I know, I know…enough Superman already. What is this, “Seinfeld”? I was fully intending to have a Superman-free zone this weekend, but Steve-O-in NJ’s deft and historically illuminating comment on the second of the four honored comments on the last ethics quiz could not be ignored.
I think it shouldn’t be lost on folks here that Superman first appeared in Action Comics No. 1 in 1938. He came to be during the Depression, when this country was at its lowest and believing in itself the least. He was the creation of two aspiring Jewish writers named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who first conceived of him as a mind-reading, super-strong, and bald (!) villain given his powers by an experimental drug in a 1932 story called “Reign of the Supermen.” It wasn’t until 1935 that Superman became a hero and acquired his now well-known background, cape, and uniform. They had really wanted to get published in the comics pages as a strip, but when they kept getting turned down, eventually they signed away the rights to Jack Liebowitz, who had just formed Detective Comics, which would later become simply “DC” (although Detective Comics would continue to be published as a title and a year later Batman would debut there, but that’s another story). At least they’d finally see Superman published.
The rest, as they say, is history. However, Superman has, at least to some degree, always been an idealized “man of his times.” In the first few issues he was actually a bit of a smart aleck, and at one point anti-industrialist. Among other things, at one point he but two munitions manufacturers out of business, blaming them for war (THAT vanished with the coming of WW2). A real shocker was early on when he confronted a woman who had murdered someone. She drew a gun on him, whereupon he crushed the barrel out of shape, grabbed her hand, and asked her if she would surrender, “or shall I give you a taste of how that gun felt when I applied the pressure?” She of course surrendered, ruefully admitting that she would get the chair for the murder. Superman pitilessly replied, “you should have thought of that before you took a human life.” Obviously this would not fly now. It gets better when the character takes to radio in 1940, with a slightly modified origin story where he ages on the journey to Earth from Krypton and steps fully formed from the spacecraft, including being able to speak English. At one point he goes to confront a villain at his home, but finds only his Filipino houseboy, who of course speaks with a very exaggerated accent. He proceeds to intimidate him physically, and warn him, including a mild ethnic slur, that if he’s lied to him he’ll come back and kill him.