Comic Books In America

The 1930’s and early 1940’s was a period of social, political, and economic unrest. The combination of the Great Depression and international political tensions (eventually resulting in World War II) left the nation desperate for a cheap form of escapist entertainment to aid them in forgetting the tough and trying times of their realities. Traditional family roles were threatened; men felt inadequate as they were no longer considered breadwinners, and the middle- and working-class craved a hero that appeared to be an “Average Joe”, but who was capable of great things. [1] Children, who were forced to mature in order to help support their families, lacked proper role models. Their parents were unable to provide an end to the hard times, and as a result, kids were constantly searching for another adult to fix their problems.[2] American society yearned for a hero that confronted authority, demonized the rich, revealed class differences, and pushed for social reform. [3] Comic books appealed to the masses because their heroes, such as Superman and Captain America, fought the villains that embodied the fears of a nation whose economic and social situations were tumultuous. This industry flourished in the 1930’s and ’40’s, when most others were struggling, because of its ability to provide escape, relief, and hope to its readers.

Comics in the 1920’s reflected the general contentment and carefree nature of American culture, juxtaposing the devastation that was evident in comics of the 1930’s and ’40’s. Indeed, the “Roaring Twenties” was a time of social and economic prosperity. [4] Mass production and an increase in customer consumption bolstered the economy, and technological advancements such as automobiles, radios, and electricity became more accessible. [5] From 1922 to 1928, industrial production increased by 70%, the Gross National Product increased by 40%, and the per capita income increased by 30%. [6] Americans became intrigued by materialism, which was emphasized by the United States’ new standing in the world as its richest country. [7] American culture also thrived; dancing became a public craze and a new form of social interaction, and the culture of flappers and pin-up girls proliferated, representing a significant deviation from the strict and modest way of life that had previously been prevalent. [8] African-American artists and authors contributed new forms of expression in New York City through jazz and literature, and the suffrage movement redefined the role of women in American society. [9]

The prosperous conditions of this decade demanded humorous content absent of social commentary that would be consistent with the joyful and liberating livelihood of its audience.[10] This is evidenced by one of the most popular comic strips of the 1920’s (created in 1923), called Skippy, by Peter Crosby. [11] Skippy was a ten-year-old child, a comedic underdog who found himself in funny yet harmless situations. [12] The only villains were his peers, and he triumphed over them with different practical jokes (often using slapstick humor) or witty though light-hearted comments. [13] This comic, which was published in 1925, shows an integration of technology into culture (the telephone), as well as silly humor (Appendix 1). Skippy has an innocuous misunderstanding with an adult, which results in him literally “hanging up” the phone on a clothesline to dry. There is no political, social, or economic commentary; there is solely humor as a utilitarian approach to entertainment.

The first comic books of the 1930’s were more aesthetically advanced and told stories of good versus evil rather than the light-hearted stories of the 1920’s. This shift in the nation’s culture was a direct result of the increase in the afflictions that plagued society. Authors and artists were eager to express themselves through original material; indeed, as a result of the success of comic magazines and comic strips in newspapers, the very first comic book that printed only original material came out in New York City in 1934. [14] This was an immediate commercial success, and Eastern Color Printing produced this periodical with print runs reaching 250,000. [15] As the United States experienced times of economic and social upheaval, humorous comics no longer satisfied the nation’s audience; instead, they sought fantastical adventure and action-packed stories. [16] As a test-run in the early 1930’s following the Great Depression, newspapers began printing Tarzan of the Apes and Buck Rogers, whose main characters faced adventure and enemies to overcome in every panel.[17] These comics were an immediate success, and in 1937, the first detective comic book, Detective Comics, was published. [18] A few months later, the same publisher (Detective Comics, Inc., later to become DC Comics), produced Action Comics in 1938, the first comic book to have super heroes as its principal subject matter.[19] Indeed, Superman graced the front cover of Action Comic’s first issue (Appendix 2),[20] and both the comic and the superhero instantly skyrocketed to success. [21] The introductory issue sold over 200,000 copies, but within a few years, 1,000,000 would be sold monthly. [22] In 1939, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (Superman’s creators), in conjunction with Detective Comics, Inc., published the first issue of Superman: the earliest example of an original and exclusively superhero-based comic book.[23]

America needed heroes to combat the new and depressing era that began with the stock market crash on Wall Street in 1929. [24] By 1933, 11,000 of the country’s 25,000 banks had failed,[25] people stopped buying commodities, and unemployment rates reached a new high.[26] Between 1929 and 1932, industrial production decreased by 46%, wholesale prices went down by 32%, foreign trade decreased by 70%, and unemployment increased by 607%. [27] With thirteen to fifteen million workers unemployed, people did not have sufficient resources to survive. [28] For example, in 1934 New York City alone, there were 110 reported cases of death by starvation.[29] Families suffered as abuse at home increased because couples were forced to remain married out of financial necessity. [30] Men abandoned their families, leaving over 1.5 million women alone due to desertion, and more than 200,000 children became homeless as a result of the break-up of their families. [31]

During a time when society sought out escapist entertainment, comic books provided a unique form of recreation, different from other diversions of the period. People were able to carry comic books around with them everywhere so that their favorite stories and heroes were readily available, while movies and radios were not always accessible. Comic books were also the cheapest form of entertainment, and with prices as low as five cents, almost anyone could afford them.[32] This was not necessarily the case with movies or radios, which usually cost around twenty cents and fifteen dollars respectively. [33] The books themselves were even used as tradable commodities, allowing children to use them as a form of currency. Youths were unable to buy things with real money, as they did not have any to spend freely. In this sense, children were able to delude themselves regarding their financial situations during the Depression and make the best of their circumstances.[34] Comic books were also not as much of an ordeal when compared to going to the movies, which was often an all-day event. Comic books could be read in between house chores or going out to look for a job.

The comic book industry was considered one of the most successful endeavors of the entertainment business during the Great Depression. [35] Movie ticket sales declined by one-third between 1930 and 1945, which represented an average 20% decrease in weekly movie attendance (from nearly 70 million to below 50 million). [36] By contrast, during the same time period, 95% of children aged nine to eleven, 84% of those from twelve to seventeen years old, and 35% of people ages eighteen to thirty-five were regular comic book readers.[37] A study done by the Market Research Company of America in 1945 found that 70 million Americans (one-half of the United States population) read comic books. [38] Comic strips from comic books that were reproduced in newspapers had 70% of newspaper readers pursuing them, while only 40% of newspaper readers read the front-page headline story. [39] This shows that people turned to comic books for escape. Instead of facing the troubles of reality by reading the news, people read comics where heroes solved the front-page headlines.

Superman was America’s first superhero, because he embodied everything Americans wanted in a citizen during the Great Depression by solving all of their problems. When Superman was not fighting crime, he was a weak and vulnerable man named Clark Kent, who awkwardly bumbled through social situations while remaining generally unimportant and ineffectual.[40] However, beneath this exterior was an incredible hidden strength complete with confidence, a genuine appreciation for moral goodness, and the ability to act on those qualities by helping others.[41] At a time when everyone felt helpless due to the external factors that afflicted them, Superman made average citizens feel as though they, too, were capable of moral goodness, which was more valuable than the materialistic goods that they could not afford.

Superman, as an emigrant from a different planet, instilled immigrants with a sense of hidden superiority that encouraged them to continue functioning in society despite their unique hardships during the Great Depression. [42] Superman originally lived on planet Krypton, but was rocketed to Earth as his home exploded, where he was taken in by human parents. [43] Upon arriving on Earth, Superman found that “his heritage imbued him with remarkable powers that made him the superior of those he lived among.” [44] Immigrants, who were hit the hardest during the Great Depression because they were often forced to give up jobs to white Americans, had the highest minority unemployment rate, and thus felt that the superhero spoke specifically to them.[45] Even when immigrants were employed, they worked at the dirtiest and most tedious jobs that kept the country running and consequently felt severely unappreciated. [46] The authors of Superman themselves were children of Jewish immigrants, and they harped on the idea of sparking optimism amongst the immigrant community of the United States. [47] Clark Kent, Superman’s alter-ego, was forced to assimilate into society and hide his heritage, but, when allowed to fully express himself as being an “other,” was remarkably strong and revered by the immigrant portion of society.

Superman embodied Depression-era mass culture, both in terms of his general attitude of being anti-establishment, and the setting of the comic itself. [48] Society often felt ignored by authority figures and unconnected to the businesses and governments that were supposed to be helping them. [49] Superman was a hero for the underdogs: in the first three issues alone, he battled “a lynch mob, a wife beater, and a corrupt millionaire who cut corners at the expense of his employees’ safety.” [50] Indeed, Superman battled the villains of the Depression that official authorities (such as the government) did or could not. Villains that he often encountered were J.E. Curtis, an agent who was paid by a foreign country to halt America’s return to prosperity; [51] E. Wilbur Wolfingham, an oil fraud who stole money from hardworking and clueless employees;[52] and Borden Moseley, Lex Luthor’s (Superman’s ultimate arch-nemesis) financier, who helped Luthor to push the country into a depression. [53] More examples include bosses who did not provide safe working conditions, stock brokers who sold faculty stocks, and a U.S. senator who conspired with a munitions manufacturer for money. [54] The villains of Superman comics were the extreme versions of the villains of the Great Depression: men who deprived those who worked hard and played fair. [55] Additionally, all of the comics took place in the same “gritty urban landscape replete with vice and official ineptitude,” [56] reflecting the environment that was consistent with the Great Depression’s anti-urban rhetoric.

Superman reflected American culture and the nation’s worries in the early 1940’s, during the beginning years of World War II. In the early Superman comics, Superman was anti-war, which fit the mood of post-World War I America. [57] While war was rarely brought up in early editions, when it was, Superman was very much a pacifist.[58] However, as World War II came to the forefront of the American mind, and it became clear that the United States was seriously considering entering the arena, Superman became the “number one patriot” that society so desperately needed, and became supportive of the war. [59] Indeed, as the war grew to be a bigger part of the nation’s reality, the villains in Superman were no longer domestic, big shot money guzzlers, but were instead symbols of Axis Powers. [60] Superman started fighting U-boats and battleships, combating the nation’s fears of technological advancements and how they played into the war. [61] Villains included Calvin Denby, a man who plans to destroy American factories in order to dangerously slow down U.S. Defense operations; [62] and Alex Evell, a man who declares war against the entirety of planet Earth (literally, a world war). [63] The shift in Superman’s villains mirrored the shift in the fears of Americans due to World War II and international politics.

Captain America was created in 1941 solely to appeal to the nation during times of war, and served as a form of propaganda that inspired nationalism and unity.[64] Even his name indicates his absolute patriotism, and he embodied the country’s nationalistic ideals. [65] Creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby set out to create America’s number one patriot, and they cut right to the point: the cover of the first issue of Captain America showed him punching a Nazi in the face (Appendix 3).[66] Similarly, the cover of the Captain America that came out after Pearl Harbor showed him punching a Japanese general in the face (Appendix 4), saying: “You started it! Now we’ll finish it!”[67] Simon and Kirby responded positively when the government issued a statement in 1943 asking comic book writers to think of the war effort when creating comics books. [68] Captain America’s villains included Arnim Zola, a biochemist human engineer (similar to eugenics, which was a part of Hitler’s philosophy); Hate-Monger, a clone of Adolf Hitler; and Captain America’s archenemy Red Skull, a Nazi super-soldier and Hitler’s successor. [69] Captain America was considered to be “the closest possible approach to a common denominator for the people of the United States;” [70] indeed, everyone could rally behind a patriot that defended his country. He even worked side by side with soldiers, fostering support for men abroad and providing comfort to those whose husbands and fathers were soldiers.[71] Captain America thrived as one of the nation’s favorite superheroes until 1956, when the comic was canceled. [72] This is consistent with the idea that heroes and their villains reflected American culture; by 1956, the war efforts were completely over and Captain America was no longer needed as a hero.

Comic books were therefore a mass medium through which people were entertained, while simultaneously consoling and encouraging hope amongst their audiences. The heroes of the comics reflected the social, economic, and political situations of the time period. Superman’s Depression-era villains and his shift over to World War II-era villains remained consistent with the change of the nation’s fears and insecurities; and the creation of Captain America as the “number one patriot” that spear-headed the country’s war efforts in World War II as a super-soldier against Nazis and the Japanese villains reflected the goals of the masses. As a cheap commodity, the majority of the nation was able to afford comic books; in 1945, comics were in circulation by 102%, meaning that even damaged and used copies were being purchased.[73] Indeed, the nation was dependent on comic books as an escapist form of entertainment that existed as a coping mechanism for a society weakened by internal and external turmoil.

Action Comics. New York: Detective Comics, Inc., 1938.

Benton, Mike. The Comic Book in America: An Illustrated History. Dallas, Texas: Taylor Publishing,

Blum, Jerome, et al. The European World: A History (2nd Edition). New York: Little Brown, 1970.

College of Behavioral and Social Sciences. “The 1920’s Economy: A Statistical Portrait.”
[], 2011 (accessed December 9, 2011).

DeLong, J. Bradford. “Roaring Twenties.” University of California at Berkeley. [http://www.j-bradfor ], 1997. (accessed December 9, 2011).

Duke University. “The Roaring Twenties.” [
%20-%20Pop%20Culture.pdf ], 2011 (accessed December 9, 2011).

Fuchs, Wolfgang J. and Reinhold C. Reitberger. Comics: an anatomy of a Mass Medium.
London: Shenval Press, 1971.

Goulart, Ron. Ron Goulart’s Great History of Comic Books. New York: Contemporary Books, 1986.

Karp, Jesse. Graphic Novels in Your School Library. New York: American Library Association, 2011.

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Depression of the Cold War.” Marquette University.
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Kirby, Jack and Joe Simon. Captain America No. 1. New York: Marvel Comics, 1941.

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Shuster, Joe and Jerry Siegel. Superman No. 5. New York: Detective Comics, Inc., 1940.

Shuster, Joe and Jerry Siegel. Superman No. 12. New York: Detective Comics, Inc., 1941.

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[1] Macmillan Reference USA, “Psychological Impact of the Great Depression,” Novel Guide: Thomas Learning, Inc.,
[], 2004 (accessed December 9, 2011).

[2] Mark Kelley, “The Golden Age of Comic Books: Representations of American Culture from the Great Depression of
the Cold War,” Marquette University,
3Dqrs9Kv9dumV3BdZudSCCiw#search=%22golden%20age%20comic%20books%22 ], 2009 (accessed November 25,

[3] David Welky, Everything Was Better in America (Illinois: University of Illinois, 2008), 139.

[4] Thomas Streissguth, The Roaring Twenties: Revised Edition (New York: Infobase Publishing, 2007), xiii.

[5] J. Bradford DeLong, “Roaring Twenties,” University of California at Berkeley, [ http://www.j-bradford ], 1997 (accessed December 9, 2011).

[6] College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, “The 1920’s Economy: A Statistical Portrait,”
[], 2011 (accessed December 9, 2011).

[7] DeLong, xiii.

[8] Duke University, “The Roaring Twenties,” [
%20Pop%20Culture.pdf ], 2011 (accessed December 9, 2011).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Wolfgang J. Fuchs and Reinhold C. Reitberger, Comics: an anatomy of a Mass Medium (London: Shenval Press,
1971), 30.

[11] Ibid., 34.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Mike Benton, The Comic Book in America: An Illustrated History (Dallas, Texas: Taylor Publishing, 1989), 14.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Fuchs, 60.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Benton, 19.

[19] Ibid 23.

[20] Action Comics (New York: Detective Comics, Inc., 1938).

[21] Ibid.

[22] Welky, 134.

[23] Ibid., 24.

[24] MacMillan Reference USA.

[25] University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, “About the Great Depression,”
[], 2011 (accessed December 10, 2011).

[26] Ibid.

[27] Jerome Blum et. al, The European World: A History (2nd Edition) (New York: Little Brown, 1970), 885.

[28] Nick Taylor, “A Short History of the Great Depression,” New York Times Online,
[ ],
2011 (accessed December 8, 2011).

[29] S. Mintz, “Children and the Great Depression,”
[ ], 2007 (accessed
December 7, 2011).

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Welky, 134.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Michele Pautz, “The Decline in Average Weekly Cinema Attendance: 1930-2000,” Issues in Political Economy, vol.
11 (2002), [] (accessed December 6, 2011).

[37] Ron Goulart, Ron Goulart’s Great History of Comic Books (New York: Contemporary Books, 1986), 27.

[38] Sanderson Vanderbilt, “The Comics,” Yank: The Army Weekly, November 23, 1945.

[39] Welky, 67.

[40] Jesse Karp, Graphic Novels in Your School Library (New York: American Library Association, 2011), 35.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Karp, 36.

[43] Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, Superman No. 1 (New York: Detective Comics, Inc., 1939).

[44] Karp, 36.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Welky, 134.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Siegel and Shuster, No. 1.

[52] World’s Finest Comics (New York: Detective Comics, Inc., 1941).

[53] Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel. Superman No. 5 (New York: Detective Comics, Inc., 1940).

[54] Kelley.

[55] Welky, 137.

[56] Ibid., 136.

[57] Ibid., 144.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Kelley.

[61] Fuchs, 103.

[62] Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, Superman No. 12 (New York: Detective Comics, Inc., 1941).

[63] Shuster and Siegel, No. 5.

[64] Kelley.

[65] Ibid.

[66] Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, Captain America No. 1 (New York: Marvel Comics, 1941).

[67] Kelley.

[68] Ibid.

[69] Roger A. Lee, “Captain America’s Villains and Enemies,”
[], 2011 (accessed December 3, 2011).

[70] Welky, 67.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Kelley.

[73] Goulart, 27.

Rachel Kaly, Age 17, Grade 12, Hunter College High School, Gold Key

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