This is a 1947 pamphlet, Secrets Behind the Comics, written by one Stan Lee. Two years after the war ended, with superhero comics in terminal decline, it’s not a completely unreasonable way of remembering things. Superman and Batman did a little bit of Nazi bashing; Wonder Woman a little bit more. But Captain America, the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner — the flagship characters of Goodman’s Timley Comics — did indeed spend 1942-1945 fighting the Nazis. Once the war was over, they rather fizzled out. There was an attempt to revive them as cold warriors in the 50s, presumably to make the reading public aware of the dangers of Communism, but it didn’t take. It’s feasible to claim that “superheroes who fought the Nazis” was Timley comics Unique Selling Point.
But any suggestion that, four years before the war, the idea of anti-Nazi comics came to Goodman in a flash of inspiration doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. Marvel Comics #1 came out in 1939: no-one fought any Nazis. In 1940, Jupiter, King of the Gods sent his only son Mercury to earth to defeat the evil Pluto, who was disguised as Rudolph Hendler, dictator of, er, Prussland. It wasn’t until 1941 that Captain America punched an undisguised Hitler on the jaw — eight months before Pearl Harbour, true, but three years after Goodman had his epiphany. And Captain America certainly wasn’t created by a publisher or a publishing house; he was created by two artists, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. They were Jewish Americans and presumably not big fans of the Nazis; but by their own account they made Hitler the villain because it was more fun to pit their hero against a real-life monster than a made-up one.
Timley Comics gradually became the publishing house in which Captain America, the Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch fought Hitler, through a process -- a process which took a number of years. A decade later, Stan Lee imagined the whole process being conceived by one man in one single eureka moment.
“It could only happen to the off-beat Marvel comics group” proclaims a scroll on the first page of a short 1963 strip called The Origin of Dr Strange. “With three published stories of Dr Strange under out belts we have been overwhelmed by a flood of letters reminding us that we forgot one little detail…we forgot to give you his origin!”
Evangelical Christianity places very great emphasis on The Testimony -- an oral performance in which the Convert narrates the story of their Conversion. If you do not have a narrative about how you were once a Sinner, but at a particular moment chose to turn your life around and follow Jesus, you are probably no Christian, however pious you happen to be right now. A superhero's Origin is a little like his Testimony: the defining story of his life, to be revisited in endless recitations and flashbacks. The Origin recounts how at one time the hero was a normal person (very possibly disabled or disadvantaged in some way) but that at a particular moment they acquired supernatural powers. Since those powers almost always come through accident or blind chance, there is usually some subsequent moment at which the empowered person positively decides to use their powers to do good. Paternal deaths are particularly good value.
A superhero is defined by his Origin: everything else flows from it. It follows that the person who dreams up the Origin winds up the spring that sets the comic book in motion. The hundreds of issues which come afterwards are inevitable: preordained.
Stan Lee seems to believe that something very like an Origin happens in real life. Just as there is one simple story which tells you why Peter Parker is Spider-Man, so there is one simple story which tells you why Stan Lee dreamt up Spider-Man. If Timely comics were about superheroes fighting World War II then there must have been a moment at which someone said “Hey! Let’s do a series of comics about superheroes fighting world War II.” If Spider-Man was young, and if he had realistic dialogue, and an annoying old Aunty, well, there must have been a single moment when the idea of a realistic young superhero with an annoying old Aunty leaped into someone’s head.
Wherever we ended up; that was where we were always heading; and we knew where we were heading when we set out. The acorn really is the oak tree.
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Amazing Spider-Man was written and drawn by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko and is copyright Marvel Comics. All quotes and illustrations are use for the purpose of criticism under the principle of fair dealing and fair use, and remain the property of the copywriter holder.
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