By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department
Thirty years ago reading a comic book in the presence of your classmates in a middle school was a surefire plan to get picked on relentlessly. Now, every third movie and new television show is about one superhero or another or a team of them combined. The world has changed and now the geeks rule pop culture. So what do you read if you like being on the cutting edge of graphic novels? How do you boost your geek cred in a world where the popular people know the significance of Bobbi Morse and who Caitlin Snow really is? There are only two places left and I’m going to tell you where to find them (if you don’t already know).
Before I delve into the mines of alternative superheroes, I want to quickly mention other options. There are plenty of great graphic novels out there that don’t have anything to do with super heroes. You can find everything from mystery to fantasy to history to horror and even physics covered in books of sequential art. Our blog titled Little Known (but Amazing) Graphic Novels covers some great options that are not as well known. By that same token, Superhero 101: Foundations in Superhero History can give you some great reading suggestions from the heroes of the distant past. In fact there are a lot of great books out there that might even be considered superhero books if I weren’t sticking with the cape and cowl set. So while Buffy and Harry Dresden and the New Types of the Gundam universe might be super powered they’ll have to stay on the shelf today.
The most common place to look for new super heroes for your reading enjoyment is …the other publishers. There are dozens of small imprints and local publishers but you don’t even have to look that hard. If you are a fan of the super hero books from Marvel and DC, but just want something new try looking at Image, Valiant, and Dark Horse. While these guys are outside of the big corporations, they’ve been around for a while and many of their books have the history and depth you are used to.
Dark Horse is the oldest, dating back to 1986, and has specialized in the types of characters that don’t fit the traditional mold of a superhero, but they do have a few exceptions in their history.
- They had a revival of Doc Savage, a physician trained mentally and physically to superhuman levels (think Batman). There are many claims that he is the first superhero, predating certain Kryptonians by five years.
- Ghost was another more traditional hero, she was an undead spirit who spent her afterlife righting wrongs.
- The American was a cynical take on the patriotic type superhero.
Valiant is more traditional in its character creation. While they did some revivals back in the early nineties, like Turok and Doctor Solar, they had their own stable of superheroes.
- X-O Manowar is a Dark Age European warrior kidnapped by aliens who stole their greatest weapon and turned it on them only to return to earth and discover that, due to time dilation, 1600 years had passed.
- Ninjak is a superspy meets techno ninja. It sounds like cool overload, but this Joe Quesada created hero manages to pull it off.
- Bloodshot was a nanite infected assassin who was trying to rediscover the past that was stolen from him.
Image is possibly the best known of the alternative publishers. In actuality it was a collection of creator owned studios trying to start a company where the idea men actually remained in control of their characters. The initial line up of talent with image was legendary. Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee, Todd McFarland, Erik Larsen, Jim Valentino and Marc Silvestri all had their own studios producing new characters and new stories like we’d never seen before. Liefeld eventually left somewhat acrimoniously, Lee sold his Wildstorm Productions to DC and the modern day has seen a shift to a more diversified field of titles with things like Saga and Walking Dead (which we have at the library). While the company has seen changes to its direction since 1992, the list of superheroes they created is lengthy and many are worth a read.
- The Savage Dragon was Erik Larsen’s childhood creation brought to the page in form he wanted. A green, scaly, fin headed humanoid with invulnerability and super strength.
- Spawn took a deal with the devil and turned it into one of the most popular anti-heroes of the era.
- Witchblade is a series detailing the stories of a mystical gauntlet that bonds with women and gives them the ability to fight evil.
One other place to look for stories you’ve never read is the past. Golden age comics are where it all began and while there are decades of stories out there about the heroes you already know, there are other great heroes you may not be quite so familiar with. Marvel predecessor, Timely Comics, gave the world Captain America and Namor, but they also created the original versions of the Angel, Vision, and Human Torch as well as the speedster known as the Whizzer (the Nazi-fighting Destroyer), and the Blazing Skull (the champion of Freedom). DC’s history is even deeper. Not only do they have a host of golden age superheroes you’ve never heard of, they have added those of other now defunct companies to their in-house universe. Fawcett comics gave the line Captain Marvel and the Marvel family, probably better known as Shazam. Quality Comics published the early adventures of the hero Plastic Man as well as Will Eisner’s original Spirit. Fox Comics (and later Charlton Comics and Americomics) created the Blue Beetle, Captain Atom and the Question. These are just a few of the many options from golden age.
If you’re bored with the current run of comics and tired of seeing the same old stories retold, look into the corners of the other heroes and the past and find new books to rekindle your love of heroes.
By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department
Good morning class, and welcome to Superhero 101. With the massive surge of movies, books, and television about and starring spandex clad gladiators from the last century we cannot help but look back to the origins of the archetypal superhero. Most modern comic book enthusiasts think of comics and their associated heroes as falling into the eras of The Gold, Silver, Bronze and Modern ages, with the superhero archetype we all think of (i.e. Superman, Wonder Woman, Captain America) beginning in the Golden age. While I agree with the ages and their application in the history of comics, I believe the heroes go back so much farther. I would go even as far as to say that our older heroes are still as popular now as they were in their nascent era. So let us begin learning how the heroes of humanity’s past are the heroes of today’s children.
Okay, that’s what it would say at the top of the syllabus if there was a university crazy enough to give me carte blanche to design a course of my choosing. I’m not sure what department would end up with a course like that; history, literature, and anthropology all have good claims on the subject matter. (I’d probably choose anthropology.) I started to think about this back in 2005, when another set of books came out claiming to be the next Harry Potter. It was something to do with Mount Olympus in New York and some unfortunately named kid. Percy Jackson brought Greek mythology back to the American consciousness with a vengeance. I remarked to a coworker in the children’s department that it was like someone had mixed Dauliere’s mythology with comic books, and then I realized there was nothing to mix, that the original sequential pictures were drawn on the side of black-figure pottery. The more I thought about it, the further back I could push that genesis moment in drawn super heroes, back past Homer, beyond Gilgamesh, back to the paintings in Chauvet and Lascaux and the Löwenmensch. Those giant figures on cave walls and anthropomorphized animals showed a belief in a being better than an average human, a super man.
The real origin we can trace the ideas back is to the stories that have come down to us along with artistic renderings. Gilgamesh is probably the earliest recorded super hero. He was stronger and braver and more cunning than an average person. This was because he was two thirds god (yeah, I can’t make the math on that work either), but he wasn’t a god himself. Even the Old Testament refers to a race of giants like Goliath, that were the children of fallen angels and human women, but they were not very heroic. Yet still that was the de facto origin story for most of the Stone Age and Classical Age heroes, some combination of divine ancestors mixed with human to make for an invulnerable hero (Achilles), a super strong one (Heracles), or some mix of characteristics (Theseus, Perseus, Etc. ). There are even examples of plain guys with nothing but their physical prowess and sharp wits like Batman, oh, sorry , I mean Odysseus. The superhero of today would fit fine in ancient Greece and Rome if he just swapped his tights and alien parents for a toga or chiton and a more deified lineage.
The medieval world and its dominating monotheistic religions brought an end to all this human/deity philandering. Heroes now were men and women who were blessed by God like Robin Hood, Pwyll of Dyfed, and King Arthur or sorcerers of sketchy origin like Merlin. Real life heroes began to be magnified to supernatural proportions. Joan of Arc, El Cid, Roland, Boadicea, and Charlemagne all have fantastic elements woven into their stories. Off in the cold north of Europe the Vikings still had the demigod heroes of the early sagas, but even these saw a Christianization as people adopted the religion but didn’t want to give up their old fireside stories. Hero tales are not the sole property of the west in the middle ages. Sinbad the mariner was sailing the Arabian Sea while the brothers of the peach orchard, Guan Yu, Liu Pei, and Zhang Fei, were fighting to unite China.
Since the Medieval era, we have been going through our past for inspiration. There have been resurgences in interest over and over in the classical mythos as well as the Arthurian legends. Scholars debate the historicity of Troy and Camelot. Writers like Tennyson and Keats borrowed the themes for new works. It wasn’t until early last century that we began something new. Superman, Captain Marvel, Captain America and Wonder Woman each debuted and added new heroes to our mythology. This coincided with a rise in science fiction stories in the popular publishing world. Now we have science fiction retellings of the Odyssey, movies of Sinbad, video Games of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and graphic novels that tell the 4000 year old story of Gilgamesh and Troy. Children today are learning the same lessons as the kids of millennia past from the same characters. We have made our own heroes but we have built them on a timeless framework that goes back to the beginning of humanity and we have brought along a best of collection of the heroes of the past.
Sources and Suggested Reading:
- The History of Art by H. W. Janson (709 JAN)
- Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman by Marc Tyler Nobleman (J 741.5 NOB)
- D’aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths by Ingri D’Aulaire (J 292 DAU)
- The Epic of Gilgamesh by Kent H. Dixon (892.1 DIX)
- The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell (201.3 CAM)
- Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guangzhong (895.13 LUO)
- The Song of Roland by Anonymous (YA 841.1 CHA)