Comic books have been, typically, something like the Contactees of literature: mocked, belittled, and generally sneered at. But if Hollywood box office is any indication, those “nerds” that read comics are vindicated. Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, the Avengers…the list of successful comic book superhero movies is long and is getting longer all the time.
With some exceptions, the superheroes we see today came about during what is referred to as the Silver Age of comics, from the mid-50s to the early 70s. It’s worth noting that this is almost the identical time frame as the classical Contactee era (shifted about five years later). Is this a coincidence or is there a common cause?
In Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human, comic book writer Grant Morrison describes the mid 1950s thusly:
Fifties America was a land of edginess and prowling paranoia hovering as it did on the verge of thermonuclear annihilation. Alone at night, in the midst of unprecedented luxury after a successfully won world war, Americans were more frightened than ever before; there was fear of the Bomb, the Communist, the Homo, the Negro, the Teenager, the Id, the Flying Saucers, the Existential Void.
The fifties, despite the sunny sheen we get from the TV shows and movies of the era, were a time when Americans were dealing with a whole host of new fears that simply didn’t exist before. In light of the fact that they were just coming off the high of being the greatest superpower in the world, these fears were particularly unsettling. What they did in reaction was telling. Morrison continues:
And as America turned its gaze inward in search of solutions to its sunlit terrors, it found the Shadow, and the multiheaded thing in the cellar emerged blinking in the light: Survival cultists, split personalities, UFO contactees like George Adamski were all admitted to the discourse, and people were willing to listen.
I think he hits the nail on the head there. People of 1950s America were casting about for a solution to the fears that consumed them. Though there are still people calling themselves Contactees today, most notably Billy Meier, who carries the torch of 1950s style Contacteeism. But modern Contactees are generally less well-known than their alien abduction counterparts like Travis Walton or Whitley Strieber. The fact is, Contactees likely wouldn’t get the traction today that they did in the 1950s, for all the reasons that Morrison outlines.
It stands to reason that with a common causal environment, comic books and Contactees would intersect. Morrison ironically doesn’t mention this, but this article does, in discussing the Silver Age reboot of Green Lantern for DC Comics.
During the Golden Age of comics (30s and 40s), Green Lantern was a modern retelling of Aladdin and the Lamp. But in the Silver Age, flying saucers were all the rage, Aladdin less so. The writers logically capitalized on that, and wrote a new origin story in which test pilot Hal Jordan comes upon a crashed spaceship and meets the friendly (but dying) alien being inside, who bestows upon him the power of the Green Lantern. Jordan is thrust into a world of intergalactic intrigue, dealing with beings from all colors, shapes, and sizes, from worlds flung around the universe.
The similarities with typical Contactees end there, of course, and Hal’s contact wasn’t a beautiful blond being, but a bemuscled, purple humanoid. Adamski et al didn’t go around in tights punching people, but the basic idea is very similar. The important takeaway from this is the idea of beings from outer space making contact with humans as a way to spread a message and to maintain peace in Earth’s greater “neighborhood” of the universe. Jordan is chosen for this because of some quality of his inner self; he is brave and has a good heart, and is somehow greater than other humans. In being chosen, he is singled out and given this very important task.
But there is another comic book/Contactee connection, one that neither Morrison nor the article above mention: Superman. He is not a Contactee, of course, as he is the alien himself. But consider: he is beautiful and human-looking, a perfect specimen of humanity taken to its highest point. As such, he is possessed of powers that the rest of us lack…he can’t read minds like Orthon, but he’s exceptionally strong and can fly. He tries to save humanity from its destructive tendencies, in order to save his foster planet from the fate of his home, Krypton. (Which exploded, not unlike the planet Maldek in Contactee lore.) Consider the film version of Superman as well, with Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. In that film, Superman destroys the world’s reserves of nuclear weapons.
Sounds kind of familiar. Superheroes are men and women and aliens of action, while Contactees are merely activists. But tell me you can’t see George Van Tassel suited up in a cape and throwing nukes into the sun if he could have.
This gives me an idea for a comic book.