With Covid restrictions easing, millions are sure to flock to theaters this weekend to enjoy the Caped Crusader’s final showdown with the sinister puzzle master Riddler in director Matt Reeves’ new take The Batman. The film—with the star of dusk Robert Pattinson steps into the lead role and promises to expand the Batman mythos with our high-society hero’s dark brand of vigilance in ever-dangerous Gotham City.
Batman made his comic book debut over eight decades ago in 1939. In the early 1940s, as Batman and his sidekick Robin battled theft and corruption and foiled the fantastical crimes committed by the maniacal Joker and the Penguin carrying an umbrella, Riddler wouldn’t. be introduced until 1948 – they weren’t the Dynamic Duo’s fiercest enemies.
The Covers Of These WWII Era Comics Had Nothing To Do With The Campy, Upbeat Style Batman television series starring Adam West, which aired weekly on ABC from 1966 to 1968 – same Bat-Time, same Bat-Channel. They also didn’t resemble the brooding, sophisticated portrayals of recent Batman film adaptations.
Instead, Batman had a more crucial conflict at hand. After Nazi Germany invaded Poland, Batman and Robin also fought fictional battles against the Axis powers: German Adolf Hitler, Italian Benito Mussolini, and Japanese Tojo Hideki.
Several classic DC comics from this difficult period are housed in the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Their vintage covers from the Golden Age tell a story of war propaganda, patriotism and national support for the war effort.
“Comics provide an arena where contemporary issues are explored and debated, and are invaluable in understanding the interests and anxieties of periods in history. World War II comics offer a great insight into the mindset and cultural attitudes of the time,” says Eric Jentsch, curator of the Museum of Entertainment and Sports History.
During the war, the comic book industry was booming, with hundreds of millions of comic books sold every year. The brightly colored comic strips that invade newsstands have captured the attention of passers-by, not just devoted readers. Their covers were vibrant “advertisements” supporting the war effort.
Superheroes glorified GIs on the cover of the summer issue of World’s Finest Comics No. 6, from 1942. The patriotic red, white, and blue cover vaguely resembles an American flag. Against bold stripes, Robin shakes hands with an Army soldier, under the appreciative gaze of a smiling Batman. Superman’s muscular arm rests approvingly on a Marine’s shoulder. The military, the cover communicates to its readers, are heroes on par with illustrious men in capes. As DC policy stated, “American fighters were the real supermen of the world.”
A few months later, the winter issue of The best comics in the world No. 8 encouraged civilians to buy bonds. Capitalizing on the popular characters’ considerable appeal, the cover shows Batman, Robin and Superman in a carnival booth inspiring a crowd eager to buy bonds and stamps. A banner with the aggressive words, “Sink the Japanazis”, hangs above their heads. Here, DC superheroes aren’t flexing their battle muscles against fascist foes. Instead, they serve as super mobilizers, aiming to gain support on the home front.
The best comics in the world #9, from Spring 1943, features crime fighters employing their best-known exploits as they set out to destroy tyrannical enemies by force. Nodding at the start of baseball season, a bright yellow cover cinematically depicts the Dark Knight, his Boy Wonder and the Man of Steel throwing baseballs at a banner of cartoonish faces of Axis leaders . The banner cleverly plays on the words, “Knock out the axis with bonds & stamps”.
With the world on the brink of destruction, three of the first superheroes have joined the war. Comic book heroes ubiquitously peddled bonds to help fund the war and at the same time provided entertainment and morale boosts to the United States and GIs across the ocean. Light magazines lined the pockets of servicemen, with comics accounting for over 30% of the mail from military bases by the middle of the war.
Featured in its own eponymous title, Batman (and Robin) have “participated” in the war. A story in Batman Issue #14 (January 1943), “Swastika over the White House”, had the creature of the night battling Nazi spies, who had infiltrated the country to procure the White House for Hitler’s American headquarters. The Dynamic Duo outwit undercover Nazi saboteurs by crushing them with a giant swastika.
But it’s on the comic book covers that Batman has done his most visible war work. The cover of Batman #18, from Fall 1943, launched bonds and showed the good guys outmaneuvering the Axis bad guys. A huge exploding firecracker rocks Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo with the emphatic caption: “Ensure the 4th of July! Buy war bonds and stamps!
Many of America’s pioneering comic book editors, publishers, artists, and writers were Jewish and therefore acutely aware of the horrors of a genocidal war. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, nerdy teenagers from Cleveland, created Superman. Bob Kane (née Kahn) and Bill (Milton) Finger designed Batman. Later, during the Silver Age of comics, Stan Lee (Lieber), a writer who served in the war, created many other superheroes, including the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and the Marvel Comics’ X-Men. Forty-one years ago, the main antagonist of the X-Men, Magneto, was revealed to be a survivor of the Holocaust.
“Because the superheroes we know and love were largely created by Jews, the comics industry felt a special imperative to promote war ties. A number of these founding figures had family in Europe and those who did not were always supportive of the oppression of their co-religionists,” says Danny Fingeroth, comic book writer and editor and author of the definitive biography, A wonderful life, by Stan Lee. “Safe in America, they wanted to do whatever they could to help, in any way they could.”
Batman and Superman weren’t the only superheroes seeking revenge during the war years. Dressed in a costume inspired by the American flag and brandishing a shield of the same ilk, Captain America was a soldier specially created to fight the Nazis.
The March 1941 cover of the first Captain America comic strip depicts the quintessential American hero punching Hitler unceremoniously in the jaw. Writer Joe (Hymie) Simon and artist Jack “The King” Kirby (Jacob Kurtzberg), who drew the energetic cover that would define the long-running Marvel style, were also of Jewish descent. Going after the Nazis whom Captain America was doing justice to, Joe Simon had Cap (a scrawny Steve Rogers before his transformation into a super soldier) created by a serum concocted by Professor Reinstein, a cheeky homage to German-Jewish physicist Albert Einstein.
Cap’s iconic shield was on display at the Museum of American History from November 2018 to January 2020, along with George Clooney’s cap and batarang from his turn as Batman in the 1997 film. batman and robin.
The new adventure of the Caped Crusader in The Batman does not revolve around the obstruction of global tyranny. But now, with war dominating the news so recently, perhaps the comics — in tune with world events long after World War II, spanning the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and beyond – will capture history again.