SUPERHEROES IN THE 1950S

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I discovered troubling facts about how the superhero genre survived the 1950s. After World War II ended, superheroes kept depicting themselves fighting the Axis Powers, but with the war over and no real enemy to fight, the superhero genre lost its flare with the public for a while. With the Cold War in full swing, America was forced into a sense of social conformity and strict political ideology. This was due to the fear that America’s way of life was being threatened by communist sympathizers in the country. To enforce this conformity and political ideology, Joseph McCarthy stoked fear in the American public. It was not just communists McCarthy was after. He was also a homophobic as well and described homosexuality as a cancer on the American soul. In addition, McCarthy perceived comic books and superheroes as a potential influence to the rise of juvenile delinquency.

Another man who shared McCarthy’s views on superheroes was psychologist Fredric Wertham. Wertham criticized superheroes such as Batman and Wonder Woman for having implied homosexual themes. He thought that Batman and Robin were more than just partners based on images in early comics the imply a romantic setting. With Wonder Woman, Wertham criticized her for supposed lesbian themes since she was born and raised on an island populated only by women. Although straight kids did not notice these implied themes, gay kids did and it meant a great deal to them. That terrified McCarthy, Wertham, and everyone who shared their views. The 1950s was a completely homophobic time and shunning homosexuality became part of the social conformity that the government was enforcing on the public.

Due to pressure from McCarthyism, Wertham, and other government officials, the superhero genre underwent a great deal of “censorship” changes. For example, you could not print a comic that had the word “crime” on it, show blood, or imply that a government official was corrupt. To counter the implied homosexual themes in superhero comics, a wide variety of changes were made. For instance, Captain America had a female sidekick for a time, Wonder Woman became weaker and more feminized, and Batman had female sidekicks in addition to Robin. To counter the idea of juvenile delinquency, superheroes no longer fought villains and became more concerned about minor things such as saving a school picnic. Wonder Woman was not only feminized, but she was later depicted as being more concerned about marrying Steve Trevor instead of rescuing him like she used to. All of these changes became symbols of the conformed status quo of 1950s America. Still, as troubling as these changes were, they gave rise to new superheroes such as Supergirl, Batgirl, Batwoman, and Superboy.

Even though comic book companies complied with the government’s demands to avoid political backlash, these changes almost destroyed the superhero genre for all time. To stay in business, comic book companies were forced to create cheap monster comics. On the upside, these cheap monster comics gave birth to Groot.

When the 1960s came, the superhero genre was able to recover from their near-death. With John F. Kennedy in office and the space program in full swing, the superhero genre was given new energy and material to entertain and inspire a new generation of readers. Based on all of these facts, I am amazed and pleased that the superhero genre survived after this much persecution.

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2 thoughts on “SUPERHEROES IN THE 1950S”

  1. The stories of superheroes are modern myths. They are going to be reinterpreted to fit the times, just as fairy tales and legends get re-written to accommodate the latest philosophies, fads, and concerns. It’s interesting that they were censored and changed to meet government demands in the 50s. I would like to think we are entering a more enlightened time and that superheroes will become more inclusive, more compassionate, and more powerful as time goes on.

  2. I used to work with a guy who drew comics (for fanzines, not the big leagues), and he once told me that this Legion of Superheroes group he was a member of included a surprising number of gay men. While he told me this, he was drawing a muscle-bound superman-type in a skin-tight outfit and a cape. I was surprised that he was surprised.

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