While Superman and several of his costumed comic book peers had begun their careers as champions of the downtrodden, their focus changed with the advent of World War II. Soon, superheroes were racing each other to jump aboard the jingoistic bandwagon and demand the total destruction of America’s enemies overseas. There was little room left for any character still trying to point out problems on the home front. But even though most comic book writers and artists of this period were producing a seemingly endless supply of pro-war adventures, some of them—whether intentionally or not—created comics that exposed the horrors and injustice of war hidden beneath pageantry and propaganda.
All that glitters
December 7, 1941, may have been a “day of infamy,” but it also ushered in a “Golden Age” of opportunity for superheroes. That is the name comic book historians have given to the industry’s formative years when a host of costumed characters was unleashed on young readers eager to share the excitement of the times. Before America’s entry into WWII, Superman had stopped two fictional wars on humanitarian grounds, due to the massive death and suffering all armed conflicts inevitably cause. But once America joined the Allied Forces, he became a poster child for the U.S. war effort (mostly on comic book covers—the stories inside rarely addressed the war, which Superman had already twice demonstrated he would have been able to end in a day).
Reflecting the nation’s sense of outrage in the aftermath of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, grotesque caricatures of the Japanese replaced corrupt Americans as the villain of choice (German Nazis, although usually portrayed as buffoonish or sometimes monstrous, were generally not depicted with the same type of racist imagery). Meeting the “yellow hordes” head on, legions of Golden Age superheroes brutally dispatched the enemy in droves.
Sometimes almost literally draped in the flag, a host of super patriots—including the Fighting Yank, Minute Man, Major Victory, the Spirit of ‘76, and even Uncle Sam himself—gleefully leapt into the fray. The most famous of these star-spangled heroes is Captain America. Almost a full year before the United States went to war against Germany, this “Sentinel of Liberty” showed up on the cover of his first comic book socking Hitler in the jaw. But the political daring of Jewish creators Joe Simon and legendary artist Jack “King” Kirby ended with this first strike against Aryan tyranny. Happy to attack the Nazi Party’s evil agenda, even while our own government at the time was still indifferent to it, neither Captain America nor any of his peers so much as questioned such U.S. “Reich-like” practices as the racial segregation in the military, the turning away of Jewish refugees, the unconstitutional imprisonment of 6,000 conscientious objectors and internment of 110,000 Japanese-Americans, or the incineration of an estimated 150,000-250,000 men, women, and children in the twin atomic holocausts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Even though no superhero at the time dared to speak out against these acts, some did add a plea for restraint to the comic book crusaders praising the glories of war. Apparently worried that they might be taken as wimps, writers often gave these less belligerent superheroes extremely combative names. Bombshell—a product of publisher Lev Gleason—was charged with a mission of peace (oddly enough) by his father Mars, the Roman god of war. Bombshell was equipped with a magic sword that was incapable of drawing blood, but could slice through Panzers, U-boats, and Stukas as if they were made of tin foil. Other anti-war superheroes included Centaur Publications‘ paradoxically named Man of War (also a creation of the god Mars), and the android, Manowar (sometimes known as White Streak), published by Funnies Inc. Manowar/White Streak described himself as “a keeper of peace, breaker of war mongers who fight for profit with men’s lives as pawns.” Despite their noble ideals, these comparative pacifists (who had nothing against using their fists in pursuit of world peace) were quickly overshadowed by their more bloodthirsty peers and soon faded into obscurity. But their cause was not lost.
The Justice Society of America (JSA) was the world’s first superhero team. When it debuted on the cover of All Star Comics #3 in the winter of 1940, the JSA’s original roster included the Atom, Doctor Fate, the Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, Hourman, the Sandman and the Spectre. While promoting the Allied effort as earnestly as any, the JSA often pointed out the tragic nature of WWII through stories that focused on war orphans (issue #7, 1941) the starving masses of occupied Europe (issue #14, 1942), or disabled veterans (issue #27, 1945).
In All-Star Comics #16 (1943), the members of the Justice Society of America—which by then included Wonder Woman, Doctor Mid-Nite and Starman—campaigned to denounce racism, religious intolerance and classism as tools exploited by the Nazi’s to divide a united America. In All-Star Comics #22 (1944), they encouraged citizens young and old to embrace tolerance and understanding as the defining characteristics of our nation. The last page of this story serves as an interesting historical and cultural artifact. It shows the JSA leading an auditorium full of children in a Pledge of Allegiance that is missing the phrase “under God,” which wasn’t added until 1954 (proving that, if the Greatest Generation’s godless allegiance to their country was good enough to defeat the Axis Powers, it should be good enough for today’s Americans).
The super group encouraged young people to practice what the JSA preached with a radical pledge of its own that was included in the membership application sent to readers who paid 25¢ to join the Junior Justice Society of America. Stressing the JSA’s idea of a just society, this 1942 document asked young members to promise:
“. . . to help keep our country united in the face of enemy attempts to make us think we Americans are all different because we are rich or poor, employer or worker, White or Negro, native or foreign born, Gentile or Jew, Protestant or Catholic. . .”
Unfortunately, these high ideals were short-lived. World War II ended with two atomic bangs that sounded the death knell for superheroes who questioned the status quo. In fact, by the time the mushroom clouds of V-J Day had cleared, the stampede of comics’ initial superhero gold rush was already losing steam. Peacetime publishers were turning instead to humor, romance, western, horror, and true crime comics as principle sources of profit. They had no way of knowing that the enemy the JSA had warned of would soon strike from within our own borders.
Next, Part 5: The big chill.