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The Ideology of Superman: Breaking Down the Old Order

This is Part 3 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 4: Morning in America here.
Read Part 5: Big Business and Brinksmanship here.
Read Part 6: America in the Post-Soviet World here (when the post is ready).
Read Part 6: Reconnecting with Humanity here (when the post is ready).

–BREAKING DOWN THE OLD ORDER–

Many factors shook American society through the late 1960s and the 1970s: the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, oil shocks, the feminist movement, a new environmentalist movement, rampant inflation coupled with high unemployment, the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the Watergate scandal and President Nixon’s subsequent resignation, and so on. The first of the baby boom generation (born in the late 1940s) were reaching maturity and causing shockwaves throughout society. Many rejected the traditional outlooks of their parent’s generation, endorsing the counterculture of the hippie movement.

Comics began to leave behind the outdated and outmoded Comics Code Authority. The Amazing Spider-Man #96-98 featured a story arc in which the webslinging hero’s friend, Harry Osborn, is shown to be addicted to pills. The Comics Code Authority refused to give the issues its approving stamp, but Marvel ran it anyway. It sold tremendously well, condemning the Comics Code Authority to increasing irrelevancy.

DC dealt with various issues, including cocaine addiction, in its "Green Lantern" title.

DC also dealt with tough issues, most notably in its Green Lantern title, written by Denny O’Neil. That book constantly pitted Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) in a battle of ideologies against his friend and sometime partner, Green Arrow (Oliver Queen). The series addressed issues such as environmental protection, race relations, and, famously, drug addiction as Green Arrow discovered his ward, Speedy, was addicted to cocaine. And yes, countless others have noted the irony of a character named Speedy eventually being addicted to cocaine, so I don’t need to do so. But really, Green Arrow should have seen the writing on the wall with that one.

Superman’s world changed as well. The late 1960s saw new creative teams and a new art style mark a departure from the Mort Weisinger era (Weisinger edited the Superman comics during the 50s and 60s. He retired from DC Comics in 1970.).

The familiar elements of a Superman story changed drastically. An all-new supporting cast was introduced, new villains challenged the Man of Steel, new situations arose. As CBR’s Robot6 blog notes:

Before long, readers got to know his neighbors in 344 Clinton Street’s apartments, as well as various Kryptonians (like Supergirl, Krypto and the other Super-Pets, the Phantom Zone criminals, and residents of the Bottle City of Kandor).

Indeed, the revamped Superman titles added new characters of their own almost from the very beginning. Cat Grant, Jose “Gangbuster” Delgado, Maggie Sawyer, Colin Thornton, Ron Troupe, Jerry White, and Emil Hamilton all interacted with the existing supporting cast, and with each other, in various combinations.

Print journalist Clark Kent got a promotion when Galaxy Broadcasting System president, Morgan Edge, bought the Daily Planet and made Kent a TV news anchor. Big business was back in action, and deregulation was gaining steam. A Republican governor named Ronald Reagan was gearing up for a presidential bid to unseat incumbent Gerald Ford.

The 12-issue maxi-series "Crisis on Infinite Earths" rebooted the entire DC Universe.

The structure of a Superman story changed as well. Gone were the normality-interrupting gimmicks that defined the previous period. Now, stories were more character-driven. Writers were disassembling the status quo of Clark Kent’s world, albeit less violently than many of the social and economic forces challenging America in the real world.

American confidence was sinking, and with it Superman’s powers. Denny O’Neil’s brief stint on the comic saw Superman’s powers diminished by a third in a story arc entitled “Kryptonite Nevermore!” The description for the collected edition even says that “this story turned Superman’s status quo on its head.” The depowering would not last for long, however, as subsequent writers soon took to re-powering the Man of Steel for their own purposes, but Superman was no longer a static character replaying the same tired formula over and over again. His world was in flux.

Superman’s world would shift hugely one last time in the 1980s, and then settle into a new norm. The huge, company-wide crossover blockbuster event of 1985-86, Crisis on Infinite Earths hit the re-start button on all of DC’s properties, including Superman. The Man of Steel was de-powered yet again, his cast culled and revised, and his convoluted history streamlined, all marking a new normal.

It was morning in America.

 

Continue to Part 4: Morning in America 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).