This is Part 1 of 7-part series of posts discussing Superman comics and how they reflect American society and culture.
Read the Introduction here.
Read Part 2: Defender of the Status Quo here.
Read Part 3: Breaking Down the Old Order here.
Read Part 4: Morning in America here.
Read Part 5: Big Business and Brinksmanship here.
Read Part 6: America in the Post-Soviet World (when the post is ready).
Read Part 7: Reconnecting with Humanity here (when the post is ready).
–THE NEW DEAL DEMOCRAT–
When Action Comics #1 hit newsstands, America was mired in the depths of the Great Depression. Although still nursing an isolationist foreign policy, U.S. domestic policy had shifted radically. An ascendant Democratic Party brandished the full force of the federal government. Without passing any judgment (positive or negative), it is safe to say that during this time unions were strengthened, social safety nets fortified, big business strictly regulated. This was FDR’s New Deal.
New Dealers were self-proclaimed champions of the common man, and Superman was no different. In fact, Action Comics #1 describes him as a “champion of the oppressed.”
This image may seem foreign to many people today who see Superman as the embodiment of the status quo, but Superman of the 1930s and 40s was a social crusader, in both identities. Muckraking journalist Clark Kent spoke truth to power in his job at the Daily Star (later, Daily Planet), while pining after Lois Lane. In another indicator of the times, Lois Lane was introduced as a gossip columnist who wrote “sob stories,” but desperately wanted to a real reporting beat. The ironic twist of the comic was that Lois Lane was “manlier” than bumbling, impotent Clark Kent, though Lane’s pursuit of true news pieces would inevitably lead to some sort of danger from which the masculine ideal (Superman) would need to rescue her.
Not much escaped the super-crusader’s youthful eyes in those days. Though he could only jump an eighth of mile (a far cry from his later ability to fly), Superman had no trouble taking on wealthy mine owners for the lax safety standards they subjected their workers to, or slick businessmen who tried to co-opt the Superman image for profit. In fact, in Action Comics #8, Superman destroys a city’s dilapidated slums in order to force the government to rebuild better housing. Just before he does so, he tells a group of delinquent children: “It’s not entirely your fault that you’re delinquent– it’s these slums– your poor living conditions.”
As a product of the times, Superman was also something of an isolationist at first. A story spanning Action Comics #1 and 2 saw Superman taking on the fiendish military-industrial complex about 23 years before Dwight D. Eisenhower made the term famous in his farewell address. The complaints sound incredibly familiar: corrupt politicians, influential lobbyists, deceitful arms producers and manufactured wars. Who says Superman isn’t in touch with today’s issues?
Luckily for the fictional Americans of the late 1930s, Superman was around to prevent the United States from being needlessly embroiled in a conflict between two fictional (though perhaps European) countries.
All for naught. America’s isolationist tendencies would crumble before the full force of the Pearl Harbor attacks. And even before that, President Roosevelt angled to help the Allied cause in any way possible, through programs such as “Lend-Lease.” And as America mobilized for war, so too did Superman. The July after Pearl Harbor, for instance, Superman was seen on the cover of Superman #17 holding a shocked Adolf Hitler and grotesque Prime Minister Tojo, the much-despised leaders of the Axis Powers.
Families across the United States bought war bonds, rationed goods, planted victory gardens, and build weapons to help the war effort. Superman assaulted Axis leaders on the covers of his comics.
American had entered the second World War.
Continue on to Part 2: Defender of the Status Quo here.