Comic books have always been one of the most important mediums in American history. The medium has been used as a platform for progressiveness, a rallying cry for soldiers in war time or even just as a story that brings confidence in a young child. The impact of these heroes and their adventures over the last 80+ years can not simply be measured through their individual sales. Comic books have gone through an amazing and powerful journey rivaling that of the characters within them. Looking strictly at comics starting from 1938 to the present, these stories were used to galvanize the troops through wars, give people hope through economic and social disasters, and even to progress society forward through important movements.
1938-1945 Superman & Captain America against Anti-Semitism and Hitler
Lets take the first 30 years of comic books as a sample period. During this time, comic books took a crucial turn that defined the their legacy. The first superhero, Superman, was created. Up until this point, comic books were strictly humor strips seen in newspapers or short stories that didn’t hold much bearing beyond their short pages. It was not until 1938 that the “superhero” was born. Superman, created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the children of Jewish immigrants was brought into the world. The significance of Superman’s creators can not be understated to the importance of this character. Understanding the thought process of these two men when creating Superman is crucial to understanding my thesis point for this article. Lets take Jerry Siegel. 6 years before the birth of Superman, Siegel’s father, Mitchell Seigel was killed by armed robbers while working at a local clothing store in Cleveland. Fast forward 6 years and you can see Seigel’s tragedy in his work. Some of their earliest concept art had Superman saving a man from an armed robbery. This small moment contextualizes why Superman is such an important character. It captures our most primal imagination and needs. Who wouldn’t want all the power in the world to save a loved one, to prevent a tragedy, to be “Super.” Superman was originally based on Jerry Siegel’s own face and a conclusion can be drawn that Jerry was projecting himself onto his character. Moving on to Joe Shuster, the second half of my thesis point lives here. 10 years prior to Superman, the United States was in a time of social turmoil. Immigration was highly frowned upon and the American government unfairly judged immigration for non-white applicants. Sound familiar? Many comparisons can be to the way immigrants were treated in the late 20s and the current time period we live in today. Adding to this, anti-semitism was rampant. Shuster would frequently be bullied and glossed over opportunities throughout his life, such as the case with many Jewish immigrants. As Superman was born, Shuster would apply his own frustrations with this injustice and had Superman deal with it. Shuster had Superman specifically and proudly defend a non-aryan stance. One of the most famous images has Superman attacking Hitler while telling him just that. As we will see when covering Marvel’s history, superheroes at the time would frequently target Nazis and Hitler to drum up support from citizens and galvanize troops. To deny Superman’s origins as an immigrant figure is to deny one of the cornerstones of his character. Right from the conception of this hero, Siegel and Shuster put their own lives and social issues at the forefront of this hero. Whether it was Siegel creating a character with the potential to “save” his late father, Shuster creating a character capable of dismantling anti-Semitic hatred that was rampant around the world, or the two of them creating a character that would stand the test of time as the ultimate immigrant figure, Superman is at the center of all of it. As we look into the future decades of superheroes, it will become clear why Superheroes will always be important to our society.
Superheroes have always been pioneers for progressiveness. They were frequently used to dispel rampant racism in the American consciousness. While it is very easy to look back at history as America the “good guys” fighting evil during World War II, this sentiment is flawed. While Americans overwhelmingly supported the fight against Nazi Germany, the United States was in the midst of the Jim Crow laws. Adding to this, many Americans supported Hitler and comic creators would often be subject to many anti-Semitic hate messages. Icons like Jack Kirby, Joe Simon and Stan Lee were often subject to many kinds of harassment. What they responded with was a collection of powerful, provoking and timeless art that still hold impact today. Captain America, who literally and metaphorically, is a symbol for the entire nation, became a flag bearer for true justice. This kind of justice was not representative to the ugliness of America but rather an ideal for what America could become. Captain America would frequently fight Nazis and go toe-to-toe with Hitler on multiple occasions. Not only were these comics a medium to stand against a hateful mindset, it was meant to educate children who would normally not hear the full story from their parents. It also doubled as war propaganda, often used as an outlet to inspire troops going into battle. During World War II, American soldiers would carry copies of Superman and Captain America fighting Nazis. The war era of comics were some of the most unique stories ever made in American history and a direct reflection fo the time. After the war, comics turned their attention from international issues to domestic ones.
1945-1964- Superman and Wonder Woman fight against the KKK & for Women’s Rights
Comic books in post-WWII America turned their eyes to the issues at home. As mentioned before, the late 1930s and early 1940s saw our greatest heroes challenge problems on the world stage and it caused many of them to became well known American icons. As our soldiers returned home, so did our politics, media and of course, our superheroes. America had just as many problems as the ones they tried to fight. The Ku Klux Klan were growing in numbers, it was here that Superman was historically used to combat them. Throughout the 1940s, The Adventures of Superman was becoming a mainstay in the homes of American families. With iconic voices and stories more robust and complex than their physical counterparts, radio was a medium that quickly became America’s favorite. It was here that Superman emerged to stand against them. As fighting Nazis went out of style, comic writers and radio hosts handed the villain role to the KKK. This was a two fold success. On one hand, families across the nation heard about their hero, Superman, fighting racial prejudice and injustice. It helped kids and adults look themselves in the mirror and strive for change. On the other hand, Superman made a very real impact to the dismantling of the Klan. The Klan at the time transformed their image to a mythical status. People did not want to understand them because they were too frightened or too bigoted to care. This is when undercover activist, Stetson Kennedy, infiltrated and slowly leaked secrets about the KKK and their operations to the minds behind the Superman radio show. As new secrets were given, Superman would battle the Klan and publicly expose them through radio. This quickly led to the dismantling of many KKK members and even helped to create criminal cases against them. Once again, Superman proven how important these characters can be. Their impact isn’t simply in the splash pages of action or the monsters they fight but in the power they can give to the reader, the listener, to rise above and take action against the injustices of their time.
Wonder Woman also emerged onto the scene during this time. In 1941, Wonder Woman was created to be an equal of Superman but with the compassion and fearlessness of a woman. William Marston, who had a progressive mindset and was a fierce supporter of the woman’s rights movement, wanted to create a hero that would remove the stereotype of a woman. This was achieved by making her the metaphorical equal of Superman, the most popular hero of the time. Marston was quoted in saying, “Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.” Wonder Woman became a feminist icon and continues to be one of the most important characters in all of fiction. Though the fight for women’s rights existed before Wonder Woman, and the fight for these rights continue to exist today, the arrival of Wonder Woman gave women, both kids and adults, an icon to relate and strive to be like. In a severely male dominated comic book industry, Wonder Woman was the first step to a more progressive standard. As comics progressed forward to the next decade, the need and call for diversity in comics became a a priority.
1964-1980-Civil Rights Movement and The Rise of the Black Superhero
As mentioned above, while America projected an image of being the good guys in any international affair, at home, things were just as bad. The Jim Crow Laws were rampant and poisoned the minds of the American people. While Superman helped combat the KKK in the 1940s, there was an evil stagnancy in American society, Thus, the Civil Right’s movement started in the late 1950s and brought the American thought process in a completely different light. Many in America were either too uneducated to understand the importance and urgency of the injustices against African Americans or simply too bigoted to care. Comic books in the early 1960s took a much more silly turn. Gone were the days of Superman and Wonder Woman fighting social injustices, and in came the monsters, campy humor and silliness of the Silver Age. At this point in time, comics were seen as a medium for strictly the youth. Government scrutiny at the industry being too adult and serious hindered the companies from creating for adults and stories that meant something. It was at this point that Marvel decided to bring the social issues of the country back into their comics. 1963’s X-Men #1 was especially important. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby decided to paint a picture of the Civil Rights movement for readers. In an unprecedented move, they replaced iconic Civil Rights heroes, heroes that wouldn’t normally be allowed in the bigoted houses of America, with superheroes. Lee and Kirby used the basic ideas of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X as the inspiration for Professor X and Magneto. Without knowing it, America’s youth was reading subliminal parallels to real world issues. Many of the youth and adults started to sympathize with the “Mutant” movement. The X-Men were simply a direct response to the Civil Right’s Movement. The movement also sparked the creation of the black superhero. Among them was the iconic Black Panther. Black Panther, a name that had enough political and social cache to capture the attention of the country, arrived in 1966. T’Challa became the first mainstream Black Superhero to grace the medium and quickly had writers coming up with new PoC heroes to join their titles.
Over the next 3 decades, as society recovered from Jim Crow Laws and the American people made strives for a more diverse and open mind set, DC and Marvel continued to make diverse heroes. DC Comics introduced a many new black heroes like John Stewart, Cyborg, Vixen, Static, Black Lightning, Aqualad, Steel. Marvel continued to bring black superheroes as well, adding Storm, Falcon, Luke Cage and more. Comic books finally started to even out their tone as well. Stories ranged from light to dark, government regulations were gone, popularity started to rise and amazing stories were told. For the next 3 decades, superheroes continued to grow but the socially relevant stories saw a significant dip. All of this changed when the country, and its people, were faced with the tragic events of September 11th.
Post 9/11 America-Fighting Islamophobia
Post 9/11 America changed the landscape for all media in the world. Americans saw the world differently and that reflected on the stories told at the time. Patriotism quickly became nationalism and an intense “Us vs Them” mindset grew. Comic books also saw radical changes in their form of storytelling. Immediately following 9/11, iconic heroes like Superman, Batman, Captain America and Spider-Man helped with the coping process for Americans. Powerful imagery like Superman looking up to brave first responders or Spider-Man in Ground Zero, helping New Yorkers rebuild, continue to resonate to this day. On a personal note as lifelong New Yorker, the feeling I got from seeing a New York hero like Spider-Man helping New Yorkers rebuild resonated deeply.
In the years to come, DC and Marvel’s two most iconic heroes, Superman and Captain America, each had to deal with the concept of islamophobia. As baffling wars and rampant destruction internationally plagued the world, Americans were blinded by hatred and hate crime continued to rise. Much like how Superman and Captain America were the answer to anti-Semitic hate in the 1930s and 40s, it is only right that they stand up for anti-islamic hate today. Two of the most powerful comics I’ve read in my life directly discuss this and it’s international impact. The first is Captain America: Marvel Knights Vol.1. In this story, Captain America responds to the tragedy of 9/11 with strength and bravery but also strongly fights against the xenophobia and religious hatred which was rampant. Fear mongering was popular in both our politics and media and continues to be an issue today. Captain America is the perfect man to stand against it. In this comic, a man tries to get revenge for 9/11 by killing a Muslim man. What happens after is powerful and I will let these panels speak for themselves.
The second moment comes from one of my personal favorite Superman comics of all time. Action Comics #900. The world is not black and white. There are an abundance of moral and political complexities that challenge what it means to be a good person, what it means to be American and what it means to do the right thing. Superman has always been a symbol against injustice and a symbol for doing the right thing. Superman had battled, American Flag in hand, against Nazis, he fought, physically and metaphorically, against the KKK and had become a symbol for Truth, Justice and the American Way. It is for this reason above all why Action Comics #900 is so important. What is the American Way? Is it an ideal or is it a discussion of what America represents? Superman contemplates and comes to a conclusion in this issue. America in this story is very much like it’s real life counterpart. There is turmoil in the Middle East and America is at the center of it. There are protests from the people of these ravaged lands, calls for hope and calls for freedom. In many Middle Eastern countries, innocent people faced an incredible hardship. They were being killed by terrorists but also having their homes destroyed by soldiers. Where does Superman play into this dynamic? This comic officially makes the transition of Superman being an American hero to becoming what he always meant to be, a universal symbol. Superman renounced his American Citizenship, pledging to become a global hero, free from the political shackles of being a just an American hero. This was done to stay out of toxic American politics while also giving the hero a clearance to intervene across the globe, particularly in the Middle East without causing a political backlash from any country involved.
The significance of these heroes can not be understated. Characters like Superman and Captain America will forever mean more than any one film or comic can convey. The characters have grown and adapted to each real struggle presented to them. Facing Islamophobia today is no different than fighting against Anti-Semitism or the KKK 60 years ago. Superheroes will always rise above and be symbols against oppression, injustice and hate. Both Superman and Captain America brought Post-9/11 politics with them in their films. Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and Batman v Superman had a Superman that truly reflected the Ultimate Immigrant Story, as he goes through many of the trials and tribulations a Muslim or Hispanic immigrant would face in today’s broken political climate. The Russo Brothers’ Captain America: Winter Soldier addressed the concept of giving up freedom for protection and the dangers behind that notion. These heroes continue to exhibit the best of the medium and as we move into Post-Trump America, superheroes and comic books once again take the stage to combat it.
Battle Against White Supremacy & Post-Trump America
In the past 5 years, police brutality, white supremacy and systematic racism has elevated to the grand stage of American thought and discussion. This reverberates to the superheroes of our time and their response to it. Batman was forced to see his city differently and reconsider his own brutality when he witnessed police brutality against an unarmed black man in 2015’s Batman #44. Batman is an interesting character to give this perspective to. He is in many ways, a symbol of wealthy white America. For Bruce to see this side of the society and react to it is crucial and an important moment. The comic book industry responded to this era with an abundance of diverse and unique characters. Iconic mantles of Captain America and Spider-Man were transferred to PoC heroes with a Sam Wilson’s Captain America and Miles Morales Spider-Man. Muslim heroes like Simon Baz’s Green Lantern and Kamal Khan’s Ms. Marvel, Hispanic heroes like Jessica Cruz’ Green Lantern and America Chavez’s Miss America, LGBTQ heroes like Iceman and Midnighter bursted onto the pages of the comics. As we all know, the comic book medium has grown past the physical books and have included film and television as well. Luke Cage starred in his own TV series, Wally West’s Flash is a recurring character on The Flash and Black Lightning will star in his own series. Comics are more progressive than ever and our heroes are reflective of that. This comes in a time where America is leaning conservative. Having voted Trump into office, his bigoted words and hateful speech is often met with the cheers of bigoted American citizens. It is in this time, where our heroes need to be the true representatives of this country and it’s values. One of the more baffling moments of 2017 came with Action Comics #987. What should have been a routine panel of Superman saving immigrants from a white supremacist became a national outcry. Fox News and some politicians showed their disdain for the comic and were dumbfounded to why Superman didn’t just let these human beings die. I spoke about the topic in an interview with AJ+.
History finds a way to repeat itself. Just as Superman and Captain America had to fight against anti-semitism in the 1930s and Islamophobia Post-9/11, white supremacy has become a recurring theme in American history. There were citizens angry that Superman fought against the KKK in the 1940s and there are still people angry at him saving immigrants in 2018. As perplexingly horrific these parallels are, one thing is crucial, these heroes will always be there, on the right side of history.
The Importance of Heroes in a Broken Society
As we go through each decade of American history, it is clear that the comic book medium has been a direct reflection of the times. Whether the time warranted our heroes to battle Hitler, anti-semitism, the KKK, racism, injustice, islamophobia, white supremacy, champion progressiveness, diversity, women LGBTQ rights, or just give one child some peace and confidence to be themselves, these heroes matter. They shine through the darkness and the challenges everything our society throws at them. In short, these heroes rise above and are a constant ideal for us to strive towards. The comic book medium is extremely powerful and it’s impact resonates with the youngest child to the oldest person. From galvanizing troops and citizens during wars, teaching acceptance during the Civil Right’s Movement, teaching tolerance in a Post-9/11 America or teaching love and progressiveness in a Post-Trump America, the comic book medium has proved time and again that it can be a force for good. From the trials and tribulations of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, children of Jewish immigrants, leading to the creation of Superman in 1938, their principles continue to be relevant today in 2018. These heroes not bend to adhere to anything less than progressiveness, and tolerance It is for this reason above all, that heroes will never die.