This article is the first in a series I will be publishing over the next several weeks on Comic Books and Nationalism. Each week I will be exploring a different era in American comic books, from the Golden, Silver, and Bronze Ages into modern-day.
As a distinctly American art form, comic books have enjoyed a complicated history with nationalism. Over time, they have reflected the changing attitudes of Americans towards their nation, and have even embraced the viewpoint of writers from around the world about that relationship. From their earliest days, American comics books have straddled the line between the two warring political philosophies which have dominated the national dialogue. On one hand you have everyman heroes whose use of their powers for the public good is representative of a progressive ideal of collective service. On the other hand you have elite characters, usually from monied backgrounds, who espouse a libertarian ideal that money and individual power unleashed will lead to an improvement in quality of life for all.
Superman as the Avatar of FDR’s New Deal
The best reflection of the former is the proverbial “grand-daddy of them all”: Superman. First appearing in “Action Comics #1” in June of 1939, Superman has served as the gold standard for American super-heroes for over seven decades. In his early years under Seigel and Shuster, Clark Kent represented a champion of FDR’s new deal. In “Superman and Power“ Jeff Hayes described this version of the Man of Steel as an “inclusive humanist strongman embracing the core values of an America that can showcase for the rest of the world how to live in a country designed by, for, and with the people.” Though the character himself was raised in the American midwest, an area of the country most associate nowadays with the heart of conservative individualism, his creators came from the working-class neighborhoods of industrial powerhouse Cleveland. In Clark Kent, they created an avatar for an idealized version of the mid-western character. Superman was possessed of a tireless work ethic paired with an unwavering devotion to helping others. He embodied the idea that mid-westerners took care of themselves and their neighbors. He was an affirmation of the belief that personal responsibility applied not only to an individual’s responsibility to care for themselves, but to care for those who didn’t have the ability to go it alone.
Beyond simply his own agency, the young Superman championed the idea that government could be a force for good in protecting the weakest in society. In “Superman – The New Deal Symbol of the American Way,” Tessa Pribitkin points out that “[the] theme of a beneficent big government continued through all of the early Superman chronicles and reflected Siegel and Shuster’s faith in FDR’s New Deal.” Government employment, housing, and rehabilitation projects feature strongly throughout the early years of the character’s run, often with Superman as their defender and advocate. It is as if the creators were reminding the readership that, in a world which did not have an alien benefactor of its own, the super powers of government could be relied upon for assistance and hope (even if those agencies need the occasional push).
Batman as the Avatar of Wealth Unleashed
In stark contrast to Superman is his constant counterpart: Batman. Appearing almost simultaneously with his super-powered contemporary in May of 1939, Batman was a modern update on a classic theme embodied by such characters as Zorro and The Shadow, namely that of the wealthy aristocrat whose personal trauma leads them to take the law into their own hands. As the scion of his city’s oldest and most powerful family, Bruce Wayne embodied the power of wealth unleashed. In an era which saw the greatest concentration of wealth (until today), Batman was possessed of resources unmatched in the world. He was J. Pierpont Morgan, Thomas Edison, and Doc Savage all rolled into one. He could build massive facilities to support his vigilante enterprise, travel the world to accumulate knowledge and martial prowess, and tinker to his heart’s content to create the myriad gadgets and gizmos which filled his utility belt. Ultimately, though, his ends were self-serving. His heroism was born, not of an altruistic desire to help the common man, but of a personal need to exact vengeance on the criminal underworld which had robbed him of his parents.
Writing for ThinkProgress, Alyssa Rosenberg characterized this perfectly in “Batman, Downton Abbey, And the Radicalization of Elites,” stating:
There’s a world in which Bruce Wayne could have continued his father’s tradition of philanthropy, responding to Thomas’ death by giving away even more of the Wayne family fortune and giving it even more aggressively (I would be fascinated to know if there’s any textual evidence for what Thomas’ charitable priorities are) on anti-poverty, education, or gang prevention programs. Instead, he’s going out and fighting crime, an approach that may be geared at making a better Gotham, and that may give him a direct rather than delegated hand in that process, but that also lets him physicalize his emotional pain, and dish some out himself.
As the two most enduring characters in American comics, it is fitting that Batman and Superman each embody the ultimate aspiration of their respective political philosophies: the betterment of society. Whether for altruistic or personal reasons, each seeks to make their city and, by extension, their nation and the world a safer and more productive place to exist. A time goes on, the relationship between the two eventually evolves through the same stages as that of Americans who identify with those ideals: coexistence, cooperation, and opposition. While this series will not be limited exclusively to examination of Batman and Superman, that relationship will most certainly be explored as we progress through comics’ long history.