For the last century, humanity has endured some of its greatest tragedies; the Great Depression, World Wars I and II, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War – to name a few. Throughout these darkest hours, mankind suffered so greatly that morale was lowering with ever passing day. As such, the need for a method of captioning the low morale, and turning it into something positive for mankind’s sake was dire. At the ready to fill this need were the superhero comic books that since the early 20th century have helped change our perspective of American culture, as well as the role America played in the aforementioned historical events.Order now
Though comic books were already being published in the 1920’s and 1930’s for humor purposes, it was not until 1938, when the first Superman comic book became available to the public that mankind would finally fill that need. After that first run of Superman comic books, superheroes took the world, especially North America, by storm. In North American culture of the 20th century, superheroes represented the common man’s contempt for the Axis powers, his thirst for more power during the Cold War, as well as the literal “superpower,” pun intended, that America had become following the victory of the Allied powers of World War II.
While many of the superheroes we know and love today come from the DC universe, no person related to comic books, real or fictional, has been as important in the superhero world as Stanley Martin Lieber. Stanley Martin Lieber, more commonly known by his pseudonym Stan Lee, is an American comic book writer and editor, and the former Chairman Emeritus of Marvel Comics. As a writer for Marvel Comics, Stan Lee, having worked with such artists as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, helped co-create such popular superheroes as Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, Daredevil, Doctor Strange, along with many other characters.
Following his 3-year stint in the military from 1942 to 1945, Stan Lee began his extensive career of co-creating Marvel’s most popular superheroes, and writing the dialogue. While he originally considered switching career paths, Stan Lee, upon the advice of his family of having nothing to lose, began with his creation of the Fantastic Four. Unlike DC Comics’ superheroes, who were idealistically perfect people with no serious, enduring problems, Marvel’s/Stan Lee’s superheroes had flawed lives/personalities.
These heroes had bad tempers, melancholy fits, vanity, greed, etc. Not only did Marvel’s superheroes capture the imagination of teens and young adults who were part of the population spike, known as the post-World War II “baby boom,” but they were, and still are to this day, as a result of these aforementioned shortcomings, more relatable to the common man, inside and outside of the comics, as well. Of all the historical events mentioned above, the worst one by far has to be the Second World War from 1939 to 1945.
From this one war, more than 50 million people lost their lives on both sides, the Allied powers and the Axis powers alike. With all of the American men having been sent overseas to fight, the war had a huge impact on women, both positively and negatively, though the latter to a much greater extent than the former. With all of the men overseas, job positions needed to be filled, and women were the best alternative. Women began to enter the workforce at an, obviously, unprecedented rate.
It was at this point that the role of women in society began to take long strides away from the simple roles of the then idealistic trophy wife. On the other hand, while there was the extant glass ceiling shattering at the time, there was also widespread sadness among women, as their fathers, uncles, husbands, boyfriends, and, in some cases, sons were being gunned down by the hundreds, if not the thousands, every single day that they fought in the war.
For the people in the comic book world, this seemed like a good opportunity to create a militaristic, patriotic superhero, known today as Captain America, who would fight on the front lines of the battlefield his shield slinging talents against the Nazis (Maslon & Kantor, 249). While Stan Lee is not credited with the creation of Captain America in any way, he did do the writing of the dialogue and the editing for the comic book series when it debuted in 1941, and continued to do so upon completion of his military stint the following three years (1942-1945).
Captain America quickly became a cultural icon among comic book fanatics. For people in the comic book world, many of whom were Jewish, Captain America served as a means of dishing out vengeance on the Nazis, and by extension, Hitler himself, as the American Jews still had many relatives who lived in Nazi occupied countries such as Poland, Germany, and Hungary, to name a few (Maslon & Kantor, 250). Having actually been in the military definitely helped Stan Lee to paint a better picture, figuratively speaking, of the war-ridden atmosphere of Europe.
Following the defeat of the Axis powers of World War II in 1945, everything seemed to be getting slightly better for the northern hemisphere. That is until in 1950, when the US and the Soviet Union entered the Cold War. What is meant by “Cold War” is the fact that neither side attacked each other, out of fear, as well as acceptance of the notion of mutually assured destruction via nuclear weapons of mass destruction. Thus began the age of nuclear experimentation, in which both the Americans and the Soviets were in constant competition with each other to see who could produce the most, and best quality nuclear weapons.
The general American populace lived every day in fear that the Soviets would attack and destroy as much of the country as they could. Stan Lee fed off this fear to create, along with artist Jack Kirby, a new anger-driven anti-hero, known today as the Incredible Hulk in 1962 (Maslon & Kantor, 303). In the comic books, the Incredible Hulk was a result of Dr. Bruce Banner absorbing a huge amount of gamma radiation when his government-funded research into weaponizing gamma radiation into a bomb went terribly awry. The context in which the Incredible Hulk was created reflects the arms race between the US and the Soviet Union.
Much like Robert Louis Stevenson’s all-time classic Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde story, Dr. Bruce Banner and the Incredible Hulk are two natures constantly at war with each other within the same body trying to dominate each other for complete control. This can also relate to the context of the Cold War between the Americans and the Soviets, who constantly tried to best each other with new weapons, all to see who would be the number one superpower of the world. During the postwar period, and especially during the Cold War, a new American identity was unearthing itself, so as to stimulate nation-wide unity.
It must be noted, however, that this unity applied strictly to whites. This identity comprised the typical Protestant white American men/women, who needed to come together to rise above their fear of the Soviets. With this identity came much discrimination of not just the blacks, but also the Catholics, the Jews, among several other religious/ethnic groups that did not fit the bill of this new American identity. If one was not a devout white Protestant, he/she was discriminated against and alienated in society, which led to widespread racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia.
From this context, Stan Lee, along with Jack Kirby, both Jews, co-created the superhero team known as the X-Men in 1963 (Maslon & Kantor, 505). The X-Men are a team of mutants, or Homo Superior, with extraordinary powers that are, in the comics, believed to be the next step in the Darwinian evolutionary chain (Maslon & Kantor, 510). As a result of these powers, the general populace shuns the mutants, much like the blacks and the Jews were for much of the Cold War period. These mutants come in many shapes, sizes, and represent a wide array of ethnicities.
For instance, there are American mutants such as Jean Grey, a telepath, and Cyclops, who can shoot laser beams out of his eyes; there are British mutants such as Charles Xavier, or Professor x, the telepathic namesake and leader of the X-Men; there are African mutants such as Ororo Munroe, or Storm, who can manipulate weather as she chooses; there are Canadian mutants such as Wolverine, who has healing powers, as well as a near-invincible adamantium-infused skeleton; and there is even a Russian mutant, Piotr Rasputin, otherwise known as Colossus, who can turn his entire body into organic steel, giving him superhuman strength, stamina, and durability.
By working together as a team, the X-Men join together to stop the evil Brotherhood of Mutants, who seek revenge on the common man for shunning them (Maslon & Kantor, 510). The X-Men stimulated the desire of the mutants not only to resist a variety of repressive social norms – such as racial segregation, sexism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia – but also to contribute to the foundation from which new kinds of preferences pertaining to political affiliation and self-identification could be practiced/adhered to (Fawaz, 361). In my final analysis, much of the tragic historical events of the 20th century, such as World War II, the postwar period, and the Cold War, which stimulated widespread depression, fear, and pent up anger, led to the creation of superheroes in comic books.
These superheroes, many of which were created by Stanley Martin Lieber, more commonly known as Stan Lee, captioned the emotions felt by the general populace during the period in which they were created. For instance, Captain America represented the patriotism of the Americans, as well as their utter hatred for the Nazis. The Incredible Hulk represented the Americans’ anger toward the Soviets, and their desire to develop nuclear weapons to remain the strongest nation in the world. Lastly, the mutated band of superheroes known as the X-Men represented the prevalent racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia of the white American Protestants against other races, ethnicities, and religions to whom they were neighbors.
All this to say that whenever people say that in a perfect world, there would be no racism, war, poverty, and so on, they don’t realize that comic books can act as a form of release from the existential terrors of existence. In other words, comic book series, such as the X-Men, not only depict the racism and segregation of the 1960s and 1970s, but they also show how the victim group, in this case the mutant superheroes, not only work together to fight the bad guys, but also to prove their segregators that they (mutants) won’t lower themselves to their level, and how they choose to be the better people. All in all, superheroes are paragons of humanity and morality that each and every person should aspire to be like.
Fawaz, Ramzi. “”Where No X-Man Has Gone Before!” Mutant Superheroes and the Cultural Politics of Popular Fantasy in Postwar America.” American Literature 83.2 (2011): 355-88. Academic Search Premier. Web. 23 Apr. 2014.
Maslon, Laurence, and Michael Kantor. Superheroes!: Capes, Cowls, and the Creation of the Comic Book Culture. New York: Random House, 2013. Print. *Page numbers according to e-book.
“Stan “The Man” Lee – Stanley Martin Lieber.” Comic Book Database. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Apr. 2014.