In earlier posts, I’ve discussed my enjoyment of comics featuring the Justice Society of America. This was the first superhero team to appear in comics. The team made its debut in issue #3 of All-Star Comics in November 1940. I knew the book was created as a way to showcase those heroes who were not Batman and Superman, yet appeared in other titles published by DC Comics and its brother company All-American Comics. In the first Justice Society story, the society exists largely as a framing device. The heroes meet and each of them tells about a recent thrilling adventure. It’s less a team comic and more a way to introduce stories about each of the featured heroes. In the next issue, each hero still had standalone stories, but each story contributed to solving a bigger mystery.
So, what about All-Star Comics issues 1 and 2? These aren’t available digitally, so I had never read them. However, a few days ago, I discovered my local comic shop had a copy of DC’s Archive edition that collects the first two issues. It was even on sale. So, I ran over and picked up a copy.
As one might expect, the first two issues of All-Star Comics were simple anthology comics. They collected individual stories of heroes like the Golden Age Green Lantern, Flash, Hawkman, and the Spectre. Each hero had their own story and they didn’t meet. As with many Golden Age comics, the stories were simple, but they were fun. The stories were written and drawn by such people as Bill Finger, Jerry Siegel, Sheldon Moldoff, and Gardner Fox, people who had a hand in the early days of Superman and Batman and would also help to usher in characters like the Silver Age Green Lantern and Flash.
As it turns out, I rushed out to buy this book while working on a big writing project. I can’t say much about that project at this point, but I can tell you it’s set in 1942, right after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. It’s a time period I’m familiar with from the stories of my parents who were teenagers then. Truth be told, I bought the book as a little bit of fun distraction from work. One of the challenges of working at home during a pandemic is that you almost never leave the office!
That said, as I was reading the book, I came to realize it’s set just a little before the events of the story I’m working on. I should pay attention to people’s attitudes and how they speak. If you’re writing historical fiction, it can really help to read stuff written at the time your story is set. Watching movies of the period can help as well.
One of my favorite moments in this book was when they put in an editor’s note to explain what the FBI was. Although the FBI had already existed for several years, it had been a tiny department in Washington DC. It had just recently been expanded under President Roosevelt when the comic was new. More than once, when someone encountered something unusual, they described it as “queer.” It fits the dictionary definition perfectly well, but our modern ears tend to give the word a different meaning. Even Ultraman of the year 2240 is concerned about people being out of work and how a war in Europe will affect life at home. Of course, there’s also more than a little casual racism and sexism in some stories.
I won’t use everything I found in these stories, but the attitudes do reflect those of the period and help me to shape the way my characters speak. It reminds me of attitudes even progressive and forward-thinking people would have had to cope with. Words that are unusual to our modern ears should be used with care, but one or two sprinkled here or there can help transport a reader to a given era. You could do far worse when writing historical fiction to read a few comics of the period, if they existed. You might even have a little fun along the way.
I was puzzled when I read about the FBI. I was pretty sure it had been around for quite a while by the time of World War II. But until I looked it up, I didn’t know (or didn’t remember) it wasn’t called the Federal Bureau of Investigation until 1935.
I think it does help to get a feel of a time and place by reading things written then and there. That’s not only good for writing, it’s good for understanding people. I try not to judge people of the past by the standards of the present, or people who were raised by different values than me by how I was raised. Hopefully people in the future will be more understanding of what they might see as our time’s ignorance and superstition.
I also mentioned that the FBI had been around for a while but even in the period from 1935 until shortly before 1940, it was a very tiny department that most people hadn’t heard of.
You make a great point about understanding people in general by reading things written in the past. The biggest challenge of reading from this period is that most things published in the United States were by white writers so you’ll see things skewed toward that perspective. As always, reading widely is good. Reading with a critical mind is better.