For better and worse, World War II changed the world forever. The reactions to the conflict’s horrors, the ideological clash it represented and the harsh realities of living through an all-consuming war affected everyone, and this was reflected perfectly in comic books.
Between 1938 and the early 1950s, the comic book industry thrived in what’s been called The Golden Age of Comic Books. While no one knew it at the time, what the comic book industry went through in this era went on to shape the pop culture of most of a century.
10 Some Of DC & Marvel Comics’ Most Famous Icons Were Born From The War
If not for WWII and the very specific climate that it birthed, many of today’s most beloved superheroes wouldn’t even exist. Early versions of Black Widow, The Human Torch (left), Namor, and The Vision appeared between 1939 and 1940, while many of DC Comics’ key heroes and teams– specifically The Justice Society of America– emerged in the same time frame.
One of the Golden Age’s most famous heroes was Batman, who debuted in 1939. Interestingly, Batman wasn’t created as a superhero, but a pulp vigilante like The Shadow. Not all of these heroes were made explicitly for propaganda purposes, but they were all used to promote everything from enlistment to war bonds, thus cementing their historical relevance.
9 The Patriotic Hero Fad Began During The War
Superheroes as they’re known today are a primarily American invention, with many of them made explicitly for propaganda. Miss America, Miss Patriot, The Shield, Uncle Sam, and more proudly wore the American colors to battle. Meanwhile, costumed crime fighters like Batman, Black Terror, the Justice Society, and others joined in their own ways.
However, when nationalistic hype died down near the war’s end, patriotic heroes faded from the spotlight. The only one to survive was Captain America, who was and still is the Golden Age’s most famous patriot. Captain America was such a hit with readers that he was rebooted into Marvel Comics in the 1960s, while his compatriots were forgotten by time.
8 Sidekicks Took Comic Books By Storm
While it may not be as prevalent as it once was, the idea of a sidekick is one of the oldest superhero tropes. To get kids to buy comics, creators added teenaged sidekicks for the intended audience to project themselves into. The first major sidekick was Robin the Boy Wonder, who first fought alongside Batman in 1940 and gave rise to an entire trend.
After Robin’s debut, almost every superhero adopted a teenaged sidekick. Hindsight, however, was not kind to sidekicks, thanks to uncomfortable subtexts (i.e. an adult man hanging out with a minor) that were hard to ignore. Spider-Man, a solo teenaged crime fighter, effectively killed the need sidekick in the 1960s. Meanwhile Robin and other remaining sidekicks followed Spidey’s lead to become successful teenaged heroes on their own. Bucky Barnes, on the other hand, became the villainous Winter Soldier.
7 The Superhero Genre Exploded In Popularity
In 1938, Superman made his first appearance in Action Comics #1 and changed popular culture forever. Without exaggeration, Superman defined the modern superhero, setting the standards and tropes for all to follow. Rival publishers then made their own Superman, thus defining the Golden Age with characters who were a combination of tough pulp heroes and imaginative sci-fi adventures.
One of the most well-known clones was Fawcett Comics’ Captain Marvel (aka Shazam), who even outsold his predecessor. Of the possibly hundreds of Superman clones, only he and Captain Marvel made it out of the post-war years. Superheroes were deemed corny in the ‘50s, before they saw a resurgence in the ’60s thanks to the public’s interest in fantastical sci-fi, especially those set in space.
6 Superheroes’ Moral Codes Were Established By The War
For many, WWII is the last “good war” since the lines between good and evil were seemingly so clearly drawn. Nowhere was this clearer than in the comics of the time, since readers wanted to see good (the Allies) triumph over evil (the Axis) no matter the odds. Comics creators answered, imbuing their stories with a strong sense of right and wrong that outlived the war.
Golden Age heroes were almost always relentless vigilantes of democracy and freedom, righteously fighting social injustices like hate and fascism everywhere. While the fervor tempered in favor of nuance, the Golden Age’s moralities never left. A good example is the modern Captain America, the Marvel universe’s last bastion of antiquated altruism and values.
5 World War II Gave Birth To Superman
While it may not be too obvious now, Superman wouldn’t be around if not for the climate that led to WWII. In brief, Jewish creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman in part as a rejection of Nazism’s evils and to empower the oppressed. Where Superman was embraced by the Allies, he was predictably banned in Nazi Germany.
In America, Superman was an important propaganda figure who pushed worthwhile causes (like war bonds) and terribly outdated ones (like bigotry against Asians). Even devoid of his original wartime context, Superman continues to inspire the best in today’s comic creators, readers, and other characters. Without Superman, today’s superheroes wouldn’t exist.
4 Strong Female Characters Reflected An Important Paradigm Shift
Because most men were at war, women moved into a previously male-centered workforce. This led to a rise in female empowerment, which was reflected in comic books as well. Slice-of-life tales and romances starred assertive, career-focused women, while superhero comics introduced powerful heroines like Fantomah, Sheenah and, of course, Wonder Woman.
These strides for women’s representation regressed in the ’50s, when moral guardians argued that empowered heroines encouraged moral decay. In compliance, the Silver Age’s creators wrote women more conservatively or not at all. Arguably, this birthed the comic industry’s male-dominated landscape that’s only just recently began facing a belated reexamination and reckoning.
3 Comics Became A Viable Entertainment Business
Before 1938, comics were just a disposable novelty. But when sales and demand for Action Comics #1 and its ilk exploded, comics were suddenly viewed as a potential goldmine. The pros outweighed the cons: Comics were cheap to produce, portable for buyers, fun for fans both at home and abroad, and an easy way to spread wartime ideals and nationalism.
For example, Captain Marvel’s solo imprint– Captain Marvel Adventures– sold almost 14 million copies alone in 1944, printing 1.3 million issues every two weeks at the height of his popularity. Comics became so lucrative that publishers turned their spin-off comic arms into stand-alone firms, setting the groundwork for the modern comic book industry.
2 Comics Became A Mainstream Artform
Regardless of genre, comics weren’t taken seriously at their infancy. This changed during WWII, where the sudden demand for them necessitated tons of talent. Creators of all stripes flocked to comics to try their luck out, even if it would be years before creators’ rights were acknowledged and respected. While some succeeded, others went as far as setting the rules and conventions that legitimized comics as a storytelling medium.
A sure sign of the changed perspective is how influential comic artists and writers are now treated as celebrities or legends. One of the Golden Age’s titans was Jack Kirby, also known as “The King.” Kirby is best known for creating Captain America with Joe Simon, fighting for artists’ rights, and taking an artistic hiatus to fight in the war between 1943 and 1945.
1 World War II’s End Almost Ended The Comic Book Industry
As reward for being an important and irreplaceable facet of America’s popular culture and war effort, comic books were almost banned for good. In 1954, Dr. Fredric Wertham published Seduction Of The Innocent, which theorized that comics– not post-war economic realities or inevitable societal changes– caused the decade’s wave of juvenile delinquency.
Comics as a business and artform would survive Wertham’s now-debunked accusations and the Comics Code Authority’s domineering, but World War II’s end also signaled the Golden Age’s end. While comics are enjoying an all-time high these days, the free-spirited and gold rush high of the wartime days are long over.
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