Superheroes Cajole, Heckle, and Plead With Their Readers!
"Her light is growing faint, and if it goes out, that means she is dead!
Her voice is so low I can scarcely tell what she is saying.
She says - she says she thinks she could get well again if children believed in fairies!
Do you believe in fairies? Say quick that you believe!
If you believe, clap your hands!”
(from the play Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie)
This classic scene of Peter Pan enlisting the aid of his young audience is one of the most memorable examples of “breaking the fourth wall”, a theatrical concept in which characters demonstrate an awareness of their audience. From its earliest uses in nineteenth century theatre, breaking the fourth wall has been used to great effect in all forms of popular entertainment, such as radio, movies, TV and…(you guessed it) comic books.
Not surprisingly, some of the very first appeals to readers appeared during World War II, when engaging the public and stirring up their participation was a big part of life on the American home front. A good example of this civic-minded service was the cover of Whiz Comics #56 (1944), where Captain Marvel implored kids to buy war stamps to support the war effort.
Similarly, the Man of Steel encouraged citizens to dig deep for the American Red Cross here on Superman #34 (1945).
Besides noble appeals for charity, fourth wall covers could also be found on comics with a humorous slant. In the great tradition of the Marx Brothers or Looney Tunes cartoons, these comics routinely addressed or sometimes even threatened their audience. A classic example of this playful spirit can be found on the cover of She-Hulk #1 (1989), as the Jade Giantess threatens our very comic book collections if we don’t buy the inaugural issue of her second series.
DC’s Ambush Bug character didn’t so much break the fourth wall as obliterate it. Initially a villain, Ambush Bug went on to star in a number of mini-series that mercilessly skewered DC Comics history, its characters, its staff, and…yes…even its customers!
Taking things in a more darkly humorous direction was Marvel’s Deadpool. Sometimes a villain, sometimes an anti-hero, the “Merc with a Mouth” would routinely demonstrate that he was fully aware he was a comic book character, such as here on the cover of Deadpool #43 (2000)...
As fun as these fourth wall-busting antics could be, their impact may have been muted by the free-wheeling anarchy of humor titles like these. After all, since humor is all about subversion, breaking a narrative “rule” in the midst of a humorous story is no big deal, right?
Ah, but when more straightforward or traditional superheroes called out to their readers from a comic book cover? That had impact.
In stark contrast to his earlier appeal for charity, Superman #274 (1974) featured a hysterical Superman not only pleading for help from his readers, but wrecking his logo in the process!
Wrecking Superman’s self-confidence was a mischievous little stunt of Supergirl’s here on the cover of Superman #212 (1968). As Superbaby might say, “Me no likey!”
On the cover of Batman #88 (1954), readers encountered the dead-eyed stare of what appeared to be a blond Howdy Doody puppet claiming to be Batman’s son!
One hundred and ten issues later, Batman presents us with a film negative of his meeting with Joe Chill, the killer of his parents! Needless to say, an awkward moment between Batman and his fans.
I mean...what do you say?
An even more awkward, uncomfortable moment took place with Blackhawk #229 (1967). As their increasingly campy adventures continued to lose sales, a desperate, crazed-looking Blackhawk begs for another chance...setting the stage for the following issue's debut of the Superhero Blackhawks…quite possibly the most spectacularly inane "new direction" in comics history.
In contrast, one of the better new directions in comics was actually a return to an old direction for Wonder Woman. After abandoning her costumed identity and spending a number of years as a lame Emma Peel-like spy, Wonder Woman finally returned to her superhero roots (allegedly in response to feminist Gloria Steinem griping about the absence of the costume).
In her bid to rejoin the Justice League of America, Wonder Woman voluntarily underwent a series of trials to prove her worthiness to her former teammates. For each issue of these "Twelve Labors of Wonder Woman", a different JLA member would secretly observe Wonder Woman's efforts while serving double-duty as the “cover host”!
Look at that Wonder Woman gallery again. See the cover in the upper left hand corner? That's issue #213 (1974), which you can see was "hosted" by the Flash. Well, in an odd bit of synchronicity, the Flash was also the spokeshero for the 213th issue of his own title!
A year earlier, on the cover of Justice League #89 (1970), the Flash stuck his finger into the collective face of fandom and offered them the chance of a lifetime.
Getting in on Flash's flair for audience participation was his pal Green Lantern here on the cover of Flash #222 (1974). In a twisted take of Peter Pan's revival of Tinkerbell, GL pleads for our help in taking down a kill-happy Flash (by apparently turning him into a midget)!
Heck, even Flash's villains had a thing for breaking the fourth wall. Flash #172 (1967) finds Gorilla Grodd mocking the Flash's fan base with an alarmingly empty costume!
As one of the his many implied death covers, Flash #193 (1969) featured the snide Captain Cold daring us to read the chilling details of his (heavily censored) crime.
Given the Flash's history with this gimmick, it should come as no surprise that the most famous fourth wall buster would be yet another Flash cover. With that brilliant red costume against a stark black background, punctuated by the Most Desperate Man Alive's frantic plea, the cover of Flash #163 (1966) was guaranteed to stop anyone in their tracks.
Having had the opportunity to meet Flash editor Julius Schwartz a few times, I smile when I think about how much he loved this particular cover. In fact, he said it was his favorite cover of his distinguished career at DC...and he seemed to get a big kick out of signing it for me at the 2003 San Diego Comic Con (about six months before his death, as it turned out).
So...was breaking the fourth wall a cheap gimmick? Of course it was...but it was also a remarkably effective and memorable gimmick reflecting a time when fun, whimsy, and lighthearted adventure were a regular part of the comic book experience.
A time that sometimes seems as far away as Neverland itself!