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Truth, Justice, and the Birth of the Superhero Comic Book

Primary Source Set

Sometimes referred to as the “golden age of comic books,” the years from the late 1930s through the early 1950s marked a period of creativity and innovation in the medium. Superman debuted in 1938, followed by Batman (1939), Wonder Woman (1941), and several others; these superheroes brought hope to millions suffering privation and loss during the Great Depression and the Second World War. Through characters with dual identities, one ordinary and one extraordinary, comic books showed how a super-powered citizen could save an entire city or world from disaster.

The history and political ideologies of their times affected the stories and characters of comic books, in which superheroes fought for ideals like “truth, justice, and the American way” (Superman’s catchphrase). Did these comics function as propaganda to keep Americans content during uncertainty, and did they encourage national unity during the Second World War and Cold War? Through inclusions and omissions, did golden-age comics replicate the racism and sexism of US culture or question stereotypes and prejudice? What do Superman, Batman, Captain America, and other comic-book superheroes reveal about the society of the United States during this “golden age” period?

Additional resources for research

  1. The Golden Age of Comic Books, PBS.
  2. Superheroes rise in tough times,” CNN.
  3. Comic Strips Lead to a New Form, Pennsylvania State University.

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