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In 1938 a new hero burst forth into the imagination of children as they read Action Comics #1. Superman was a burly figure modeled after the strongmen and muscle-builders that fascinated Joe Shuster, his illustrator. In that nascent stage his powers were limited to super strength and some minor invulnerability. His personality was aggressive and he terrorized the criminals of Metropolist, even killing a few.
This brute of a man sounds more akin to Wolverine to modern ears than the cosmic Boy Scout we know so well today. The story of his development and gradual shift into this modern form is interesting and worthy of exploration. It also raises an important question for us about the nature of identity in a changeable world.
The early days of Superman's violence against crime were relatively short-lived, at least in that obvious incarnation. As Whitney Ellsworth famously stepped into the editor's chair at D.C. Comics in 1940, he did so with style and a manifesto. No more would his heroes kill. They would follow his new code of conduct. This code and his leadership would start the Golden Age of comics.
But just because our Kryptonian friend couldn't murder a burglar didn't mean the violence would stop. He was a super powerful alien, after all. There's not much excitement for the kids without battles. It's also not much fun if the battles stay all the same over time, as any fan of Anime will tell you. You need to power up!
And power up he did. Following his first appearance in 1938 superman would later learn to fly, develop x-ray vision which would later be concentrated into a heat vision as well. His invulnerability grew beyond bullets until he could withstand an atomic blast. His flight speed increased until it broke the speed of light. In many ways, the comic books gradually became a form of "The Zany Adventures of God."
The origins of his powers shifted over time as well. In 1938 Krypton was a world of super-men, and in fact the planet is described that way in the Kirk Alyn serials of the late 40s. His powers were natural and granted by his race. Later those powers came from his presence on Earth and the lower gravity, taking a page from John Carter in A Princess of Mars. Still later came the familiar story of the yellow sun granting some of his abilities, and eventually all of them. The red light of Krypton's sun would steal them away again.
Superman's mythos has never been stagnant. From his earliest conception as a technologically empowered human from the future sent back in time to the 1930s, to the modern era where our world's Superman has died and we now are protected by one from another reality, life in the red & blue tights has been constantly changing.
In the 1950s we see Superman through a small window of time. In the first episode detailing the destruction of Krypton a baby Jor-El is pulled from the wreckage of his spacecraft and raised by the Kents: Eben and Sarah. What's that? Not the names you remember? Ahh, well Martha and Jonathan's names were very recent introduction in the comics at that time and hadn't quite made their mark on audiences yet. Best to stick with the tried and true!
Not everything is unfamiliar, though. Lois Lane is present, as are Perry White, Jimmy Olsen, and the Daily Planet itself (not the Daily Star anymore). Most importantly, the relationship of Superman to his alter-ego, Clark Kent, has been well established and even tested on screen by Kirk Alyn along side Noel Neill, the Lois of the movie serials who would return to the role in the Adventures of Superman after Phyllis Coates exited following season one. The role of the humble—nay, cowardly—Clark Kent was brought to life by Alyn to great approval. George Reeves was wise to copy it himself in the television show.
So what of the violence? As I shared in parts one and two of this series, Superman is not a pacifist. He will protect his identity even to the point of manslaughter. He is clearly not the Boy Scout of later generations. He does willingly work with the police, though, and is not a public vigilante as he was in the early comic books. He is willing to beat a suspect for information, but then again, so are the police. So where is the line drawn?
Like any historical figure I would suggest we try to understand Superman based on the world he lived in and occupied. Were his actions in line with social norms or outside of it? Was he pushing boundaries of social order? I don't take this tack in order to justify or condemn any aspect of the character by today's standards. First we should explore how the world saw him in the moment. Then, and only then, we can judge that character against our own mores.
In the opening credits of The Adventures of Superman we are greeted by a premise that Superman fights for "Truth, Justice, and the American Way." It was a literal formulation of the work that had transpired in the previous decade during the radio dramas supporting the war effort. Superman was not just a comic hero. Superman was an American comic hero. This linking of his identity to a nationalistic pride would grant him both a lasting legacy in American culture and also indelibly mark his personal identity with the stains of American exceptionalism in their own self-identity.
By adopting that mantra Superman stopped being a character in himself. He became the embodiment of how America wanted to see itself. Granted these powers over others, the power to protect and to champion ideals, what sort of man will emerge. We see a nearly identical projection happening with Captain America as well, though perhaps a bit more focused on the military aspects of that self-image. For George Reeves, the 1950s role meant putting on the mantle of America, not just a red cape.
With a personality frozen and sealed to a nation, the opportunity for growth and change isn't viable, even if television programming worked that way at the time. No, rather we see that the Superman of season one is very much the same as Superman of season five. Similarly, the comics of this age stagnate as well. While some minor power creep happens to ensure interesting stories, the end of an issue represents a world indistinguishable from the start. The comics can be read in any order or no particular order at all, and likewise can the show be enjoyed. The famed professor of semiotics, Umberto Eco, wrote in his essay on Superman that this time period acts as a sort of dream. It is also an indispensable part of the transformation from a mere story character into a cultural myth.
Myths must represent something unchanging, a fixed history or lesson. They cannot be a man today. They cannot change. But by linking these stories into a super-reality of aspirational ideals and setting them into a dream-scape of non-time, the character can pass beyond the typical bounds. In fact, he is uniquely set up to do just that. Clark Kent is the infinite masses of "us". He can represent anyone. He is the flip side of that American self-identity: a newspaper reporter in a major metropolitan area. He represents the accessible truth bearer of society from a trusted and honored profession. When action demands he become more than man, well, he need only pull apart the buttons on his shirt. America is ready.
Does that paint enough of a picture of this character for us to understand him? Is he a real entity at all? He acts with a facade as Clark Kent to hide his power from those around him. This, we are told, is by a lesson instilled from his wise adoptive parents back in Iowa (Kansas came later). His attachment to his ideals of justice come from them, from the heartland of America itself. His tenacity as a reporter is there to enable him to help and protect, and to avoid the fate of Krypton.
I honestly want to leave it there. The 1950s were a time awash with a desire to paint itself in bright colors. The Donna Reed Show is a prime example of this, with a heartland family of a dutiful and well composed housewife, a hard working husband, popular teen daughter, and athletic son. We know these stories do not represent the reality at the time, but they do represent a vision for what they wished it would be.
The obvious next step is to take the jaunt to our present day and look again and see the seething rot under the surface at that time. The war was over and while some art embraced the existential question of how anyone could go back to picket fences after the atrocities they saw, not everything became film noir. Just as many, if not more, people wanted to do their hair, put on makeup, and move on. They wanted to celebrate life, or to bask in a new period of prosperity, or to just shut the door on the evil in the world for a short time.
However we want to judge this approach (and especially what it did or didn't do for civil rights) we can paint Superman with the same brush. He is, after all, a pretty face painted on top of the American flag, for all the good and ill that brings with it.
Who is Superman (in the 1952 Adventures of Superman)?
He's the 1950s American dream.
Originally Published 2020-06-15 at:
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