Written by Roberto Martinez
December 4, 2017 marks the anniversary of a momentous occasion in comic book history. It was on this day 80 years ago - December 4, 1937 - that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (the creators of Superman) signed their first contract with National Periodicals. That contract would change the face of comics and graphic storytelling forever. In commemoration of that anniversary, Nerd Team 30 presents an editorial on Superman written by correspondent Roberto Martinez.
This was supposed to be a short article. It was supposed to be a quick little rant about a movie I didn’t like, but it turned into a treatise on a character I love. It snowballed, collecting research and theory it careened out of my control. I’m glad it did. But, since this was supposed to be a short work that was ready after a couple of days, I’d like to apologize to Nerd Team 30 for my tardiness and offer an explanation.
I was wracking my brain trying to figure out what to make this article about. Completely lacking any idea of what to say, I asked my mother for a topic. “Write about what heroes we need today in comics” she says. I kept thinking about that over the course of a day, figuring out what or who could possibly help in this new era which resembles a shit-covered-shit-burrito-wrapped-in-a-crappy-crunch-shell-of-crap.
I kept thinking about Superman. “But we have Superman already, why would we need Superman?” I asked myself. “Hmm. You really think people know who Superman is after watching Man of Steel and Batman V. Superman?” Then I felt a seething anger build in me, very similar to the sensation I had coming out of the theater in 2013. I hated Man of Steel with a passion I did not fully understand at the time.
Originally I had thought the anger was derived from it being such a bad representation of the Superman I knew from the comics, but then I realized it was far more personal than that. I used to love Superman. In fact, I had forgotten how I used to love Superman. When I was a kid, Superman was the only superhero besides Spider-Man who could capture my imagination. My mom used to tell me bedtime stories about superheroes when I’d exhausted her knowledge of fables and myths.
Superman was one of a few mythic pieces of pop culture that shaped my understanding of what it meant to be a good person. But then my friends made it clear to me that Superman was not cool. The arguments made to me (in much more basic terms than I’m using here) were: How could a big blue boyscout who was so damned happy be cool? How could someone with so much power be interesting? He can just shrug off anything you throw at him, there’s no tension in that. How the hell do you play as Superman with your friends on the playground when Superman is so much more powerful than all the rest of the characters you could play? And what’s the point of him when he’s so good in the first place? Where’s the drama in that?
Superman became my first concept of what people called a Mary Sue.[*] Too perfect. Too powerful. Too adolescent, even for a kid who had not yet even come close to double digits in age. But somehow, in the short amount of my life which had occurred before the time before I decided Superman wasn’t cool, I’d created some idea of what the character was supposed to be; who he really was beneath the blue pajamas and red S. But I only remembered this because I fucking hated the version of Superman presented to me by Zack Snyder and David “Superman Should Be Allowed To Kill” Goyer.
[*] I’m of the current opinion that the trope of the “Mary Sue” is a bullshit label that doesn’t actually convey a concept very well. That or the Divine Comedy is just some self-insert Mary Sue bullshit, take it or leave it.
First of all, contrary to my early rejection, Superman was not all-powerful. Besides the obvious limit of kryptonite, he was limited by his humanity. There were things that Superman would and would not do based on his moral compass, and those limits were important. He was a big blue boyscout who had the might to make things right, yes, but only ever used that might against bullies. He had embodied Truth, Justice and the American Way, and then abandoned the lattermost part of the creed to better serve the world. He was inspiration personified – and I really think the John Williams theme for the character is the best summation of this trait. Go listen to it right now and tell me if it doesn’t give you enough get-up-and-go to at least do the dishes. Superman, the alien who learned how to be a better human than most humans.
Let me lay out my case for why my childhood idea of what Superman is was correct all along. We’re going to go back to Superman’s origins and I’m going to prove he’s the hero we need today by describing the 1930s and the 2010s at once: Newsflash! After a crippling American financial crisis causes huge fallout across the face of the earth, a fearful global population begins to turn towards fascism and nationalism. Far-right demagogues design laws to penalize all who differ from their ideal norm and promise a return to their nations’ former greatness.
Eerie, right? Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman in 1933 when they were still in high school, although in a very different incarnation from what would appear in Action Comics #1 five years later. In the 30s America and a good chunk of the world had either flirted with, or outright chosen, authoritarianism (again, pretty close to today’s landscape) in the form of dictatorships and fascist alliances. People were fed up with their living conditions and the basic insecurities of low wages and lack of upward mobility. Many were lured by the siren song of a strongman promising a greater quality of life. With little or no framework to fulfill those promises, the demagogues instead turned public attention to foreigners and other "interlopers" as scapegoats. This was just as true in America as it was in Europe. For some, Hitler was not seen as a threat but as a role model. As a result, the German American Bund held a great amount of influence. Almost 20,000 American Hitler-supporters showed up at one Madison Square Garden rally in 1939 shortly before the Bund dissolved when its assets were seized. Siegel and Shuster would be well aware of the Bund when they published Action Comics #1 in 1938.
Discarding previous incarnations where Superman had been a villainous vagrant, a tough-as-nails detective, or a baby sent back in time from the future, the two Jewish creators developed Clark Kent as we know him today: an immigrant refugee from another planet whose alien name “Kal-El” resembles the Hebrew words for “voice of God.” These implications were not unnoticed at the time. After Superman took on Nazi Germany in the comics, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, went as far as to publicly denounce Superman and say of one of his creators, “Jerry Siegellack [sic] stinks. Woe to the American youth, who must live in such a poisoned atmosphere and don’t even notice the poison they swallow daily.” The Nazis saw Superman and what he stood for as a threat to their goals.
In the years during and after the Second World War, Superman became the king of superheroes. He was widely known as a paragon of virtue and synonymous with the motto of “truth, justice, and the American way,” a phrase coined by the Superman radio program. Of greater note, in 1946 when Superman needed new villains to replace the defeated Nazis, he went on to take on the Ku Klux Klan which resulted in the newly resurgent Klan being stopped in its tracks after the group’s secrets were broadcast over the course of 16 episodes. I want everyone reading to take a moment and think about how awesome that is: Superman is so good at beating xenophobic bullies that he managed to break a hole into reality and kick the KKK’s ass (take that, Superboy Prime.)
All right, I know I’m doing a lot of hero-worship here, but there are some big problems with Supes, particularly from the World War II era, that need to be addressed. A lot of the Golden Age comics are racist and Superman is no exception. The comics and the Fleischer cartoons feature hateful depictions of the Japanese. Besides that there were a lot of missteps that have been made in writing the character, some even within recent memory. A lot of this stuff still needs to be tackled elsewhere (sidebar: I really think someone should write a story about what Supes thinks and/or thought about the Japanese-American internment camps). I’m not here to defend these problems or say they don’t matter – they totally do. Despite this, I’m convinced that the core of Superman is not racist/nationalist propaganda, but a human responsibility to use whatever power you have whenever you can to help others. I needed to address these flaws before talking about Frederick Wertham.
A good portion of Supes’ modern problems stem from a period of time shortly after the war when Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent in 1954. This forever changed the landscape and readership of American comics. What had once been a multifaceted industry with a variety of genres read by a large cross-section of readership became synonymous with both superheroes and children in America. It also fundamentally changed the way that we look at Superman, with Wertham ironically aligning the character with fascism and authoritarianism by virtue of his near-godly amount of power and his attacking foreigners (I. E. the racist portrayals of the Japanese among others). This happened only 14 years after Goebbels had accused Superman of being Jewish propaganda.
Wertham was also the first to claim that Batman championed homoeroticism and was in a relationship with Robin. He also claimed that Wonder Woman was the Sapphic equivalent of Batman and a bondage fetishist (Wertham considered homosexuality and bondage to be immoral). Superman, superheroes, and DC ultimately won the war against Wertham by creating the oppressive comics code authority and censoring themselves into near-oblivion as well as effectively destroying E. C. Comics. Despite this, Wertham’s claims against Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman managed to gain a foothold in popular culture. The connection between Superman and fascism has followed him ever since.
And that brings us back to 2013’s The Man of Steel. I hate this movie. I hate this setting. I hate the utilitarian, objectivist, joyless, drab murderfest. The entire DC cine-verse (up until Wonder Woman) was obsessed with the possibility of a corrupted, fascist Superman. It’s a side-focus of Man of Steel, a main focus of Batman V. Superman, and a postulate of Suicide Squad. While they never fully commit to the idea of Superman being fascist, they flirt with the fear of it constantly. It’s an anxiety built into the DNA of the world.
Snyder’s Superman wrestles more with his moral compass than with threats against mankind, and his upbringing is a huge chunk of why the threat of fascism is ever-present. Normally in a Superman story we don’t worry about Superman taking power that doesn’t belong to him because his human parents have done such an outstanding job raising him to respect the agency of others. In contrast, Snyder’s Jonathan Kent errs on the side of selfishness rather than selflessness more often than not:
Jonathan Kent: You have to keep this side of yourself a secret.
Clark Kent: What was I supposed to do? Let them die?
Jonathan Kent: Maybe… But there’s more at stake here than our lives or the lives of those around us. When the world… When the world finds out what you can do, it’s gonna change everything…
Yep, Jonathan Kent suggests that maybe Superman should have let the school bus full of his classmates (and more importantly, Jon, your neighbors’ kids) die in order to make sure that Superman can deal with some real problems later. I’m not sure how talk about this. You could argue that this is an attempt at injecting some realism into Superman’s story, that in real life you have to make some sacrifices in order to ensure the most good gets done – except that Snyder’s Superman doesn’t really seem to care about that when it comes down to it. As has been pointed out by an entire army of other sources, Man of Steel’s Superman doesn’t make even the hint of an effort to change his venue with his climactic fight with General Zod, presumably causing a large amount of collateral damage in both property and human life. I find it utterly bizarre that MoS’s Superman cares so much about saving people from being murdered by Zod at the climax given how many incidental deaths he has to be responsible for at that point.
This is not to say that I think the subject of sacrifice should be forbidden in Superman’s world. I think a Trolley Problem scenario could be a great story for Superman, but it does not work for this interpretation. I think some of the questions Zack Snyder asks in both Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman are good questions, I just think his answers are mostly incoherent. So much of Snyder’s focus in the Superman movies is an attempt to show how his concept as a character doesn’t reconcile with the real world. But he was never meant to reconcile with the real world. He’s a fantastic, unattainable ideal. His power is not meant to represent physical power but the strength of a moral will to do right. Superman is a power fantasy, plain and simple, but one that’s meant to inspire us to do better as people.
Much to my relief this is reflected in Justice League. This is not a perfect movie by any stretch of the imagination, but the tone was so much closer to what I’ve wanted from the DCEU that I’m willing to forgive some errors that otherwise would have merited an entirely different article. I was not expecting to enjoy this movie, but everything in it was so refreshing compared to the previous, dour installments of the shared universe. On some very basic levels I feel like they interpreted Superman and Batman in ways that were so idealistically true to the characters’ origins. Batman says in the movie that Superman is more of an inspiration than he’ll ever be, and for the first time in this franchise they prove it. This Snyder/Whedon interpretation of Superman truly cares about the welfare of not just the world, but the other heroes in the universe. I’m not sure how much of this was Snyder trying to interpret the character through other fan’s eyes and how much of it was Joss Whedon’s rewrites and reshoots, but either way the product is satisfying.
I think my problem with Snyder’s previous version of Superman is that it’s too close to the reasons I wrongly rejected Superman in my youth. I misunderstood him as I grew up in a way that feels very similar to the way Snyder interpreted him in his first two forays into Superman. But I ultimately have to say I owe a debt of gratitude to Snyder on two levels. First, without hating his Superman so much, I wouldn’t remember why I loved him so much I the first place -- and why I think he’s the number one thing we need now in these days that feel darker every minute. Second, without his Justice League I wouldn’t finally have a modern cinematic interpretation of Superman that stands up to a world dominated by men trying to strong-arm the world into obeying their wills. For the first time in a long time I can look at the cinematic Superman and feel that hope which was promised back in 2013.