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The cyclical rise and fall (and rise again) of the superhero archetype in America

watchmen - keene act
(From ‘Watchmen’ / DC Comics)

[Note: This is post #3 of the Your Superhero Origin series. which began with the Introduction and the reading list. This post officially begins Part I of Your Superhero Origin in which I discuss the social, cultural, and psychological context for what I call the Superhero Renaissance, and sets the backdrop for Part II which will get into more of the practical, livable components of the YSO philosophy. The purpose of Part I is only to briefly set up a contextual background and is not intended, in itself, to be a cultural history of superheroes or the comic book medium.]

Your Superhero Origin, Part I: The Urgency of the 21st Century Superhero Renaissance

The Cyclical Rise and Fall (and Rise Again) of the Superhero Archetype in America

In Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ game-changing graphic novel Watchmen (1986), superheroes are depicted as having fallen out of favor with the publicthis, despite everything they have done for said public. Congress passes the fictitious Keene Act outlawing “costumed adventuring” and the once celebrated heroes are forced to retire, go into hiding or, like the uncompromising Rorschach, operate underground. In Marvel’s Civil War (2006), Mark Millar and Steve McNiven portray a similar kind of societal witch hunt via the Superhuman Registration Act which forbids superheroes from any kind of public crime-fighting activity without being registered.

There are a number of ways that both the Keene Act and the Superhuman Registration Act, and the overarching stories that they are contained in, can be interpreted. For the purposes of our discussion, the most pertinent interpretation is that these fictional events figuratively represent the ebb and flow of the social status of superheroes in real life society.

Throughout their relatively short history, superheroes (and by extension the comic book medium which popularized the superhero archetype) have gone from being loved and appreciated to maligned and forgotten, and then loved once again. We are currently in a period in which superheroes are again loved, perhaps more than ever before, and to understand why this is happening, and how to best harness this cultural momentum in ways that can benefit both individuals and society overall, it is helpful to look backwards before marching forward.

While the earliest roots of the superhero archetype have arguably existed throughout the entire span of oral and written literature, the first unmistakably clear emergence of the superhero as we now recognize it with all the familiar trappings—costumes, secret identities, and the rest—was during one of the darkest periods of American history, the Great Depression. Recall the stark, monochrome photos taken by artists and journalists during this era, such as the kind immortalized by the great Dorothea Lange. Lange’s black-and-white palette unforgettably captured both the outer and inner emotional landscapes of her suffering subjects. Now imagine, juxtaposed against such austere physical and emotional landscapes, the dazzling kaleidoscope of color that comics brought forth, both figuratively and literally, into people’s lives. All throughout the Depression superheroes (and their genre cousins the cowboys, army soldiers, private eyes, and pulp heroes) offered readers much-needed escape and, more importantly, hope.

comic books - great depression
(DC Comics)

With the end of the Depression in the late 1930s, the real-life work of fictitious superheroes was far from complete. It was just getting started. World War II sounded the clarion call for superheroes to lead the vanguard of the American war effort. Characters like Superman, Namor the Sub-Mariner, the android Human Torch, Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain America and eventually the first great superhero team, the Justice Society—along with characters now largely forgotten like the Shield, Minute-Man and Uncle Sam—fueled patriotism and kept up morale both at home and abroad in the front lines.1 Perhaps the definitively iconic comic book cover that captures the patriotic zeitgeist of this period is that of Captain America #1, with the eponymous hero planting a whopper of a right cross on Hitler’s mug. Sales of comic books boomed and the popularity of superheroes soared. You would be hard pressed to find a cultural historian who does not acknowledge comics, particularly the superhero genre, as a vital force during this period for boosting morale and encouraging values like patience, hard work, sacrifice.

captain america 1
(Timely Comics/Marvel Comics)

Alas, as with the heroes of Watchmen and Civil War, there were segments of the public that would be quick to forget everything superheroes had done for them. After WWII, superheroes began to decline in popularity. Comics themselves were still widely read—indeed, nine out of ten children between the ages of eight and fifteen did so at the time.2 But they were doing so through other genres like Westerns, crime, and horror.

For superheroes this was only the beginning of the fall. Notwithstanding the war they had just helped America to fight and win, their real war had yet to begin.

There had always been a minority subset of the American public that had been against comics for as long as the medium had existed. One could categorize this subset into three primary groups: educators who decried the literary merit of comics, religious and civic groups anxious about what kind of values comics instilled in their children, and mental health professionals concerned with what kind of behavioral problems comics would foster in said children.3 Post-WWII, these interest groups sensed an opportune time to redouble their efforts.

Comic book writer Dennis O’Neil commented on it this way: “It was a perfect storm of opportunism. A kind of maybe national disillusionment that World War II did not solve the problems and in fact we had juvenile delinquency. They looked for someone to blame and comic books were a very easy target because they weren’t organized. They didn’t have the means or the knowledge to resist the attacks made on them.”4

In the mid 1950s the anti-comics movement would find an influential patron in the form of German American psychiatrist Fredric Wertham and his now infamous book Seduction of the Innocent. Wertham’s book scathingly condemned the comic book medium, caused widespread panic among parents, led to a U.S. congressional inquiry into the comics industry, and almost single-handedly led to the establishment of the Comics Code Authority in 1954 which served as the industry’s official censorial body for a great many years.5 

(Rinehart & Company)

To be precise Wertham’s attack was not against superheroes per se so much as it was against comics in general. But given that the superhero genre made up such a significant portion of comics, all this served as another nail in the coffin for the erstwhile popularity superheroes had once enjoyed.

Wertham was not the only self-anointed crusader against comics nor was he the first, but he would become something of a poster boy for the anti-comics movement of the 1940s. So influential was Seduction of the Innocent that various religious and patriotic groups even organized public comic book burnings, a chilling echo of book burnings that have often accompanied various atrocities throughout history.6

The growth of television completed the one-two punch combo that would send superheroes and the comics industry reeling against the ropes. By 1954, the year that Wertham was being called to testify about the deleterious influence of comics by Senator Kefauver’s committee on juvenile delinquency, more than half the homes in America owned TV sets. This became a significant blow to the comic publishing industry, which until then had been the dominant medium for the superhero genre. As a cumulative result of the negative publicity the industry was getting along with the competition from television, more than a dozen comic book publishers and hundreds of cartoonists quit the industry around this time which led even further to the industry’s decline. By 1955, the number of comic titles being put out had been cut in half.7

The emerging popularity of television in the 1950s delivered another blow to the struggling comic book industry. (image: via Wikimedia Commons)

The anti-comics crusade and its feverishly negative energy wasn’t the only factor behind the post-WWII decline of comics and superheroes. There were positive, otherwise desirable factors too—namely, peace and prosperity. There was something about superheroes that seemed to inspire people and rouse their morale during the Great Depression or World War II. But as America entered an era of unheralded prosperity, superheroes were no longer needed as they once were. Historian Bradford W. Wright puts it this way:

“By appearances at least, the helpless and oppressed who had cried out for Superman in 1938 now lived comfortably and contentedly in the suburbs. Superheroes animated by the crusading spirit of the New Deal and World War II seemed directionless and irrelevant now that those victories has been won.”8

Based on the examples of the Great Depression and World War II, and the respective rise and fall of the popularity of superheroes during and after these events, a reasonable hypothesis is that it is during times of great collective adversity, crisis, and uncertainty that the superhero archetype (for various reasons I’ll discuss more in subsequent posts) becomes a source of inspiration and solace for the American people. Indeed, not just for Americans but for the world at large.

As it so happened, the new millennium, a certain unforgettable event, and trends and developments in the wake of that event, would come to serve as further evidence for this hypothesis.

(To be continued in the next post…)

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Footnotes

  1. Maslon, Laurence, and Michael Kantor. Superheroes!: Capes, Cowls, and the Creation of Comic Book Culture. Crown Archetype. 2013.
  2. Maslon and Kantor, Superheroes!
  3. Maslon and Kantor, Superheroes!
  4. Maslon and Kantor, Superheroes!
  5. Johnson, Jeffrey K. Super-History: Comic Book Superheroes and American Society. McFarland. 2012.
  6. Maslon and Kantor, Superheroes!
  7. Maslon and Kantor, Superheroes!
  8. Wright, Bradford W. Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America. Johns Hopkins University Press. 2003

About The Pop Mythologist

The Pop Mythologist
The Pop Mythologist is the founder and editor of PopMythology.com. He has been a staff writer for the nationally distributed magazine KoreAm , the online journal of pop culture criticism Pop Matters and has written freelance for various other publications and websites.