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How Have We Changed Our Definition of the Comic Form Over Time?

Over the course of the 20th century, American comic books have evolved to epitomize important cultural and societal topics. The earliest forms of comics were known as dime novels, fictional stories invented as a distraction from the Civil War. At the close of the war, and as the country became more developed and urbanized around the turn of the century, these stories were transformed into detective novels which touched on the fear of dangers in cities. A popular theme in these stories was the fear of decaying of society due to the closing of the American frontier and softening of the American public. In the mid 1890’s the first pulp magazine was published. Like late dime novels, pulp magazines often focused on urban detectives and occasionally westerns, but not as frequently. Pulp content was more varied, and included genres ranging from romance to adventure. In the early 20th century the focus of many pulp novels, most notably Tarzan, and Conan the Cimmerian, was on racial issues, specifically the white race’s supremacy, and the burden the white man having to support and govern inferior races. Tarzan, for instance, was a white man raised by apes that was naturally superior to his counterparts, and was capable of overcoming any challenge due to his white, aristocratic heritage. The fear of society’s decay was also prominent in these novels, represented by incompetent and corrupt white men. Late pulp magazines, such as Doc Savage, were crucial in bridging the gap from their early pulp predecessors, to the future of superhero comics. In one Doc Savage novel he is even described as “a superman.” The invention of the superhero came as the American public wanted an escape from the reality that was the depression. In order for that to happen a fantastic new character would have to exist. The arrival of this character was in 1938 in the form of a superhero named Superman. Superman was (arguably) the first superhero, created by two second-generation Jewish immigrants, who created him out of an image of their ambitions. Superman was so notable at the time largely because of his dual identity, Clark Kent. This contrast between the Superhero and average Joe was crucial because it made it possible for his audience to still relate to him. It can also be argued that Clark Kent was built off of Jewish stereotypes. As demand for superhero comics expanded, many comic writers attempted to make a comic similar to Superman, but without violating DC’s copyright. The result was Batman. Similar to Superman, Batman also had a dual identity in Bruce Wayne, an upper class “playboy” known in Gotham for his social standing. Unlike Superman, Batman didn’t actually have any superhero abilities. Armed with a utility belt of “Bat-gear” Batman fought crime in Gotham using gadgets and an array of vehicles from the legendary Bat mobile, to the Bat-submarine. The comic has been redefined countless times throughout the 20th century. From its humble roots entertaining Civil War soldiers, to Superheroes in capes, the American comic has adjusted its definition to recount important societal topics, and will most likely for a century to come.

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