How American History Created the American Superhero

Superheroes change the course of history. But history also changes the course of superheroes. Comic book historian T. Andrew Wahl explores how comic books are a mirror of their times.

  • March 9, 2016
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  • 5 Questions
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  • By Humanities Washington

In the early 1940s, America was at a crossroads. The country had just entered WWII, women’s roles were changing because of their involvement in the war effort, and hundreds of thousands of immigrants were fleeing the destruction in Europe. This period of upheaval proved to be fertile ground for many artists, but it was particularly potent for comic book writers, who found the inspiration to create popular icons such as Captain America, Wonder Woman, and Superman.

Which begs the question, how have comics adjusted to our ever-changing society?

T. Andrew Wahl has spent much of his life with newsprint-stained fingers. He is a journalist-turned-journalism-instructor and a comic book historian. He is currently touring Washington State as part of Humanities Washington’s Speakers Bureau program, and we spoke with him about his presentation, “Superhero America: The Comic Book Character as Historical Lens.


What is the origin of comic books and superheroes in America?

Jazz and comic books are the two great American art forms. They emerged from the same socio-economic phenomenon. In the first half of the twentieth century, coming out of the Depression, you get immigrant communities that are looking for ways to empower themselves both professionally and creatively, and are good at telling their stories. The role that Jewish immigrants played in the origins of the comic book market cannot be understated. Superman is an immigrant story: He comes from another planet and lands in America to pursue a better life. Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Joe Kubert, Will Eisner, and Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the co-creators of Superman—these are some of the legendary figures that were there from the very earliest years, and they were all children of Jewish immigrants. So that immigrant story is just built into the DNA of comic books, particularly in the “Golden Age” of comics. But you still find that American essence in so many stories today.

Were comic book superheros used as propaganda?

Because the origins of comic books were tied up into WWII, they talk directly to readers about the war, about the fight with the Nazis, about paper rationing—even about making sure that you’re following your ration stamps. Superman would point his finger out of the comic book frame and say, “You’ve got to buy your war bonds!” So that kind of overt propaganda has always had a place.

 You could look at the issues that Captain America is wrestling with, or the villains he is fighting, and you can see where American society is at that time. During WWII, in his very first Captain America comic book, he is literally punching Adolf Hitler. [Captain America] doesn’t often have subtlety in those comic books. During the 1950s he was recast as “Captain America: Commie Smasher” and it was overtly anti-Communism. In the 1970s, Captain America was investigating this secret organization within the Marvel Universe, and he gets all the way up to the head of this organization and it turns out that Richard Nixon and [Henry] Kissinger are behind this terrible organization. Captain America is so appalled by this that he throws away his costume, and for about a year he goes as “Nomad: The Hero Without a Country.” Again, here he’s not fighting super villains, but they’re making pretty overt political commentary about the Watergate Scandal. Right after 9/11, he was in the Middle East fighting terrorists. As the war became less popular, there was more nuance included. From the business side of things, that’s an effort to tap into public sentiment and to move more books. But the creators sometimes run their own political philosophies into the mix, and you’ve sometimes got warring intentions between the creative talent and the publishers.

Can you comment on diversity in comics and superheroes?

One of the reasons why Marvel comics rose to dominance in the 1960s is because Stan Lee really had his finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist. And as the civil rights movement was picking up steam in the 60s, he recognized that he could start to introduce those elements into comic books and that the readers would start to react. That’s when college aged readers really started coming into the mix. By the early 1970s Marvel also introduced Luke Cage (“Power Man”), who was the first African-American with his own comic book. That process [of including greater diversity] has sped up in recent years—there’s a lot of gender swapping and race swapping going on. Spider Man, as a half African-American, half Latin-American teenager, is one, and we also have Thor as a female right now. Wolverine is now a female character. Ms. Marvel is a young Muslim girl at this point, and some classic characters have been recast in these diverse roles.

Can you talk a little about the evolution of Wonder Woman?

If you go back and read those early Wonder Woman comics, there is an extreme undertone of bondage and submission throughout the pages. They’re so overt. I don’t know how it got by the censors back then. But largely, people looked at Wonder Woman as this feminist icon—kind of ignoring what was actually going on in the pages of the book.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was actually an attempt on DC Comics’s part to try to capitalize on the Feminist movement. Their approach was, “Super powers don’t make the hero. It’s the heroic choices they make that make the hero.” So they decided to strip Wonder Woman of her powers, and they make her an ordinary female crime fighter. So [DC Comics’s] intentions were, “We want to take advantage of this and show this empowered woman.” But Gloria Steinem’s reaction was, “We have one female super character that we all look to, and you strip her of her powers. You don’t strip Superman of his powers. You strip Wonder Woman of her powers.” So that period lasted a couple of years, and then Wonder Woman was re-empowered. And actually soon after, Steinem launches Ms. Magazine and Wonder Woman is back in her full glory with her powers on the cover of the first issue.

In the mid-1980s a writer named George Perez took over Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman had such a strong component of “kink” at its foundation that when other creators came in, they struggled to tell meaningful stories. But Wonder Woman is very much tied into Greek mythology, and one of the things George Perez did was that he went back and replaced the “kink” at Wonder Woman’s foundation with these mythological origins. It super-sized her origin story, and we’ve had better Wonder Woman stories in the intervening years.

What is in store for the future of comic books and superheroes?

At the end of the day, corporations have one thing that they are interested in, and that’s serving their shareholders with higher profits. So if you can capture a current political movement, you are able to move forward with that. Superman and Batman and these kind of complex characters are able to absorb more complex metaphors—you can tell more complex stories because you can take them in different directions. If you are positioned correctly, [comics] can grow with the movement and even change over time. Look at the underlying metaphor of the X-Men. Stan Lee created the X-Men to tap into the zeitgeist around the civil rights movement. That was at a time when [Marvel Comics] weren’t yet comfortable having African-American superheroes, so you created these mutant characters who were born the way they are, and they just want to be productive, helpful members of society. You’ve even got different approaches. You’ve got one character, Professor X, who wants to coexist and be part of society—very much like Martin Luther King’s approach to civil rights. Meanwhile, you have this villainous character, Magneto, who wants to use violence to take what the mutants want—much like Malcom X’s philosophy on civil rights. Over time, the X-Men characters themselves have grown more diverse, and you are able to more overtly deal with issues of race and civil rights, but the entire metaphor as a civil rights movement kind of reached its peak. The LGBT community started to adopt those characters, and that same underlying metaphor of “We are born the way we are, we want to be contributing members of this greater society and accepted for who we are,” was suddenly adopted by an entirely different group of people. So there is strength in that underlying metaphor in a way that it can move on and serve other purposes.

Find T. Andrew Wahl’s next Speakers Bureau event on Humanities Washington’s calendar.

1 thought on “How American History Created the American Superhero”

  1. Ann Daniel says:

    Superman is one of my favorite comic heroes along with Captain America. I visited the Super Museum in Metropolis. Over 70,000 items of Superman memorabilia there. Amazing!

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