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Superheroes and the Popular Culture


Writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster had unwavering faith in their Superman creation, even when newspaper syndicates of the mid-1930s balked at their outlandish concept. Despite their confidence, Siegel and Shuster could not, in their wildest dreams, have imagined that one day, kids and consumers would be eating Superman peanut butter, wearing Superman underwear, and playing Superman video games.

But such is the public's fascination with the superhero. Beginning with the arresting image of Superman hoisting a sedan over his head on the cover of Action Comics #1 (1938), the superhero has captured the attention of the masses, earning a position of permanence in the social psyche.

Action was an instant success, prompting publisher DC Comics to open a floodgate of merchandising bearing Superman's likeness, from the expected (figurines, bubble-gum cards, and the like) to the atypical (a table-top lighter for cigarette smokers). Superman quickly flew into cultural omnipresence. The first public sighting of the Man of Steel took place in 1939, when Broadway actor Ray Middleton impersonated the hero at the New York World's Fair. That very year, the Supermen of America fan club was launched, extolling the virtues of Strength, Courage, and Justice, and a Superman newspaper strip began a decades-long run. The hero was soon the star of a dramatic radio program, theatrical cartoons, a paperback novel, and, at the close of the 1940s, two live-action movie serials.

Of course, the burgeoning comic-book industry consisted of other superheroes—Plastic Man, the Human Torch, the Black Terror, Cat-Man, and countless other masked adventurers were among their colorful legion—and some were translated to the big screen via live-action movie serials, including Spy Smasher (1942), Batman (1943), Captain America (1944), and Congo Bill (1948). Outside of Superman, however, few were licensed into other areas. A handful of Captain Marvel retail items (including a paper glider, a tin car, and figures) were produced. Captain America endorsed a fan club that not only promoted his Marvel (then known as Timely) comic but American patriotism itself: the Sentinels of Liberty, with members receiving a tin badge. Apart from the Sentinels of Liberty badge, wrote Bill Bruegman in his book, Superhero Collectibles: A Pictorial Price Guide (1996), a youth-sized Captain America costume produced in the mid-1940s is the only known child's product made from a Timely character.

Sales of superhero comics nose-dived in post–World War II America and titles rapidly disappeared from the stands. At the end of the 1940s, one might have suspected that superheroes were merely a flash in the pan born of the Great Depression and the war's thirst for inspirational figures. Only a few survived.

During the 1950s, the frigid fingers of the communist threat gripped the United States in a cold war, and the Man of Steel helped break the ice. Superman became a national symbol of the American Way, most notably in the wildly successful live-action television series The Adventures of Superman (1953–1957), starring George Reeves. Reeves made numerous personal appearances as the Man of Steel, and also played Superman in a short film promoting U.S. Savings Bonds, in a commercial for Kellogg's Grape Nuts cereal, and in a fondly remembered episode of I Love Lucy. As evidence of the Man of Steel's impact upon popular culture, a 1953 Superman newspaper sequence guest-starred bespectacled television personality Steve Allen, with a storyline addressing Allen's physical resemblance to Superman's alter ego, Clark Kent.

Superman was perhaps the only ray of hope in the world of superheroes of the 1950s. The comics business altered its content to address changing tastes, and many titles, particularly horror and crime series, became outrageously graphic. Comics transformed into what some historians have deemed boys' dirty little secret, taboo material read with flashlights under bedcovers. The comics industry fell under denunciation in the mid-1950s at a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing that foisted upon publishers a censorship board called the Comics Code Authority (CCA), a crippling move putting many players out of business. The History Channel documentary Comic Book Superheroes: Unmasked (2003) reported that the industry suffered a 50 percent drop in sales between 1954 and 1956, due to the budding prominence of television, as well as rock and roll music, the new teen thing.

To portray to skeptical parents the wholesomeness of its product, DC Comics published in its titles one-page public-service announcements (PSAs) in comic-book form, featuring Superman (and occasionally other DC characters like Batman and Robin) in mini morality plays. In a Superman PSA called Safety First, for example, the Man of Steel spouts traffic-accident statistics to a careless jaywalker (32,300 people were killed and 1,150,000 injured in traffic accidents in a single year!).

In the 1960s, the superhero commandeered popular culture, and did so with a Pow! The decade started as did the two prior, with Superman as the superhero big cheese. Marvel, which had abandoned superheroes in the 1950s, introduced its heroes with problems, offbeat, self-absorbed characters like Spider-Man, Daredevil, the Hulk, and the X-Men. By the mid-1960s, the Hulk and Spider-Man were counterculture icons, appearing alongside real-world civil-rights crusader Malcolm X on lists of figures most admired by college students.

Batman (1966–1968), a campy live-action television series starring Adam West and Burt Ward as Batman and Robin, became an overnight ratings smash. Mere months after the show's premiere, a quickly produced Batman movie was filmed (I worked just over 30 days, recalled West in an interview on the film's 2001 DVD edition), promoted with a trailer featuring Ward as Robin buoyantly beaming, Soon, very soon, Batman and I will be batapulting right out of your TV sets and onto your theater screens! An ensuing wave of Batmania slapped the Dynamic Duo's faces, both photographed and illustrated, on almost every product conceivable, including knife-and-fork sets, bubble-bath dispensers, apparel galore, model kits, and lunchboxes. Batman makes a mighty leap into national popularity announced the cover of the March 11, 1966 edition of Life magazine. Recording artists Jan and Dean released a Jan and Dean Meet Batman album, and Neal Hefti's surfing-inspired Batman TV theme became stamped onto the public's musical mind. Batman's fight-scene graphics—boisterous comic-esque sound effects like Crunch! and Zowie!—became part of the American vernacular to such a degree that in the twenty-first century, many journalists employ these exclamations when referencing contemporary comics-related material.

Batman's popularity sparked a superhero boom of unprecedented proportions. 1940s superheroes like Captain America and Plastic Man bounced back to life, and TV networks raced to create their own superheroes, live-action and animated, including Captain Nice, Space Ghost, and Mr. Terrific. Superhero parodies flourished, from MAD magazine's Captain Klutz to the animated series Underdog. Several licensors' characters (Batman, Spider-Man, and the Green Hornet, among others) were funneled into Ideal's Captain Action toy line, featuring a host figure that transformed into other heroes by donning their uniforms (each sold separately). Superman enjoyed a surge in popularity, spinning off into an animated TV show and a Broadway musical, It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman.

The superhero continued to serve as a super-pitchman. Superman endorsed New Jersey's Palisades (amusement) Park in comic-book ads that included a ticket for a free ride on the Batman slide. ABC-TV commissioned a promotional comic book to plug its Saturday fare: America's Best TV Comics (1967) was an eighty-page giant with the Jack Kirby–drawn Mr. Fantastic (of the Fantastic Four) on the cover, along with Spider-Man, Casper the Friendly Ghost, and other cartoon stars. Marvel's comic books hyped a line of peripherals like inflatable Spider-Man pillows and Fantastic Four sweatshirts. The short-lived TV series The Green Hornet (1966–1967) inspired a brief but impressive spate of merchandising, including playing cards, a kite, a paint-by-number set, and walkie talkies.

Real-life painter Roy Lichtenstein interpreted comic-book panels into a series of pop-art portraits incorporating word balloons, primary colors, and Ben-Day dots, mimicking the primitive four-color printing techniques of the day. Lichtenstein's comics-inspired works helped legitimize comics as an art form and remain popular in the twenty-first century.

As an entertainment force and a licensing vehicle, the superhero soared to new heights in the 1970s. After decades of increasing media saturation, Superman had grown into an icon, immortalized in music (Jim Croce warned, You don't tug on Superman's cape in his hit You Don't Mess around with Jim [1973], and Barbra Streisand released an album titled Superman [1977]), in politics (a popular poster released in 1971, during the height of the Vietnam War, depicted Superman flashing the peace sign), and even in junk food (Superman Pretzels and Superman Peanut Butter). And the Man of Steel wasn't alone in such impact: The coveted cover shot for the inaugural issue of Ms. Magazine in 1972 was won by Wonder Woman.

A blitz of products bearing the likenesses of Marvel and DC superheroes inundated retail markets, and their characters continued to pitch other products, including a fondly remembered but rather odd mid-1970s campaign by baker Hostess selling its wares to comic-book readers through one-page illustrated adventures (an example: a Shazam! installment in which Captain Marvel investigates the strange disappearance of cup cakes around the world). Superheroes flourished on TV, from new creations like Isis and ElectraWoman, to DC's kid-friendly Super Friends cartoon, to primetime dramas starring the Hulk, Wonder Woman, and Spider-Man. The box-office muscle of the live-action Superman: The Movie (1978) elevated the superhero to multimillion-dollar blockbuster status, and the then-emerging video-game industry ushered the Man of Steel (and later, many other comics heroes) into this exciting new world.

These merchandising trends continued throughout the 1980s, and the phenomenal success of director Tim Burton's Batman (1989) only cemented the superhero's role as a mass-media force (and as a cash cow). By the 1990s, generations of consumers had been exposed to superheroes through film, TV, cartoons, video and computer games, action figures, apparel, snack and breakfast food, fast-food kids' toys, and even amusement parks (various theme parks feature rides based on Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, the Hulk, and the X-Men, with actors wearing superhero costumes intermingling with park-goers). As confirmation of his iconic status, an animated Superman teamed with comedian Jerry Seinfeld in a 1998 television commercial for American Express. Seinfeld, not the Man of Steel, is the commercial's real hero, coming to Lois Lane's aid when she finds herself trying to buy groceries without any cash. The licensing of superheroes has become big business for comic-book publishers; so big, in fact, that revenues generated by merchandising far exceed profits earned by the comic books themselves, posing the ultimate irony: The popularity of superheroes through competing media has adversely affected the appeal of the superhero's source material, the comics.

While comics publishers of the 2000s explore new methods of attracting readers, vintage comic books, particularly those of the Golden Age (1938–1954) and Silver Age (1956–1969), are becoming increasingly rare—the better the condition (or grade), the higher their value. In Big Bucks in Collectible Comics, an August 4, 2003 CBS report, investor Bob Storms revealed that in 2002 he sold a copy of Marvel's Amazing Fantasy #15 (the first appearance of Spider-Man) for $32,500—a comic he bought four years earlier for $20,000. Baltimore, Maryland, businessman Steve Geppi, President and CEO of Diamond Comic Distributors, issued an October 31, 2003 press release announcing, I'll pay at least $25,000 for an unrestored, complete copy in good condition, and up to $1 million for a genuine, 'near mint' condition copy of Action Comics #1.

Profits aside, comics collecting often inspires mockery from the masses: The nebbish Comic Book Guy is a recurring character on Fox's animated series The Simpsons (1989–present), and the September 29, 2003 episode of the CBS sitcom Yes, Dear categorized guest star Tim Conway's newfound hobby of comic-book collecting as a peculiarity. Similarly, a young girl fascinated by the Marvel superhero Thor received some ribbing in the movie Adventures in Babysitting (1987), as did a preschooler who always wears a Flash costume in the Eddie Murphy comedy Daddy Day Care (2003).

But thousands of superhero (and comic-book) fans remain undaunted by the taunts. The San Diego Comic-Con, an international Mecca for matters fantastic, attracts tens of thousands of attendees each year and has become so important that major Hollywood stars now make appearances to promote their superhero and action films (included among the guests of the 2003 show were actors Angelina Jolie, Halle Berry, Hugh Jackman, Quentin Tarantino, and Alfred Molina). Grade-school kids have superheroes all their own, like the star of Dav Pilkey's Captain Underpants books, and preschoolers are amazed by Sesame Street's Super Grover. And lest one regard superheroes and comics as juvenile pap, Michael Chabon's 2000 novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay (loosely based on the lives of the Golden Age's classic team of comics creators, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby), won a Pulitzer Prize and is being adapted into a motion picture. Noting the cultural importance of superheroes, former Batman editor and writer Dennis O'Neil remarked, on the Comic Book Superheroes: Unmasked program, that the editors of Batman and Superman comic books have become custodians of folklore. Their venues may be forever changing, but superheroes are here to stay. —ME

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