Truth, Justice and The American Way
Early Superman Comics Carried A Strong Message of Social Justice
Superman is one of the most widely recognized fictional characters ever created, a true icon. Like many heroes, he represents different things to different people living in different places at different times. With the nationwide release of the new, big budget and much-hyped Superman film, this is a good time to reflect on some of these meanings.
Superman was the brainchild of two teenagers from Cleveland, Ohio, named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Both came from poor families and like many kids in the 1930's they sought refuge in the worlds of science fiction and in a dream of a prosperous future. Jerry wrote and Joe drew, and over the course of several years beginning in the early thirties created an impossibly strong and invulnerable hero.
In those days most comic strips were produced for publication in newspapers, with the first stand-alone, regularly published comic magazines premiering in the mid-1930's. The comic books were still a very new phenomenon, and the real money was in the newspapers. Siegel and Shuster showed their creation to virtually every major feature syndicate but the no newspaper would touch Superman. They finally sold Superman to the small, low budget publisher that eventually became known as DC comics. It was 1938, and they each got a few thousand for the rights to Superman in their entirety.
The idea of super-strong indestructible man was still radical idea, even for the imaginary worlds of the funny pages. Although Siegel and Shuster drew upon pop-culture influences such as Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon comic strip and the 1930 science fiction novel, Gladiator, by Phillip Wylie, Superman was nonetheless a very original character, especially in his earliest from.
Perhaps the most radial thing about the early Superman was strip's the earnest social commentary. The modern concept of Superman has him as a kind of super cop, defending middle-class and bourgeois society against vicious criminals, monsters, mad scientists, and would-be dictators. But in the first year of his publication, Superman was more often pitted against rogue capitalists and unresponsive politicians.
In very first published adventure, Superman breaks into the governor's mansion to obtain a stay of execution so he can save an innocent and wrongly convicted prisoner. Later stories are more radical. In one episode, Superman deliberately traps the owner of a mine at the bottom of a cave-in so as to convince the him to install proper safety devices. In another tale, Superman captures a small gang of juvenile delinquents and instead of sending them to a detention center, he wrecks their entire slum and compels the federal government to put in all new housing for the residents.
In the two examples displayed below, Superman takes on war and torture. In the first one, the set-up is that Superman has dressed himself and a greedy munitions manufacturer as soldiers, and he then forces the weaponer to experience front line combat. A taste of his own medicine. Besides dramatizing Siegel and Shuster's quest for social justice, this story (from Action Comics #2, 1938, Superman's 2nd appearance in print!) shows Superman in effect disguising himself as an ordinary man, thus down-playing his superiority to mere mortals. This M.O. occurred a lot in the early days, with Superman using disguises to infiltrate 'normal' society just to expose its flaws.
The other illustration is also from Action Comics # 2, and gives Superman the chance to weigh-in regarding the whole question of torture. His view toward torture is not very finely nuanced, and I take comfort in that clarity.
Coming from the minds of underprivileged teens growing up in the depression, it makes sense that Superman initially pursued the larger issues of social justice as opposed to just going after thieves and thugs. Unfortunately, once Siegel and Shuster had sold their creation, they began losing control of the character, and so Superman drifted into the role of mostly protecting property and the status quo.
You can find these and other early strips in the volume titled Superman Chronicles, Vol. 1, published in 2005 by DC comics and available at the Multnomah County Library. For some people, this will simply be some welcome escapism. But in these days when there seems to be an all out attack on the very concept of social justice and human rights, I can think of no better time for the return of Superman.
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