Unmasking Superhero Creation Myths
A CultureMap®
by Cam Terwilliger
Published on 11/8/13

Born on a distant alien planet. Bitten by a radioactive spider. A product of government experimentation. Comic-book heroes rival one another for the most outlandish source of superpowers, but their creation myths often reflect the social anxieties of the eras that spawned them. This map investigates a few famous superheroes and how their origin stories reveal the evolving moods of the 20th century.

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to  Krypton

Superman’s father is a scientist who discovers that his home planet, Krypton, is about to explode; like any thoughtful paterfamilias, he stows his son aboard a rocket ship headed toward Earth. The ship crash-lands in a field in Kansas, where the wholesome Kent family finds and raises the young alien, teaching him to use his unique abilities to battle crime.

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two teenage science-fiction obsessives from Cleveland, dreamed up the Superman story, channeling their experience as the children of Jewish immigrants. Similar to the countless European Jews who emigrated to the U.S. to escape the World Wars, Superman also fled a place of ruination, a homeland he could never regain. Some critics see even deeper Judaic undertones, comparing Superman’s escape from Krypton to baby Moses’s basket-borne voyage down the Nile.

In any case, Superman is left with only one option: assimilation. According to Michael Chabon, author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000)—which takes place during the golden age of comics, when Siegel and Shuster thrived—the erasure of Superman’s Kryptonian name says a lot. “He leaves behind the vaguely Hebraic sounding Kal-El,” Chabon says, “and becomes Clark Kent, the ultimate American.”

to  World War II  (1939–1945)

In early issues, Superman embodies the preoccupations of the Great Depression—he even resembles FDR, albeit in tights. A warrior for the common people, Superman fights such foes as antilabor businessmen, crooked politicians, lynch mobs and wife beaters.

But soon enough Superman stops battling homegrown criminals to focus on Nazis. One early antifascist story line finds the Man of Steel getting to the bottom of World War II in a single issue, apprehending both Hitler and Stalin and spiriting them to the League of Nations to receive their just deserts. Many other heroes joined Superman in the war, including Wonder Woman, the Human Torch and Sub-Mariner. Known as the golden age of comics, this era saw the sale of superhero titles reach all-time highs.

Such popularity left its mark on Superman. Though he started out as a maverick and even a rebel, he soon became a symbol of the American mainstream—an image that only intensified in the postwar years. In the hero’s 1940s radio show, Superman’s goal was to fight a “never-ending battle for truth and justice.” In the ultraconformist 1950s, however, this famous phrase was amended to include “and the American way.”

World War II  (1939–1945)
to  Avengers

Of all the superheroes battling the Axis powers, one stands out as most emblematic of wartime fervor: Captain America, who began as a wimpy youngster named Steve Rogers. Rejected by the Army but nonetheless wanting to do his part, Rogers volunteers for a government experiment to create “supersoldiers” and takes a mysterious serum that turns him into a muscle-bound fighting machine. Making no attempt at subtlety, the cover of Cap’s inaugural issue portrays the hero pummeling Hitler in the face.

Captain America fell out of circulation after World War II, when readers lost interest in Nazi-vanquishing heroes. But in 1964 Marvel revived him for its newly minted superhero team, the Avengers. Consisting of Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk and three lesser-known characters (Rick Jones, Ant-Man and Wasp), the roster got a shot in the arm when they discovered Cap, who had been frozen in an Arctic ice block since 1945. After thawing, Captain America goes on to lead the team. Over the 1960s and ’70s, however, the Star-Spangled Avenger questions his patriotism as he finds himself in an increasingly conflicted relationship with the U.S. government, reflecting the era’s political ambivalence.

to  The Cold War  (1945–1991)

Fans of 2012’s Avengers love Robert Downey Jr.’s version of Iron Man—a fast talker who’s at home in the 21st century. But moviegoers may not realize this Avenger’s origins are deeply rooted in Cold War hysteria.

In issue 39 of Marvel’s Tales of Suspense (1963), Tony Stark is a military contractor charged with manufacturing new technologies to defeat the North Vietnamese. Stark, while visiting Vietnam, is eviscerated by a land mine and subsequently captured by communist warlord Wong-Chu. To save himself, the ostensibly helpless Stark agrees to build Wong-Chu a weapon of mass destruction. Of course, all along he plans on using his invention to escape. Stark engineers an armored “battle suit” that allows him to fly and fire hot oil from his hands. ’Nuff said. Iron Man trounces Wong-Chu and his minions in short order.

From 1963 to 1966, one out of three Iron Man comics featured communist enemies, such as Crimson Dynamo and Titanium Man (Soviet versions of Iron Man), as well as the Russian femme fatale and superspy Black Widow, who remained a villain until 1973, when the Avengers recruit her after her long-running romance with their bow-and-arrow-wielding comrade, Hawkeye.

The Cold War  (1945–1991)
to  Radiation

The nuclear arms race left Americans not only dreading the bomb but wondering about the effects of radiation. In the Marvel universe this preoccupation bubbled to the surface in the form of countless superheroes. Bitten by a radioactive spider, Peter Parker becomes Spider-Man; exposed to toxic waste, Matt Murdock becomes Daredevil; while piloting a spaceship, the Fantastic Four find themselves awash in strange solar radiation and gain a panoply of powers. But the Incredible Hulk’s origin story takes the cake. Socially awkward Bruce Banner is a scientist on a New Mexico military base. While testing his “gamma bomb,” Banner spots a teenager who, on a dare, has sneaked onto the test range. Banner rushes to push the boy to safety and in the process is exposed to immeasurable amounts of radiation. Afterward, Banner discovers that whenever he becomes angry his irradiated body morphs into a half-ton, green-skinned, rampaging monster—the Incredible Hulk. The fickleness of Banner’s ability recalls public concern about nuclear weapons themselves: Though the Hulk usually acts as a hero, there is an underlying unease to his character, the sense that he could just as easily use his power for evil.

to  X-Men

Like other Cold War franchises, the X-Men got their start from radiation. As the comic explains, increased nuclear testing caused a subset of children to be born as superpowered “mutants.” In essence, the X-Men’s powers are quasi-racial, the result of an “X-gene” all mutants share. A feared minority, these “children of the atom” are distinct from most heroes in that they are “hated and feared by those they are sworn to protect.”

Despite an auspicious beginning, the X-Men didn’t catch on during the 1960s. They didn’t find their voice until Marvel retooled the team during the more multicultural 1970s and ’80s to include characters of many different races and nationalities, such as Storm (an African queen), Nightcrawler (a demon-like West German) and Thunderbird (an invulnerable Apache). The revamped X-Men also showcases complex female heroes such as Jean Grey, Rogue and Shadowcat. In 1992 the X-Men spin-off Alpha Flight featured the first gay superhero, the superfast flying mutant Northstar. Over the decades, the underlying metaphor of the X-Men as a fringe, if diverse, group who must puzzle out problems together has allowed the team to investigate the need for—and the limits of—social tolerance.

The Cold War  (1945–1991)
to  X-Men

The original X-Men didn’t comment as directly on Cold War political tensions as did heroes such as Iron Man, but the prequel film X-Men: First Class (2011) attempts to make up for that with gusto. First Class pits the superhero team against the villain Sebastian Shaw, a mutant bent on provoking nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Once he reduces the globe to ashes, Shaw plans to build a new world order ruled entirely by mutants. Plumbing collective fears of the 1960s, First Class concludes in the middle of the Cuban missile crisis, with mutants battling on Cuba’s shore as American and Soviet naval fleets face off.

First Class reveals more about today’s tastes, however, than about the Cold War. Ever since the 2007 arrival of AMC’s hit TV show Mad Men, viewer nostalgia for the 1960s has been on the rise. Joining the ranks of (the short-lived shows) Pan Am, The Hour and The Playboy Club, the X-Men prequel appropriates 1960s counterculture, mod fashion and the JFK administration for its own ends. Viewers found the addition of superpowers to this source material interesting, and Marvel has slated a sequel, X-Men: Days of Future Past, for 2014.

to  Superman

Debuting in 1963, the Avengers were Marvel’s response to DC’s incredibly popular superhero team the Justice League of America, which brought together DC’s most famous characters: Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Aquaman, the Green Lantern, the Martian Manhunter and—that paragon of superheroes—Superman. Despite obvious similarities, the Avengers aren’t JLA clones. At the core, the Avengers inhabit a world of pessimism, while JLA inhabits a world of optimism. Most Justice League heroes, such as Superman, are upstanding near-gods, but the Avengers are relatively frail men and women who live in a world where superheroes are often feared and reviled. The 2008 crossover series JLA/Avengers explores these contrasting points of view. Existing in parallel universes, these teams collide when two all-powerful aliens pit them against each other for sport. After arriving in the Marvel universe, Aquaman remarks, “The heroes here seem less powerful, in general, than at home. And their world’s stacked against them—so it seems like they’ve just got to fight amazingly hard to keep things on an even keel.” Though there’s a place for both pessimism and optimism in comics, history shows us that what readers favor depends on the mood of the country.