The American Dream through comic-books history

Publié le 26 juin 2017 Société Littérature Histoire

Art allows people a way to dream their way off their struggle

- Russel Simons

You can discuss the American Dream from different perspectives: cinema, Hollywood movies, Barack Obama, the dream of the Irish immigrants in the 20th century, songs, paintings, Jay Z, and the list goes on and on... So why choose comic book’s heroes to describe a phenomenon so big that it has been utilized by every single form of artistic creation there is?

Super heroes’ comic books are born in the USA, and their authors have built entire universes around them, often based on the quest of the American Dream, and its success. From Superman to Captain America, contemporary myths have been built around these emblematic figures of today's pop culture. Beyond being phenomenal individuals, powerful patriotic super soldiers, they incarnate something more: hope, hope of a better life, built on hard work, self-initiative, on the fact that each and every one of us can make a difference. Built on the utopia that every person's dream can come true if they really believe in it. This is why there is pertinence in discussing the American Dream through a super-hero perspective.

According to the Cambridge dictionary, the American Dream can be defined as "The belief that everyone in the US has the chance to be successful and happy if they work hard." Super heroes rose during the Great Depression, more than 75 years ago, just before and during the Second World War. It’s important to note that the first ones were born right after the term “American Dream” was used for the first time in Epic of America, by James Truslow Adams in 1931. It was about giving people opportunities, fighting for their aspirations through hard work and belief in the American way of life. The fact that its origins are the Great Depression is symbolic, because it was a shifting and defining period in American history, and American people needed to have their confidence in their country restored, to regain hope that they could still make it in their society. Super heroes, thus created during the very same period, were meant to carry the values of a nation, and to be the spearhead of the promotion of the American Dream. This belief could not be more exemplified than in super hero comic books.

But comic books do not picture the American Dream as the way to a perfect society. It does not necessarily picture it as a way to reach happiness and fulfillment. The Watchmen, the Batman, and some other heroes infer that the American Dream has some pitfalls. They show that the great promises of the American Dream are sometimes nowhere near what truly happens: corruption, greed, rapacity... Through these examples, they show the downsides of the American Dream, in particular how it can pervert people. According to David Abrahamsen, The American Dream is, in part, responsible for a great deal of crime and violence because people feel that the country owes them not only a living but a good living. Which leads us to some hints to the answers to this contemporary question:

Are American people losing faith in the American Dream?

From Pulp's magazines to Hollywood Blockbusters, how did the American Dream carry on through the 20th century?

American comics are deeply connected with the history of the United states. Comic books accompany a certain kind of social modernity, and reveal the struggles and the aspirations of the American people right after the Great Depression of 1929, and then during World War 2. Between 1938 and 1945, the adventures of all superheroes were focused on concrete social issues. Pulp’s magazines, with their iconic comic strips, offered fictional story lines but always connected with real-life struggles. There was always a link between what was happening in the real world and what type of stories each character developed. At the time, science-fiction, fantasy, crime, were used and linked to what was happening in the United States: war, social crisis, poverty, crime.

Note: Their name: “pulp’s” comes from how they were made. Those magazines were made out of cheap paper: the wood pulp. (wood fibers paper)

Pulp’s magazines and subsequently comic books (from approximately 1935, and onward) were the mirror of modernity: they reflected the construction of individualism throughout the 20th century: fears, utopia, hope of climbing the social ladder, questioning of the elites etc.… Beyond being born after the Great Depression of 1929, super heroes were born during the interwar period. It is no coincidence if they were created in such a geopolitical context. Simon Merle made a sharp analysis the reasons of this birth:

Couldn’t we see in super heroes a reaction against disillusion, right after a barbaric first World War, a dramatic economic crisis and the rise of nationalisms? If super heroes are indeed useful, it might be paradoxically because of their traditionalist spirit, because they are meant to remind us all of our threatened values. But it may also be to propose a future that considers the risk of a return of inhumanity in our modern societies to offset progress. We have to admit that super heroes talk about our own world. (Super héros et philo, 2012)

The creation of super-heroes, from the Great Depression to the Second World War (1929-1945)

Publishers knew how to make comic books work in America’s society. Comic books were cheap, only 10 cents per issue and they were relatively easy to read. Using this support allowed superheroes stories and characters to reach the general population and helped super heroes become more than scripted characters. Superman and Captain American are both monuments of American culture and of the promotion of the American Dream. They were made, invented for it.

During the 30’s, super heroes’ popularity took off at the very time the New Deal was Implemented. While being an essential element of pop culture, they diffused strong political messages during that period. Fights against Nazis, with Captain America for example (Hitler banished all super hero’s magazines and representations pretexting that they were Jewish. He didn’t want the American way to be represented in his country. He didn’t ban Mickey Mouse because it was his favourite one though).

During the inter war, super heroes were created to defend some ideals and values. Those of the USA. It was what was called the “Golden Age” of comic books. The primary definition of the American Dream is one of a world where life would be better and fuller, just like James Truslow stated in Epic of America. The obstacle at the time was war and the Great Depression but today it is terrorism or poverty.

Then, how could people believe what seemed to be a completely utopic Dream while economic and political facts were pleading against the materialization of such a dream?

Somehow, one way or another, American people had to regain faith in the American Dream. For that to be accomplished, they had to regain faith in their own country and its values, violated by war and violence in Europe. Super heroes were the answer. For many years, they fought for the American Way against the worst threats, such as fascism (Captain America, Wonder Woman), nuclear threat (Captain Atom, Watchmen), raise of violence (Batman)…

After WW2, it was clear that super heroes had to find another angle to promote their country. Wolverine left for Viet-Nam, Captain American fought corruption, Iron Man was created to fight communism, epitomizing the superiority of America’s technology against the USSR.

WW2 played a big role in developing comic books. In 1939, Martin Goodman introduced the first booklet of Marvel Comics, known as Marvel Mystery back then. Martin Goodman and Joe Simon, his chief redactor, met Jack Kirby thanks to their connections with Fox Feature Syndicate. Captain America emerged from this meeting, as the super patriotic hero, created with the one goal of waving the American flag in Europe during WW2. It became the equivalent of a national landmark for the American people. His creation remains to this day as a milestone achievement. The first booklet entitled “Captain America” (1940) reached 1 million sells. Fighting Nazis and fighting for freedom and hope galvanized the population.

The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.

― James Truslow Adams, The Epic of America, 1931

Superman: the embodiment of the American Dream.

Kal-El. Clark Kent. Superman. Three names. Three metaphors of the American Dream. An “S” for hope, red and blue colors, a true American hero.

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster came up with the first ideas of the Superman’s character in 1933, but it was not until 1938 that Superman appeared in “Action comics”, one of the two most popular comic books at the time, with Detective comics (where Batman was pictured). Although Superman is an original creation, it is clear that his Superman’s character was influenced by the cultural background of his creators: in particular, the religious background of Jerry Siegel (he was a Jew) and Joe Shuster (he was a Christian) inspired some features of the superhero. His name, as an example of such influence, is inspired by Frederick Nietzsche’s philosophical figure named “Ubermensch” in German, which means “super human”. The Jewish inspiration concerns the name Kal-El. In Hebrew, it means: “All of what God is” or “The voice of God”. So not only is Superman a super hero, he is also the nearest thing to God himself. And it is true that some of Superman’s representations have religious or mythology dimensions. (Zack Snyder’s way of filming Superman in Batman vs Superman is astonishing if you want to compare Superman with God.).

Some say that Superman, because he is the last survivor of his planet of origin, alludes to the emigration of Jewish people to the United States, thus seen as a land of promise. His own spaceship, which is rounded and small, refers to the cradle of Moses. These religious references are real, and it underlines the fact that there is a lot of symbolism around Superman, that he is more than a simple super hero wearing red and blue underwear. He is a symbol, and this is why so many people see in him the personification of the American Dream.

The Dream saves us. Dreams lift us up and transform us into something better, and on my soul, I swear that until my dream of a world where dignity, honor and justice are the reality we all share, I will never stop fighting.Superman- Superman vs The Elite

Let’s take a look at the Kal El’s figure of Superman. In 1938, Superman is introduced as an alien coming from another planet named Krypton. His parents put him on a spaceship to save him from sure death. The spaceship in which he was installed by his kryptonian parents crashes in Smallville, a tiny town in deep Kansas. He is adopted by Martha and Jonathan Kent, a couple of farmers who find the crashed spaceship in their fields. From this day onward, the newly named Clark spends his time learning about life and how to control his new-born powers, while climbing the social ladder by working hard.

How many sons of Kansas farmers, immigrants or not, made it to Washington DC with a job as a reporter for the Washington Post? In the DC universe, Clark Kent works hard enough to get to Metropolis and work for the Daily Planet. It is the perfect example of the American Dream! He takes opportunities, he works hard, he believes in himself, and he reaches the top of the. Starting as the son of a poor Kansas farmer, he becomes a top reporter in the capital’s top newspaper. Remember we are just talking about Clark Kent. Not Superman, Clark Kent.

For people growing up in poor families living in difficult neighborhoods, Superman can definitely be a deeply personal icon. One that tells you can do anything if you put your mind to it. One that incarnates the American Dream. Superman always sees the brightest in everything and the best in everybody He embodies the core values of the American society: being optimistic and faithful in the future, working hard, seizing opportunities and achieving success the American way... He is a role model for achieving the American Dream.

But can the desire to do good turn into something bad: can there be an evil side to Superman? Superman: Red Son, published in 2003 by Mark Miller, Dave Johnson and Killian Plunkett raises the problem of ideology. It is because Superman was forged as an American hero that he embodies the American Dream and the values of the country. What if he was not American? In Red Son, Superman’s ship crashed in CCCP. The scenario of its origins is quite the same, but he then becomes the heir of Joseph Stalin. Yet again, he decides to end the misery of his people, but he became the biggest dictator of all times, and causes the misfortune of those he originally wanted to help.

Red Son shows to what extent ideology and the desire to make things right can lead to the denial of freedom. Superman’s power corrupted him. It somehow shows that the American Dream is fragile. Because we do not live in a perfect world. There is no Superman to remind us all of our chances and of our own greatness. An out of control superman symbolizes the end of our society, abandoned to corruption and misjudging. And a world without Superman is a world without hope.

Watchmen, or the great lie that is the American Dream?

A bleeding smiley face. This image is one of the most symbolic of all the Watchmen novels, which are among the most popular fictional novels of all time. You may interpret these novels in many different ways but the fact remains that the death of the American Dream and the end of a peaceful and wealthy America is the constant underlying trend in the Watchmen stories. The end of every ideal of the American Dream one by one is quite shocking. The Watchmen, through the characters of Rorschach and The Comedian, make the case that the American Dream is doomed from the start because it goes against human nature. In other words, they take a dark view at human nature and make it responsible for perverting the American Dream and turning it into a violent and corrupt society.

Alan Moore and Dave Gibson gave birth to the Watchmen in 1986. It basically is a rewriting of History launching in 1960. It focuses on a group of vigilantes without special powers, often overwhelmed by their own status, who can’t find their place in the world they live in. Dr. Manhattan is the only true super hero of the band. His power originates from exposure to a nuclear incident in 1960, that gave him God-like superpower. At the service of the US Federal government, he helps ending the Viet Nam War and establishing Richard Nixon as president of the United States of America for more than a decade. The book establishes the theory of the “balance of terror” during the Cold War. The uncertainty of the future of the world brings all characters to question their values and ideals.

The series has many philosophical messages, but all of them seem to imply that we live in a utopic world, that there is no such thing as the American Dream. The first message is the one about human nature, which is naturally aimed at destroying itself. The second one is obviously about political corruption that builds roadblocks on the path to success and opportunity. It is supposed to be a demonstration of how a wrong ideology can generate an evil society. In that sense, it carries a political message.

Watchmen reveals the dark side of the American Dream, and as such, is a disguised criticism of the American Society... It claims that violence and corruption are inherent to the American Dream because it excludes the people who fail to reach it from the society. In a way, it shows that we still hope for heroes to save us, but that in the real life, no one is there to play that role. While fighting an anti-vigilante riot, Nite-Owl questions why people have turned off super heroes, and what happened to the American Dream. The Comedian responds simply that it was bound to happen, as we witness a scene of moral and physical violence and despair. This simple reply appears to be a strong criticism of the American Dream, specifically meritocracy. Although we still hope for heroes to save us, no one is there to play that role in real life,

Because many people are guaranteed to fall in the climb towards success, in the climb towards the American Dream, poverty, despair and subsequently crime are guaranteed.

Thus, super heroes were created as a mean of quelling this. We lose the very essence of what super heroes are meant to represent because the basis of our society is so fragile that it generates violence without being able to provide a solution to it. The idea in Watchmen is that when people realize that they will never live the American Dream, because it does not exist, they engage into desperate actions as a rebellion against the system. Through the American Dream, we wanted to create an ideal that would improve society and make it good for everyone, but the core values of the American Dream also helped turn our society into a form of mayhem, because the American Dream could not deliver its promises of success and happiness to everyone and generated violence and exclusion. Watchmen makes the case that a society based on the values of the American Dream is doomed.

Everything about Watchmen is extraordinary mind-blowing. The Comedian, Ozymandias, Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan might figure among the best comic book characters of all-time. I only have one advice left: read it, or watch the Zack Snyder adaptation.

We can give as much interpretation to the bleeding smiley, but it might represent a clock, ticking until our society as we know it today dies. (Clocks are a symbol which are redundant in the graphic novels)

How about you? Do you share the pessimistic or optimistic view of the American Dream? Do you think the values it is built on are sustainable or will eventually lead to the destruction of the society the American Dream helped to build? Think about it and feel free to feed back to me with comments and questions.

Alexandre Weber
Membre de l'équipe Isegoria 2018