The Death and Resurrection of the American Superhero in the 1950s
By Justin Palm
There’s a school of thought out there that says that the greatest accomplishment of Nazi Germany was the American Superhero.
It’s not a school that gets mentioned often, mind you, due to two things- firstly, that it’s a highly subjective idea; and secondly, it’s a rather uncomfortable notion for many people. But the idea is out there, and it honestly does have some validity to it(some). Understanding how the heck Hitler was responsible for the mega cultural event that is the American superhero takes a bit of a history lesson (and yes, as far as I’m concerned you can add ‘X-Men 3’ to the list of Hitler’s sins).
First of all, it’s important to know that the earliest superhero comic books were basically entirely written and conceived of by Jews. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (Superman), Will Eisner (the Spirit), Bob Kane and Bill Finger (Batman), Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (Captain America), Martin Goodman (publisher; Timely, Atlas, and Marvel Comics) Stanley Lieber (alias Stan Lee, if you don’t know who he is you shouldn’t be reading this)- Jewish-Americans all and hardly the only names on the list. Superman, the original, iconic, and debatably greatest superhero of all, was created by two Jewish guys in their twenties in Cleveland, Ohio. And make no mistake, Superman was very much a character of his times. Cleveland was a very unpleasant place in the mid-thirties. The gangsters had just lost control of the city, and Elliott Ness (the man who took down Al Capone) was finally making progress taking down corruption throughout the city. His efforts were interrupted, though, by the appearance of one of America’s first and most grizzly serial murderers, the Torso Killer, who left headless and limbless bodies through the city during the mid to late thirties. A large shanty town existed on the outskirts of the city. Unpleasantness abounded in Cleveland, 1938.
It was into this world that Superman first arrived, a socialist savior for the late Depression era, the self-proclaimed “Champion of the Oppressed” who “had sworn his existence to helping those in need!” Superman, from his very first appearance, was a different kind of hero than anything America had seen in a long time. He was far from the ‘Robin Hood’ heroes of the early thirties like John Dillinger- men who stuck it to the man, but were out to do it out of personal gain. In his first appearance Superman saved a woman who was about to be wrongly executed by breaking into the governor’s bedroom in the middle of the night, then taught a wife beater a lesson he’d never forget, rescued Lois Lane from a group of would be rapists (smashing the hell out their car in the process), and took on a corrupt senator and lobbyist trying to arrange a coup in South America- all in the first 13 page story! Nothing was too big or too small for Superman to take on, and if you did wrong by your fellow man he would find out, he would find you, and he would fix it, no matter who you are.
If it sounds like I’m gushing about this story, it’s probably because I am. The first superhero story was so radically different, yet so desperately needed for its time, that it quickly had a whole host of competitor stories. And we’re talking within months here. By 1939, National Periodicals (DC Comics before it was DC Comics) was competing with Quality Comics, Fawcett Comics, and Timely Publishing (the future Marvel Comics) for the superhero market, and many more companies would follow. Timely Publishing, however, may historically be the most important of all of the esteemed completion (though Fawcett was outselling ALL of them, but that’s another story…).
Timely publisher Martin Goodman himself would star in a comic strip in the early 40s where he would claim that he created the Timely line of comics to warn youngsters about the dangers of Nazi fascism. This claim is probably a bit dubious, but something that can’t be dubious is the arrival of Captain America. On the cover of Captain America #1, his first appearance, Captain America literally punches Adolf Hitler in the face. A year before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the message couldn’t have been clearer. Simon and Kirby (and, one assumes, publisher Goodman) believed that America needed to oppose Nazi Germany, and that our continued silence as Hitler’s troops marched through Europe was unacceptable. His oppression of Jews and his thirst for conquest needed to be stopped NOW. Few realize today that many American’s wanted to stay far away from the problems in Europe. Germany’s actions had some large level of support in America for a time- Ambassador Joseph Kennedy (Ambassador to Great Britain 1938-1940 and father of John Kennedy) had actually voiced support of Hitler’s revival of the German economy. Such a blatant display could have been very controversial for Timely, but Goodman printed the cover anyway.
Although there were threats from readers and parents alike, it turned out that Captain America's actions weren't just good ethically and politically, they were a big money maker for Timely as well. Captain America #1 sold quite well- over a million copies- and sales went even higher when America entered the war and a wave of patriotism swept through the country. Soon, not only were there copycat characters in other companies, but nearly every superhero out there started fighting Nazis too. By early 1942, Superman smacking around a German tank was a fairly standard cover image. Even more so than the cartoons of Disney and Warner Brothers, comic book superheroes were linked nearly completely with the war effort. Soldiers and small children both thrilled to the exploits of Captain Marvel beating the stuffing out of Captain Nazi or the All-Winners Squad descending on Hitler's Castle, and always good old American awesomeness triumphed over the actions of the Germans or Japanese.
This, of course, is where it all went wrong for the Superhero. With the end of the war and the Nazis defeated, most superheroes seemed outdated. No one wanted to be reminded of the horrors of the war, and superhero sales diminished. Detective, romance, and western comics had all been selling reasonably well through the war, and soon they started far outselling the majority of the superhero books. Horror books in particular saw a major rise in popularity, with the primary publisher of horror comics, EC, gaining major sales. EC was innovative in a variety of ways, using fan clubs and allowing fans to write letters to the editor of the comics, all in a successful effort to expand its readership. While the stories of Tales of the Crypt and Shock SuspenStories were often moody, dark, and sometimes downright tragic, the artwork produced by EC was easily some of the best art ever seen in a comic book at that time. Years before The Twilight Zone made ironic twists a staple of American literature, EC Comics was doing it on a monthly basis.
By the early 1950s, only three superheroes still had books published under their own title- Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. Only one other superhero, Aquaman, would survive the 50s with his publishing uninterrupted, though he was relegated to being a back-up feature for Superboy in Adventure Comics. Atlas Comics, Martin Goodman's successor to Timely, tried in 1953 to revive its three most popular superheroes- Captain America, the Sub-Mariner, and the Human Torch- in the pages of Young Men #24. The stories lasted all of five issues. The final nail in the superhero's coffin- and very nearly the comic book industry entirely- seemed to come in 1954 at the hands not of a supervillain, but of a child psychologist. Some would say the two are interchangeable.
Before parents' groups and social conservatives blamed video games for all the world's ills, comic books were at the front of that persecution. By the late 1940s parents who were too immature to take some damn responsibility for their own actions had begun blaming comic books for their children's bad behavior. In 1954, Dr. Fredric Wertham- an influential psychiatrist and a man who really, really hated comic books- published his most famous book, Seduction of the Innocent. In Seduction... Wertham blamed comic books of inducing young people into everything from juvenile delinquency to pornography to homosexuality (although in his defense, Batman and Robin were pretty gay for each other back in the day). By reproducing pages from comic books as evidence- and not paying for the copyright, I might add- Wertham pointed out everything from explicit drug abuse (hey, it's not like the drug users were good guys, right?) to what he thought might look sort of like a vagina hidden in the bark of a tree (and no, I am not making that up) and said that these 'shocking' images were ruining America's youth.
The really scary part of all this is that Wertham's crazy talk caught on. Wertham was brought to the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency where he restated his arguments on the evils of comic books, all to the nods and approval of the senators. By the end of it all, while the Senate Subcommittee couldn't prove that comics were the root of all evil in the world (imagine that), they did manage to scare the bejeezus out of the comic book industry. Rather than risking have the government censor their work (like the FCC did to radio), the publishers chose to self-censor themselves with one of the strictest censor codes in the history of art.
Under the Comics Code Authority, all depictions of government officials had to be in a positive light, which meant no bad cops or corrupt politicians, ever (Take that, Action Comics #1!). Vampires, zombies, ghosts and werewolves were all flat out prohibited. Depicts of "sex perversion" and "sexual abnormalities" (buuttttt seeeeexxxxxxxxxxx...) were prohibited, and relationships had to be presented in such a way to exclusively portray the "sanctity of marriage." Special conditions were placed on depicting concealed weaponry and kidnapping, and even advertisements for, and I quote, "toiletry objects of questionable nature" were condemned. Good ALWAYS had to win by the end of the story, and books were not allowed to have titles like "crime" or "terror." William Gaines, publisher of EC and badass supreme, was furious about the code, believing it was an attempt by other publishers to drive his successful company out of business (as most of his bestselling books had names like The Vault of Horror). His outrage did little to change things, however, as many distributers refused to accept books that didn't meet the supposedly "voluntary" code's rules. Unsurprisingly, all of EC's books except for Mad Magazine were driven out of business within a year of the code's creation.
The story does have a happier ending, though. By 1956, horror comics were dead and crime comics had been crippled. But with the comic market saturated by romance and westerns, an intuitive editor at DC comics, Julius Schwartz (yes, another Jewish guy with the initials "J.S.") decided to try the superhero thing again, but this time with a decidedly modern twist. Rather than bring back the old, popular characters of WW2 like Atlas had done, the Flash of Showcase #4 kept he basic concept of a super fast guy, and cut everything else, starting fresh with a new hero and new villains- 32 years before Star Trek: The Next Generation did it. The book was an incredible success, and soon more re-envisioned heroes hit the stands. The Silver Age of Comic Books hit the ground running (literally), and within four years superhero books were once again dominating the market, where they've remained ever since.
But that's a different story...
(Oh, and if you're still wondering about Dollman, he lasted longer than most. His book was canceled in 1953, and although nothing more was heard from him for twenty years, running from 1939 to 1953 is a hell of a lot better than Captain America did. Dollman's publisher Quality Comics was bought by DC, and he made sporadic appearances here and there, and was a main character in a recent series starring other Quality characters. So now you know.)