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8 Comic Book Heroes That Spread Progressive Ideals

Quintessential patriot Superman renounced his US citizenship last month in protest. But he's not the first comic-book hero to espouse progressive ideals.

Since 1932, Superman has been a torchbearer for our country’s progressive ideals, standing for "truth, justice and the American way” and acting as a symbol of hope through our darkest times. He was borne of the Great Depression -- so it makes sense now, that during one of America’s gravest eras since, Superman is opting to shrug off the burden. And it’s because he's a patriot.

Last month, in the 900th issue of Action Comics, Superman -- who, as a reminder, came here as an immigrant from the planet Krypton -- appeared before the UN to officially renounce his United States citizenship. “I’m tired of having my actions construed as instruments of US policy,” he said, after an appearance at a nonviolent protest in Tehran was viewed by the Iranian regime as an act of war. In the prior comic, Superman had just done a foot-tour of the flyover states in order to reacquaint himself with everyday Americans. There he encountered fellow immigrants who were, literally, alien; intervened during a domestic violence incident (where he lectures cops on the bystander effect); grappled with environmental preservation vs. job preservation; helped save people from a flood a la Katrina; and defended an archaeological site from a nuclear corporation, among other things.

In short, Superman dealt with issues that very closely mirror real-life events. His verdict to renounce after 80 years was based on his lifelong concept of “truth, justice, and the American way.” Yet, in the comic, the media didn’t see it that way, and promptly vilified the man who had protected so many citizens for decades. For his part, Superman has become a citizen of the world.

Clearly, the storyline was incisive, pointed commentary on the part of the writer, David S. Goyer. But Superman isn’t the first long-lasting progressive in the world of comics. Here, a selection of progressive heroes in pictorial form, from the dawn of the superhero age to the peak of the literary graphic novel.

1. Wonder Woman. We take for granted now that this Greek-Amazonian beacon is one of the most quintessential symbols of female empowerment in America, on par with Rosie the Riveter. Her name is invoked not only as noun but as metaphor, and has permeated pop culture so thoroughly she needs no introduction. But in 1941, when she was first created, American women had only been allowed to legally vote for 20 years, and second-wave feminism was more than two decades to even germinate. In tandem with Rosie, who was running things at home during WWII, Wonder Women represented a sort of projected fantasy of women who wanted to be fighting in the fields. She was depicted as the antithesis to dainty and impotent, delivering powerful blows to Axis powers using her indestructible bracelets, and wonderfully, her projectile tiara. Even more incredibly, considering the year, her powers would be revoked by her great creator -- Aphrodite -- if she was ever bound or possessed by a male. And, of course, she was Ms. Magazine’s first-ever cover star, captioned by Gloria Steinem, “Wonder Woman for President.”

2. The Black Panther. The first black superhero was an African-born immigrant to New York City, and while he was created a year before the formation of the Black Panther Party in 1966, he became a powerful symbol among comic enthusiasts for the quest for Civil Rights. Born T’Challa, a king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, he was recruited by the Justice League for his strength and intelligence, sparred against violent revolutionaries, and fell in love with fellow black comic icon Ororo Munro (the X-Men’s Storm). As with lots of firsts, his existence was a little rocky on the progressive front; in 1972, Marvel Comics temporarily changed his name to "Black Leopard" to avoid association with the Black Panther party. But this didn’t sit well with fans and by 1976, he was battling the Ku Klux Klan in a storyline that is widely considered one of the best superhero epics of all time. And this year, he was reintroduced in DVD form, an icon’s triumphant return, and voiced by actor Djimon Hounsou.