Eighty years ago, Action Comics was released, introducing the empowered everyman to the world.
Superman is the most American of heroes. Sent from a faraway land facing destruction, he lands on Earth, where he develops spectacular powers. Superman #1 explains that the “love and guidance of his kindly foster-parents,” who teach him as a child to use his gifts “to assist humanity,” shaped the man he would become. He is great because of simple things that any of us might emulate. He just happens to be invulnerable. The character is a love letter to the best of America written from the margins of American society.
To understand what makes Superman so special, it is worth sketching out what the world of his creators was like. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, of Cleveland, were two young Jews of immigrant stock. Shuster, in fact, was a double immigrant, whose family had come first to Canada before their move to Ohio. At the time that they released Superman, 60 percent of the American public held strongly anti-Semitic views, and Father Coughlin, a pro-Hitler priest from Michigan, had a national talk-radio program with millions of listeners and a popular newspaper, Social Justice. A year later, the Roosevelt administration turned away nearly 1,000 Jews seeking asylum from the Nazis — not because of general opposition to immigration but specifically owing to anti-Semitic opposition. (The majority of those who returned to Europe would die in the Holocaust.) Siegel and Shuster were Americans, but the country did not seem to care much for people like them.
Despite their experience in a hostile America, their most famous character appealed to American ideals, even when the people and the state did not live up to them. The idea of America was something that they could belong to, and their stories showed it. Superman’s early foes were not otherworldly menaces, but grounded, relatable villains who were familiar to its working-class, Depression-era audience. In the first issue, Superman saves a man from a lynching, not only using his strength to do so but also explaining that justice cannot come from a mob. Later, he confronts a wife beater and throws him against a wall, shouting, “You’re not fighting a woman, now!” He is not a bully, but an equalizer, who uses his powers to protect the weak and to show that no one is beyond the reach of justice. In fact, in an early story, he takes on a K Street lobbyist in D.C. and follows the trail to a crony capitalist who is trying to embroil the country in war to increase his sales.
There is a populist underpinning to the character, but not a jingoistic one. Rather, he represents an America that anybody can belong to — an America that these two boys from Cleveland wanted to belong to. In the traditional telling, Superman is immediately welcomed as an American hero (though recent adaptations have strangely decided to greet him with a hostile military response).
There was a silly fracas a few years back, during which political commentators accused the comic of being anti-American (and successfully caused the issue in question to be pulled from continuity). In the storyline that caused the offense, Superman follows his commitment to America’s founding freedoms and defends anti-government protesters in Iran. The move angers the U.S. government, which sees him as a rogue actor who is defying the state. As a result, Superman symbolically renounces his citizenship (of course, in his real identity as Clark Kent, he remained an American citizen). Why the episode inspired such irritation is beyond me. There are few things more American than standing up to the state for the sake of freedom.
Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” would not be written until a few years later, in 1942, but Superman sits in much the same vein, celebrating what an ordinary person might do, given superpowers. Decades later, scores for Superman adaptations would draw on Copland’s composition, in a musical tribute to that cultural moment. An official fan club, the Supermen of America, called “All Red-Blooded Young Americans!” to become a member “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.” Perhaps it seems silly to look back on, but it seems to me that this “Code” showcases much of what makes the American experience special.
What greater contrast could there be between, on one hand, this private and voluntary organization, calling on young people as individuals — not as representatives of a race — to improve themselves and behave with civic responsibility, and, on the other, the dark, state-run youth organization that had emerged in Germany, to the legal exclusion of all other organizations, with eventual mandatory membership?
His sense of duty to everyone around him (and his sheer power) mean that failures hit him that much harder; he cannot save everybody or solve every problem, but he represents a yearning to do just that.
Superman’s association with American values did not go unnoticed around the world. The short 1940 strip How Superman Would End the War showed the hero flying to Germany and grabbing Adolf Hitler, nabbing Josef Stalin in Moscow, and bringing the two to the League of Nations to be charged with “Modern History’s Greatest Crime.” After the strip’s release, Das Schwarze Korps, the SS’s official newspaper reprinted it with mocking and angry commentary, accusing the writers of sowing “hate, suspicion, evil, laziness, and criminality” in the hearts of American children.
Grant Morrison, an acclaimed Scottish comic writer, grew up near an American naval base in Dunoon, Scotland. The base’s presence meant the very real possibility of war, but the Americans stationed there brought with them, via comic books, superheroes “who laughed at the Atom Bomb,” he says. In his memoir Supergods, he recalls:
I was beginning to understand something that gave me power over my fears.
Before it was a Bomb, the Bomb was an Idea.
Superman, however, was a Faster, Stronger, Better Idea.
He goes on to call Superman “a perfectly designed emblem of our highest, kindest, wisest, toughest selves.” This theme of the empowered everyman runs through Morrison’s Superman comics. Perhaps it is easier for a foreign writer to pick up on what is implicitly there, because Americans are liable to take it for granted; maybe this was woven into Shuster’s original creation, coming as he did to America as a young man.
Superman is the first, and greatest superhero. On the surface, “The Big Blue Boy Scout” might seem boring compared with the colorful cast of the X-Men or the dark detective work of Batman. His seeming invulnerability, too, makes him less interesting to many readers. But Superman, for all his imperviousness, is only physically invulnerable. His sense of duty to everyone around him (and his sheer power) mean that failures hit him that much harder; he cannot save everybody or solve every problem, but he represents a yearning to do just that. Many comic writers have long argued that Clark Kent is the true expression of the character, and Superman is the identity he dons — the opposite of most superheroes. He is able to serve the people because, fundamentally, he is one of us. “Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely.” So too, Superman.