When hard times come our way, we begin to look once again to superheroes. When we think of children who were bullied in school, we tend to think of the kind of person who always had his nose in a comic book. While this is a stereotype, it’s one that exists for a reason. But was such bullying born from this fact, or did those bullied children escape it by turning to the pages of their comic books and find hope in the heroes they found there?
The actual origins of the superhero are perhaps arguable. It’s closely tied to the debate over what makes a superhero. What is the difference between a hero and a superhero? When do they make the leap from masked vigilante to superhero? That’s a whole other article, and really we’re talking here about how superheroes became so popular. So with that in mind, we’ll go with the assumption that a superhero is someone who has talents exceeding the norm (such as the genius intellect of Batman or Iron Man or the former’s formidable martial skill) as well as a selfless desire to help others.
So while we had, in the early 1930s, characters like The Shadow and The Phantom, the rise of the superhero really came in the late 1930s. Superman came first, in 1938, with Batman (or rather, the Bat-Man) coming soon after in 1939. To me – and many others, I think it’s fair to say – these two are pretty much the superhero templates. Superman is the blueprint for most of those heroes with superpowers, and Batman for those without.
While Batman was an amalgamation of many heroes who went before him – The Shadow, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro, etc. – Superman seems to have been born not so much from a desire to compete with someone or something else but as an answer to the issues of the day.
But perhaps there’s a more personal story behind it for Superman’s co-creator, Jerry Siegel. Siegel’s father, a shop owner, was killed during an attempted robbery in 1932. That’s the year before Superman was created, though that initial Superman was actually a villain and…well, nothing like the Superman we know today. However, author Brad Meltzer believes there’s a link. Siegel’s father is killed and so his teenage son creates an invulnerable, superpowered being to fight evil and stand up for good. Siegel never once mentioned his father’s death in fifty years’ worth of interviews, but it makes sense to me.
Superman’s own origin story contains the loss of his parents. The physical destruction of his home planet could perhaps parallel the perceived obliteration of his own life, thanks to his father’s death. Perhaps. It’s a fairly romanticised view of things, but I think it holds some spark of truth.
Meltzer even found, in his research, a letter published in a paper the day after Siegel Senior’s death. It spoke of the need for vigilantes during the Depression. The letter was signed by A. L. Luther.
We’ll never know for sure how much of a role the death of Siegel’s father played in Superman’s creation, because Joe Shuster (the character’s other creator, on the art side) and Siegel died in 1992 and ’96 respectively. After all, the heroic version of Superman didn’t come about until, I believe, six years after the death of Siegel’s father. So perhaps all of this is our need to see a dot-connecting story where there is none.
But what about for the general public? How did superheroes become so popular with them? How did they become such an inspiration and symbols of hope? Well, that’s probably a lot more simple.
Again, this was during the Great Depression, and Superman’s early foes weren’t of extraterrestrial or supernatural origin. There were no Doomsdays or Brainiacs (the first supervillain Superman faced wasn’t until 1939 and even Lex Luthor didn’t show until 1940). No, the first of Superman’s enemies were corrupt politicians and businessmen and common criminals such as profiteers, gangsters and those who engaged in domestic violence. He even destroyed a slum in his beginnings, in order to force the government to build better homes for the poor. Perhaps inspired by the general disillusionment with officials such as the police, Superman was originally portrayed as a vigilante, just like Batman, and was wanted by the police.
Batman started his career with wanton death and destruction, unlike the Batman we know today, but he was still a crime-fighter. He still went after ordinary criminals in the beginning. His very first enemy was Alfred Stryker, a chemical company executive who tried to have his partners murdered. After two successful murders, Batman intervened and threw Stryker into a vat of acid. Because that’s how he rolled.
So, while such characters are an obvious choice of villain, thanks to their infinite nature, the fact that all this arose during the Great Depression was surely no coincidence. In real life, there was little justice to be had for those who lost their jobs, their homes, and who starved to death.
Some colourful fools wearing tights and leaping about the pages of a comic book were, perhaps, not entirely consoling to these people, but for those not hit quite so badly, maybe seeing corruption and crime brought to light and shut down in those pages offered a little comfort.
Most of us turn to some form of escapism in times of distress, and to see similar distress being countered and defeated in your escapism feels good. It gives some kind of hope. Even though there isn’t a real Superman to swoop in and save your day, even that spark of hope can be enough to get you through.
Making them even more relatable to people is the fact that so many superheroes have tragic origin stories. Batman’s parents were murdered in front of him when he was a child. Superman’s entire home planet was wiped out, his own parents along with it, and he feels completely alone and isolated on Earth. These origins don’t only give the character a reason to do what he does, but such a human loss can be understood by just about anyone. In this way, even the most alien (literally) of super-beings can be relatable.
The best example of comic storylines mirroring real life is probably Hitler. Adolf Hitler. There’s no clever subtlety there. He was simply…Hitler. He appeared as an enemy of many members of the Justice League of America, as well as Marvel heroes. If this doesn’t prove my point, I’m not sure what does!
Captain Freedom (not to be confused with Captain America, to whom people sometimes give that name as a joke) was created during World War II for the sole purpose of fighting agents of the Axis. In 1942, a Superman cover depicts the Man of Steel riding an American bomb towards the ground, amid a squadron of US fighter planes.
As Marvel’s Stan Lee said, comics were fighting Hitler before the American government was.
Though blatant propaganda, these patriotic themes and front covers fueled an explosion of public interest. World War II was the beating heart of comics’ Golden Age. Some villains, such as the Red Skull, were inspired by Axis soldiers while, again, many heroes were created solely for the purpose of fighting Nazis and, later, the Japanese.
None of these is more iconic and recognisable – particularly since Marvel took to the big screen – than Captain America. The huge surge in American patriotic sentiment was the reason behind Captain America’s creation. In fact, even with America nearly a year from entering the war, the cover of Cap’s first issue has him punching Hitler in the face (remember the film?).
Hitler, naturally, banned such American animations. Except for Mickey Mouse, who was his favourite (and probably was never depicted punching him in the face).
Author Gardner Fox, who worked on comics at the time, probably put it best and most succinctly:
‘I used superheroes’ powers to accomplish what I couldn’t […] Superheroes were my wish-fulfilment figures’.
To me, this is exactly why so many turned to comic books and why their popularity soared.
At the end of the war, only the strongest of superheroes survived the resulting decline in interest. Sales plummeted and publishers were forced to close, even after cancelling title after title.
But superheroes have risen once again. And this time, they’re more mainstream than ever before. Our cinemas are packed with them, our TVs deliver them to us every week, our T-shirts display their logos in an (often unintentionally) ironic manner. Some day, they’ll fade away once more, but no doubt they’ll only resurface again. Until then, let’s hope they continue to bring us hope, inspiration, and simple entertainment.
This article was originally written for Uproar Comics.