By Dan Hagen
By 1938, after the long experience of the Great Depression, the super hero figure was as inevitable as he was invincible.
The explosive popularity of Superman, introduced that year in the first issue of Action Comics, is usually cited as the origin of the concept. But it was a concept whose time had come, Clark Kent or no Clark Kent.
Was the ordinary American jumpy, even fearful that year? Well, in 1938 Halloween went from being a children's holiday to an occasion for nationwide panic, thanks to Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast. (Oddly enough, Welles was himself playing a super hero on radio at the time).
|By 1940, Superman was appearing|
in person at the New York World's Fair
Although funny, that wasn't quite fair. Americans had considerable reason to be nervous in 1938. The worldwide Depression, sparked by the U.S. stock market crash in 1929, had dragged on for nearly a decade. Ill-advised federal spending cuts caused the recession of 1937-38, when American industrial production fell 30 percent and unemployment jumped from 14 percent to 19 percent. Even Franklin Roosevelt, elected as America's rescuer, seemed to have failed in 1938.
In 1938, Hitler seized control of the German army and invaded Austria and Czechoslovakia. Fascist Italy enacted anti-Semitic legislation. Spain fell to the fascists.
Superman, who had been knocking about without a publisher since 1933, certainly filled the bill. But he wasn't alone. The Spider, a bloodthirsty mystery-man crime-fighter in the pulp magazines, made his movie debut in a 1938 serial, decked out in a superhero-style webbed cape and black, hooded body suit.
|Warren Hull as the crime-fighting Spider in 1938.|
In 1938, evil didn't have to be exotic. It was so close you could smell its bad breath.
The Shadow, merely a sinister and mysterious radio narrator when he was introduced in 1930, proved so popular that he became a pulp mystery man in 1931. He returned to radio in the fall of 1937 as an psychically powered invisible avenger in the person of Orson Welles, and made his film debut that same year in "The Shadow Strikes."
The St. Louis-born Lee Falk had introduced American newspaper readers to his magically powered adventurer Mandrake in 1934, and then to the mask-and-tights jungle titan the Phantom in 1936. Falk was precise about the nature of the wish fulfillment he intended to provide.
|Lots of people seemed to need a good spanking in 1938,|
and the Phantom was just the chap to give it to them
The Shadow, Doc Savage, the Spider and the Phantom Detective, among others, remained busy saving cities and countries in the pulp magazines.
In 1938, the desire to see a superhuman champion of humanity wasn't campy or ironic, but regarded as something of a necessity in a pretty terrifying world. The exploded planet that gave us Superman wasn't really Krypton, but our own.
By the way, Batman, who appeared in 1939, was also inevitable. At the same time "the Bat-Man" was introduced in Detective Comics, a crime-fighter disguised in a black cowl and cape who called himself the Black Bat appeared in pulp magazines. Neither was apparently a copy of the other.
It was perhaps coincidence, but I'd call it cultural synchronicity. The troubled culture shines the signal, and the hero always answers the call.