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The Connection Between Comic Book Superheroes And Americans

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Super-History: Comic Book Superheroes and American Society, 1938 to the Present is a comic book in which the author Jeffrey K. Johnson, a World War II historian for the Joint POW/MIA Accounting, explores the “ways that comic book superheroes have influenced and have been influenced by American political, social, and cultural events”. The book, according to Johnson, uses comic book superhero narratives to “chronicle major American social changes since the Great Depression until the present day”. Johnson also emphasizes that during the Great Depression, Americans blamed the system and lost trust in the government. He argues that Americans felt powerless, and therefore needed someone with extraordinary abilities to assure them that everything was going to be alright.

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At the beginning of the book, Johnson argues that the Great Depression and the Dustbowl left many Americans isolated, defenseless and jobless. He highlights that Americans lost trust in the government, and it was their prerogative that the “system had failed and the government was unable to fix it”. Thus leading them to seek for a Great Depression social avenger. Someone that would fight on their behalf and protect them. Introducing Superman, the first Great Depression hero that debuted in 1938 and it was created by two teenagers from Cleveland. Superman’s mission was to fight against “injustices and punish wrongdoers”(7-8). As people were requesting more Superman’s stories, a new U.S. president was elected. Franklin Delano Roosevelt the nation’s new president was able to gain people’s trust and promised them better their lives and combat the Great Depression. Average Americans started perceiving FDR as a hero just like Superman. Johnson then introduces Batman, a new superhero that unlike Superman did not have superpowers. Batman represented a “common person helping herself or himself” through hard work and intelligence.

Eventually Johnson introduces Captain America, a new superhero that “showcases a nation transitioning from the horrors of the Great Depression to the challenges of fighting a world war”. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and the fact that Germany declared war against the U.S. and they wanted back everything they lost during WWI, the U.S. without any other option joined WWII. Jonhson argues that Captain American, the nation’s newest hero main objective was “to battle the forces that threatened the United States, and his first target was Hitler”. Jonhson then asserts changes in Superman and Batman characters. Superheroes were no longer allowed to “act and speak freely”. They became patriots and law abiding just like regular citizens.

He then iterates the post-war effects of the atomic bombs the U.S. government had dropped on Japan during WWII. He argues that society changed as a result of the bombs, and superheroes “now had to adjust to a world that contained nuclear weapons”. Not only superheroes had to adjust but a new perspective about them was gained. Superheroes comic book heroes were now less powerful. Additionally, the government and American citizens worried that the Soviet could launch nuclear bombs on them they started teaching “schoolchildren about nuclear fear”.

As the country became more structured, Johnson argues that “Americans no longer needed superheroes as they once did”. He then points out that U.S World War II veterans returned home to a secured nation and extremely different from the one they left. The nation was peaceful and stable but there was a generation gap. With no room for superheroes in this new America, some comic book companies went out of business leaving DC Comics leading the arena of creating superhero stories that featured “conservative heroes that promoted patriotism and family values”. But soon Marvel Comics too started publishing superhero stories as a result of DC Comics success with the Justice League of America, a superhero team.

Just as everything was running smoothly, a revolution happens. Some Americans were starting to feel left out and that their interests did not align with the government. “War, riots, and social unrest upset the nation’s delicate balance”. Jonhson highlights that “Ohio National Guard fired on several unarmed students at Kent State University, killed four and wounded nine” for protesting U.S military invasion in Cambodia. Prior to that Martin Luther King a civil rights leader was also assassinated in 1968. With all of the chaos that took place, when everything was settled, meaning no more threat from the Soviet Union or Cold war, the U.S. found itself searching for a new direction, a way forward.

Reiterate that when society changes, superheroes too, because they need to adapt to these changes. Johnson points out that in the search for a way forward, a significant change between two longtime rivals comic book publishers, DC and Marvel happened. DC and Marvel did a crossover, they “merged and created a single universe which shares traits from both Marvel and DC stories” but eventually each company decided to follow its own path. Some superheroes from both companies died or retired, and new heroes were introduced.

Johnson concludes the book addressing the fear and uncertainty Americans faced as a result of the 2000 U.S presidential election, and the terrorist attack of 9/11. He argues that “Americans were angered and confused about the 2000 election” and that they lost faith in a political system they entrusted for years. Regarding the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Johnson argues that the attacks “cemented widespread national feelings of terror”. Americans started living in fear of another terrorist attack, and believed that a terrorist could be elsewhere planning the next target. Both Marvel and DC began creating stories “that mirrored American society’s fear and frustration”. Johnson finally argues that fear not only dominated citizens, but it also “shocked and frightened comic book superheroes just as they had terrorized the rest of the nation”. Meaning once again, Superheroes were as uncertain and afraid as the rest of the nation, just like they were during WWII.

On the whole, without a shadow of a doubt, Jeffrey K. Johnson with this book explores the traits or link between comic book superheroes and Americans. Johnson’s work narrates the role superheroes played in American lives, during the Great Depression, World War II and last, but not least the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The book depicts the changes in character that superheroes suffered as the American society changed. I think that Johnson fulfilled his intention; which was to inform and demonstrate to readers how comic book superhero stories reflected changes in American society. Overall, I liked the book and recommend it. In my view, the book is a great source of information for people seeking to know more about, why and how superheroes like Superman, Batman, Captain American etc., are related to the history of the U.S. 

09 March 2021

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