The American
Natalie Vineberg

Superman's evolution in the fog of war

(Stephanie Ngo)

Superheroes may be a fixture in all things Halloween, but their importance extends beyond their costumes and comic strip panels. In the face of constant turmoil in the world, superheroes enter the scene to encourage an attitude of hope amidst plaguing issues.

Superheroes created throughout history generally embody values of the culture that produced them. The character fights against everything that threatens such values. The archetype superhero comes in the form of Superman, in terms of both appearance and the pursuit of “good,” or, the dominant moral values of the current society. 

The era between the late ’30s and late ’40s became known as the Golden Age of comic books, and Superman was the embodiment of the period. At this time, comic books became an accepted form of art, and superheroes began to play a central role in American culture—one marked by hope. 

“Superman stands for everything good the human race can become,” said Edvard Nicolas, comic book aficionado. “[He has a] good moral, [a] deep sense of justice, [and] use of power only to help those in need and never kill another human being.”

Superman’s creation set the tone for all superheroes to come, and his story is one that is still relevant today. His character provided the base for the superhero formula of a hidden identity, and the powers and vibrant costumes that went along with it. Captain America, who followed shortly after, had a similar structure. He also has a secret human alter ego as Steve Rogers, gained powers through a serum invented by the military, and wore a colourful uniform— even in the same colours as Superman.

According to long time editor of spider-man books at Marvel Comics, Danny Fingeroth’s Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us about Ourselves and Our Society, at the basis of a superhero is a protagonistic leading character. There are three levels of heroes: Real life heroes, fictional heroes, and superheroes.  A hero, such as a firefighter or a doctor, is essentially the ordinary realizing the extraordinary, like individuals who fight the odds, and sometimes, even beat them. The next step is a fictional hero, a character who is human, like Sherlock Holmes or Indiana Jones. Finally, moving from labels of fictional hero to superhero, is the possession of supernatural powers, or at least the use of gadgets to reach superhuman ability.

Superheroes were made to give children ideals with which to battle a cruel adult world, which was on the verge of social, political, and military upheaval. They were tough and would rise above the law in the pursuit of good. The superheroes were determined figures with a simplistic ideology: To protect the world from evil. The reader didn’t have to do anything other than sit back, suspend reality, and be entertained by their exciting adventures.

The superhero comic books of the Golden Age were largely inspired by fantasy, such as Superman’s origin from another planet or Aquaman’s ability to breathe under water. 

Jerry Siegel, co-creator of Superman, wrote that the basis for Superman was the notion of mythology. 

“[Superman is a] character like Samson, Hercules, and all the strong men I have ever heard [told about] rolled into one,” he said. “Only more so.”

Although Superman’s strength and powers were paramount, he couldn’t be so unearthly that readers wouldn’t find him relatable. 

(Stephanie Ngo)

Sarah Nafisa Shahid, U3 Arts and a member of the (unofficial) comic book club at McGill, noted that it can be hard to see Superman as relatable as as other superheroes, like the X-Men. 

“Most of the characters were heavily flawed,” she said. “That [was] relatable to me as an ordinary person.” 

Superman’s humanity was crucial, and although having a real world identity as Clark Kent helped, it wasn’t enough to just have a journalist alter-ego. Clark Kent had human feelings and the ability to empathize, with sincere sorrow for his parents’ natural deaths and his inability to prevent them. Sympathy played a key role in the depiction of his humanity. 

“Superman is not relatable, he is a dream,” said Nicholas. “He’s super strong, but he is reluctant to use his force. He can rule over the world, but instead, helps every person he can. Clark Kent is relatable. He’s from a small town, he loves his job, his wife and his parents. Everyone can be Clark Kent, [and] everyone wishes to be Superman.”

While Superman may be invincible on Earth, he does have a critical weakness: Kryptonite. Thus, creators managed to find a balance in making Superman invincible to earthly dangers, while providing kryptonite as his mythical downfall. In this way, Superman becomes more mortal, and therefore, is not so alien to readers. 

Given that superheroes embody societal values, society reinvents such ideals over time. There’s been a Superman for every decade since the character was born, maintaining similar powers and ideals while fighting different evils. 

While Superman fought primarily against fictional villains throughout the evolution of his character, he has fought against real villains too. For example, The Adventures of Superman radio show in mid ’40s featured Superman fighting the Ku Klux Klan when legal action was lacking. The ’50s Cold War era version brought his villains into a more science fiction-related realm, representing the growing concerns over improper scientific development and nuclear power. 

A uniting factor among most major superhero comics is that they were written by Jewish individuals towards the start of World War II. With peaking anti-Semitism both in the U.S. and abroad in the interwar period, many Jews could not get university degrees, and often were not allowed to work in advertising agencies. Since careers in publishing were not an option, aspiring Jewish writers and artists found jobs in comics. 

Superman, Batman, Spiderman, the X-Men, Green Lantern, and The Avengers were all written in this context between 1930 and 1960. In the ’70s, while Jews made up three per cent of the general population, they were also 80 per cent of the best-paid writers and illustrators of comic books in the United States.

By the end of the 1930s, the world desperately needed a superhero. Hitler and Stalin had gained full force and the American economy was in a poor state. Superheroes were created as a form of escape from the increase in conflict in the world and as a release from its accompanying stress.

“It is often suggested that Superman was originally created as a fantasy of social justice as a means of alleviating economic worries about effects of the Great Depression in the U.S.A.,” writes Cultural Studies Professor Sean Carney. 

Coming from immigrant families who had small tailoring shops, Siegel and Shuster were undeniably affected by deteriorating economic conditions.

Perfectly timed with this era’s desperation was the release of Action Comics no. 1, the first Superman comic book, created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1938, three years before the U.S.A. officially entered the war. The target of this comic was to set free the imaginations of U.S. citizens, providing a distraction from the war that seemed ever-approaching, through Superman. Such a character was reminiscent of cultural values of the time; morals were embodied through Superman’s actions and convictions, and served to remind citizens of their purpose in patriotism.

“[Superman] was handsome, intelligent, invincible, patriotic, almost flawless with an astounding morale,” said Shahid. “I always felt that his character portrayed a sense of superiority that America as a country was opting for [....] It was instrumental to the American propaganda that promoted consumerism and individualism and most importantly, the American patriotism.”

Siegel was strongly influenced by the anti-Semitism he experienced. He wrote about a hero who could battle the bullies, a protagonist who could surely beat the antagonists. In addition to Superman’s behaviour once an adult, the story of his arrival to Earth was one all too familiar at the time. As a refugee escaping to the United States from a world about to explode, Superman mirrored the lives of his creators, the Shusters and Siegels, and many other Jewish families fleed Europe before the Holocaust. Superman’s parents sent him to Earth in the hope that he would find a new beginning, which is essentially what Jewish families were doing at the time to try and save their children.

(Daily Mail)

While Superman seemed to hold an endless stream of powers, there were limits that had to be imposed on him, particularly as American engagement in the war grew. During the war, the mythical world of Superman had to cross-cut issues of reality, which was not simple. Superman’s ability to easily win any war that didn’t involve kryptonite became an issue of morale when the United States officially joined 

the war in December of 1941. While adults were arguing about strategy and tactics and were worrying about their sons being drafted, adolescents had a simpler question: Where was Superman?

Readers were accustomed to Superman being able to fight off any fictional evil that came his way. When America was still neutral, Superman could effortlessly fight villains like Karl Wolff, the Dukalian leader, who bore significant resemblance to the Nazis. Once the United States joined the war however, it became their responsibility to fight the real Nazis. As cultural contexts translated into comics, this responsibility to fight Nazi’s theoretically became Superman’s as well. Other heroes, like Captain America, were fighting in the war, so many wondered why Superman, the archetypal American hero, was sitting out. 

Explicitly incorporating Superman in the context of the war was complicated, because expectations werewere greater with Superman. Superman, in the context before the States entered the war, was fighting fictional villains to create a general ‘good vs. evil’ storyline where ‘good’ prevailed. As the war started for the States, the tragic reality of the war and the comic story line were brought together in a manner that hit too close to home. There was the risk that Superman, the once encouraging figure for soldiers, would become a disheartening one. 

Based on Superman’s track record, he should be able to fix everything right away, and creators could not give people those kinds of expectations, yet they couldn’t disappoint millions by having Superman fail to do his part.

Writers had to craft a solution that would give Superman an out, and that’s exactly what they did. A February 1942 instalment of the “Superman” newspaper strip showed that Clark Kent tried to enlist in the army, but during his physical test, he accidentally read the eye chart in the next room with his X-ray vision. The examiner conceded that Kent was physically superb, but thought he was completely blind. Thus, the army did not want him, absolving him of his duty to fight. 

(Superman Homepage)

While writers could not explicitly place Superman in the context of World War II, they found a way to implicitly use Superman as a vehicle for hope amidst the war. In the summer of 1942 the intro to Superman on the radio was changed. The intro now described him as fighting a “Never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way!” 

Superman had always fought for patriotic values, but it was only with the nation at war, and Americans thinking more than ever about why their country was worth fighting and dying for, that the idea of an “American way” of believing and acting took hold in the mind of the public, and in the myth of Superman.

(Comic Vine)

Superman and the incessant hope he provides may be the foundation for humans looking to superheroes to fight for them, but he also gifts us with the possibility of something to have faith in that isn’t controversial. In a society where all too often, cynicism is equated with realism, and positivity with ignorance, having faith in a figure with irrevocable insistence on fighting the bad in service of the good seems as vital as ever. As long as there’s evil in the world, superheroes will continue to fight it.

Despite an evolution across time and space for more than 70 years, Superman still manages to encapsulate popular morales today.

“Superman is an interesting metaphor of our society,” said Julie Savaria, recent MBA graduate of McGill and comic book devotee. “He is struggling to reconcile who he is and who he can become [....] We live in a society where we are expected to be productive and just plain perfect at all times; but, like Superman and Clark Kent, we are vulnerable. It is this vulnerability that makes us human."