A particular exchange between Captain America and Spider-Man has long been one of my favorite quotes. Spidey is asking Cap how he deals with the world when it’s pitted against him. Cap gives a longer response, but the iconic end is:
“Doesn’t matter what the press says. Doesn’t matter what the politicians or the mobs say. Doesn’t matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is something right.
This nation was founded on one principle above all else: the requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences. When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world—‘No, YOU move.’”
—J. Michael Straczynski,
It may sound strange, but I tear up when I read that. Why? Because comics, specifically superhero comics, have always been an integral part of my life: teaching new words and concepts, presenting vivid images and facts, and most importantly, offering inspiration and examples to follow. I can find in the pages of Captain America, Spider-Man, and Superman stories something to inspire me, especially when dealing with challenges and trials. And none have been as challenging for me as the world is today with Nazis, Klansmen, and white supremacists roaming college campuses with tikki torches and people excusing it under the guise of alternative viewpoints or First Amendment rights.
It’s as if Hydra has actually taken over.
And because of this, it is ever more important to hold fast to those values we hold dear; to refuse to go gentle into that good night or stand idly by while the city or the world is torn apart. So if fighting the forces of evil is what you’re about, here’s a little inspiration for you.
Captain America Punches Hitler the Hell Out!
Few names in comics stand out so strongly as to need no introduction, and chief among them is Jack “the King” Kirby, artist, writer, editor and co-creator of such icons as the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Hulk, and, of course, Captain America. Cap has been an icon and inspiration for over 75 years, with no image being quite as noteworthy as the cover of Captain America #1, which features Cap punching out Adolph Hitler—and was published before the United States entered World War II.
“The only real politics I knew was that if a guy liked Hitler, I’d beat the stuffing out of him and that would be it.”
It was controversial because Hitler was still a sitting world leader, and having him identified soundly as the villain and the Nazis as evil in the first issue of the comic could not have been a clearer message. Kirby and Captain America co-creator Joe Simon received death threats by telephone, through the mail, and even sometimes in person, as his biography recalled:
On occasion the Timely office would get phone calls and letters from Nazi sympathizers threatening the creators of Captain America. Once, while Jack was in the Timely office, a call came from someone in the lobby. When Kirby answered, the caller threatened Jack with bodily harm if he showed his face. Kirby told the caller he would be right down, but by the time Jack reached street level, there was no one to be found.
Kirby didn’t shy away from a fight, and neither did Cap. And while the current story line has a controversial twist, until it resolves itself, we can look at classic Cap for inspiration.
The Justice Society of America Takes a Stand on Privacy Before It Becomes a Thing
Few superteams hold as special a place in my heart as the Justice Society of America, later just the Justice Society. First appearing in 1940 in the pages of All Star Comics #3, it was the first official superteam in existence, and its member represent such a variety of backgrounds (albeit white backgrounds until the reboot). Part of the draw was making them a team that did not have the big two—Superman (debuting in 1938) and Batman (debuting in 1939)—as regular members. Those characters were honorary members, as was each hero who left the team for their own book.
In the comic, the JSA was actually brought together by FDR: President Franklin D. Roosevelt worked through back channels to recruit several “mystery men” to aid in countering Hitler’s operation. What began with Green Lantern soon involved the Flash, Doctor Fate, and Hourman. The first two were rescued from Adolf Hitler by the latter two, but Hitler had possession of the Spear of Destiny, which he used to summon five Valkyries. They, in turn, fought with the heroes, but they were not going to win the battle without help, prompting Doctor Fate to send four magical messages to summon the Atom, Hawkman, the Sandman, and the Spectre—all four of whom were spirited away to Europe and fought German military forces. Once the threats were dealt with, the two groups joined forces to stop an experimental long-range bomber flying to Washington, DC, to obliterate that city. Just before they reached Washington, Green Lantern was able to destroy the bomber, but the explosion knocked him unconscious and scattered the heroes. The Atom and Doctor Fate arrived and the White House and were unable to prevent FDR from being assassinated, but the Spectre traveled into the realm of the dead and had FDR restored to life. In the Oval Office, the president asked the heroes to stay together, and the Spectre suggested the group’s name: Justice Society of America.
FDR would send them—as well as the All Star Squadron, which grew out of and had overlap with the JSA’s members—on missions to fight Nazis and other fascists. Their adventures would inspire patriotism (in a good way) to fans young and old, but perhaps the most honorable thing they did was choosing to disband rather then be subjected to the comics version of McCarthyism. Subsequent to making one of the largest criminal busts in their history, the JSA received subpoenas upon turning the criminals over to the Department of Justice to appear before the Combined Congressional Un-American Activities Commission. The reason? Their association with their would-be killer. He was known to be a highly placed operative of a hostile foreign power, so naturally, the commission had questions on their relationship with the person who was trying to kill them. After all the good the Justice Society had done, after the sacrifices in the name of their country, the commission demanded its members unmask in order to “clear their good names.”
Can you imagine how hard that would be? To have your loyalty and all the efforts you had made called into question? That after all you had done, especially at the direction of the president himself, to have there be a question of your good name? The Justice Society chose to disband rather than give up their civil liberties.
“We respectfully decline, Senator. Our faces—our names—our lives, are our own business. Don’t worry . . . you won’t be hearing from us again.”
They refused to bow to the tyranny of scare politics.
PSAs to the Rescue
In 1949, National Comics, the company that would become DC Comics, approached the National Social Welfare Assembly (NSWA), requesting that they cooperate on a social messaging comics project. NSWA agreed to participate, and their youth division established a subcommittee to work on the project. It brought together a committee of experts from social agencies to develop the concepts, messages, and scripts with the editors and artists at National Comics who created and printed the comic pages. The comics produced as part of this project featured a range of social messages about racial and religious understanding and equality, personal values, citizenship, and more and featured Superman, Batman, and other heroes. The Comics Project ran from August 1949 to July 1967, producing over 200 comic pages during that time. Comics had become extremely popular in the years since Superman had debuted, but this popularity brought with it criticism that they were a negative influence on youth. The hope was these posters would counteract that opinion and help people see comics in a new light, in addition to using their power of influence for good.
The messages were clear and simple, with popular characters espousing the right ideals—something that wouldn’t be so bad to see more in this day and age. In a world filled with anger, hate, and duplicity, comics still hold some inspiration, some words of wisdom, some glimmer that all is not lost.
“Great principles don’t get lost once they come to light. They’re right here; you just have to see them again!”
—Jefferson Smith, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
- Reid, Jeff. “DC Histories: Justice Society of America.” IFanboy, May 2, 2012. Archived from the original on February 2, 2015.
- “All Star Comics #3 (Winter 1940–1941)”. Grand Comics Database.
- Markstein, Don. “The Justice Society of America.” Don Markstein’s Toonopedia, 2010.
- Cavna, Michael. “Captain America was punching Nazis in 1941. Here’s why that was so daring.” Washington Post, August 17, 2017.
- Taylor, Stan. “Looking For The Awesome: 5. Making It Personal.” The Kirby Effect, April 16, 2016.
- Franklin Delano Roosevelt. DC Wikia.
- Anderson, Linnea M. National Social Welfare Assembly Comics Project. VCU Libraries Social Welfare History Project.