SF Comics: Different Times

December 11, 2010

Blame my curiosity. Or my nerdiness. In any case, I checked a book out of the library entitled “Supermen! The First Wave of Comic Book Heroes 1936-1941.” It contains a collection of comic book stories featuring heroes I’d mostly never heard of. Not a Spiderman or Batman in sight- instead, there’s Yarko the Great, Spacehawk, and Stardust the Super Wizard.

I knew going in that these comics were going to be a little cheesy. Ok, very cheesy. I mean, they’re over 70 years old. Cheese practically drips from the pages. My favourite story is probably “Stardust the Super Wizard.”

Brief plot synopsis: evil villain named Kaos is making vultures on Venus huge with growth-inducing vitamins. Then he uses a “hypnotic-control ray” on them, and gets them to fly to Earth… through space, under their own power, with no oxygen/pressure suits/space craft. Stardust knows about all this because he’s psychic, so he shows up and beats the vultures, in the process saving a pretty girl who wants to come back to his castle with him and promises “not be be a bother.” Then Stardust turns Kaos into a worm. The End.

Well, I guess this shows that fantasy-flavoured SF has been around for a while.

But as much fun as the comics are (and as many moments of “What?!” there have been), I find it interesting just how far we’ve come in terms of what’s considered “appropriate.” And, conversely, how little other things have changed.

The ending of the Stardust story, where the girl is saves and wants only to be with Stardust, hints at the sexism pervading the stories. There’s another tale in which the only female character, Cynde (which I’m assuming is pronounced “Cindy” and not “Kind”) never says a word. Not a single one. She’s fawned over, abducted, gloated over, and rescued, but she never actually says anything. However, I’m not sure that isn’t preferable to the women who do speak: they tend to be a) dumb, b) helpless, c) in the grips of inferiority complexes, or d) all of the above.

I know these were meant for 9-13-year-old boys. But still, I can’t imagine seeing characters like this today… though I will concede that they may just be better masked in some instances.

Then there’s the racism. I don’t know… something about gorillas who have been injected with an intelligence enhancing serum calling the (white) scientists their “masters” makes me really uncomfortable. Particularly when you realize that it’s not even a mind-control serum, yet nevertheless, “The gorilla… begins to stare at the scientist like a slave admiring his master.” Anyone else squirming?

Yet for all overt sexism and racism, I noticed something that wouldn’t seem terribly out of place in today’s comics.


The Claw: another unfortunate portrayal

The level tends to vary. Sometimes “evil leaders” get killed offstage. Other times we see limbs flying through the air. But guns, knives, and fists appear on almost every page. When I think about some of the “horror movies” that have been released in recent years, this comic book violence seems tame in comparison.  

I’m not an expert on comics. But it does strike me as interesting that the attitude towards violence seems basically unchanged, while certain portrayals of gender and race would certainly be flagged “inappropriate.”

And I also have to wonder: 70 years from now, what will people think when they see and read our films, comics, and books? 




  1. Like you, I’m not an expert in this field but from what I’ve seen I’d agree the sexism and racism have changed but levels of violence possibly not. There’s a lot of stuff in print and on the net about the history and role of the Comics Code Authority (in the US) and other ways to make comics more ‘morally uplifting’ – and also, of course, the ways the comic publishers sought to push the boundaries despite financing the CCA in the first place… There’s a long history of censure, censorship and ‘freedom of expression’ type issues embedded in all this!

  2. Early comic books were the violent video games/movies of their time. While cowboys in white hats bloodlessly shot Indians or threw unconvincing punches to down stagecoach robbers at the movies and on TV, little boys (and not-so-little boys coming home from the Big One) got their fill of death and dismemberment in the picture pulps of the day. While these penny dreadfuls had their audience there is a reason you don’t see Stardust the Super Wizard on stands today. Most little boys (and girls) grow up. They figure out that punch endings don’t satisfy.

    Personally, I have no problem with violence in its place. Human beings are violent creatures. But when was the last time you punched someone in the face? Truth to tell, violence doesn’t occur very often in polite society. For just that reason it should occur about as often in our fiction, assuming you’re writing about polite society. Either way, it shouldn’t be the denouement. Having the protag stab, punch, shoot or hack his way out of his problems is not just weak, it’s boring. Throughout history the enduring storybook characters have been those who use intelligence to beat their problems even if they had to swashbuckle a bit to get there. I think comic books like the ones you mentioned are a fine example of how not to write, at least in today’s world. But they still make us smile, don’t they?

    — david j.

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