"The Superman of the late ’30s was an angry fellow. He battled crooked politicians and slimy capitalists– once dragging a coal tycoon down into his own unsafe mine. He grabbed generals sending soldiers to their deaths and placed them on the frontline."
Did you know that the Nazi's hated Superman. They were so upset by a 1940 article in Look magazine entitled "How Would Supermen End the War," in which Superman invaded Europe, rounded up Hitler and Mussolini, and toted them off to a war crimes trial, that the official newspaper of the SS went to the trouble to try and trash the Man of Steel.
There is a lot about Superman of which you may not be aware...and bunches of it is political.
I doubt that few if any readers of Scission, myself included, have ever heard the Superman Radio Show from way back when. Too bad, it seems. From Scan:
On the radio, Superman was far more grounded in pressing contemporary concerns, as demonstrated by the story arcs this paper will focus on, featuring Superman battling, in turn, the 'Guardians of America', a group fomenting racial hatred to prevent the building of an inter-faith recreational facility in Metropolis; a racketeer promoting juvenile delinquency in league with a corrupt mayoral candidate threatening to block a slum clearance and regeneration program; an organisation closely resembling the Ku Klux Klan, trying to force a Chinese-American family out of Metropolis; and Big George Latimer, a crooked political boss using racial and religious intolerance to keep war veterans out of state jobs that they had been promised. In 1946, with the Ku Klux Klan capitalising on the social upheavals of the war, the problematic reintegration of veterans into civilian life a pressing concern and juvenile delinquency one of the most discussed topics in the US, Superman's producers were clearly immersing the character in the social concerns of the time.
Continuing on this theme for a bit...
"The series is also credited with dealing a powerful blow against the Ku Klux Klan's prospects in the northern USA. The human rights activist Stetson Kennedy infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan and other racist/terrorist groups. Concerned that the organization had too strong connections to the government and police forces, Kennedy decided to use his findings to strike at the Klan in a different way. He contacted the producers of the Superman series and proposed a story where the superhero battles the Klan. The producers, looking for new villains, eagerly agreed to the idea. To that end, he provided information - including secret codewords and details of Klan rituals - to the writers. The result was a series of episodes, "The Clan of the Fiery Cross", in which Superman took on the Klan. Kennedy intended to strip away the Klan's mystique, and the trivialization of the Klan's rituals and codewords likely had a negative impact on Klan recruiting and membership.
"Reportedly, Klan leaders denounced the show and called for a boycott of Kellogg's products. However, the story arc earned spectacular ratings and the food company stood by its support of the show."
And off we go...
Lloyd Bourne, writing at LewRockwell.com says:
Created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster in 1933, Superman was the solution to all ‘social injustice’. Born out of the Progressive tradition Superman was a ‘Champion of the oppressed’. The oppressed, of course, were all those under the thumb of rich private individuals who were responsible for crashing the economy.
In his first couple comic book appearances Superman fixed the following ‘injustices’: Stopping a private arms dealer from inciting a war, showing a rich mine owner how horrible his safety standards were, and destroying slums so government could come in and rebuild better housing for the poor.
In 1954 a well known psychiatrist, Fredric Wertham published his book, Seduction of the Innocent. In it Wertham blamed the violent subject matter of comic books for the problems with youths. The book stirred up enough ‘public concern’ for Congress to launch an inquiry. The threat of Federal regulation pushed the comic book industry to preemptively self-regulate. The Comics Code Authority was born, their mission was to prohibit certain subject matters from reaching the public. All overt violence was banned, ‘In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds.’ and ‘Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.’ This caused Superman to support the status quo and abandon all of his social justice crusades.
Another reason for the change according to the New Republic:
...had to do with the way pop culture changed in the age of television. The producers of the Superman television series starring George Reeves felt strongly that the show and the comics should work in tandem. The series’ tight production budget meant the Man of Steel spent most of his time facing off against petty thieves, smugglers, and bank robbers. The comics dutifully followed suit.
Superman was created by a couple of Jews named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster from Cleveland. Back in the 1930s lots of young Jews were trying to find a place in the pulp comic industry. It seems that for some reason comic book publishers actively hired Jews which wasn't the case in other industries that required illustrators. Jewlarious points out:
The 1930s were also, arguably, the most anti-Semitic period in American history. Nazi sympathizer Fritz Kuhn of the German-American Bund led legions of rabid followers on marches through many cities, including Siegel and Shuster's hometown. Radio superstar Father Charles E. Coughlin of the pro-fascist Christian Front was one of the nation's most powerful men. And Ivy League colleges kept the number of Jewish students to a minimum, while country clubs and even entire neighborhoods barred Jews altogether.
So Siegel and Shuster began submitting treatments under the pseudonym Bernard J. Kenton, just to be on the safe side. Throughout the Great Depression, the two boys scraped together every penny they could just to cover postage. Shuster sketched on cheap brown wrapping paper.
From these humble beginnings, Siegel and Shuster carved out a character that embodied their adolescent frustrations, served as a mouthpiece of the oppressed, and became an American icon.
Of course, while DC comics made a fortune off Superman, Siegel and Shuster weren't so lucky. They were paid a salary, but in the process gave up their rights. They ended up selling their percentage for $130 (so much for the myth of those shrewd Jewish businessmen) and were fired from their own comic creation. Only later in the 70s, after the truth of what happened came out and a bit of a public outrage against DC developed did their names again appear besides their creation.
A little aside, in later years DC comics did an episode where Superman goes back in time to confront the Holocaust. Amazingly, or maybe not, DC decided to purposely never use the word "Jews" in that issue. They used "targeted population" instead. They were later forced to apologize for this little slip up.
Did I mention that Superman came to America illegally?
Then again, what about Superman's racist past.
PS: Growing up in the 50s, I once had an incredible collection of Superman and other comics which I kept in pristine condition. Unfortunately, my mom, may she rest in peace, threw them all away along with my equally impressive baseball card collection. Oh well, I lover her still.
The following is taken from The Hooded Utilitarian.
Prehistory of the Superhero (Part Seven): Reign of the Superman
by Alex Buchet
Art by Joe Shuster
Once commentators could discuss the “Superman”, the “Super-Race”, and the “Super-Society” without drawing connections back to the philosophy from whence it sprang, the Uebermensch proved to be a concept able to accommodate any number of competing moral viewpoints. And once Nietsche could become a thinker with answers but no questions, and his philosophy a celebration of power rather than a testament to the need for human wonder, the Uebermensch’s naturalization into American intellectual and cultural life was successfully under way.
– Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, American Nietzsche
See you in the Funny Papers
Art by Roy Crane; click on image to enlarge
This opened the way for such classic adventure series as Terry and the Pirates, Prince Valiant, Flash Gordon, and Dick Tracy.
Art by Phil Davis (1906-1964)
Mandrake has been the springboard for subsequent magician superheroes such as Ibis the Invincible, Dr Strange, or Zatara. Sometimes the imitation verged on plagiarism: witness Zatara:
Art by Fred Guardineer
Falks’ other classic superhero creation was the Phantom of Bengal (1936).
The Phantom had an original backstory: Kit Walker was the 21st Phantom in a lineage stretching back to his ancestor in 1516. By adopting the same mask and costume generation after generation, the Phantoms created the legend of an immortal fighter for justice:
Art by Ray Moore (1905-1984); click on image to enlarge
The Phatom‘s costume pioneered several of the visual tropes associated with superheroes ever since: form-fitting top and tights, with the elegant innovation of underpants worn on the outside; a skull-hugging hood; and a mask with blanks hiding the eyes. All he lacked was a cape — which deficiency Mandrake supplied. Compare the Phantom to such later superheroes like Batman and Captain America, and it’s obvious how much the latter owe to Falks’ design.
All in Color for a Dime
Funnies on Parade was devised chiefly as a way to keep Depression-idled printing presses busy. It was never sold, but used as a promotional giveaway by Procter and Gamble; everybody thought there was no money to be made selling what came free with the daily newspaper.
Cover illustration by Jon Mayes
The newsstands were soon flooded with comic books. It’s not hard to understand their appeal; in our age of i-Pads and portable television, we have to remember that back in the 1930s immersive visual entertainment was limited to movie theatres.
But far from this publishing sideshow, 1933 is a year chiefly remembered for a dark and world-changing occurrence on the other side of the Atlantic: on January 30, President Paul Von Hindenburg appointed the leader of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, Adolph Hitler, the Chancellor of Germany.
Hoch der Uebermensch!
Illustration for the 2nd Congress of Eugenics (1921). Click image to enlarge.
Eugenics is an ideology that calls for the preservation or improvement of human genetic stock by encouraging “superior” individuals, and discouraging “inferior” ones, to breed. From the vantage point of the 21st century, after a hundred years of horror and suffering inflicted by such ‘scientific’ racism, it is hard to wrap our heads around the idea that this was once considered a humane and socially progressive idea; yet champions of eugenics included such forward-thinking persons as H.G.Wells, Margaret Sanger, George Bernard Shaw andSydney Webb.
The organization “Lebensborn e.V.” serves the SS leaders in the selection and adoption of qualified children. The organisation “Lebensborn e.V.” is under my personal direction, is part of the race and settlement central bureau of the SS, and has the following obligations:
- 1. Support racially, biologically, and hereditarily valuable families with many children.
- 2. Place and care for racially and biologically and hereditarily valuable pregnant women, who, after thorough examination of their and the progenitor’s families by the race and settlement central bureau of the SS, can be expected to produce equally valuable children.
- 3. Care for the children.
- 4. Care for the children’s mothers.
German propaganda poster, 1942. Note the contrast between the calm, strong “Uebermensch” German soldier and the defeated, multiracial French prisoners in the background.
(Before crossing the Atlantic back to the USA, let me repeat that Nietzsche himself was, contrary to popular modern conception, not at all a proponent of the sort of ruthless evolutionary pruning that characterised social Darwinists and eugenics enthusiasts:
There is rarely a degeneration, a truncation, or even a vice or any physical or moral loss without an advantage somewhere else. In a warlike and restless clan, for example, the sicklier man may have occasion to be alone, and may therefore become quieter and wiser; the one-eyed man will have one eye the stronger; the blind man will see deeper inwardly, and certainly hear better. To this extent, the famous theory of the survival of the fittest does not seem to me to be the only viewpoint from which to explain the progress of strengthening of a man or of a race. — Friedrich Nietzche, Human, All too Human (1876)
Man of Steel — and of Paper
click on image to enlarge
This Superman was an evil tyrant with psychic powers. Siegel, later in life, recalled how the word and concept of a superman was much discussed at the time, in tandem with the rise of Naziism in Germany. Both Siegel and Shuster were Jews; this evil ur-Superman likely reflected alarm over growing Nazi power.
Jerry Siegel, an intellectually and physically circumcised chap who has his headquarters in New York, is the inventor of a colorful figure with an impressive appearance, a powerful body, and a red swim suit who enjoys the ability to fly through the ether.The inventive Israelite named this pleasant fellow with an overdeveloped body and underdeveloped mind “Superman.” He advertised widely Superman’s sense of justice, well-suited for imitation by the American youth.As you can see, there is nothing the Sadducees won’t do for money!Jerry looked about the world and saw things happening in the distance, some of which alarmed him. He heard of Germany’s reawakening, of Italy’s revival, in short of a resurgence of the manly virtues of Rome and Greece. “That’s great,” thought Jerry, and decided to import the ideas of manly virtue and spread them among young Americans. Thus was born this “Superman.” [...] Woe to the youth of America, who must live in such a poisoned atmosphere and don’t even notice the poison they swallow daily.(Das Schwarze Korps, April 25, 1940.)
art by Joe Shuster; click on image to enlarge
The above illustration shows another strong influence on Superman’s genesis, the pulp hero Doc Savage. Consider the below house advertisement for Doc:
click on image to enlarge
Now began a five-year effort to sell the strip. It was turned down time and again by the syndicates. One editor commented: “The trouble with this, kid, is that it’s too sensational. Nobody would believe it.” Bell Syndicate told them, “We are in the market only for strips likely to have the most extra-ordinary appeal, and we do not feel Superman gets into this category.” United Features said that Superman was “a rather immature piece of work.”
art by Joe Shuster; click on image to enlarge
This act of destruction cleared the way for a new version. There was a new outfit, obviously inspired by newspapers’ The Phantom and by circus performers. As Shuster noted, they had created a “kind of costume and let’s give him a big S on his chest, and a cape, make him as colorful as we can and as distinctive as we can.” This showbiz instinct was tremendously prescient. The image of Superman is recognised the world over — a marvellous branding success — and has been imitated by countless superhero characters up to the present day.
Joe Shuster at the drawing board, with Jerry Siegel hovering; click on photo to enlarge
Finally, the two creators were able to place the strip with Max Gaines at National Allied Publications — the future DC comics. It was looked on almost as filler material — editor Vin Sullivan didn’t have enough strips to round out Action Comics 1. Still, Superman was splashed on the cover — a cover that almost went unused because Gaines felt it was too silly:
art by Joe Shuster; click on image to enlarge
art by Fred Guardineer
The comic came out on April 18, 1938. It was an instant sellout. The age of the superhero comic book was born — and continues today, in a much-etiolated, decadent form, totally dominating popular comic books — to the point where superhero comics are actually termed ‘mainstream’. (Famously, Siegel and Shuster saw the merest trickle of the ocean of money Superman was to generate.)
The hero of Gladiator, Hugo Danner, exhibits powers identical to those ofSuperman‘s in his first appearances: herculean strength, bulletproof skin, the ability to leap great distances. Danner got his power as a result of his scientist father’s attempt to replicate the proportional strength of insects; now read this early presentation of Superman, with a note at the end on his power:
art by Joe Shuster; click on image to enlarge
Wylie, in a 1963 interview with science fiction historian Sam Moscowitz, claimed that Superman was plagiarised from Gladiator, and that he’d threatened to sue Siegel and the publisher in 1940.