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The World

“I think about my life, about my loves, about my home, about my fight and about you…I will always be there to save you. Because I am Superman. Believe that, until the end.” – Superman
When looking at the world today it is important remember when everything started changing. While people and creatures with unbelievable power have always been among us it wasn't until 1938 when the Superhero was be born. A single event started an era that historians refer to as the Golden Age, the dawn of the Superman.

The Golden Age

Timespan: c.1938 – c.1956

On April 18th, 1938 the public became aware of an extraterrestrial living in rural Kansas. Over the next decade the archetype for the superhero was created and many of the most historically relevant heroes debuted. Starting with the Superman, Clark Kent, superheroes rapidly gained popularity and hundreds of upstarts appeared across the world. Unfortunately, these heroes wouldn't be able to stop one of history's most gruesome conflicts.

Long before Superman appeared the world was rolling towards devastation. The rise of Italian fascism in the 1920s, Japanese militarism and invasions of China in the 1930s, and the takeover in 1933 of Germany by the Nazi Party and lead to the largest military conflict in history; World War II.

The War had a significant impact on superheroes, many of which became immensely popular during the war. Some were directly involved in the conflict. Others, like Superman, remained neutral. Many historians still debate the effect that Superheroes had on the War, some claiming that fear of the Superman was a primary cause while others claim the war would lasted much longer had heroes not joined the cause. 

Since the United States and the Allies had the majority of superpowered support it's wasn't a surprise that the Allies prevailed. The world was saved from destruction and the Superheroes had overcome their first global crisis. In the aftermath many painted heroes from Axis countries as villains, no matter their intentions during the war. Again, historians are split on the effect this had on the world. Some think that this ostracization is what lead to the super-villain archetype while others argue that super-villains were a natural result of superhero activity.

The era following World War II and the drop of the atomic bomb colored climate of Superheroes in the mid-to-late 1940s. Superheroes with nuclear-derived powers began to emerge. Branching out from fighting Nazis many heroes began to fight communists, and some got involved in the Korean War. However, the popularity of the superhero had begun to diminish and as a result many Superheroes quietly retired.

Then, in 1954, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham attacked Superheroes in his book “Seduction of the Innocent”. The book was concerned with what he perceived as "sadistic and homosexual undertones" in superheroes and it raised public anxiety about heroes. Moral crusaders blamed superheroes for poor grades, juvenile delinquency, and drug use. This led the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency to take an interest.

In the wake of these events a group of non-powered superhero advocates founded the Superhero Authority and drafted the Superhuman Code of Conduct, intended as “the most stringent moral code in existence”. A Seal of Approval soon appeared on virtually every costume and although the Authority had no official control, most law enforcement agencies refused to work with anyone that did not carry the seal. In some cases, even hunted heroes without a seal and had them arrested.

The Code prohibited the interference with “policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions … in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.” Specific restrictions were placed on kidnapping (even criminals) and concealed weapons. “Excessive violence” was forbidden, as were “lurid, unsavory, and gruesome behaviors.” In addition, heroes could not use the words “horror” or “terror” in their titles. The use of the word “crime” was subject to numerous restrictions. “Sex perversion”, “sexual abnormalities”, and “illicit sex relations” as well as seduction, rape, sadism, and masochism were all also specifically forbidden. In many ways the Code defanged Superheroes, leading to a further decline in their popularity.

The Silver Age

Timespan: 1956 – c. 1970

In the wake of the Authority's new Code many heroes retired. Of the few superheroes that remained in the public eye the popular opinion had turned against them. Critics wrote scathing editorials and criticized the ineptitude of the remaining heroes. Superman was available in “great quantity, but little quality.” others was seen as “lackluster”, no longer idiosyncratic” or “dull.” Many agree that the Superhero was dying.

Historians argue about which milestone should mark the dawn of the Silver Age. Some saying the first person to use a retired heroes name should mark the beginning of the era. This camp marks the debut of Barry Allan as the Flash, replacing Jay Garrick who had retired in 1951, as the beginningOthers claim that the debut of a new alien hero should be the milestone to mark the dawn of a new age. Those give the honor to the Martian Manhunter who appeared in 1955. Regardless of who started the Silver Age it was a time of advancement, revolution, and commercial success for superheroes.

Along with a new Flash others reworked old names. Perhaps inspired by the Authority, some superheroes began working together in groups. Not to regulate other heroes, but to help protect the innocent. Teams like the Justice League of America, the Fantastic Four, and the Avengers appeared and gained great popularity.

During the Silver Age the public also began seeing Superheroes as something other than archetypes. Reports that superheroes had human failings, fears, and inner demons, who squabbled and worried about the likes of rent-money started cropping up. In contrast to the straitlaced archetypes of superheroes at the time, this ushered in a revolution. These new, “relatable”, heroes became popular among college students who could identify with the angst and the irreverent nature of the heroes during a time period of social upheaval and the rise of a youth counterculture.

With their popularity on the rise came the inevitable, the television shows. In particular, Batman’s 1966 series had a profound impact on the hero culture. The rise of the camp hero. New family friendly made-for-TV characters enjoyed short lived success but quickly faded into obscurity. Many attribute this rise of the "bubblegum hero" to limitations put on heroes by the Authority, which ultimately lead to its demise.

In the late 1960s an underground hero scene arose to combat the Authority sanctioned heroes. These new heroes were willing to take actions explicitly banned by the Code and since they worked through unconventional channels they managed skirt mainstream attention and the wrath of the justice system. While these heroes often embolden others the first big blow the the Authority came in 1971 when the United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare approached Spider-Man to do a Public Service Announcement about drug abuse. While the Code did not specifically forbid discussion of drugs, a general clause prohibited “All elements or techniques not specifically mentioned herein, but which are contrary to the spirit and intent of the code, and are considered violations of good taste or decency”. A liberal interpretation of this clause allowed the acting administrator of the Authority to threaten to revoke Spider-Man’s Seal based on the discussion of narcotics, regardless of the context.

Confident that the government request would give him credibility not provided by the Authority Spider-Man produced the PSA without Authority approval. The PSA was well received and the Authority’s argument for denying approval was deemed counterproductive. Spider-man drew heavy criticism from other heroes for “for defying the code”, with some heroes stating that they will not “engage in any drug discussion unless the code is changed”. As a result of publicity surrounding the Department of Health, Education and Welfare’s sanctioning of Spider-Man, however, the Authority revised the Code to permit the discussion of “narcotics or drug addiction” if presented “as a vicious habit”. This compromised of their power began the fall of the Authority.

The Bronze Age

Timespan: c.1970 – c.1985

While the Bronze Age retained many of the conventions of the Silver Age, with traditional superhero remaining the mainstay, a return of darker and more socially relevant heroes tackling real-world issues, such as drug use, alcoholism, and environmental pollution, began to flourish. Many argue that there is no one single event that can be said to herald the beginning of the Bronze Age. A number of events at the beginning of the 1970s, taken together, can be seen as a shift away from the tone of the previous decade. However, the murder of Spider-Man’s longtime girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, in 1973 is considered by many to be the definitive Bronze Age event.

A concern with social issues had been a part of hero culture since their beginnings: early on Superman, for example, dealt with child abuse and working conditions for minors. However, in the 1970s relevance became not only a feature but something that many heroes loudly proclaimed to promote. The Spider-Man drug PSA was at the forefront of the trend of “social relevance”. Others also spoke openly about drugs and addiction. Some publicly confronted their own issues ranging from alcoholism to domestic violence. While the larger trend eventually faded, contemporary social commentary has remained in superhero culture to this day.

One of the most significant developments during the period was a substantial rise in the number of black and other minority superheroes. Before the 1970s, there had been very few non-white superheroes but starting in the early 1970s this began to change.

Some heroes were seen by some as an attempt to cash in on the 1970s crazes for Kung Fu movies. However, these and other minority heroes came into their own after these film trends faded, and became increasingly popular and important as time progressed. By the mid-1980s, black heroes had become leaders of the X-Men and Teen Titans respectively.

Superhero teams founded during the Silver Age also saw their memberships swell and, eventually, almost every active superhero belonged to one of two teams; the Justice League or the Avengers. Both had dozens of off-shoot and sub-groups but ultimately almost every hero could claim membership in one of the big two.

By the 1980s greater levels of violence had become acceptable by the Authority. Periodic revisions were made to the Code to reflect changing attitudes about appropriate subject matter (e.g., the ban on referring to homosexuality was revised in 1989 to allow non-stereotypical depictions of gays and lesbians), but its influence continued to wane, and heroes continued to gradually reduce the prominence of the seal on their outfits. While the Authority would limp on, it hardly had the same authority it once claimed.

The Modern Age

Timespan: c.1985 – present

During the Modern Age heroes were generally seen as more psychologically complex, many became active in changing their culture, independent heroes flourished, and larger groups became more commercialized. An alternate name for this period is the Dark Age of Heroes, due to the popularity of grim and gritty anti-heroes.

The late 1970s saw famed heroes going independent. As independent heroes they were free to do as they pleased, many feeling the same chains that bound heroes under the rule of the Authority were starting to choke members of the League and the Avengers.

In the mid-1970s, anti-heroes and new darker heroes challenged the previous model of the superhero as a cheerful humanitarian. Other morally ambiguous heroes straddled the conventional boundary between hero and villain. Groups like The Watchmen offered troubled heroes a home outside of the big two. Then came the biggest blow to the old school, The Batman lost his bright outfit and donned a darker, more menacing attire. By the early 1990s, anti-heroes had become the rule rather than the exception.

By the 2000s most new heroes to emerge did not join the Authority, regardless of whether they conformed to its standards. In 2001, the Avengers withdrew from the Authority completely in favor of its own policing system. Some heroes were even placing the seal on their uniforms without submitting themselves to the Authority. In January 2011, the Justice League announced that it would discontinue participation, adopting a system similar to the Avengers, rendering the Code and Authority defunct.