Ancient Origins of Superheroes (06:21)
The Great Depression created a need for escape and heroes; 1930 pulp heroes included "The Shadow," "Doc Savage," and "Zoro." Influenced by these heroes and other cultural icons, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman in 1932, and Action Comics #1 published it five years later.
Hero of the Working Man (04:50)
As unemployment and inequality grew in America, Superman fought against corruption and poor working conditions. Within a year, Superman had his own comic, radio show, and TV series. From the destroyed planet Krypton, Superman's story is that of an immigrant who is accepted by and gives back to American society.
By 1939, Superman was still a symbol of hope, but faced new challenges. In response to growing crime in American cities, Bob Kane and Bill Finger created Batman, a dark hero of the night. After witnessing his parents' murder, Bruce Wayne dedicates himself to fighting crime as Batman, making his tragedy meaningful.
Divided American Psyche (03:06)
Wayne is a more human superhero, battling inner demons. The Joker epitomizes crazy urban violence, but also reflects what Wayne could have become. Superman is positive and idealistic, whereas Batman is realistic and dark; the dichotomy reflects the growing divide between rural and urban in America.
Captain America (05:30)
Though the U.S. remained neutral as Hitler rose to power, comic books, especially by Jewish writers and artists, did not. Timely Comics hired Joe Simon, and Jack Kirby to create Captain America, a hero that pushed the U.S. to fight against Nazi Germany. Steve Rogers starts out as an idealistic youth too small to join the army, but his drive and a special serum make him a super soldier.
Wonder Woman (04:24)
Without a mask or a shield, Wonder Woman empowered women when they were entering the workforce during WWII. She comes from an island of immortal Amazon women; when a soldier lands on her shores, she is compelled to leave with him to help fight the Nazis. Superman and other characters served as propaganda for the war effort.
Censorship and Code of Conduct (09:04)
After the war, comic book superheroes lost their symbolic power; women returned home, and Wonder Woman became more feminine. As the Cold War developed, cultural and political conformity led by McCarthyism created a suspicion of comic books. To survive, the comic book industry created a code of conduct.
Space Travel (05:51)
When John F. Kennedy became president, a new generation was rebelling against conservatism. Inspired by the public fascination with space travel and science, Stan Lee created the Fantastic Four. Atlas re-branded as Marvel, releasing a series of more human, fallible superheroes, including the X-Men, Thor, and the Hulk.
Spider-Man embodies the counter culture developing among youth in the 1960s. Peter Parker is a quiet teenager who gets bitten by a radioactive spider. He has relatable problems and is not immediately a hero.
Evolving Superheroes (02:35)
Youth counter culture embraced the Marvel heroes, rejecting conformity. Bill Dozier created a comedic Batman TV show that seemed to mock Batman, shocking many fans. The Vietnam War and Civil Rights movement called for a new tone and political awareness. Black Panther and Falcon became the first black superheroes, and in the 1970s, Wonder Woman became a symbol of feminism.
Transformation of a Hero (05:28)
As the Watergate crisis unfolded, Steve Englehart created a new Captain America who fought the political establishment. Captain America confronts the villain and reveals him to be the president; dismayed and confused, he becomes the Nomad. This major change for a comic book hero reflected the turmoil and doubt in the country.
Superman Movie (06:33)
At the end of the 1970s, Superman returned in a feature film; Christopher Reeve had the most sincere approach to the role. After a period of war and corruption, America welcomed the kindness and integrity of this American symbol. The original Superman creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, fought to regain some credit.
Batman Returns (04:01)
In the 1980s, America entered a period of optimism, and Captain America resumed his role; poverty and crime were rising. Artist Frank Miller re-imagined Batman with "The Dark Knight Returns." Tim Burton made a feature Batman film that became a commercial and cultural success.
Death of Superman (02:34)
As comic books became darker, Superman remained one of the few positive characters. In the 1990s, he died at the hands of the Doomsday monster. His death was a worldwide tragedy and illustrated his necessity.
Superheroes in the Wake of 9/11 (07:19)
In the 1990s, the media reinvented superheroes in feature films. The attacks on 9/11 brought widespread fear and a need for unification. John Cassaday re-designed Captain America for a series about the World Trade Center. With its New York hero, the Spider-Man movie was a huge success, followed by the Dark Knight trilogy.
Redefining Heroism (04:57)
Re-evaluating what it means to be a hero in the War on Terror, new superhero movies explored the complexity of freedom, fear, and good vs. evil. They were major productions with famous actors. The recent discovery that at 17, Jerry Siegel lost his father in a tragic crime, reaffirms that superheroes come from real lives and personal stories.
Credits: American Legends (00:43)
Credits: American Legends
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