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The Ideology of Superman: Morning in America

This is Part 4 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 2: Defender of the Status Quo here.
Read Part 3: Breaking Down the Old Order 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).

–MORNING IN AMERICA–

The blockbuster comic event Crisis on Infinite Earths wiped the DC Universe’s slate clean in 1986-1987, allowing writer John Byrne to rebuild the character from the ground up. Byrne stripped Superman down to his core elements, while simultaneously building up a large and strong supporting cast. For the first time since Denny O’Neil’s attempt in the 1970s, Superman’s power levels were reigned in. The Man of Steel was still strong, but he no longer boasted every conceivable power.

Byrne also shifted the Clark Kent-Superman dynamic, writing Superman as the alter ego for Clark Kent. Many previous interpretations had portrayed the bumbling Clark Kent as the mask and the strong, confident Superman as the true identity. Byrne reversed this, making Kent confident and successful, and emphasizing Superman as the “mask.”

Clark Kent was re-imagined as a more confident character.

Confidence was returning not only to Kent, but to America as well. Fed Chairman Paul Volker determinedly wrung inflation out of the U.S. economy, while large, simultaneous tax cuts and ramped-up government spending stimulated the stagnant economy (creating huge deficits in the process). Unemployment was dropping and the economy was picking up steam. It was, as Ronald Reagan proclaimed, “morning in America.”

Both Superman and the United States had weathered the turbulence of the 197os and emerged more self-assured, in a more stable environment. John Byrne’s new Superman universe would persist until the late 2000s, when DC’s latest blockbuster event, Flashpoint, would re-launch the character’s books. Tellingly, this same general period parallels the prolonged economic stabilization that followed the U.S.’s defeat of high inflation, and the ascendancy of Washington’s neoliberal consensus. (The neoliberal consensus, broadly, refers to general agreement during this period over issues like deregulation and the lowering trade barriers.) Both periods began in the 1980s and lasted until the Great Recession of the late 2000s.

Of course, this period also saw its share of changes. New creative teams would introduce or remove characters, and take the Superman books in different directions. Retcons (or “retroactive continuity” — essentially when a later comic book retroactively changes something about past continuity) were many and frequent. Likewise, American society would experience the AIDS crisis, the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the contentious 2000 presidential election, the September 11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina, and much, much more. But all of these various events took place in the broader context of a political period ushered in by the Reagan presidency, and thrown into disarray by the War on Terror and the Great Recession (or, in Superman’s case, ushered in by Crisis on Infinite Earths and re-launched by Flashpoint).

In addition to restoring America’s confidence in itself, President Reagan also brought about a revival of nationalism. America in the 1960s and 70s confronted the uncomfortable truth that various social groups were excluded from mainstream society. This, along with the traumas of Watergate and the Vietnam War, fractured a sense of national identity. Reagan restored this vision of an average American identity — the hard-working, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps American, who is able to achieve the American Dream via an honest job. There was great pride in being an American.

At the same time, Mexican immigration was beginning to increase dramatically, leading to an immigration policy overhaul in 1986. As with other periods of high immigration, certain nativist, anti-immigration sentiments began to spread.

John Byrne turned Superman into a full-fledged American citizen.

And so, for the first time, Superman — whose story was always that of the assimilated immigrant — was made a native-born American citizen. To be sure, this new origin still retained immigrant underpinnings. Superman’s biological parents were still Kryptonian. But now, instead of an infant Kal-El (Superman’s Kryptonian name) being rocketed to Earth, a developing fetus was sent in a “birthing matrix” (a futuristic baby incubator, of sorts). When the “birthing matrix” opened on Earth, Superman was born into the world, making him a full-fledged American citizen (thanks to the 14th Amendment).

Now, instead of being a story about an immigrant assimilating into American society, it became a story about the American boy discovering and studying his Kryptonian heritage, but still reaffirming his American identity. As Superman says in Man of Steel #6:

Krypton bred me, but it was Earth that gave me all I am. All that matters. It was Krypton that made me Superman, but it is the Earth that makes me human!

This new origin was later retconned in subsequent stories, reverting Superman back to his immigrant roots, but it nevertheless stands as a testament to the strong sense of a revived American identity.

Continue on to Part 5: Big Business and Brinksmanship here.


The Ideology of Superman: The New Deal Democrat

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–

Superman, "Champion of the Oppressed."

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.

Superman destroys slums so that the government will be forced to improve living conditions.

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.

Superman joins the war effort.

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.


The Ideology of Superman: Introduction

I generally get the same reaction every time I tell people I think Superman is the world’s greatest superhero: Really? Superman? Something about the Man of Steel just does not seem to resonate with contemporary Americans. He’s too powerful. He’s too virtuous. He’s too one-dimensional. He’s too old-fashioned.

I happen to wholeheartedly disagree with these characterizations, but the perception is obviously there. Of course, the opposite is true for Batman. He is the grim, flawed human who is all too happy to ride the line. He is the night to Superman’s day. He is the old money to Superman’s working class upbringing. He is the philanthropic capitalist to Superman’s New Deal Democrat.

Superman first appeared in "Action Comics" #1.

Now, let me clarify. He’s not my all-time favorite (Richard Grayson (aka Robin/Nightwing/Batman), holds that distinction) — but he is definitely in my top 3, along with Grayson and Bruce Wayne/Batman. So, why do I say that Superman is the greatest superhero?

Well, for several reasons. First, Superman is the original superhero. The Greeks philosophized that every object had an archetype: something that was that object in its purest form. Superman is the archetype from which all other superheroes flow. Everything that defines the superhero genre (secret identity, superpowers, origin story, costume, recognizable symbol, creed) was born full-formed and functioning in Action Comics #1 (1938).

(As an aside, let me just say that some people will quibble with my inclusion of superpowers in that list, and cite Batman. But, for all intents and purposes, Batman is superpowered. If you don’t believe me, you can try leaping off of buildings nightly while running a billion-dollar company, nursing innumerable gunshot wounds, surviving countless explosions and somehow returning to peak physical condition after having your back broken.)

Superman’s wild success with young boys of the Great Depression prompted comic book publishers to rush out and create as many characters as possible, most just thinly veiled Superman ripoffs. So, it is not hyperbole to say that every single comic book superhero can be traced back to Superman’s first appearance in Action Comics #1.

Examining Superman comics can reveal a bit about our own society and culture.

If superheroes are America’s pantheon of gods, then Superman is surely Zeus. And the god description is strikingly accurate when considering Superman’s characterization. He is portrayed, essentially, as a savior figure. Like Moses, birth parents sent him away in a basket so that he might escape premature death, only to be found and raised in another culture, by another race. The 1990s really laid the savior metaphor on thick, when Superman died to save the world from Doomsday, only to later rise from the dead (with a mullet).

But most of all, Superman tells us about ourselves as a society. Comic books, like any other medium, reflect the period in which they were produced, and Superman has been around since the Great Depression. What the Man of Steel reveals about the United States deserves volumes, but we’re going to do a superficial survey in one lowly blog post. So strap in for a whirlwind tour of Superman comics at various periods of American history.

Due to the length of this particular piece, I have split it up into several posts.

Read Part 1: The New Deal Democrat 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).