Seventy-six years ago, on April 18, 1938, Superman (created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster) made his debut in Action Comics #1, usually considered the first true superhero comic book. In the decades since, the superhero remained a staple in pop culture. Long before the recent stream of wildly popular Batman and Marvel Universe movies, super-powered people saving the day were everywhere, in every media. And once the archetype became a cliché, of course, creators were eager to subvert it.
Alan Moore started it all with Watchmen. Revolutionary in its time, this behemoth of a series was a deliberate attempt to tear the gilding off superheroic figures and show what having vast power with no oversight might actually do to people and to the society that came to depend on them.
Later, Gotham Central (the inspiration behind a new TV series?) looked at the superhero world from the vantage point of everyday citizens — specifically, the cops whose job it is to clean up after Batman’s battles, or try to catch supervillains like Two Face on their own.
One of my favourite twists on the superhero myth is Ex Machina, a satisfying read for fans of both comics and backroom politics. After a minor-league vigilante known as the Great Machine performs a high-profile act of heroism, he exploits his new fame to win the race for mayor of New York. The series follows his administration’s political ups and downs, complicated by the return of past enemies. It’s like The West Wing, if President Bartlett had had superpowers.
Superman, of course, fast became an iconic American figure. He’s so closely associated with the USA — from his origin story of a Kansas crash landing to fighting for “truth, justice, and the American way” — that it’s almost impossible to picture him anywhere else. In Red Son, however, Mark Millar did just that – imagining what could have happened if Superman had landed on a Ukrainian collective farm.
Despite the American emphasis, there have always been Canadian superheroes, from Captain Canuck to Northstar. The book Guardians of the North fleshes out the background to an online exhibit of Canadian superhero art created by Library and Archives Canada. The brand new anthology Masked Mosaic collects short stories of masked vigilantes, superpowered antiheroes, and super scientists written by Canadian authors. And in an exciting development, a new Cree heroine from northern Ontario is joining Justice League Canada, as created by Canadian Jeff Lemire.
As anyone who reads comics knows, superheroes never die. They just take on new forms, re-imagined and re-envisioned to fit each new era.