By Madeline Steiner, Post-Doctoral Fellow, University of South Carolina
Countless comic book characters have backgrounds as scientists. It’s to the point where my close friend, a biologist working in a genetics lab with sharks, frequently jokes that it’s only a matter of time until he turns into a supervillain himself. In addition to the science lab, there’s another setting that shows up time and time again in comic books that receives far less attention: the circus.
Some comic characters have backgrounds in the circus such as Batman’s Robin, who came from a family of acrobats, or X-Men’s Nightcrawler, who spent time trapped in a traveling freak-show before joining the mutant team. Even heroes who don’t have a history as a performer frequently visited the big top in early comics. The very first issues of both Wonder Woman (1942) and The Avengers (1963) include scenes where the heroes perform stunts in the circus ring. In Wonder Woman No. 1, after the heroine rescues an innocent performer during a circus act, the crowd finds Wonder Woman more exciting than the scheduled show. She shows off for the crowd, performing a trick horse riding act, wrestling a lion, and executing a “death-defying leap” onto a swinging trapeze. In the first issue of The Avengers, the Incredible Hulk attempts to hide out with a traveling circus, painting his giant green face with clown makeup and pretending to be “Mechano, the most powerful, lifelike robot on earth!” (Somehow this low-effort, Clark Kent-level disguise actually fools people for a while, but I digress…) But even beyond these explicit circus connections, circus and side-show performance remain under-discussed influences on the development of the superhero genre in the 1940s.
My research focuses on the late nineteenth and early twentieth century traveling entertainment industry. I consider myself pretty lucky that my research takes me to unique spots. Sure, I visit plenty of university archives, but I also spent a summer researching at Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin where I could spend all morning in the archive and then take a break to watch live performances at the center’s on-site big top. One of the things that surprised me while working in the archives is how so many historical sources describe performers in ways that seem as if they could have come straight off the pages of an Action Comics or Marvel comic book. Comics scholars and cultural historians recognize the important influence of several early twentieth century fads on the development of the first superheroes in the 1940s, including bodybuilding and the physical culture movement; however, I believe that to fully understand the origins of the superhero archetype we also need to consider several other live performance genres, namely circus strongman performances and acrobatics.
Strongman acts were a popular staple of circus side-shows, and there are clear echoes of the strongman in early superhero comics, long before Luke Cage’s first appearance in 1972. In 1924, fifteen years before the character Superman first graced the pages of Action Comics, real-life circus strongman Siegmund Breitbart was hailed by newspapers across the United States as “The Superman of the Ages.”2 Breitbart entertained crowds by performing astonishing feats of strength; twisting iron bars, snapping steel beams, and lifting enormous weights. Beginning in 1938, the comic book Superman performed similar acts, albeit ones made even more fantastical by the fictional format. In his first comic solo book appearance, Superman ripped apart a steel door, raised a car above his head, and carried around grown men as if they weighed nothing.
Even the famous “superhero poses,” now a bit cliché (as Yelena so wonderfully points out in the recent Black Widow movie) have a striking similarity to publicity images of live performers. In a panel from Batman No. 1 (1940), in a training montage sequence Bruce Wayne is depicted raising a large dumbbell over his head, a slight arch in his back and his free hand flexed. An 1894 poster advertising a vaudeville performance features famous strongman Eugen Sandow in a nearly identical pose. Although it is impossible to tell whether comics creators intentionally copied specific strongman images, the circus strongman genre and its repertoire of characteristic poses and stunts have echoes in the superhero genre in both figure design and iconic postures.
The influence of sideshow performance does not stop at the visual aspects of superhero media. For example, in Action Comics No. 1, the final panel of Superman’s first comic, alerting readers that Superman will return in the next issue, shows the Man of Steel bursting a chain wrapped around his chest. This spectacle was a staple of strongman acts. Performers would expand their chest muscles, causing chains wrapped tightly around their torsos to snap. Although these amazing feats were likely aided by some behind-the-scenes stagecraft to assist the performer in breaking the chain, acts involving breaking and bending steel were commonplace in circus and carnival performances. Likewise, breaking out of bonds would become a hallmark of the superhero genre as heroes triumphed over villains and narrowly escaped entrapment time and time again.
In many ways, the first superheroes were actually “strongmen plus,” performing feats similar to side-show strongmen but with added powers that made them more than human. For many heroes, this comes in the form of acrobatic abilities. Comic book superheroes tend to physically resemble strongmen with their hyper-muscular figures. But despite their bulky frames, heroes also possess the ability to deftly swoop in to crisis situations, just as the acrobat swings from trapeze to platform.
Acrobatic performances took on a new shape and grew in popularity in the decades before the first superheroes appeared. At the turn of the twentieth century, acrobatic troupes expanded the size of their acts, not only adding greater numbers of performers, but taking their acts higher in the air than ever before and utilizing more elaborate rigs to create ever-more dramatic and death-defying stunts. At this same time, circus owners began aggressively targeting children and families, moving away from the older perception of traveling entertainments as seedy places full of grift and vice.
Both the expansion of the physical size of the stunts as well as the desire to appeal to children resulted in a twentieth century circus that thematically emphasized whimsy, spectacle, and sensation. Whereas strongman performances emphasized intensity and bodily extremes, aerial acts presented a different manner of looking at the performer’s body. These acts highlighted acrobats’ lithe bodies, their graceful routines, and nimble movements.
In some Golden Age comics, there are explicit references to superheroes’ skills in aerial stunts. In Wonder Woman No. 1, Wonder Woman finds herself in a three-ring circus, and to satisfy a demanding crowd the heroine demonstrates her powers by performing a host of circus acts including trick riding and lion taming. Her final stunt, however, is a trapeze act. As Wonder Woman jumps from a platform on one end of the circus tent for a trapeze clear on the other side of the ring, “the longest dive ever made by man or woman,” a foe throws a rock at the trapeze bar causing it to swing out of reach of Wonder Woman’s hands. However, “quicker than thought, Wonder Woman bends her knees and catches the bar with her legs,” exhibiting preternatural acrobatic skills that even she herself was unaware she possessed. Similarly, in Captain America No. 5, the superhero and his sidekick Bucky “[devise] a split-second plan of action,” executing a two-man trapeze stunt in order to save a damsel in distress from an evil ringmaster. Unlike Batman’s Robin, neither Captain America or Wonder Woman have any history of circus training in their backstory, but it is accepted that as superheroes they possess the abilities to leap into aerial stunts whenever situations require.
The circus itself has seen a major decline in popularity as the twentieth century became the twenty-first; however, the rise in popularity of superhero films has created a new, modern space to visualize the connections between circus and hero. The ever-increasing spectacle of superhero movies creates jobs for numerous talented stunt performers with backgrounds in gymnastics and aerial stunts. So while “circus” may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you’re watching Spidey swinging through New York City in No Way Home or watching Kate Bishop and Clint Barton showcase extraordinary gymnastic talents in Hawkeye, keep that underacknowledged influence in mind and see how many connections you can spot.
Madeline Steiner is a post-doctoral fellow in history at the University of South Carolina. Her research blends the history of capitalism with the history of popular culture, focusing on traveling amusements in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She’s a big fan of Marvel (Comics and MCU), Star Wars, and horror. Her twitter handle is @MSteinerHistory.
- The Avengers Vol. 1, #1, Marvel Comics, 1963.
- “Au Revoir, But Not Good-Bye,” Variety, July 9, 1924.
- Strobridge & Co., Flo Ziegfeld, and Sandow Trocadero Vaudevilles, The Sandow Trocadero Vaudevilles, photograph, c. 1894, https://www.loc.gov/item/2014635569/.
- Batman vol. 1 #1, DC Comics, 1940.
- Pierre Gasnier, French Strongman, photograph, c. 1900, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pierre_Gasnier.png.
- Action Comics #1, DC Comics, 1938.
Scott Bukatman, Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Supermen in the 20th Century (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).
Janet Davis, The Circus Age: Culture and Society Under the American Big Top (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).
Randy Duncan, Matthew J. Smith, and Paul Levitz, The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture, 2nd ed (London: Bloomsbury, 2015).
Scott Jeffery, The Posthuman Body in Superhero Comics: Human, Superhuman, Transhuman, Post/Human (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).
Gerard Jones, Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2005).
John F. Kasson, Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man: The White Male Body and the Challenge of Modernity in America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2002).
Robert Mainardi, ed. Strong Man: Vintage Photos of a Masculine Icon. (San Francisco, Council Oak Books, 2001).