Science Fiction Studies

#13 = Volume 4, Part 3 = November 1977

Bernt Kling

On SF Comics: Some Notes for a Future Encyclopedia1

Translated by Nancy King; edited by DS

The best known pure SF comics are Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, to which were later added the "Super-hero comics" (see under that heading). Buck Rogers goes back to a SF story by Phil (Philip Francis) Nowlan which appeared in Amazing Stories in 1928: a hero named Anthony Rogers falls into suspended animation by means of a kind of active gas. He awakes 500 years later, in a future when the Earth is ruled by the "Han Air Lords," an oriental race whose ancestors came from another planet, and fights successfully against this yellow peril from outer space. From 1929 the adventures of Buck Rogers 2429 A.D. appeared as comic strips in many newspapers. Every year the date in the title changed, so that the action always took place exactly 500 years in the future; finally the series received a permanent title, Buck Rogers in the Twenty-Fifth Century. The scripts for the comics were also written by Phil Nowlan, the illustrations were by Dick Calkins. Buck Rogers also became the hero of a radio show series which was written and produced by the same people as the Superman radio plays.                

The Flash Gordon comic strip was begun on January 7, 1934, and was similar in content to the Buck Rogers series, but considerably better drawn (by Alex Raymond, who later became known through Rip Kirby and Secret Agent X-9). The blond, blue-eyed hero fights against prehistoric monsters and evil humanoid races, which are for the most part led by a tyrant with Mongolian features, Ming the Cruel. Gordon is accompanied by his sweetheart Dale and by the Scientist Dr. Zarkoff. Flash Godon fights amid a hostile environment (thick jungle, icy landscape) in a planet where the social formation is a most primitive feudalism. Especially striking is the contrast between the feudal society and advanced technology: the fighting uses both swords and atomic cannons; the hero and his opponent are like mythological figures who decide the fate of a people by technological means, while the people only celebrates the victorious hero or kneels before the evil antagonist.              

Flash Gordon has become one of the best known SF comics, appearing in large editions and many countries; e.g., Federico Fellini wrote the Italian version for a while, since under Fascism U.S. comic strips were not allowed into Italy. The success of the comics brought in its wake radio-serials and film serials in which Buster Crabbe, who had portrayed Tarzan in the early Tarzan films, took the role of Flash Gordon. A British comic series with a similar hero, Jeff Hawke, who is projected from everyday situations into space and time -adventures, has had a long-standing success up to the present day.                

In 1938 Superman (see under that heading) appeared for the first time. He was followed by numerous other super-hero comics, which determined the development of the SF comics (with the exception of a few comic book series such as Strange Stories and From Beyond the Unknown, which remained relatively unimportant). In addition, numerous SF comics have been taken from TV serials, such as Space Family Robinson and Star Trek.                

A special style of drawing has been developed for various French comics, e.g. those drawn by Druillet or Moebius. Especially in the comic-strip periodical Pilote, a real national school of SF comics developed. Later, these bandes dessinés began also appearing in the more accessible form of large comics albums.                

In West Germany the strip series Test Pilot Speedy, begun in 1954, became later Astronaut Speedy, with a mixture of space and SF-thriller adventures. Speedy is the astronaut of a federation in permanent conflict with an enemy and has primarily to deal with enemy sabotage. Such plots, clearly a paraphrase of the West-East Cold War, were rather bad, but the drawings were worse. In Italy, the comics serials Fulgor the Cosmonaut and Raka, the Hero of 2000 were published in the form of small "piccolo" continuations. A similar form was used in West Germany for H. Wäscher's Nick the Astronaut, which however after 1959 appeared also as large color albums (rptd. 1976). All these series had current space-opera plots. Other West German series have mostly failed, except for the super-hero comics. Even Perry—Our Man in Space, a comics version based on the successful Perry Rhodan series of novels, lasted only from 1968 to 1975.

Superman. Superman is a motif from SF literature taken up by the comics industry at the end of the 1930s and since utilized in ever new variations of "Super-hero comics" (see under that heading). Superman was the first, and is still the best known of these costumed superhuman heroes. His predecessors are to be found in certain heroes from the SF pulp series such as Captain Future and Doc Savage. Three favorite themes of SF literature come together in Superman: the visitor from another planet, the superman, and finally the secret identity. It has been shown that the idea of the comics hero Superman goes back to Philip Wylie's 1930 novel Gladiator. In this novel the possible super-strength of a man is explained by comparison with insects such as ants or grasshoppers who are a hundred times as strong as we are:

If a man could be given the same sinews as an ant, he could carry his own house away.... Make a man as strong as a grasshopper—and he would be able to leap over the church. I tell you, there is something which determines the quality of each and every muscle and every sinew. Find it—transplant it—and you have the solution. [§7]

In Wylie's novel a scientist finds the answer, and injects his pregnant wife with a chemical mixture which makes her child eventually grow into a man with superhuman strength. The creator of Superman, Jerry Siegel, had reviewed this novel in a fanzine he edited. Siegel developed the idea of Superman already in 1933 and had it put into drawings by his 17-year-old friend, Joe Shuster. The two tried in vain for five years to sell their comics to a publisher or a comics syndicate, but had it rejected as "a rather immature work"; actually, both the text and the illustrations were rather poor. Thus, the first adventure of the Man of Steel appeared for the first time in 1938 in the new comic book series Action Comics. Through its success, a great need was discovered and the explosive expansion of the Superman myth began. Superman appeared in 230 daily and Sunday newspapers, film serials were produced both live and as cartoons, radio plays were broadcast, and the comic books with "The World's Greatest Adventure Strip Character" sold in ever increasing editions which occasionally were as high as one and half million.       

The myth of Superman corresponded to a need in the socio-political atmosphere of the Thirties:

It was 1938 and the country was recovering slowly and unsteadily from the blow which had crippled the economy in 1929, In the air was talk about war in Europe and a crazy clown by the name of Hitler. The technocrats were preaching that science could rule the world and could solve all human problems forever, while the communists were aiming for a united socialist world under the dictatorship of the proletariat. It was a time of idealism and of shattered ideals. We had been cast down, but everything wasn't over yet. Our world was in pieces, but we knew that we could build a better one.2

Superman was, of course, all that which his creators were not. Jerome Siegel and Joe Schuster were described as "two slim, shy, nervous, nearsighted kids"; they were each 17 years old and in high school when they invented Superman. Therefore they made their "Man of Steel" tall, strong, self-confident, affable, and furthermore, a super-human being with perfect reflexes and X-ray vision (Superman can see through walls and into farthest distances). Superman always reestablished a compensatory justice and put the world in order with his mighty strength. And as the success of the series proved, America had many Siegels and Schusters who felt equally powerless and indulged only too gladly in power fantasies of a superhuman being who had come out of the cosmos to Earth to defend justice and order. Thus, Superman was the fulfillment of a widespread wish-dream: a power from outer space, descended to Earth, he had become an American, a genuine patriot.  The Superman story is well-known but should be mentioned: when his native planet was destroyed by a catastrophe, a scientist put his son in a test rocket and sent it towards Earth. There the super-baby was adopted by an elderly, childless couple; the child grew up, became Superboy, and gradually his super-powers became apparent. In the first issues, for example, he could not yet fly, but (like the hero of Wylie's novel) only take long leaps on the basis of his super-strength. However the "super" concept and the readers' expectations enforced a continual increase in his powers. They increased in the course of the decade so much that Superman could even move planets out of their orbits. Also, at the beginning Superman was not invulnerable; he only gradually became the unbeatable and invulnerable superhuman. Yet, how many exciting adventures can a hero have if he is unbeatable and invulnerable? Thus, Superman had to be given certain weaknesses. They were brought into play by the red and green kryptonite, a radioactive rock from Superman's no longer existent native planet, which fell to Earth in the form of meteorites. This kryptonite wholly counteracted Superman's super-powers or caused physical changes in him—so that Superman could be delivered to his enemies, almost powerless, when Kryptonite was brought into his proximity. His secret identity became an additional weakness, for he had to protect it at any price. For in his private life Superman is called Clark Kent and is a reporter for a daily newspaper (later a TV company); he wears glasses and is rather helpless. Only when the need arises does Clark Kent, generally something of a fool and coward, metamorphose into Superman.                

During the Second World War, Superman became a super-patriot, and dedicated his powers to the battle against America's enemies: the cover picture of a Superman issue from September, 1941, shows Superman going arm-in-arm with a soldier and a sailor. From then on the Man of Steel had appropriate steel enemies: battleships, submarines, tanks, airplanes. He fought at the same time on all fronts: against the Nazis, the Japanese, and saboteurs and war profiteers in the U.S.A. In addition he still helped old ladies to cross the street safely. The nationalistic message of Superman's warfare was supplemented by calls for the purchase of war bonds.                

After the Second World War this personified dream from the American collective subconscious continued reflecting the changes in the "American way of life." Just like the G.I.'s returning from the War, who had carried Superman's "numerous adventures in their knapsacks when they stormed the Atlantic Wall,"3 Superman too returned to the civilian everyday life, tired of battle. From this point on everyday skulduggeries often gave him more trouble than his worst enemies; Superman was degraded to a slapstick figure, for his stories contained more costume-comedy than action. This extended to Superman's haircut, for one pair of scissors after another broke on his hard-as-steel hair.                

Above all, his double identity grew more pronounced, and the contrast between the helpless Clark Kent and his Superman-version ever more pronounced. The insignificant, clumsy and scared Clark Kent loves his colleague Lois Lane, also a reporter, but she has only contempt for him, since she loves Superman. Out of this situation and the constant hide-and-seek around Superman's identity new comic complications continually arose. Nevertheless Superman, desired by all, cannot love: he fulfills his manhood only in action and battle:

Here is a saga about a masculine American, a macho, who because of his omertà, can have as many women as he likes, but absorbed in his male world and repelled by his own desires, does not know what to do with women—in complete contrast to the weakling (who he is at the same time) whose impotence is evident, paradoxically, in his positive attitude to women.4

Superman, the clean American, the super-boyscout, has no sexual drive—if anybody has this it is his enemies, the super-scoundrels whom he must vanquish again and again. And yet another quality can be found in his super-enemies which is missing in Superman: they are intelligent. The Superman writer Jerry Siegel said "We do not emphasize the intellectual side of Superman. People do not dream of becoming super-intelligent." Only his enemies have intelligence, and are often Mad Scientists who because of their intelligence do not fit into the desired simple order of a Superman America. Their intelligence leads them to ever new and more perfect crimes, and enables them to carry these ideas out; Superman can never prevent their success by intellectual effort, but only by the power of his fists. It could have become "an American dream," said his creators Siegel and Schuster of Superman in 1975. But for them it did not become one. They had signed away their rights in 1938 for 130 dollars and some promises, to National Periodical Publications. After a few years they were kicked out while others profited from "their" dream. Only in 1976, when both had reached 61 and become impoverished (Schuster had also become blind), were they given lifetime pensions of $20,000 by Warner Communications which now owns Superman! This followed on a campaign by well-known comics' artists, which went on parallel to a film-project going into millions of dollars.5               

The Superman myth has existed now for over 30 years, and it is by no means played out, even if its external manifestations may change.

Super-Hero Comics. A frequent form of the comics series that originated in the tradition of SF comics such as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. The huge success of Superman (see under that heading),after 1938—also as a hero of radio plays and film serials—soon brought forth numerous imitations which were at first prosecuted for plagiarism and forbidden. But eventually Superman was followed by a flood of super-heroes, who today appear in part with the same publisher (National Periodicals—DC), and in part in the supposedly competing Marvel Comics (in reality, these two leading comic book publishers are financially allied). While Superman is superior and stronger in every respect, most of his colleagues are only "specialists" with extreme, specialized gifts. Flash is the fastest man in the world, Plastic Man can shape his body in any way, The Human Torch can transform himself into a living flame, The Green Lantern draws his secret powers from the energy of green light, etc. A few heroes have in addition a mythological background—The Mighty Thor, for example, is a god out of Nordic mythology who came to Earth over a dimension-bridge from Asgard, the city of Nordic gods.                

With many heroes we notice the totemistic use of an animal symbol, so Hawkman, who wears the mark of a hawk and has wings, and The Amazing Spider Man, who acquired super-abilities after being bitten by a radioactive spider and who, in an appropriate costume, looks like a spider. This totem symbol indicates the characteristics and capabilities of the respective heroes. Thus, Batman has a Batmobile, a Batcave and a hiding place, a Batcostume which makes him similar to his totem animal—the bat, etc. The totem device gives rise to a type-casting which rules out everything else, and raises the super-heroes to the level of mythological beings:

The super-heroes are characters who by a limitation to the very small, homogenous part of the spectrum of what is thinkable (from names to speech habits, looks, behavior and destiny) seem to be monolithic—a sort of shorthand which immensely simplifies dealing with the phenomena of everyday life, that simplification terrible which Sartre indicated a few years ago as assign of fascism. The identity of a character consists solely of his name and the aura of vague conceptuality which spreads out around that. The mythology which follows from this replaces and prevents any utopian ideas.6

Practically all the super-heroes take over the model of a secret double identity from their prototype of Superman. They all live unknown among mankind, and transform themselves into their immanent, super-powerful superbeing only in (permanently recurring) emergency situations. As a charismatic Führer type, such a super-hero has mostly a respectable middle-class occupation such as journalist, doctor, lawyer, or he is a multimillionaire, like Batman and Iron Man; the latter is given out as the owner of America's largest armaments industry. Implicitly this is tantamount to pretending that an elite of the society sacrifices itself for everyone in its secret super-heroism.                

The super-heroes are always selected by an only barely understandable destiny to be defenders of the status quo, of law and order. Furthermore, in their morals and their behavior they are past-oriented, advocates of feudal tutelage who adapt themselves with difficulty, often with a sour face, to the system they serve without wholly understanding it. Though a powerful protector of the people, the super-hero never reaches for direct political power. He is never elected by the people, but is sent to Earth by higher powers (as the Green Lantern by the ancient "Guardians of the Universe"). His existence must always be justified anew by threatening catastrophes, but most of all by the ever returning super-enemies, who frequently use superior technical means (super-weapons) and are also frequently connected with politically inimical powers. Up to the last years, super-enemies often fought against revolutionary movements in South America, or in Vietnam, for American victory. The super-enemy opposed to the particularly patriotic "Captain America" (whose costume has the colors of the American flag) was the Chinese-built "Red Guardian" (see Avengers 43, 44 [1967]). The Iron Man had to oppose the Russian-created "Titanium Man" in order to demonstrate in a duel of superbeings that the free West is superior to the East Block.           

Thus the super-heroes compensate not only for individual but also national feelings of inferiority. In many stories the super-heroes fought and fight political battles for the U.S.A., from the discussions about new and more destructive superweapons during the Cold War up to the Vietnam War. The "avengers on a higher mission" also intervene in unrest within the country, uncover dangerous drug-pushers as ring-leaders of student demonstrations, or fight against an organization of militant Blacks. Such political struggle is particularly present in the Marvel Group series, which were not infrequently—because of their quality illustrations and often ironical texts—enthusiastically received by intellectual critics.               

This obviously reactionary political alignment became more subdued parallel to the general resolution of the Cold War tensions. The comics producers also attempted, for commercial reasons, to appeal to the critical part of American youth; thus around 1970 for a time there arose a new trend in the super-hero comics, for which the production of the comics author Denny O'Neil (National Periodicals group) can be seen as representative. This trend included in the range of their themes public corruption, racial discrimination, destruction of the environment and drug addiction. (There even appeared black heroes of comics, for example Black Panther and Luke Cage, Hero for Hire.) The national crisis of student unrest, Vietnam War, and racial conflicts was experienced by some U.S. super-heroes as an identity crisis. Comics were increasingly receiving artistic and intellectual recognition, while a large section of the mass readership had finally gone over to TV serials; thus the mass circulation of the regular comics series declined. In order to regain circulation by a new image, the American comic-book publishers jointly founded the Academy of Comic Book Art. At the same time the super-hero series The Green Lantern, which was close to shutdown because of low sales, was from No. 76 used for a kind of test production and aimed at a new public, mainly high-school and university students.               

In No. 76, the Green Lantern is confronted with a black ghetto, the slum quarter of Star City. There, blacks are helplessly delivered over to a businessman who behaves like a tyrannical landlord, a "slumlord" who wants to evict the black tenants because "he can earn more money if he puts a parking lot here." A black turns to the super-hero: "I have read lots you fight for people with blue you helped people with bright skin on a planet...and you also concern yourself with people who have violet skin! There is only one skin color which you've ignored... Black! Why is that...Green Lantern?" The hero decides to help the blacks. Equally typical is the plot of No. 84: in a city largely cut off from the outer world, all the inhabitants are employed by a single firm which produces new plastics. The whole city consists mostly of a synthetic material, and inhabitants are held in a state of unconscious dependence by means of a hypnotic gas and conscience-dimming noises; then they are "perfect employees" for the owners of the city. In the course of the action it is pointed out that all of America is really such a "company town."                

The first and quite consistent step of O'Neil's was to reduce the super-powers of his heroes Green Lantern and Green Arrow to a bearable level, and even to deprive them of such powers for long stretches of time. The second was to deprive them of their certainty. Green Lantern was confronted with social and political problems, and became not only a restlessly active but also a doubting and reflecting figure. O'Neil proceeded similarly when he became the script-writer for Superman, still the most famous of the super-hero series. O'Neil humanized Superman in two ways. First, he gave him greater human—even physical—weaknesses; thus he confronted the bewildered Superman readers with the image of a "Man of Steel" regularly beaten up by his opponents. On the other hand, Clark Kent, Superman's civilian alter ego, became better characterized and more self-assured, and in addition advanced from a newspaper to a television reporter. The discrepancy between the normal citizen Kent, earlier described as weak and clumsy, and the super-powerful Superman diminished.  

O'Neil slightly changed and modernized also the second most important series of DC Comics, Batman, as well as Wonder Woman. However, there the critical intent was much more subdued and less definite. O'Neil's comics acquired an increasing tendency to escapist fantasy-plots. Finally, the Green Lantern was shut down as an independent comic-book series. The super-heroes returned to normality—violence against stereotyped enemies.


                1. On SF-comics in general, cf. beside the works in the following notes, Alfred C. Baumgartner, Die Welt der Comics (Bochum, 1965); Pierre Couperie; "100,000,000 de lieues en ballon: La science-fiction dans la bande dessinée," Phénix No. 4 (Paris 1967); Wiltrud Ulrike Drechsel, Jörg Funhoff and Michael Hoffmann: Messenzeichenware: Die gesellschaftliche und ideologische Funktion der Comics. (Frankfurt, 1965); and Reinhold C. Reitberger and Wolfgang J. Fuchs, Comics: Anatomie eines Massenmediums (Munich, 1971).
                2. Ted White, "The Spawn of M.C. Gaines," in Dick Lupoff and Don Thompson eds., All in Color for a Dime (New York: Ace, 1970).
                3. Günther Metken, Comics (Frankfurt: Fischer, 1970). For further literature on Superman cf. Kirk Alyn, A Job for Superman (US, 1971); Robert von Berg, "Der aufhaltsame Abstieg Supermans: Neuer Trend in der amerikanischen Comic-strip-Industrie," Süddeutsche Zeitung (4 January, 1971); Nicolas Born, "Supermann oder: Die Helden der Schweigenden Mehrheit," Konkret No. 8 (1971); Heinz Politzer, "Mehr David als Goliath: Eine Analyse des Superman," tendenzen No. 55 (1968); Carna Zacharias, "Charlie Brown contra Superman," tz (17-28. January, 1973); and White and Siegel in notes 2 and 5.
                4. Oswald Wiener, "Der geist der super-helden," in Vom Geist der Superhelden: Comic strips, Schriftenreihe der Akad. der Künste, Bd. 8 (Berlin: Gebr. Mann, 1970).
                5. "Jerry Siegel Talks About the Case Against Superman," Mediascene No. 17 (1976).
                6. Wiener, op. cit.

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