Comic book superheroes are the gods of American mythology. Since their inception, they have become intertwined with American values and have both shaped and reflected the cultural and political landscape. The first Golden Age of Comic Books emerged from the ruins of an economic slump – America’s Great Depression – and the popularity of these superheroes continues to thrive during times of hardship, unrest and instability. Superheroes seem to appear just when we need them most. They provide us with an important form of escapism and distraction while also helping us to understand ourselves.
The first ‘official’ superhero was Superman, who appeared in Action Comic #1 in 1938. Created by two left-leaning Jewish men, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, Superman was an Übermensch in the Nietzschean tradition: A super strong, super fast overman. He was brought into being at the tail-end of the Great Depression amidst general disillusionment with the American Dream. Superman was presented in unapologetic patriotic colours and as a champion of the working class, a social activist who fought corporate greed and corrupt politicians and whose social positions reflected the ideals of FDR’s New Deal.
Times were tough and, as in pre-Code cinema, the comic book characters of the time reflected a need amongst the American public for a hero to right the ills of the world. With the success of Superman, sales of comic books exploded. In 1939 there were seven firms with fifty titles. A year later, there were twenty four firms publishing one hundred and fifty two comic books.
From the 1940s onwards, Superman was in Europe fighting Hitler, selling war-bonds and exalting “Truth, Justice and the American Way”. In fact, the evolution of that famous catchphrase tells a lot about how America itself changed during the 20th and 21st centuries. Prior to WWII, Superman simply fought for “truth and justice”. In the first live-action appearance of Superman in 1948 (as part of a film serial for Columbia Pictures), we see Clark Kent’s father tell his son to use his superpowers, “in the interests of truth, tolerance and justice”. It wasn’t until the 1950s that “and the American Way” was added. However, in the 1978 film when Superman declares his intent to fight for “the American Way” he is only met with the sounds of Lois Lane’s scoffing. By 2006 and the release of Superman Returns the phrase had developed to “truth, justice and…all of that stuff”: an attempt by the filmmakers to portray Superman as not merely an American hero but as a global one. In 2011 in Action Comics #900 Superman renounces his US citizenship, declaring, “truth, justice, the American Way – it’s just not enough”.
Superheroes helping in the war effort was a common theme in the early 1940s: Captain America, Wonder Woman and Batman all pulled their weight. Captain America, first published in 1941, was created as pure war propaganda: A modern day Uncle Sam who is seen punching Hitler on the cover of his first issue. Many others followed suit: The Fighting Yank, Patriot, Spy Smasher and The Young Allies. These displays of public patriotism would be recreated in Amazing Spider-Man #36 as Spiderman and The Avengers help first-responders clear the wreckage at Ground Zero in post-9/11 New York.
The patriotic effect worked both ways: During WWII, about half the American population were reading comic books and a quarter of all publications sent to servicemen overseas at that time were comic books. By the early 1940s about 90% of all children between the ages of seven and seventeen were reading comic books.
In the 1950s, interest in superheroes declined as economic stability and social conformity took hold. Superman focused his crime-fighting efforts on new technological threats reflecting the real-life Cold War fears of the general public. The decade introduced a new era of moral panic and subsequent orthodoxy. In the early 1950s both Oklahoma City and Houston introduced bans on certain comic books while other communities held organised mass burnings in the belief that comic books were the cause of a variety of perceived ills including homosexuality and unruly teens. The US Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency in 1954 resulted in the Comic Code Authority which introduced censorship to the comics industry. This hugely affected what could be published and many publishers and stores went out of business.
The arrival of the 1960s signalled a change in how superheroes were presented. The black and white optimistic patriotism of the 1940s did not go well with the cultural revolution of the sixties. Superheroes became more believable and more morally ambivalent. The undefeatable Superman was out, the nerdy Spiderman was in.
Spiderman was created in 1962 in order to feed the surge in teen readerships. The creators made a superhero who, by day, was a shy nerdy high school student struggling with the normal difficulties of adolescence and a crime-fighting hero by night. Up until this time, teens in comic books were usually relegated to sidekick roles. Spiderman was unusual in that he had no older superhero mentor; it was up to him to learn things for himself.
Superheroes emerged in a much darker way in the 1970s as high rates of unemployment took hold. They also became more politically and socially active, reflecting their mortal peer’s interest in women’s rights, civil rights and antiwar movements. In the 1970s, several female versions of pre-existing male superheroes emerged – She-Hulk, Spider-woman, Ms Marvel – as well as black and minority superheroes: Luke Cage, Black Panther and Storm. The decade also saw the rise of the anti-hero; superheroes who rejected the optimistic humanitarian creations of the 1940s. Superheroes with problems. Most notable were The X-Men, who had originally been published in the early sixties but were again revived in the seventies. The comics focused on issues of equality, racism and diversity through the eyes of the mutants.
The eighties were even darker again at the hands of Tim Burton and Frank Miller, against the backdrop of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. But interest in superheroes would again wane during the Clinton era as the economy boomed. The major event at the start of the decade said it all: The release of Superman (vol. 2) #75 called “The Death of Superman”. Sales of comic books slumped from a peak of one million per month in the fifties to 250,000 by the nineties. the speculator market collapsed and even Marvel was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1997.
In the summer of 2001 a teaser trailer and poster appeared advertising the new Spiderman film which was due to be released the following year. The marketing specifically used the New York landscape and the World Trade Center was featured prominently. In the aftermath of 9/11, the filmmakers became very conscious of how New York was to be portrayed. The images of the Twin Towers were removed and some scenes were reshot. During the climactic showdown scene ordinary New Yorkers unite to help Spiderman with the refrain, “You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us.”
Subsequently we had the recession of the late noughties and an exponential increase in superhero films and TV shows: The Avengers, The Dark Knight, Iron Man, Guardians of the Galaxy etc etc. Of the twenty five top-grossing superhero films of all time sixteen of them were released after the economic downturn. The American public were once again in need of a hero. They clamoured for stories involving heroes and villains who are easy to distinguish and better understood than the inscrutable world of hedge-funds, financial products and sub-prime mortgages.
Not that this new era of superhero dominance has shied away from real issues and political realities. In fact some of these films and comic books have provided us with the vocabulary needed to discuss pertinent real-life issues: the use of American-made weapons in the Middle East (Iron Man), the Patriot Act (Civil War), post-9/11 panic (the Batman trilogy).
What does the future hold for superheroes? As economies begin to boom once more will our reliance on superheroes wane once again? DC, Marvel and their respective films studios would hope not. Over the course of the next five years twenty nine superhero films are slated for release – seven of them coming this year alone.
A theme that has already started to emerge is that of greater public involvement. The past decade or so has seen the appearance of real-life superheroes (RLSH) – individuals who don capes, perform community service and fight crime. Most are based in America and their cause has been helped by the recession along with films such as Kick-Ass. Their emergence certainly owes a lot to the internet and the democratising effects of social media. In the same way we are no longer dependent on trained journalists for news or records labels for access to music, we are also no longer dependent on the police for justice. Likewise, the last few years have also seen an increase in comic-book themed videogames. Games like City of Heroes enable the user to create their own superhero and role-play as their crime-fighting alter ego.
Another trend is that of social responsibility and accountability. In the aftermath of the Battle for New York where parts of Manhattan were destroyed and many civilians were killed, those who were critical of superheroes come to the fore. There were talks of regulating superheroes and of making them pay for the suffering they had caused. It is a theme that DC/Warner Bros will also explore in Batman v Superman in light of the destruction caused by Superman in his last outing. Perhaps this reflects our own desires to hold those with power responsible for the damage they cause.
What started out as the classic immigrant stories of the Great Depression has now become a decidedly mainstream and profitable art form. From Superman, the outsider who was transformed into the ultimate symbol of American life, to Phoenix Jones, the real-life cape-wearing vigilante from Seattle, superheroes continue to engage and inform us in all their guises. Whether they will maintain their dominant status in our cultural landscape, however, has yet to be seen.