Superman: Truth, Justice and Other Stuff

Below is an article by one Superman fan, and below that a response to the article by another Superman fan.


Superman: Truth, Justice and Other Stuff

By Sertan Saral (ssar1985@hotmail.com)

Date: December 24, 2003

Foreword

Superman: Truth, Justice and Other Stuff has always been a work which delves into a personal interest of mine, that being Superman comic books and related media. With the work, I have aspired to critically analyse Superman texts, from their inception in the 1930s to the latest modern interpretations.

This critical analysis was a Major Work I submitted for the Higher School Certificate (year 12) in New South Wales, Australia. The work took form after a process of going through ideas such as various short stories and so on until I came up with something I would be most comfortable with writing.

The understanding I have gained from the composition of my Major Work includes the evolutionary nature of a popular cultural icon. That Superman lasted this long and inspired many imitators shows that the texts reflect the culture that they were borne from. This understanding also led me to examine the character himself as well as his nemesis, Lex Luthor. As the texts evolve and endure, so do the characters change and develop. You will see this as a constant theme of my work. You may agree or disagree as you please - this is, after all, the way I see things.

Superman: Truth, Justice and Other Stuff is a work that I take immense pride in sharing. It is a work which shows you, the audience, that the juvenile conventions of the superhero genre are merely a facade to hide something deeper and more meaningful. Truth, Justice and Other Stuff is a work which I hope that you take in as much pleasure reading it as I took pleasure in writing it. Enjoy.

Thank you, Steve Younis and the guys at The Superman Homepage. You all rock!



Introduction

Action Comics #1 The creation of Superman by Jerome Siegel and Joseph Shuster has been an evolutionary process. The two teenagers fought for five years to get their Superman published and when the character was first seen emptying a car full of criminals over his head in Action Comics #1 (June, 1938), a new genre was born.

One aspect of Superman comics which has been consistent up until now is the Americanism prevalent within its pages. In the 1930s, Superman fought against America's domestic issues, such as lynch mobs. In the 1940s, Superman fought against America's foreign issues, such as dictators. In the 1950s and 1960s, Superman fought aliens and other-worldly beings. In the 1970s and early 1980s, Superman dealt with domestic (particularly racist), foreign and other-worldly issues. In the latter half of the 1980s, Superman was appropriated for a new audience, the major change being was that he was mortal and more "man" than "super". Yet in all these eras, the comic books still portrayed Superman fighting for the "American way."

However, this has finally begun to change. With the release of the graphic novel, Superman For All Seasons, by Jeff Loeb and Tim Sale in 1999 and the television series it inspired, Smallville (created by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar), there have been subtle alterations of the "American way" in the character of Superman. This changing attitude to Americanism can be traced by examining different representations of Superman.

The GOLDEN Age of Superman

Jerry Siegel and Joseph Shuster had enormous difficulties in realising their vision. Siegel was born on October 17th, 1914 in Cleveland, and Shuster was born in Toronto, Canada. The two met and became best friends when Shuster moved to Cleveland. The pair loved science fiction with a passion and the first form of Superman appeared in their high school publication, Science Fiction, in January 1933 and was titled Reign of the Super-Man. It displayed a bold, scowling antagonist looming over a futuristic city. The inspiration for the title was obvious: in that same year, Adolf Hitler announced a 'reign of supermen,' misinterpreting Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra as a prophetic guide.

The idea of a malevolent Superman never took off, however, and so work began on a benevolent Superman, a symbol of hope for Americans during times of the Great Depression and the looming war. This Superman could "hurdle a 20-storey building... run faster than an express train," (Corliss, pA21) and was in fact a closer rendition to Friedrich Nietzsche's Übermensch (or Superman) than Hitler's. This is evident in two instances: firstly, "So alien are ye in your souls to what is great that to you the Superman would be frightful in his goodness!" (Nietzsche, p143) emphasises the morality behind a character with such power as Superman. The second can easily be related to Superman's dual identity as Clark Kent: "And disguised will I myself sit amongst you - that I may mistake you and myself; for that is my last manly prudence," (Nietzsche, p143) thus giving the reason as to why Superman hides behind the veil of a disguise, simply to live a normal life.

This benevolent Superman now wore tights, a cape, and was an alien who learnt (quite masterfully) to completely assimilate on Earth with a dual identity of Clark Kent. Superman's jet-black hair, blue eyes, square jaw and broad shoulders were features of the stereotypical young American. This stereotype has continued ever since and even subtly suggests attitudes towards what a "superman" really is - a young male American - which is not too different from Hitler's "Aryan Race" (pure German "supermen").

Superman essentially became a sugar-coated bigot during the wartime era of 1939 to 1945. In a comic strip titled Dying Request published in a newspaper on November 1941, a female antagonist changed sides to support Superman and was killed for it. This Blonde Tigress fell for Superman and so when one of her accomplices tried to kill the Man of Steel with a gun, she leapt in front of him and took the bullet. Superman grabbed the Blonde Tigress in his arms and performed a dying request, in which he smooched the woman in front of reporter Lois Lane. The assailant then jumped out the window, committing suicide. Later, as Superman leaves, Clark Kent arrives on the scene, exclaiming that the assailant "deserved it!"

After many exploits as a superheroic bigot and vigilante (beating wife-beaters and promoting war bonds in the fight against 'Japanazis'), it was not long before somebody noticed. The era of strict censorship was about to begin.

The SILVER Age of Superman

That controversial era began when psychiatrist Fredric Wertham released Seduction of the Innocent in 1955, the first widely publicised book that attacked elements in comic books. These kinds of attacks on the entertainment that young people enjoy are commonplace, but none had the same impact as Wertham's book. Wertham declared:

"Superman needs an endless stream of ever new submen, criminals and 'foreign-looking' people not only to justify his existence but even to make it possible. Superman has long been recognised as a symbol of violent race superiority. The television Superman... does not only have 'superhuman powers,' but explicitly belongs to a 'super-race.'" (Daniel, p74)

Although his tactics were questionable and the grounds for his attack on the medium were not strong, Wertham still had a point; Superman did display fascist traits.

And so the censorship body, Comics Code Authority, was invoked. New versions of several popular characters were introduced (the Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman), while many small publishers suffered and died out. But perhaps the greatest change occurred in Superman. He was made markedly more powerful (he could juggle planets), many other super-beings were introduced: Supergirl, Krypto the Superdog, Streaky the Supercat, Thunder the Superhorse, Superbaby and perhaps worst of all, Beppo the Supermonkey. Not only that, Superman's greatest weakness, Kryptonite, was ridiculously given five forms: green, red, blue, white and gold. There were also many plot contradictions, like Superboy meeting Lois Lane in Smallville (rather than Superman meeting her as Clark Kent in Metropolis).

Superman: The Movie It was soon made clear that this convoluted mess needed to be cleaned up. The 1978 film, Superman, by director Richard Donner attempted to resolve these problems by returning to the basic Superman story. Unfortunately, this did not become the dominant reading for it in no way affected the comic books at the time. However, Superman the movie did raise some interesting ideas. Krypton, Superman's planet of origin, was now a sterile planet, having reached the peak of technological and societal advancement. The movie attempted to give Superman a source of power, suggesting that the Man of Tomorrow finally had limits to his abilities. Characters such as Lois Lane and Lex Luthor were given stronger, more adventurous and active roles.

As mentioned earlier, Superman the movie was not enough to give a new direction to the series. The character was still god-like and extremely American. The former element was to be expunged once and for all, however, as the series finally ended in September 1986 in Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? In this book by Alan Moore, Curt Swan, George Perez and Kurt Schaffenberger, Superman was given a depth of character not seen previously; in one page, Superman "looked as if he'd been crying." (Moore, p24)

The dialogue in the book was eerily unconventional for a Superman story. In one scene, Superman's "perfect imperfect duplicate," Bizarro, went on a rampage in a department store and then explained the motive of his massacre to Superman, "... me realise that Superman never kill, so me kill lots of people! Them very grateful! Scream with happiness!" The creature then moved onto taking his own life with blue kryptonite, as he realised that, "you am alive, Superman... and if me am perfect imperfect duplicate, then me have to be..." (Moore, p6) These kind of emotional and dramatic scenes were the end of the superhero genre's silver age and the start of a new bronze age of superhero comics.

The BRONZE Age of Superman

Man of Steel #1 Work began immediately on the new Superman by John Byrne in The Man of Steel mini-series. The characters and the settings were altered for a modern audience. The graphic novel was a sterling effort because it re-established Superman's origins and became the dominant reading for the superhero. The ideas from the book were used in Superman Adventures, an animated television series, and Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, a drama series, as well as other titles and spin-offs.

The characters in the novel went through drastic changes. Clark Kent, for instance, is not a bumbling idiot anymore, but rather a modern, exuberant young man. He was more grounded and his connections with his planet of origin, Krypton, only went so far as genetic relations - Clark considered himself human, evident when he says, "It was Krypton that made me Superman... but it's Earth that makes me human." (Byrne)

Clark's adopted parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent, have had their lives extended for the whole series. In the old comics, the couple had died from cancer when Clark was a mature young man. But in the modern appropriation, they are still alive and are the moral support that Clark needs, especially given how powerful he is. Essentially, Clark's parents keep him under control.

Other characters went through dramatic changes as well. Lois Lane remained the inquisitive reporter for quite some time before shocking the audience when she accepted Clark's marriage proposal. Lex Luthor was now an industrial tycoon instead of a mad scientist out for revenge. His intent of ridding the world of Superman is much more justified than the previous incarnation of his character:

"You've made a mistake, Superman... I run this town. Metropolis belongs to me. The people are mine, to nurture, or destroy, as I see fit. And they've forgotten that... They've forgotten who their master is - who is number one!" (Byrne)

His obsessive nature is the only link between the old and the new incarnations, which reflects the change in Pop Culture perception as to what a villain is - the Capitalist Tycoon vs. the Fascist Mad Scientist.

The settings also went through a major change, most prevalent of which is the alien planet Krypton which has become a desolate place. Technology has advanced so much that things like human emotion, religion and extra-terrestrial communication have become obsolete. At the peak of civilisation, the planet begins to crumble, and in true Superman fashion, explodes while Clark's pod is launched into space.

When this modern appropriation is compared to the old Superman comics, the differences in Superman's character become very obvious. So in 1986, another book titled Batman: The Dark Knight Returns was released. The book portrayed an old fashioned Superman with a modern, gritty Batman, in a story that was written out of "sheer curiosity" by Frank Miller.

All the superheroes, except for Superman, have retired. This is because of "the endless envy of those not blessed." (Miller, p120) So Superman goes against almost everyone's wish and decides to be 'America's lapdog' in exchange for his fellow superheroes' liberation - he does things like supporting American troops in war by fighting the opposition. However it is strictly confidential - the world is not allowed to know. Bruce Wayne, meanwhile, suffers from a longing to punish criminals once more as Batman. So he returns and strikes the criminal centre extremely hard, killing the Joker - his greatest nemesis - once and for all. The American Government notices Batman's tremendously brutal retribution and sends Superman to stop him. But before he stops Batman, a new type of nuclear missile is launched from Russia to the United States. Superman goes to stop it, but ends up releasing the bomb in a desert, not understanding the danger of such an act. Sand and soot are launched for miles around, and an electromagnetic pulse shuts the electricity out for an extremely large radius. So Batman, seeing Superman's 'criminal act', sets out to kill Superman. The two battle it out, but Batman suffers from a self-inflicted heart attack. At Batman's 'funeral', Clark hears Batman's heartbeat once more and decides that Bruce Wayne must be left alone to live his life and that he himself should shelve the Superman costume and live as mild-mannered Clark Kent.

The Dark Knight Returns is an amazingly symbolic book. By using an old-fashioned Superman who finally redeems himself, the book perfectly describes the need for a non-Americanised superhero. In one scene, Superman is talking with the president of the U.S. (ironically, the President himself, like George W Bush, is from Texas) The scene uses visual imagery brilliantly as the red and white stripes of the American flag flapping in the wind washes away and is replaced by Superman's "S" shield, suggesting the old-fashioned Americanised nature of this Man of Steel. As the two most powerful men in the world talk, it is clear that one has control over the other. The President, discussing the issue of Batman's retribution, says to Superman, "World's changed, son. It's not like the old days. I wish it were. I'd give him (Batman) a medal. You want a medal, son?" in which Superman replies with, "No thank you, sir." When concluding the conversation, the President says, "Give it a shot, son. Your country's counting on you..." Superman replies, "... Yes, sir," signifying a momentary pause for Superman to go over what he is about to do. The President then compliments Superman in one of the most symbolically ironic lines with, "Good boy..." (Miller, p84) This exchange of dialogue clearly suggests Superman's unnatural bond with his country of birth.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns calls upon the need for a new Superman. One that is still an American cultural icon, a property of America, but not a source of American propaganda. That is to say, not bound to America by fighting for "the American way." The ideas presented in this book have not been ignored. Over a decade later, a new comic book and a new television series would provide means for Superman's emancipation from Americanism.

The IRON Age of Superman

Superman For All Seasons Superman For All Seasons is a comic book written by Jeph Loeb and brilliantly illustrated by Tim Sale. It is basically an origins story, but the focus has now shifted to Clark's formative years in Smallville and in Metropolis. Smallville is a television series inspired by Superman For All Seasons, but with a slight difference. In Seasons, we see Clark mature and finally take the mantle of Superman. In Smallville, we see only Clark's youth in the town of Smallville.

Like The Dark Knight Returns, Seasons is a very figurative book. Not only is the use of colour very significant to the mood of a scene but the layout of the whole story is separated into the four seasons (in the following order, but not necessarily spanning one year): Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter. Each of these chapters are narrated by a character. Spring is by Jonathan Kent, suggesting that he is responsible for Clark's destiny. Summer by Lois Lane, because that is the season where Superman does a lot of 'flaunting' of his abilities. Fall is narrated by Lex Luthor, who finds a weakness in Clark's character and exploits it. Finally, Winter, narrated by Lana Lang, follows Superman's seclusion from the rest of the world after his first defeat at the hands of Lex Luthor.

In Spring, the story is set in Smallville where a young Clark learns to be responsible with his abilities. Spring is the ideal season for this, as it is the beginning of Clark's journey. This is emphasised with the time of day usually being sunrise. The use of warm colours suggest a morally sound upbringing of Clark and his acceptance of the responsibilities that come with his other-worldly abilities. Towards the end of Spring, a tornado ravages Smallville, leaving Clark to wonder if he "could have done more" (Loeb, p39) to minimise the damage. The last few scenes in this chapter are set some time later when Clark eventually moves to Metropolis and works for the Daily Planet newspaper. It also introduces Lois Lane and Lex Luthor. One scene has Lex Luthor looking over Metropolis through his office at LexCorp and spotting Superman fly by. The colour here is mostly orange and red hues, foreshadowing a heated battle of wits between the two most powerful men in Metropolis.

The following chapter, Summer, focuses on the relationship between the two identities that Clark goes by: his normal, mild-mannered news reporter self, and his superheroic exploits as Superman. The use of colour here has a primary focus of a cool blue which changes to a hot orange and red as the city of Metropolis rejects Lex Luthor as their patron. Most importantly, this chapter shows the first real signs that Clark feels alienated from his adopted world. When he is speaking to his mother, he says:

"It's just - even with all the good I've done? Sometimes... I seem out of place in the city. And I always thought Smallville would feel like home. Now it's different here too." (Loeb, p95)

When Clark says this, the imagery is vivid - his glasses show a distinct reflection of the stars, not only making Clark look alien, but also conveying these feelings.

In Fall, as mentioned earlier, the battle of wits between Lex Luthor and Superman begins. This chapter features thicker lines and a strong use of shadow, foreshadowing tension. This chapter also features one of the most exemplary lines of dialogue in terms of Superman's move away from Americanism. As the populace of Metropolis is being knocked unconscious by a mysterious gas for which Lex Luthor is responsible, the billionaire playboy says - at the bottom of each page - a part of the following, "Truth. Justice. And the American Way." (Loeb, pp128-33) The first two words, truth and justice, were used to suggest mockery of Superman by Lex Luthor. But by having Lex Luthor proclaim "the American Way," instead of Superman, writer Jeph Loeb has clearly expressed his idealistic shunning of Superman's Americanism.

In Winter, having lost the battle of wits, Clark secludes himself in Smallville. The chapter focuses on the relationship between the two identities of Superman and Clark Kent. In one scene, when Clark and Lana are walking towards town, the two make snow angels in the ground. Clark's snow angel looks like his other persona, Superman, and Lana points this out. This scene shows the audience that Clark Kent is having difficulty keeping up with two separate identities, as if he can only select one identity and conform strongly to it. However, the narrator of this chapter, Lana, simplifies it when she says, "to understand that man in the cape who could fly, all I needed to know was Clark." (Loeb, p195) So, in effect, Lana simply states that Superman is merely a job, and Clark is the person to do the job.

Smallville Superman For All Seasons was the inspiration for the following modern incarnation of the Last Son of Krypton, a television series called Smallville, created by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar. The series is styled similarly to Seasons in that there are a lot instances of dramatic foreshadowing and ironic references to the history of Superman while shying away from Americanism, but it also makes several important changes to the Superman legend.

The story begins, typically, with the destruction of planet Krypton. Clark's spaceship lands on Earth, but with a clever twist: meteors (remnants of Krypton) arrive with it, providing an explanation for why no one detected the spaceship in our atmosphere. The town of Smallville is decimated by these meteors (kryptonite). It dramatically affects the characters as well. Lana Lang's parents are killed in the destruction and a young Alexander "Lex" Luthor loses his hair as a meteor lands near him. Clark, of course, is found by the Kents and brought up. In Smallville, Lex and Clark are the most significant characters because the audience knows what their destiny holds for them and as Lex has said in the episode Hug, "it's not about the ending, it's about the journey." (Gough, Millar, 2002) At the moment, the two are close friends because Clark rescued Lex from imminent death.

There are several examples of dramatic foreshadowing. In the episode, Hourglass, Lex has said to the very Hellenistic fortune-teller Cassandra, "You see, I don't want to do good things, I want to do great things." (Gough, Millar, 2002) Here, Lex reveals his true ambitions. As in Seasons, Clark clearly has a problem with identity. This facet of his character is also foreshadowed in the episode Red, when he says, "it's like I have two identities and I don't know which one is the real me." (Gough, Millar, 2002)

Hourglass is an exceptional episode in the evolution of Superman. In it Cassandra views both Lex and Clark's individual futures through the use of brilliant metaphorical imagery. When looking into Clark's future, Cassandra sees Clark all by himself in the middle of a graveyard. The gravestones around him are of his closest friends and family. This does not mean that Clark is immortal, but suggests that Clark will outgrow everyone with the responsibilities his future inevitably holds. Also, Lex's grave is nowhere to be seen, which suggests that Clark may never be able to outgrow or overcome Lex.

Lex's future is more powerful, though, because as Cassandra passes away she sees what he will become. It begins with Lex, dressed in a white suit, in the Oval Office of the White House. His left hand has a black leather glove around it, which can only - at the moment at least - be related to an event in the comic books where Lex's hand is poisoned by kryptonite. Lex walks over to a balcony and finds an endless field of sunflowers representing the human race. He walks through the field and touches one flower. Suddenly, the flower dies and shrivels up. Death radiates from Lex's touch as all the flowers turn into human bones. Then the clouds turn a ghastly red and it rains blood all over Lex. This incarnation of Lex Luthor is paradoxically different to earlier versions and thus the most compelling - when he tries to help some people, he ends up hurting others. But there remains a consistent link: Lex is still unmistakably obsessive, though his obsessions are portrayed with more subtlety.

Another part of Lex's character that makes him compelling is what has influenced him. Lex continuously quotes from Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince, a book that is central to Lex's disposition. Perhaps the phrase that relates to Lex's character most truthfully is, "a prudent man must always follow in the footsteps of great men and imitate those who have been outstanding." (Machiavelli, p17) This is an approach to life to which Lex strongly adheres. Lex imitates Alexander of Macedon (Alexander the Great) in many ways. In personality, the two are virtually identical. Alexander has been described as "exceptionally charming, persuasive, arrogant and very generous to his friends and those loyal to him," (Daegaer, 2002) characteristics that Lex also possesses. Lex was also closer to his mother than his father. Finally, Clark Kent could be seen as Lex's Hephaestion (Alexander's best and most trusted friend) as the two are best friends. The writers of Smallville have seemingly ensured that Lex is doomed to repeat the same mistakes as Alexander.

In The Prince, another phrase which bears a similarity with what Lex said to Cassandra:

"Contemporary experience shows that princes who have achieved great things have been those who have given their words lightly, who have known how to trick men with their cunning, and who, in the end, have overcome those abiding by honest principles." (Machiavelli, p56)

This defines Lex's success. Even in the comics, Lex overcomes Superman, a man who abides by "honest principles." So not only does this philosophy foreshadow the rift between Superman and Lex, but it is also the means by which Lex will achieve what he wishes.

Clark's secret plays an important contextual role in the series. On numerous occasions when Clark was suspected of hiding something, he has been demeaned for not being truthful. Given that Superman is someone who fights for truth, this shows a hypocritical side to Clark's character. He knows he is lying to the whole world, yet he insists that he fights for truth. Also, since he fights for the "American way" as well, this could ironically suggest that the "American way" is to be deceitful. In effect, the writers of the show have created a new adaptation of Superman for the modern audience by completely shunning Americanisation in Clark (his parents still have an American flag at the front porch of their house). They convey this irony when Clark says that he fights for "truth, justice and... er, other stuff." (Gough, Millar, 2002)

Clark's secret also plays a role which shapes his destiny in the narrative. Always one to be restrained by his parents due to his abilities, Clark yearns more and more to be honest with the world. In Smallville, Clark has already made a habit of rescuing his friends from dangerous situations. Sensing this aspiration to help, his father attempts to destroy the boy's hopes by informing him that "becoming an adult means learning a lot of difficult lessons; one of which is you can't save everybody, no matter who you are." (Gough, Millar, 2002) But as is natural with the young, Clark will formulate a way to work around these confines, which will inevitably take form in both his fight for truth and his job as Superman.

Metaphorically, Smallville has shifted the zealously patriotic Superman and embedded this within Lex Luthor's character. That is to say, now Lex is the one aspiring for the "American way" due to his vision of presidency and his apparent fight for truth and justice through Machiavellian means. And Clark is the one shunning that old proclamation - he is becoming his own man.

Conclusion

For over 60 years Superman has stood the test of time, due to the extensive experimentation, and perhaps more importantly, innovation that has been poured into his character. Superman is one of those icons that can be renewed for every generation of readers, while still retaining that typical style that has worked for so long. As John Byrne once said, "part of the appeal of Superman is that he is so adaptable." This has been proven by the evolution that the stories have undertaken; from the damsel in distress, to the man who could juggle planets and finally all the way to the man who, although very physically powerful, is still human at heart. More importantly, the series has become a cultural journey. Superman began as a bigot, believing in only two extremes: good and evil. He was judge, jury and occasionally executioner of those who committed crimes and went against everything he believed in. He was a fundamentalist.

In his next phase Superman then moved onto becoming a god amongst men. There was nothing that he could not do. He possessed an amazing array of powers, including ridiculously juvenile abilities like "super-kiss" which would put anyone into a dreamy, blissful sleep, and the ability to withstand as many atomic bombs as the world housed. In brief, he was unstoppable.

The appeal of an immortal, god-like character, however, is quite limited. Consequently Superman was weakened, turned into a mortal, and in doing so he became more human than alien. His grounding was on Earth, his adopted planet, rather than Krypton, his home planet - the planet he knew very little about. He died once, and in a somewhat Christ-like fashion came back to life. He was turned into a guardian for the world, a responsibility that only he, in the finest of superheroic traditions, seemingly could take. But he was not great enough to go beyond the bounds of that old Superman who belonged to a 'super-race'.

So finally, Superman was turned into a man who simply had a great destiny defined only by his character and not by his race. Superman For All Seasons and Smallville were the beginning of this new Superman who was not a crusader for the American way anymore, but a "man of tomorrow" who "is forged by his battles today." (Gough, Millar, 2002)



Bibliography

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E-mail
  • Hoyle, W. (hateandlust@hotmail.com), varying dates, 2003. Feedback. E-mail to sertan_s@hotmail.com.

Websites

Hello Mr. Saral,

I read your article "Superman: Truth, Justice, and Other Stuff" on the Superman Homepage. I wish to commend you on the work you put into it. It is a fine essay and I agree with your assessment that, for a time, Superman was used both in stories and in advertisements as an American symbol. However, I want to point out some things concerning Superman that I feel you overlooked.

You are rather quick to say that Superman has been a bigot from the start. I read your text example, which ends with Superman allowing an "enemy" assailant to commit suicide, saying that the man deserved his fate. This to me does not seem a text book case of bigotry. Batman during his early years did similar things. In his first appearance he allowed a criminal to fall into a vat of acid, saying that it was, "A fitting end to his kind." Both Superman and Batman in these cases can be accused of being sinister for not saving the men. In both cases it was within their power to save the devious men, yet they chose not to. You simply accuse Superman for being racially/politically motivated for not having saved that individual, when it is equally as likely that he did not save the man for what he did- an excellent, if disheartening, example of judging a human by their actions.

Take a look at Superman's earliest adventures, and tell me if his actions are in any way American propaganda or motivated by stereotypes.

  • An innocent woman is about to be executed for murder. After investigating he gets the real murderer to confess, then takes her to the jail. Superman says that the execution must be stopped because the wrong woman is about to be killed. Authorities tell him that he is not allowed to stop the proceedings, to which he barges into the execution room by ripping a steel door off its hinges.
  • Superman stops a man from beating his wife. This might seem neither here nor there, until one considers that in 1939 America it was not uncommon for police to overlook the beatings of wives. Even if they did take action, there is little they could do. Superman is taking an interest in a case that both society and the police believe they should not get involved with.
  • Superman first stops a corrupt politician, which leads him to an insidious munitions manufacturer. Superman forces this man to fight in a far off country and war (between two sides of which neither are American) where his guns, bullets, and bombs are being employed. The man now understands the harsh realities of war, and will stop manufacturing weapons.

What do these adventures suggest politically? In his earliest years, Superman fought for people. He was not an anarchist by any means, but the status quo would not stand in his way of delivering justice as he saw fit. He was breaking down doors to tell a Governor what he can and can not do, stood up for women's rights, stopped corrupt politicians, and forced a profitable American businessman to see that he was being immoral.

Before the United States entered World War II Superman shared America's view on the war, yet it was not until America had joined the war that Superman really took his place as an American symbol. Yes, he advertised war bonds and thus promoted the American war effort in its entirety. If one was to regard Superman as a real individual, this would show that he approved of war and all its consequences when deemed necessary, a contrast to his pre-involvement years. And yes, any Japanese or German characters Superman encountered in his adventures were demonized to the point that it seems comical in retrospect. I recommend that you look at old Superman serial cartoons produced by the Fleischer brothers. Only four of the seventeen cartoons involved WWII in some aspect. Focusing on the Japanese, in the two serials where Japanese agents were present, they all had bucked teeth, most wore glasses, and all were depicted as being evil and overly angry. There is no doubt that the Japanese were depicted in a negative fashion that could easily promote racism. Whether or not this is justified because America was at war with Japan I leave up to you. I wish to impart something important though, in these cartoon serials Superman does not display anything that suggests he is a bigot, as you yourself say. Superman is not racially motivated to fight the Japanese or Nazis. He does not say anything derogatory about them, nor does he seem to treat them differently than any foe he fights who is American, or of any other nationality or race. I can not say the same for all the wartime era comics, but the cartoon serials demonstrate that Superman was a just person, and fought villains solely because of their actions.

Concerning "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns." I am wondering if you ever read this fine graphic novel. I should hope that you did not, because you got many facts on it wrong.

  • Why do you conclude that Superman went against everyone's wishes by being an American agent? On the contrary, the American public in the story voice their outrage at any police action, super or otherwise, by those who are not given authority by the American government. Only Batman and the Green Arrow, the allied radicals going against the nation, hate Superman for fighting for America while they fight for the people.
  • Batman does not kill the Joker. I can almost understand your getting these circumstances wrong. After having gone on a killing spree, Batman decides to disregard his vow to never kill, believing that preventing more deaths is all that matters. When given the opportunity Batman nearly breaks the Joker's neck, but stops at the last second, sparing him. He has, however, paralyzed the Joker, who promptly commits suicide by letting his own neck snap.
  • Superman did not "allow" a Soviet nuclear missile to detonate; it was going to explode regardless of what he did. His only option was to save lives. Superman directed the warhead into a desert, where he even lamented the loss of its plants and wildlife.
  • Batman knows Superman has done nothing criminal, and he does not blame Superman for the missile having gone off. Batman does not go after Superman, it is the other way around. The American government orders Superman to stop Batman (and not lethally I should add) for his vigilante acts. Batman is not the instigator of the fight, but that is not to say that he does not look forward to it. Batman resents Superman for having become an agent of America, when he should be fighting for the people.
  • Finally, there is no indication that Clark "gives up" being Superman. It is simply not discussed. In fact, the sequel "The Dark Knight Strikes Again" has Clark still acting as Superman (though, admittedly, many fans wish to disregard the sequel as it is too different than the original).

Without going into great detail on the graphic novel (entire essays have been written on it), you are right about their relationship. Batman exists in his original state, a vigilante whose only law is that he never kills. Superman on the other hand exists in his WWII to early Silver Age state, as a servant to America. Unfortunately Superman does not make a turn around in this book, but Frank Miller is commenting on how Superman could better be used- in his own original form, as a hero for all.

Batman started out as a vigilante willing to punish people as he saw fit. Fans can easily see the super power and mood difference between the two characters, but few know of their political differences. Batman focused solely on punishing the guilty, only in consequence did that translate into him stopping villains from committing further misdeeds. Batman was simply a vigilante cop and judge. He enforced a moral law, and it was he who decided the guilty's fate. Superman on the other hand has always completed a wider range of heroics, largely thanks to his great powers. Like Batman he apprehended criminals (though he generally allowed the authorities to decide their fate), averted natural and supernatural disasters, and he fought corruption in all its forms, as demonstrated by him having taken on politicians and businessmen. It would take years before Batman would catch onto this last fight.

Batman was a rebel in that he did not care what the law had to say about the pursuit, apprehension, and punishment of the guilty. By dismissing these laws he could catch those who the police would miss. Superman was similarly a rebel in that he did not care what society thought of politicians and businessmen. He knew that respectable society held villains of its own, and laws that protected them would not thwart him.

Did you know that in WWII Superman, Batman, and Robin all advertised for war bonds? Or that Batman and Robin had numerous adventures fighting Nazis and the Japanese, just as Superman had? DC's two greatest franchises were equally used as war propaganda, yet after the war it was only Superman who remained such a patriotic figure. Most people assume that this is because Superman is such a radiant character while Batman is supposed to be (though not always is) a dark figure. I personally do not have a better explanation. Batman was able to recede back into shadows, but Superman stayed as an American figure.

Superman began as a character who fought, "a never ending battle for truth and justice" as the old Fleischer introduction used to say- and no, I'm not leaving out the mention of "the American way." That was not part of his original serial introduction. I agree that Superman became an entirely American symbol for many years after America entered WWII, but he started out just with truth and justice.

Ross May (rhm@sasktel.net)
A student at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada.