By day he’s your average citizen, no different than any other man you’d meet on the street. But by night he dons a mask and cape, completing his costume with an insignia on his chest. He takes on a flamboyant name as he violently protects his community from those law enforcement cannot touch.
In the 21st Century, Superman, Batman, or a host of other superheroes come to mind when you read the description above. But a century ago, a very different type of vigilante would have fit that profile.
And in a 2016 interview, graphic novel legend Alan Moore said “I think that a good argument can be made for D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation as the first American superhero movie, and the point of origin for all those capes and masks.”
I think Gavaler and Moore both have a point.
To be absolutely clear, I am not trying to “cancel” superheroes, say Batman is a racist, or imply that people who like comic books and superhero movies are secretly white supremacists.
When Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel developed the Superman character, they did so in a culture where many celebrated the Klansman as a folk hero. And they incorporated some of the ideas surrounding them into their work.
The first iteration of the Ku Klux Klan was created in the wake of the U.S. Civil War when many former Confederates refused to cooperate with the new provisions of the Constitution that recognized the equality of Black Americans. They, along with other groups, went on a rampage of violent terror.
North Carolina author Thomas Dixon Jr., made a fortune off their racism. He wrote two bestsellers in the early years of the 20th Century. They bear the terribly descriptive titles The Leopard’s Spots: A Romance of the White Man’s Burden—1865–1900 and The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. The latter was made into the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, which sold more tickets than any other movie up to that time.The film revived the Ku Klux Klan and made it a powerful force in American culture.
“Although The Clansman is not a lone origin point for superhero narratives, it is among the genre’s most critical influences,” Gavaler wrote. “The image of the Night Hawk featured on Birth of a Nation posters included a cape billowing from his back, an element of the superhero costume not seen again until Joel Shuster’s Superman cover of Action Comics #1.”
Gavaler also notes that in The Clansman “the Grand Dragon wears ‘two yellow circles with red crosses interlapping.’ This is the first appearance of an iconic emblem on a hero’s chest, a motif not repeated in fiction until Joe Shuster framed an ‘S’ on Superman’s shirt in 1938.”
Shuster and Siegel, both Jewish, had no love for the Klan. Their appropriation of Klan-inspired imagery doesn’t make them racist any more than their use of the name “Superman” makes them followers of Friedrich Nietzsche.
The two made moves to explicitly distance their vigilante hero from the racist vigilantes. In Superman #1, they had the Man of Steel stop a lynching.
It’s not just Superman. Batman, Iron Man, Captain America… all the superheroes operate outside the law whenever the bad guys can’t be brought to justice through ordinary means. Why respect due process and the fourth amendment when you can just kidnap a guy and dangle him upside down off the side of a building until he talks?
Romanticized vigilantism is part of what makes a superhero a superhero. Films like The Dark Knightand Captain America: Civil War have included characters who wonder if all this paternalistic law-breaking isn’t headed somewhere dark… but they’re quickly proven wrong. Superheroes see themselves the way the Klansmen did: breaking the law in the name of law and order.
“The movie clearly and unmistakably gives us a character who understands the Bill of Rights, understands his legal responsibility as a police officer, and nevertheless takes retribution into his own hands. Sure, Scorpio is portrayed as the most vicious, perverted, warped monster we can imagine — but that’s part of the same stacked deck. The movie’s moral position is fascist. No doubt about it.”
To be clear: Clark Kent isn’t a fascist, and Iron Man 2 is not Triumph of the Will. But the moral positions of many superhero stories is dangerously akin to those advocated by Thomas Dixon and other white supremacists.
Good storytellers, including Alan Moore, Damon Lindelof, Garth Ennis, Ta-Nehisi Coates, are aware of and grapple responsibly with the complicated genesis of the superhero genre. Understanding their past will help fans as they read, watch, and absorb these legendary figures into their lives.
I'm a journalist and film enthusiast who lives in the beautiful Ozark Mountains of Northwest Arkansas. I've been writing about movies for 15 years and I hosted a weekly movie review television show on UATV for two years.