The Superhero in American History
When the United States emerged from World War II, not only did it emerge as the most powerful country in the world, it also emerged as a country with superheroes. The modern superhero is an American creation. The first heroes, such as Superman and Batman, were inspired by the prevailing feeling during the 1930s that the system was broken. Establishment institutions—like the government, the economy, or local law enforcement—were no longer doing enough to meet the needs of a growing and increasingly urban American society. Then, as war raged all around us, and America remained isolationist, patriotic heroes like Captain America and Wonder Woman represented the idea that America should—as it eventually had in World War I—save the world for democracy.
Since the World War II era, superheroes have continued to reflect the values of our society and the conditions of the world at large. From the Cold War to the dawn of the 21st century and a new age of globalization, they have embodied our collective conscience and imagination. Most recently, old characters have been recast with new, diverse faces—from Pakistani-American Muslim Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel to Miles Morales, a half-black/half-Hispanic teenager, as Spider-Man—mirroring contemporary attitudes about diversity and representation. The interconnected nature of comics, history, and social mores makes the study of superheroes much more than a casual pastime. It is a way to study and reflect on some of the most important moments in American history.
The Resources to the left include a collection of some of the most socially and historically relevant superheroes in American history. Each entry includes a table with an overview of the superhero's creators, publisher, allies and enemies, aliases, and powers. Use these entries to provoke deeper thinking and conversations with your students about the ways art and entertainment are influenced by historical context, and how they change over time.
*Note: The majority of the essays and all superhero tables in this collection are drawn from the source below. "Black Panther" and "Batman" are works by independent authors.
Hall, Richard A. The American Superhero: Encyclopedia of Caped Crusaders in History. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2019. https://publisher.abc-clio.com/9781440861246/
"The Superhero in American History." History Hub, ABC-CLIO, 2019, historyhub.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/2192510. Accessed 19 July 2019.
Entry ID: 2192510