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Adventure characters in the pulp magazines and comic books of the early twentieth century reflected development in the ongoing American fascination with heroic figures. As established figures such as the cowboy became disconnected from everyday experiences of Americans, new popular fantasies emerged, providing readers with essentialist action heroes whose adventures stylized the struggle of the American everyman with a modern, industrialized, heterogeneous world. Popular characters such as Tarzan, Conan, the Shadow, and Doc Savage perpetuated the individualistic archetype Americans associated with the frontier cowboy and the struggles of manifest destiny while offering the fantastic adventure, exoticism, and escapism that modernity demanded. Fantasies developed further with the advent of Superman and other comic book superheroes, as confrontations with otherness transformed from frontier battles to struggles internalized within the American city. Despite these changes, the essential models of white male power provided by American heroes remained and continued to assert the racial and civil superiority of white Anglo-Saxon tradition. This paper explores the racial and civil ideas American sought to promote in early twentieth century and their evolution in the popular entertainment press.


The authors have included a revised version of this article in the following collection of essays on superheroes in historical context: Svitavsky, William, Julian Chambliss, and Thomas Donaldson, eds. Ages of Heroes, Eras of Men: Superheroes and the American Experience. Newcastle, UK : Cambridge Scholars Press. (2013)

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