The 1930’s and 40’s were a time of great danger and uncertainty. Following the Great War, the world was left in a state of economic instability and political distrust. The stock market crash of 1929 left the United States of America in turmoil during the Great Depression and tensions and political rumblings in Europe eventually gave way to the outbreak of World War II in the late 1930s. But when times seemed bleakest, the world was given a savior born of ink and pulp in the comic book superhero. An entire genre of brightly colored super beings entered the membrane of American media and found themselves forever embedded in the American subconscious. The creation of the superhero genre had a significant impact on World War II.
In the midst of the Great Depression, two young Jewish immigrants from Cleveland, Ohio would create something that would impact the world in a way that they never could have imagined. Son of Mitchell and Sarah Siegel, two Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, Jerry Siegel was an introverted outcast compared to his more sociable and athletic siblings. The young Jerry Siegel was a science fiction fan who spent his time reading and writing instead of playing and working a job. Besides his father, Jerry’s only friend was fellow Jewish immigrant at Glenville High School, Joe Shuster. Together they would publish their own science fiction stories that Jerry would write and Joe would illustrate. But Jerry Siegel’s life changed forever when an act of senseless violence left his father murdered in his own store. The injustice of the crime (that remains unsolved to this day) put seventeen year old Jerry Siegel on a path to create an ideal for truth and justice.1 In a time of social turmoil, the boys found comfort and inspiration in the science fiction pulp comics strips of the day and worked on their own character. After the idea of a psychic despot set in a dystopian future was rejected, Siegel and Shuster rebuilt their concept from the bottom up.2 After multiple rejections over the never several years, Siegel and Shuster were finally able to sell their character to Max Gains at National Comics. In June of 1938, Action Comics #1 introduced the world to Superman (fig 1).3
Superman became a hero to both the citizens of the fictional Metropolis and the citizens of Depression era America. Jeffrey K. Johnson discusses how Superman connected with his Great Depression era American readers through social relevance in his book, Super-History, “Although Superman was a fictional character, the problems he would combat were everyday real world injustices and social evils. The Man of Steel was beginning the fight against the evils that average Americans and real world leaders could not.”4 The character was a social justice champion who stood up for the little guy against corruption and other social ills in a time when things. He provided a way to vicariously combat all the evils of war, domestic abuse, and gangsters while escaping from these realities in real life and giving the readers a sense of justice they may have found lacking in their real lives.5
Superman represented the big strong protector that the people of the Great Depression needed while also representing the American Dream and those who felt like disenfranchised outcasts. Present Day comic book writer, Dwayne McDuffie says of Superman’s appeal,
“Superman was about the immigrant experience. In a very, very powerful way. It’s the kid from the old country, who brings the best values from the old country (in this case the old planet), to America, adds it to the pot and accepts the best part of America. It’s a really powerful set of ideas that was really important to people in the 30’s and 40’s.”6
Superman’s mythological persona of an alien champion who was very human and his connection to the issues of the time gave him an unparalleled popularity that ignited an entire genre. Soon the market was flooded with superheroes modeled after his archetype (fig. 2). Johnson explains the birth of the superhero phenomenon and highlights the impact of Superman as an archetypal hero,“Just as many of the heroes were basically copies of Superman and Batman, so were a majority of their stories…With Superman and batman as their templates, the new heroes, too, tried to become social avengers and protectors of the innocent.”7
The Superhero genre connected deeply with Americans, ingraining itself into the culture of the times, in his book Champions of the Oppressed, author Christopher Murray explains why the superhero resonated so strongly during the 30’s and 40’s,
“The appeal of the superhero as an icon of national identity was due to the fact that the superhero personified the ideals enacted in the mythology of the American dream…At a time when the American Dream was under threat from economic disaster and the rise of Fascism in Europe and elsewhere, superheroes arrived to champion this beleaguered myth, demonstrating that, despite the hardships it faced, America was still a land that could be transformed in times of peril, and that even with a naturally peace-loving American lay the will to fight to protect freedom and justice.”8
Murray shows how important the introduction of the superhero was to American culture in a time of such social, political, and economic unrest. But the ever vigilant new superheroes soon found themselves up against a new threat as the entire world turned its focus to the brewing World War in Europe with the Nazi threat.
September 1939 saw the beginning of the second World War in Europe, and while the United States of America would not get directly involved in the war for another couple of years, the superheroes in the pages of the comic books started fighting the Axis forces much earlier. As the world grew darker and more violent, there was a gradual trend in the comics to become more wholesome and brighter. Characters became more patriotic, and battled evil forces alongside the United States.9 The super-patriot became a comic book staple and in an effort to gather support for the war, according to Murray, the growing power of mass media was clipped into the arsenal of the United States with caution,
“The strategy of locating propaganda messages within popular texts ensured that these messages would not alienate the American public, but would instead appear to be somehow more democratic than propaganda produced in other countries, relying on entertainment as opposed to simple persuasion and fear mongering.”10
Spearheading the super-patriot movement in December 1940 was Captain America, who debuted in his eponymous series, Captain America Comics #1 dressed in a star spangled costume, literally punching Adolf Hitler in the jaw (fig. 3). Captain America was the first and most important hero to literally battle the Nazis, even before the United States joined the actual war a few months later.11 The trend of superheroes fighting the real world villains of the Axis forces continued to affect established heroes and inspire new ones. Two months after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Look Magazine published a story titled “How Superman Would End the War,” which depicted the Man of Steel hunting down Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin and brining him before the League of Nations Headquarters in Geneva.12
With the men fighting over seas, the jobs they left behind were filled by an unprecedented surge in women entering the working force. Murray discuses the blossoming of female empowerment during World War II,
“To promote their new patriotic role in industry, propaganda offered Rosie the Riveter—an icon of female empowerment who became one of the best-loved figures of the campaign…she was a role model for a generation of working-class women who had seen their lives destroyed by the Great Depression and who were consequently no strangers to hardship.”13
In keeping with the patriotic themes of the time in addition to the expanding definition of women’s role in society, in December 1941, Pop-psychologist and early male feminist, William Marston created the female superhero icon, Wonder Woman. Clad in red, white, and blue with United States Army intelligence officer, Steve Trevor, at her side another patriotic symbol was born (fig. 4). “She’s not an unreasonable icon to have been created. During World War II, women took over a lot of male roles. She’s a ‘Rosie the Riveter,’ only a goddess” said writer, Louise Simonson, of Wonder Woman’s creation.14 As her alter-ego Diana Prince, she worked as a government secretary, but as Wonder Woman, she would fight alongside the American troops on the battlefield, making her a much more powerful feminist icon than her predecessor, Rosie the Riveter. Marston intended his creation to be the heroic female role model to young girls that heroes like Superman were to young boys.15
The relationship between comic books superheroes and the Second World War were completely intertwined. The war had turned superheroes from vigilante crusaders to law abiding patriots in line with the new war time social structure. It had completely infected the genre, expanding it into something much bigger and reflective of the times and struggles of real life through a window of fantasy. Superman would promote war bonds and victory gardens, and Batman and Robin were delivering guns to soldiers on the battlefield. “We were in a war, the Army and the Navy were involved, boys, sons, daughters, and fathers were all involved in this. And so putting the superhero into these stories meant that we would be saving not the world, but saving our own,” late comic book artist Joe Kubert says of the time. 16 The superhero comics were a way of vicariously fighting alongside those who had gone over seas to combat. Creators, artists, and writers enlisted in the war to fight for America as inspired by their patriotic creations. Big name creators like Jerry Siegel and William Eisner enlisted, but not all of their peers were able to return alive.17
Superheroes had completely captivated the American audience. The mythology of the superhero was so quintessentially representative of the ideal of the American Dream that it was no surprise that the genre spread like wildfire. Superheroes were classically half super powerful and half everyman. They had secret lives where they were regular people or soldiers by day and would be fighting evil when the call to action arose. Christopher Murray connects this superhero archetype corresponds directly with the ever present underlying subtext of American culture, “This notion suggested that, within the average American, there was a potential superhero waiting to get out. It corresponded with the mythology of the American Dream, which was about transformation and empowerment through an act of individual will or imagination.” 18 The resonance with the superhero archetype that Americans felt made comic books the perfect platform to market a pro-American agenda.
But of course there was the danger of mixing reality and fiction, as demonstrated by Superman’s appearance in Look Magazine, he could end the war in around fourteen panels. Modern day comic book writer and editor, Mike Carlin said “You can’t have Superman stop the war. Because there is no Superman to stop the war in reality.”19 So the United States Office of War Information expressed this concern about the superheroes potentially belittling the real world sacrifices of real world soldiers, and the comics responded to this. Superheroes would be shown saving a soldier, prioritizing their lives instead of unleashing their full strength. Murray reveals the politically charged agenda with the super-soldier concept was “unlike the faceless war machines of the Axis, the American armed forces were comprised of individuals, and therefore worth saving.”20 And superheroes were often shown celebrating the real servicemen or marching alongside the troops into battle (fig. 5 and 6).
Though the greatest strength of the superheroes during the time period of the Second World War was in the role of propaganda, comics were also wildly popular amongst servicemen and women. Comic books were generally seen as reading material for youths and adolescents, but they also served as escapist reading material for those who desperately needed to escape the harshest reality of all, war. Comic books were shipped to military bases by the millions. Over thirty percent of all printed material sent to military camps overseas to the servicemen and PX’s were comic books.21
But when the war was over, the Golden Age of comic books came to an end. The villain had been defeated, and America and her superheroes were left victorious with no foe left to conquer. Superhero comics dropped dramatically in popularity, with Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman left as the only surviving characters to continue to be published. Comics would find their place in American culture again, but the entire genre was almost completely derailed after the servicemen came home.
The creation of the superhero genre had a significant impact on World War II. Through the imagination of two teenage Jewish immigrants from Ohio, the humanity of the everyman combined with the awe-inspiring divinity of the super powerful demi-god archetype spawned the superhero at a time when the world needed them most. Originally tackling social injustice during the Great Depression, the quest for justice refocused towards the growing threat of the Nazis and their Axis during the Second World War and superheroes were fighting alongside and supporting America in the war effort both on the page and on the field. Comics acted as fantasy stories to fight alongside the men who enlisted, propaganda, and escapism for soldiers. The impact of the genre of superheroes is culturally significant in its unprecedented birth and subsequent growth in popularity and social relevance. The symbiotic relationship between the war and comic books is a cultural phenomenon that has been unparalleled throughout history. Though impossible to accurately measure the impact of media and propaganda on a war, comic books were unquestionably a phenomenon and if nothing else, helped construct the patriotic atmosphere and combat the harshness of reality during that time period.