Superheroes and comic books have been an important touchstone in my life since I saw Tim Burton’s Batman when I was not even five-years-old. From there I moved on the Bruce Timm’s Batman Animated Series and later to the mid-1990s X-Men cartoon. I grew up from a wee fangirl to an assistant manager of a comic shop when I left high school, where I stayed for nearly five years. This is where I eventually transitioned, surprised but pleased to find fellow nerds could readily accept someone growing tired of juggling dual identities.
During my years of slinging comics, it was non uncommon for me to give presentations about the history of comic books and their cultural relevance to American Arts. Comic Books, Cinema, and Jazz (among all other Black-Created “American” music styles), are some of the only American claims to cultural fame. And being American, comic books have an entangled history with many forms of our cultural expectations, as well as struggles against oppression.
From their birth, comics and their predecessors, pulp novels, were looked down upon for the people reading them (children, non-english fluent immigrants, and less-literate working class), which meant the views of people creating them weren’t much better. The comic book industry in its infancy mirrored many other problems in industries of that era. With little oversight or regulation, plagiarism and theft and non-payment for creators was extremely commonplace. Workers had little to no rights whatsoever about their creations or intellectual property. Writing for comics might be seen as a humble stepping stone to more lucrative copy work, but certainly not something any creator should actually aspire to.
While this might have put off more socially privileged writers from joining the medium, it unwittingly created something of a haven (or maybe a trap) for minority writers who might not otherwise be able to get regular work. Black creators, Jewish creators, immigrant creators, women creators, communist creators, and queer creators all became the soul of American superheroes under the guise of “who cares it’s just harmless kids stuff”. They wrote about what they knew and experienced. They wrote about tenements and slum lords and wicked bosses and exploitation of the Little Man. And they created heroes who would listen to them and defend them. Perhaps the most notable example is a certain white-passing immigrant raised by Americans to believe that he too could stand for Truth, Justice, and the American Way, created by two young Jewish immigrants.
In Part 2, I will begin discussing the intertwined history of queer subtext and comic books, starting with Masked Men and when staying in the closet was the noble thing to do.