On day one, Captain America punched Adolf Hitler square on the jaw. The star-spangled superhero was dressed like the grand marshal of a particularly flamboyant 4th of July parade, Nazi bullets bouncing off his American-flag shield. This was the first issue of Captain America Comics, published March 1st, 1941. Before the war’s end, Batman, Superman, Daredevil and the Green Hornet would all go toe to toe with der Führer.
Superheroes gave Americans a way to grapple with threats beyond their control. While newspapers reported on hard-fought battles with long lists of casualties, comics told a different story — one where a lantern-jawed super soldier could take down Nazi Germany with a well-placed right hook.
In the decades since, superheroes have modeled courage and audacity in the face of overwhelming odds. They have provided a coping mechanism for people facing threats from the march of fascism to the specter of nuclear annihilation. Today, they are looking to a new peril.
“I think that the world apocalypse stories are shifting from the nuclear framework to the climate change framework,” said Anthony Lioi, a professor of liberal arts at Juilliard and author of Nerd Ecology: Defending the Earth with Unpopular Culture. “We’re going to see more comics grappling explicitly, and not just implicitly, [with climate change].”
From Doctor Fate to the Green Lantern, superheroes are tackling the carbon crisis. But climate change is a peculiar challenge for a caped crusader, one unlike nuclear war, fascism or urban decay. How do you portray a problem so enormous, slow-moving and diffuse?
Step 1: Devise a villain
Every superhero needs a flesh-and-blood archenemy with a sinister name and punchable face, even when the real menace is atomic warfare or racial inequality.
In 1946, Superman confronted racism by fighting the KKK in a 16-part radio series titled “Clan of the Fiery Cross.” A few years later, the Fantastic Four followed a similar tack, ganging up on a hood-wearing bigot known as the Hate-Monger who, in issue 21, is revealed to be Adolf Hitler in disguise. (Old habits die hard.)
During the Cold War, when the shadow of nuclear annihilation loomed large, superheroes went to battle with the Reds. Spiderman, Thor and Ironman fought off communist ne’er-do-wells like the Chameleon, the Red Ghost and the Black Widow — all Soviet spies.
Climate change is a different beast. It’s difficult to grapple with the carbon crisis by focusing on bad actors. The biggest polluters are rarely criminals, and everyone shares some blame for the problem.
In 2015’s The Last Days of Midgard, Thor takes on the CEO of an evil oil company called Roxxon, a not-so-subtle allusion to Exxon. Thor destroys the company’s facilities, but the Roxxon rebuilds and launches a legal attack on Thor.
“One of the interesting things about this story is that it really questions the basic superhero narrative premise that if there is a problem we can solve it by hitting it,” said Lioi. As he noted, leveling oil companies is eco-terrorism. “People go to jail for doing that now.”
Step 2: Create a hero
Every story needs a hero, someone who embodies our values and reflects our identity.
“You need stories to give you characters to relate to,” said Lioi. “One of the basic uses of a story is to put a character in a situation that you identify with, and then you project yourself into the story by identifying with the character.”
During the Cold War, science geeks emerged as superheroes, and aspiring nerds could see themselves in their favorite characters. Bruce Banner and Tony Stark, both scientists, beat the baddies using brains as much as brawn.
The X-Men, which debuted in 1963, centered on a band of genetic mutants cast to the margins of society. The comic’s creator, Stan Lee, viewed the story as a metaphor for the Civil Rights movement. Disenfranchised people could identify with the gang of outsiders.
In the decades since, comics have become more inclusive. X-Men characters Phoenix and Storm, both women, evolved in the context of 1970s feminism. More recently, Ms. Marvel has been recast as a muslim teenager, a rebuke of Islamophobia. Luke Cage has reemerged on Netflix to tell a story for the era of Black Lives Matter.
Americans can see themselves in these characters. These characters can show us the guts and grit needed to tackle a big problem. “It helps people to imagine that it is possible to do something,” said Lioi.
“One of the things that superheroes can tell us about the fight against climate change is that it’s possible to fight it,” he explained. “They teach us that it’s possible to take a stand and, especially in contemporary comics, that it’s possible to team up, that you don’t have to do it alone.”
You can see this dynamic play out with the X-Men and the Justice League, both models of cooperation. The more obvious example may be Captain Planet. The eco-friendly super stud appeared when a multinational band of teenagers relinquished their superpowers at the same time. Pointedly, the gang included one American and one Soviet. The TV show debuted before the fall of the USSR.
Step 3: Acknowledge the limitations of the genre
At its core, climate change is a crisis of cooperation, and that’s difficult to represent in comics. Authors dealt with the same challenge in portraying the threat of atomic warfare, which could be seen as the product of Soviet aggression, but also a failure of peace and diplomacy.
Alan Moore’s 1986 graphic novel Watchmen dealt with this explicitly. Moore showed superheroes to be impotent against an existential danger like nuclear weapons. At the end of the book, it was a global catastrophe — not a masked hero — that united the world and brought an end to war.
Climate change comics have similarly recognized the limitations of the genre. Chakra the Invincible and Mighty Girl, stars of a UN-sponsored comic about global warming, use their powers to divert catastrophic storms and extinguish wildfires. But the pair, noted UNICEF in a press release, eventually “realize that climate change is too complex to address action by action, even with superpowers. Instead, each community has to learn how to work together, and do its part.”
“The UN is being really smart in trying to use a vocabulary that literally millions of people already speak to talk about a common problem,” said Lioi. “One of the great things about superhero narratives in that sense is that they can go immediately international.”
To be sure, comic books are still in the experimental phase when it comes to climate change. Writers are still searching for ways to portray a vast, entrenched, systemic problem. But superheroes have an important role to play in providing hope and inspiration in the face of a mortal peril.
Climate activist and author Bill McKibben has argued that global warming is a problem so big that it demands all hands on deck — not just scientists and engineers, but psychologists, writers and artists. In the afterword of Teaching Climate Change in the Humanities, he writes, “Look at it this way: if we are suddenly living, as the scientists insist, in the Anthropocene, then the humanities by definition are central to the task at hand.”
McKibben recently published an essay arguing that our response to climate change should mirror our response to World War II — that we need to marshal our talents and our resources with the same scale and urgency. Just as that era of uncertainty gave us Captain America and his kind, climate change should give rise to a new generation of superheroes — costumed avengers who can model teamwork, cooperation and bravery.
Comic books can help us deal with “a global problem that is so big, I can’t even conceive of it,” said Lioi. He is optimistic about the future of the genre. “We only have a few of those stories now, but I think that we’re definitely gearing up to have more of them.”