When it comes right down to it, few things are as wholly American as superheroes.
Garishly dressed with little to no fashion sense, fond of spouting catchphrases and one-liners, and all too willing to pick a fight with one another if no actual adversary presents itself.
And there are few better examples of our beloved masked men and hot-blooded heroines showing their patriotism than their contributions to the Allied war effort during World War II.
With many of the early creators in the field of comics being of Jewish heritage — including both of Superman’s fathers, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster — writers and artists were practically chomping at the bit for their popular new icons to take a crack at the tyranny of Adolf Hitler, which, sadly, the American government had been largely ignoring in an official capacity.
If the politicians wouldn’t do something, the newfangled caped crusaders would.
By the time the German army had invaded Poland in 1939, the concept of comic books were barely six years old, but had become a literal overnight success in that time. Siegel and Shuster had first come up with the idea of Superman in 1933, but it had taken them five years to get it to print in Action Comics #1 in April, 1938. Bob Kane and Bill Finger followed with Batman in Detective Comics in 1939.
Joe and Jerry had always intended Superman to be an inspiring force fighting against social injustice, and there were few injustices bigger than the Third Reich.
Superman’s crazy level of immediate popularity had, of course, spawned entire legions of copycats, and while National Publications (which would much later merge with Detective Comics to become DC Comics) had tried to use lawyers to keep the wolves at bay for as long as they could, there was no keeping the tights, capes, and long underwear from flooding out of this particular Pandora’s box, once opened.
The general public devoured the new costumed crimefighters as fast as publishers could crank them out and slap a ten cent cover price on the magazines.
Pulp publisher Martin Goodman had been a proponent of alerting the American public — particularly the younger set who voraciously devoured the cheap, lurid pulps — to the growing threat in Europe, and in the very first issue of his Marvel Science Stories magazine in 1938, wrote a scathing editorial that asked, “What will the rebirth of America be, when one day the military forces of the world combine to devastate the greatest nation the world has ever known?”
A year later, Goodman decided to get involved with the lucrative comics publishing trade, and quite fond of the name ‘Marvel’, titled his first effort Marvel Comics.
Marvel Comics #1 introduced the Sub-Mariner, the hybrid son of an Atlantean princess who sought to stop the accidental devastation of her undersea realm and the human sea captain in charge of the expedition that had been the source of trouble in the first place.
Unlike Superman, an alien who took the human race under his wing, Prince Namor grew up a sullen young man who sought to punish humanity for the crimes committed against his people, stating lines like: “What fools these mortals be! Warring among each other to satisfy the arrogant egos of a few stupid governments! I’ll show them what war is like . . . “
And Namor summarily went on to pour fish oil in humanity’s punchbowl, striking out against anyone who dared set sail on the seven seas, with a particular eye toward German warships.
(Which didn’t necessarily make Namor an ally of freedom, as writer / artist Bill Everett, a spitfire in his early twenties, was subversive enough to have Namor invade and devastate a complacent, helpless New York City, as if to show what danger lay ahead coming from the seas if America continued to stick her head in the sand when it came to the Nazi menace.)
Goodman pushed the idea of fighting against the Axis for all it was worth, and the patriotism made for some nice profit as circulation figures continued to rise. In March, 1941, Goodman published a collaboration between prolific writer Joe Simon and his equally abundant partner, artist Jack Kirby — who, by this time, had learned how to produce up to ten pages of art A DAY in order to make the most out of the meager minimum wage page rates publishers paid — and perhaps the most famous punch to Hitler’s jaw was thrown on the cover of Captain America #1:
In U.S.A. Comics #2, published in November, 1941, Goodman had Simon and Kirby to create a story with a character called Captain Terror (Goodman had zero problems with putting out multiple titles featuring very similar characters, a business strategy that is alive and well at the Marvel Comics of today).
In that tale, the good captain battled Nazi troops that were pouring into the New York City subways thanks to a highly advanced earth boring machine which was piloted by none other than Adolf himself, who received a teeth-ratting sock to the mouth for his efforts. Maybe he was looking for that other Captain for a little payback, but ran into his neckerchiefed pal instead.
A month later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and the United States was officially at war — not just on the cover of comic books.
(And, unfortunately, earned the Japanese a particular ire when it came to comic books. The culture of the times unfortunately made ugly racial caricatures acceptable, and hundreds of comics showing superheroes belting Prime Minster Hideki Tōjō and his subordinates, drawn in a style that mocked not only their political leanings but their racial identity as a whole, found their way into the hands of millions of readers. The Japanese weren’t the only victims of that particular form of racism, as many of the depictions of African-Americans in comics at the time were equally deplorable. I won’t be running any of these covers or images, not even in a historical context — none of that is even remotely tongue-in-cheek or funny in the least.)
Goodman hadn’t been the only publisher who wanted a piece of the pre-war anti-German propaganda: Lev Gleason and his partner Arthur Bernhard wanted to put their boomerang-slinging Daredevil character (no relation to the later Stan Lee-created incarnation) as well as a number of their other heroes from the pages of Silver Streak Comics up against Adolf, and had artists Bob Wood and Charles Biro put together Daredevil Battles Hitler #1 in July, 1941, using an eye-catching yellow cover and an actual retouched photo of Adolf with ridiculously exaggerated ‘googly’ eyes as he realized the world of hurt the onslaught of approaching American crimefighters was going to unleash on him.
The comic not only served its pro-war purpose, but got Daredevil — a lesser-known character known mostly from battling the inhuman, villanous Claw in Silver Streak back-up features — his own title, as the issue sold well enough to get picked up as an ongoing series, retitled simply Daredevil Comics from #2 on.
We’ll pick up with more Nazi-busting action tomorrow in Part 2 of our patriotic parade through the past. Happy Fourth of July!
Thanks for stopping by Public Domain! For more fun with old comics, check out our Tales to Admonish! archive.
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