In Talking With Gods, a documentary about acclaimed comic writer Grant Morrison, Morrison presents his unique perspective on Superman: “…then for me the big thing was discovering superhero comics, because suddenly, there were people who could stop the bomb, Superman could take an atom bomb hit to the chest and just shake it off…[and then I realized] that the bomb, before it was a bomb, was an idea, and suddenly that understanding: Superman was a better idea, so why not make [Superman] real instead of [the bomb]?”
Ever since Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman in 1938, superheroes have become an integral part of American culture. As American as jazz or rock and roll, the superhero comic book is an art form that has persisted and evolved for over seventy years, changing to reflect the times that it exists in. However, their importance has always been contested by those who believe that superheroes are nothing more than children’s characters. Even though children are taught the myths of the Greeks, Romans and Norse, the myths that are being written for and by our culture are largely being ignored. Despite some critics’ demonization of the medium and claims of their immorality and immaturity, comic books actually teach history and cultural values in a way that uses classical mythological archetypes and filters them through a window that is uniquely American, and therefore should have a place in the curriculums of American classrooms. Superheroes are American myths that reflect many of the traits that are prevalent in the classical myths, making old tropes new and relevant again for a modern era, all while providing a window into American culture unlike any other genre, by placing our heroes into events reflective of those in the real world.
Like most great stories, the best place to start in the tale of the superhero is at the beginning. In this case, the beginning is Action Comics #1. Released on April 18th, 1938, Action Comics was an anthology of eleven different stories, published by National Comics, which would later become comic book titan DC Comics. Of the eleven stories in the issue, only the first one would be remembered because it was none other than the first appearance of Superman. The first superhero, Superman was created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster in a thirteen page story that they sold to National for only$130—and it almost got rejected. However, despite everyone’s expectations, Superman would go on to become one of the most globally recognizable characters of all time.
America is commonly referred to as a “melting pot” of cultures due to the countless immigrants that it accepts from all over the world, and at no time in the country’s history was this truer than in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Hitler had risen to power in Germany and had begun his march of death across Europe, and hundreds of thousands of refugees fled their homes in search of new beginnings in the New World. America was becoming a country of immigrants scared the world’s first global supervillain.
It’s only appropriate then that the world’s first superhero should be an immigrant himself. Sent from the dying planet Krypton, Superman was the sole survivor of his race. As a baby, he was placed in a rocket and sent away from a world about to be ravaged by destruction and death. And where should he land but in the perfect American farm town of Smallville. Superman was a foreigner the likes of which had never been seen before, but America embraced him and made him one of their own. In fact, he became the best American of all. As time went on, Superman eventually adopted the catchphrase of “truth, justice, and the American Way.”
Siegel and Shuster had managed to tap into hopes and dreams of America’s immigrants perfectly. Their creation was the embodiment of the American dream, and with every boldly and patriotically colored page sent the message to readers that they too can become their own Superman if only they hold true to the American Way.
The war in Europe quickly escalated into a nightmare that not even the most enthusiastic skeptic could have imagined. And as the American troops finally were sent overseas, in the pages of Action Comics, Superman joined them. In his adventures, Superman encouraged his readers to help out by buying war bonds and recycling materials for the war effort, all while his stories depicted him battling the Nazis. However, his patriotism was about to be one-upped.
In December of 1940, a year prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, Timely Comics—eventually renamed Marvel Comics—published Captain America Comics #1 by writer Joe Simon and artist Jack Kirby. The issue had what would become one of the more striking and iconic images to ever appear in a comic book: a masked man adorned in the American flag landing a solid right hook on the jaw of none other than Hitler himself. Captain America struck a chord with American audiences instantly. In an ironic twist on Hitler’s idea of the master race, Captain America’s secret identity, Steve Rogers, was a blond haired and blue-eyed teenager. Simon and Kirby, both Jews themselves, had created a hero that proved to be so popular that it sold nearly a million issues every month. Captain America tapped into the intense patriotism and anti-Nazi attitudes of the time, as well as people’s desire to help out, even if they couldn’t be overseas. Like Superman and many other popular heroes of the time, Captain America’s comics encouraged readers to buy war bonds and support the effort, but it also took it a step further. The character of Steve Rogers was also a volunteer. A skinny and sickly boy, Rogers was unable to fight in the arm forces, despite his desire to help. However, after volunteering for a military experiment, Rogers becomes the superhuman Captain America, and gets to fight on the front lines. The story resonated with many readers at the time, and encouraged them to keep volunteering, and someday they’ll get their chance.
Captain America has stayed a patriot throughout his publication history, but how he has expressed that has often changed to reflect the attitudes of the American people at the time. In summer 1972’s Captain America #153 Steve Rogers abandons the Captain America costume altogether and takes up the identity of “Nomad.” A nomad is someone who is wandering and has no fixed home, and so the name was a good fit for the character. The story occurred after Steve Rogers learned that a high-ranking government official was the leader of a secret organization of super-terrorists. The story occurs just after the Watergate scandal came to light. Captain America’s reaction mirrored that of many Americans at the time who were unsure of whether they could trust their government or their country.
Yet another example of Captain America reflecting public opinion is found in the 2006 series Civil War. In the story, a disaster occurs which prompts the government to call for the registration of all superhumans. Captain America staunchly opposes the act, calling it an invasion of privacy, and goes to battle against the government-sanctioned Iron Man for his opinions. He is eventually captured and sent to trial, but is assassinated on the steps leading up to the courtroom. The series has several direct parallels to the September 11th, 2001 attacks and their aftermath with the enactment of the Patriot Act. Captain America echoed the sentiments of many Americans who called the unconstitutional, while more pro-war voices were heard through the character of Iron Man—a billionaire weapons designer by profession. Captain America is a character who has numerous examples of his character reflecting the political climate of time he is in.
After World War II ended, superheroes fell from the limelight. The greatest villain the world had ever seen had been defeated, and people just weren’t responding in the same way to the heroes. It was the end of what comics historians call the Golden Age of comics. After witnessing the horrors of war, the world was jaded and cynical, and so crime and horror comics became the predominate genres of the medium. Superman, Batman, Captain America, and other highly popular characters continued, but not with the same success that they once had. Hundreds of lesser-known heroes vanished into obscurity as well. The stage was set for a new villain to come on to the scene.
In the early days of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, paranoia ran amuck and censorship followed closely behind. The scare of communists living within the United States—specifically in the media and entertainment industries—left the door wide open for self-appointed moral crusaders to heavily restrict artistic expression. The cinema-rating Hays Code was replaced in the late 1940s by the much more rigid MPAA and book burnings were not uncommon, a fear that was famously portrayed in Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451. And unfortunately, the already declining comic book industry was not to escape.
The primary opponent of comic books was psychiatrist Fredric Wertham. With his best-selling book Seduction of the Innocent, Wertham managed to convince hundreds of thousands of Americans parents that comic books were a primary cause of juvenile delinquency. He defines the negative comics as “crime comics,” which he writes are any “comic books that depict crime, whether the setting is urban, Western, science-fiction, jungle, adventure or the realm of supermen, “horror” or supernatural beings. Wertham asserts that because children can’t fully comprehend what they read, any depiction of crime in any context—even if portrayed as villainous—will lead them toward a life of crime themselves. He also goes on to blame comics for negative and deviant sexual development, illiteracy and other undesirable traits. Despite research that modern science would disregard, Wertham’s claims were taken as truth by countless Americans. There were mass-burnings of comics of all kinds, sales for the industry plummeted, the United States Congress made an inquiry into the comics industry, and publisher EC Comics was forced to cease publishing all of their comics altogether, switching instead to magazines. The comic book industry was forced to implement a self-censorship group called the Comics Code Authority that wouldn’t be abolished until over fifty years later.
Comic books were in a steady decline until the beginning of what has been christened the Silver Age of comics, which is generally accepted as starting in 1956 when writers Robert Kanigher and John Broome, along with artist Carmine Infantino created the modern version of the Flash. A wave of new DC Comics heroes such as Green Lantern and Hawkman were reimagined into the more iconic versions known today. But the superhero genre was about to get turned on its ear by the newly renamed Marvel Comics.
Writer Stan Lee and Captain America artist Jack Kirby, inspired by the space race of the time, sent four individuals into outer space in 1961. They returned to Earth as the Fantastic Four and they were to be the first of many heroes created by Lee, Kirby and a host of other artists for Marvel. In the next few years they would create the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Daredevil, the X-Men and many other pop-culture icons.
There were three main themes of 1960s American culture that were prevalent in their superheroes: radiation, outer space and the civil rights movement. The space race was present in super-heroes that would venture into space, under the sea, or other dimensions, such as the explorer teams Fantastic Four and the Challengers of the Unknown, the test pilot turned space cop Green Lantern and last surviving Martian escaping to Earth, the Martian Manhunter. Space was a frontier being explored with superpowers as much as it was with rockets. The atomic bombs dropped on Japan at the end of WWII and the subsequent nuclear arms race between the USA and USSR meant that radiation was something that was frequently on the minds of many Americans, despite little being known about it. Comic writers alleviated these fears by using radiation as something mysterious and wonderful, as they used a radioactive spider bite, a gamma bomb, and nuclear waste to give Spider-Man his wall crawling powers, to unleash the power of the Hulk, and to give Daredevil his heightened senses. The third topic that weighed heavily on the minds of comic writers of the 1960s was the civil rights movement. African Americans across the country were rallying against segregation and racism in American society. Despite the generally peaceful nature of the protests, there was a fear of African Americans and they were often seen as a threat. These themes were explored heavily in the pages of The X-Men where young mutants (individuals born with superpowers) were hated and feared for no reason. They were forced to keep their powers a secret or they risked getting slaughtered by government Sentinels—giant robots tasked with exterminating mutants. Paranoia and the fear of those that are different was a prevalent theme in the series and has continued to this day, as the X-Men have recently moved to San Francisco and their metaphors deal more with the gay rights movement.
As comics and the United States moved into the 1970s, the cynicism of the Vietnam War grew to its peak. Moral lines dealing with war and killing were blurred as many citizens protested against the war altogether. America was unsure if it was a good guy anymore. The comic book superheroes reflected this mindset by coming up with a new breed of gritty heroes that would eventually be known as “anti-heroes.” They were killers who worked in the shadows, and made you frequently question whether they were worse than the criminals they killed. The two most popular characters of this type—Wolverine and The Punisher—both debuted in 1974, less than a year before the fall of Saigon, marking the end of the Vietnam War. They both were the protagonists of their own stories, but they frequently and often brutally murdered criminals and villains, a practice that was very rare for superheroes outside of killing Nazis thirty years prior. They were both very cynical characters unlike the sunny Supermans and joking Spider-Mans of decades prior. The Punisher’s origin story even had him as a veteran of the Vietnam War. Both employ an anti-government mindset built into their origins. Wolverine was tortured and experimented on by the government, turning him into the killer that he is, while the failure of government law enforcement led to Frank Castle’s family getting murdered by the mob, leading him to take law into his own hands as the Punisher. The sentiment of the government failing and creating mentally wounded and violent people is a reflection of the very high rate of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder among returning soldiers. Many citizens viewed this as the government’s fault because of their continuation of the war.
Superheroes provide a uniquely American filter for teaching the history of the twentieth century. They evolve along with the culture that they are portraying and reflect the prevalent ideas of their times. However, history is not the only subject that superheroes provide a useful perspective for. Literature and mythology are also a topic easily analyzed.
Renowned psychologist Carl Jung first introduced the concept of the archetype in the early twentieth century by suggesting that certain abstract ideas and images are present in all humans in a “collective unconscious” only accessible through dreams and imagination, which are then expressed as art. This is how Jung accounted for similar stories—such as stories of massive floods—popping up in several cultures that are unconnected. Joseph Campbell—a respected authority on comparative mythology—later took the idea of archetypes further in his 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces where he asserts that stories and mythologies that have lasted thousands of years longer than cultures that created them all share similar structures and tropes. With these widely-discussed theories in mind, a discussion of superheroes really becomes a discussion of American myths.
The commonalities between ancient myths and superhero comics are numerous, but one of the most important is that both types of story exist within a common universe, where characters from one story can crossover and appear in another. This was most apparent in the Greek myths with the story of the Argonauts which tells of a group that includes Heracles, Theseus, Orpheus, Jason and dozens of other heroes that had already had their own stories told. The Argonauts could even be thought of as a “super team” much like the Avengers or Justice League of modern day, where the greatest heroes band together to conquer enemies they couldn’t individually.
One of the premier super-groups in comics is the Justice League of America. A team of all-star DC superheroes, membership in the JLA is the absolute pinnacle of superheroics. The roster rotates, but there is a specific line up that the comics have always come back to—and that remains the most beloved—which is informally known as the “Big 7.” The seven include Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman and the Martian Manhunter. Much like the JLA, the gods among those of Olympus were often in flux, but there was an exalted group of Twelve Olympians that represented the best of godhood. They were Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Hera, Dionysus, Apollo, Artemis, Hermes, Athena, Ares, Aphrodite, and Hephaestus. The groups themselves have parallels, but there are many analogous traits amongst the individuals as well.
Wonder Woman draws many parallels to Athena, a warrior goddess and goddess of wisdom. Both characters had unnatural births, with Wonder Woman being carved from stone and Athena emerging from the head (or testicle depending on the source) of a titan. Wonder Woman wields the “Lasso of Truth” which connects to Athena’s theme of wisdom, and on Wonder Woman’s home island of Themyscira they even worship Athena. The Flash and the messenger god Hermes make many connections in both appearance and ability. They both are capable of moving at incredible speeds, and they both sport winged shoes, and the helmet of the Golden Age Flash is a direct copy of Hermes’ winged helmet. Finally, Aquaman uses many of the same tropes as Poseidon. Both are portrayed as rulers of the seas, and are traditionally shown wielding a trident.
An archetypal trait in heroes throughout mythology is the presence of what is commonly referred to as an “Achilles Heel.” Named for the character Achilles in The Illiad, the term refers to a singular and debilitating weakness that can be either physical or a character flaw. The most famous Achilles Heel among superheroes is Superman’s weakness to the substance known as kryptonite. Superman is nigh invincible unless he is in the vicinity of or attacked with an object made of kryptonite. This weakness to a particular substance is a common archetype. One of the more well-known stories is from the Norse myths, in which the god Baldur is a nearly unstoppable warrior until he is shot with an arrow made of mistletoe. Often, the weakness must be overcome in order to become the hero. These are often character traits that cause some personal tragedy. Before Heracles (the Greek form of Hercules) went off on any adventures, he had a wife named Megara and several children. One day he was driven into an uncontrollable rage, and blinded by anger and manipulated by Hera, murdered his whole family. His guilt over his action drove him to do penance via the Twelve Labors, after which he became the hero he was destined to be. The story has many parallels to the origin of Spider-Man, whose selfish use of his abilities led to his beloved Uncle Ben being murdered. Feeling responsible, he began using his powers for good rather than personal gain.
A primary heroic archetype that Campbell outlines is that heroes of the great stories will either die or descend into darkness in some way, only to return better than they entered. In Homer’s Odyssey the main character, Odysseus is lost at sea and can’t find his way home until he gives in and sacrifices to the dead to summon spirits of a prophet, fallen comrades and his mother. He effectively descends into the spirit world—or Hell—before returning with the answers he needs and returns home. In the 1990s, DC Comics created a new villain called Doomsday who succeeds in killing Superman. However, Superman is revived by his Kryptonian technology about a year later and returns to save the world from Doomsday. In both cases, the hero must “die” before they can be victorious in their quest. These stories recur throughout nearly every society’s myths with examples including Jesus Christ, Gilgamesh, Ra and many others. The pattern is just as prevalent with superheroes, with such characters as Captain America, Batman and Green Lantern all having a life-death-rebirth story.
The parallels don’t need to be quite so old, either. When creating Batman, Bob Kane admitted to having been influenced by the (at the time) new pulp character Zorro—where Batman gets his habit of swinging from ropes and fighting crime—and by the visuals of Dracula in the 1931 film of the same name starring Bela Lugosi—apparent in the “bat” motif and the dramatic shadowy cape. The character is also known to his readers as “the world’s greatest detective,” a characteristic inspired in no small part by Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Stan Lee has been open about his influences while writing the character of the Incredible Hulk, citing The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson as an inspiration for Bruce Banner’s transformations into a rampaging monster. Both stories featured a brilliant scientist accidentally causing a dark and monstrous reflection of himself to physically manifest and wreak havoc. In early issues the two were even more similar, as the Hulk only appeared at nighttime—though this quickly and famously changed to the monster appearing only when Banner got angry. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is also a thematic inspiration for the Hulk, as both monsters have their origins in unrestrained science, not to mention the similar appearance of both characters and the combination of fear and violent hostility that the general public immediately has for both creatures. Some of these literary classics were less than a hundred years old when the superhero began to come on to the scene, and so their prominent influence on them is a warped American reflection of the mostly European popular culture characters that the superheroes were succeeding.
When teaching students—no matter the subject—it is important to make the material relevant and relatable to them. So, when teaching to American students, it would make sense to use material that is created, inspired and influenced by the culture they live in. No medium is more distinctly American than superhero comic books. As has been discussed, they provide unparalleled insight to what was important to the people of the time. Whether it’s the immigration boom of the late ‘30s in Superman, the patriotism of WWII in Captain America, the space race in the Fantastic Four, or the cynicism of the Vietnam War in the Punisher, superhero comics can teach history in an exciting and engaging way that will cause students to look at history in a different way. But history isn’t the only place that superheroes can be applied. In literature, mythology and sometimes philosophy classes, students are taught the stories of the pantheons of the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Vikings. If these gods and heroes of ancient and long-passed civilizations are taught to students, then so too should superheroes, the modern manifestation of the same stories. When students are interacting with material that is more relatable to them—as superheroes are—they are more likely to enjoy and put effort into understanding it. These modern myths don’t need to replace the ancient ones, just supplement them. The story of Heracles could be taught alongside that of Spider-Man or The Odyssey could be supplemented by The Death of Superman. For literature courses with more modern focus, characters such as the Incredible Hulk can even be analyzed as interpretations of even more recent works of literature such as The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or Frankenstein.
There are countless ways in which comic book superheroes can be integrated into American classrooms. For many subjects, they will provide perspective for students that is contemporary, relatable, fresh and engaging in a way that centuries-old material simply can’t do.
Superheroes need to be in American classrooms. Not for reasons of truth or justice…but because it’s the American Way.
This was originally written for my WR 123 class.