Something out of the ordinary for Rambling History today from my good friend, Michael Millar.
Mike explores the politically-charged origins of Superman, and how in 2018, the other-worldly superhero finds himself fighting the same people he did in the 1940’s – Except this time they are in America, in the media, and in political office.
Recent outrage by the alt-right over Superman’s collision with modern-day fascists is nonsensical and bizarre – and highlights both a rejection of his origins and what he stands for.
2018 marks an 80 year anniversary for the superhero genre, as Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster, two Jewish boys from Cleveland gave us the original superhero, Superman.
A man of steel able to fly, with x-ray and heat vision, super hearing, super speed, super strength and freeze breath. It’s a wondrous fantasy. From the cover of Action Comics #1 in 1938 (showing Superman lifting a car over his head) to a mass expansion of heroes that dominates cinema, television and pop culture alike in a modern-day mythology.
It may be easy to think of comics as a very childish interest, and in the early days of comics that’s certainly the case. However, across their history they’ve had a much deeper impact on culture and even our politics than many people realise.
British legend Alan Moore used the platform of Swamp Thing to focus on environmental issues. Over at Marvel, X-Men comics were written in response to America’s civil rights movement. Comics have even been used as a government commissioned tool to educate young people all over the world on the dangers of drug abuse or with landmines in nations ravaged by war, showing the huge reach these characters have all over the globe.
Even with this positive effect, however, politics in comics is still quite a rare thing. It’s partly because in the biff! pow! and blam! excitement of the genre, action focused solutions tend to take precedence as heroes struggle to find the best way to punch a problem away – meaning that ‘Superman vs The Beast from The Sea’ is likely a better seller than ‘Superman and The Infrastructure Debate.’
Sometimes this distance from current affairs is also due to not wishing to alienate certain reader demographics or cover topics deemed inappropriate by parents. However rare those moments may be, they still define a character like Superman more than anything.
Delving Into Politics (Once Again)
Last year DC Comics dipped back into a political narrative and stirred up ire from right wing commentators who believed it to be alienating and inappropriate. Faster than a speeding bullet, Superman leaps into action to protect undocumented immigrants from white supremacists in Action Comics issue 987.
An issue that is perhaps too far a politicised step for the Man of Steel as Breitbart took their trademark style of outrage to a column, writing:
“In an act of Super socialism, once police arrive, our Social Justice Supes orders them to protect the illegal aliens to make sure they are ‘safe and cared for’.”
The column continues, going on to say: “DC Comics long ago declared that Superman is no longer American. Where once the hero touted the ideals of ‘truth, justice, and the American way,’ like a good leftist Superman is now a ‘citizen of the world’.”
- Breitbart weren’t the only right wingers to chip in, with Todd Starnes of Fox News stating:
“Don’t be surprised to see the Flash rushing Mexicans across the border or Wonder Woman using her lasso to round up Texas ranchers trying to defend their property.
“It’s unfortunate that DC Comics is turning its stable of iconic heroes into political pawns – hell-bent on indoctrinating our kids.”
This feedback is part of the risk in delving into a subject matter like this, and it’s not like Superman hasn’t had to deal with reactions like this in its long history of publication.
These Breitbart and Fox criticisms are actually quite a lot like this one from 1940: “Well, we really ought to ignore these fantasies of Jerry Israel Siegel, but there is a catch. The daring deeds of Superman are those of a Colorado beetle.
“He works in the dark, in incomprehensible ways. He cries “Strength! Courage! Justice!” to the noble yearnings of American children.
“Instead of using the chance to encourage really useful virtues, he sows hate, suspicion, evil, laziness, and criminality in their young hearts.”
That’s a quote from Das Schwarze Korps, a weekly SS publication, berating Superman and its creator, Jerry Seigel, for depicting Superman fighting Hitler – its similarity to articles written today is again a painful rationalisation of fascism by the American right media.
Condemn the minority and stress that these racists are the ones who are really misunderstood. Can’t Superman just take the same logic that the president uses? Sure, the comic under fire shows superman shielding immigrants from the bullets of a white man talking about how they stole his job, but perhaps Superman should think about how there were bad guys on both sides? Then again…nah. It’s never been in his nature.
The Original AntiFa
The real misunderstanding here is of what Superman as a character actually represents, while they see his recent act as one that defies his status as a representative of truth, justice and the American way, that status was built during the Second World War. The comic that caused the SS outrage? That’s from an issue of Look Magazine who published the strip in February of 1940, showing Supes dropping Hitler and then perceived ally Stalin into a court in Geneva.
This is remarkable because it was actually Superman fighting the Nazi’s even before America was. When the US did join the war, it was met full throttle by the comics industry who sent all their characters overseas to fight the axis forces, resulting in a huge spike in sales from ten to twenty million comics sold between 1941 and 1944.
It wasn’t an issue that they tackled delicately by any means, with the comics downplaying many of the wars horrors like the holocaust in favour of producing works that were more in line with American anti-axis art of the time, depicting Japanese soldiers as buck toothed or fanged merchants of the black arts and evil, much in line with the racially stereotypical propaganda of the time.
Superman and other DC heroes were entrenched in the war effort off the page too, being a popular item amongst care packages sent to American soldiers. They were also bought in large volumes by the US Army to fill their library service; to much popularity with 44% of men in training camps reading comics regularly and 13% occasionally.
The industry used their position of power and influence over American youth to encourage the collection of scrap paper. This is what has resulted in the massive valuation of comics from that era today. 1930’s and ’40’s Superman comics can have values in the hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars – all because of DC telling people to recycle their comics for better war resources.
An act of generosity for old Uncle Sam that created the collectors market.
The Symbolic Origins of Superman
Maybe it’s difficult to see an all-American character show political leaning that you don’t agree with. Perhaps Superman’s direct, punch heavy approach to solving problems spoke to Breitbart as they envisioned him to be an all-American style ‘traditional’ good guy. (Basically a white middle-class dude with a Burt Reynolds moustache, that’s a real American…)
Superman siding with minorities is apparently an outrage, yet they fail to see how Superman himself is a minority and one of the great Jewish stories of a non-religious nature. Captured exquisitely by Jordan Hoffman in The Times of Israel:
“Superman was created in the 1930’s by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, two Jewish-American children of European refugees.
“Superman’s “old country” is Krypton, an advanced realm that ultimately destroyed itself. Superman’s real name is Kal-El, son of Jor-El. The suffix El, of course, means “of God” in Hebrew, with Kal-El defined by some as “Voice of God.”
“Before Krypton’s doom, Kal-El’s parents put him in a Moses-like basket, sending him down the Nile of intergalactic space until he landed safely on Earth.”
These Jewish roots are likely a contributing factor to Superman’s fight against persecution. Today for Fox, maybe this is just another example of American literature giving way to a liberal elitist agenda. The problem with that, however, is that once again it is eerily similar to Nazi cries against Superman.
Hitler admired the American wealth in industrial production, but claimed it to be a mongrel country run by a capitalist elite with strong ties to the Jews, and just as Superman is now ‘Social Justice Supes’ to political critics, he was once a symbol of Jewish American propaganda to political critics back then.
What this recent brush with white supremacy shows for Superman is an evolution in editorship, he can’t fight issues in the same way now than he did in WWII, nor would we want him to. For something more modern that resembles old propaganda, look no further than Frank Miller’s Holy Terror comic, an attempt to show superheroes fighting Islamic terrorism in the same way that they fought the Axis.
A story that was derided for being Islamophobic – and it was – these issues have evolved and the manner in which they are addressed by the comic industry has evolved too.
It is there that we see the flaw in the alt-right’s judgement; fighting white supremacy is the very thing that demonstrated Superman’s fight for “truth, justice and the American way” but when these issues evolve they would rather cling to their own idealistic version of the character than accept that yes, political issues are unusual waters in the genre, but Superman – a character created by two Jews in the late 1930’s – built his popularity on this particular political issue and continues to do so in a manner more suited for this day and age.
While it may be tough for Breitbart or Fox to admit, Superman in many ways was the original AntiFa, and it seems that Tiki torches are no match for freeze breath.