Article / 07 April 2021

Superheroes & Society: When Great Powers Met Great Responsibilities

By Saikat Goswami

What comic-lover does not drool over the stories of indomitable superheroes kicking the villain’s butt and saving the planet every other day? They are the roll-models of the kids around the globe. Naturally they bear a massive influence on the society and social responsibility tags along that. These heroes have advocated for the rights of the deprived, spread awareness against social evils and raised relief funds in times of crisis. Even critically controversial themes such as gun violence and psychosomatic disorders have found voice through these pages as well.

    In the context of raising voice against evil, few have been as bold as Captain America. In 1941, Captain America Comics came in smacking Hitler in the face on its debut cover. Captain not only overtly derided the then-reigning Nazi dictator but also boosted the sales of War Bonds to a wide extent. At the time, even Superman, Batman and Robin joined forces in World’s Finest Comics series to provide financial aids to the allied forces.

    In the same year DC came forward to address another intrinsic issue at the core of the society – feminism. On June 2, 1941, Wonder Woman made her debut in All-Star Comics to rescue the womankind from the sole role of “damsel in distress”. The strong and independent Amazon princess eventually came to be the epitome of ‘modern woman’.

    Racism has always been a sensitive topic across the globe. Acknowledging the fact back in 1970, Dennis O’Neil, in his Green Lantern #76, rang a bell against racial discrimination in a most heart wrenching tone.

    To alleviate starvation on the global plane DC teamed Superman and Batman together in the “Heroes against Hunger” (1984) arc. In 1985 Marvel came with “Heroes for Hope: Starring the X-Men” with the same goal and raised about $150,000. Even today notable efforts are being made on this ground by non-profit publishers like

    The heroes are always supposed to be a shoulder to the disadvantaged. In 1980, when the Special Olympics program was still young, DC Comics published “Special Olympics Coaches Manual” to raise awareness on helping the athletes with disabilities.

    Even the voiceless animals received refuge under the cape of Superman. “Superman: For The Animals” (2000) by Doris Day Animal Foundation received massive critical acclaim for promoting Animal Rights. On multiple occasions Aquaman have raised call against Marine Plastic Pollution.

    Batman’s strict aversion to guns is not unknown to anyone today. Hence, when the US gun control laws came to debate, Batman took his stand in John Ostrander and Vincent Giarrano’s 1993 ‘Batman: Seduction of the Gun’. The comic art aptly depicted the menace and temptation that follows a gun.

    On another occasion in 1995, in the “Batman: The Ultimate Evil” story-arc by Andrew Vachss, the Dark Knight was put against one of the grimmest crimes in modern society – child abuse and molestation. It was an attempt to raise awareness among the potential victims – the kids and teenagers. Though Spider-Man attempted a similar awareness story on The Tribune’s comic pages in 1985, it received a mixed review from the fans.

    Teens comprise most of the readership in comics industry and drug abuse is a raging issue in the group. Both DC and Marvel have voiced awareness on this matter in their respective storylines. 1980s’ “New Teen Titans” and “The Amazing Spider-Man: Skating on Thin Ice” (1993) both have flawlessly illustrated the ills of illegal substance abuse among kids.

    Not only drugs but also alcoholism has made its way into the stories as well. Tony Stark’s first person experience on this desk in the story arc “Demon in a bottle” (1979) by David Michelinie and Bob Layton shifted the formerly loathed alcoholics under a sympathetic lens.

    Again, the realistically bleak conditions of depression and post traumatic anxiety have come to spotlight with comics exploring the darker sides of vigilantes. Daredevil #10 (2014): The Man without Fear suavely portrayed Daredevil’s depression and the uprising of the hero from there within. Similarly, Marvel’s Jessica Jones was depicted with post traumatic anxiety and stress disorder in her early days as a result of being abused by the antagonist Purple Man. Her distress has even manifested itself in a book titled “Jessica Jones: A Scarred Hero”. Alongside that, in a polar opposite tone Robin (Tim Drake) unveiled his brightest character-trait in Robin #156 (1993) by raising anti-suicide awareness through his own life story.

    When it comes to psychosomatic disorders, numerous of such cases are scattered throughout the comic book pages. Legion’s dissociative identity disorder (X-Men), Hank Pym’s bipolar disorder (Ant-Man) and Deadpool’s psychosis are to name a few. However, the psychotic break of Scarlet Witch in the “House of M” story stands out to be one of the finest in comic history.

    The final entry on the list had to come from 2020. The global pandemic was a sincerely grave threat to mankind. Thankfully, Justice League came to the rescue. With “Be a Hero: Wear a Mask”, DC attempted to raise awareness on Covid-19 preventive measures. Additionally, DC collaborated with “Rock the Vote” campaign to spread voting awareness in the US.

    Time after time these fictional Heroes have come outside the comic book pages to abate our real world ailments and educate us with social messages. So the next time when darkness hits and you hope heroes were real, the odds are – they just might come to your rescue in one way or another.