Antecedents of the Comic Book Superhero: Early Film Heroes

31 Aug

Regarding the origins of the superhero, I here embed for your consideration several film clips:

The Mark of Zorro (dir. Fred Niblo, 1920), starring Douglas Fairbanks. The Zorro character was created in 1919 by writer Johnston McCulley for the story The Curse of Capistrano, serialized in All-Story Weekly. Fairbanks played a huge part in popularizing the character.

The first, or at least a very early, Fantômas serial (dir. Louis Feuillade, 1913) from the studio Gaumont, starring René Navarre. A super-criminal, Fantômas was created in 1911 by French writers Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre.

An early, though by no means the first, cinematic Robin Hood (dir. Allan Dwan, 1922), again starring Fairbanks.

The Eagle, a masked cowboy hero, can be seen in this trailer for the Repubic Pictures serial The Vigilantes Are Coming (1936), starring Robert Livingston. Typical.

How We Started

29 Aug


Class began last Tuesday, August 24, with a whirlwind session, breathless and over-full (and me over-anxious to make sure it all went well). Seventeen of us spent about two and a half hours discussing the superhero genre, and looking forward to what the course will entail. A very promising session, and hopefully not too disorienting!

Here are my notes about what went down:

1. The students divided into groups at random by picking panels from cut-up comics pages out of an envelope, then joining with classmates to re-assemble the pages. (These were all scans from fairly recent superhero comics, from the Straczynski/Kramer et al. Wonder Woman to Brendan McCarthy and Steve Cook’s Spider-Man: Fever.)

2. I then asked each group to tell something essential about the backstory or mythos of the hero depicted on its page. For some folks, this was second nature; for others, more difficult. Not a problem from my perspective, since part of what I was hoping to get across here was the difference between feeling like an “insider” and an “outsider” to the comic book collecting culture. I can’t be sure whether the exercise was revealing or simply bemusing to the class, but I was very interested in the results, and especially the way blockbuster superhero movies seemed to inform the responses (among the examples were Spider-Man, Iron Man, and the X-Men).

3. I asked each group to read, in B&W photocopied form, four comic book stories from the years 1939 to 1947.  These included origin stories for Superman (Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, 1939), Captain Marvel (Bill Parker and C.C. Beck, 1940), and Captain America (Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, 1941), plus a Phantom Lady caper by Matt Baker (1947). The stories originally came from the following comic books:

Superman 1 (Summer 1939)

Whiz Comics 2 (Feb. 1940)

Captain America Comics 1 (March 1941)

Phantom Lady 13 (Aug. 1947)

4. We then discussed common generic elements in all these stories, using a whiteboard to sketch out some notes. This was most interesting, with comments on topics ranging from nationalism and propaganda through emphasis on technology (rocket ship, serum, radio, etc.) to the physical handsomeness of the characters. I remember that we talked in particular about identities, costumes and titles, and the trope of what we called “the weakling empowered.” Part of what I was hoping to do here was establish, inductively and without any prior definition, a working blueprint for the superhero genre. We spent a lot of time here, very profitably I thought.

5. I then showed and re-showed the opening title sequence of Batman: The Animated Series and we talked in particular about its graphic qualities and its depiction of the city, adding this to our generic blueprint.

6. I hastily explained, as much as the remaining time allowed, certain aspects of the class, including our online resources. In the process, I gave out our first reading assignment, which concerns Superman and his antecedents:

  • Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, The Superman Chronicles, Vol. 1
  • Tom De Haven, Our Hero: Superman on Earth (first half)
  • Philip Wylie, Gladiator (Chapters 1-5, via online e-text)
  • Jean-Paul Gabilliet, Of Comics and Men (Chapters 1-2)
  • Kent Worcester, “Superman, Philip Wylie & the New Deal,” Comics Forum 1.6 (Spring/Summer 1994)

Looking forward to next week!

Superheroes in Political Discourse (No. 1)

28 Aug

Below are two uses of the superhero — in this case a particular superhero — in visual political rhetoric. The first is from 1972, the second from, maybe, 2004 (I haven’t been able to confirm the exact date). Responses much appreciated.

The first issue of Ms. Magazine (1972)

AIDS makes us equal (awareness campaign by AIDES)

In each case, I’m left asking, What is it about this character that makes it “work,” or not, in these contexts?

Update Again! Assignments for the course

16 Aug

I’ve just created a page dedicated to course requirements in 492. By this I mean, basically, assignments and expectations.

This is a part of the course syllabus, which will be available to 492 students via Moodle starting on the first day of class, August 24. Consider it a preview of coming attractions (er, is attractions the right word, when we’re talking about work?).

Extra! Extra! An Update

11 Aug

One of Mike Rhode's bookshelves (

Our textbooks page has been updated and, I hope, finalized. At last it can be used as a shopping list for class!

The textbooks will be available at CSUN’s Matador Bookstore, and most will also be available at your friendly neighborhood comics shop, Earth-2 Comics (just a five-minute walk from campus). Earth-2 will be offering a 15 percent discount on all the textbooks to everyone enrolled in this class, and a 15 percent discount off your entire purchase the first time you shop there. When you go, be sure to bring a copy of your course syllabus and your CSUN student ID!

Also, I’m pleased to note that I’ve just posted some important information about one of the class’s major assignments: the individual blog. Check it out, and get a head start!

Questions, questions: which topics should a superhero course cover?

5 Aug

Steve Ditko's Question, from DC's Who's Who

Yow, I’m continuing to brainstorm topics and questions that 492 may (should?) deal with. The problem is one of fitting a year’s worth of discussion into fifteen weeks!

Here are ten of (in my view) the major research questions regarding superheroes that might make it into the course. These are all rattling around in my head, about three weeks out from the start of the course:

1. What theory or theories of genre (literary, rhetorical, social) might help to unpack the superhero and its audience?

2. To what extent are antecedent genres, such as hero pulps and adventure strips, important to understanding the emergence of the superhero in the late thirties?

3. How do superheroes transplant/transform the frontier romance? To what extent do they reflect something deeply rooted in American history?

4. How do superheroes reflect ambivalence about modernity and urbanization? Why is the city such an important part of superhero lore?

5. Are superheroes basically a male-addressed genre, as is often claimed? How do superhero tales enact and/or subvert ideas about gender? What roles are played by superhero women, for example Wonder Woman, in relation to the predominantly male subculture of comic book fandom?

6. How do superhero tales enact or undermine ideas about sexuality? What concerns underlie or have inspired the numerous queer readings of the genre?

7. Toward what political ideologies, if any, does the genre lean? What of the common charge that superheroes embody a fascist mentality?

8. How is it important that the genre originated in a visual medium? To what extent is its appeal essentially graphic?

9. Superhero spoofs are a big part of the genre. What might the seminal superhero parodies — for example, Kurtzman and Wood’s “Superduperman” (1953) or Klein’s Mr. Freedom (1969) — reveal about the genre’s ideological and aesthetic foundations?

10. Are the Marvel-style superhero mythoi, post-Jack Kirby, really in the same genre as the early Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman? How has the continuity principle changed the genre?

Which of these, if any, would you consider crucial? I welcome feedback from other teachers and scholars regarding what they consider the most important topics for a superheroes course to cover (please see also my page on “492 Objectives,” here). Also, I’d love to do a syllabus exchange! Feel free to drop comments here, so that we can make contact.

Welcome to the 492 Experience!

10 May

It's Superman! (images of Superman's chest insignia)


is an English Honors course, specifically a senior seminar, that I will be teaching this fall semester at California State University, Northridge. My name is Charles Hatfield, I am an associate professor in the CSUN Department of English, and I work on, among other things, comics, popular culture, and fantasy. By work on I mean that I’m a scholar, teacher, and avid reader of such  things.

I’ve been that kind of reader since I was very young: fantasy and adventure fiction were big parts of my childhood and adolescence, as were comic books. The earliest superhero comics I can remember are the homemade ones my brother Scott made when he was about eight to ten and I was about five to seven, so this is a topic that, for me, goes almost all the way back to the threshold of conscious memory.

I’ve had several periods of concentrated comics reading in my life, but over the past fifteen years or so my immersion in comics has been deep and constant, and the main impetus for my scholarship. Only in the last few years, though, have I begun to turn my work toward superhero comics per se. In fact my 2005 book Alternative Comics (which grew out of my PhD dissertation in English at the University of Connecticut, 2000) completely sidesteps superheroes as a genre, even though it discusses specific examples from a few superhero comics.

Recently, my teaching of popular culture studies and my work on a soon-to-be-completed book about cartoonist Jack Kirby (the quintessential superhero artist) have steered me toward taking on the superhero genre as such. I know from teaching English 333: Comics and Graphic Novels each year that there are many students with a strong interest in superheroes, so 492 will focus down on just that. Call it an experiment. I expect the course to be welcoming but rigorous, inviting but challenging, and full of surprises!

The purpose of this blog is to supplement and help prepare for 492 this fall. Throughout the summer I will be expanding and updating this blog so that you can see how the course design is developing and so that students can anticipate the required texts and assignments and other core elements of the class.

You can find out more about the goals of the course by going to the page titled 492 Objectives, which is linked right here or at the top of the blog. And you can access a PDF flyer about the course here.

BTW, credit where credit is due: the above image of various Superman S-shields, or chest insignias, or chevrons, is the result of cropping a larger, cooler image created by the Flickr user fengschwing and called to my attention by the website Geekstir. Also, the background image behind this blog is based on page 8 of the Captain America story in Tales of Suspense No. 92 (Aug. 1967), penciled by Jack Kirby, inked by Joe Sinnott, lettered by Artie Simek, and scripted by Stan Lee (colorist unknown). In this classic bit of 1960s superhero art, Cap is in the process of battling a “mecho-assassin.” Bring it on!


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