When Superman Was Woke?

Everyone is familiar with Clark Kent’s (aka Superman) origin story. Orphaned by cosmic circumstance, rocketed to Earth, fostered by the midwestern Kents, superpowered by our planet’s physics, and taking on his secret identity as the milquetoast reporter are a story etched in modern American pop mythology. Less attention has been paid to his political roots. Every comic strip in the adventure genre especially has an identifiable political slant most obviously in its choices of wrongs to right and the villains it constructs. The famously conservative Chester Gould in Dick Tracy and populist Harold Gray in Little Orphan Annie were the most overt. Less obvious was the implicit imperialist sensibilities implicit in Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates and most of the adventure pulps that characterized non-Western cultures as at best quaintly primitive or at worst inherently brutal.

In reviewing the first months of Superman’s life in comics in 1938, I was struck by Siegel and Shuster’s first choices for criminality to avenge: lynching, miscarriage of justice, violence against women, capitalist lobbying for war, arms dealing and warmongering. Yes, Superman started life as quite the social justice warrior. Following Ma Kent’s prime directive to young Clark, his powers were to be directed “to assist humanity,” which was personified in his first story as “Superman: champion of the oppressed, the physical marvel who had sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need.”

As most comic book historians have told and retold, the first Superman appearances were Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s repurposed comics strips, a spec project they developed as teenagers and shopped around endlessly through much of the 1930s. The submissions were roundly rejected by newspaper editors and syndicates as crudely drawn childish fantasy, which of course they were. Even the visionary Will Eisner advised the duo that the Superman idea was not ready for the big time. But when the reformatted strips found their way into Action Comics, the rest was history. Superman and his many imitators would quickly define the superhero genre as a wildly imaginative canvas filled with exotic supervillains, global threats, criminal masterminds. But in its first iterations, Siegel and Shuster’s terrain was much smaller, focused often on everyday injustice.

The first Superman adventure took aim at mob rule, vigilantes breaking into a jail to lynch an innocent man.

Superman not only takes a stand against vigilantism but the inherent dangers of capital punishment. Learning that a wrongfully convicted woman is about to be executed the costumed do-gooder busts into the Governor’s mansion to provide evidence of her innocence minutes before the planned execution.

In fact, avenging violence against women is one of the early tropes of Superman’s heroism. After rebuffing a gangster’s advances at a nightclub, Lois Lane finds herself kidnapped, in what becomes a long history of Superman saving his colleague in place of the cowardly Clark.

I’m not sure when wife beatings in progress were being called into newspaper assignment desks, but that is what sets us up for Superman’s next heroic assignment.

But Superman quickly moves from the domestic to the global, targeting munitions lobbyists and arms dealers campaigning for war. Eventually, he forces an arms dealer into service in a South American war to demonstrate the fruits of his profiteering. On aside note, the munitions magnate in this sequence is named Emile Norvell. Per Jim Steranko in his Afterward to the DC Archives edition of Superman comics, Siegel and Shuster were alluding to two pulp magazine authors of The sider and other series, Norvell Page and Emile Tepperman.

And then brining the warring generals together to admit the pointlessness of the conflict, shake hands and make peace.

Soon enough, Superman would take aim at the usual rogues gallery of the pulp adventure and eventual comic book genre. And arguments have been made that the superhero genre embeds a set of conservative political presumptions. After all, most superheores are vigilantes working outside institutional justice. They are individualist and adolescent fantasies of personal power and autonomy that seem to romanticize social alienation rather than solve for it. And of course the genre glamorizes force, makes a pornographic spectacle of violence and destruction rather than a tragedy. But I not the one to prosecute that case. I have neither the knowledge of nor regard for this vein of graphic arts to bother. But in dipping into Siegel and Shuster’s initial imagining of their boyish fantasy, it does see to bend towards a politics we might sketch as social justice. Their concern for institutional corruption and injustice, the inhumanity of elites, inhumanity of war, the mistreatment of women are noteworthy. Much has already been said about how two Jewish boys in Cleveland, steeped in sci-fi and pulp nerd-ism, felt alienated from a sense of power as well as women. Clearly Superman was their childish response. At the same time, however, those social, psychological roots seem to have informed the boy’s early social sympathies for fellow outsiders, oppressed, disempowered.

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