Superman

By Jacobus Dixon

What is it that Superman stands for? Most of us would answer “truth, justice, and the American way…duh”. But believe it or not, it was originally just truth and justice. Which, don’t get me wrong, are pretty arduous and lofty ideals to fight for. So where does this whole “American way” come from? Aren’t truth and justice enough to make an ideal hero? Well…in an atmosphere that has American soldiers entering a second world war, no.

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After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the United States declared war on Japan, who was allied with Germany and Italy (aka the Axis Powers), which in turn led to Germany declaring war on the U.S. So…yeah we were now officially engaged in international conflicts that we had successfully avoided for almost a decade. And to fight an overseas war, especially if you’re a country as rich in resources and industry as the U.S., you need domestic support. And for domestic support, you need nationalist propaganda to give everyone that special gung-ho “let’s kill some guys” feeling.

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Even comic books and their superheroes had joined the media blitz. Captain America, the Justice Society, the Human Torch, Namor, and Wonder Woman had warmed the waters a bit. But now came the time for full-blown images with pro-patriotic themes and anti-Nazi and Japanese sentiment. Superman-DC could not let Superman sit out on this. He was the first big star of comic book superheroes, he had to weigh in somehow. He had fought mad scientists, crooked businessmen, corrupt bureaucrats, and the occasional wife beater. No injustice was too big or too small for Superman (which was why he was as beloved as he was). But now he had to do these things in a way that let the reader know that his inherent goodness stemmed partly from his being American (even though he was an extraterrestrial from Krypton, but I digress).

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So here he is on the cover of Superman #14. He’s in a stance of power (legs slightly spread, with a fist on his hip) giving an easy-going smile to the massive Bald Eagle perched on his raised forearm. Meanwhile, a host of tanks and artillery cannons form up behind him. “You like reading about strong guys? Well Superman’s a strong guy. He’s also American, and Americans are strong people. See our tanks? Yeah, Superman’s like America- we don’t take crap from nobody.” This is the basic subtext that’s going on with this cover. Superman does good things, but the fact that he’s American makes his good work all for the better. So you enjoy your Superman story and feel patriotic at the same time.

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This certainly wasn’t Superman’s first crack at the Axis. He starred in a two-page spread in an issue of Look Magazine from 1940 that saw him collecting both Hitler and Stalin, and dropping them off at the League of Nations for trials against humanity. This time Superman is actively endorsing the American war effort as opposed to just nailing Hitler and Stalin because they were awful people. Captain America may have given Hitler that sock that most Americans so desperately wanted to give him, but it’s the image of Superman standing at the head of an American war machine with an American bald eagle that links superheroics to American values and official policies. In other words, it makes Superman (and superheroes in general) part of the Establishment. Which would serve him well during America’s most conservative period, but would also reduce his appeal to later readers. Even if the ideals behind the art became the subject of ridicule in later years, the image still stands as a stamp that Superman was made in America and is proud to be American.

The views expressed herein are solely those of the writer, and not Midtown Comics. Additionally, Midtown Comics makes no representations as to the accuracy of any of the information expressed herein.

 

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