Subsupermen (Intro)

By: John Hilgart
February 21, 2012

HILOBROW is currently running a micro-fiction contest (deadline: March 14) that asks readers to write a very short pulp hero blurb for a famous non-pulp work of fiction or film.

This creative challenge reminded me of a folder on my computer where I’d collected samples of one of the original print culture crucibles in which such hero blurbs were forged: the minor golden-age superhero establishing panel.

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Not well known to readers and not rating a splash page, a swarm of post-Superman hero-concepts tried to sell themselves in the space of one introductory panel. The typical ingredients were reasonably predictable, though few or many might be included in a particular recipe:

• Name, typographically rendered
• Power
• Epithet
• Origin
• Civilian name
• Moral commitment
• Story tease

Recurrent modifications include the ancient mythological tie-in, the foregrounding of the hero’s day job, and surname heroes (Martin, Nelson, etc.), who have an alter-ego without having a secret identity.

These panels are at the center of the discursive Venn diagram where pulp fiction heroes, radio heroes, and comic books converged. They’re concept pitches, delivered with “coming up next,” “don’t touch that dial” urgency. Many could serve as blurbs on the covers of paperbacks. The heroes’ names and their typography tell you unambiguously how to deliver them in the correct dramatic voice.

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Visually, I like these frames because they are almost tiny comic books, compressing cover masthead, splash page, dynamic hero shot, and dense copy into a little rectangle.

Conceptually, these are fascinating because they make the threadbare superhero formula nakedly plain. What makes them sublime are the strenuous efforts of their creators to “make it new” or at least marginally different.

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These “hero concept pitches” seem absurd — that’s much of their thrill — but really they’re not. The sense of parody comes from their lack of familiarity. Concept pitches for Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel, Captain America, Human Torch, Green Lantern, etc. are just as silly as — indistinguishable in fact, from — Power Nelson or Deep Freeze. But we accept that they work because we’ve always accepted that they work. We accept the alien orphan as the foundational superhero, and the bat-identified hero as the primary darker, mortal variant of the alien orphan, but are they intrinsically different from or better than all these forgotten characters? I don’t know. The Black Terror and some other now-marginal heroes from 1939-1945 were very popular in their day and had their own comic books. If they’d been DC or Marvel properties, they might be the stars of a 2012 summer blockbuster. We might not be able to imagine The Avengers without Flagman.

So, forget the evident silliness of so many pop culture heroes (in comics or elsewhere), and embrace the rhetorical formula to which they gave rise — the 20th century, ten-cent, purple prose elaboration of the Homeric epithet. The form itself is not intrinsically goofy; it’s just a concentrated sketch of character and purpose, delivered with the energy of a pitch.

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Now take this convention and imagine applying it not to an act of superhero invention, but instead to a creative-critical repackaging of a preexisting, non-superhero, fictional character — say The Great Gatsby or Citizen Kane.

That’s exactly what HILOBROW is inviting you to do in this contest, running from February 21 through March 14.

I’ve handed over my folder of golden-age hero establishing frames to HiLobrow’s Joshua Glenn, who will be selecting and posting them during the weeks the contest is running. I hope they provide some pleasure and some inspiration.



The contest is sponsored by our friends at Pazzo Books, purveyor of high-, low-, and hilobrow used, rare, and impossible-to-find books, maps, and other ephemera. Please click on the banner below to visit their website.


SIMILAR HILOBROW SERIES: MEET THE L.I.S. — John Hilgart discovers “implicit superheroes” concealed within comic-book mastheads | 4CP FRIDAY — themed comic-book detail galleries, curated by fans of John Hilgart’s 4CP project | CHESS MATCH — a gallery of pulp fiction chess games | COMICALLY VINTAGE — that’s-what-she-said vintage comic panels | DC — THE NEW 52 — an 11-year-old reviews DC’s new lineup | FILE X — a one-of-a-kind gallery of “X” pulp paperback covers | KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM — 25 writers on 25 Jack Kirby panels | SECRET PANEL — Silver Age comics’ double entendres | SKRULLICISM — they lurk among us

CLICK HERE for more comics and cartoon-related posts on HiLobrow.