Why America Loves Superheroes

American Icons, Americana, Celebrities, Featured Article, People
on May 14, 2013
Superman display at the Cleveland-Hopkins International Airport.
David Mudd

In true superhero fashion and wearing a Spider-Man costume, 5-year-old Asher Baskind reflects America’s adoration of superheroes as he chases “the bad guys” during a recent superhero party in Cleveland, Ohio.

“Let’s get ’em!” echoes a nearby band of boys dressed as Captain America, Iron Man and Wolverine.

As the fearless foursome pretend inside of the Children’s Museum of Cleveland, justice finally is served when the imaginary villains flee. Meanwhile, the youngsters are treated to a visit from Superman, also known as museum employee Michael Timar, 20, sporting a red cape and blue leotard with trademark “S” on his chest. Descending the stairs, America’s first iconic superhero character is greeted by a swarm of awestruck fans.

Such fervor is not a new phenomenon in Cleveland—the birthplace of the fictional Superman character—or elsewhere in the nation.

For more than 75 years, superheroes have leapt off comic book pages and into America’s imagination. From World War II GIs huddled over copies of “Captain America,” “Batman” and “Superman,” to today’s children donning capes and wielding imaginary powers, generations have grown up alongside their favorite crime-fighting crusaders.

“They’re like fairy tales for grownups,” says Stan Lee, 90, former president and chairman of Marvel Comics.

The legendary creator of Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk and the Fantastic Four, Lee says the idea of having supernatural powers appeals to people of all ages.

“[Superheroes] can do wonderful things that we can’t,” Lee says. “People find that exciting to read and to dream about.”

Man of Steel

Conceived during the dark days of the Great Depression and under the threat of Nazi Germany and a second worldwide war, the concept of a Super-Man began to take shape in Cleveland in 1932, when two shy Jewish teen classmates put their ideas on paper. The character created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster quickly evolved from a bald-headed villain into a soaring bulletproof superhero fighting for social justice and against tyranny.

In 1938, Superman made his first mass appearance in Action Comics, later known as DC Comics.  He quickly captivated the nation and became part of American culture with radio broadcasts, merchandise and a larger-than-life balloon appearance in the 1940 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City.

Other superheroes emerged. In 1939, Captain Marvel was created, and Batman debuted in comics. During World War II, Captain America, Wonder Woman and The Human Torch surged in popularity, with stories and illustrations championing U.S. combat efforts.

“You had [comic book] issues where Superman and Batman are throwing baseballs at Hitler’s face,” says Mark Butler, 39, a historian with the Ohio Historical Society.

America’s interest waned during the 1950s, however, after a prominent New York psychiatrist suggested that comics contribute to juvenile delinquency. A congressional panel even held hearings on the subject. The Golden Age of Superheroes was over, but the story didn’t end.

In 1961, Lee offered a fresh approach by working with artist Jack Kirby to create a team of superheroes called the Fantastic Four for Marvel Comics. Lee’s wife, Joan, had encouraged him to try his ideas of humanizing superheroes by introducing personal issues to which readers could relate.

“Most of the superhero stories I read were one-dimensional,” Lee recalls. “You never learned about the hero’s private life. What if they got a toothache? Did they have a mother or father?”

For the heroes in his pioneering comic, Lee chose a hotheaded teenage boy, his beautiful older sister, her genius fiancé, and their grumpy and benevolent family friend—all bound by superpowers endowed while manning an experimental rocket. Together, the foursome safeguard the world from monsters and aliens while struggling with personal egos, relationships, tempers and the pressures of newfound fame.

Comic book fans responded enthusiastically, and superheroes were back in business. Comics became a literary genre that appealed to all ages and was “really worth reading,” Lee says.

Box-office muscle

Today, superheroes flex their muscles not only in our imaginations but through media and merchandising. From the time a child wakes up to a bowl of Spider-Man cereal until he’s tucked into his Incredible Hulk bed sheets at night, superheroes are part of American culture.

Last year, “The Avengers” assembled four superheroes to save the Earth from an extraterrestrial army and became the third-highest-grossing movie in history. This June, the movie “Man of Steel” is scheduled for release to mark Superman’s 75th birthday. Spider-Man has his own hit Broadway show in New York City. Marvel Comics superheroes are showcased at Universal Studios’ Islands of Adventure theme park in Orlando, Fla. And children’s costumes for Batman, Spider-Man and other super-heroes are perennial Halloween favorites.

Even entire towns have embraced the genre. Metropolis, Ill. (pop. 6,537), declared itself the official hometown of Superman in 1972 and erected a 15-foot bronze likeness of the superhero on the town square. A Superman festival draws thousands of people to the community each June.

“I don’t think it’s a surprise that the biggest genre in Hollywood post-9/11 has been superhero movies,” says Jeffrey A. Brown, 46, associate professor of pop culture at Bowling Green (Ohio) State University. “In movies like “The Avengers,” superheroes save New York City. It’s this fantasy of ‘this is the way it should have been,’ with superheroes putting it right.”

Perhaps their most powerful role, however, is as inspirers of courage and hope in children. Sandra Redmond, education director at Cleveland’s children’s museum, recalls one little boy who attended a museum-sponsored camp while dealing with a combative home life. He arrived daily wearing a red silk scarf he called a Superman cape. “With it on, he felt safe,” recalls Redmond, 74.

Though children shed their capes as they grow up, Lee says superheroes are ageless and their stories are timeless for new generations in search of a champion.

“There’s no reason,” Lee says, “why superheroes shouldn’t go on forever.”