With Covid restrictions subsiding, millions are certain to flock to theaters this weekend to enjoy the Caped Crusader’s latest clash with the sinister puzzle master Riddler in director Matt Reeves’ new release The Batman. The film—with the star of Twilight Robert Pattinson stepping into the title role—promises to expand Batman mythos with our high-society hero’s dark brand of vigilantism in the ever-dangerous Gotham City.

Batman made his comic book debut more than eight decades ago in 1939. By the early 1940s, while Batman and his sidekick Robin crusaded against thievery and corruption, and thwarted fantastical crimes committed by the maniacal Joker and the umbrella-carrying Penguin—Riddler would not be introduced until 1948—they were not the Dynamic Duo’s staunchest archenemies.

The covers of these World War II era comic books were not anything like the campy, upbeat Batman television series starring Adam West, which aired weekly on ABC from 1966 to 1968—same Bat-Time, same Bat-Channel. Nor were they anything like the sophisticated, moody depictions in recent Batman film adaptations.

Paul Dano as The Riddler
Joining Robert Pattinson in The Batman will be Paul Dano starring as The Riddler. Jonathan Olley, DC Comics, Warner Bros.

Instead, Batman had a more crucial conflict at hand. Following Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland, Batman and Robin also waged fictional battles against the Axis Powers: Germany’s Adolf Hitler, Italy’s Benito Mussolini and Japan’s Tojo Hideki.

Several classic DC comic books from this fraught period are held in the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Their vintage Golden Age covers tell a story of war propaganda, patriotism and domestic support of the war effort.

“Comics provide an arena where contemporary issues are explored and debated, and are valuable to understanding the interests and anxieties of periods of history. World War II comics offer great insight into the mindset and cultural attitudes of the era,” says the museum’s Eric Jentsch, a curator of entertainment and sports history.

During the war, the comic book industry was booming, with hundreds of millions of comic books sold annually. Brightly colored comic books crowding newsstands caught the attention of passersby, not just dedicated readers. Their covers were vibrant “advertisements” bolstering the war effort.

DC Comics determined that America’s fighting men would be the "real Supermen of the world.” NMAH
Instead of flexing their fighting muscles, the DC superheroes urge the purchase of bonds and stamps to an eager homefront crowd.  NMAH
The Dark Knight, his Boy Wonder and the Man of Steel hurl baseballs at the caricatured faces of the Axis leaders. NMAH
An exploding firecracker sends the caricatured images of the Axis leaders reeling in Batman No. 18 from the Fall of 1943. NMAH

Superheroes glorified GIs on the cover of the summer issue of World’s Finest Comics No. 6, from 1942. The patriotic red, white and blue cover loosely approximates an American flag. Against bold stripes, Robin shakes hands with an Army solider, with a smiling Batman looking on appreciatively. Superman’s muscled arm rests approvingly on the shoulder of a Navy man. Servicemen, the cover communicates to its readers, are heroes on par with illustrious men in capes. As DC policy declared: “America’s fighting men were the real Supermen of the world.”

Several months later, the winter issue of World’s Finest Comics No. 8 encouraged civilians to buy bonds. Capitalizing on the popular characters’ far-reaching appeal, the cover shows Batman, Robin and Superman in a carnival booth inspiring an eager crowd to purchase bonds and stamps. An aggressively worded banner, “Sink the Japanazis,” hangs above their heads. Here the DC superheroes do not flex their fighting muscles against fascist foes. Instead they serve as super mobilizers, aiming to garner support on the home front.

George Clooney’s cowl and batarang
Also in the museum's collections is George Clooney’s cowl and batarang from his turn as Batman in the 1997 film Batman and Robin. NMAH, gift of Warner Bros Entertainment, Inc. (through Barry M. Meyer)

World’s Finest Comics No. 9, from spring 1943, features the crimefighters employing their better-known heroics as they set out to destroy tyrannical enemies by force. Nodding to the start of baseball season, a bright yellow cover cinematically pictures the Dark Knight, his Boy Wonder and the Man of Steel throwing baseballs at a banner with caricatured faces of the Axis leaders. The banner cleverly plays on words, “Knock out the axis with bonds & stamps.”

With the world on the brink of destruction, three of the earliest superheroes joined in the war. Comic book heroes ubiquitously hawked bonds to help fund the war and at the same time provided entertainment and morale boosters for stateside Americans and GIs across the ocean. The lightweight magazines filled the pockets of military men, with comic books comprising more than 30 percent of the mail at military bases by mid-war.

Starring in his own eponymous title, Batman (and Robin) “participated” in the war. A story in Batman No. 14 (January 1943), “Swastika over the White House,” had the creature of the night battling Nazis spies, who had infiltrated the country to procure the White House for Hitler’s American headquarters. The Dynamic Duo outwit undercover Nazi saboteurs by crushing them with a giant swastika.

George Reeves costume, “The Adventures of Superman” (ca .1952-1958.)
Captain America's shield
George Reeves wore this costume in the 1952-1958 TV show "The Adventures of Superman," which is now held in the collections of the Smithsonian's American History Museum along with the iconic shield of Captain America used by Chris Evans.  NMAH, DC Comics, Incorporated, Marvel Studios LLC

But it was on comic book covers that Batman did his most visible war work. The cover of Batman No. 18, from fall 1943, pitched bonds and showed the good guys foiling the Axis villains. An enormous, exploding firecracker sends Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo reeling with the emphatic caption: “Insure the 4th of July! Buy war bonds and stamps!”

Many of the pioneering American comic book publishers, editors, artists and writers were Jewish, and thus acutely attuned to the horrors of a genocidal war. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, nerdy teenagers from Cleveland, created Superman. Bob Kane (née Kahn) and Bill (Milton) Finger conceived Batman. Later, during the Silver Age of comics, Stan Lee (Lieber), a writer who served during the war, originated many other superheroes, among them Marvel Comics’ Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and the X-Men. Forty-one years ago, the key antagonist of the X-Men, Magneto, was revealed to be a Holocaust survivor.

“Because the superheroes we know and love were largely created by Jews, the comic book industry felt a special imperative to promote war bonds. A number of these foundational figures had family in Europe and those that didn’t were still sympathetic to the oppression of their coreligionists,” says Danny Fingeroth, comics writer and editor, and author of the definitive biography, A Marvelous Life, of Stan Lee. “Safe in America, they wanted to do whatever they could to help, in whatever way possible.”

Batman and Superman were not the only superheroes to mete out vengeance during the war years. Clad in a costume based on the American flag and brandishing a shield of the same ilk, Captain America was a soldier specifically created to fight Nazis.

THE BATMAN - Main Trailer

The March 1941 cover of the first Captain America comic book portrays the quintessential American hero unceremoniously socking Hitler squarely in the jaw. Writer Joe (Hymie) Simon and artist Jack “The King” Kirby (Jacob Kurtzberg), who drew the energetic cover that would define the long-time Marvel style, were also of Jewish descent. Taking a poke at the Nazis to whom Captain America was serving up justice, Joe Simon had Cap (a scrawny Steve Rogers before his transformation into a super soldier) created by a serum concocted by Professor Reinstein, a cheeky homage to German Jewish physicist Albert Einstein.

Cap’s iconic shield was on view at the American History Museum from November 2018 to January 2020, along with George Clooney’s cowl and batarang from his turn as Batman in the 1997 film Batman and Robin.

The Caped Crusader’s newest adventure in The Batman does not revolve around the obstruction of world tyranny. But now, with war so recently dominating the news, perhaps comic books—in tune with world events long after World War II, extending to the Cold War, Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam War and beyond—will once again capture history.

Get the latest on what's happening At the Smithsonian in your inbox.