HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: Past Is Prologue

In a multi-part series, Comic Book Film Editor William Gatevackes will be tracing the history of comic book movies from the earliest days of the film serials to today’s big blockbusters and beyond. Along with the history lesson, Bill will be covering some of the most prominent comic book films over the years and why they were so special. We’ll start with a prologue.

Without the Great Depression, we might not have ever had a comic book film.

As time goes by, there are fewer and fewer people who remember the Great Depression. The Great Depression was a massive economic downturn that took place after the Stock Market crash of October 1929 and didn’t fully end until World War II was underway. At its height, one out of every four Americans in the work force was unemployed, poverty was rampant and the future looked bleak.

They were, to make an understatement, trying times. If you had the fortune to know someone who lived through the Depression, you would have learned that people at the time desperately searched for a way to take their minds off the very real problems. One of the most popular ways they found was going to the movies.

The film industry was relatively young at the time, just over 20 years old. Sound in films had only been around a couple years. But the developing medium was strong enough and cheap enough to provide an escape to Americans living in these tough times.  In 1930, statistics show that 65% of the population went to the movies each and every week.

One of the most popular ways people went to the movies was the Saturday matinee. For the price of one ticket—anywhere from 10 to 24 cents— you were treated to two feature films, a newsreel relating the current event of the day, an animated cartoon, and one or more movie serials.

The movie serial was not only melodrama at its finest, but also a brilliant marketing ploy as well. Serials were as old as the film genre itself, but gained a heightened popularity during the Depression. They were short subject features that served as a chapter in a larger narrative. Dashing and noble heroes would fight dastardly and nefarious villains, and each installment ended with a main character in some form of hard to conquer peril (say, hanging from a cliff), and audiences would be compelled to come to the theaters next week to see how, or if, the hero survived.

These were action-packed films, which drew from a select group of topics and genres. Many serials were jungle adventures, a number were science-fiction tales, and mysteries were also a popular format. And, as has always been the trend in Hollywood, studios looked to other medium for content for their serials, including novels (The Tarzan series), pulps (The Spider and The Shadow), radio programs (Lone Ranger and Green Hornet), comic strips (Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy) and a relatively new medium, born from the American love for the comic strip that was still in its infancy.

Comic books would not exist if it wasn’t for the massive popularity of newspaper comic strip. The comic book as we know it came into being during the mid-1930s, when enterprising publishers realized that if they folded over old Sunday comic pages, placed a cover on them, charged a dime for the package, that people would actually buy them in droves.

And buy them they did. Comic books became another cheap form of escapist entertainment that kids and many adults would use to take their minds of their financial difficulties. The medium grew so much that publishers began creating original content to fill the cravings of the audience. Much of this original content mimicked the gag and detective strips that the early comic books would reprint. However, the medium would change in 1938 when two, 23-year-old men from Cleveland, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, pitched a super powered, costumed hero they created to Detective Comics, Inc. While there had been characters that wore costumes (typically little more than a domino mask) and exhibited supernatural powers (usually along the lines of The Shadow’s ability to “cloud men’s minds”), none had done anything to the extent Superman did. The concept took off and the era of the superhero was born.

With comic books bursting on the scene and becoming immensely popular at the same time the Golden Age of Serials was starting, it was only natural that some of the best characters from the former would make their way onto the silver screen in serial form. Next, we’ll talk about some of the earliest comic book films, and the stories behind them.

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About William Gatevackes 1931 Articles
William is cursed with the shared love of comic books and of films. Luckily, this is a great time for him to be alive. His writing has been featured on Broken Frontier.com, PopMatters.com and in Comics Foundry magazine.

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