This is Part 2 of 7-part series of posts discussing Superman comics and how they reflect American society and culture.
Read the Introduction here.
Read Part 1: The New Deal Democrat 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).
–DEFENDER OF THE STATUS QUO–
The war would change everything for Superman, much like it would for the United States. Depression-era America was a body in turmoil, where societal ills were brought to the fore in the hopes that they could be redressed by a powerful government. But Post-War America was a booming society unified by a common enemy — first the Axis Powers, then the Soviets. The economy, stimulated by rapid mobilization for the war effort, was sprinting ahead mightily. Soldiers returned from the horrors of war intent on starting families, getting a good education through the G.I. Bill, and earning an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work.
These forces upheld a status quo that imagined all wrongs were already righted, all battles already won. Yet just below the surface, new, uncomfortable conflicts were roiling, ready to engulf the country.
For Superman, these were the days of the Comics Code Authority, a body established by the comic industry after Congress launched an investigation of comic books based on accusations (most prominently made by Dr. Fredric Wertham in his “Seduction of the Innocent”) that they were corrupting the youth. The Comics Code Authority set strict guidelines about which types of stories were acceptable. Authority figures could not be questioned. “Good” had to prevail. “Evil” was always punished. Moral ambiguity was a no-no.
Gone was the social crusader of the Depression. Now, Superman upheld the status quo: one that was challenged (unsuccessfully) by various madmen every issue, and restored before the final panel. No changes were necessary, because the status quo was the ideal.
It was during this period that the famous description of Superman standing for “truth, justice and the American way” became nailed into the national consciousness. Recall that in his first appearance, Superman was simply a “champion of the oppressed.” Later, in the Adventures of Superman radio shows, the Man of Steel was described as a
…defender of law and order, champion of equal rights, valiant, courageous fighter against the forces of hate and prejudice, who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth and justice.
Noticeably absent is any mention of the “American way.” In fact, “American way” did not enter Superman comics until World War II, and was removed after.
In the 1950s, however, “American way” made its way back into the Superman mythos, by way of the Adventures of Superman television series. ComicBookResources.com’s “Comic Book Legends Revealed” blog has a good history of the “American way” phrase.
But, of course, Superman’s “never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way” had a clear purpose. These were the early years of the Cold War — a period defined by stark contrasts between an American “us” and a communist “them.” Americans were being blacklisted for having supposed communist ties or sympathies, and Senator Joseph McCarthy led the nation on a witch hunt for potential spies. Superman, as a proud American (he even clothed himself in the colors of the American flag), stood for nothing less than distinctly American ideals — “truth, justice and the American way.”
Another major difference between the Superman of 1938 and that of the 1950s was Superman’s power level. In 1938, Superman was super-fast, super-strong and could leap an eighth of a mile! Little by little, the Man of Steel gained more powers, like flight, heat vision and whatever else writers felt like adding.
By the 1950s he had become infinitely powerful, able to weather a nuclear explosion. Americans of the period lived in the shadow of the all-power bomb, frightened of a the possibility of an all-destructive nuclear war. And yet here, the American superhero, was smiling bravely in the face of nuclear holocaust, certain that he could handle anything such existential threat.
The post-war period affected Superman’s supporting cast as well. Lois Lane largely gave up her feisty pursuit of front page stories in order to court Superman (unsuccessfully). The workplace gains made by women during the war, when many able-bodied men were drafted or joined the service were erased as those same men returned to claim their jobs.
The economy soared, supported by the fact that all our major competitors’ industries were completely annihilated during the war. They turned to the United States, buying U.S.-made products as they recuperated. Emboldened unions demanded better benefits for a growing middle class, and American industry, with an effective global monopoly, readily agreed.
Wealth was spread more evenly among the various social classes, and many families could be supported on one income alone. Without a harsh economy or depleted labor force to support the need for women in the workplace, they participation in the workforce quickly dropped. Women who had taken up jobs to support their families during World War II were suddenly back at home. Rosie the Riveter was out. The Happy Housewife was in.
And so, Lois Lane too gave up her obsession with career and focused all her energies on tricking Superman into marrying her. She even got her own comic book during this period: “Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane.” Even in her own comic, her worth was judged by her relationship to Superman.
But social change was just below the surface. Tellingly, many conflicts in the 50s and 60s involved identity crises. The main conflicts of many issues revolve around a character transforming into something or someone else entirely, either by their own volition or through some wacky turn of events. Often, some sort of Kryptonite (like Red Kryptonite) would temporarily alter Superman’s mind or body. But identity crises were not limited to the Man of Steel.
For instance, in Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #91 (1966), Olsen infiltrates a group of delinquents by acting the part. Obviously, our Olsen could not be a member of this counterculture “motorcycle mob” (the kind of young men Wertham was convinced comic book immorality was producing), with their leather jackets and their disregard for authority figures. But for a bit, he could act the part, coming into direct conflict with Superman on the issue’s cover. (For more on the subject of identity crises during this period’s comics, see Grant Morrison’s new book, Supergods.)
Conflict was boiling up in America, ready to devour the rapidly deteriorating status quo.
Continue on to Part 3: Breaking Down the Old Order here.