A recent stint as a guest on a podcast (my first!) brought me into a discussion about comic books that I rarely get the chance to have in my general circles… mainly, because those circles are so damned small, but also because my usual haunts aren’t places where people discuss comics. Thing is, I love comics, have since I was a boy waiting in a hospital to have dental surgery, and my parents were nice enough to get me some comics to read to pass the time.
I originally read a lot of stuff, an eclectic mix of characters; but as the years went by, I found myself settling on certain characters more than others, and yes, there was a method to my selective madness. Those who don’t read comic books might be excused from thinking that all of them are about beefy guys punching each other and sexy girls spin-kicking the bad guys into submission. (And lord knows, there’s plenty of that.) But there’s another element of comics that many people seem to forget, or just don’t recognize for what it is. That element is science… or, more accurately, science fiction.
Way back before my time (I swear, waaay back), when pulp magazines mostly told text-based stories of cowboys and detectives, science fiction wasn’t that big a deal in cheap entertainment. That started to change around 1928, when the character of Buck Rogers was created for Amazing Stories. The man who was thrown into suspended animation, to wake up 500 years in the future, was soon followed by characters like Flash Gordon, Doc Savage, John Carter (of Mars) and others. It was the beginning of the rising popularity of the Science Fiction Heroes, the science elements becoming a significant part of their identities.
Pulp magazines were eventually replaced by the comic book, filled with similar stories, but as illustrated yarns instead of just text. Most of the first comic books were about fairly ordinary people, though some wore masks or costumes to hide their identities while they did their derring-do. Then, in 1938, Siegal and Shuster gave the world Superman, essentially a being from another planet who looked like any man, but had powers far beyond those of ordinary mortals. And suddenly, because of Superman’s almost instant popularity, other comics writers and companies tried to copy that magic with other sci-fi-based heroes. Elements like aliens, weird lab accidents, discovered technology and secret formulas abounded, all creating unique characters and taking kids, their primary readers, on exciting science-fiction adventures every week a new comic came out.
Superhero comics, especially with sci-fi elements, reigned supreme into the 1960s: Most of the most popular characters from fledgling comics publisher Marvel Comics were conceived of during this period; while other publishers, notably DC comics, started adding sci-fi elements to many of its established characters. As this was when I was just getting into comics, I sought out characters like Iron Man and The Fantastic Four, characters that either gained powers through incredibly unlikely scientific accidents or used the wonders of technology deliberately to make themselves heroes. And their enemies and challenges reflected sci-fi threats and characters much like themselves.
As television started to bring viewers more realistic (or, at least, prettier) science fiction like Star Trek, the popularity of comics was also waning. Some comics companies responded by creating deals with TV programs and writing new stories for the comics format, including classic science fiction, which generally did very well. And comics companies that couldn’t afford to licence existing franchises decided they could still get in on the action by creating their own characters, filled with sci-fi elements.
The 1970s and 80s saw a resurgence of characters that were more science-based heroes and less superheroes… though ofttimes there was still little difference between the two. This was the period of comics that I enjoyed the most: Discovering new, science- or sci-fi-based comics and characters, many inspired by the limited series in books like Heavy Metal, or by movies and television series that were so popular in places like the US, UK and Japan. And that material continued to explode, often finding ways to combine sci-fi and superheroes, and as often completely divorcing from superheroes altogether.
This was the era spearheaded by books like American Flagg!, Alien Legion, and the exploding list of anime-inspired books from Japan, like Akira and Ghost in the Shell, the many iterations of books like Transformers, Macross and Appleseed. A common thread in most of these books was looking ahead with a more modern eye, depicting more serious and updated technology, mechanization and efforts to combine man and machine in more extravagant ways.
Eventually the comic publishers DC and Marvel decided to upgrade their characters to better meet a 21st century science fiction mindset, while new publishers attempted to create their own new sci-fi heroes. The most ambitious of these efforts was Marvel’s creation of modernized versions of their major heroes in what they called the Ultimate universe. Here, new characters were created, old characters were given new origins and appearances that better fit with modern times and sci-fi, and their world in general was updated to a world better approximating today, with terrorists, ineffectual governments, corrupt business leaders, cellphones and ubiquitous surveillance technology.
I personally thought the Ultimates lines were just what Marvel needed to bring themselves fully into the 21st century, and I ate them up. I was especially attached to the Ultimates, a group of revamped Avengers, and the Fantastic Four, Marvel’s original Science Heroes. Unfortunately, many readers didn’t get into the new characters, with only two Ultimates line characters really sticking with fans: The new Spider-Man, now a part-Black-part-Latino boy; and Ms. Marvel, a Pakistani girl. Eventually, Marvel decided to eradicate the entire Ultimates “universe,” though they found a way to retain the new Spider-Man and Ms. Marvel, and continued on in their 20th century universe. But the Ultimates lines live on, in part because the bones of the Ultimates characters have been used to partially update the Marvel characters presented in the movies and television shows. Now Marvel is discussing ways to bring back the Ultimate universe, surely to help tie the comics into the movie properties (YAY!). I hope they succeed.
But in the meantime, there are so many other sci-fi comics properties to enjoy: Just my modest personal list includes Planetary, The Authority, Watchmen, Doomsday Clock, Martha Washington, Rocket Girl, Atomic Robo, Saga, Ghost in the Shell, Akira, The Incal, Lady Mechanika, The Rocketeer, and so many more than I can count. And there’s no telling what might come just around the corner.