Superman comic in longbox

6 times superheroes tackled social issues

Updated on December 10, 2021

There’s been a lot of discussion lately over whether superhero comics should be “political” or depict social issues. Some have criticized superheroes (or their writers) as “social justice warriors” when stories center around current issues. Others don’t want to see “politically correct” material (multiculturalism, LGBT characters, etc.) in their superhero stories.

These people seem to forget that superheroes are all about “social justice”; they’re not just the super-powered version of a gang fight with villains. Superheroes’ core function is to improve the lives of ordinary people the best way they can. Granted, that does involve punching bald criminal geniuses/criminal clowns/criminal women dressed as cheetahs/etc. However, it also has often involved trying to grapple with more real-world causes.

There’s also real-world cultural and demographic changes (versus fan-favorite characters who often date to the FDR administration). I’ve outlined such in my post about what a Justice League of America that actually resembles America should look like.

Superheroes dealing with social issues isn’t a recent or new phenomenon. (The X-Men’s primary aspect is serving as an allegory for racial/LGBT discrimination.) The list below shows instances of our favorite crime-fighters dealing with social issues.

Superman advocates for refugees

1959-60 saw the United Nations-led “World Refugee Year,” a campaign to draw attention to and help the plight of refugees. As such, DC ran in its comics a one-page public service announcement (PSA) featuring Superman. In it, the Man of Steel explains to a pair of boys about the plight of refugees, and why we should try to accommodate them.

Of course, Superman himself is not just an immigrant, but also a refugee. I’d imagine his feelings today would be similar to this 1959 PSA, in light of the current Syrian refugee crisis.

Superman and Batman speak out against discrimination

Superheroes have spoken out against discrimination for decades. One example is a pair of PSAs from the early 1950s (one with Superman, one with Batman and Robin) urging us not to accept racial or religious discrimination, as that’s “un-American.”

These two PSAs have recently been making the rounds on Twitter, in light of anti-immigration/anti-Muslim policies put forth by the Trump administration.

Superman fights racists

Superman Smashes the Klan
“Superman Smashes the Klan.” Art by Gene Luen Yang. (DC Comics)

A few years before these PSAs, the 1940s Superman radio program had the Man of Steel face off against a thinly-veiled version of the Ku Klux Klan, highlighting elements the real organization at the time used. The radio show story was recently adapted into the 2019 graphic novel “Superman Smashes the Klan.”

Various Superman stories over the decades have shown Kal-El fighting racists. However, this might be one of the most prominent instances.

Wonder Woman and feminism

Ms. Magazine with Wonder Woman
“Ms.” magazine’s first issue (January 1972). Art by Murphy Anderson.

Wonder Woman’s long been a symbol of feminism in both superhero comics and popular culture in general. One example is her appearance on the cover of the very first issue of “Ms.” magazine in January 1972.

The Amazing Amazon’s appeared since on a few anniversary covers, including the 40th anniversary issue in 2012.

Spider-Man, Storm, and Luke Cage fight smoking

Various public service announcement comics have been produced over the decades. One memorable comic is a 1982 one-shot featuring Spider-Man, Luke Cage, and Storm. The three heroes thwart a villain who’s trying to hook teens on cigarettes.

On a personal level, it’s one of the first comic books I can recall reading as a kid. It’s also probably my first exposure to Storm and Luke Cage (under his 70s “Power Man” identity). The comic was reissued in the 90s, with updated artwork for Storm and Luke.

Superheroes punching Nazis

It goes without saying that World War II’s boom in superheroes saw many of them fighting Hitler and Nazis. Even today, superheroes occasionally find themselves forced to fight Nazis (via time-travel, suspended animation, modern day neo-Nazis, etc.).

Whether or not it’s right to punch neo-Nazis has been a recent ongoing discussion. However, punching Nazis is always shown in superhero comics as the right thing to do. Comic Book Resources has a list of 15 instances of such in superhero comics, by everyone from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Wonder Woman.

Related to such, the most famous Captain America cover’s his very first appearance, where he’s punching out Hitler. This came out in March 1941, some months before the United States entered the war.

(Updated 9/18/21)

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