Art Spiegelman: Golden Age Superheroes

Created in New York by Jewish immigrants, the first comic book superheroes were mythic saviours who could combat the Nazi threat. They speak to the dark politics of our times

It is generally agreed that Superman launched the golden age of comics in June 1938 with his debut in Action Comics #1, published by what is now known as DC Comics. Siegel and Shuster had created a new archetype – or perhaps, more accurately, a new stereotype – and by 1940, once the nascent genre had demonstrated that it could get kids to part with millions of dimes per month, swarms of imitators catapulted hordes of four-colour heroes into the skies, all chasing the gold in this golden age. The juvenile naivety of Superman was, it seems, actually part of its allure, inviting youngsters into a new especially kid-friendly kind of story whose fantasies were even more unfettered by logic than most prose pulp fiction, all presented with diagrammatic visuals in primary and secondary colours that could make every page a theatre curtain to be raised on to new eyeball kicks and … action.

At this point, it might be worth pointing out (not out of ethnic pride, but because it might shed some light on the rawness and the specific themes of the early comics) that the pioneers behind this embryonic medium based in New York were predominantly Jewish and from ethnic minority backgrounds. It wasn’t just Siegel and Shuster, but a whole generation of recent immigrants and their children – those most vulnerable to the ravages of the great depression – who were especially attuned to the rise of virulent antisemitism in Germany. They created the American Übermenschen who fought for a nation that would at least nominally welcome “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free … ”

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