Nowadays comic books are the focus of great scholars’ attention, and it is widely believed that they can help to understand American culture better. The comic book genre reduces individual characters and superheroes into the representations of major cultural ideas. Among these ideas are the nationalism, societal stability, femininity, political and racial equality and many other problems and concerns of society. Starting from 1930s comic books have become the expression of contemporary trends of life, reflecting national views, customs and traditions, stereotypes and racial attitudes, and many other beliefs that make up American lifestyle.
When the genre of a comic book was invented it related mostly to children, but since 1930s the average age of the readers began to mature, and as a result, by the 1970s comics were read mostly by people of high school and college age. Accordingly, the issues addressed in these books became more crucial and serious. Later comics became less fantastic, dealing with various social and life concerns. For instance, in X-Men readers can find the hidden symbolic portrayals of racism while Spiderman usually deals with every-day problems of ordinary people. Thus, comic books as well as their subject matters grew up with their readers. At the same time, the history of comic books was closely connected to the history of the United States in general.
It needs to be mentioned that the genre of comics is a unique creation of American culture. The first comics were created in 18th century. They became really popular only in 1930s and had a traditional format of telling stories through multiple colored panels. The period from 1930s till 1950s is called the “Golden Age” of comic books as they became both commercially successful and culturally significant. It happened that time when comic books reached their peak occurred at the time of the Great Depression and World War II. The comic books created in 1930s and 1940s filled the cultural need based on the desire for cheap and simple form of entertainment. At those times, comic books reflected the cultural concerns of their creators, who aimed to use comics to advance some specific visions. It is interesting that comic books of the Golden Age not just informed and reflected American culture but also modified people’s worldviews and attitudes. The Depression Era, the time when comic books gained their popularity, made people search for cheap forms of entertainment, which could take them away from reality and support their depressed feelings and emotions. Precisely among these forms of entertainment were comic books. At those times, media provided the audience with the fantasy worlds, in which they could “travel” whenever they want.
While comic books were considered to be a cheap form of entertainment, the first superheroes were created not to entertain but to modify cultural conventions. The creation of superhero reflected the desire of the society to get rid of the consequences of the Depression. While the historical hero of the New Deal era was Franklin Roosevelt, a role of comic book hero was given to Superman. This character reflected the new culture of the 1930s and his adventures not in the frontier but in the city. The analysis of Superman’s evolution from those days till present times can show how the worldview of American society changed under the influence of political and historical events in the country.
Hence, comics usually address various social issues in many ways. Some colored panels deal with particular problems directly while other ones do this by means of metaphors and symbols. Like Superman, many characters were changed according to the current situations that took place during certain periods of time. Many familiar heroes were put into unusual situations in which they dealt with a problem and fixed it in this or that way. At times when the society struggled with a certain social problem, heroes from comic books showed how to cope with them. In the majority of cases heroes are put into situations, which they do not know how to deal with. Fixing any problem they keep to the stated moral, social, and political norms.
Social problems that effect American society and that are depicted in comic books affect the superheroes and other characters as well. In many comic books, readers may notice the themes of drug and alcohol addiction, poverty, crime and war. Almost all heroes are touched by social problems in this or that way. Such heroes as Batman, Spiderman, The Punisher and others have violent past, which have led them to becoming heroes.
Another example of social problems’ reflection in comics is the story about Captain America. Although the main idea of the hero remained the same, he changed his ideology related to the concept of war as he lost his friend during World War II and stood against warfare in general. Spiderman in his turn became popular among ordinary and poor people suffering from poverty as the problems of this character seemed very familiar to them. After losing his family, he is left alone with an elderly aunt, minimal income and little money. In popular comics X-Men, authors raise the theme of racism, but the race is not used as the issue. According to this comic book there are mutants, who are not accepted by society. Freaks (which can be interpreted as symbols of racial minorities) suffer from violence and hate crimes as well as by the oppression of the government.
Summing up, the genre of comic book is a unique phenomenon of American culture, which reflects the cultural and social ideas and concerns of the country. The creators of comics represent the major cultural issues that are related to political and historical background. During the Golden Age of comic books, this genre reached a peak of its popularity in the United States both in terms of readership and cultural impact. Comics were easy to produce and cheap to get. At the same time, they helped people to escape from unhappy reality and problems brought by the Depression and World War II. Superheroes, which appeared in response to the mentioned events, possessed all the traits necessary for overcoming all the troubles and problems. Although comic books do not seem to become as culturally powerful as they were in 1930s and 1940s, it is important to realize that comics are the expression of national views, traditions, customs, values, stereotypes and other things that form American lifestyle and worldview.