Note: This article was originally published on December 1st, 2012 on the blog The Lighthouse
Today, when we hear of Superheroes, we automatically think of American comic book characters from the 1940s and 1950s like Superman. Although stories of men in tights with super powers are from the late 1930s, stories of heroes with unusual powers who appear in propaganda stories can be traced back to eleventh century France. The Song of Roland (French: La Chanson de Roland), a “chanson de geste” (a kind of epic poem) and the first great work written in French, served as propaganda much like early issues of “Superman” and “Captain America” from the 1940s. The aim of these Superhero stories differed from that of The Song of Roland, but the symbols that the heroes and villains represent are quite similar.
The “chanson de geste” was, like other poems, meant to entertain listeners, but a closer look at The Song of Roland makes it clear that the aim of this poem wasn’t to show off Roland’s prowess in war. The story was based on Charlemagne’s crushing defeat at the hands of Basques at the Battle of Roncevaux pass in 778. In the Song of Roland, the battle had been changed to a triumphing victory of Charlemagne over the Moors. The story was meant to glorify war and encourage young men to participate in the Crusades. As for the 1940s version of Superman and early issues of Captain America, they were meant to provide relief for Americans who were afraid of what was happening during World War II. Average Americans felt powerless before the Japanese army and the Nazis so they got satisfaction from seeing heroes that embodied their values defeat those who terrorized them. The Song of Roland made youths enthusiastic about going to war whereas Superman and Captain American provided relief from the horrors of war.
In spite of Roland and Charlemagne’s lack of super powers, both are similar to Captain America and Superman in that they embody values that are considered sacred. Roland, Charlemagne, Olivier and Turpin the Bishop represent Christianity, courage and truth. When Roland dies, lightning strikes just like at the death of Christ. While Turpin was dying, he was blessing the other dying knights. At that time, Christianity meant more to the Franks than ethnicity. However, in the story, France is often referred to as “La dulce France” (sweet France). Captain America and Superman both represent patriotism and love for the United-States. They were also brave and strong. The villains in all three stories represent what is loathed. The Moors in The Song of Roland, are portrayed as impious and idolaters who worship statues of Mohammad, Apollo and Tervegant. The villains in Superman and Captain America were Nazis and Japanese people. The Nazis were cruel and cold whereas the Japanese were dastardly and dishonest. In all of these stories, villains were portrayed as embodying the opposite values of the heroes to satisfy the audience.
The epic French poem and both comic books were about Good versus Evil; Evil was always the political enemy. This form of story-telling is still very present in recent movies like Fom Paris with Love, a movie set in France in which the villains are the same as those in The Song of Roland: Muslims of all ethnicities and black people.
Some things never seem to change.
Superman World War II propaganda cartoon “Japoteurs”
Superman World War II porpaganda cartoon “Jungle Drums”