Only a Communist Would Hide Behind a Mask - Superheroes During the Red Scare


I'm currently working my way through James Patterson's Grand Expectations, covering the history of the United States from the end of World War II and Watergate. Currently I'm in the 1952 presidential election, though the book isn't 100% sequential - for example, it covered the end of the Korean War before diving into the 1952 election. 


One thing I'm finding fascinating is the multiple facets of American life in the late 1940s and early 1950s. On the one hand, we see the United States enjoying prosperity which, to our eyes, is hard to believe. But that assumes you were white. And not a farmer. Or a woman looking for her own career. Or non-straight. Or having unpatriotic views.

There's a definite undercurrent of fear at the communist menace. The commies are everywhere. To be clear, there were unions whose leadership did indeed receive marching orders from Moscow. And the Soviet Union did indeed engage in espionage. But it is also clear how much of the Red Scare of the era was a witch hunt, looking for the communist menace at a time when FBI informants made up around 30% of the communist party. But an accusation could ruin a career. And refusal to take a loyalty oath could end a career as well.


How would such a society react to masked superheroes? Of course, it depends on what sort of lens you want your superheroes. Atlas Comics, the successor to Timely and predecessor to Marvel, briefly revived Captain America to have him fight communists. This was before retcons and it was portrayed as Steve Rogers and Bucky coming out of retirement and the Red Skull switching his allegiance from Nazi to communist. I suppose his name worked well for that. Eventually Marvel declared that this Captain America wasn't "really" Steve Rogers but some poor guy programmed to think he was, with the real Captain America being lost and frozen at the end of the war and Bucky being killed (until the relatively recent Winter Soldier storyline).
Over at DC, superheroes were quickly reduced to Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. The last Justice Society of America story appeared in 1951. The in-universe explanation for their retirements did not appear until 1979's Adventure Comics #466 where a joint Congressional Committee ordered them to unmask. They refused and retired. 

Watchmen had something similar, where some of the Minutemen chose to reveal their identities to Congress while others retired.

I would imagine in any superhero setting, masked heroes would be ordered to unmask. Actually it seems likely that that would have happened prior to that but in the midst of the Red Scare it is practically certain this would happen. And in any group of people it is also nearly certain that some would be "deviants" by the standards of the day. Someone who was once a part of the communist party. A sexual "deviant" (i.e. non-straight). 

It could make for an interesting dark-toned RPG campaign - having a group of superheroes survive political witch hunts. "What do you mean our nemesis Captain Doom has been deputized by the government?"







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