Superman was the first superhero to introduce Americans to a new role for their government. Unlike the grandiose spectacle of the hero’s current cinematic iterations, Superman’s first appearance in 1938 showed him combating social issues. In the debut issue of Action Comics, he saved a woman from death row who had been wrongly accused, prevented a domestic abuser from further harming his wife and stopped a gangster from blackmailing a senator.
Delivering justice, protecting family and stopping corruption, Superman represented the newly expanded New Deal state. His immense power could seem threatening — after all, an unstoppable alien could just as easily be villain as hero — but Superman vowed to use his powers only to advance the greater good and fight pervasive social ills. He had an infallible moral compass and an unquenchable desire to make the world a safer and fairer place.
At a time when President Franklin D. Roosevelt made bold claims of leadership and executive power, Superman mirrored the benefits for American society, embodying the palpable determination of an administration calling for “action, and action now.” Admonishing the greed and selfishness of the Roaring Twenties, the Roosevelt administration swiftly enacted laws and executive orders aimed at protecting and assisting those most vulnerable in society, such as the Social Security Act, the Wagner Act (which protected unions) and the formation of the U.S. Housing Authority.
In the pages of the comics, Superman did the same. Stories like “The Blakely Mine Disaster” and “Superman in the Slums” highlighted issues surrounding the right of the worker to a safe working environment and the need for adequate housing.
If Superman helped readers adjust to the sweeping social reforms of New Deal America, another superhero — Captain America — prepared them for war. Making his first appearance for Marvel (then known as Timely Comics) in March 1940, this indefatigable patriot represented “the American ideal — individual freedom, individual responsibility, moral sensitivity, integrity, and a willingness to fight for right,” an editor wrote in one issue.
Both his costume and his iconic round shield were emblazoned with the Stars and Stripes of his home country. Captain America battled Nazis and any other villain who dared threaten the unquestionable divinity of a free world. Planting the seeds of American interventionism mere months before the attack on Pearl Harbor (and at a time when Roosevelt was struggling to convince Americans of the threat they faced), the superhero simultaneously embodied and protected the fusion of American identity and foreign policy.
On comic pages, Superman and Captain America championed American self-confidence at a time of international uncertainty. The Writers’ War Board understood this well. During World War II, the U.S. Office of War Information used comic books as propaganda tools to encourage brave and admirable depictions of America’s identity. On the cover of Captain America Issue No. 1, a fearless Captain delivers a knockout punch to Hitler, decrying fascism as “the menace of hate and oppression, of tyranny and evil which is sweeping over the world.” Superman, in turn, sought to raise money for the war by encouraging readers to buy war bonds to “knock out the Axis.”
These characters sold a particular version of the war and its aims: celebrating diversity, domestic cooperation between labor and business and an international role for the United States abroad. Contrasted against the evils of fascism, America became the antithesis to a gruesome ideology espoused by Nazi Germany and its contempt toward freedom, individuality and human rights.
And it worked. The overt patriotism of Captain America and Superman contributed to the confidence, morale and pocketbook of the Allied Powers. Their moral certainty stood in stark contrast to the chaos and anarchy ravaging the European continent, and it helped Americans adjust to a new internationalism that the war ushered in.
During a time of upheaval at home and the looming threat of war aboard, comic books fortified new interpretations of the American spirit and a burgeoning American hegemony. Superman and Captain America were idealized notions of the American character, notions that became deeply intertwined with U.S. foreign policy. These heroes acted as a vehicle through which America could explore, dissect and ultimately understand both its national character and, eventually, its Cold War foreign policy.
And so, perhaps as America’s international prestige diminishes and its national identity becomes more exclusionary for the first time in decades, we should revisit the pages of comic books and those early adventures of Superman and Captain America for inspiration. Their early stories cemented the vision of America as a righteous and noble leader of nations in the hearts and minds of readers, a vision either lost to antiquity or simply lying dormant. And it’s a vision that we must endeavor to resuscitate in a world once again yearning for moral leadership.
The United States once again finds itself at a momentous turning-point in history. By casting its gaze back to these influential stories from a time of great uncertainty, the nation has an opportunity to adjust its faltering course, reevaluate its core principles and strive anew for the virtuous and heroic identity it has long sought to champion.