Comic book movies and Westerns. Two genres could not seem more different. One has heroes who wear primary colors and have the strengths of gods. The other focuses on lonely dust-covered men who only have a horse and a six-shooter. One looks beyond the stars and into the future. The other examines the past. One is at the zenith of its power. The other has long faded into obscurity.
Yet are these genres really so dissimilar? Couldn’t one argue “The Magnificent Seven” was “The Avengers” of its day? Was any right hook more devastating than John Wayne’s? Was there any hero more indestructible than Clint Eastwood? Aren’t Westerns and comic book movies hugely influential overseas? Don’t both fetishize the military, and aren’t they both problematic when depicting women and people of color?
Upon closer examination, we see that the two genres have more in common than we would originally guess. Yet these cosmetic similarities do not begin to scratch the surface of the deep connection the two genres have. If we examine their history, we discover how large an impact they’ve had on our culture. By studying Westerns and comic book movies, we glimpse into the American character.
PRINT THE LEGEND
The Western began with the dime novels. Long before they appeared on the screen, Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickock were popularized in cheap pamphlets that spread across the nation from the 1860’s-1900’s. These pamphlets popularized the Western story in the American consciousness.
In 1903 Edwin S. Porter directed “The Great Train Robbery,” which is cited as being the first Western. As cinema grew as an art form, Western movies became more and more popular. For nearly 70 years the Western was the dominant genre at the box office. Even during the Counterculture movement of the 1960’s, John Wayne was still the number one box office draw.
For seven decades the Western reigned supreme. At Halloween kids would dress up as cowboys. They would argue who would win in a fight, Wayne or Eastwood. Images like Monument Valley, the Man with No Name, and the Winchester influenced popular American art. For much of the 20th century, the genre was supreme. Yet as time marched on, it slowly faded into obscurity. As America grew older, the public thirsted for a different kind of legend.
THE COMIC BOOK RISES
In 1938 the first issue of Superman was published. Superman by all accounts became a truly American symbol. An immigrant who fled to the United States, he was assimilated by its culture and became its greatest champion. With the coming of Superman a whole new genre was born. The kids who went to see John Wayne on the big screen also picked up comic books starring their favorite superheroes.
In 1978, just as the Western was dying, “Superman” starring Christopher Reeves appeared and was an instant success. There had been several comic book adaptations for the large and small screen, but none were as culturally affective as “Superman”. Like a prophet of the Old Testament, the movie heralded the future to come. The film was followed by three decades of comic book movies with mixed success. Then in 2008, Marvel launched its cinematic universe.
Today we can look forward to decades of comic book movies. Marvel has a set schedule of releasing three a year, and have mapped out their cinematic universe well into the 2020’s. DC fans can look forward to however many reboots it will take before Warner Brothers can find something that works. Today children dress up for Halloween as Captain American and Ironman. They argue about who would win, Superman or the Hulk. The tiny subculture has now just become American culture. And with films such as “Black Panther” making over a billion dollars, it’s unlikely that the genre will go away anytime soon.
SUPERMAN AND THE COWBOY
By looking at the history of the comic book movie, we see it share its origin with the Western. Both started as cheap pulp stories made for children, and both grew into mainstays of American pop culture. But does that mean they are the same thing? Are comic book movies Westerns?
Yes, and Westerns are superhero movies. When we look at Westerns and comic books, we see that both genres, at the most fundamental level, are the American mythology. More so than Paul Bunyan or Johnny Appleseed, Superman and the cowboy are the images that define American culture. Whether you believe the legends are good or evil, the simple truth is, these two genres are our myths, and myths are how civilizations see themselves.
When the Western was popular, America was still a young nation. It had not stepped out onto the world’s stage. At the turn of the 20th century, Americans gravitated to the image of the cowboy, because that was how they saw themselves. Lone gunmen bringing democracy and justice to an untamed land. There was a romantic quality to the imagery, no matter how inaccurate or false it was. Americans flocked to the cinema to see that image reflected back at them. The cowboy pervaded the culture and soon influenced our own perception of history.
Look at how World War II is taught in our schools, and you’ll see the classic Western narrative played out. The story we’re taught is that America was a lone drifter who rode in at the nick of time to save the day. For most of the 20th century we saw ourselves as cowboys. But now…
Now, after winning two World Wars, winning the Cold War, and being the richest and most powerful nation on the planet, our perception of ourselves has changed. As the 20th century dragged on, we stopped seeing ourselves as cowboys. As our place in history was cemented, we began to see ourselves as gods. Persecuted gods, who found that with our great power came the great responsibility of protecting the world.
Today, comic book movies will be around as long as we keep going to them. And we’ll keep going to them as long as they show us what we want to see. We flock to the images that confirm our perceptions of ourselves. Is it any wonder that the most popular idols are Batman and Ironman, whose only power is wealth? Don’t these heroes just feed into the mythology that you can do anything with enough money?
The Western and the comic book are part of the tapestry of American culture. They are how we define and see ourselves. The Western evolved into the comic book movie just as Americans evolved as the society shifted beneath our feet. And yes they are part of a narrow tapestry that does not reflect the whole, but to study these genres and understand why they are popular is to glance at the American psyche, and perhaps see where that psyche will lead us, for good or ill.