Superheroes rise in tough times

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America faces an economic calamity. Trouble brews in faraway lands.

Sound familiar?

More than 70 years ago, the very first superheroes debuted in the dire times of the Great Depression and the early years of World War II. Their names became legend -- Superman, Batman (or, as he was then known, the Bat-Man), Wonder Woman, Captain America -- and they're still with us today.

A new exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles celebrates these icons from the Golden Age of Comic Books. Through a collection of rare original artwork and comics, the exhibit explores how a group of mostly Jewish artists created the costumed heroes who came to symbolize the hopes of a beleaguered nation.

Guest curator Jerry Robinson not only organized the exhibit, he's a part of it. The comic book pioneer created Batman's arch-enemy, The Joker, and named the caped crusader's sidekick Robin. (Success has many fathers, of course: Bob Kane, credited with creating Batman, has long disputed elements of Robinson's creation stories.)

Robinson says the villains changed with the times. "The first villains in the comic books were hijackers, embezzlers, bank robbers. It was the era of Pretty Boy Floyd and so forth. Once the war came along, we felt a need for more patriotic heroes to fight Hitler.

"In fact," he adds, "Hitler banned American comics, at least Superman and superheroes. He said they were Jewish. Little did he know that the creators were actually Jewish. ... Hitler banned American comics, except one: Mickey Mouse, which was his favorite."

In our own times, the public is turning to costumed heroes again in record numbers. Movies based on comic books are box office leaders; comic books themselves remain a strong and growing industry.

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