By: James Au
The word hero originated from ancient Greece and it means defender and protector. Greek legends about heroes typically described them as demigod warriors who were strong, brave, and courageous. Similar ideologies for heroes can be found in many other cultures as well. The depiction of heroes can be either real or fictional, but the stories about them all have the consistency of portraying them as good people with a strong sense for both justice and good.
(From left to right: Pottery depicting mythical Greek hero Heracles, Renaissance Painting of the fearless King Arthur, and a Qing Dynasty painting depicting the legendary Chinese general Guan Yu.)
As time progressed, the United States took the ideology of hero and heroism to a whole other level. Through creativity and innovation, Americans reinvented an entirely new culture for heroes and heroism. No longer are heroes just people with a good character and a strong sense of what is right and wrong. Heroes are now super; superheroes with superhuman traits that allows them to deliver justice and good. Fictional superheroes have grown to become an authentic American staple. They are known for their superpowers, hidden identities, and courageous actions. However, even as iconic superheroes have become, they continue to evolve along with time and American culture. Whether it is their integration with political beliefs or expansion of cultural diversity society, superheroes have become an influential part of American culture.
The popularity and emergence of superheroes started with comic books. In 1939, comic book writer Jerry Siegel and illustrator Joe Shuster had the idea of writing about a new character that young children could look up to. This character they had in mind would set the standards: super powers, secret identity, costume, and signifying symbol. Superman was born.
(First Superman Sunday strip (November 5, 1939))
The Superman comic became a hit. Its popularity and influence would set off a chain of events that would lead to the emergence of many more superheroes after him. The entire DC Comic Publishing firm became an industry for creating superheroes, and it lead in the change of the comic book genre. It was known as the Golden Age of comic books.
As the superhero universe expanded so did the formula for creating superheroes. The simplicity of superheroes became intertwined with ideas in reality. An example for such change was during World War II. Comic book writers were pressured into creating storylines and characters that would promote domestic propaganda during the wartime. Whether it was establishing patriotism or antagonizing the Axis Powers, comic books took on an entirely different role than just to entertain. Comic books became a medium for political agendas. Comic books became a medium that would deliver messages to its readers concerning patriotism and who are the enemies of United States. As it would continue to become a cultural influence, many different patriotic ideas emerged from it.
It was after WWII that the popularity of superheroes in comic books started to decline. However, the decline in popularity was a chance for new writers and artists to rework the superhero genre. Writers were incorporating other themes into their plots; themes such as romance, crime thriller, and horror. This was considered as the beginning of the second age of superhero comic books, the Silver Age. Because of the incorporation of such themes, superhero comics were growing to be more explicit in the content that was shown. Superheroes comics were testing the limits of what could be shown and not shown. The Comic Association of America implemented the Comics Code Authority which regulated what kind of material can be shown and not shown, and it acted as somewhat of a censor for the comic book industry.
The Silver Age of comics acted as a pathway that lead to the current age of superhero comics which started in the early 90’s, the Bronze Age. This new age of comic books crafted a much more realistic mood to the superhero genre. Themes that dealt with class, gender, and race became much more prominent. Writers such as Dwayne McDuffie, Denys Cowan, and Michael Davis realized the opportunity of using superheroes and comic books as way to open up discussion on issues such as racism, sexism, and violence (Derek T. Dingle, Black Enterprises). What superheroes and comic books have grown to become, it is evident that it is still culturally relevant.
Superhero ideals have reformed and the diversity of superheroes have expanded along with cultural advancement. This piece of American Culture reflects a lot of the changes that our country has gone through, and we may continue to see how it change along with our society.
“The fundament of a superhero is the guy in tights saving innocent people from bad things. It’s amazing how infrequently that seems to happen in superhero comics these days.” – Frank Miller