Who likes Superman? Raise your hand. Now, I know I can’t see you through the paper, but I’m guessing that there are very few of you.
I used to be one of you! I used to think, “Man. Superman has got to be the most boring, overrated, and pointless superhero ever.” I mean, his one weakness is a weird rock. He’s so morally righteous that he wouldn’t hurt a fly.
Bland was the word that came to my mind when I thought of him. But I have come to realize that the original Superman has truly been lost in the sense of what he once was and the reason he was created.
The comics refer to the 1930s-50s “Golden Age of Comics,” and it is in this era that the superhero first appears (coincidentally, this is an era in which the children of immigrants are reaching adolescence, but we’ll get to that later).
Superman was the first American superhero, introduced in 1938 in Action Comics #1, and though many of you may know the name “Superman,” you might be surprised at what you find would if you picked up some early examples of the most famous superhero in American history. This guy couldn’t fly, didn’t have X-Ray vision, and couldn’t turn back time.
Early Superman doesn’t fight superpowered supervillains. In fact, there’s nothing super about the bad guys he deals with. He fights against what his young creators, Siegel and Shuster, saw as the ultimate bad in the world: tyranny and social oppression. His targets are dirty businessmen, cruel landlords and crooked politicians, because these were real problems faced by real people.
This Superman is sarcastic and witty and will go to extreme lengths to fight injustice. In one issue, in which a mine owner is too stingy to fix his mines for the safety of his workers, Superman concocts an elaborate plan that involves getting the owner to host a party in the mine, trapping the party inside of the mine, and then saving them. Superman is all about incurring sympathy for the downtrodden and essentially diminishing the power of the wealthy.
Superman, however, has undergone extreme changes. Today, he is often seen as a symbol of traditional America””conservatives everywhere enjoy him as a perfect example of a pure, classic American ideal. In fact, many critics (me included) saw heavy Christian overtones in the latest Superman movie, “Man of Steel,” which painted him as a Christ-like figure of sorts: omnipotent, the epitome of moral goodness, self-sacrificing and born for a purpose.
This is obviously pretty far removed from his early days of rebellion and, frankly, anger. He was simultaneously assimilating into America and yet remained staunchly proud of his origins.
In fact, scholars consider him not to be a symbol of Christ or omnipotence, but of the immigrant. This duality””his firm connection to both his past and his present””could be encouraging to immigrants to America, who find themselves struggling for a complete cultural identity.
Siegel and Shuster were the children of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. They saw in their creation a way of voicing their frustrations with the system.
Confused about their heritage, desperate for visibility in American culture, angry that the “average American” was implicitly Anglo-Saxon, the two high school students dreamed of a hero who could fight for people like them and their working class parents.
This hero, too, would struggle with where he came from, and he would look like them””dark haired and, when he was Clark Kent, bespectacled and nervous.The name “Superman” is a translation of the German word “ubermensch,” a term coined by Nietzsche and used heavily by the Nazis in a racist context.
It seems a fitting choice, perhaps an act of reclamation, for two Jewish boys from Cleveland whose creation debuted just before World War II began.
So Superman wasn’t created with today’s image in mind. He was born as a savior of sorts, but the original model was tough, ruthless towards injustice, and much more similar to his readers.
I highly recommend reading old issues of Superman, specifically those from the 1930s and 1940s. If you pick them up, discover a Superman who was truly a product of his time and his creators: a hero who really does represent the American Dream.