In this part of my history of comic book superheroes I look at the very first superhero, after whom all those who followed him are named. No one had ever seen anything like him—but it wasn’t just his powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men that stood him apart from pulp magazine predecessors like Doc Savage and The Shadow. While he represented a fantastical new breed of fictional character, his sense of priorities was very much a product of the real world in which he first came into being.
Faster then a speeding ballot
The Depression put an end to Horatio Alger optimism that promised success and riches to any man willing to work hard enough for them (women were pretty much left out of this implied social contract). It was during this time that a pair of young Jewish men living in Cleveland, Ohio—writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster—created the perfect heir to follow in the footsteps of literature’s justice-seeking forefathers. In a 1975 press release written as a plea for help in regaining the rights to the character he and Shuster created more than 35 years earlier, Siegel listed some of the current events of the time that had inspired him:
What led me into creating Superman in the early thirties? Listening to President Roosevelt’s fireside chats, being unemployed and worried during the depression, knowing homelessness and fear, hearing and reading of the oppression and slaughter of helpless oppressed Jews in Nazi Germany, and seeing movies depicting the horrors of privation suffered, I had the great urge to help the downtrodden masses, somehow. How could I help them when I could barely help myself? Superman was the answer.
And so, in the spring of 1938, in a then nameless city that would soon be known as Metropolis, sensational bulletins began pouring into the newsroom of the Daily Star (soon downgraded to the Daily Planet):
211 COURT AVENUE, June 1938—Husband caught beating wife with belt thrashed within an inch of his life by man wearing tights and a cape. Husband faints after breaking knife blade against assailant’s chest. WASHINGTON, DC, June 1938—Senator Barrows and munitions magnate Emil Norvell conspire to embroil U.S. in European conflict. Confession given by lobbyist Alex Greer after he is taken on harrowing leap over tall building by costumed kidnapper. BLAKELY COAL MINE, August 1938—Worker miraculously rescued from collapsed shaft by unidentified Samaritan. Temporarily trapped by unexplained cave-in after denying hazardous conditions, owner Thornton Blakely vows “my mine will be the safest in the country and my workers the best treated.” COREYTOWN PRISON, March 1939—Superintendent Wyman indicted for cruelly starving, confining, and whipping inmates. Governor Bixby snatched out of bed by mystery-man and taken to witness atrocities firsthand. BATES MOTOR COMPANY, May 1939—Angry titan destroys factory for making unsafe cars. Mayor brought to city morgue and forced to view automobile fatalities allegedly caused by inadequate traffic laws.
These were the early adventures of Superman. Long before battling super villains like Lex Luthor and Brainiac, the Man of Steel made a name for himself as an extralegal dispenser of New Deal justice, unhindered by the restraints of either due process (when enforcing currently existing laws) or the democratic process (when punishing acts that were still legal). Stockbrokers, city contractors, the superintendent of an orphanage, a police commissioner, district attorney and a mayor were among those subjected to Superman’s righteous wrath. Possessing awesome strength, virtual invulnerability and the ultimate diplomatic immunity, whenever the Last Son of Krypton discovered one of his adopted homeworld’s many social inequities, he stepped in to correct it with superhuman speed. As the introduction to the 1940s radio show and cartoons starring Superman made clear, the Man of Steel‘s only concern was battling for “truth and justice.” The “American Way” was never mentioned. In Action Comics #8, Superman’s lack of allegiance to American tradition or law led to one of his most spectacular assaults on the status quo and clashes with official authority.
Breaking a young hoodlum out of a police van, Superman explains before setting him free, “It’s not entirely your fault that you’re delinquent–it’s these slums—your poor living conditions—if there was only some way I could remedy it.” Reading in the Daily Star about a Florida town being rebuilt after a devastating hurricane, Superman comes up with a plan that will make even bigger headlines.
METROPOLIS, January 1939—After first warning residents in this impoverished neighborhood to flee their homes, Superman brought down one dilapidated tenement building after another with his bare hands. Watching this one-man demolition crew shrug off a hail of gunfire and shrapnel, police, National Guardsmen, and an aerial bomber squadron realized too late that their attempts to stop him were only adding to the destruction. The entire block reduced to smoking rubble, this modern day Samson then fled the scene in a single bound. Shortly afterward, the government announced that it will replace the squalid slum houses with decent, low-rent housing for the poor.
Whether the target of his wrath was a common thug, mad scientist or corrupt government official, Superman’s actions were less about who he was fighting than they were about who he was fighting for: “the oppressed” and “those in need.” This is why I think the world’s first superhero was fulfilling the role for which all superheroes are best suited and most needed. There are already institutions and real-life men and women dedicated to stopping common crime and apprehending those who commit it. Superheroes—like Robin Hood, the Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro before them—are at their best, and most inspiring, when they’re acting as rebels with a cause bringing to justice the otherwise untouchable: the people who make the laws, or pay for those who do, and then ignore or abuse those laws for their own greedy and cruel purposes, with no one to hold them accountable.
Of course, a major barrier to superheroes routinely acting in this way is that some of those people also pay for advertising space in comic books.
Eventually, Superman’s corporate owners at National Periodical Publications (later DC Comics) asked Jerry Siegel to curb his creation’s habit of flying in the face of the legal authorities. In his 1980 essay “From Menace to Messiah,” comics historian Thomas Andrae reported:
Initially, the publishers were unaware that Siegel had cast Superman as an outlaw. When they discovered this fact inadvertently, Siegel was told to make Superman operate within the law and to confine his activities to fighting criminals. All controversial social issues were to be avoided.
At about the same time Siegel left to fight overseas in mid-1943, Superman was stricken with a case of super-selective amnesia erasing the last five years of his life. When one of his arch nemeses manages to copyright the English alphabet in that year’s May-June issue of Superman, the Man of Steel complains, “The Prankster has the law on his side, and I won’t flout justice at any cost.” Always a role model for the rest of the superhero community, once Superman declared “law” and “justice” synonymous, none of his associates seemed willing to argue with him.
Next, Part 4: All that glitters.