Long ago, in the midst of rampant crime and economic depression, July of 1930 heard the eerie voice of The Shadow brought to life in radio broadcasts as the announcer of Street and Smith's Detective Story Hour. That was only the beginning, though. Once The Shadow started chilling spines, he moved from merely announcing stories to starring in his own adventures. Inspired by his example, scores of other heroes followed on his heels to be presented to a public hungry for uplifting tales of heroic salvation. Most of those following in the dark vigilante's wake were pale copies, lacking the appeal that would give a few the staying power that would maintain their popularity for decades to come.
But why? Why did some persist and others fail? Why was anyone writing stories of heroic fiction at all? I mean, besides "for the money."
The time of ancient myths and legends was long since gone. Humans had grown beyond the point where they tried to explain the wonders of the universe through the supernatural workings of divine beings. For good or ill, the people of the world were fending for themselves, firmly entrenched in a grim reality of their own making. Under the crushing weight of the Great Depression, crime, unemployment and fascism were all flourishing. People felt unsafe in their homes or lost their homes entirely, some moving to other countries entirely to escape the impending threat of global war they felt powerless to stop.
The need had arisen not only to escape the dark truths of life but to foster hope for better times. A void had been carved in the hearts of the common men by increasing feelings of ineffectualness in their own world and they were desperate for a way to fill it. These needs called forth the creation of the pulp heroes with an impetus never before seen in the modern world. Pulp heroes would grow into super-heroes, like the legends of ancient myth, all working beyond the hindrance of confining laws to banish the fears of ordinary men. Nietzsche warned us to "Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster," but we crafted our heroes specifically to become the composite avengers of society's collective soul. Heroes overcame whatever fears were embodied by their opposition, fighting ceaselessly for truth, justice and freedom that readers felt themselves denied in their daily lives. Defying Nietzsche, here were champions serving as inspirations to all--no matter how poor, downtrodden or oppressed--as they dared gaze into the abyss of all the world's dark places.
Whether they fought darkness while draped in the color of night in the manner of The Shadow and Batman or sought to dispel it with the guiding light of hope for the future like Doc Savage and Superman, we have never truly lost our need for iconic heroes. In recent years, with increasing amounts of cynicism afoot, we've seen the rise of anti-heroes and the darkening of heroic figures, perhaps finally succumbing to the weight of fighting so much evil for so long. They say that tarnishing these icons humanizes them, making them seem more real and relatable to audiences. In its own way, this trend toward favoring a flawed hero may be part of a collective self-awareness as to just how close to home the hero's true foe dwells.
A common lament in heroic fiction is the hero's claim that he works to create a world in which he will no longer be needed. No matter how far we travel, how much we strive or learn, until we overcome our own darkness--the fears that lurk in the hearts of man--we'll never run short of evils to fight or the need for champions to face them. In truth, even though our heroes seem to be caught in nothing less than neverending battles, what they truly represent is our collective desire to better ourselves and our world. Should we as a people reach a point where we cynically banish our heroes it would mean that we have chosen to do away with our role models, ceased projecting the better and more hopeful parts of our natures and, sadly, stopped imagining a brighter world in which to live.