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Superheroes & Propaganda:

A Time For Heroes

He’s not looking bad for his age. Superman turns 70 in June 2008, debuting in Action Comics No. 1 in 1938. To mark this occasion, the British Film Institute in London is mounting a season of comics-based movies throughout July and August. Their selection is predictably American-dominated and headlines many of the biggest, brashest blockbusters including the latest Batman directed by Christopher Nolan. While it may be stretching it to hail Tank Girl "a cult classic", fortunately the programmers seem to have avoided such irredeemable duds as LXG or Howard The Duck. More positively, the BFI season acknowledges the broader, subtler range of films taken from "hand-drawn comics published outside the mainstream", or best-selling literary graphic novels which go way beyond super powers and special effects, from Ghost World to Persepolis. In addition there will be talks, courses and related events, plus exclusive IMAX screenings. Here are a couple of recent press articles on the superhero as propaganda tool and my six all-time favourites.

In May 2008, Iron Man was unveiled as an unlikely ally of the United Nations. But don’t be surprised: comic-book superheroes have been co-opted for propaganda purposes since the 40s.

Got a problem with fascist dictators, drug addicts or people not sticking their empty cereal packets in the recycling bin? That sounds like a job for… Superman! No, seriously. Since they were born on the eve of the second world war, America’s superheroes have been enlisted for all sorts of undercover propaganda duties, from promoting patriotism, war bonds and recycling (even of comics themselves) to warning about health, drugs and landmines. So it’s nothing new that Iron Man, the latest in Marvel’s pop-icon pantheon to hit the big screen, is coming to the rescue of the United Nations. In a specially customised comic book, Ol’ Shellhead and his costumed cohorts will battle that most terrible of supervillains, a tarnished public image, by demonstrating the UN’s positive, proactive roles. Will it work? It’s debatable: over the years these earnest, message-laden stories have not always been too effective as weapons of mass persuasion.

When it comes to propaganda, superheroes were probably at their most convincing in the early 40s, when they and their frequently Jewish creators and publishers, were tackling Hitler himself long before America entered the fray after Pearl Harbor. Seventy years ago this year, two young bespectacled Cleveland Jews, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, saw their nerdish fantasies published on four-colour newsprint as Superman burst off the pages of the first Action Comics and sparked a battalion of imitators. Their Man Of Steel started out as a champion against corrupt employers and other scoundrels but he and other superheroes would soon find the perfect bad guys in the Nazis and the Japanese.

For the February 27 1940 issue of Look weekly, Siegel and Shuster were commissioned to create a two-page expose showing How Superman Would End The War. After he pummels Germany’s fortifications on the Siegfried Line, Superman grabs Hitler and Stalin and flies them to Geneva where they are found guilty of “unprovoked aggression against defenceless countries” by the League Of Nations, forerunner of the UN. This condemnation of the Nazis seems to have worked as propaganda. It reportedly infuriated Joseph Goebbels, himself a master propagandist, so much that he angrily proclaimed “Superman is Jewish!” in a meeting. Not long after, on April 25 1940, the SS newspaper Das Schwarze Korps ran an anonymous full-page counter attack, probably written by Goebbels, denouncing the “intellectually and physically circumcised” Jerry Siegel as “a Colorado beetle” who “works in the dark, in incomprehensible ways” on American children.

In his Look strip, Superman was restrained from giving the captive Fuhrer “a strictly non-Aryan sock on your jaw”. A year later, another Jewish partnership, New Yorkers Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, unleashed their super-patriot Captain America, garbed in the stars and stripes flag, who finally gave Hitler that threatened punch on their first issue’s front cover. This was too much for some American Nazi sympathisers and opponents of their country entering the war. Simon and Kirby’s studio became the target of hate mail, obscene phone calls and sinister types lurking outside, until mayor Fiorello LaGuardia himself rang Simon to assure him of round-the-clock police protection, saying, “You boys over there are doing a good job. The city of New York will see that no harm will come to you.” Once the war was won, however, Captain America hung up his shield. Somehow his comeback as a 50s “commie basher” in the Cold War and Korea never caught on.

The 60s and 70s saw costumed crime-fighters getting involved in real social issues. Stan Lee ignored the Comics Code Authority’s regulation forbidding any mention of drugs and wrote a warning about their dangers in Spider-Man. Soon after, Denny O’Neill and Neal Adams confronted the same issue, with the shock revelation that Green Arrow’s trusty sidekick was an addict. The fact that he was called Speedy might have given us a clue.

Several public service bodies have used famous superheroes to put across their messages. Notoriously, in one Spider-Man comic, it’s disclosed that as a youngster his alter ego Peter Parker was a victim of homosexual molestation, though this revelation seems to have been written out of the webslinger’s “official” biography. Despite the ‘real’ struggles with the bottle of Iron Man’s alcoholic alter ego Tony Stark, to be explored in the movie’s sequel, he’s not yet been a spokes-hero in an anti-boozing comic.

Today Cap, Spidey and their cohorts are back in favour with those in high places and not just at the UN. In 2005, Donald Rumsfeld puffed out his chest next to actors dressed as Captain America and Spider-Man to launch the first of Marvel’s free comic books for America’s armed forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Reflecting our more complex political times, their messages are curiously oblique. In the fifth and latest issue of The New Avengers: The Spirit Of America (it is left to us to guess what they are avenging), Bin Laden is nowhere to be seen. Rather, the only villains are Marvel’s own stock Axis Of Evil, Hydra or AIM (Advanced Idea Mechanics), now rebranded as “terrorist organisations”.

No specific warzone is given, only “overseas”. You may have heard that Cap was shot dead (don’t worry, death is only temporary for superheroes - ask Superman), but the comic closes with a last patriotic message: “Heroes don’t live forever. And when they’re gone, that’s when we all have to step up and do our duty. For we are all Americans. Goodnight and be safe.” Easy for Cap to say when he’s been given a strength-boosting serum to transform him into a Super-Soldier. Despite the cover lines that “Marvel salutes the real heroes, the men and women of the US military”, the two ordinary soldiers featured here, a brother and sister, still need the combined superpowers of Cap, Iron Man, Wolverine and Cyclops to pull them through. Not the most inspiring message perhaps for our boys and girls on the frontlines.

As for the UN, superheroes have come to its rescue before. In November 1967, The Justice League Of America featured the UN symbol on the cover of issue 57, in a very right-on plea for racial harmony called “Man, Thy Name is Brother!”. The UN even had their very own team of superheroes devised by Wally Wood for Tower Comics in the 60s. Called the THUNDER Agents (The Higher United Nations Defence Enforcement Reserves), they were led by Dynamo, dressed in the UN’s blue and white colours. Rather than relying on Marvel’s characters, the UN could have resurrected this team, but THUNDER Agents vanished after only 20 issues and only aging comic collectors remember them now. Instead, maybe the UN should take a tip from Unicef, who have signed up the Smurfs, also decked in regulation blue and white, to be their ambassadors for children’s rights this year. Sounds like a job for… Papa Smurf!


by Bill Finger & Bob Kane, 1939
Traumatised by seeing his parents killed, Bruce Wayne dresses as a bat to become the archetypal masked vigilante. His endless reincarnations, whether deadpan Adam West or grim Christian Bale, always chime with the times.

Captain Marvel
by Bill Parker & C.C. Beck, 1940
One shout of “Shazam!” turns young Billy Batson into the “World’s Mightiest Mortal”, a grown-up kid with the powers of six mythical figures. Modelled on actor Fred MacMurray, in his prime he was bigger and wittier than Superman.

Plastic Man
by Jack Cole, 1941
When burglar “Eel” O’Brian is doused in chemicals, he discovers he can stretch his face and body. Renouncing crime, he becomes “the longest arm of the law”, his red-and-yellow costume constantly recognisable no matter what shape he squeezes himself into.

Herbie The Fat Fury
by Richard Hughes & Ogden Whitney, 1958
His Dad may dismiss Herbie Popnecker as a “little fat nothing”, but as The Fat Fury, with a toilet plunger on his head, he is famed throughout history for his lollipop-enhanced powers and surreal exploits.

The Silver Surfer
by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, 1966
In his shiny body coating, this aloof alien herald grows so fond of Earth that he saves it by rebelling against his master, the planet-munching Galactus, but pays the price of never soaring the spaceways again.

by Mick Anglo, 1954 and Alan Moore & Garry Leach, 1982
When a nuclear threat sparks adult amnesiac Mike Moran to recall the forgotten childhood word “Kimota!”, he resumes his role as Britain’s Captain Marvel, transforming his marriage and eventually ruling the world.

Posted: June 22, 2008

The Time For Heroes article originally appeared in The Guide, a supplement to The Guardian newspaper, on April 19, 2008. An edited version of Paul Gravett’s Favourite Superheroes was originally published in The Times on May 3rd 2008.


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by Bill Finger
& Bob Kane

Captain Marvel
by Bill Parker
& C.C. Beck

Plastic Man
by Jack Cole

Herbie The Fat Fury
by Richard Hughes
& Ogden Whitney

The Silver Surfer
by Stan Lee
& Jack Kirby

by Mick Anglo,
Alan Moore
& Garry Leach