The rip-roaring vigilante antics of comic books provide the ultimate form of escapism that we all came to love during childhood-and even, at times, in our adult lives (c'mon, one does not outgrow Spiderman). Though these colorful panels flux with fantasy and heroism, acting as visual playgrounds for the imagination, they also provide glimpses at the culture and current events happening throughout 20th and 21st century history. In celebration of National Comic Book Day, here are our favorite examples of the comic book's alternate identity: the history textbook.
America's average man-turned-namesake super-soldier has been the face of national strength and valor since the onset of World War II, when superhero comics became patriotic and propaganda-filled symbols of solidarity. The very first issue Marvel released, March 1, 1941, even depicts the Cap striking an animated Adolf Hitler down. Throughout the following years of the war, he continues to defeat national enemies representing Axis power villains such as the Red Skull.
The Caped Crusader is not only one of the only famous superheroes to conquer evil and take names sans superpowers, he also served as the firm and fit face for the cultural fitness boom in the 1970s. As a period in American history rife with uncertainty, many people turned to physical fitness and sports like tennis and jogging as a way to assert control, according to research conducted at Boston University. The pre-'70s issues of the popular franchise portray Batman as very strong, but not very sculpted. However, he received a much larger makeover during this decade, acquiring a set of eight-pack abs and toned, defined muscles and transforming into the pinnacle of American fortitude.
The ever-popular and enduring comic book heroine got her start in All Star Comics in 1941 and appeared on covers of new comic franchise Sensation Comics in 1942, during the start of World War II and the "Rosie the Riveter" era, when women were filling men's shoes and rising up as strongly perceived individuals in the maintenance of American society. However, true-to-form of the struggles within the early feminism movement, Sensation Comics and Wonder Woman were blacklisted later in 1942 by the National Organization for Decent Literature for a single reason: "Wonder Woman is not sufficiently dressed."
Tony Stark, Iron Man's alter ego, is introduced at the origin of the technologically savvy comic series as a disabled veteran of the controversial war in Vietnam who is struggling with bouts of alcoholism. Throughout the series, and with the help of his prosthetic iron identity, he is able to turn back into a hero and assimilate into society in a positive way-all things the United States' Disability Rights Movement pushed for post-war.
The not-so-jolly green giant is the ultimate representation of an alienated victim of gamma-ray mutation struggling against all odds to do the right thing. While he may be a bit of a loose cannon as far as his temper is concerned, he is classically looked at as a hero in the comic world. However, he does represent a pervading social anxiety of the 1960s, when people around the world were growing frantic in the face of the nuclear arms race. Hulk's most common enemies were villains who'd been subject to similar gamma-ray mutation gone wrong, capitalizing on the public's fear of impending nuclear warfare.
On September 12, 2001, Issue #596 of DC's The Adventures of Superman hit the shelves of a newly-traumatized American society, still reeling in the wake of the previous day's heinous crime. In this story arc, known as "Our Worlds at War," the twin towers of LexCorp are damaged, leaving the emblem of all-American strength to save the day and bring justice to wrongdoers. Many have found the prophetic nature and uncanny timeliness of this issue eerie, as comics are produced months before they are released to the public. DC Comics announced that the issue was returnable, though it appears few if any were brought back to stores.
The popular X-Men series, centering on a band of genetically-mutated super-humans, points heavily at the social issue of human experimentation, which was a controversial dialogue first begun after World War II with the Nazi Nuremberg Trials. These trials condemned Axis power leaders for their cruel and extravagant experimentation on human prisoners, and even carried over to the United States to bring light to the reality of such an unethical practice. Comic creators wanted to emphasize the point that characters like Wolverine, however popular, only exist in fiction for a reason.
The red, white and blue crusader stood as a pointed historical perspective of the Watergate scandal, with one of the comic's story arcs during the end of Nixon's presidency having the Captain expose a political conspiracy within the White House and become so disillusioned with the American government that her nearly foregoes his patriotic title. Luckily for the American public, he had a change of heart: "Oh Lordu2026if I wasn't prepared for any and all threats to the American dream, then what was I doing as Captain America?" he proclaims.
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