The American Way: How Comic Books Reflect Our Culture

By Mark Hartsell

The Library’s vast trove of comic books exposes a unique and revealing history of American popular culture.

Open a comic book, and you can see America in the pages — its people, its values, its culture, how it’s changed.

From left, Mickey Mouse Magazine Vol. 4 №1, 1939 — © Disney | Mickey Rat №1, 1972 — © Robert Armstrong

As evidence, consider two comic-book rodents. During the Depression, Mickey Mouse Magazine told the sweet, simple story of Disney’s iconic, wholesome character conquering a giant, saving a village and winning the hand of a princess, Minnie.

Three-plus decades later, the cultural revolution of the ’60s gave America a new, subversive kind of hero: Mickey Rat, a vulgar, hungover, womanizing reprobate who debuted in a story titled “The King of Rotten Stuff ” — a sure sign of how much society’s sensibilities had changed.

American culture had evolved, and the pages of the era’s comic books showed it. Today, they still do.

“They reflect us. It’s the ultimate popular culture of America,” said Georgia Higley, who oversees the comic-book collection at the Library of Congress. “They really document what we’ve been interested in for most of the 20th century and beyond. It’s also a reflection of the good and the bad of our society.”

The Library holds more than 140,000 issues of some 12,000 comic-book titles — an assemblage of Archies, Avengers and Aquamen that forms the largest collection in the United States. The collection consists largely of print comic books but also includes special editions, color microfiche of early comics, self-published experimental books and, most recently, born-digital webcomics.

Among the issues of Black Panther, Crimson Crusader and Green Lantern reside some of the most important comics in history: Famous Funnies №1, the first comic book sold on newsstands; Detective Comics №1, the first issue in a series that spawned Batman and other iconic characters; Amazing Fantasy №15, the issue that introduced Spider-Man; and All Star Comics №8, which gave the world Wonder Woman.

Comics, and popular culture in general, have been a growing area of academic study for what they reveal about our society. Researchers have used the Library’s comics collection to explore such topics as the changing roles of women and evolving perspectives on race and ethnicity.

Detective Comics, for example, debuted in 1937 with a caricatured “yellow peril” Chinese villain on the cover — drooping Fu Manchu moustache, sawtooth teeth, wildly exaggerated facial features. Inside, hero Slam Bradley 
fights a cast of crudely imagined Chinese foes — characters with bright yellow skin, bearing caricatured names (Fui Onyui) and speaking stereotyped lines: “Velly solly. No see missy. You sclam!”

But, over 70 years, attitudes about race and gender in America changed, along with the demographics of comic book writers and readers.

In 2016, the same publisher that produced those caricatured Chinese villains reintroduced one of comics’ most iconic heroes, Superman, as a modern, cola-swigging Chinese teenager from Shanghai — “broad-shouldered, handsome like a movie star, tall but not in a freaky way like Yao Ming.” The new Superman was written by Gene Luen Yang, a Chinese-American from California (who also serves as the Library’s national ambassador for young people’s literature).

Early comic books produced a few female heroines — in 1937, Sheena, Queen of the Jungle became the first woman character with her own series.

But women often took secondary roles or were portrayed as career girls — Nellie the Nurse, Millie the Model, Tessie the Typist — searching for romance while holding jobs that, at the time, were traditionally reserved for women. Or, they just served as voluptuous objects of attention for men: “Funny, we never had ‘standing room only’ at an operation before,” a doctor in surgery observes as a gallery full of men ogle Nellie.

The cultural upheaval of the ’60s opened the door to new topics for women, in life and in comics: sex, drugs, feminism, politics, anything. “Nothing is off limits,” Higley said.

Comics reflecting contemporary values and audience tastes include The Powerpuff Girls №1, 2000 — © DC Comics | Watchmen №1, 1986 — © DC Comics | Astonishing X-Men №51, 2012 — © Marvel Entertainment LLC | Miles Morales: The Ultimate Spider-Man №1, 2011 — © Marvel Entertainment LLC | Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles №1, 1984 — © Kevin Eastman & Peter Laird | Ghost in the Shell №1, 1995 — © Dark Horse Comics and Thor №1, 2014 
(featuring a female God of Thunder) — © Marvel Entertainment LLC

Wimmen’s Comix, an “underground” comic that was the first comic produced entirely by women, debuted in 1972, replacing Nellie the Nurse with Goldie, A Neurotic Woman — insecure, self-loathing, obsessive, promiscuous, confessional. “In the beginning, I felt loved,” Goldie says. “I was teacher’s pet and the most popular. Life was good. With puberty came ugliness and guilt.”

Wimmen’s Comix also addressed LGBTQ issues early on: The debut issue featured “Sandy Comes Out,” the first strip starring an “out” lesbian. As those issues became more prominent in society, they increasingly were reflected in storylines and characters in mainstream comics — especially in recent years.

In the 2010 story “Isn’t It Bromantic,” new Archie Comics character Kevin Keller explains to a friend the real reason he isn’t interested in vixenish Veronica Lodge: He’s gay — the first openly gay character in a series that began in 1941.

Kevin wasn’t alone. In a 2012 issue of Astonishing X-Men, Marvel staged the first gay wedding in comic book history, between superhero Northstar and his longtime partner, Kyle Jinadu. Three years later, DC Comics revealed a not-so-surprising, to her fans, secret: Catwoman is bisexual.

The portrayal of race in comics followed a similar path.

In 1947, All-Negro Comics became the first comic book written and drawn solely by African-Americans — a comic that lasted one issue. But as civil rights advanced and America became more diverse, comics’ characters did too: In 1965, Lobo became the first black character to headline his own series, followed by Black Panther, Luke Cage, Falcon and others.

Today, many iconic characters are rebooted, to better reflect today’s sensibilities and America’s more diverse population.

In 2014, Marvel reintroduced Thor, with a twist: The god of thunder now is a woman. Likewise, other characters: Spider-Man now is Miles Morales, a black Hispanic teenager. Blue Beetle, created in 1939, now is Jaime Reyes, the son of an El Paso garage owner. Tony Stark’s successor as Iron Man will be an African-American woman who goes by Ironheart. Ms. Marvel is Kamala Khan, a Muslim-American student from New Jersey.

“That speaks to publishers realizing that people who are reading comics want to see characters and a story that reflect their experience,” said Megan Halsband, a librarian who also curates the Library’s comic book collection. “There are more Hispanic characters, other characters of color, Muslim characters, black characters.”

Says Higley: “They’re a great reflection of what’s going on. And there are also comics that represent the hopes we have too.”

Mark Hartsell is a writer at the Library of Congress.