In 1940s through the 1960s, superheroes are primarily fighting for justice against criminals and America’s military opponents. A sample of superhero comics from the early 1970s reveals that comic book creators began to widen the subject matter for their heroes to include the fight for social justice and equality among all Americans. Titles like Green Lantern/Green Arrow and Luke Cage: Hero for Hire exemplify this trend as they bring depictions of racial and income inequities into the adventures of their costumed protagonists. These attempts to portray society in a more realistic way coincide with a more vivid and (hyper-) naturalistic rendering of the characters’ bodies.
In 1939 when the first Batman comic was released, the superhero is drawn as strong and muscular, but the visual style is more suggestive. Batman’s shoulders are broad and his waist is narrow and there is just enough shading to imply muscles. By issue number 232 in 1971, Batman has chiseled muscles and rippling abdominals. The illustrator demonstrates a keen knowledge of anatomy, at times even showing the very fibers of the muscles as they bulge through the caped crusader’s tight costume. Green Lantern is similarly drawn in Green Lantern/Green Arrow No. 76 from 1970, as is Luke Cage in his eponymous debut from 1972. The evolving shift toward greater naturalistic accuracy in the body-shapes of superheroes by the 1970s suggests that comic book creators—and readers—were also developing a keener interest in accuracy in other aspects of their narratives.
In particular, Green Lantern and Luke Cage present visions of urban America that are more closely aligned with the real world. Green Lantern/Green Arrow No. 76 tells a story where the usual trope of the hero helping an old man who is about to be assaulted is called into question as the motivation of the assailant is revealed. The old man is a corrupt slumlord, about to evict his impoverished tenants—including his assailant—so he can make more money. The social concern of income inequality is a driving theme in the story. The profiteer, although he has not broken any laws, is now the villain whose wrongs must be righted by the heroic team.
In Luke Cage: Hero for Hire No. 1 the origin story for our hero delves into a dark underbelly of urban life. The protagonist, Lucas, is from Harlem, a poor neighborhood predominantly inhabited by people of color. Lucas and his origins as a small-time criminal trying to make ends meet and living on the run from the law, bring to the superhero universe a stark reality about life in the ghetto. Furthermore, the way he is mistreated in prison by white guards is another lens into the treatment of African Americans in the real world.
In the wake of the civil rights movement, it is logical that many forms of artistic expression—including comics—would adopt new ways to express society’s changing attitudes and raised consciousness. In spite of the fact that the very notion of a superhero is a total fantasy, Superhero comics in the 1970s manage to bridge the imaginary universe of super powers with very real-world concerns as they envision a path toward social justice.