In the 1940s, nearly every US-based superhero was engaged in a fight against the Axis. Comic books were useful propaganda tools for the war effort at home, and many comics featured several US-themed superheroes who showed up overseas to punch Nazis while completely neglecting the many injustices occurring within the United States at the time. Many of these “patriotic” characters are still around today. But the US has changed a bit over the years, and so have they.
From various publishers dating back 80 years, there are dozens of examples of US-themed superheroes, far too many to cover them all in one article. However, like most tropes that have been around for such a long time, they tend to move in circles according to popular trends of their era, and that's something we can get into.
While comic books of World War II America were overpopulated with military-themed characters, from the Shield to Uncle Sam to the original Miss America and beyond, perhaps the most important of them all is Captain America. Created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby and published by Timely Comics (which would later become Marvel), Captain America was initially intended as a call-to-arms response to those American citizens who were still against entering the war. Thus, although Captain America comics were heartfelt propaganda, they were propaganda nonetheless, influencing public perception by simplifying the true horror of war and pushing a blind belief in patriotism above all else. Like many young men, Kirby himself was drafted to go to war and went on many dangerous missions.
The first issue of Captain America featured Steve Rogers, once a sickly young man made strong by a super-serum, cracking Hitler right in the jaw. It sold nearly a million copies. However, once the war had ended, Captain America lost direction. Besides Captain America, several other patriotic heroes faded from regular syndication, including a comic book version of Uncle Sam, who would return, years later, first as a disillusioned old man in a miniseries painted by artist Alex Ross, then as a seemingly unrelated superhero in the regular DC universe.
By 1954, Captain America had been temporarily canceled, and a new hero called the Fighting American was created by Simon and Kirby, who seemingly weren't quite ready to let go of the concept of a brave soldier battling injustice. Initially intended seriously as “the first commie-basher in comics,” to quote Simon, the decreasing credibility of the Red Scare caused a change of course. Almost immediately, the tone of the book shifted as finally a quite justified backlash against Joseph McCarthy and his sensationalist accusations began. Thereby did the Fighting American manifest as one of the original parodies of the American ideal in superhero comics, albeit somewhat unintentionally.
During the early civil rights movement of the '60s, Captain America returned to the Marvel universe to become the leader of the Avengers. It turned out he had been frozen, and when he was discovered and returned to life, he had some trouble adjusting to modern life. If this story arc happened today, there would be much deeper commentary around his adaptation to a new way of life, while in the mid-'60s it was mostly played for camp value. Captain America fails to be very political at all during an era in which civil rights protests were erupting across the nation, setting the status quo for his character. There are exceptions, times when we see Captain America respond with extreme frustration and disgust to racist organizations, but overall he tends to be pretty quiet about civil rights violations that occur within the United States.
Heroes based in heavy-handed nationalism are nothing new, at least for many US-based comic book writers. Besides the tendency toward tossing a United States flag on a character to indicate superior morality, the trope works both ways, and many of the villains created for these US-themed heroes hail from countries that the US has a conflict with. These characters are, for the most part, heavily informed by stereotypes. You'd be hard-pressed to find a Russian hero or villain published by a mainstream comics company in the US that doesn't base their appearance, name, and ideology almost entirely in their Russian heritage, almost unfailingly written by American authors who have a very limited understanding of Russia and its people. Names like Red Star, Darkstar, the KGBeast, Red Son, Molotov, Sickle, the Crimson Dynamo, and Ursa Major should give you a general idea of what you're getting into there. The same is especially true for heroes and villains from Japan, China, and the Middle East, who traditionally have seldom been portrayed as anything but horribly offensive, racist stereotypes in mainstream comics. This biased view against countries politically at odds with the United States has entered comic books back into the realm of propaganda more than once, villainizing people in other countries while exhibiting an incredibly biased view on their political views and lifestyles.
To cite just one example, comics like Wonder Woman (who we must remember is also a US-flag-themed superhero) were well known for pitting their heroes against Nazis in the '40s, yet an often less-discussed element of early Wonder Woman comics is that they simultaneously tended to voice open racism toward Japanese people in the same breath, as supposedly condemning fascism. Captain America also had especially racist moments toward Japan and its people during World War II, recycling the same villainous stereotypes again and again. When the war ended, the racist tropes did not, and many of them continued on well into the modern era.
Nazi villains are a huge staple of American comics. They're completely unsympathetic, so anytime you need an utterly amoral villain, they are a go-to for writers. This can be problematic, as there is a tendency for writers to seemingly revel in writing over-the-top hate speech as narrated via the Nazi villain. Seldom does the Red Skull show up without being given pages and pages of space to eschew the specifics of whatever harebrained, eugenics-based plot he has going at the time. In the same way that many news outlets today seem to give fascistic public speakers an overwhelming amount of space to ramble on about their violent and oppressive ideologies, so have some comic writers appeared to take a perverse delight in the ramblings of fascistic villains. As a comic book fan, it isn't just tedious, it's also difficult to summon the energy to read another tirade from any number of these almost entirely interchangeable villains. It also begs the question why the same or a greater amount of page space isn't being given to those that are attacked by those with these fascistic ideologies.
When pitting a hero like Captain America against a Nazi villain such as the Red Skull, effectively calling Nazis the ultimate evil and positing the United States as being the opposite, there is a lack of acknowledgment of important historical facts about this country in the aftermath of World War II. America did help the Allies in defeating Nazis, but it likewise employed Nazis, helping war criminals escape justice by offering them jobs in various fields. When we assume that we are the benevolent inverse of pure evil, our own history of slavery, genocide, and oppression goes unaddressed. If you are looking for the ultimate evil, Nazis are very likely going to be the closest thing to it that you can find, but the United States is far from innocent when it comes to atrocity. By positioning ourselves as “the heroes” of World War II, we push the emphatically untrue notion that fascism is something that we ourselves are incapable of.
By the early '80s, an influx of new creators like Frank Miller and Alan Moore led to a change in tone for mainstream comics as a whole, introducing a grimmer view of the once-optimistic world of costumed heroes. In Watchmen, Alan Moore gave us the villain known as the Comedian, a character who worked for the government and killed many innocent people in Vietnam, using his status as a sanctioned soldier to do what he pleased in life until the realities of his own corruption catch up with him. Yet the story reads as being bizarrely sympathetic to this violent murderer, even going so far as to excuse him for the attempted rape of one of his teammates.
In 1990, Frank Miller's Give Me Liberty! followed a young girl named Martha Washington, born into a dystopian near-future in which she discovers a terrible secret conspiracy early in life — a particularly shady branch of the government is performing experiments on children in hopes of turning them into living computers — and later joins the military due to lack of options. In Give Me Liberty!, there is no shying away from the violence that Martha is expected to endure in her life as a young black woman. Her father is killed in a housing dispute, and she is left an orphan. She defends her friend from a violent attack and is institutionalized. The institution closes, and she's left homeless. Her greatest enemy is a particularly vicious white man who takes credit for her work and tries to leave her for dead.
I am no fan of Miller's work, but I do make an exception for the original Give Me Liberty! series, which, although brutal and problematic in its own right, does at least give us a rad protagonist in Martha. The comic fit in thematically with many dystopian futures occurring in comics at the time, for instance: a charismatic but corrupt leader of a recently totalitarian government, a sense of blame toward social justice groups for factioning politics in a way that the story claims led to a fascist uprising, upsetting genetic experiments, and an action hero at its center who inevitably saves the day by the end of the story.
Many would view stories like Watchmen and Give Me Liberty! as dark, but I argue that they're somewhat hopelessly optimistic at certain points. For instance, the life that Martha leads isn't that far removed from what black women go through every day in this country; thus there is no need to place her in a dystopian future to tell her tale. Furthermore, instead of us relying upon a designated action hero, we all have to learn to save ourselves from an ingrained human tendency toward violence and intolerance, which is a longer and more complicated story to tell.
Throughout the '90s, a sense of irreverence toward the somber, over-serious patriotic heroes began to take form, and we saw a small rise in parodies of the trope. In the Tick, American Maid was introduced, clad in a flag-themed outfit but seldom expressing much in the way of patriotic idealism. Meanwhile, in Justice League, a character named General Glory showed up, a direct parody of Captain America, who comes across as hopelessly outdated. Later, there were a series of books that attempted to do what Watchmen had once done in subverting character tropes, so there were several analogs to Captain America that would show up in smaller books like Straczynski's Rising Stars, various Wildstorm books, Astro City, or any given number of Alan Moore stories. Generally speaking, the purpose of an analog is to reverse or flesh out a cliche, but none of these characters stand out as being particularly successful at doing that. More commonly, they just served to be the dated, stodgy conservative of their respective superteams, which reflects how a lot of people were feeling about patriotism and ideals at the time.
After 9/11, Marvel issued benefit comics that showed its various characters showing up to help save the lives of many people still trapped under the rubble of the felled Twin Towers. While this is a rare occasion of Marvel becoming politically involved, one of the comics, A Moment of Silence, emphasizes the value of not talking about 9/11 beyond expressions of blind patriotism. Later, as military action in the Middle East increased and hundreds of thousands of lives were lost, there was very little in the way of commentary from prominent patriotic superheroes. Later, in the tactlessly named Civil War, Captain America would show an intense anti-authoritarian streak in response to the idea that superheroes should be registered through the government, and, although the realism of the tragedy of 9/11 was not a taboo subject, the United States' involvement in the Iraq War and its many violations of the Geneva Convention were seldom addressed.
When the controversial decision to make Captain America a member of Hydra was revealed, the greatest criticism was that the story didn't offer anything in the way of meaningful commentary and only served to shock and annoy readers while brushing the implied antisemitism behind such a move to the side without comment. Meanwhile, while Steve Rogers was temporarily a fascist, the character Sam Wilson took on the mantle of Captain America. Originally introduced to comics as the Falcon, Sam was more than ready for a place in the spotlight. Despite appearing regularly in the Avengers and in his own title, Sam's run as Captain America came across as all too brief. More rebellious and openly antagonistic than Steve Rogers, with an acute understanding of America's own history of oppression, Sam Wilson was the Captain America the audience truly needed. Although Hydra are only Nazis allegorically, after Steve Rogers was temporarily outed as a longtime member people in real life were reportedly showing up to Neo-Nazi rallies in Captain America T-shirts. Unfortunately, there was very little motion made to distance the character from that in the aftermath of the storyline. Now, with Steve Rogers back in his role as Captain America, one questions the point of the narrative to begin with.
More recently, America Chavez, an intergalactic lesbian Latina with two moms and reality-hopping powers, took on the mantle of Miss America. While her connection with American politics has always been loosely defined at best, she has given us a better representation of what is great and beautiful about the United States than most of the previous US-themed superheroes have combined. Although it's difficult to say where the trope of the US superhero will go from here, as many United States citizens struggle against the rise of hostile, fascistic politics within our own country, it is almost guaranteed that we haven't seen the end of this decades-old theme in comics by a long shot.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.