Into the Comic World: Superman and American Anxieties in the Great Depression

A young boy reading a Superman comic book | courtesy of Wikimedia commons

Winner of the Fall 2016 StMU History Media Award for

Best Featured Image

Best Article in the Category of “United States History”

During the Great Depression and World War II, most Americans wanted to find happiness in anything. Throughout this era, there were not many places people could find happiness; so they began looking for entertainment in books. However, these were not just any ordinary types of books; they were indeed comic books.

Cover of Superman Issue 1 | Summer 1939 | Art by Joe Shuster | Courtsey of Wikimedia Commons
Cover of Superman Issue 1 | Summer 1939 | Art by Joe Shuster | Courtsey of Wikimedia Commons

Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson was the founder of the first comic magazine, which was called New Fun. Although his comic did poorly, Malcolm was able to create a company called Detective Comics. The company was able to create a new magazine called Action Comics, founded in 1937.1 But before Malcolm was able to publish the new magazine, he fell into bankruptcy. Disregarding his personal setback, the company carried on without his involvement. The first issue in Action Comic was published in 1938. The comic consisted of an abnormal man who had incredible strength and wore a skintight suit, commonly known as Superman. In the span of a year, Superman had received his own book title and sold over 1.2 million copies per issue. It later became a radio show in 1940, opening with the phrase “It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s…Superman!”2 Eventually other publishers began developing their own superheroes as well. The second comic, which was produced in 1939, is the now popularly known comic series Marvel Comics. By 1940’s Superman was joined by other heroes such as: the Human Torch, the Sub-Mariner, Batman, the Flash, and Wonder Woman.3 In fact, Wonder Woman was meant to represent the importance of women in the war effort. During the boom of new superheroes being created, Superman was still the most popular of them all.

A picture of Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson in uniform | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
A picture of Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson in uniform | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately the comic industry was attacked by educators, psychiatrists, journalist, and even the federal government.  They believed comics had no beneficial outcomes for society; instead of bringing entertainment, they were promoting ideas of violence and crime. They also believed that not only did the comics bring harmful thoughts to young minds, but the thin paper was supposedly destroying their eyesight.4 Despite the numerous complaints, Congress took no legal action against the publishers of the books. With this incident, it helped create a trade system, known as the Comic Codes, to help prevent indecency in the industry.5

No one could have guessed that comic books would have created some issues for years to come. For example, various art teachers discovered that the students who disliked and were performing poorly in art class, were the same students who had an interest in comic books; they were often getting into trouble for sketching comics instead of paying attention.6 The students wanted to get away from reality and what better way to do so than by creating your own story-line in a comic book?

That is the whole reason comic books were created, to help distract people from the tough times they were experiencing in life. That is why most people enjoyed them, because they wanted to escape reality by reading about situations that could never happen in real life, by flooding the minds of people of all ages with imagination. It is not hard to see why Americans would be very entertained by the concept of superheroes; they were created to help prevent disasters and to comfort those who were frightened by real-world events. For that reason this era was the perfect time for comic books to emerge. Some people were opposed to them, but in general they helped society in several ways. Although comics may not be as popular as they once were, it gave Americans a new world to discover, even if it was just imaginary.

  1.  Alan Brinkley, American History: Connecting with the Past Volume 2, 15 edition (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education, 2014), 676.
  2. Brinkley, American History: Connecting with the Past Volume 2, 676.
  3. Brinkley, American History: Connecting with the Past Volume 2, 676.
  4.  Robert L. Coard, “The Comic Book in Perspective,” Peabody Journal of Education 33, no. 1 (1955): 18.
  5. Brinkley, American History: Connecting with the Past Volume 2, 677.
  6.  Jay Berkowitz and Todd Packer, “Heroes in the Classroom: Comic Books in Art Education,” Art Education 54, no. 6 (2001): 12.
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  • What an interesting topic. It’s amazing to think that the universe we hold so dearly now, the Marvel Universe, was created out of the Great Depression, serving as a peaceful distraction from the financial struggles the American people were going through at the time. I wasn’t aware of the backlash the comics had from so many communities, and the government. Although the writer didn’t note the surge of comics in modern day entertainment, I can see them serving the same purpose and more.

  • This article is really enjoyable and very interesting. I am glad that comic books were available during the Great Depression and the second world war. It shows how comic books can be a great escape from reality when things are not going well. It is also amazing how Wonder Woman gave off a sense of empowerment, and turned into a show. I also like that Superman was there to keep giving the children an idea of how strong they could be.

  • This article really shows the unique origins of comics. It is almost sad to think that comics were used as an “escape” from the harsh world at the time, but it is happy to see them develop in to a thing of pure entertainment. I was unaware of wonder woman’s relation to the war. Being a figure of female importance at that time is a very important example.

  • Although comics can be seen as a way to entertain the public, the comics back then were more political than anything. Amid the the second world war, many of these old comics did promote violence against the enemy and can be considered as propaganda. Nonetheless, superheroes did bring hope to the American people during times of war. I am glad Wonder Woman was created to emphasize the importance of women in the war, who filled in the jobs men had before the war and also helping with manufacturing for the war.

  • This was an interesting article to read. I really like that the article told us how comic began and how Superman was created. I never knew that comics were attacked by educators, journalist, psychiatrist and the Federal Government. That was surprising to me. But overall this was an interesting article that told us about at time in US history when Americans needed something happy.

  • I thoroughly enjoyed this article. It was set up well enough to have the reader intrigued and the subtopics to support the main topic were spread out nicely. As for the topic itself, I thought comic books were famous before the Great Depression and WWII but I thought it was amazing that people went to comic books a way of relief from the harsh world they lived in. I also liked that they made Wonder Woman into comic to show the support women have and, even though, it wasn’t as famous as Superman, it still shows the effort of women.

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