There are many ways to describe and finally explain not only the evolution of the comic book superhero but find causes and reasons for their change, adjustment and complete modification throughout superhero history.

super historyAs World War II historian Jeffrey K. Johnson unfolds very carefully, there is mostly one explanation why the colorful superheroes changed with (and within) American society, and were even quicker to display recent changes in popular culture; since they naturally were created within this culture and the publishers had to design characters who would be accepted by their readers at particular times.
Johnson’s survey starts in 1938 and continues until 2012.
Luckily, the study of comic book culture has advanced very much within recent years, so many challenges, formerly the subject of sociology, history, linguistics, American studies and many other disciplines, have now also become the focus of research when applied to the history and evolution of the fictional worlds of the cloaked superheroes. One reason, naturally, is their overlapping in many aspects.

So Johnson shows significant changes, instances, milestones and important political decisions that shaped American history and had serious effects on US society; and thus were transported by the comic artists within weeks into the stories.
Those changes and effects were very different, depending on the decade.
For example, in issue #38 of DC Action Comics from 1938, Superman had his debut; when times for the American public were tough due to unemployment, rising crime rates, mobsters, only few New Deal programs showing effect, and a government that could not or would not fight the problems. Many citizens felt forgotten and unprotected from crime, corruption and violence.

The country very badly needed a hero; and along came Superman. Johnson chose the first superhero as maybe his best example of how the heroes changed, according to the current environment of their popular culture. For the original Superman was not much different from the vigilantes and the criminals he fought, made fun of, tormented and sometimes even killed. He permanently broke the law himself. Nevertheless, the readers loved him for this, since they considered the government and the police force unable to fight crime effectively; Superman’s methods, therefore, were approved by comic book readers of all ages. He was a totally new character, a sensation, stronger than anybody else, wearing a circus outfit and protecting the average citizen.

Only one year later another superhero surfaced, who had a different origin and purpose. While Superman was an alien equipped with supernatural powers who fought crooks, wife beaters, hoodlums, thieves and smalltime crooks, the new hero Bat-Man (later Batman)  went one step further. He actually was “one of the crowd,” although rich and educated, after long preparation and studies fought villains much stronger and bigger than Superman. Millionaire Bruce Wayne used his wits, endurance as well as special and almost entirely realistic technology as early as 1939. Both superheroes used extreme violence, punishment and employed self-administered justice since reality in both American streets, and Gotham City was very tough. Violent and even unlawful action seemed absolutely necessary. So comic books featuring social avengers were in high demand.
With WW II emerged another generation of superheroes like Capt. America and others, who fought the Axis both in the Pacific and in Europe. As a result, all new and old superheroes immediately supported the war effort, became superpatriots, law-abiding and even cooperated with the police force and the military. As war production was a huge job machine, female superheroes appeared, who worked in offices, hospitals and elsewhere (when they were not chasing criminals) to replace the male workers fighting abroad. Hence, after powerful government propaganda in many sectors of American life, working women were accepted as normal, and due to the war effort society and gender roles changed a lot (to be almost entirely restored after the war).

Johnson lists many, many details like this in his chapters, always showing causes and the effect on American society and hence comic book artists who resigned their superheroes to conform to the current status of culture, society and fashion to be better compatible with reality. The most detailed (and most interesting) chapters are those dealing with the 1940s and early 1950s. Further important stages in the evolution of superheroes are introduced in later chapters like The nuclear era, The Cold War, Countercultural Heroes, Super-conservative and Neo-Cowboys, and post 9/11 superheroes.

I enjoyed this particular history lesson and learned a thing or two. If you want to know why Spiderman was not invented earlier, or why Captain America was revived several times, what started the comic Silver Age, or why the Watchmen appeared at that certain time in history you can look it up here.

Review by Dr. A. Ebert (c) 2014

Jeffrey K. Johnson. Super-History. Comic Book Superheroes and American Society, 1938 to the Present. McFarland, 2012, 230 p.