Essay: Analysis of superhero story-telling in comics

Welcome! This is another piece from our series of blog posts which showcases our ability to research and write various different types of content. Here’s an analysis that Steff conducted on superhero story-telling a few months ago. 

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On a surface level, superhero story-telling may appear to fulfil the wishes and desires of modern-day readers. In this sense, superheroes may be perceived as a social role model and influences people to identify with them, trace their steps and reflect their best traits. This essay will illustrate that superhero story-telling is tightly intertwined with social attitudes. In particular, the essay seeks to argue that superheroes both reflect the times in which they are created whilst also suggesting a better future. To begin, the essay will firstly explain what it means to be a superhero, drawing on the history of superheroes in comics. Next, the essay will critically analyse the evolution of Captain America as a superhero in the context of changing social attitudes. The second section will explain Captain America’s appearance amidst World War II and how he influenced America’s involvement in the war. Next, the essay will explain how popular culture, specifically Captain America, is able to influence and reflect societal values to such a high degree. As follows, this point will be illuminated through Captain America’s depiction of Watergate and how it resonated with him. Finally, the essay will explain the portrayal of same-sex relationships in the Captain America comic series as an example of how superhero story-telling reflects and seeks to shape social attitudes.

A prominent theme that emerges throughout the study of superhero comics is that they adapt to the values of changing times and societal attitudes. But what is a superhero? To understand this, we must turn to the history of comics. If you were to ask a layperson, they may respond that a superhero is a powerful being that possesses extraordinary capabilities. Some characterisations may include super strength, flying, invisibility, to name a few. Whilst these are stereotypical explanations of a superhero, Reynolds (74) defines them as the upholders of the letter of the law. They defend values such as truth, justice and the ideals enshrined in the United States Constitution. In other words, superheroes are model Americans, more so than America’s contemporary political leaders (Reynolds, 74). While comic books were created in 1917, the first ever superhero was created years later in 1938 (Johnson, 2). The golden age of comics saw the arrival of various other superheroes, including Batman, Wonder Woman and the Submariner. When they were first introduced, these superheroes had only stereotypical attributes such as super powers, vast knowledge and brightly coloured costumes (Bongco, 86-95). The purpose, characteristics and message of superheroes and comics changed in the face of World War II which created a brand new set of enemies for superheroes and was the initiating push towards the patriotism of superheroes as we know them today (Reynolds, 8).

Captain America made his first appearance in 1941 in the background of WWII. Its creators Simon and Kirby were Jewish American comic book writers who created Captain America in response to the rising Nazism within Europe (AETN UK, par. 5). Captain America started out as Steve Rogers, a young, sickly-looking child in the 1940s who yearned to assist in the battle of WWII. Since then, he became a hero, fugitive and the model patriarch of the United States (Simon and Kirby). Through the use of the symbols and themes of America standing up to anti-Semitism, such rhetor was capable of establishing a sense of similarity that became the framework for consubstantiality (Milford, 607). The ability of Simon and Kirby to disguise the argument for America’s intervention in WWII in a popular narrative conceals allegory of inaction as an interesting rhetorical option (Milford, 607). Thus, during the comic’s early years, Captain America sought to respond to the threats of anti-Semitism led by Hitler much earlier than the American government and people were prepared to act. It was only nine months after the image of Captain American punching Hitler in the jaw (Figure 1) was released that the United States entered the war.

Figure 1: Image depicting Captain America punching Hitler in the jaw (Simon and Kirby).

Through popular culture, citizens are able to understand their position within the collective identity of the larger society. In this aspect, Captain America played a large role in this process. The superhero and comic’s ability to connect to “American nationalism, internal order, and foreign policy” makes him the prime embodiment of a hero for younger readers (Dittmer, 627). His audience may connect to Captain America, relate to him and even fantasise about having the capabilities that he does. Thus, his symbolism of an explicitly American superhero construes him both as a representative of American ideals and the defender of the United States’ values. Like other pop culture icons and symbols, Captain America has been in a unique position to influence how societies interpret a given situation. Thus, geopolitical happenings are viewed through the lens of ‘structures of expectations’ and as such, establish order and understanding amidst complexities (Dittmer, 627).

Such establishment of order and untangling complexities within the political happenings of the United States was again demonstrated after the Watergate scandal. Watergate involved President Richard Nixon’s administration from 1972 to 1974 which ultimately resulted in Nixon’s in Nixon’s resignation (Pear, 15). Nixon’s administration continuously attempted to conceal its involvement in the break-in and burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Office (Pear, 15). Ultimately, the Watergate scandal revealed multiple instances of abuse of power by the administration. Captain America, as a man who believed in America’s highest ideals during a period in which the President of the United States engaged in criminal activity, was suddenly faced with an identity crisis (Englehart and Buscema, 160). At this time, he elected to abandon his identity as Captain America in favour of ‘Nomad’, essentially meaning man without a country. Eventually, he reassumes Captain America after concluding that such an identity did not need to symbolise the American government; rather, it could continue to symbolise substantially the American ideals and values instead. Such a conclusion came to him after a corrupt Army officer attempted to manipulate him, to which he responded, “I’m loyal to nothing… except the [American] dream” (Claremont and McKenzie, 53) (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Captain America reassuming his identity as Captain America (Claremont and McKenzie, 53).

It is not only political issues but also societal issues that are dealt with by the Captain America comic series. During the 1980s, the LGBT movement was set back due to an explosion of the AIDS epidemic (Cameron et al., 252). The right wing religious movements attempted to convince the public that AIDS was God’s punishment for homosexuals. It was common for homosexuals to live in shame, suppression and secrecy during this period. Perhaps this is what Captain America writers wished to instigate change upon in their series, ‘Someone Who Cares’. In 1982, Marvel debuted its first same-sex couple, Arnie and Michael (DeMatteis). Arnie Roth and Steve Rogers (Captain America) were childhood friends during the Great Depression. Because Arnie was physically larger and stronger, he protected Steve from bullies. Homosexuality was not as accepted as it is in contemporary times, thus the comic could not outright state that Arnie and Michael were romantically involved. However, there are various hints at that fact. Such examples are illustrated below in Figures 3 and 4. Arnie and Michael’s story was reflective of societal thinking during the 1980s. In particular, the pair were not allowed to come out as homosexual and do not ultimately get the happy ending that they deserved. At the same time, the pair were represented not as the stereotypical gay couples that were common during that time. In contrast, and perhaps more true than the stereotypical portrayals, the couple were down-to-earth, ordinary and relatable. Through this, it can be seen that Marvel is forward-thinking and seeks to shape the understandings of homosexual relationships not as something to be ashamed about, but as something that is not so different from same-sex relationships.

Figure 3: Arnie and Michael in the hospital
Figure 4: Arnie and Michael embracing in front of a confused Captain America

World War II was the background in which Captain America made his first appearance. His courage and patriotism in standing up to Hitler arguably inspired America’s entry into the war. It is through the order and understanding created by comics such as Captain America that influence people to interpret complex political and social happenings. An example of this is the Watergate scandal which led to Captain America’s identity crisis. Since Watergate, his values have always resonated with the United States government’s ability to lead and protect its citizens. After a period of identifying as Nomad, he resumed his Captain America identity and concluded that he could symbolise American ideals rather than the government. As well as reflecting and shaping political thought, superhero storytelling has also attempted to shape societal issues such as same-sex relationships during the 1980s. Such was illustrated in the relationship between Arnie and Michael who contradicted stereotypes and presented as an ordinary, non-flamboyant and lovable couple. Thus, indicating to readers that homosexuality was not something to be ashamed about but should be viewed on the same level as same-sex relationships. Through the three examples provided in this essay, it can thus be concluded that superhero storytelling both reflects and seeks to shape the societal values and thinking of readers.

Works cited

AETN UK. ‘The Greatest Superheroes Are Always Challenging Culture’. History, 17 Aug. 2017, https://www.history.co.uk/shows/superheroes-decoded/articles/the-greatest-superheroes-are-always-challenging-culture.

Bongco, Mila. Reading Comics: Language, Culture and the Concept of the Superhero in Comic Books. Taylor & Francis, 2000.

Cameron, Paul, et al. ‘The Longevity of Homosexuals: Before and after the Aids Epidemic’. OMEGA – Journal of Death and Dying, vol. 29, no. 3, 1994, pp. 249–72, doi:10.2190/G94Q-XMFY-3G33-0XRE.

Claremont, Chris, and Rodger McKenzie. From the Ashes… Captain America. Marvel Comics, 1979.

DeMatteis, J. M. Someone Who Cares. Vol. 270, Marvel Comics, 1982.

Dittmer, Jason. ‘Captain America’s Empire: Reflections on Identity, Popular Culture, and Post-9/11 Geopolitics’. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, vol. 95, no. 3, 2005, pp. 626–43.

Englehart, Steve, and Sal Buscema. Captain America and the Falcon: Secret Empire. Marvel Comics. 1st ed., Marvel Comics, 2005.

Johnson, Jeffrey K. Super-History: Comic Book Superheroes and American Society, 1938 to the Present. 1st ed., McFarland & Co, 2012.

Milford, Mike. ‘Veiled Intervention: Anti-Semitism, Allegory, and Captain America’. Rhetoric & Public Affairs, vol. 20, no. 4, 2017, pp. 605–34.

Pear, Robert. ‘Watergate, Then and Now: 2 Decades after a Political Burglary, the Questions Still Linger’. The New York Times, 15 June 1992, p. 15.

Reynolds, Richard. Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology. 1st ed., University Press of Mississippi, 1992.

Simon, Joe, and Jack Kirby. Captain America. 1st ed., Marvel Comics, 1941.

Published by Steff

Professional copywriter.

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