Of Superheroes and Men

A new book plumbs the depths of how superhero comics reflect changes in American culture.

“Superhero comics are, to me, a consequence of the anxiety and desire associated with urbanization in the United States,” says Julian Chambliss, an associate professor of history at Rollins.

To hear Chambliss talk about the earliest generation of comic books, those that emerged following the intense and sometimes-chaotic urbanization of the early 20th century, you can almost make out subtle notes of religious themes.

“So the city is big, it’s huge,” he begins, “and city plans are an attempt to bring rationality. It’s a reimagining of the space in an orderly way that represents [people’s] values, their desires, their hopes. Comics do the same thing. They try to bring rationality to an urban environment that people know intrinsically is not rational: Bad things happen, you can’t depend on your neighbor, you might be killed randomly, and you aren’t safe. So they take those fears, and they create a narrative that mitigates or mediates those fears. People want there to be someone like Batman who will avenge them if they’re hurt. They want there to be someone like Superman who is their neighbor that will always look out for them.”

In other words, when the world is changing, we search for stability—something or someone to tell us it’s going to be all right. It is this insight into this subculture, and its reflection and representation of the larger American society, that led Chambliss and William Svitavsky, the College’s emerging services librarian and an associate professor, along with Thomas Donaldson of Edison State College to compile and release Ages of Heroes, Eras of Men, a collection of essays and analyses on superheroes, comic books, and their sundry interactions with American culture over the last century.

Chambliss began exploring the sociological underpinnings of comics and superheroes nearly a decade ago, when as a new professor at the College he was told he had to teach a Rollins Conference Course (RCC). He agreed to co-teach the class with Svitavsky but only if they could focus on superhero comics in America.

Svitavsky, like Chambliss, is a comic book geek and saw an opportunity to “actually make an academic identity out of this stuff that I obsess over all the time.” And while Chambliss focuses on the urbanization contexts of comics, Svitavsky looks closer at the literary interpretations.

They’d met during an end-of-the-year workshop Svitavsky was doing for faculty members on online resources. He was showing the professors the Wayback Machine, a web tool that allows users to look at archived websites, and offhandedly asked if anyone knew where the name came from. Chambliss did. It was the time machine that the dog Mr. Peabody and his boy Sherman used in the old Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoons.

They hit it off. But in teaching their RCC class, they discovered that no one had produced the kind of textbook they wanted. Sure, there were a few collections of writing and scholarship on comic books available, but none that put it all together. Chambliss and Svitavsky set about doing it themselves, issuing calls for submissions from scholars at conferences and eventually teaming up with Donaldson, who had started on a similar track as well. The book was finally released by Cambridge Scholars Publishing on July 1.

It’s an academic book, weighty and without pictures—surprising for a book about comics. The anthology traces the evolution of comic book superheroes from their foundational origins in the Progressive Era through rebirth during the Cold War and ongoing development and sophistication in recent decades.

The opening chapter, authored by Chambliss and Svitavsky, looks at the very first superheroes of the 1920s and ’30s: The Shadow, The Spider, the Phantom Detective, all “pulp WASPish heroes who pursued evildoers using superior physical and mental abilities to outthink and outfight their opponents,” they write. But these characters soon took on more supernatural, or at least superhuman, traits: In radio dramas The Shadow developed the ability to cloud men’s minds; Doc Savage, the Man of Bronze, was “a superman, a colossus of brawn and brain who has been trained scientifically from the day of his birth to follow his present career.” Doc Savage in particular was the embodiment of the “power of the white man’s potential” who “always uses his superior skills and intellect to defeat his enemies and solve problems,” they continue.

These characters kept evolving, reflecting of the wider culture. By 1940, in the midst of the Golden Age of Comics, the characters had transcended pulp literature into their own subgenre, the superhero, who like the earlier pulp heroes fought evil and had secret identities. “As the mid-20th century approached,” Chambliss and Svitavsky write, “American imagination had been increasingly shaped by an urban life amidst ethnic diversity and technological change. … Though Golden Age comic book creators provided Americans with new heroic narratives addressing concerns raised by modernity, they fell back upon entrenched patterns by asserting white male superiority. These cultural assumptions were complicated, however, by questions arising from modern urban life.”

Those complications played out especially vividly in the characters of Batman and Superman, who battled crime in Gotham City and Metropolis, respectively. But as the times changed, so too did comics, as the anthology explains. During World War II, Batman and Superman were shown fighting the Axis Powers. During the Cold War, comic books featured characters like Captain America, a hero of World War II and a “commie smasher,” and were unabashedly nationalistic. But then as the Red Scare subsided into the social upheaval of the 1960s, comics reflected this turn of interest—fewer communist villains, more stories about racism, the environment, child abuse, and drug addiction. In the 1970s, Iron Man, the very embodiment of American wealth and strength, a character that once denounced any opposition to the American government, sides with young people protesting in the streets: “While Iron Man began his career as cold warrior,” Chambliss writes, “by 1975, the consequences of Cold War assumptions are troubling the character, as they are the country.”

And these characters are still evolving to this day. As issues change, so do they: Concepts of race and white American male supremacy have waned; after 9/11 the U.S. Army distributed its pro-enlistment message through Marvel Comics, which itself had struck a neoconservative tone, “pushing nationalism and convoluting ‘hero’ and ‘soldier’ by continually having U.S. soldiers take on the mantel of superhero and having superheroes joining paramilitary or military organizations,” Michael J. Lecker writes in one of the book’s chapters; modern comics are grappling with race and gender and sexuality.

“I think comics stand as representative objects of the American cultural experience,” Chambliss says. “They are uniquely American, the superhero comic genre is uniquely American, and this book is focused on that. As a consequence, understanding the evolution of that genre gives you a sense of both the persistence of certain values associated with the American experience and how those values contend with changing circumstances facing the nation.”