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Through the Decades

AMERICA’S LOVE AFFAIR WITH SUPERHEROES

Since their debut in the early 1930s, the very first comic book superheroes debuted during the dire times of the Great Depression. These masked, caped crusaders bounded off comic book pages, and captivated America’s fantasies. Their names have become legend—they are as much of the all-American fabric, as baseball, hot dogs and apple pie.

Why Do Americans Worship and Adore Superheroes?

So, why do we find superheroes so fascinating? It seems that every human culture since millennia has created their own breed of mythical characters with godlike powers.  The ancient Africans have their Orishas, the Greeks had Zeus, the Romans, Venus…there is even Sampson from the Bible, a man whose magical hair gave him superhuman strength. In fact, many of our superheroes were inspired by the characteristics and skills of these ancient mythological archetypes.

Ironically, it turns out that psychology plays an enormous role in our superhero devotion. Though imaginary, superheroes serve as a tool to help us cope with real life adversity better (click here for a Psychology Today article on the topic). The stories of these gods and goddesses resonate with our deepest hopes and fears, as well as our highest aspirations. The lessons and motivation they instill are very tangible and personal. Superheroes are agents of hope, sources of inspiration, and iconic examples of what is good and right.

Yet for all it’s intended good, this celebrated pop culture genre, has been a cautionary tale of two Americas. The early comic creators were overwhelmingly white men, influenced and informed by a Jim Crow America. They comfortably promoted overt racism and sexism. Their representation of women was not great, and when it came to African Americans it was outright insulting. It then followed, that the recurring theme, was the superhero was always a white male. Young white men could look at Superman and see themselves. But, what did Black people see?

The recurring theme here was, glaring bigotry, demoralizing caricatures and, malicious exploitation. Seeing your favorite superheroes toss around racial epithets and fight enemies based on their color and heritage was far from demonstrating the good in us. When we look back at the negative imagery, its shocking and hurtful. “Truth, justice, and the American way” was terribly one-sided.