What Comics Have Meant to Me
By MIKE BONIN | Contributing Writer
When Marvel’s “Infinity War” burst onto movie screens, it was a big moment in the ongoing takeover of American pop culture by the comic book superhero genre.
With blockbuster movies, hit TV shows, web series and assorted merchandise, for a lifelong superhero fan, it’s like living in Nerd Nirvana.
When John Harlow, the Palisadian-Post’s editor-in-chief, asked me to write a column about comic book superheroes to coincide with the release of the latest Avengers film, I quickly said yes—and then promptly regretted it.
With all the challenges in the world and in our Los Angeles neighborhoods, it didn’t feel right. But whether it is passages in Holy Scripture or rumor and innuendo on Nextdoor, our society is shaped by the stories we tell.
As much as I love the current blockbusters, my love for comic book superheroes was born in a simpler time, when the lines between good and bad were sharp, and the phrase “fighting for truth, justice and the American way” didn’t sound so corny.
While I am a child of the 1970s, I’m a fan of the stories of the “Golden Age” of comics, stories from the dawn of the genre in the 1930s and 1940s that I was fortunate to discover as page-filler reprints in backs of copies of the “Justice League.”
Back in those days, villains weren’t world-destroying intergalactic demigods. When Superman debuted in “Action Comics #1” in 1938, he freed a woman about to be executed for a murder she did not commit, apprehended a man committing domestic violence and exposed a corrupt U.S. senator.
In later issues, he took on munitions manufacturers, slumlords and corporate executives who took advantage of their workers.
In the 1940s, Superman, Wonder Woman and Captain America routinely took on Nazis and war saboteurs.
Unlike today, where superheroes routinely fight each other (think DC’s “Superman vs. Batman” or Marvel’s “Civil War”), the early stories were about teamwork.
The precursor to the Justice League and the Avengers was the Justice Society of America.
The team formed in “All-Star Comics #3” in 1940, when the Flash, Green Lantern, Doctor Fate, the Sandman, Hourman, the Spectre, the Atom and Hawkman banded together.
It was the first time comic book heroes appeared together, in a shared fictional universe. Eventually joined by Wonder Woman, the Justice Society of America became the template for a staple of the—a team of superheroes working cooperatively against a common foe.
One member of the team, a character named Mr. Terrific, actually had the motto “Fair Play” emblazoned on his uniform.
Those Golden Age stories were less morally ambiguous than today’s tales, but they also had a stunning and jarring lack of diversity. Almost all of the characters were white males.
Wonder Woman, created as a powerful feminist icon, was stereotyped as the Justice Society secretary and forced to stay home during many adventures (despite being far more powerful than most of her teammates).
Today’s stories certainly do a better job reflecting the world we live in. The most popular, profitable and world-renowned characters right now are the title characters of “Wonder Woman” and “The Black Panther.”
At school recess, white kids are pretending to be a powerful black hero, and girls and boys carry Wonder Woman lunch boxes and wear T-shirts with the logo of the Amazon princess.
The phenomenon is mirrored on television, where Supergirl and Black Lightning provide heroic role models that are not white men. LGBTQ heroes are becoming more prominent as well, such as Batwoman, Black Lightning’s daughter Thunder or the X-Men’s Iceman.
Ultimately, comic books contain stories we share and pass down to the next generation. The comic books my parents bought me every Saturday morning made me a voracious reader with a whopping vocabulary at an early age.
Now, my 4-year-old and I tell each other superhero stories, bond over superhero cartoons and compare our collections of superhero action figures (mine still outnumbers his).
The fantastic characters and colorful stories my son and I share are springboards not just to reading, but to concepts of justice, of fairness and of doing the right thing simply because you have the power to do so.
Those concepts were important when “Action Comics #1” premiered in the midst of the Great Depression—and they are just as important today.