(Coincidentally, this is the 200th post on this blog! Yes, go and count, it's true. Hooray!)
Comics in 1940 were very different than they are now. If you know anything about comics history you know that publishers back then didn’t really care about artists or writers, let alone royalties. Stories were cobbled together with no time and not much care. That the mess of the origin of many famous characters is the basis for what we still read and watch today is somewhat amazing. If you actually look at those comics, you see no great art in most cases and certainly no stories that are well-written. I decided to take a look at some #1s that came out during that year and focus on the most interesting, funny, weird or problematic panels.
We start with All-Star Comics #1, a DC collection of various superheroes of the time.
In the first story about Hawkman (still around today), we get a number of variations on the Damsel in Distress, the helpless woman waiting for the hero to save her. It is fascinating how many helpless poses one woman can be in on one page!
Now, look at the picture and read the caption. Read it again. Yes, that’s brother and sister here. Moving on.
Just in case you forgot this comic came out in 1940, here’s a story about the future in 2240 where the world is still at war. I love the caption in the second panel, “Without warning, two nations of Europe are at each other’s throats” as there seems to be no reason for it at all. The depiction of misery for the people in the future that so clearly mirrors the then-present (and in many cases the now-present) is fascinating.
And for a truly superheroic feat there’s a spanking of the villain. Wow.
The ending of this story is also great. The war suddenly stops and we get a reminder that all wars are foolish, which is convenient in 1940. “Inhuman greed” is also an interesting phrase because it implies that “normal” people are not capable of it. But where does it come from then?
I love this piece of storytelling from an early story about the Flash. He is annoying everyone because he is so damn fast and basically irritates the police chief into giving him a badge, after he stole a police man’s uniform! The cop comes back in the last panel of the comic, wearing his uniform again, but I guess continuity wasn’t a big thing in 1940.
Another superhero that is still around is the Spectre, a truly weird character, who here shows that superheroes back then had no quibbles about killing bad guys. “One less vermin to peril decency.” Wow, that’s mean.
And in the final example we get some “Eskimos” who have stupid names because their “real” ones are unpronounceable and who impress everyone by talking English. Nice bit of racism there.
Let’s move on to Batman #1, not the first Batman comic (again, that happened in 1939 in Detective Comics), but the first one with that title.
Again, we see that superheroes at the time didn’t care that much about killing, even if Batman expresses some regret over the fact that he is now about to kill two gangsters.
And then Batman says “Quiet or Papa Spank!” to Catwoman. After some research I found that people are still confused about that line, mostly because they don’t want to believe that Batman wanted to spank a woman. But obviously that’s what he does!
The golden rules for being a “Robin’s Regular” include Obedience, Industriousness and Nationalism. Wow. What better proof for ideologies breastfed to kids do you need?
And finally the very first issue of Flash Comics with many superheroes on the cover no one has ever heard of.
There is this odd panel with Cliff Cornwall calling a woman, who he has just met and who has acted relatively tough, “honey-girl.” Her reaction is weird, but it definitely seems like she does not like to be called that. Is the talk about “progress” ironic?
In an origin story about Johnny Thunder we see him kidnapped as a young boy to some foreign country full of “Badhnisians” and in the panel I love how casually war breaks out. The caption explains it in such an offhand manner and we just have to assume that those foreign people fight with horses, spears and guns all the time anyway.
And finally, some case of random racism as we get a black servant in the racist portrayal that was somewhat normal back then.