Superheroes Decoded
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"The greatest superheroes are always challenging culture"

Interview Superheroes Decoded
History sat down with Josh Mensch, writer, producer and showrunner of Superheroes Decoded

In part 1 of our interview with Josh Mensch, writer and showrunner of Superheroes Decoded we discussed the original superheroes, Batman and Superman. In part 2 we talk about how superheroes reflected the changes in American society from the 40s onward.

In part 1 of the interview you talked about how superheroes represent American values but how did comic books react to those moments in US history when those values are threatened, specifically the Second World War?

The great theme that emerges in our show is that every step of the way superheroes always adapt to the values of their time.

They are created out of a particular time and place but they change and adapt to reflect the values of the era as time goes forward. So in the World War 2 era, we have these very simple, strong, very jingoistic characters like Captain America that represent a battle between good and evil.

Captain America was created by Jewish American comic book writers as a response to the rise of Nazism in Europe. They created this character to respond to the threat of Hitler and the rise of anti-Semitism before the rest of America was ready. The first iconic Captain America cover comes out 9 months before the US enters the war - 9 months before Pearl Harbour - and it shows Captain America whose costume is literally the American flag, punching Hitler in the jaw.

During the Second World War and after, the role of women in American society begins to change. How did superheroes represent this societal shift?

Wonder Woman is the classic example of that. Throughout the different decades, Wonder Woman has reflected in many ways America's treatment of women or America's view of women.

There's forwards and there's backwards. In the 1940s in the World War 2 era, Wonder Woman reflected this sudden new surge of female power when all the men went off to war, women had to step up on the home front and take a lot of jobs and positions of power that had previously been denied them. Wonder Woman struck that nerve and represented a kind of female strength when women were being empowered during World War 2.

But then after the war in the 1950s, America becomes more conservative and the role of women take a step back and the character reflects that. The character who had once been very powerful is suddenly a weaker character, more traditionally feminine and cares more about getting married and isn't beating people up as much.

Right now it's clearly a huge time for Wonder Woman and this really is the perfect example of that. It's a moment where representations of strong powerful women are really coming to the fore and it’s the perfect moment for Wonder Woman to have her big screen Hollywood moment and we were so thrilled by the success of the film.

Have superheroes helped to make America a more progressive place?

The thesis of Superheroes Decoded is that superheroes reflect the times in which they are created but they also suggest a future. The greatest superheroes are always pushing forward and challenging the culture.

The rise of black superheroes and female superheroes provide a new template for a new type of heroism and it provides inspiration for groups that have not had heroes in the culture.

So many African American people we interviewed said that seeing a black superhero as a young person was incredibly important for them in their lives because before that all heroes were white –  the message was that heroism equals being white, so when you have these black superheroes who are representing the values of heroism, it can be incredibly inspiring to people who didn’t have heroes.

Finally are superheroes a victim of their own success, you are more likely to experience their stories on the cinema screen rather than in the pages of a comic book for which they were originally created?

The subject of Superheroes Decoded was not comic books or movies it was superheroes and these characters transcend any one medium because the characters are bigger than any one medium. Within months of his creation, Superman was on the radio, Superman was on television. 

Superheroes are an American mythology and the medium will change but the characters will endure.