The American Mythology Part I

Part I: Look, up in the sky!

Few genres in storytelling can be identified as having originated in America. One of the only ones that has such distinction is the super-hero genre. Naturally, the genre of super-heroes owes much to the classical heroes of the ancient world.[1] Yet it was quickly able to distinguish itself from the ancient world. The super-hero was, with rare exceptions, firmly in the modern world and had the unique quality of the secret identity, an alter-ego to let the heroes live the lives of ordinary people. The heroes for most adventure narratives were defined by their occupation: James Bond was a spy on thrilling adventures, Sir Lancelot was a Knight of the Round Table. While the super-hero would appeal to other nations, it remains at heart an American genre, with super-heroes, for better or worse, being able to reflect the cultural zeitgeist of the America from which they were created. Many of the characters would be timeless, yet their trials and portrayals would reflect the struggles and heart of the American people throughout the 20th century.

The very first super-hero to be created was the all-time great character, Superman, introduced in 1938[2] and unlike anything that came before him.[3] Superman did not live in Camelot, but in a modern city of Metropolis, and in his first iteration was a champion of the people and one who fought corruption, whether it took the form of businessmen or politicians.[4] Superman was a creation for the poor and disadvantaged boys of the National Depression,[5] the ultimate immigrant, and his heart and socialism drove the compassion and uplift for his stories, reflecting an optimism and hope in a time when all were in dire straits. Superman was the people of America, good-hearted and confident that they would rise up from the struggles of the Great Depression. Superman’s main appeal was his inspirational value, the pure American ideal. Part of the character’s struggle as the years would go on would be that his role as an urban warrior for social justice would wane as he became involved in more fantastical adventures and his powers would become more godlike.[6] Nevertheless, Superman clearly had an appeal that started the super-hero genre. Unfortunately, the success of Superman was not shared with his creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. The two would fight a bitter legal battle with publisher DC for their rights to the character.

To capitalize on the craze of the super-hero, many new super-heroes would be commissioned. One such character was the Batman[7]. Whereas Superman was a symbol of hope and inspiration for the people, Batman was a dark, brooding avenger. The dark detective was enigmatic, with his identity being a mystery in his first appearance.[8] Batman’s darkness and focus on crime narratives made him a character with a different kind of edge. His stories were inherently more tragic in nature than the optimism inherent in Superman. Despite the tragic underpinnings of Superman, the Last Son of Krypton was a Moses figure[9], guiding the lost souls of America through the desert of the Great Depression. In contrast, Batman’s stories were overtly tragic, with his origin later established as being a product of childhood trauma. [10] Fascinatingly, Batman has proven to be a more timeless character. Batman was an avenger, a vigilante in the vein of Robin Hood and Zorro. His stories could be told so long as criminals were in existence. Perhaps for this reason, Superman, a man of the times in which he was created, was more instantly appealing, whereas the timeless and dark character of Batman would gain popularity as the years went on.

But as the super-hero boom grew, the most popular hero for youth would be neither Superman or Batman, but Captain Marvel, appearing in WHIZ Comics Vol. 1 #2.[11] Captain Marvel was the first truly relatable super-hero. He was a magical champion of justice, and what made him unique was that he would transform to his alter ego of Billy Batson. The character was in essence the embodiment of every young boy reading super-hero comics. Billy was a kind and loving boy who was chosen by a higher power to become Earth’s champion. Billy Batson gained all of the amazing super-powers that readers were fascinated by, and used them for good. Billy was simultaneously a reflection of readers and an inspiration for these young boys. Years before Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were credited with making super-heroes “relatable,” Captain Marvel was exactly such. Unfortunately, because Captain Marvel comics were the top-selling comics,[12] rival publisher DC felt that their character Superman was being plagiarized.[13] There were uncanny similarities – both were characters in bright primary colors with powers “beyond mortal men.”[14] DC began a lawsuit against Captain Marvel’s publisher Fawcett which would last years, resulting in Fawcett ultimately folding and DC buying the rights to Captain Marvel.[15] Billy Batson would disappear for years, and by the time he returned, readers had moved on to characters who would be flawed.

What was clear during the 1930s and into the ‘40s was that at a time when America was in doubt and struggling, people craved for pure heroes. The super-hero, much like the Knights of the Round Table, were virtuous and wise. They were moral paragons and the pure essence of the American ideals. One character even proved to be ahead of the curve. In 1941, Dr. William Marston, inventor of the lie detector, created a character who would not only become the ultimate super-heroine, but one of the greatest female characters and feminist icons of all-time: Wonder Woman, a warrior from the mythical Amazons. Wonder Woman was a female super-hero who was on par with Superman and Batman, never questioned in the comics community or within her fictional universe regarding her sex. Furthermore she was a female character not defined by her romantic relationship with Steve Trevor. Wonder Woman was the embodiment of the New Woman in the 20th Century. As women were entering the workforce, Wonder Woman embodied the strength of the American woman, who in turn, only 20 years prior, had gained the hard-fought right to vote with the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. [16] But first-wave feminism was only the beginning of women’s advancement in the 20th century. The new wave of feminism that would begin in the 1940s was embodied by Wonder Woman.[17] Women would continue to work, fight for equal pay, the rights to divorce, the title of “Ms.,” and a woman’s right to choose. Wonder Woman was adopted as a mascot of the U.S. women’s rights movement and was routinely cited as a role model by Gloria Steinem. [18] [19] Wonder Woman was women’s progress personified, and her only weakness would be people trying to constrain or bind her. The sexual and literal submission of Wonder Woman represented the attempts by men to constrain and bind women from reaching their full potential, and Wonder Woman always broke the attempts at binding her and emerge supreme. The only fault in the iconic character of Wonder Woman was that many writers, other than Marston, would struggle with writing the character.[20] Part of the struggle was that Wonder Woman arrived a fully developed character. Princess Diana – the true name of Wonder Woman – was flawless upon entering the world of man, and above the foibles of its inhabitants. The character is one of the rarest: a character purely remembered and well-known for her iconic status more than for any specific story.

[1] The first adventures of Superman are heavily inspired by Samson and Heracles (or Hercules). Similarly Batman was the modern incarnation of the masked adventurer such as Robin Hood, Zorro to the most modern the Shadow. Bill Finger once admitted to Denny O’Neil that the first Batman story of Dectective Comics vol. 1 #27 was an adaptation of a Shadow Story. (Fat Man on Batman: Episode 60

[2] Action Comics Vol. 1 #1. Jerry Siegel (writer) and Joe Shuster (penciler/inker). Ed. Vincent Sullivan. DC Comics, June 1938.

[3] Comics Predecessors by Peter Coogan in The Superhero Reader. edited by Charles Hatfield, Jeet Heer, Kent Worcester

[4] Morrison, Grant. Supergods. Vintage. 2012

[5] Comics through Time: A History of Icons, Idols, and Ideas;;

[6] Morrison, Grant. Supergods. Vintage. 2012

[7] Created by Bob Kane with Bill Finger

[8] Detective Comics vol. 1 #27 (May 1939)

[9] Though many Protestant writers would turn Superman into a Christ Allegory.

[10] Detective Comics Vol. 1 #33 (Nov 1939) published six months after the first Batman story.

[11] Bill Parker (writer/colorist), C. C. Beck (penciler/inker). Ed. Bill Parker. Fawcett ComicsPublications, Feb 1940.

[12] Van Lente, Fred (Writer). Ryan Dunlavey (Artist). The Comic Book History of Comics. IDW.

[13] Mealoid, Padraig. Poisoned Chalice. Web (2015)

[14] As stated in the Adventures of Superman radio and television programs of the 1940s and 1950s.

[15] Comics through Time: A History of Icons, Idols, and Ideas


[17] Feminist Magazine Ms. published an issue with Wonder Woman on the cover July, 1972. On the 40th Anniversary of Ms. Wonder Woman appeared again on the cover. The design for Wonder Woman on Ms. would become the main design of the character.


[19] See Wonder Women : Feminisms and Superheroes Author: Robinson, Lillian S.;  Wonder Woman Unbound : The Curious History of the World’s Most Famous Heroine by Hanley, Tim; Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines


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James Kelly has been obsessed with comics and superheroes since he saw Batman: The Animated Series on TV. His father also got him hooked on Star Wars when he took him to the 1997 re-release of the magnificent Saga. Kelly graduated from Cal Poly with a degree in English Literature, and a concentration in Fiction Writing. He hopes to be able to one day produce his many comics and other writing projects to mass audiences.

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