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World War II and the Superhero

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Nazis and Japs, you rats! Beware! The Hangman is everywhere! This copy, grossly politically incorrect by contemporary standards, is plastered above the logo of MLJ Publications' superhero comic, Hangman #3 (1942). And no words could better summarize the sentiment of a galvanized nation.


Hangman #3 is far from unique. The jingoistic jargon and flag-waving images of dozens of comic-book covers printed before and during World War II rival the pro-war posters displayed in public buildings during the era. Yankee Doodle Jones, Dandy, and Major Victory march toward the reader, playing drums and fife, on the patriotic cover of Yankee Comics #2 (1941). The Man of Steel rides a U.S.-dropped bomb (presumably heading toward an Axis nation) on the cover of Superman #18 (1942), with a stirring promotional blurb: War Savings Bonds and Stamps Do the Job on the Japanazis! Speed Comics #19's (1942) cover depicts Captain Freedom, fists clenched, sneaking up on a yellow-skinned, buck-toothed Japanese soldier donning a Captain Freedom costume. A fortress labeled Hitler's Berchtesgaden is stormed by gargantuan versions of Captain America, the Human Torch, and the Sub-Mariner—their size metaphorically symbolizing the superiority of the Allies—on star cover artist Alex Schomburg's All Select Comics #1 (1943). Superheroes had only been in existence for a few short years—since the premiere of Superman in DC Comics' landmark Action Comics #1 (June 1938)—but comic-book publishers wasted no time in exploiting their greatest superpower: propaganda.


World War II may have a bleak chapter in human history, but for superhero comic books, it was the lifeblood of a period now acknowledged as the Golden Age (1938–1954). As Adolf Hitler's German forces blazed a devastating path across Europe in the late 1930s, Americans fretfully pondered if—or worse, when—the conflict would involve the United States. This escalating global conflict, however, offered the budding medium of superhero comics a perfect villain.


We were fighting Hitler before our government was fighting Hitler, stated Marvel Comics mogul Stan Lee, on the History Channel documentary Comic Book Superheroes: Unmasked (2003). German spies tiptoed into the pages of American comics as early as Pep Comics #1 (cover-dated January 1940, but hitting newsstands in December 1939, two years before Japan's sneak attack on Pearl Harbor). Pep #1, a product of MLJ Publications (soon to be known as Archie Comics) introduces the Shield—the first comic-book character whose costume was patterned after the U.S. flag—the son of an assassinated FBI agent who applies a solution of his father's design onto his person, boosting his strength and stamina. As the Shield, he vanquishes the German infiltrators and engaged in Nazi-busting for years to come.


Before long, the Shield was no longer the United States' sole superheroic protector. Guarding the United States from Axis invaders and saboteurs became a recurring theme in comics stories and on comics covers. Look magazine published a specially commissioned 1940 comic supplement featuring Superman arresting Hitler and Josef Stalin for war crimes. Sales of superhero comics had been strong since their inception, but when covers portrayed patriotic motifs, their circulations escalated.


Anti-Axis sentiment exploded from subtlety to ubiquity by 1941. Superman, Captain Marvel, Miss Fury, and Sub-Mariner were among the superheroes encountering German, and soon Japanese, soldiers in their stories. Wrote Maurice Horn in The World Encyclopedia of Comics, Volume 1 (1999), The titles of some of the books published in this period suffice to give a clue as to their character: Spy Smasher, Commando Yank, Major Victory, Captain Flag, The Fighting Yank, The Unknown Soldier.


Almost every Golden Age superhero, at one time or another, was an Axis-basher, but none were more blatant than the cadre of red-white-and-blue-clad patriotic superheroes, whose multitude nearly outnumbered the stars on the U.S. flag itself: Uncle Sam, Captain Victory, the Flag, Yankee Doodle Jones, Yankee Eagle, the Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy, Super-American, Captain Courageous, the American Eagle, the Spirit of 76, American Crusader, Captain Fearless, Flag-Man, Minute-Man, the Liberator, and Mr. America were among their number, as were their female contemporaries, Miss Victory, Pat Patriot, Yankee Girl, Liberty Belle, and Miss America. Fawcett Publications' Spy Smasher's garb was rather mundane when compared to these flashy freedom fighters: He sported an aviator's helmet, Khakis, a bomber jacket, and a crimson cape. But with his noiseless Gyrosub—plane, submarine, helicopter, and speedboat rolled into one—Spy Smasher crippled saboteurs' vessels and ferreted out enemy agents, flying into his own twelve-chapter movie serial in 1942.

In case any young reader doubted the capabilities of these patriotic paragons, their comics sometimes included reminders that the military was always on watch, as in Feature Comics #42's (1941) story starring the superheroine USA (a.k.a. the Spirit of Old Glory); as USA is poised protectively on a coastline, the opening caption proclaims, The security of American shores is well guarded, as our Navy patrols far-flung waters and warns aggressors of the power of democracy. Rest easy, Americans! The superheroes and the U.S. military are here!


The most popular star-spangled superhero of World War II was Captain America, first seen in his own title published in March 1941 by Marvel (then known as Timely) Comics. The whole reason we put Captain America out was that America was in a patriotic frenzy, recollected Joe Simon, who created the hero (and many others) with Jack Kirby. The cover to Captain America #1 has Cap delivering a haymaker to the jaw of none other than Hitler himself—and the United States' involvement in the war was still almost a year away!


The Führer was the perfect patsy and the perfect antagonist for comic book artists of the day. Hitler's pasty complexion, greasy hair, distinctive moustache, and patented furrowed brow made him ripe for caricature. His rather comical proportions and body language stood in ironic contrast to the Aryan ideal that he promoted so vehemently with his Master Race theory. Equally ironic, if not more so, was the image of most of the American superheroes, perfect physical specimens who also epitomized the fascist mindset of the superiority of aggression. Paradoxically, superhero readers and creators did not seem to notice.


Hitler was made aware of the impact of American superheroes, and set his own public-relations machine in motion. Hitler's spin doctor Joseph Goebbels once made anti-Semitic attacks toward Superman's co-creator, writer Jerry Siegel, citing Superman comics as Jewish propaganda and calling Siegel physically and intellectually circumcised.


Real-life German and Japanese soldiers inspired fictional foes in Golden Age comic books, including Captain Nazi, the Red Skull, Baron Gestapo, Captain Nippon, and Captain Swastika. The Claw, a jaundiced Oriental with fearsome fangs, appeared in Gleason Publications' Daredevil series, as did Hitler himself, in the legendary Daredevil Battles Hitler #1 (a.k.a. Daredevil #1) in 1941.


Beyond the cover pinups, the Axis was pummeled and ridiculed in the comics stories themselves. Thick, stereotyped accents were afforded to both German and Japanese characters in most Golden Age comics. In The Human Torch and Sub-Mariner Fighting Side By Side in Marvel Mystery Comics #17 (1941), a Nazi soldier brags, as the unconscious Sub-Mariner is being strung up, He iss our symbol of victory! Unvard!


Even the most obscure superheroes fought the enemy, including Marvel's Citizen V: Single-handed, Citizen 'V' bursts into the Nazi camp and with powerful fists flying, drives his enemies to cover! reads the opening caption to the hero's adventure in Comedy Comics #9 (1942).


Golden Age comic books provided amusement and patriotism in one ten-cent, sixty-four-page package. Millions of comics sold each month during World War II. Comic-book houses worked at breakneck pace to meet the demand of a growing audience. Many publishers were akin to sweatshops, with original art pages shuffled down assembly lines of artists, each with his or her own task: One would letter the word balloons, one would ink faces, one would ink figures, and one would ink backgrounds. Artists and writers of the era sometimes huddled collectively into New York City apartments for an entire weekend of all-nighters, grinding out pages at a frantic pace. Many of these creators were happy to have the work, having survived the unemployment of the Great Depression. Others realized the importance of superheroes as mouthpieces of democracy. I believe in the brotherhood of man and peace on Earth, comic-book and science-fiction author Gardner Fox once asserted. If I could do it with a wave of my hand I'd stop all this war and silly nonsense of killing people. So I used superheroes' powers to accomplish what I couldn't do as a person. The superheroes were my wish-fulfillment figures for benefiting the world.


Voraciously reading these comics were millions of American boys. The medium spoke to them, its superheroes offering inspiration during a trying time. Captain America, striking an Uncle Sam Wants You recruitment pose, was featured in house ads encouraging young readers to join his Sentinels of Liberty club, and wear a badge that proves you are a loyal believer in Americanism. Not to be outdone, Superman enticed readers to become one of the Supermen of America. Boys would regularly congregate for swaps, haggling trades of their well-read comics among one another. Popular titles like Captain Marvel Adventures, Superman, and Captain America would command more trading value among these young negotiators.


Entertainment-starved American servicemen also read comics. Historian Mike Benton claimed in his book Superhero Comics of the Golden Age: The Illustrated History (1992) that a remarkable 44 percent of U.S. soldiers undergoing basic training were regular comic-book readers. At PXs, comic books outsold Saturday Evening Post, Life, and Reader's Digest combined by a ratio of ten to one, Benton added. Once these GIs were stationed overseas, superhero comics were sent to them, as part of their care packages from home.


While the war reinforced the popularity of superhero comic books, war-related rationing posed a serious threat to their production. Paper shortages curtailed the expansion of the medium, keeping many would-be publishers from entering the fray, and paper drives led to the donations of used copies of Golden Age comics, explaining their scarcity in the contemporary collectibles market.


Americans naturally celebrated when the Allies won their victory, but the war's end delivered a death blow to superheroes. They instantly fell out of favor, and sales steeply plummeted. Titles were canceled, publishers closed their shops, and only the strongest (Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman) survived.


Superheroes received a second lease on life, beginning with comics' Silver Age (1956–1969). Some of the superheroes who fought for freedom in the 1940s have returned to active duty, and retro series set during World War II continue to explore the superhero's role as the superpatriot; examples include Marvel Comics' The Invaders (1975–1979) and DC Comics' All-Star Squadron (1981–1987). In the 2000s, DC sustains use of a few of its stalwarts of World War II, including the Flash and Green Lantern (now known as Sentinel) in an incarnation of the WWII-era Justice Society called JSA (1999–present). —ME


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