At the Television Critics Association press tour this summer, a number of superhero comics creators made headlines with some unfortunate remarks about the role of women in comics. It was unfortunate, because the documentary they were in Los Angeles to promote, Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle, which airs on PBS tonight, is a terrific introduction to the lasting cultural power of the genre for audiences who are new to comics, and a nuanced exploration of key points in its history for those of us who are already on board. And the most impressive segment of Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle is the discussion of the forces that made a generation of comics artists try to expand the boundaries of who could be considered a hero.
The line from those influences to their results isn’t always an obvious one. But it’s clear that the alignment of restrictions like the Comics Code, which regulated what artists could depict down to the level of the sexual implications of a phone left off the hook, with larger conservative forces like racism and sexism made a more progressive approach to superhero design a rebellious act.
Sometimes that rebellion simply meant drawing characters and writing stories that were more oriented towards adult concerns than adolescent ones.
“I had been doing these comics for about 20 years or so and I really had had it up to here,” Stan Lee explains. “I told my wife, so she said…’Why don’t you do one book the way you’d like it. Hopefully for people with a higher IQ.’ So I came up with the Fantastic Four.”
That desire to engage with readers on a higher level aligned with the rise of social movements and social issues like the push for African-American civil rights and the rise of second-wave feminism. One of the best ways to appear grown-up and thoughtful was to have superheroes get involved with the issues of the day, rather than simply fighting off fantastical threats. “We should be representative of the whole world. Every type of person should be represented in these stories,” Lee explains his thinking. On the pages of Green Lantern comics, an African-American man called the hero out on his failures, telling him of his intergalactic exploits “There’s skins you never bothered with. The black skins. I want to know how come.”
The efforts, though well-intended, could be clumsy, as when Lois Lane went under cover as a black woman for an assignment. “You always have to go through different phases when you’re reaching out to somebody else…there’s tokenism, there’s patronism,” explains the African-American comics historian William H. Foster III. “I thought that they made a valid attempt.” And a desire to tweak authorities like the Comics Code could lead to storylines that have aged poorly. Because the Code forbid discussions of drug use, artists went around their restrictions to produce fear-mongering stories about drug addiction, including Lee’s Spider-Man storyline that features the web-slinger intervening with a teenager who’s taken a psychadelic that convinces him he can fly. These pieces mean to comment on larger issues, but they look more like scared-straight promotional material than human storytelling.
And the urge to ride the wave of social change could force artists to grapple with their own limitations. “I believed in pacifism, and racial equality, and along came feminism and I thought I ought to believe in this,” says Denny O’Neil, who took away Wonder Woman’s powers during his run on the character at DC Comics. “But emotionally I was five years away from understanding and accepting feminism.” The comics critic Phil Jimenez says decisions like that one were revealing. “Almost exclusively, until the past couple of years Wonder Woman has been written by and drawn by men,” he explains. “And Wonder Woman is a classic exercise, I think, in looking at how men, through the decades, are trying to handle the idea of women and equality through this character.”
Gender wasn’t the only issue where artists’ experiences mattered, either. The concentration of comics artists in New York during a period when crime rates in that city were exceptionally high meant that street crime loomed large in the work they produced, especially with characters like the vigilante Punisher. “My own life was living in New York, and being afraid to take the subway,” explains his creator, Gerry Conway. And Comic Book Nation author Bradford Wright notes that even Captain America took on a new title, Nomad, that matched his adaptation of boarderless vigilante tactics.
All in all, it’s a fascinating reminder that the vigorous debates that are taking place today, whether on the hilarious and tart Twitter feed of DC Comics’ Gail Simone or on stage at New York Comic Con, have taken place in the medium before. And the segment is an important illustration of how institutional incentives, changing social norms, and artists’ desires to position themselves as intellectually progressive worked together to change our understanding of who can be a hero, and what that work of heroism looks like. For all the progress we’ve made, the conflicts described in Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle aren’t just a matter of fisticuffs on the page, but of the moments when it’s possible for the medium to leap forward–and the times when, like Superman in proximity to Kryptonite, it stalls out.