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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90 Comments

  • This was a very interesting article on the impact of comic books during the Great Depression. It is amazing that the comic book character of Superman would be so popular today, and had influence on many of today’s superhero movies, comics, and t.v. shows. It is good that the Americans used comic books as a distraction to what they were faced with in terms of the Great Depression. Overall, this article was very well-written.

  • This was a good read on comics, I never knew the origin of comic books and I never realized how important they were to people during that time. It is sad that Malcom had to file for bankruptcy and couldn’t continue with something he started. It is also crazy how the government and psychologist weren’t okay with the comic books and believed that they promoted violence. Comic books are something that is not very common now but back then helped the people get through a rough time in history.

  • This was an interesting article, I liked how the author explained the origins of comics, and the relevance to World War II. I had no idea that Wonder Woman was supposed to represent the role of women during wartimes – that was quite the surprise, and I really liked learning about this new information.However, I wish there was a follow up on Macolm, and how big the industry is now regarding Superman and other comic book heros. Great article overall.

  • I have always loved comic books. Superman by far is the most popular in history. I never knew that he was the first comic to get his own title and essentially was the first super hero ever created. I also didn’t know that Wonder Woman was created to show the importance of women during the war effort. Of course these action packed comics can get distracting, but no matter what there will always be distractions so you can’t really blame it all on comic books. This article was very informative and captured my attention as soon as I read the title.

  • I loved this article, although I could have done without so much Superman. As an avid lover of literature and even more so, a lover of creative expression, the advent of comic books has always been something that has interested me. Just as well, to say that my boyfriend is a huge Spider-Man fanatic would be an understatement. Comic books have become quite a part of my life now as a result of my boyfriend’s unending deluge of trivia and knowledge on the subject, and this article has served as a great resource for a new conversation on the matter.

  • Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, a name I am not to familiar with, but despite my lack of knowledge this man was the creator of a revolutionary comic book series. I admire the way you wrote this article, it was more of a personal view rather than an informative article. Points were addressed such as the history, founders of comic books, and the effect it had on society, but you really grabbed my attention when you began speaking about the children. These kids were looking for an outlet, they were seeking a hero that was nonexistent and fictional, they wanted to experience a fantasy world. Comic books were an escape from reality for them. Well done.

  • Despite many of the disputes surrounding Batman it is clear that both his origins and the processes in which the original creators worked were vastly different to how comic books are produced today. Both Superman and Batman ushered in a fresh medium that had not been practiced before and therefore the legislations in place resulted in creators often losing properties, being discredited or naively signed over to their publishers. However, the origins of the character have as much resonance today as they ever have a heroic character that fights for honour and the greater good during a time that has its own, deep-rooted issues. Batman endures because writers, artists and editors have not only continued to contribute to his world but, most importantly, have not forgotten that he functions as a man, not a superman and with that are the flaws we all carry.

  • Comic books to me was just pages meant to be read for entertainment purposes. I knew that World War II and the Great Depression was an uncomfortable topic to talk about so for families to read the comics for a sense of comfort to distract themselves of the disaster around them amazes me.

  • Comic books boosted my creativity and helped me keep going in harsh times. I learned how to be passionate about helping others and got to know that not giving up always gives results. I don’t know how could comic books could have represented a concern while there was a war. Comic books relieved people from tension and positive lessons for kids. Without comic books, I could not have met lots of friends I have today, they represent an important and happy life of my childhood and I’m glad they didn’t disappear.

  • I had known why comic books were created, but it was not till I sat down and actually read and comprehended how import comic books were at the time. People painted the idea of comic books the way they paint video games today, nothing but evil, but in actuality comic books as well as video games provide people with a distraction from any hardships in their life and an escape from reality. While there are some instances where comic books can be viewed as a negative, that isn’t what they are entirely composed of, they were created with good intentions at heart.

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