From Champion of the Oppressed to Truth, Justice, and the American Way: Who Took the Socialism Out of Superman?
There’s a joke that Superman’s famous dedication to fighting a “never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way” is paradoxical since if truth and justice are on one side, the American way must be on the other. Lois Lane even jokes in the 1978 Superman film that if Superman is fighting for “truth, justice, and the American way” he’s “gonna end up fighting every elected official in this country!” Additionally, there is received cultural wisdom that Superman began as a left-wing populist before transitioning into an establishment figure, lured in by commercial success.1 Superman writer Grant Morrison wrote “it came to pass that our socialist, utopian, humanist hero was slowly transformed into a marketing tool, a patriotic stooge, and, worse; the betrayer of his own creators.”2 But how much of this is true? This article will attempt to answer the following questions: what were the politics of the Superman character, how much did they change (if at all), when did this change become apparent, and what is the reason for that change?
The Ideological Origins of Superman
Some influences on Superman’s origin were personal. There is an element of wish fulfillment that the retiring, bespectacled Clark Kent (similar in this way to his creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster) is able to transform into a being of unimaginable power. There is also a possible streak of vengeance or personal catharsis for Siegel, as his father, Michael Siegel, had died during the robbery of his used clothing store in 1932.3 The perpetrators were never caught. This may have influenced Siegel’s creation of a superpowered being who would protect the innocent and punish the guilty. Superman is also a product of the times in which he was created. Bradford Wright locates Superman within the milieu of Depression-era culture that celebrated the common people, like the novels of John Steinbeck, the songs of Woody Guthrie, and the films of John Ford and Frank Capra.4
Milwaukee Socialist Party lecturer Joseph Piricin gave lectures arguing that a socialist economy would create a superabundance of goods that would make the future socialist citizen “a veritable superman.” Piricin claimed that he gave a lecture on this subject in Cleveland in the early 1930s that was attended by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster.5 The term “Superman” was rich with political potential, used widely across the political spectrum, from Nazi Germany to revolutionary Marxist Leon Trotsky. But if Siegel and Schuster took the term “superman” from Piricin’s lecture, they certainly took little else in their first run at the character. Siegel and Schuster’s first Superman was a villainous character from the self-published science fiction short story “Reign of the Superman,” which featured a vagrant given telepathic powers through a formula developed by an evil chemist. Superman kills the chemist and attempts to take over the world before the formula wears off and he returns to vagrancy and Depression-era breadlines. The message of this story seemed to be that no person could be trusted with incredible power and that the common people, in particular, were not to be trusted, both messages that would be at odds with later Superman stories.
In a 1975 press release, Jerry Siegel gave his own reasonings for the creation of the Superman character that would eventually become world famous. Unsurprisingly, they reflected the political and social problems of the 1930s a great deal. “What led me into conceiving Superman in the early thirties? Listening to President Roosevelt’s ‘fireside chats’… being unemployed and worried during the depression and knowing hopelessness and fear. Hearing and reading of the oppression and slaughter of helpless, oppressed Jews in Nazi Germany… seeing movies depicting the horrors of privation suffered by the downtrodden… reading of gallant, crusading heroes in the pulps, and seeing equally crusading heroes on the screen in feature films and movie serials (often pitted against malevolent, grasping, ruthless madmen). I had the great urge to help… help the despairing masses, somehow. Now could I help them, when I could barely help myself? Superman was the answer. And Superman, aiding the downtrodden and oppressed, has caught the imagination of a world.”6
Champion of the Oppressed
Superman’s first appearance in Action Comics 1 (June, 1938) reflected many of these concerns. The story opens with Superman saving an innocent from the electric chair, before pulverizing a wife-beater, and ends with him confronting a lobbyist for arms manufacturers who want to get the United States involved in a foreign war. There is an obvious influence here from the famous United States Senate Committee chaired by Senator Nye that investigated the munitions industry for urging U.S. intervention in World War I. The Governor of the unnamed state the story takes place in explains that Superman is “on the side of law and order,” which is fairly unconvincing given that Superman commits acts of kidnapping, assault, breaking and entering, as well as the destruction of private property. More accurately, Superman fought for truth and justice and if “law and order” got in the way, he’d leap over it as he would a tall building.
Other Superman stories attacked further social ills. In Action Comics 3 (August 1938) Superman causes a mine collapse while a greedy mine owner is inside to teach him the importance of mine safety and respect for the workers. Superman destroys slum housing in Action Comics 8 (January 1939) to force the government to build public housing for the poor. Superman exposes the cruel mistreatment of prisoners in Action Comics 10 (March 1939). In Action Comics 11 (April 1939) he goes after some stock brokers guilty of defrauding investors and in Action Comics 12 (May 1939) Superman addresses reckless driving and unsafe cars, anticipating Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed. Superman prevents profiteers from selling poison gas to war-torn Boravia in Superman 2 (September 1939). Superman 3 (December 1939) features the Man of Steel exposing an abusive orphanage that forces its charges to work in sweatshop-like conditions. This plot was repeated in Action Comics 27 (August 1940). Superman 4 (March 1940) contains a story where Superman stops labor racketeers from taking over the truck drivers union. When Superman’s arch nemesis Lex Luthor first appears in Action Comics 23 (April 1940) he is acting as a war profiteer by encouraging two European nations to wage war. Of course, his scheme is stopped by Superman.
The municipal government in these early comics is depicted as corrupt and ineffectual. When Superman fights illegal gambling in Action Comics 16 (September 1939), the gangsters running the gambling racket are being protected by the police commissioner. In Superman 5 (June 1940) a crooked politician buys a newspaper to spread lies about his opponents, including the Daily Planet, the muckraking paper that Superman works for. Superman 6 (October 1940) contains a story where the mayor of Metropolis takes bribes to allow dangerously inferior materials to be used for public works projects. In Action Comics 29 (October 1940) a political ward boss is responsible for running an insurance scam against the elderly. Metropolis’ District Attorney is in the pay of gangsters in Superman 7 (December 1940) and the Daily Planet, with the help of Superman, supports a reform candidate to replace him. In Action Comics 37 (June 1941) the police commissioner is also the mastermind behind a group of gangsters.
The anti-war messages of some Superman stories got the creators in trouble with the Canadian censors. When the February 29, 1940, comic strip depicted Superman convincing the warring (and fictional) nations of Rutland and Blitzen to make peace, the Toronto Star was ordered by wartime censors to remove the strip as it could be considered deleterious to the morale of Canadian servicemen.7 The Communist Party’s Daily Worker even covered the incident in a March 9 article “‘Superman’ Censored by His Majesty.”
Canadian censorship of Superman is interesting because by this point in time the Superman comic books began espousing more interventionist messages regarding foreign policy, particularly directed against fascism. In Action Comics 31 (December 1940) the villains are foreign spies with the German-sounding names Baron Munsdorf and Kolb. Superman 4 (March 1940) features a foreign country attempting to sabotage the American economy (This plot was essentially recycled in the following Superman 5 (June 1940) with Luthor as the villain).In Superman 6 the superhero prevents a would-be dictator from taking over the Latin American country of San Caluma. Superman 8 (February 1941) contains villainous fifth columnists with more German-esque names like Sagdorf and Reibel. In Superman 9 (April 1941) the activist group the Committee Against Militarism is nothing more than a front for a spy ring for Superman to smash. Action Comics 36 (May 1941) contains a similar plot in which the Volunteers For Peace is a front for “Nation X” to weaken America’s defenses before a preemptive strike is launched against the United States. In Superman 10 (June 1941) the Germanic nation of Dukalia uses a traveling sports exhibition to both prove its racial superiority and as a method of concealing its espionage activities before being stopped by Superman. Superman 11 (August 1941) features the Man of Tomorrow stopping the domestic fascist terrorist group the Gold Badge Organization, an obvious take on the real-life Silver Shirts.
While Siegel and Schuster were scrupulous about not mentioning Germany or Nazis in the pages of Action Comics or Superman before the United States’ declaration of war, this was not the case in the two-page comic they contributed to the February 27, 1940 issue of Look magazine. The story is titled “How Superman Would End the War” and the brief plot features Superman smashing through German defenses to grab Adolf Hitler before flying to the U.S.S.R to pick up Josef Stalin. Superman deposits the two leaders at the League of Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland where they are found “guilty of modern history’s greatest crime-unprovoked aggression against defenseless countries.” During the story, Superman says of Hitler “I’d like to land a strictly non-Aryan sock on your jaw.”
This story actually provoked a negative response from the Nazis themselves. Somehow, Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels read a copy of the Superman story in Look magazine and wrote a response, “Jerry Siegel Attacks,” in the newspaper of the Waffen-SS Das Schwarze Korps. Goebbels takes issue with Siegel’s Jewish ancestry unsurprisingly, calling him an “Israelite” and “an intellectually and physically circumcised chap.” The article mocks the story’s depiction of Superman’s triumph over the Nazi military and ends by mourning Superman readers, “who must live in such a poisoned atmosphere and don’t even notice the poison they swallow daily.”8 Other fascist attacks on Superman came from the German American Bund, who sent hate mail to Jerry Siegel and picketed outside the Detective Comics office. Benito Mussolini banned every American comic book, including Superman, from Fascist Italy.9
The War Years
By the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Superman comics were officially attacking Nazi Germany. The cover of Action Comics 43 (December 1941) showed Superman attacking a Nazi paratrooper, complete with Swastika armband. Superman 13 (December 1941) had Superman attack a Nazi naval vessel on its cover. The following month, Superman wrecked a Nazi artillery gun on the cover of Action Comics 44 (January 1942). However, the stories within had nothing to do with these covers. In fact, it was decided by the Superman creative team that Superman should stay on the home front for the duration of the war, as having him single-handedly wipe out the Axis armies would cheapen the struggle of flesh and blood men and women against fascism.10 In the story’s canon, this was justified by having Clark Kent be rejected from the military because he accidentally used his x-ray vision to read the wrong eye chart, causing the recruiters to think he was “blind as a bat” in the Superman comic strip.
Superman covers continued their run of wartime propaganda. Superman is shown grabbing a meek-looking Hitler and Tojo on the cover of Superman 17 (August 1942), saving sailors from an enemy shell on the cover of Superman 20 (February 1943), and swimming determinedly to attack a Nazi submarine on Superman 23’s cover (August 1943). Goebbels, who had earlier attacked Superman in the Nazi press, is hoisted away from his microphone by the Man of Steel on the cover of Superman 26 (February 1944). These are just samples of the many wartime propaganda covers of the Superman line of titles. Sometimes the propaganda covers would be paired with an explicit call to action. Superman asked readers to buy war bonds to “do the job on the JapaNazis” on the cover of Superman 18 (October 1942). Batman, Robin, and Superman team up to sell war bonds under the sign “Sink the JapaNazis With Bonds & Stamps” on the cover of World’s Finest Comics 8 (December 1942). Infamously, on the outside of Action Comics 58 (March 1943), the message “Superman Says You Can Slap a Jap With War Bonds and Stamps” appeared. On Superman 34’s cover (May 1945), Superman asks readers to donate to the Red Cross.
The Superman stories that dealt with the war varied wildly in tone. Some were more fantastical, such as when Superman stopped Nazi sea monsters from sinking convoy ships in Superman 20 or fought Axis-aligned gremlin-like Squiffles in Superman 22 (June 1943), who were sabotaging American fighter planes. In others, the superhero fought more human menaces like industrial saboteurs in Superman 21 (April 1943), an Axis expeditionary force in the Arctic in Superman 24 (October 1943), domestic fascists in Superman 25 (December 1943), and wartime black marketeers in World’s Finest Comics 15 (September 1943). Some stories functioned as recruiting ads for the armed services. Superman 23 features Superman partnering with the US Army on training maneuvers. Superman 25 contains a story published with the assistance of the Army Air Force Technical Training Command that stresses the thoroughness of that program. A 1944 storyline in the Superman Sunday comic strip focused on a woman deciding which auxiliary branch of the military to join. Superman 34 highlighted the important roles played by different occupations within the US Navy. However, there still existed some elements of social criticism in Superman stories. For example, Action Comics 47 (April 1942), which was written by Jerry Siegel, featured unflattering depictions of Metropolis’ wealthy elite as fascist sympathizers, gangsters, monopolists, swindlers, and just greedy individuals.
One of the strangest wartime Superman stories occurred in Superman 18 when Clark Kent becomes upset at the lack of domestic support for the war effort. Kent cites the lack of response to requests for air wardens, unemployment, and either a strike or lockout at a factory (the art is unclear), as an example of Metropolis’ citizens not taking the war seriously. Kent helps arrange a mock invasion of the city to show the dangers of fascism, but it turns out that the fake soldiers are real Nazis. Superman then has to stop the fascist takeover. As previously mentioned, Superman stories could exhibit uncomfortable anti-Japanese racism. One prominent example occurred in a 1943 newspaper strip arc that offered a defense of the internment of Japanese-American citizens and a storyline that posited that most Japanese-Americans were loyal to the Axis Powers.
Even though Superman was fully behind the American war effort, the superhero and his creative team faced unwanted scrutiny from the U.S. government over plots featuring the atomic bomb. Some Superman stories were even asked to be delayed by the War Department due to the government’s desire for secrecy when developing nuclear weapons as part of the Manhattan Project. The story “Battle of the Atoms” was delayed a few years because in it Lex Luthor attacks Superman with “an atomic bomb.” The story “Crime Paradise”, in which Superman films an atomic bomb test for the army was similarly delayed. Most significantly, when Alvin Schwartz used the term “cyclotron” in the Superman newspaper strip, the War Department opened an investigation to see if Schwartz was receiving leaks from the Manhattan Project as the cyclotron, or “atom smasher,” was a key part of their secret research. In fact, Schwartz had merely recalled the term from a decade-old issue of Popular Mechanics.11
After the War
After World War II, the Superman comic books shifted towards telling stories more in the realm of science fiction and fantasy. Stories about political corruption, foreign affairs, and racketeering disappeared and were replaced by stories about Superman’s imperfect duplicate Bizarro, Superman’s cousin Supergirl, and even Superman’s pet dog Krypto. There were also plenty of appearances from extraterrestrials.
If the Superman creative team retreated from real-life problems in the comic books, this was not the case in the Superman radio show. The radio show had three stories attacking racism and hate groups between 1946 and 1947. The first was titled “The Hate Mongers Association”, during which an American neo-Nazi group called the Guardians of America attempts to destroy a proposed youth center because it will be open to children of all races, religions, and nationalities. Superman and his pal Jimmy Olson stop the group and Superman warns the radio audience that “Hitler may be dead but his mad, twisted ideas didn’t die with him.” The second story was the famous “The Clan of the Fiery Cross” which was inspired by the efforts of progressive journalist Stetson Kennedy to infiltrate and expose the activities of the Ku Klux Klan. The third was “Knights of the White Carnation,” about Superman’s efforts to stop a violently anti-immigrant vigilante organization.
Jack Schiff, who edited the Superman titles and produced the one-page DC Public Service Announcements, was described as “a right-wing Communist” or “Stalinist” by writer, and self-described “Norman Thomas Socialist,” Alvin Schwartz.12 Schiff ran the PSAs on behalf of the National Social Welfare Assembly, composed of groups like DC Comics, the Boy Scouts of America, the Child Study Association, the National Association of Social Workers, and others, and Superman was a regular feature within them. Schiff actually served as DC’s representative on the National Social Welfare Assembly’s board of directors. Schiff’s politics were not wholly popular with the DC staff. Fellow editor Mort Wiesinger accused Schiff of being a Communist and said that his PSAs would get the company in trouble with the House Un-American Activities Committee or other Red hunters.13
Despite Wiesinger’s fulminations, the DC PSAs generally stuck to uncontroversial topics such as good citizenship, public service, practicing good hygiene, and the like. Occasionally, however, more political topics were addressed. In one 1951 story, entitled “Know Your Country”, Superboy (the teenage version of Superman) calls out prejudice amongst some youngsters. Granted, this is prejudice is against Scandinavians, not exactly the group most likely to be the recipients of discrimination in 1950s America. Another story from 1953 called “People are People” has a Black youngster holding off an escaped lion until Superman can capture the animal. The owner of the circus the lion has escaped from wants to congratulate a white boy for his (nonexistent) heroism until Superman points out that the heroic young man was Black, and that the circus owner only wanted to congratulate the white boy because he was prejudiced. Notably, Schiff’s PSAs never attacked or mentioned Communism, even at the height of the McCarthy era.
Superman writer Dennis O’Neil promotes a theory that the change in Superman’s attitude was caused by editor Mort Weisinger. O’Neil describes Superman as metamorphosing from a “wise-cracking tough guy with a rugged zeal for reform” to “a Scoutmaster in cape and boots.” Superman’s superpowers increased and his concerns for the little guy correspondingly decreased. O’Neil speculates that the change in tone was done to not remind readers of either the troubles of the Great Depression or the horrors of World War II. In other words, Superman was altered so as to be a comforting presence, telling readers that everything would be okay.14
The shift exhibited by Superman during the war is somewhat similar to another piece of 1930s and 40s culture, the folk group the Almanac Singers. The Almanac Singers were composed of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and others, and the group performed topical songs about the issues of the day. These included attacks on capitalists and those who wanted American intervention in their album Songs for John Doe. However, after the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union, they pulled this album from distribution, and after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, they released the album Dear Mr. President in support of the American war effort. David Hadju draws a comparison between Superman’s role in World War II and the shift in the career of actor James Cagney from playing blue-collar toughs to playing patriotic songwriter George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy.15 In all three cases, there is a clear shift from the promotion of domestic reform to focusing on winning the war. Les Daniels claims the well had run dry for stories stressing Superman’s social conscience by 1941. Daniels also speculates that the change could have been due to editorial restrictions by new editorial director Whitney Ellsworth at DC Comics.16 The greatest weapon against the two-fisted crusader version of Superman, then, was not kryptonite, but commercial and artistic concerns.
- For example, see this article by comics writer Aubrey Sitterson.
- Grant Morrison, Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Marvelous Mutants, and a Sun God From Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2011) 17.
- Brad Ricca, Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster-the Creators of Superman (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013), 6-7.
- Bradford Wright, Comic Book Nation: the Transformation of Youth Culture in America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 10-11.
- Gerard Jones, Men of Tomorrow: Geeks Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book (New York: Perseus Books Group, 2004), 81.
- Jerry Siegel, “A Curse on the Superman Movie,” press release, 1975.
- Larry Tye, Superman: the High Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero (New York: Random House, 2012) 61.
- Joseph Goebbels, “Jerry Siegel Attacks!” Das schwarze korps, April 25, 1940.
- Larry Tye, 78-79.
- Roy Thomas, Superman: the War Years 1938-1945 (New York: Chartwell, 2015) 147-148.
- Brian Cronin, Was Superman a Spy? And Other Comic Book Legends Revealed (New York: Plume) 12-13.
- Jim Amash, “Alvin Schwartz on His Long Career in Comics and Elsewhere,” Alter Ego 98 (December 6, 2010) 35.
- Bradford Wright, 64-65.
- Dennis O’Neil, “The Man of Steel and Me,” in Superman at 50!: the Persistence of a Legend (New York: Collier Books), 52-53.
- David Hadju, The Ten-Cent Plague: the Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America (New York: Picador, 2009), 53.
- Les Daniels, Superman: the Complete History (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1998), 63.
Hank Kennedy is a Detroit area educator and socialist who writes regularly on the connection between comics and politics.
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