“It may not be the Ten Commandments, but as a set of moral guidelines for the secular children of an age of reason, the Supermen of America creed was a start.” – Grant Morrison, Supergods
In the 1940s, American kids faced a grim world of war and rationing. Their parents were fighting the Axis overseas or working hard to win the war on the home front. In a world of big challenges and grim news, young people needed larger than life heroes to inspire and entertain them, and they found them in the pages of comic books. Characters like Superman, Wonder Woman, and Captain America were fighting the good fight in bright costumes and capturing the attention of America’s children. But the superheroes didn’t just provide vicarious thrills on the page; they also offered their readers memberships in clubs that provided secret codes, moral credos, and a sense of belonging and mission.
The Supermen of America Club had over a million members; for ten cents, a kid could join the club and get a certificate signed by none other than Clark Kent (Superman) declaring the recipient a member of the club upon the pledge to “do everything possible to increase his or her STRENGTH and COURAGE, to aid the cause of JUSTICE, to keep absolutely SECRET the SUPERMAN CODE, and to adhere to all the principles of good citizenship.” The club’s members would also get a code card and a button designating them as members, and it could be argued that the club was just another piece of plentiful Superman merchandise designed to get money from kids. But the pledge sets these memberships apart from other merchandise; the Supermen of America members were challenged to improve themselves, take responsibility for keeping secrets, and work for justice. In a world that needed heroes, kids were being called to action.
Superman wasn’t the only hero with a club. When kids joined the Junior Justice Society of America, they received a certificate signed by Diana Prince (Wonder Woman) on behalf of all Justice Society members (which included superheroes Hawkman, the Flash, and Green Lantern, among others), a JJSA emblem, a code card, a U.S. Treasury Department War Savings Stamp album (allowing members to do their part to help fund the war effort), and instructions on how to organize a “Victory Club” at school (to help win the war on the home front). In addition to taking action to help the war effort, the JJSA members pledged:
(1) to help keep our country united in the face of enemy attempts to make us think we Americans are all different because we are rich or poor, employer or worker, White or Negro, native or foreign born, Gentile or Jew, Protestant or Catholic;
(2) to help defeat Axis propaganda which seeks to cause us to fight among ourselves instead of successfully fighting our enemies.
The first part of that pledge was a progressive challenge to kids in 1940s America, when segregation was rigorously enforced in some parts of the country and even in the American military forces fighting the Axis overseas. (And it should be noted that the only minority character in the Justice Society of America was Wonder Woman). It could be argued that the JJSA pledge remains a progressive and challenging credo in a society that still suffers from prejudices and divisions that can no longer be blamed on Axis propaganda.
In comparison, the pledge for Captain America’s Sentinels of Liberty club might seem fascistic to some in today’s pluralistic, politically cynical age:
(1) IN GOD WE TRUST.
(2) ALLEGIANCE TO THE FLAG AND THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.
(3) TO MAKE MYSELF A BETTER CITIZEN AND DEFEND MY GOVERNMENT FOREVER.
However, in the context of the wartime period that the Sentinels of Liberty club was active, few would take issue with the club’s principles, and the pledge is another example of an effort to give kids a sense of mission and purpose.
Other superheroes had clubs with similar credos. (My favorite is the Captain Marvel Club, which asks its members to “assist Captain Marvel in upholding freedom, defending justice and the smashing of all evil.”) Sadly, these clubs no longer exist. While the superheroes still entertain and inspire readers, they no longer offer them a sense of mission and fellowship. Our superheroes no longer call us to take action, which is a shame, because I would love to help Captain Marvel smash evil.