In the immortal words of the Jackson Beck’s introduction to the Superman Radio Show, “Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound” (Daniels, 54)! Superman is an international icon of strength, justice, and freedom. As figures in popular culture frequently do, Superman reveals a tremendous amount of information about American history.
Writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster created Superman as the perfect male. Superman was strong, fast, intelligent, and unstoppable. Siegel and Shuster were just about everything that Superman was not. The children of Jewish immigrants in Cleveland, the two became close friends in high school. Both of them were among the earliest nerds. They spent most of their time living in the fantasy worlds of science fiction; which was a new genre in the 1930’s. Siegel and Shuster were not athletic, wore glasses, and were shy, especially around girls (Daniels, 12 – 18).
This familiar origin story has been retold thousands of times in comic books, radio dramas, television shows, movies, books, and video games. The commonly known back-story is familiar to people of all ages, races, religions, and ethnicities all around the world. Superman’s insignia is one of the most easily recognizable icons in popular culture. There has been a Superman for every generation since his stories first hit newsstands on June 1, 1938. He has been altered and tweaked, but his origin always remains the same. Superman, the last son of Krypton, is sent to Earth where he develops superpowers from exposure to Earth’s Yellow Sun. As he grows up in rural America, Superman takes on the alter ego, Clark Kent – The story unfolds from there.
In spite of the common origin that Superman always has, there were a number of critical differences between the original 1938 Superman and all of the subsequent versions of the character that would follow. First, and most noticeably, Superman could not fly. Instead, he could “leap tall buildings with a single bound;” he could jump really high. Second, he did not have x-ray vision or superhearing. Third, he was more like a circus strongman, than a god when he was originally created. All of these powers were added in 1939, not by Siegel and Shuster, but by the creators of the Superman radio drama. Along with his new powers, Superman was also given a more robust supporting cast, his now longtime archenemy, Lex Luthor, and his weakness to shards of his annihilated home world of Krypton; Kryptonite (Jones 173). Later additions to Superman’s ever-expanding list of powers were heat vision and freezing breath along with other lesser-known and less significant powers.
Earlier, I stated that Clark Kent was Superman’s alter ego, not the other way around; this was no error. Most superheroes are normal people who put on a costume and take on their super-heroic identity; for example, Peter Parker becomes Spider-man. Parker was born a normal person and later gained powers. Superman, on the other hand, was always Superman (A distinction that was astutely noted by Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill Vol. 2). He had to invent Clark Kent to attempt to live a normal life. While Superman can lift a car, run along power lines, and jump over buildings, Clark Kent was feeble, clumsy, and slow, both physically, and socially, but not intellectually. Superman was heroic and good-looking, Clark Kent was cowardly, shuffling around with poor posture and glasses.
In both cases, whether Superman is portraying Superman or Clark Kent, he is written to portray the character in accordance with very typical personality stereotypes. Siegel and Shuster wrote Superman with the intent of combining all of the strongest personality traits they could think of. Superman is always right, he is sure of himself, he has the ability and he knows how to use it. In many ways, he is the antithesis of his creators.
When Superman changes to become Clark Kent, he slouches forward, puts on glasses, and acts in a manner that is in complete opposition to his true nature. The notion that no one has ever figured out that Clark Kent is Superman because he puts on a pair of glasses has become a big joke in popular culture. However, it’s not the glasses that makes the characters around Clark Kent unaware of his true identity, it’s the way he acts altogether. He portrays himself as a weak, bumbling, aloof, coward that no one notices; the poor posture and glasses are just additional physical signs of social weakness that add a visual aspect to Clark Kent’s inadequacies.
Siegel and Shuster probably never realized they created Superman from self-reflexive thought, but in many ways, he sheds light on who they were. Superman, at his core, is an adolescent power fantasy. It’s obvious that Superman represents what the two nerds wished they were. In this regard, Clark Kent is frequently more interesting than Superman. Kent actually represents what Siegel and Shuster were and how they felt living in the world that they lived in. This is most vivid when Kent is in the presence of Lois Lane.
Lois Lane was one of Kent’s coworkers at the newspaper, The Daily Star; in the early incarnations of Superman, he did not work for The Daily Planet. Lois was an abnormally strong female character in 1938, when she was created. She was so strong and abrasive that she became utterly unlikable. She never had anything nice to say about anyone but Superman. Kent was in love with Lane, in spite of the fact that she never displays any affection towards him, perhaps another insight into the way that Siegel and Shuster viewed women. However, she was infatuated with Superman and completely ignorant of Kent’s true identity. Lane called Kent a coward in almost all of the early issues and was generally mean to him in every scene they appear in together, but Kent still wanted to have a relationship with her. I have yet to encounter a truly romantic scene that was written by Siegel (Which was never the case with Stan Lee). It can be inferred that this was how he viewed women, or at least, himself with women.
Clark Kent & Superman the Immigrant
Ultimately, Clark Kent was the culmination of human weakness. This was how the strongest man in the world attempted to hide his identity. By displaying all of the unwanted and unattractive characteristics he could, Superman concealed his identity without ever changing his appearance in any significant way. No one suspected that Clark Kent was Superman because they were so dissimilar from each other that it was completely unthinkable.
Superman’s tale, at its core, was that of an immigrant, and more specifically, that of a Jewish immigrant. Author Michael Chabon put it best when he said, “Coming over from the old country changing his name like that. Clark Kent, only a Jew would pick a name like that for himself” (Weinstein 21). Superman’s birth name was Kal-L (later changed to Kal-el), but like many Jewish immigrants, he took on a more American name. The vast majority of the early comic creators, writers, and artists alike were Jewish and many of them adopted more Americanized names, some just as pen names, some to sound more American. The greats Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were born Stanley Lieber and Jacob Kurtzberg. Lee adopted the pen name because he did not want his real name attached to comic books when he became a “real writer” (he later legally changed his name to Stan Lee after his tremendous success and achievement of legendary status within the comic industry). Kirby legally adopted the name Jack Kirby early in his career. All of his friends called him Kirby, but frequently teased him for taking on the name saying things such as, “[You are] looking more Irish already.” Even his wife had a hard time taking the name seriously (Jones 197).
Kal-L’s story was an extreme form of the assimilation experience that many Jewish immigrants, and immigrants in general, faced. He was a stranger in a strange land, but unlike the Jews who immigrated to America and frequently stayed in close-knit communities, he had absolutely no one else like him. Not only was he alone, he was thrust into the heartland of America; Smallville, Kansas. You do not get much more American than that. He was different from those around him, and he knew it, but he went out of his way to hide those differences. He was just trying to fit in and make his way in an unfamiliar, unfriendly, new world. In addition, like the Jewish immigrants of the late 1930’s, Kal-L’s homeland Krypton was destroyed. There would be no return home for him, much like the war torn Central Europe that so many Jews emigrated from.
A Badass Crusader for Common Folk
Superheroes are only interesting when they have a villain to fight. More often than not, a hero’s villains are the most critical plot device in the development of a character. Superman’s initial villains were bizarre by today’s standards. There were no mad scientists or evil space monsters in Superman’s rogue’s gallery. Instead, he fought the kinds of villains that actually existed in the average community in 1938. He fought street hooligans, greedy fat-cats, everyday criminals, corrupt politicians, lobbyists, and police officials. He was a hero for the common depression era citizen (Wright 10-11). He was a hero for the little guy. Superman was also a lighthearted prankster who would torment the criminals he caught, as depicted below.
It was also common for to see the police shoot at Superman. However, this was a drastically different Superman than most people ever encounter because he was written so atypically when he was first created.
Mark Waid wrote in the Forward of the Action Comics Archive:
Within these pages, I met a head-bashing Superman who took no prisoners, who made his own law and enforced it with his fists, who gleefully intimidated his foes with a wicked grin and a baleful glare. A Superman who reveled in his strength, who clearly enjoyed raising a little hell and who didn’t care who got in his way as he bounced through Metropolis meting out his own brand of justice. Was I surprised? When I see bullets bouncing off Superman’s chest, I don’t expect them to be coming from the guns of policemen. Whoever this was in the red cape, he was no super-cop. He was a super-anarchist. How could he have started out that different (Action Comics Archive 5-6)?
The answer to this question was that Superman, like most comic book characters and popular culture icons in general, fought whatever was relevant to the writer and the reader at the time they were written. This holds true for two reasons. First, if the battle the hero was fighting was not relevant to the writer, he/she never would have even thought of the conflict to begin with. Second, if the readers were not connecting with the character and his/her struggles, sales would not takeoff. During the Depression, Superman fought Depression era threats. As the Depression neared it’s end, new threats arose to take their place; World War II.
World War II
As war broke out across Europe, American superheroes began going to war. Prior to Pearl Harbor, Superman was battling “prominent isolationists and pacifists as spies working for a hostile foreign power.” Comics, in general, tended to portray isolationists in a negative light (Wright 44). In the words of Stan Lee, “We [the comic industry] were fighting the Nazis before our government was” (Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked)! At roughly the same time, American comic sales began to spike in Europe. In response, Hitler banned comic books and deplored Superman as a feeble Jew (Jones 162). Ironically, the only changes that were required to morph Superman into a Nazi icon would be to make his hair blonde; his eyes blue; and change that “S” on his chest to a swastika.
Once America declared war after Pearl Harbor, comic books became intensely nationalistic. The vast majority of superheroes were fighting the Germans and Japanese either overseas or battling spies in America. However, Superman was conspicuously absent from the battlefield. Siegel and Shuster realized that Superman “could fly to Berlin and Tokyo and promptly bring the war to an end on his own, they did not wish to minimize the daunting task faced by the nation and its fighting forces” (Wright 43). To keep Superman nationalistic, while also keeping him out of the war, an enthusiastic Clark Kent enlisted but was labeled 4-F and rejected after failing his eye test. Accidentally, Kent used his x-ray vision and read the eye chart in the next room instead of the one in his own (Suspend your disbelief!). The doctors concluded that Kent was blind and he left in disappointment. As per usual, Lois Lane was utterly sickened by Kent’s rejection. “Superman shrugs off the disappointment, resolving to serve the American war effort by policing America’s home front and declaring that ‘the United States army, Navy, and Marines are capable of smashing their foes without the aid of Superman’” (Wright 43)! However, the US armed forces would receive some support from Superman in a different way.
The comics themselves became a part of the war effort. According to the New York Times, 25% of all magazines shipped to American troops in Europe and the Pacific were comic books. “At least 35,000 copies of Superman alone went to servicemen each month.” Comics became a considerable part of GI culture during the war. On the other hand, the overabundance of comics in the hands of GIs did not help the overarching European belief that Americans were juvenile and unrefined (Wright 31).
In addition to comic stories being nationalistic and comic books being shipped overseas, many of the writers and artists themselves enlisted. Jerry Siegel (Superman), Will Eisner (The Spirit), and Jack Kirby (Captain America) all left home to battle the villains that their characters had been fighting (Wright 33).
I may be alone on this, but I would love to see DC do a current Superman miniseries where the characters are all written in the spirit of the original Seigel/ Shuster stories, a badass Superman solving real world issues would be a real sight in modern comics.
Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked. The History Channel. A&E Televison Networks, 2005.
Daniels, Les. Superman The Complete History: The Life and Times of the Man of Steel. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1998.
Jones, Gerard. Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book. New York: Basic Books, 2004.
Siegel, Jerry and Joe Shuster. Superman the Action Comics: Archive Volume 1. New York: DC Comics, 1997.
Wright, Bradford W. Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2003.
3 thoughts on “Your Grandfather’s Superman was a Serious Badass – The Story of the Original Superman”
I totally agree with the proposal. A golden age Superman written with modern storytelling techniques and art is something I’ve longed for several years.