Comic Book Superheroes

Just how popular are comic book superheroes today?

Judging by recent domestic box office receipts, electronic game and toy sales, and the robust memorabilia market, superheroes have as much appeal as ever. More than 70 years after Superman burst onto the scene, The Dark Knight ranks as 2008’s highest-grossing film, electronic game titles such as Spider-Man 3 sell millions of copies, and prices for superhero comics from the late 1930s and early 1940s routinely top $10,000—and often go for much more. Step inside Midtown Comics in New York City’s Time Square and you’ll have immediate confirmation of comic book superheroes’ popularity with a diverse audience. But how did this American obsession with superheroes begin?

In June 1938, a new comic book hit newsstands and dime stores, capturing the imagination of American children nearly instantaneously. What merited such attention? The first issue of Action Comics established the superhero genre with the creation of Superman—an archetypal comic hero for the ages. The brainchild of writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, the Man of Steel quickly became a cultural icon.

The flood of Superman merchandise that followed the success of Action Comics included everything from brightly colored miniature statues to superhero rings. Seemingly overnight, the powerful superhero had become cultural phenomenon.

Between 1938 and 1945, Superman was joined by a multitude of other heroes: Batman, Captain America, Green Lantern, and the first super heroine, Wonder Woman. While there’s been an ebb and flow in the popularity of superheroes over the years—including a severe decline in readership during the 1950s following publication of Dr. Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent (1954), which accused comic books of promoting juvenile delinquency—our fascination with costumed characters who battle the forces of evil has endured.

Of course superheroes didn’t need any special powers to make the jump from comic books into other media. Radio serials in the 1940s were followed by a number of popular television series. Depending on when you grew up, you might have vivid memories of George Reeves in Adventures of Superman from the 1950s, Adam West as Batman in the 1960s, or Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman in the 1970s. Although it wasn’t the first Superman film, 1978’s Superman: The Movie helped make Christopher Reeve a star and earned millions from a new generation of fans eager to see their favorite superhero on the big screen. And, faster than a speeding bullet, the box office success of Superman led to film versions of Batman, Spider-Man, and Iron Man.

For decades, superhero cartoons have been a Saturday morning staple, superhero toys have been perpetual favorites, and chances are at least a few children dressed as superheroes showed up at your door on Halloween.

And the comics themselves, where it all started for the superheroes, have remained entertaining and in touch with American culture. In January 2009, Marvel Comics released Amazing Spider-Man #583, which pairs the web-slinging superhero with newly inaugurated President Barack Obama who collected Spider-Man comics as a child.

Who are your favorite superheroes? How did you interact with the world of comic superheroes as a child? We’d love to hear from you as we plan an exhibit that explores the rich history of superhero play in America, scheduled to open here at Strong in October 2009.