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Old March 31st, 2013, 02:30 AM
Brainbin Brainbin is offline
Kingpin of the Cultural Cartel
Join Date: Jul 2009
Location: The British Empire
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Meanwhile, At the Hall of Justice…

You will believe a man can fly!

– Tagline for the Superman film, 1978

Comic books, though possessing direct antecedents dating back to the nineteenth century, if not further, truly came of age in the late 1930s; in doing so, they formed the mosaic for one of the most tumultuous eras in global history. The Golden Age of Comic Books, as it came to be known, was (in a rarity among historians)
universally agreed to have commenced with the publication of Action Comics #1, on April 18, 1938. That first issue saw the debut appearance of the character known as Superman, the first modern superhero, in whose wake a great many would follow. Notably, the Golden Age of Comic Books overlapped with those of both the motion picture and radio industries; all three spanned the entire Second World War, a demonstration of how the flourishing of popular culture worked to cement that conflict as the most iconic in world history. Comic books had never more popular, more important, than they were in the 1940s; being pulp literature, their depictions of men (and women) with superpowers fighting alongside the troops against the Nazis in Europe, and the Japanese on the Pacific, struck an instant and indelible chord with the general public. However, given the unapologetic demonization of the enemy, many images propagated by these comics… did not age very well, to put it delicately. To put it blatantly, their depiction of the Japanese in particular was horrendously racist, perhaps even for the era. It was part of a barrage of dehumanization of people belonging to that ethnicity during that conflict, a matter of which great political hay would be made in the future. Then again, the visual depiction of virtually all minority races – in every medium – very much left something to be desired.

It was not surprising, however, that during a conflict with the unprecedented co-opting of the privately-owned-and-operated media for propaganda purposes, that comic book readers would take to superheroes (often with very humble and unexceptional origins) fighting the enemy so voraciously. In fact, Superman was not even the most popular of superheroes during the Golden Age which he had kick started; in fact, a character who might charitably be called a “knockoff”, Captain Marvel, held that title instead, with his comic being the best-selling of the 1940s. Marvel also beat Superman to the silver screen, with a twelve-part film serial of his adventures released in 1941. They even predated the celebrated Fleischer Superman cartoon serials – which, in another sign of the times, evolved from relatively apolitical science-fiction plots to pure wartime propaganda in later shorts, after the Fleischers had been bought out by Famous Studios. However, Captain Marvel (nicknamed “The Big Red Cheese”) did not age nearly as well as Superman (“The Man of Steel”), becoming a relic of the Golden Age, with publisher Fawcett Studios cancelling his comic in 1953. The early-1950s were a transitional era (and not just for Comic Books) in which many popularly-held preconceptions about the world and the people who lived in it had to be reassessed. The hated Japanese had been defeated, through the use of a heretofore unknown weapon as mighty as anything seen in the pages of those wartime comic books. Their American cousins, all of whom without exception had demonstrated unwavering loyalty to their new homeland, had been interned without due process of law, entirely as a result of their ethnicity. The “Negro” soldiers, though still segregated from white units, had served with distinction on every front, and in every service, of the United States Armed Forces. The wildly popular entertainment form that existed primarily to mock and belittle them, the minstrel show, was rapidly falling out of vogue. This could be demonstrated on the screen: the 1942 musical Holiday Inn had featured a “blackface” minstrel performance, whereas its 1954 remake, White Christmas, did not. This was representative of barriers being broken down throughout society in this era: segregation of the armed forces, fittingly, had ended once and for all that very same year. The drive for civil rights was a fact of life.

By about this time, multiple live-action Superman serials had been released to theatres; and, more importantly, the famed radio show which had run for over a decade had since evolved into the Adventures of Superman, the 1950s television series which starred George Reeves as the Man of Steel. One of the most popular and enduring action-adventure series of its era, the impact it had on popular culture was confirmed when Reeves put in an appearance on none other than I Love Lucy, playing himself (though, for the benefit of young viewers at home, he was identified only as “Superman”). Adventures of Superman bridged the transition between two specific aesthetics from the opposite direction; departing a dark, cynical, morally ambiguous period – the years between the end of World War II and the Korean War, which established the Cold War hegemony and replaced the threats of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan with the emerging superpowers of Soviet Russia and Red China – to be replaced with one of glossy, overly-affected and societally-imposed sunshine and cheer: the 1950s, the era of suburbia and the burgeoning middle-class baby boomer families. The first two seasons, which were filmed in black-and-white, were influenced by film noir styles (still omnipresent in the early 1950s – Humphrey Bogart was still alive, after all), but later seasons, filmed in colour (a pioneering and prescient move by producers, which would have boffo financial results in the years to come) took on the campier tones that would define comic books and their derivative media in the Silver Age. In a way, it presaged the Batman series that would follow, even if it did not delve into the same wretched excess. Of course, the history of the program could not be complete without its infamously tragic coda, when George Reeves committed suicide in 1959; production had ended on Adventures of Superman the year before.

Though the start of the Golden Age of Comic Books could be dated with unusual precision, finding the end date was far more problematic. The very height of the comic industry had been during wartime, and sales of superhero comics had declined immediately after V-J Day, only to be supplanted by other burgeoning genres, particularly romance and horror. These more visceral topics were depicted with increasing frankness on the pages of bright and colourful books that were popularly (if incorrectly) perceived as being intended exclusively for young audiences. And therein lay the problem: though there was an increased awareness of the need for racial tolerance and integration in society, the 1950s were in many other ways quite culturally conservative. Nobody knew this better than Dr. Fredric Wertham, the author of an enormously influential expose on the comic book industry, Seduction of the Innocent, published in 1954. One common thread of Golden Age comics had been the intimate same-sex friendships that had formed between many characters. This was also reflective of the World War II backdrop, in which young men from disparate corners of the Union would form instant and unimpeachable bonds with the other men in their unit, with nothing more than pictures and the occasional care packages reminding them of their girls waiting for them back home. But Wertham saw a subtext there that discomforted him, and he wrote in great detail about it, cherry-picking and even manufacturing evidence whole-cloth to suit his premises, and to raise the ire of his readers, in the most sensationalistic fashion possible. Batman, one of the most popular figures of the Golden Age, had since 1940 been accompanied on his crime-fighting adventures by his young, pubescent ward, Robin. Their secret identities were, respectively, Bruce Wayne, a millionaire bachelor playboy, and Dick Grayson, an orphaned circus acrobat. The two had been shown in some issues sharing the same bed. Wertham immediately came to what he saw as the only obvious conclusion: the two were homosexual lovers, in the tradition of the ancient Greek pederasts. This was the smoking gun, as it were, in his laundry list of complaints about all genres of comic books, demanding that some form of regulatory body be established to censor the impropriety of the fledgling medium. The result was the Comics Code Authority, a Hays Office for pulp literature. Comic books would never be the same... though, ironically, Batman (and, in fact, most superhero comics) would survive the purges that followed the institution of the Comics Code. The once-rising romance and horror genres, on the other hand, were not so fortunate – it had proved relatively easy to adapt superhero comics to the specifications of the Code, but titillation and shock factor were crucial to the success of those other genres, which found themselves eviscerated by the overwhelming restrictions thereupon. Those which were not immediately cancelled simply tapered off into oblivion. Some, like MAD Magazine, found entirely new niches, and were very successful.

For all its notoriety it was in fact Batman itself which, for better or for worse, came to define the popular perception of comic books during the era later described as the Silver Age. It had started off as a purely film-noir-derived comic, with the titular character taking the guise of a bat in order to strike fear into the hearts of criminals. As was the case for Superman, multiple film serials would follow. But the live-action television adaptation which premiered in 1966, and starred Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin, was loud, colourful, absurd, and campy – the one difference was that the comics were shockingly sincere in their lavish ludicrousness, but Batman – having been brought to the small screen by a cynical producer, William Dozier, who refused to take the material seriously – would furnish every sight gag or bit of convoluted exposition with a knowing wink. And in the show’s early years, the delicate balance between cotton-candy sights and sounds, and the mocking cynicism buried just beneath the surface was maintained by the head writer, Lorenzo Semple, Jr. His departure, followed by the end of the famous cliffhangers which allowed the show to appear on the air twice a week (in its final season, it was reduced to the standard once-weekly schedule), saw a decided decline in the show’s perfectly-honed quality, and thus its popularity. To put it more bluntly, the show went off the rails. Even the introduction of the Batgirl character, played by Yvonne Craig, could not forestall the inevitable, nor could a bizarre running plotline set in swinging London (described in the show as “Londinium”). Batman was unceremoniously cancelled in 1969. However, its stars would continue to portray the characters, primarily in animation, through to the end of the 1970s. In many ways this continued association with the Dynamic Duo was forced upon them by typecasting; West, the story went, had turned down the role of James Bond, and Ward had rather desperately sought the role of Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, only to lose it to Dustin Hoffman.

Many shows had followed in the footsteps of Batman; formerly serious, if equally outrageous, programming like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. had been capsized by a shift from sincerity to camp. The producers of Star Trek, on the other hand, had made a conscious decision to avoid moving in that direction; this paid dividends when Batman was cancelled just as the Star Trek began its ascent into becoming a legitimate pop cultural phenomenon – charmingly earnest and laden with warts-and-all sincerity – as the 1960s came to a close. [1] The new wave of optimism sweeping American culture as a result of the end of the overseas quagmire and the exhilaration of Moonshot Lunacy found a peculiar reflection in comic books, however. Just as the devastating conflict that was World War II was corresponded by a Golden Age of fun and adventure on the page, the sunshine and roses of the early 1970s saw a counter-intuitive move to focus on the visceral and harsh realities of the seedy underbelly. Largely, though, this new “Bronze Age” which had emerged stood in contrast to the Silver Age which had just concluded. The children who had kept superhero comics alive were now growing up, and (as the Mini-Boom proved) were having children of their own. Television shows such as Mary Tyler Moore and Those Were the Days reflected a new paradigm: optimism and confidence for the future did not have to go hand-in-hand with willful ignorance or sheltering the vulnerable from the truth. This movement made for strange bedfellows when many pedagogical techniques, including those championed by Mr. Fred Rogers on his PBS series, took the same tack to childhood education.

The Bronze Age of Comic Books marked a shift in censorship policy – echoing that which had already taken place in American cinema, some years before. The governing body of the comic book publishing industry, the Comics Code Authority, was continually revised in the early 1970s. [2] Gold Key Comics, effectively a satellite company of Desilu Productions by the mid-1970s, was not bound by the Comics Code, however, and did not seek to become so. Star Trek, the most popular comic published by neither DC nor Marvel, was thus able to delve into adult themes in even greater detail than the television series had done, always keeping one step ahead of the ever-relaxing censorship restrictions which bound the larger companies. [3] The Bronze Age was, above all else, a backlash against the Silver Age which had preceded it (as many new periods tend to be). Again, Star Trek had played a part, although as part of the greater Moonie Loonie mosaic of the era. Genre fiction was being taken seriously by an ever-larger number of consumers, and superhero fiction was part of the genre. Retro nostalgia, counter-intuitively as it might have seemed, helped too: prior to Dr. Wertham, comic books had enjoyed darker plots, influenced by film noir of course, but also by the realities of the conflict that had framed much of the Golden Age. War, death, murder, and brutality had all been facts of life in the 1940s. The defanged “bad guys” of the Silver Age were a joke. A new, rising generation of writers who were willing to push the envelope was emerging, and they felt that serious issues deserved proper coverage, and that their audience, regardless of its composition, deserved proper respect. Themes which had been completely ignored in the Batman television series (always brushed aside for the sake of a laugh), became topics of serious, almost withering analysis in the new comics: the psychology of superheroism, the ethics of vigilantism, the allure of crime, and many others. Social issues also took on greater importance.

The 1970s were obviously a decade of great strides for women’s rights, continuing trends which had begun with the Sexual Revolution of the late 1960s. “Liberated” female characters were demanded by women in each and every medium, with comic books being no exception. The most prominent female superhero, Wonder Woman, had been created during the Golden Age by psychologist William Moulton Marston, who had also been a pioneer in the invention of the lie detector, which explained one of the character’s most famous powers: the use of a lasso which could bind her opponents and compel them to speak the truth. Wonder Woman was given an Amazonian heritage, allowing writers to exploit Greek mythology in portraying her origins, characterization, and powers. Her abilities were plainly superhuman, though the character was briefly de-powered in the late 1960s to bring her more in-line with popular heroines of the time, such as Mrs. Emma Peel. Intense backlash, including from many women’s rights activists, saw her powers quickly reinstated. Wonder Woman entered the 1970s as the definitive superheroine, and one of the Big Three of DC Comics, alongside Superman and Batman. And naturally, with Superman having been brought to the small screen in the 1950s, and Batman having followed in the 1960s, the question of Wonder Woman following their footsteps was a matter of “when”, not “if”. Technically, Wonder Woman herself had first appeared in the iconic Superfriends cartoon, which had premiered in 1973. [4] This cartoon, very much in the mould of the “limited animation” popular in the era, carried on the Silver Age aesthetic even into the 1980s. Wonder Woman – like most of her stablemates – was far from unscathed by her presence in that program, with satirists mocking the infamous sequences of the character “flying” through the skies in her invisible airplane (as, unlike Superman, she could not fly under her own power). The following year, in 1974, a pilot movie was produced. Owing a great deal to retro nostalgia, the decision was made to avoid the modernization affecting the character in then-current comics and instead take advantage of retro nostalgia, putting the movie (and the show which would result therefrom) into a vintage, World War II setting. [5] The pilot movie arranged for Princess Diana of the mythical Paradise Island to transport the fallen Maj. Steve Trevor of the USAAF back to the States; after hijinks ensued, she found herself permanently stationed at the USAAF as Yeoman and secretary to Maj. Trevor, under her civilian identity as Diana Prince. As a superhero, however, she became known as Wonder Woman.

The role of Wonder Woman was portrayed by Lynda Carter, an actress, singer, and model, who had been named Miss World USA in 1972. [6] Her physical attractiveness was matched by her enthusiasm and her willingness to perform stunts herself, to enhance the experience. Her earnest performance endeared her to fans and critics alike; the essential “powerful femininity” of Wonder Woman had always defined her character, and Carter worked tirelessly to channel that into her performance. Wonder Woman proved a reliable hit for ABC for the five seasons it aired, from 1974 to 1979, with a total of 133 episodes to its name. [7] The series finale, which aired (in the standard 1970s fashion) as a telefilm, entailed the conclusion of World War II, and the question of whether Wonder Woman would return to Paradise Island, or remain in the United States. Unsurprisingly, she chose to become an American, having fallen in love with the country to which she had immigrated, as so many generations had done before her. Diana Prince, in the meantime, accepted the offer by Steve Trevor (as he was no longer her superior, having been honourably discharged) to begin seeing him on a personal basis... only after she revealed her secret identity to him. [8] To his credit, he responded as well as any man in his circumstances might have done, and even endorsed her desire to continue working as a professional, despite the overwhelming drive for most of her fellow women in the workforce to return to their past, domestic lives.

Like DC Comics, Marvel Comics saw the success of one of their marquee properties in an adaptation of The Incredible Hulk (the superlative adjective being something of a trademark with Marvel properties). Most of the Marvel properties developed from the 1960s onward, primarily by the writing tandem of Stan “The Man” Lee and Jack “King” Kirby (with an occasional assist from Steve Ditko, among others), allegorized specific societal ills of the era; the Hulk, for his part, represented the horrors of war. The character, a modernized take on the old Jekyll-and-Hyde story (with elements of Frankenstein, in modern science having created a monster), was the involuntary mutation created by an unauthorized scientific experiment gone very wrong; the human behind it, Dr. Bruce Banner, was depicted as meek and withdrawn, and highly intellectual. This was, of course, to better contrast with the monosyllabic Hulk monstrosity. The Incredible Hulk was favoured for adaptation to live-action television because the Hulk was a lone wolf with no obligations to anyone (unlike Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, or the X-Men), and this would allow him to walk the Earth, a setting that matched many popular action-adventure series: The Fugitive, The Way of the Warrior, and The Questor Tapes among them. The decision was made to have Dr. Bruce Banner played by a seemingly milquetoast actor, and the Incredible Hulk played by a bodybuilder. After an extensive search, the decision was made to cast two unknowns in their respective parts. Ted Danson, who had up to that point appeared primarily in soap operas, was chosen as Dr. Bruce Banner. Though in reality a handsome man who did not physically suit the role of a timid academic, this was disguised with some well-employed costuming, in particular the use of large, horn-rimmed glasses. [9] As his alter-ego, the Hulk, an “actor” was chosen who did not resemble Danson, but this didn’t matter, and neither did the fact that he spoke little English. A six-time Mr. Olympia, the Austrian bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger nonetheless had an undeniable screen charisma, and was very effective at playing a loutish, barbaric brute. [10] His “dialogue”, such as it was, had been dubbed over by Jack “Lurch” Cassidy, a veteran at providing booming, contrabass voices. Despite this, both Danson and Schwarzenegger became iconic in their portrayals of the respective Jekyll and Hyde characters, Schwarzenegger in particular making his mark on popular culture far above and beyond what one would expect of a mere bodybuilder.

Despite the great popularity on television of both Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk, the Alpha and the Omega was, and remained, Superman. Plans for a full-length motion picture (about the only format the character had not explored by the 1970s) had been discussed for many years. Independent producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind had secured the rights from DC Comics in 1973, with a laundry list of potential actors and directors for the project. Chosen to direct was Guy Hamilton, who had directed the iconic James Bond film Goldfinger, and who took an active role in every step of the production. [11]

After an exhaustive talent search, a virtually unknown actor named Kirk Allen was chosen to play the Man of Steel. Classically handsome and athletic, with a boy-next-door-all-grown-up appearance, Allen’s only flaw in regards to not resembling Superman was his light blond hair, which was corrected with a rather caustic – but effective – hair dye. Allen played Superman and his alter-ego, Clark Kent, very differently, often exaggerating the traits of each character in order to keep them separate. It was, perhaps, a somewhat blunt approach, but it was crudely effective. [12] Chosen to star opposite Allen as Superman (and Clark Kent)’s eternal love interest, Lois Lane, was Stockard Channing. Though she was older than Allen during principal photography (33 to his 29), she won the part thanks to her mature, urbane attractiveness and her singing ability (as the part called for Lois to perform an internal monologue as if it were a musical number). [13] Veteran actor Dustin Hoffman, a proven box-office draw, was selected to portray the primary villain, mad scientist Lex Luthor, and was given top billing – and the film’s largest paycheque – for doing so. [14] The other above-the-title star was the Golden Age icon, Jimmy Stewart, who portrayed Pa Kent, Clark’s adoptive father (and died tragically at the end of the first act). The production team could not resist the opportunity to stunt-cast Ma Kent, choosing Donna Reed (Stewart’s one-time co-star in It’s A Wonderful Life, his personal favourite film) for the role. On-set lore had Stewart continuously flubbing his lines by referring to Reed’s character as “Mary” instead of “Martha”. [15] The film was well-received critically; the score, special effects, and simple but well-told story were all highly praised. The earnest, if somewhat clumsy performance by Allen was given good marks, though most reviewers agreed that Channing, Hoffman, and Stewart all stole the show. Stewart would surprisingly receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Superman; ironically, it was longer than the fifteen-minute turn by Steve McQueen that won for Lead Actor at that year’s ceremonies. However, and most importantly, Superman proved a box-office hit, grossing over $150 million at the box-office that year, coming in a close second to Greased Lightning, and guaranteeing a sequel to continue the story. [16] It was a triumphant return to the peak of mainstream popularity and relevance for Superman, within the world of superhero comics. The Man of Steel, who was “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound”, and who stood for “truth, justice, and the American Way”, had once again captured the hearts and minds of audiences everywhere.


[1] IOTL, of course, the final season of Star Trek, which I have so affectionately described on multiple past occasions as the “Turd Season”, did dive headlong into camp under the auspices of the new showrunner, Fred Freiberger, and in particular his grossly unqualified story editor, Arthur Singer.

[2] A single, cataclysmic event (a request by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to run an anti-drug storyline in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man in the early 1970s) resulted in the chain reaction that sent the Code down the long road to irrelevance. However, ITTL, the Nixon Administration does not exist, and therefore that request is never made (the War on Drugs isn’t exactly high on the list of priorities for the Great Society). This allows the CCA to adapt further, and continue to exist for the longer-term, just like the MPAA had done a few years before with the switch from Hays to the ratings system.

[3] Gold Key did not adhere to the Code IOTL, either.

[4] Superfriends also premiered in 1973 IOTL, as well. It was, in fact, produced by Hanna-Barbera, one of the two pillar studios of limited animation.

[5] The original pilot movie took a different tack IOTL, instead attempting to adapt then-current storylines (which had controversially modernized Wonder Woman), to lukewarm response. After retooling, a second pilot movie was released which much more strongly resembled the show which was to come.

[6] Yes, I’ve cast Carter as Wonder Woman ITTL. What about the butterflies? She wasn’t cast for the original OTL pilot movie! It starred Cathy Lee Crosby instead.

[7] The complete adventures of Wonder Woman lasted for three seasons of less than 60 episodes IOTL (from 1976 to 1979).

[8] Though Maj. Trevor (played by Lyle Waggoner, of all people) was intended as the love interest, he and Diana did not hook up IOTL.

[9] IOTL, the role of Dr. David Banner (the name was changed from Bruce because the alliteration seemed to overtly betray its comic-book origins) was played by the established, and older, actor, Bill Bixby. Danson, of course, would go on to become known for appearing in Cheers, as the former relief pitcher of the Boston Red Sox, Samuel “Mayday” Malone. Don’t believe he could pull off the “nerdy” look? I submit to you his appearance in the 1981 film, Body Heat.

[10] The role was won by Lou Ferrigno IOTL, who had appeared alongside Schwarzenegger in the 1975 documentary film Pumping Iron, chronicling a Mr. Olympia contest. Schwarzenegger, for his part, did not achieve success in mainstream film or television at all during the 1970s, going on to win his seventh and final Mr. Olympia title in 1980. His career from that point forward was unfortunately somewhat obscure, and cannot be reliably determined.

[11] Hamilton was chosen to direct, but was forced to drop out due to his tax exile status in the United Kingdom, where filming was moved on account of Marlon Brando facing an obscenity charge (for Last Tango in Paris) in Italy, the originally planned shooting location. Fortunately, Brando is not involved in this film at all ITTL, and Superman is shot largely at the famed Cinecitta Studios.

[12] Allen is an original character - the first to be introduced so far for this timeline, but not the last!

[13] Channing auditioned for the role of Lois IOTL, losing it to Margot Kidder, who has proven a rather contentious choice. Channing then went on to appear in Grease, as Rizzo, playing a high schooler at, yes, the age of 33.

[14] Gene Hackman played Luthor IOTL, receiving second billing behind Brando.

[15] Stewart plays Pa Kent instead of Glenn Ford ITTL, taking a much more modest paycheque than Marlon Brando did IOTL for Jor-El (who is accordingly played by a nobody). The chance to stunt-cast Reed (who, like Stewart and Hoffman, is an Oscar-winner) proved irresistible, especially once Stewart recommended her for the part. Believe it or not, It’s A Wonderful Life, though rising in popularity, was not the perennial Christmas classic it would become in later years by the late-1970s IOTL, and of course, ITTL, the 1974 clerical error that allowed it to fall out of copyright did not happen.

[16] Superman and Superman II were filmed together IOTL, but for administrative reasons, that was not the case ITTL.


Thanks to e of pi for his assistance in the editing of this update! Speaking of which, this is the first of a double-barrelled update for the long weekend; his guest interlude should be ready tomorrow, just in time to close out the month. In fact, as I write this, I’m also asking him if he’s sure he’ll have it ready, and his response is most promising.
The Turtledove Award-Winning That Wacky Redhead: Big Dreams Have Big Consequences!

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