“It was a time of idealism and shattered
ideals. We were down, but not out. Our
world had crumbled, but we knew we could
build a better one.”
– Ted White
There were giants in those days. It was an age of dark villainy, of Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini; and, it was a time for heroes. In America it was the decade of Franklin D., the second Roosevelt, whose heroic image, carefully tailored from the moment he told his countrymen that fear was the only enemy, waxed and waned to the rhythms of political fortune and a depressed economy. 1938 was a bad year for the FDR image. Dealt a nearly crippling blow in the “court-packing” controversy of the previous year, it sank in a mire of a new recession – the “Roosevelt Depression” – to reemerge in full vigor only once the President had assumed the mantle of Commander-In-Chief. In the meantime something of a hero “gap” opened up in the public mind, and media only recently formed, media which catered mostly to children, rushed to fill it. 1937 saw the debut of “The Green Hornet,” WXYZ-Chicago’s second great heroic radio play – “The Lone Ranger” had premiered in 1933 – and in 1938 Orson Welles’ interpretation of Walter B. Gibson’s pulp magazine avenger “The Shadow” would bring new acclaim to that series. Radio, however, posed a problem for its young listeners. The “enemy,” the adults who controlled their world, could simply turn it off, and they often did. There was only one entertainment for which kids could truly call their own: the comic-book, a form which flourished due largely to the success of a single feature. This was Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s “Superman.” (1)
Prior to the June, 1938 release of Detective Comics, Incorporated’s new monthly Action Comics, which sported Superman on its cover, comic-books were a fledgling industry. Major Malcom Wheeler-Nicholson, an adventurer who had seen action in Mexico, on the Western Front during the Great War, and in the allied invasion of Siberia, had formed Detective on a hunch in 1935, receiving nothing in the end but poverty and despair for his trouble. He had gambled on the success of a new concept and had lost, and by 1938 Harry Donenfeld, a printing press owner and the Major’s main creditor, had managed to squeeze Nicholson out of his own company. (2)
It was Donenfeld who first realized that “Superman” was a hit. Within four months of Action’s debut it was outselling the company’s other books, and a market survey indicated that “Superman” was the reason. Donenfeld, who had cared little for the strip when M.C. Gaines, the “Johnny Appleseed of comics,” first presented it to him, knew he had a hot property and, like a good businessman, he quickly exploited the situation, seeing to it over the next few years that Siegel and Shuster’s creation gained exposure in as many media as possible. Soon young Americans could read of the “Man of Tomorrow,” as he was called, in Action and the bi-monthly Superman magazine, which together were selling 2.5 million copies per month by 1941. During that same year the “Superman” strip distributed by the McClure syndicate reached a peak of popularity, appearing in nearly 300 daily and 100 Sunday newspapers; and in September a series of beautifully rendered animated cartoons, the first of which won an Oscar for the Max Fleisher Studios, opened as part of the Saturday matinee at over 17,000 theatres nationwide. The 1940 contract between Superman, Inc. (for so Detective was quickly rechristened) and Paramount Pictures, distributor of the cartoons, assured the publisher a minimum intake of $100,000.00 before the series was even released, while the many local sponsors of the syndicated “Adventures of Superman” radio show, broadcast thrice weekly via the Mutual Network, added another $75,000.00 to Donenfeld’s coffers. A $100,000.00 licensing agreement was made in 1941, and the company’s total 1940-41 income was estimated at approximately $2.6 million: $1.5 million from Superman-related activities, and $1.1 million from other characters and products. (3)
Siegel and Shuster shared in little of this largesse. Desperate after nearly four years of rejections by the newspaper syndicates, they had affixed their signatures to an agreement which S. J. Liebowitz, Donenfeld’s accountant, called “Customary... a business-like way of doing things.” Under it Siegel and Shuster signed away all legal title to their creation and accepted a salary of $260.00 per story. When, near the end of 1938, they asked for a $5.00 per page raise Liebowitz reportedly was “shocked,” but eventually a new contract was arrived at. After 1939 they would receive a percentage of “Superman’s” gross income, and, though they occasionally pinched themselves for their earlier naivete, they were for a time content. In 1940 they opened a $40.00-a-month studio in their native Cleveland and hired five artists to assist them with their growing weekly workload. There was no use in brooding over what might have been. For the first time in their lives they and they families were financially secure, and achieving such status was, in those difficult days, a major accomplishment. (4)
“He became every kid’s big brother, the
guy who came in the nick of time and took
care of the bullies that were making life
– Jenette Kahn
Writing in the May 17, 1939 issue of The New Republic, commentator Haywood Broun observed that in the days of his youth, the nineteen-teens, “the indestructibility of human fiber was a conception which never came” to anyone. Then the newspaper comic pages were populated by humorous characters of the sort which Arthur Asa Berger has labeled “The Innocents,” and therein “nothing permanently tragic would occur.” “In more recent years,” Broun wrote, “death has come to the comic strip.” (5)
Death, and violence, and Superman’s bullet-resistant flesh, all manifestations of Depression bitterness, had indeed arrived. This was not an innocent age, nor could it be. Too much had been lost, and there came a point, even, when the villains seemed more attractive than the heroes. Years later Jules Feiffer was to write:
Villains... were infinitely better equipped
than those silly, hapless heroes. Not only
comics, but life taught us that. Those of us
raised in ghetto neighborhoods were being
asked to believe that crime didn’t pay. Tell
that to the butcher! Nice guys finished last;
landlords first. It was not to be believed
that any ordinary human could combat them.
More was required.
It was time for a new kind of hero in popular fiction, one who dwelt on a higher plane of might and power than had any of his predecessors, for “once the odds were appraised honestly it was apparent you had to be super to get on in this world.” (6)
In a 1941 interview Jerry Siegel, the writer and prime mover on the “Superman” team, told the Saturday Evening Post’s John Kobler that he had created his hero in the mold of “Samson, Hercules... all the strong men I had ever heard of rolled up into one, only more so.” As one of those “raised in ghetto neighborhoods” Siegel understood the need to form a character with the ability to overcome foes who loomed larger than at any time previous, and Superman was such a hero. In 1940 Dr. Lauretta Bender addressed the American Orthopsychiatric Association with the news that Siegel’s stories were therapeutic, stating that they “would seem to offer (for children) the same type of catharsis which Aristotle claimed was an attribute of the drama,” and, according to Feiffer, “when Superman at last appeared, he brought with him the deep satisfaction of all underground truths: our reaction was less ‘How original!’ than ‘But, of course!’”
The young people of America took a fancy to the “strange visitor from another planet,” and accepted him into their lives with gratitude. When, late in 1940, Siegel moved his family into a new house in one of Cleveland’s nicer neighborhoods local children came to the door asking if Superman was home. Siegel showed them an authentic red, blue and yellow uniform and told them their idol was then off on a mission, but if they watched the nearby skies, they might catch a glimpse of him sometime soon. The children went away in awe; they believed in Superman with a certainty they had once felt for Santa Claus and, said many of his friends, Siegel’s own faith was nearly as strong. (7)
Jerry Siegel was only seventeen years old when he first conceived of Superman on an insomnia-ridden night in 1934. Having been forced from early on to work as a print shop delivery boy in order to help feed his family, he viewed the world as one who had known nothing but squalor all of his life. By 1938 similar impoverished conditions were familiar to an entire generation of Americans, and the members of this generation were Siegel and Shuster’s readers. They shared with Superman’s authors a perspective forged by years of strife, one which combined an essential materialism and requisite cynicism about the present with an idealistic view of the future which verged on desperation. Superman embodied these ambivalent feelings, feelings felt by adults as well. “The great artist,” Marshall McLuhan has written, “necessarily has his roots very deep in his own time – roots which embrace the most... commonplace fantasies and aspirations,” and while Superman comic-books did not in this period warrant the appellation of “art,” they did reflect the times in a unique and compelling fashion. They spoke a symbolic language of hope and fear which readers intuitively appreciated. To translate this language is to shed much light on a critical period in the republic’s history, on the anxieties afloat in an America undergoing profound transformations. Such is the purpose of this study. (8)
“Superman is... the one man brawn trust
of the adventure strips.”
– Martin Sheridan
Reading of Superman was, as Dr. Bender said, a cathartic experience, one which aided in relieving many of the tensions wrought by economic hardship. Catharses came due to the manner in which Siegel and Shuster dealt with many of the images and objects which Americans had come to associate with their troubles. Firearms were foremost among these.
Superman encounters a gun several times in his very first adventure, a tale which we will be analyzing at some length. Torch singer Bea Carroll, who has escaped execution for murder by framing the innocent Evelyn Curry, flashes a pistol, which Superman takes from her and crushes. “Are you ready to sign a confession,” the costumed vigilante threatens, “or shall I give you a taste of how that gun felt when I applied the pressure?” Later, confession and Carroll in hand, Superman breaks into the Governor’s mansion to obtain a stay for Evelyn, who is to be electrocuted in mere minutes. The butler, ignoring Superman’s warning to “put that toy away!,” fires a shot which “ricochets off Superman’s tough skin.”
Deflecting bullets is one of Superman’s favorite pastimes. In the second issue of Action he confronts munitions magnate Emil Norvell, cynical manipulator of both factions in the “San Monte” war, at his home, and is met by a barrage of gunfire. The next panel shows Norvell’s henchmen, terrified expressions humorously affixed to their pasty faces, flying “headlong out the window... the machine-guns wrapped firmly about their necks.” Further examples abound. (9)
The rapid-fire machine gun, along with barbed wire and mustard gas, was a powerful image for Americans, evoking as it did memories of the unexpected carnage of the Great War. The horror of the trenches had shocked idealistic Americans of the Progressive era, sparking the vapid materialism and simplistic pacifism which marked the following years. But, fear of war and hopes for a permanent peace could not erase the “strenuous life” from the American mind. One of the main tenets of this vague doctrine, formulated and practiced by the first Roosevelt, Theodore, was that men could, in glorious battle, attain the greatest measure of personal growth. In the 1920s, through, among other things, Ernest Hemingway’s novels and the Western film, Americans sought a safe replacement for this masculine rite of passage in their entertainment. Superman specifically fits into this trend because his activities enabled readers to vicariously enjoy the thrills of personal combat on a level at which dehumanizing technology was irrelevant. Superman overcame his foes in spite of their weapons, and he did so in the present, not in some romantic pre-industrial past or far-flung gothic future. For those few moments when his fans encountered him in print, or on the radio or silver screen, they could feel themselves perhaps equally capable. (10)
Technology served as a scapegoat for many Depression losses. The popularity of a hero who was “faster than a speeding bullet” implies it was blamed for having delegitimized warfare, and Superman’s destruction of the guilty gun was paralleled in his treatment of the industrial landscape’s larger metallic inhabitants.
The cover of Action Comics #1 introduces Superman as he lifts an automobile over his head and dashes it against the rocks, its ejected occupants – Butch Mason and his hoodlum band, kidnappers of Lois Lane – fleeing in the foreground. This first impression is a telling one, for Superman’s early exploits are very tightly structured, with each panel delivering its message and moving the plot forward rapidly and with maximum intensity. No element is superfluous, and one must therefore wonder why Superman feels the urge to wreck Butch’s car, his primary objective, rescuing Lois, having been accomplished. Though Mason humiliates Clark Kent in an earlier scene, personal vengeance is not a sufficient answer to this question. Superman is the paragon of virtue; he acts mostly on altruistic motives, so we must delve deeper into the auto-trashing scene in order to understand it fully.
As drawn by Shuster, Butch and his “boys” remind one of Warren William’s character in the 1932 film “The Mouthpiece,” which introduced the American public to an image Andrew Bergman has branded “the shyster.” These “men with slicked down hair and little mustaches” populated the “great many films” of the early Depression which “concerned themselves with corrupt and racy people who lived and worked in the city,” and many of Superman’s first foes fit this likeness. When Superman destroys Butch’s car and hangs the man himself by the seat of his pants from a telephone pole, he reveals the nature of Mason’s shyster-manhood: without his “wheels,” and his “piece,” the shyster is nothing – he is the very image of impotence. Siegel’s hero, by contrast, is a naturally potent force. (11)
By redefining the shyster image, by adding to it an element of environmental determinism – Butch and his buddies having been beaten by machines, and remolded by them – Superman’s creators were making a comment on urban life. The shyster represented a widely accepted “portrait of the city,” and by defeating him Superman overcame the city itself, though the shyster’s dependence on technology left open the possibility that he could be freed from its grasp and the image transformed in the eyes of comic-book readers. The thugs of the thirties could ultimately be redeemed, though for a while at least victory over the wicked city would continue to strike a positive chord in American audiences. This is not so surprising if one takes into account some of the major dislocations which had occurred in American society in the half-century preceding the Crash of ‘29.”
“The last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.... (which) became pale. The air was thin.... the dirt crust broke and the dust formed.... the wind grew stronger.... the air and sky darkened.... The dawn came, but no day.”
– John Steinbeck
The Grapes of Wrath
By 1930 most Americans lived in major metropolitan areas, many having migrated there from the country seeking employment. When the Depression came, reminding urban Americans that the city could be a most inhospitable place, city-dwellers looked “back to the farm,” from whence most felt they had come, nostalgically. This longing found expression in some New Deal programs, and in films like King Vidor’s 1934 effort Our Daily Bread, which, Andrew Bergman writes, “opposed a cooperative life in the farm to an atomic existence in the city and set community against the hopeless, demeaning, and dehumanizing competition,” of the city. The “back to the earth” sentiment also became a vital component in the ever-evolving story of Superman’s early years. (12)
All we are told of the hero’s upbringing in the two page tale which opens Superman #1 (Summer, 1939) is that “the child was found by an elderly couple, the Kents,” who take him to an orphanage and later adopt him. These two, whose “love and guidance... was to become an important factor in shaping the boy’s future,” appear in distinctively urban dress, and young Clark Kent is shown discovering his special skills in a skyscraper dotted setting. By 1942, however, a much different picture has emerged.
In chapter three of George Lowther’s The Adventures of Superman, a hardcover novel released mainly to libraries, we meet Eben Kent, a “farmer born to the soil.” Eben and his horse are plowing the fields when the rocket bearing the child who will become the Man of Tomorrow comes crashing down. “The plow was wrenched from his strong hands as the horse reared, screamed in fright and bolted across the field, dragging the plow after it,” and Eben is thrown to the ground, to “bury his face in the new turned loam, his fingers clutching the good brown earth for safety.” Eben and his wife Sarah name the boy after Sarah’s folks, the Clarks, and his character is forged by countless morning milking, planting, and plowing. Superman thus, from the very first, has his roots sunk deep in the land, the source of virtue in the Jeffersonian worldview, and the backbone of American strength and values.
Many years later, “about the time Clark reached his seventeenth birthday,” his foster father “found himself heavily in debt.” He “unburdened himself to the boy, (telling) him of the unsuccessful struggles of the past year, and the inability to make ends meet.” Clark finds a way to help Eben pay off the bank, but his efforts prove in vain as the old man soon succumbs to a coronary and dies. The son is so shaken he decides to leave the land and move to the city, which he does shortly, after seeing to it that his mother is properly cared for. No stories were written showing Superman returning to the countryside where he was raised until after the character’s creators had been driven away by Donenfeld. At that time, the early 1950s, the Superman concept was altered considerably, but it was originally intended that the farm be identified with tragedy, that it represent a lost world made forever inaccessible. Many Americans viewed their move to the city in a similar light, resulting in a sense of regret at the loss, and in the kind of frustration demonstrated by the popularity of films like Merian C. Cooper’s “King Kong” (1933). (13)
In “Kong” the protagonist lashes out at the most visible of urban symbols, “holding blackened subway cars under his arms like loaves of bread, as the city-dwellers screamed and dropped out of the windows.” That viewers should watch eagerly as an ape assaulted trains, and that a few among them should later thrill to the adventures of a hero who was “more powerful than a locomotive,” says much. The railroads had been one of the primary agents in making full industrialization possible after the Civil War, with thousands of miles of track serving to knit the country’s “island communities” into a single economic unit. But, by ending their isolation, the railroads had broken open the small towns, enabling people to leave easily, or to focus their identities outside the community. The vital social and spiritual center of nineteenth century American life was thus effectively lost, and the desire to regain this underlay much of the resentment against technology felt in the ‘30s.
When Superman outran trains, as when Kong carried them off, the anxieties Siegel and Shuster’s fellows felt toward industrial society found expression. Americans delighted in the defeat of the locomotive as a symbol of their lost rural heritage, and by admiring such violent reactions they were admitting the practical impossibility of returning to the farm. “Back to the earth” was little more than a romantic dream, for, as everyone knew, conditions in the country were as bad as those in the city during the Depression, if not worse. The Dust Bowl had descended on the American midwest, devastating a once fertile region, and to those who fled its wrath it must have seemed as if nature herself were in revolt. A sense of this can be gleaned from stories such as that in Action Comics #5 (October, 1938), wherein Superman, having failed to keep the “Valleyho” dam from cracking during a storm, diverts the flood which subsequently threatens the nearby village. Not even Superman can defeat the elements, though he is able to save citizens from their ill effects, as he does again in the spring of 1940 when he “supports tottering buildings while terrified occupants dash” away from the earthquakes that inexplicably strike Metropolis in Superman #4. A hero in a time when the land was casting out its own needed to be “able to change the course of mighty rivers,” and Superman counted this among his many “powers...far beyond those of mortal men.” (14)
Since he too had been exiled from his “natural” home, Superman could assist readers distressed by urban life. He did this most often in ways far more productive than Kong’s rampage through Manhattan, though he was, for his readers’ temporary relief, perfectly willing to attach “guilty” modes of transport. The auto and the trains were not the only vehicles so honored, either. In Action #2 the story of industrialist Emil Norvell ends with his pledge that “from now on the most dangerous thing I’ll manufacture will be a firecracker!” Earlier he had told Superman, “Men are cheap, munitions expensive.” He changes his mind after witnessing as “for the first time in all history a man battles an airplane singlehanded.” The plane, having strafed the camp from which he and Norvell had been viewing a front of the “San Monte” war, is sent by Superman into a tailspin. Superman returns to find a penitent Norvell on his knees begging for mercy. Superman grants forgiveness, demands that Norvell quit the weapons business and allows the merchant to return to America. (15)
Strafing planes, of course, suggested the horrors of the Great War in much the same manner as machine guns, but there was something else. The airplane is a kind of heightened version of the threat to community and individual integrity posed by the auto and the train. All grant mobility, which appealed to Americans in the post-frontier era, yet each creates conditions which nullify the independence that mobility is supposed to provide. Technology can be a savior, but it can also be a trap, and the breakdown of the American economy accentuated the realization of this fact. In an earlier age pessimism had prevailed as to a solution: John Henry could beat the steam shovel through the mountain, but only at the cost of his life. Superman is, by contrast, completely victorious when faced with a similar situation. Lex Luthor, the “mad scientist who plots to dominate the earth,” promises to free kidnaped inventor Professor Martinson if the Man of Tomorrow will race his super-planes around the globe. Superman easily outdistances two such airships and, in a second challenge, climbs higher into the sky than one, which actually moves beyond the earth’s gravitational pull “to drift to certain doom in the clammy clutches of outer space.” (16)
With stamina superior to Henry’s, Superman was able to trounce technology and remain a free man. He possessed the capacity to “leap tall buildings of a single bound,” and so put down the city with its mighty towers. These dwarfed and humbled his inner-city readers, and the skyscraper had, in tandem with the evil airplane, been the death of Kong. Neither could stop Superman. The picture of his triumph was, in those gloomy days, most comforting.
“He embodies all the traditional attributes of the Hero God....He is, moreover, a protective deity (and) ... the comic strip seems to fill some symptomatic desire for a primitive religion.”
– Slayter Brown
Enjoying stories about a hero who could hurdle even the Empire State required a leap of faith and, born and bred in want and misery, Superman’s readers were willing to take one. Though the urge to rebel against a stifling system was strong, there ran also an undercurrent of hope. Heywood Broun wrote in 1939 that “there is less feeling of inferiority and more gallantry of spirit (than a few years ago). And that is curious, since these young ones face a world even more forbidding than usual.” It was not really so strange, for in order to lift themselves out of the pit of Depression, and to bolster their fortitude in the face of the storm then gathering over the horizon, those “young ones” had to aim very high. Superman and his kin inspired them to do so, as Broun recognized when he attributed the increasing optimism of the emerging generation to “the fact that they have for the most part been brought up on ... comic(s).” These “proletarian novels of America... preach (that)... there is no barrier on earth or in the waters below or in the skies above to thwart the functioning of a stalwart human spirit,” and though Broun does not directly refer to him, Superman was the most prominent practitioner of this doctrine. He was, in Ted White’s words, “our dreams personified.” (17)
White also called him a “myth figure.” This is fitting, for the superman saga, formed as all great legends by many hands in days when dissatisfaction with more traditional symbols predominated, follows the pattern of classical and religious myths. Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell, the twentieth century’s foremost authorities on the subject, have defined history’s great myths by isolating a common core in all: a sequence of destructions and regenerations like that seen in creation tales and apocalypses. In hero stories this cycle is internalized, with turning points in the hero’s life serving as metaphoric deaths and geneses. Clark Kent’s self-imposed exile from the Kent farm is one such transmuting moment, for it is from out of the ashes of Eben’s death that the colorful persona of Superman arises. There is an even more vivid example in the opening words of the first origin account, with its accompanying drawing of a violet world’s violent death:
Just before the doomed planet Krypton exploded to fragments, a scientist placed his infant son in an experimental rocketship, launching it toward earth! (18)
Cataclysm was the starting point of the Superman myth, a fact accentuated by added details in Lowther’s novel. After the Kryptonian rocket smashes into his fields, Eben Kent rushes toward the burning ship:
He realized instantly that unless he broke through the searing wall the child would die. He made up his mind quickly, took a deep breath, and plunged through.... When he emerged again from the flame and smoke, agony stood in his eyes, for he had been severely burned. But in his blackened arms he held the child!
Superman’s original identity, Kal-el of Krypton, is swept away by the purifying flame which consumes the ship that bore him, and in so doing eliminates all evidence of his alien past. That fire is the crucible which forges the persona of Clark Kent, farmboy, a face which, as we have seen, falls away later in a second cycle of “death” and rebirth. Through this chain of identity transformations Superman is made aware of the responsibilities thrust upon him by the super-strength which begins to manifest itself as he enters adolescence. The full extent of his power comes upon him when, while trying to get his dying father to a doctor, he flies for the first time. It is then that he tells himself, “he must not let these marvelous powers go to waste, that he must put them to their fullest use (and)....having decided on this he dedicated himself to combating evil and injustice in all their forms and wherever they appeared.” (19)
Because Superman begins his career as the Depression is moving sluggishly along, his first mission is to help reunite the torn country his adopted parents taught him to love. In pursuing this he demonstrates a remarkable capacity for affecting personal salvation, the first example of which is the redemption of Emil Norvell. Superman is not kind to Norvell, telling the munitions magnate he will “follow you to whatever hole you hide in and tear out your cruel heart with my bare hands,” if he does not accompany him to San Monte to view the human toll Norvell’s business has been there exacting. Once in San Monte Superman forces Norvell to join one of the belligerent armies, and once under fire the conversion process begins. “This is no place for a sane man,” Norvell proclaims from a dusty trench, under a night sky lit by shelling, “I’ll die!” “I see,” responds the Man of Tomorrow, disguised in the same fatigues, “When it’s your own life at stake, your viewpoint changes.” The lesson and those that follow are, as we have seen, quite effective, and Norvell is not alone in receiving Superman’s grace. (20)
In Action Comics #3 (August, 1938) Thornton Blakely bellows, “There are no safety hazards in my mine,” when Kent confronts him about a near-fatal accident involving one of his workers, “but if there were – what of it? I’m a businessman, not a humanitarian!” Later, disguised as one of the immigrant miners, Superman crashes a society bash given by Blakely, and manages to get the rich folk to take a tour of one of the shafts. Once underground Superman “drops back and attacks the wooden tunnel supports,” trapping the party. The “safety devices,” which Blakely claims will save them are, of course, inoperative, and he and his guests panic, fight among themselves, then pass out from lack of oxygen. Superman speedily digs an escape route, seeing to it that no one is hurt, and “several days later Kent again visits Blakely” to check on the results of his alter-ego’s handiwork. The converted capitalist informs him:
Henceforth my mine will be the safest in the country, and my workers the best treated. My experience in the mine brought their problems closer to my understanding.
To which Kent responds, “Congratulations on your new policy. May it be a permanent one,” adding in an aside to the reader, “If it isn’t, you can expect another visit from Superman.” (21)
John Morton Blum has pointed out that the great tension in the New Deal, that which he feels made its successes unsatisfying, was between the urge to reform the economy at the expense of business – to, in Rexford Tugwell’s worrisome words, “do America over” – and the realistic need to cooperate with industry’s leaders in order to bring about recovery. Americans wanted something tangible to blame for their suffering. Technology, as noted above, served this purpose at times, but people also wanted to revenge themselves upon investors who had grown or stayed rich while they starved. Simultaneously there existed the belief that these successors to the robber barons could do as J. P. Morgan had done in 1908 and extricate the United States from economic crisis, and the tension between these views led Siegel to depict the “education” of Blakely and Norvell as he did. Though their crimes are great, such important figures as industrialists could not be subjected to the sort of humiliation reserved for Butch Mason and his shyster counterparts; they had to be won over to the side of the people. FDR himself attempted to do this throughout his many years in the Oval Office, and as a patriot Superman had to direct all of his energies, his punitive and redemptive aspects, toward bringing the country together. The very survival of the nation was at stake. Often he found himself, like the G-Man figure in contemporary films, forced to carry out. He first springs into public action, in fact, to prevent a lynchmob from executing its brand of vigilantism. “This prisoner’s fate will be decided in a court of justice,” he tells the attackers as he defiantly interposes himself between them and their intended victim, “return to your homes!” Superman is forced to disperse the crowd himself, to the welcome relief of a beleaguered sheriff.
By 1939 the need for national unity was becoming increasingly obvious, and if America was to recover from its wounds of the last decade civic order would have to be restored. This, at least, was the perception at the time, and Superman’s popularity reflected the belief that great strength would be needed to accomplish this. As a first step the New Deal had sought to shift authority from incompetent, and often corrupt, local officials to the more powerful federal government, and Superman personified this healing process. The system was a good one, but its lower levels needed to be “cleaned up” and made to function justly and truthfully. In this spirit Superman, seeking to prevent the execution of Evelyn Curry, reminds the governor of his proper place in Action #1. Having bound the guilty Bea Carroll and deposited her temporarily on the estate law, the Man of Tomorrow knocks politely on the door of the executive mansion, informing the butler that “I must see the governor. This is a matter of life and death!” The butler advises him to “See him in the morning” as he swings shut a huge wooden door, which Superman promptly breaks down, shouting, “I’ll see him now!” He carries the butler upstairs and faces the heavy metal door which guards the governor’s bedchamber. “(It’s) made of solid steel,” the butler chuckles, “try and knock this door down.” Superman quietly rips it off its hinges, quipping to the butler that “it was your idea.” Awakened by the commotion, the governor reads Carroll’s confession and phones the penitentiary, saving Evelyn from the electric chair at the last possible second. Superman has achieved his goal. He has shone the light of truth into the dark corners of power, first by smashing down the barriers which enable leaders to cloister themselves away from the concerns of individual innocents, then by seeing to it that the governor acts justly. Merit has been restored to government. (22)
Respect for government and just laws was something of a creed in America, and Superman was one of its chief apostles. Legitimate authority, that derived from the people and consecrated to their interests, was to be revered and, in spite of his often cynical reliance on the use of force, Superman always stood for the belief that American institutions could survive and would thrive through the coming trials. This faith was the closest thing Americans had to a civil religion, and in a polity composed largely of people from other lands it was invaluable.
“Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.”
– John Winthrop, Governor
at Massachusetts Bay,
citing Matthew in reference
to his constituents, the new
Americans, circa 1630
Shortly after Superman’s debut the United States found itself thrown into one of the great domestic debates of its history when people began to wonder what the nation’s role would be in the World War which began when Hitler invaded Poland in September of 1939. Foreign policy matters came gradually to overshadow, and eventually to resolve, the familiar difficulties of depression and, having premiered in this atmosphere the “Superman” strip reflected this dilemma as it did other social ills. The old world seemed on the edge of catastrophe and, as we have seen, such was the starting point of the Superman myth. (23)
In the first chapter of George Lowther’s Superman novel we met little Kal-el’s natural father, the scientist Jor-el, as he addresses Krypton’s ruling body, the “Council of One Hundred.” These men “attired in togas,” symbolic garb of the West’s classical age, gather in “the Great Hall of Krypton’s magnificent Temple of Wisdom.” Lowther’s imagery here likens this palace, with its “dome of glass... (and) high, arched doorways... (and) countless chandeliers of purest crystal,” to the splendor of Versailles, where an American President had, a generation before Lowther wrote, spoken to the scheming leaders of the old world. During the years the Superman myth was being forged, Adolph Hitler Persisted in the claim that he fought for justice, that he sought only to force the British and the French to alter the offensive clauses of the 1919 Pact of Paris. Many American isolationists were wont to sympathize, for had not Woodrow Wilson, whose image enjoyed a revival during the 1940-41 debate, predicted that an embittered Germany would be more likely to start another war? Had he not fought the allied demand for German reparations on this basis, and were not his prophesies now coming true?
Many Americans must have imagined that Wilson’s reception by the Europeans looked a lot like the scene in which Jor-el spoke to the Council, and the arrogant words of the Kryptonian elders echoed the kind of contempt Americans were certain the most sophisticated Europeans held for them. “Krypton,” Jor-el told the assembled councillors, “may be likened to a volcano.... Soon it will erupt.... and when it does the mighty planet... will burst into a million molten fragments!” The elders are angered by this pronouncement, their feelings turning quickly to mockery and scorn as Jor-el makes the “preposterous” suggestion that the Kryptonians emigrate to earth. “The Great Hall rocked with laughter,” and Grand Councillor Ro-zan, who previously had been sympathetic toward the young researcher, scolds Jor-el:
You yourself... have told us how inferior to ourselves are the earth people. They are thousands of years behind us in everything, mental and physical.... Death is preferable to life in a world of such inferior people.
He was soon to get his wish, much to the delight of readers who heard aristocratic snobbishness of the “let them eat cake” variety in his speech. (24)
In the midwest, stronghold of the isolationist “America First” organization, people were especially sensitive to imagined European haughtiness, and for children of immigrants, like Joe Shuster, whose father had come from Russia via Montreal to Cleveland when Joe was ten years old, rejecting the ways of the world was also a part of the typical rebellion against one’s parents which comes with teenhood. Education theory of the ‘30s stressed the rapid assimilation of first generation Americans like Joe into mainstream culture, creating the “melting pot” atmosphere of the institutions like Cleveland’s Glenview, the predominantly Jewish high school where Shuster met Jerry Siegel and began his lengthy collaboration with the young writer. In making up Superman these two were finding an outlet for the emotional energy which was left with nowhere to go once secular schooling had broken down their ethnic identities. Had they been brought up in a more traditional environment they would have attached themselves to the passionate biblical and rabbinic symbols which form the core of Jewish education. Instead they gathered together the precepts of Americanism as transmitted by the public schools and molded them into a symbolic figure, a secular savior embodying nationalist ideals which, severed from the imagery of the nation’s Protestant past, could be accepted by non-Christians. Superman was a watered-down Christ, a Jesus for Jews, and other immigrant groups could also identify with the hero, for he was a generic, “one-hundred percent American” figure. Of course, this meant that Superman had to voice those views which his creators identified with patriotism, and since Siegel and Shuster came fro the midwest he had to be an isolationist at least at first. (25)
Clark Kent’s first major assignment once he had secured a position as “mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper” is to cover the “San Monte” war, much of which has already been discussed above. Kent is given a boat ticket to South America by his editor, but he waits a day before using it, in the meantime taking “a train not toward San Monte, but to Washington, D.C.” He goes at once to the Senate gallery, observes the behavior of one Senator Barrows, then follows the senator and photographs hm arranging a meeting with a certain shyster-figure. An employee in the morgue of a local paper informs Kent that the shyster is “Alex Greer, the slickest lobbyist in Washington. No one knows what interests back him.” Ken aims to find out.
Having overheard Greer specify the time for his rendezvous with Barrows, Superman clings to the window ledge of the senator’s apartment building and eavesdrops on a revealing conversation:
Greer: “Do you think you’ll succeed in pushing the bill through?
Barrows: “There’s no doubt about it. The bill will be passed before its full implications are realized. Before any remedial steps can be taken, our country will be embroiled with Europe.”
Greer: “Fine! We’‘ll take care of you financially for this!”
It now becomes clear why Kent went at once to Washington on what was ostensibly a Latin American assignment. He “knows” what every American who followed the popular Congressional investigation of the “merchants of death,” the arms dealers who had, for their own profit, “driven” the U.S. into war in 1917, “knew”: that wars are the result of machinations by sinister shysters. Kent journeys to the capitol to discover who among these is the most powerful, and thus most likely to be dirtying his hands in San Monte. By extracting a confession from Greer – he at first demands, “Who is behind you in corrupting Senator Barrows?” then carries Greer through the air by his heel until he talks – Superman is led to Norvell and his suspicions are proven correct. Superman ultimately ends the war by kidnaping the opposing generals and, after they refuse to engage in personal combat to decide the war’s outcome, convincing them that the conflict’s sole purpose all along has been to drive up munitions prices. The realization hits the generals like a proverbial thunderbolt, they shake, and peace ensues. (26)
The simplistic notions regarding war voiced in these exchanges were popular ones, as was the view that war itself was evil. A corrupting remnant of European politics which lingered on to tempt righteous Americans. Those who had a strong distaste for the “strenuous life” could thus look to President Wilson for inspiration, for the architect of the peace-seeking League of Nations had firmly believed, and stated right down to his April, 1917 call for war against the Triple Alliance, that “There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight. There is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right.” Such thinking sustained at least part of the isolationist movement. As late as 1941 a large segment of the American public simply did not want to get involved in the new European war that was clearly coming, and perhaps many wished that the mother-continent of their civilization would, like Krypton, self destruct. For those fans of Superman whose parents tended toward the interventionist side, and this faction grew with each Hitlerian conquest, the identification of dead Krypton with dying Europe did not detract from their enjoyment of the feature. They could read Superman’s origin and think of themselves as superior to the great hero, who with all his power had been helpless to safe his home world. Soon they would have the chance to succeed where he had failed. (27)
“What Rome was to the ancient world, what Great Britain has been to the modern world, America must be to the world of tomorrow. We might wish it were otherwise... Every man who was young in the easier American of the pre-Great War world must long for it at times. But our personal preferences count for little in the great movements of history....”
– Walter Lippman, 1939
As the nineteen-forties opened the United States found itself preparing for a war it hoped to avoid, in the process sparking an economic boom which would sweep away the poverty of the Depression and help lift America from its status as a cut-rate military power to a position of global dominance unparalleled in human history. This transfiguration was hardly an easy matter; there were many problems during the war years, foremost of which as far as Superman comics were concerned was the danger of subversion. Before war was officially declared the Axis nations bore false names in the comics, but no one was fooled. Everyone, even the kids, recognized the fascist enemies of democracy. (28)
Superman #10 (May/June, 1941) opens as Kent and “girl reporter” Lois Lane are covering a “Dukalian” sporting exhibition which Lois feels “looks more like an anti-American demonstration.” And, indeed, there is the arm-band clad Dukalian consul Karl Wolff – drawn to resemble a balding Hitler, he appears as yet another shyster when wearing a hat – who harangues the crowd:
Present here is the flower of Dukalian youth. You have seen them perform physical feats which no other human beings can. Proof, I tell you, that we Dukalians are superior to any other race or nation. Proof that we are entitled to be the masters of America!
This the patriotic Clark cannot stomach. He makes his excuses to Lois and, moments later, Superman soars into the stadium to humble the Dukalian athletes, carrying the sprinter around the track at a dizzying speed and hurling the shot-put champion across the field, among other humiliations.
Siegel almost certainly got the idea for this scene from the inspiring performance of Black-American sprinter Jesse Owens, whose gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics proved a great embarrassment for his “genetically superior” Nazi hosts. American youngsters needed to be reminded of such symbolic triumphs, particularly in the often frightening year that followed the fall of France in May of 1940. (29)
The remaining plot of the Dukalia story is almost identical to one which appeared four months later in Superman #15 (Mar/April, 1942 cover date). This featured a group of spies from Napkan (read: Japan) who begin by sabotaging a shipyard. Superman repairs the damaged boats and alerts the Navy before going after the saboteurs. He thwarts them at every turn, first as they attempt to overthrow the regime of a fictitious Latin American republic and, finally, when a suicide crew pilot’s ship filled with explosives into the Panama Canal. The Napkanians, who are portrayed rather nobly here, in stark contrast to the portrait of the oriental enemy found later in all American media, are killed, when their ship detonates, but Superman manages to save the Canal, just as he did in the Dukalia tale. Therein Superman trails Wolff from the stadium to where he meets with ex-Captain Lang, a former naval engineer booted out of the service for “showing undue interest in the battleship construction plans.” Lang intends to get back at the Navy by building an “invisible boat” for the hostile Dukalians. Eventually this boat, with the abducted Lois and Clark aboard, delivers a cache of mines to an empty steamer en route to the Canal. Superman sees to it that the sea lanes are kept open, lifting the freighter into the sky and allowing it to explode over the ocean. (30)
Completed in 1914, the Canal symbolized better days for Americans. It was the supreme achievement of the Progressive generation, and many in 1941 had romanticized that period, recalling it as a time when America succeeded in everything because its people were wholly united. It was equally important to the republic’s future, for if the Axis gained a foothold in the Western Hemisphere they could seize the Canal and strangle American commerce. Rumors of threats to the Canal flew about wildly in the months before Pearl Harbor, leading to many suggestions on how to protect it, and making the need for a renewed national unity all the more apparent. This need too could be felt in the Dukalia story. In a surprise twist it is revealed at the end that Lang is not really a traitor at all, but a deep-cover Naval Intelligence agent whose mission has been to break up the spy ring he seemed to be working with. In the last panels he thanks Superman for his help and carts Wolff and his men off to prison. The needs of the approaching war, like the earlier requirements of recovery, demanded that negative symbols from the Depression be converted into new, positive images. Thus the shyster became, as the nation’s wounds healed, a G-Man, signaling that the process of renewal going on throughout American, that process which had been Blakely and Norvell made into servants of the people, was bearing fruit. Full harvest finally came on that “day of infamy,” December 7, 1941, when Pearl Harbor came upon the nation “as a great relief, like a reverse earthquake that in one terrible jerk shook everything disjointed, distorted, askew, back onto place. Japanese bombs had finally brought national unity to the U.S.” (31)
In the aftermath of the attack many of the anxieties we have been dealing with quietly evaporated. Any ill feelings toward technology, and these had all along been largely confined to escapist media, were swept aside as American factories finished the task of making the country an “Arsenal of Democracy.” Superman wound up spending more time during the war fixing machines, repairing damaged war industries and in one instance supporting an airplane, than wrecking them, and of course the character abandoned isolationism as anti- European feeling was transformed into hatred for the Nazi enemy. Lingering distrust of Britain faded as Prime Minister Churchill’s people became, in “their finest hour,” America’s staunchest ally, and at one point Superman even journeyed to China to help his country’s Asian friends fight the war against Japan. (32)
For Superman’s creators and publishers the declared war posed what Newsweek’s editors termed “Superman’s Dilemma.” For months he had been mopping up fascist spy rings in comic book America, the last such incident being the Napkan story which, due to the industry’s printing schedule appeared on newsstands shortly after Pearl. Presumably Superman could be expected to make short order of German and Japanese armies as well. Other characters, costumed and otherwise, joined the service and went off to battle in their own features, but here Superman’s much vaunted might worked against him. The actual conflict was sure to be a long one, and showing Superman in martial action at the front would push the strip too far beyond the bounds of believability. Some situation had therefore to be devised that would keep Superman from engaging the enemy directly. That scenario appeared in the February 15-19, 1942 installments of the “Superman” newspaper strip.
Angered, as all Americans were, by the deceitful Japanese attack, Clark Kent decides to enlist, and he soon finds himself in line at a local recruiter’s storefront office, waiting his turn for a physical. His initial pity for the chap in front of him turns to wonder as the fellow, having been inducted, jumps for joy. Kent smiles, confident that he will soon enter the ranks of America’s fighting men, but the doctor pronounces him “blind as a bat” and rejects him. Shocked, Kent takes a second look at the eye chart and realizes that, his mind lost in daydreams of the blows his alter-ego would surely score against the fascists, he had accidentally employed his x-ray vision and read the doctor lines from a chart in the next room. “Can you believe it?” Clark thinks to himself as he meanders back to the Daily Planet Building, “here I’ve got the most powerful body the world has ever known, and through a sad trick of fate the army turns me down as hopeless!” He quickly resolves to continue fighting fifth columnists and, as Superman, he writes a letter to FDR informing him of his decision to so aid the war effort. “Of course,” said Siegel, in keeping with the fantasy, “If a sub comes to our shores and shells the U.S. we may have to take him (Superman) out to administer the proper punishment.” The hero’s creator laughed down the fear which all felt, for it still seemed in early 1942 that America might actually lose the war. By the end of the year things were less dour, and Superman stories became more upbeat, turning at times to drum-pounding patriotism as the work of the G.I.s overshadowed that of the strip’s protagonist. Superman “gave up a lot of (his) old edge” in the war, Julies Feiffer wrote, and “competed cattily (with other heroes) to be photographed with the President; to be officially thanks for selling war bonds....” His absence from combat seemed to weaken his appeal for Feiffer, but other readers disagreed. Superman’s sales figures had dipped only slightly by 1945, and in the interim much was added to the myth, the above summarized strip sequence having illuminated one of its heretofore undeveloped aspects. (33)
It should come to no surprise that Superman refused to act without official sanction. Intervening personally in the war would have gone against the civic faith, that creed of respect for civilian authority and the decisions of elected leaders to which Superman adhered, but this does not explain his insistence that the government approve of him as Clark Kent. Obviously the “dilemma” resolution was contrived to answer any editorial problem, but the manner in which it was handled accentuates how important his secret identity was to Superman. Within the myth itself the reporter Kent was a mask which Clark assumed when he moved to the city, his earlier farmboy identity having “died” with Eben. He chose to be meek so that normal humans would not fear him, patterning his disguise after the first city person he met, and exaggerating passive traits of that personality. Perry White, the future editor of the Daily Planet, was considerably less gruff than he later became when Kent first encountered him as a young, aspiring journalist at the State Fair in George Lowther’s Superman novel, and he served as the model for Clark’s city face. In Metropolis Kent was Superman’s refuge from duty. He wanted it to be as different from his heroic persona as possible, and in his meekness the reporter accomplished this. Unfortunately, the Fleisher cartoons, and the Superman radio show, ignored these and other details, so millions of his fans were unaware of those facets of the origin which most likened Superman to classical myths. The dual identity, by contrast, was central to each media interpretation. Readers and viewers identified with both protagonists because of it, and so gained entry into the world of cathartic symbols which made Siegel’s and Shuster’s stories so consistently enjoyable. “The particular brilliance of Superman lay,” according to Jules Feiffer, “...in the concept of his alter-ego,” a fact which bears close scrutiny, for by drawing readers into the Superman myth, the dual identity worked to reenforce the values which adult Americans hoped to perpetuate by fighting the Second World War. (34)
“Kent was not Superman’s true identity.... Just the opposite. Clark Kent was the fiction....Superman had only to wake up in the morning to be Superman.... The fellow with the eyeglasses and the acne and the walk girls laughed at wasn’t real, didn’t exist, was a sacrificial disguise, an act of discreet martyrdom.”
– Jules Feiffer
The Kent/Superman dynamic’s debut in the first story culminated in the destruction of Butch Mason’s car, a scene analyzed earlier from an anti-technology angle. On the level of reader relations to the text it appears in an alternate, though related light. (35)
After rescuing a battered wife from her brutal husband, the Man of Tomorrow resumes his secret identity and returns to the office. He approaches a heretofore unseen woman named Lois and, falteringly, asks her out. She decides to “give (him) a break for a change,” and that night they go dancing at a local club. Clark is very direct. “Why is it you always avoid me at the office?” he asks, but Lois dodges the question, and it is at this point that the burly Butch Mason tries to cut in. “Reluctantly, Kent adheres to his role of a weakling,” telling Lois, “Be reasonable.... Dance with this fellow and then we’ll leave right away.” “You can stay and dance with him if you wish,” she retorts, “but I’m leaving now!” When Butch attempts to block her exit she slaps him hard across the face and departs, leaving a befuddled Kent at Mason’s mercy. The bully pushes in Clark’s face when the reporter refuses to fight him, then goes to his table and gets his cheering pals to hep him capture Lois. Kent rushes out ahead of them in time for Lois to answer his earlier question, screaming from her taxi as it drives away that she avoids him because he is a “spineless, unbearable coward!” Butch and his fellow shyster tail the cab and, as we have seen, Superman saves the day.” (36)
The Mason, Kent encounter is reminiscent of Charles Atlas’ four panels advertisements, which have been carried by D.C. Comics since Major Nicholson’s first book hit the stands in 1935. Superman’s later humiliation of Mason parallels the return to the beach in that now famous sequence, wherein the once scrawny victim gets back at the bully who menaced him before he started working out with Atlas’ “dynamic tension” bodybuilding system. Superman of course has no need for revenge; his treatment of Butch was meant, on this level of analysis, to satisfy the readers’ yearnings. Years of food shortages and general poverty had, the U.S. Army discovered in 1940, spawned a physically wrecked generation, and the transformation of Kent, which took place without the hours of work which Atlas’ methods demanded, served as a super-salve to many young male egos damaged by Depression diets. After interviewing his creators, John Kobler concluded that Superman was a special “psychological compensation” for Siegel and Shuster themselves. When “Superman” had made him enough money to afford membership in a Cleveland health club, Shuster quickly enrolled, and in less than a year he increased his weight from 112 to 128 pounds. He could then consider himself a well-developed runt, for even the platform shoes he purchased only added an inch to his 5' 2" stature. Siegel, at 5'6" and 160 pounds, fought his fate less vigorously. He bought a hip-reducing machine of the “lazy man” variety, the kind with a vibrating belt meant to shake the fat off, but it collected dust in his attic while he fed his addiction for chocolate bars. Triumphs of the imagination, attained through his writing, were enough for him. (37)
Through the dual identity device, “superman” celebrated the virtues of being ordinary by postulating that within every stumbling, bespectacled celibate a bold knight was waiting for the chance to sally forth and rescue damsels from contemporary bandits like Butch Mason. Readers basked in vicarious virility as Clark Kent stripped off his outer garments to reveal his true self, and to an extent they also delighted in the humbling of their hero, as Feiffer suggested. Superman allowed himself to be subjected, every time he donned the reporter’s glasses and hat, to Lois’ abuse and all of the commonplace aggravations most people sought to avoid. He did not need to do this, but such mildly masochistic behavior made less athletic readers feel a cut above the mighty Man of Steel. A metaphor of this phenomenon can be found in the “Dilemma” resolution newspaper sequence, in which the puny inductee who gets into the army instead of Kent acts as a reader surrogate. The message was clear: it was the little guy who counted, and his kind would win the war for America. Were it not for his alter-ego, Superman would have struck fans as just another dumb jock, like the high school sports stars who, even during the war, got more than their fair share of attention. Without the average Joe victory was impossible, and “Superman” recognized and acknowledged this fact. (38)
Had Superman been merely a strongman it would have been un-American, he would have stood for a rejection of the civic faith. The common man was what democracy was all about, Americans believed, and in the Atlantic Charter the Allies had promised that an Axis defeat would signal the beginning of a world-wide democratic renaissance. FDR, recalling the lessons of Wilson’s idealistic rhetoric and the cynicism it had given way to, did his best to keep the war from becoming a crusade, but, though they were pragmatic in their outlook, Americans knew the victory would vindicate their democratic values. Superman’s Clark Kent persona made his participation in this struggle legitimate; it gave him a personal stake in the affairs of normal people and allowed him to be physically superior within a democratic context. Had the character not been so structured it would not have been so popular, for claims to innate superiority were part of the doctrine of the nation’s enemies. The term “superman” had, in fact, originated with Friedrich Nietzsche, the late nineteenth century philosopher whose ideas were taken up, some would say twisted, by the Nazis. Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, a series of discourses loosely patterned after the synoptic gospels, advocates permanent aloofness on the part of the great, who are, Nietzsche claims, perpetually pestered by the buzzing masses, inferiors whom he likens to the “flies in the marketplace.” Nietzsche’s heroes were the Caesars and Napoleons of history, talented men who had subjected mass institutions to their personal will. Idealistic systems like Christianity and democracy were to be reviled. They constituted conspiracies against genius, a sentiment often echoed by Hitler in his attacks on the “weakness” of the West. When Slayter Brown wondered what Nietzsche would think of Jerry Siegel’s Superman, “this popular vulgarization of his romantic concept,” the answer was obvious: Nietzsche was probably rolling over in his grave, for the Man of Tomorrow was the antithesis of his “superman.” Greatness personified, he surrendered himself willingly to the people, the swarms of “flies,” and fought for them with joy. The Nazis, not surprisingly, attacked the character, point to Siegel’s Jewish roots as “roof” that Superman was a “poisonous” influence on American youth. (39)
Wartime tales like that published in the July/August, 1943 issue of Superman (#23) sounded a clarion call for democratic strength and victory. This story found Superman flying to a USO-sponsored appearance at “Damp Downe,” a prefabricated army training center. Hundreds of G.I.s are waiting for him, but the show has to be canceled when surprise wargames are announced. To help boost morale Superman asks if he can participate and is quickly “drafted” by the “blue” army. As one would expect, Superman proves to be an invincible one man war machine, ferrying troops across rivers, bombing “enemy” airfields with sandbags, locating “snipers” and hidden “mines” with his telescopic and x-ray vision, and, finally, tunneling his way through a mountain to let the “blue” troops march into the “red” camp with ease. The “reds” are ready to surrender when their general jumps up onto a jeep and delivers a stirring speech:
They say your licked! But what if the men who came out of that mountain weren’t your own buddies? What if they were Japs or Nazis? Would you quit fighting just because you were taken by surprise and outnumbered? Would you let down the folks who are counting on you to save your country and the world?
The men respond with a resounding “NO!” and go on to beat the “blues” in hand-to-hand combat. Superman sits on the sidelines. “Thus far successful in every battle, (he) is at last brought fact to face with defeat – and there finds the greatest victory of all,” leading him to observe that in these games the men have proved that “the courage of the common soldier (is) America’s Secret Weapon,” and so the story was named. At its end Superman addresses the troops himself, proclaiming that “American soldiers cannot be defeated by Superman or anyone else – not even Mr. Schickelgruber’s so called master race!” and so reaffirming his commitment to the defeat of fascism and its abhorrent values. (40)
Real soldiers, as well as those in the story, heard the cry and rallied around Superman. For the duration G.I.s formed a large part of the comic’s readership. They got a special education of Superman shipped overseas by the armed forces, and in April, 1942 the Navy went so far as to list copies among “essential supplies” bound for the embattled units at Midway Island. Even before war was declared there were sixty Annapolis midshipmen and a score of Coast Guard Academy cadets among the 200,000 members of the “Supermen of America” – a brainchild of Siegel this was the official fan club – and the 33rd Bombardment Squadron of the Army Air Corps Reserve had made Superman its insignia. The officers were bitten by the “super-bug” too, for Superman had, as Lt. General Benjamin Lear put it, “demonstrated more genius with strategy and tactics than any character ever created.” (41)
By late 1943 the military could count Superman’s biggest fan among its ranks as Jerry Siegel’s number finally came up. When he returned there was a nasty surprise waiting for him. Victory brought profound joy to the United States, and also great relief, for the recession which most expected would follow the war boom never came. Expectations for continued prosperity were on the rise, but Siegel’s own hopes for improving his postwar lot were dashed. Returning to Cleveland in 1946 Siegel grew impatient with Donenfeld and his editors, and when his and Shuster’s incomes fell to $46,000.00 they decided to go to the courts to try and regain control of their creation. They filed joint suit against Donenfeld in New York Supreme Court at Westchester County in 1947, requesting that the court nullify their 1940 contract on the grounds that National Comics’ “Superboy” feature, which had begun while Siegel was in the army and carried his and Shuster’s name with neither their authorization nor any compensation, constituted a breach. They also wanted to keep McClure’s from printing any more “Superman” strips, and they demanded damages from Donenfeld in excess of $5,000,000.00 for wages allegedly withheld since 1938. The suit was largely a failure. The court ordered Donenfeld to pay Siegel and Shuster $200,000.00 for “Superboy,” but it upheld the contract, meaning the publisher could fire his star’s creators. In 1948, then, Siegel and Shuster were each $50,000.00 richer, for that was all they actually wound up getting, but they were out of a job and subsequently they faded into obscurity. As with the impact of the war itself on society, hindsight has been necessary to understand the full meaning of their contribution to American culture. Now, nearly four decades later, it can be comprehended. (42)
1. Epitaph from White, Ted “The Spawn of M.C. Gaines,” All in Color for a Dime (Arlington House, 1970) pg. 28; on Roosevelt years as an heroic age see Leuchtenberg, William E. In the Shadow of FDR (Cornell Press, 1983) pp. 236-254; damage to FDR image detailed in MacGregor Burns, James Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox (Harvest, 1956) pp. 291-381; best source of heroic radio in the “Golden Age” is Jim Harmon’s The Great Radio Heroes; on comics as special preserve of youth see Feiffer, Jules The Great Comic Book Heroes (Dial Press, 1965) pp. 11-14
2. Account from Goulart, Ron Great History of Comic Books (Contemporary Books, 1986) pp. 55-82.
3. Statistics from Kobler, John “Up, Up, and Awa-a-y!: The Rise of Superman, Inc.” The Saturday Evening Post June 21, 1941; “Johnny Appleseed of comics,” White (op. Cit. 1, pg. 23) – “because he seemed to go from company to company, launching comic book lines at each new place;” premiere dates for the McClure strip were January 16, 1939 for the daily and November 5, 1939 for the Sunday, this according to Horn, Maurice, ed. The World Encyclopedia of Comics (Chelsea House, 1976) pg. 643; radio program debuted February 12, 1940 over ten stations and within three weeks became the to-rated kids’ serial in the country, this according to Professor Eli Segal of Eastern Connecticut State University in a 1984 overleaf essay to a Radiola Records pressing of selected episodes from the series; best sources on the Fleisher Cartoons is a retrospective by Jerry Beck in the August, 1987 issue of Animation Magazine pp. 16-17.
4. Details from Kobler (op. Cit. 3); there is some disagreement as to whether or not Donenfeld intentionally swindled Superman’s creators. White’s general assessment was that “comic book publishers were, all in all, a thieving, grasping lot....they were crooks,” while Goulart claims “Liebowitz wasn’t conning Siegel and Shuster; this (the contract) was indeed common practice throughout the ... field...”
5. Epitaph from introduction to a 1979 “Famous First Edition” reprint of Superman #1. Ms. Kahn has been President of D.C. Comics since 1977; Broun, Heywood “Shoot the Works: ‘Wham!’ and ‘Pow!’” The New Republic May 17, 1939 pg. 44; “The Innocents,” a section head-in in Berger, Arthur Asa The Comic-Stripped American (Walker & Co., 1973), referring to the likes of “Mutt and Jeff,” “the Yellow Kid,” and “Bringing Up Father.”
6. Feiffer, op. Cit. 1, pg. 17. Feiffer’s sarcastic reference is to the closing line of “The Shadow” radio program: “The weed of crime bears bitter fruit. Crime does not pay. The Shadow knows!”
7. Siegel and Bender quotes, Siegel and kids anecdote from Kobler, op. Cit. 3.
8. Marshall McLuhan, from The Mechanical Bride, quoted as epitaph to Berger, op. Cit. 5; portrait of the “Superman generation” has been culled from Feiffer, Broun, and Kobler, and has been influenced by Russell Baker’s outstanding autobiography Growing Up (Signet Books, 1987), especially pages 232-247.
9. Sheridan, Martin Comics and Their Creators Hyperion Press, 1942 pp. 233-236. Sheridan, a backgrounds artist for one of the newspaper syndicates, disliked Superman, or so one would gather from his book. Of Shuster’s art he remarks that, “Today it appears any youngster gifted enough to scrawl the caricature of teacher on the black-board is capable of becoming an overnight nationwide sensation.”; quotes from the first Superman story, reprinted in Bridwell, E. Nelson, ed. Superman: From the 30s to the 70s Bonanza Books, 1971 pp. 25, 27, 39. The complete version of this story was first published in Superman #1 (Summer, 1939), the Action Comics #1 version (June, 1938) having been repasted so it began in the middle of the action, with Superman rushing toward the governor’s mansion.
10. For the Great War’s effect on U.S. attitudes see Ferrell, Robert H. Peace in Their Time: The Origins of the Kellogg-Briand Pact Yale Press, 1952; in mentioning the “pre-industrial past or far flung gothic future” I am alluding to two popular newspaper comic strips of the day, each of which most likely had some influence on Siegel and Shuster. Respectively these were: “Prince Valiant,” an Arthurian Epic by artist Hal Foster, and “Buck Rodgers in the 25th Century,” the architecture of which, as rendered by artist Dick Calkins, evokes the gothic style.
11. Action #1 cover in Bridwell op. cit. 9, pg. 16, Mason scene pp. 32-33; on the “shyster” image in American film see Bergman, Andrew We’re In the Money: Depression America and its Films Harper and Row, 1971 pp. 18-29, quoted freely here. The “environmental determinism” mentioned in the next paragraph is similar to that discussed in Bergman’s chapter on the “juvenile delinquent,” pp. 149-166.
12. The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck originally published in 1939. Quotes here taken from pp. 1-2 of Penguin Book 1976 edition; Bergman op. cit. 11, pp. 70, 77: it is important to realize that even for those Americans who had never experienced rural life, the image of a “pure” existence in the country was a powerful one extolled in almost all media.
13. Superman #1 lines in Bridwell, pg. 20; Lowther, George, The Adventures of Superman Superman Inc., 1942, reprinted by Kassel Books, 1979, pp. 20-22, 33. The novel was commissioned in an effort to stave off anti-comic book criticism by organized educators and librarians, which followed in the wake of the industry’s post-Superman expansion. The novel, which appeared only in a hard-cover library edition, took a conscious approach to myth-making: Pa Kent’s name, for example, was John in the comic-book version, but Lowther changed it to Eben, a form of Abraham, the mythical patriarch of Biblical Israel. Mary Kent likewise became the matriarch Sarah.
14. Quotes on Kong and “back to the earth” from Bergman, pg. 69: “island communities,” etc. a summary of the thesis forwarded by Robert H. Wiebe in The Search for Order: 1877-1920 Hill and Wang, 1967, pp. 11-75 in particular. I am indebted to Professor Patrick L. Hatcher for helping to clarify Wiebe’s often indecipherable arguments; “Valleyho” dam story reprinted in Feiffer, pp. 59-67; Superman #4 quote from Bridwell pg. 52.
15. Bridwell pp. 43, 48-49.
16. Superman is likened to John Henry by Josette Frank, Staff Advisor, Children’s Book Committee, Child Study Association of America, and author of the original forward to Lowther’s novel, pp. Ix-x; Superman/superplanes race in Superman #4, Bridwell pp. 55-57.
17. Brown, Slayter “The Coming of Superman” The New Republic September 2, 1940 pg. 301; Broun op. cit. 5; “storm gathering” refers of course to WWII – see Winston Churchill’s account of the interwar years, titled The Gathering Storm; White op. cit. 1, pg. 30.
18. “Pattern of ... myth” a summary of theses in Eliade, Mircea The Myth of the Eternal Return, and Campbell, Joseph The Hero with a Thousand Faces; origin quote from Superman #1, Bridwell pg. 20.
19. Lowther pp. 23, 60.
20. Bridwell pp. 39, 43.
21. Blakeley story included in Famous First Edition,” Superman #1, 1979 reprint.
22. Observations on the New Deal influenced by Blum, John Morton The Progressive Presidents W.W. Norton & Co. 1980, pp. 107-162; “G-Man,” see Bergman pp. 83-92; Action #1 quotes in Bridwell pp. 23, 26-27.
23. “Light of the world” from Matt. 5:14. Winthrop’s use of this line became standard rhetoric for Americans who wished to speak of their country’s mission, its responsibility to set an example for the rest of the world by being morally superior. Some isolationists echoed this sentiment prior to Pearl Harbor, but internationalists have adopted it as well; excellent survey of the 1940-41 debate over isolationism can be found in Perrett, Geoffery Days of Sadness, Years of Triumph: The American People 1939-1945 Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, Inc., 1973 pp. 54-66.
24. Lowther pp. 3-11; a blow by blow account of Wilson’s performance at Versailles is contained in George, Juliette and Alexander L. Woodrow Wilson and Colonel House: A Personality Study Dover Publications 1956 pp. 195-267; on revival of Wilsonian image see Perrett pp. 166, 236.
25. “Midwest... America First,” see Perrett op. cit. 23; facts on Superman’s Jewish identity in Raab, Scott, “Is Superman Jewish” in Dooley, Dennis and Engle, Gary, eds. Superman at Fifty: The Persistence of a Legend Octavia Press 1987, pp. 167-168. This same book includes the equally revealing essay on Siegel and Shuster’s high school days, “The Man of Tomorrow and the Boys of Yesterday” by Dooley, pp. 19-36.
26. Bridwell, pp. 34-38, 49-50.
27. Wilson quoted in George, pg. 165; see also Perrett, ops. cit.
28. Lippman wrote in the June 5, 1939 issue of Life; White summarizes the immediate pre-war stories most succinctly on pg. 30 (op. cit. 1).
29. Bridwell pp. 64-66
30. Bridwell pp. 103-114 (Napkan story), pp. 74-76 (end of Dukalia story).
31. On perception of canal see Perrett pp. 162-163; Lang’s real identify, Bridwell pp. 74-76; “a great relief....” from Time December 15, 1941.
32. “Arsenal of Democracy,” was FDR’s term for U.S. war production, coined for his fifteenth fireside chat, December, 1940, and quoted in Perrett (op. cit. 23, pg. 130); “fixing machines...,” – Superman repairs the Metropolis rail system in the story “Man or Superman?”, Superman #17, July/August, 1942 (Bridwell, pp. 126-127), and he supports a crippled U.S. warplane in “I Sustained the Wings,” a special propaganda piece written by Superman’s editor Mort Weisinger for the Army Air Corps Technical Training Command which appeared in Superman #23, Nov./Dec., 1943 and was reprinted in Uslan, Michael, ed. American at War: The Best of D.C. War Comics Simon and Shuster, 1979 pp. 46-58; “their finest hour” summarized Churchill’s hopes for his peoples’ performance in the coming Battle of Britain, closed his speech in Commons on June 18, 1940, and reprinted in James, Robert Rhodes, M.P., ed. Churchill Speaks, 1897 - 1963: Collected Speeches in Peace and War Chelsea, 1980 pp. 714-720.
33. Siegel quote and other info. On “Superman’s Dilemma” from Time April 13, 1942; Feb. 15-19, 1942 strip sequence reprinted in Uslan, pp. 43-45; Feiffer op. cit. 1, pg. 48.
34. Kent/White meeting in Lowther, pp. 40-48, 59-72; Feiffer, p. 19.
35. Feiffer, pg. 19.
36. Bridwell, pp. 30-31, 34.
37. Atlas ad in comics, Goulart, op. cit. 1, pg. 40; army physicals, health of young Americans in Perrett, pg. 136; “psychological compensation” – see Kobler, op. cit. 3.
38. On high school sports stars as usual American hero-image during wartime see Blum, John Morton V was for Victory: Politics and American Culture During World War II HBJ, 1976, pp. 53-64.
39. Idealism and the Atlantic Charter, see Perrett, pp. 166-168; FDR, pragmatic American outlook impression gleaned from Blum (op. cit. 38) and MacGregor Burns (op. cit 1); Brown op. cit. 17; Nazi attach on Siegel came, according to Kobler, in the elite SS newspaper Der Schwartze Corps.
40. “America’s Secret Weapon” in Bridwell pp. 162-173.
41. “Essential supplies,” Time op. cit. 33; armed forces edition of Superman discussed in Perrett, pg. 381; other Superman and military statistics from Kobler, op. cit. 3; Lear quoted in July 13, 1942 issue of Newsweek.
42. Siegel’s return and suit details are sketchy. Portrait here is culled from Goulart, pp. 91-92, and Newsweek for April 14, 1947.