gone by the next issue.
Stan Lee found a way to have alienation front and center permanently in characters, and this made it even stronger in that the pain was ongoing like it is in real life. Binder's characters suffered and died; they were put out of their misery.
Anyhow this is the line my thinking is going these days. I'm making all kinds of conclusions with very little research, as usual. I'd like to read every single Superboy comic predating the first issue of Spiderman.
Superboy may be the missing link between the Timely monster comics and
FF/Spidey. Stan always said his influence was JLA, but we've all
noticed that JLA has little in common with FF#1. Maybe George Papp had
a few things to teach even Kirby.