‘Truth, Justice and the American Way’ — Exploring Comic Books in US History

by Alexandrea Callaghan 

“Truth, Justice and the American way” is Superman’s comic book catchphrase. This catchphrase makes no sense because Kal-El is an alien from another planet.

Since his creation, Supes’ catchphrase has been updated — we can’t have people thinking a major comic book company only cares about American lives. However, at the time of his introduction, that was, in fact, the mindset. Superman is one of many heroes used in American propaganda.

Before diving in, let’s clarify: propaganda isn’t necessarily bad. The term has a negative connotation but is, by definition, “information used to promote a particular political point of view.” That said, information can be presented in a biased and misleading manner.

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Back to Superman, the quote used at the top of this article was first spoken in 1942. During a Superman radio show, this phrase encouraged audiences in the face of war. Even when his image was used for wartime posters, comics and ads, he was never depicted as a part of the war. He was, after all, a symbol of hope, and the writers grounded his character in patriotism.

Keeping him on the homefront was meant to inspire and allow citizens to safely interact with the fear of war. That was, at least, until after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In January of 1942, the world saw its first depictions of Superman in the war. There was an image of Superman bending the barrel of Nazi cannons covered in an issue of Action Comics.

Picture featuring Captain America punching Adolf Hitler while holding his shield.

Even though these covers showcased Superman in the war, the actual stories these issues contained seemed to ignore it completely. Superman appeared to be some of the only comics unaffected by the Writers War Board.

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Affiliated with the Office of War Information, the Writers’ War Board was a group designed to encourage depictions of American involvement in the war. Formed in 1942 and operating as a government agency, the board encouraged comic book creators to be harsher in their descriptions of who they deemed America’s enemies.

Paul Hirsh, a historian who has published on this topic, recalls the board’s demands for harsher depictions. “Fearing that comics treated America’s enemies too lightly, the board encouraged very specific hatreds based on race and ethnicity to build support for the increasingly brutal U.S. policy of total war.” The board was sure how the war was depicted in comic books could sway public opinion.

A quote from the board stated, “The comics are drumming up a lot of hate for the enemy, but usually for the wrong reasons—frequently fantastic ones (mad Jap scientists, etc.),” one board member wrote. “Why not use the real reasons—they’re plenty worthy of hate!” Now, this attitude did infect lots of comic book publishers.

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Captain America was created as propaganda directed toward the American government, encouraging them to get involved in the war. His creators, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, were two Jewish men unhappy with America’s refusal to enter the war and help stop the genocide.

The first issue featured an image of Cap punching Hitler, a clear message to America’s people that we should finish this war. The American government then used his character to sell war bonds.

Whether or not the War Board influenced this character is unknown to me. However, Kirby and Simon did depict the Japanese in wildly racist ways (buck teeth and oversized heads). They promoted hate toward whom they deemed the problem. His character was even relaunched after the events of 9/11. The subsequent series recalled the events of that day and the growing concerns of the American government and its people.

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Wonder Woman was not only feminist propaganda but pro-war propaganda. In her non-super form, Diana was a U.S. Army secretary. Like Captain America, Wonder Woman wore an American flag-inspired costume, and her comics were used to raise funds for the war effort and advertise for volunteers.

At the time, Wonder Woman’s fan club, Junior Justice Society of America, encouraged women to build their physical strength and join the war efforts wherever possible. She was depicted fighting Nazis and capturing Japanese spies. The images used in her comics were slightly less racist; they didn’t spur hate as much as attempt to inspire Americans to join the fight.

Picture featuring Superman with his hands on his hips and the quote, "Truth, Justice, and the American Way" encircling him.

Other characters created as pro-war characters or used that way include Captain Battle, a WWI veteran who attempted to prevent WWII entirely. Captain Flag fought Nazis and had a literal bald eagle as a sidekick. Captain Freedom was designed to combat the Axis powers. Captain Nazi was genetically altered to fight Hitler and the Axis powers. Although not created for the specific purpose of propaganda, Iron Man has been relaunched every time America was involved in a war.

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Comic books, being an easily distributable medium, have always been political. This medium is weaponized whenever America faces extreme circumstances, like a war. Comic book creators use single issues as propaganda; historically, it’s used as pro-war propaganda.

Comics have always been and will always be political. Even used to raise money for the wars themselves, what might be considered a children’s medium is often utilized to sway the American people’s views of what the government is already doing or what the creators feel they should be doing. WWII might be the most recognizable era for comics as propaganda. However, even the MCU as it is today can be viewed as propaganda.

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