The Origins of Superman

JULY / AUG 2011: BY LYDIA WATSON

superman

December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, a day that changed America, the day America entered the war it was trying so hard to stay out of… and a year that defined America’s biggest superheroes.

In 1932, two Jewish men living in Ohio created one of the most iconic figures of American comic books and pop culture, Superman, an invincible superhero from a distant planet who could leap tall buildings with a single bound and took his power from the red sun. When he was first introduced in the 1938 Action comic number one, it wasn’t long before America was swept with Superman fever. It was perfect timing; with the rise of Nazism, co-creator Jerry Siegel felt that the world needed a crusader, even if it was just a fictional one. And apparently so did the rest of America.

With the creation and popularity of Superman, DC comics soon introduced characters like Batman, Robin, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern and many more easily recognizable names and figures as well as many we don’t remember today. America was hungry for a new type of entertainment and for characters that stood for truth, justice and the American way.

During 1939 and 40 there was a thirst for Superman stories, comics, and products like there had never been seen before and almost has never been seen since. It was clear that there was a thirst for more superheroes. It wasn’t long before the rest of the heroes we know so well were created. At first, they fought things like bigotry, petty criminals, gangsters and brought on their own kind of vigilante justice. Superman even fought the KKK in one comic book! However, overseas there was a growing threat that couldn’t be ignored, Nazi Germany. As this threat grew more and more serious, it couldn’t be ignored by the writers and artist of Action Comics.

When America entered World War II, so did its superheroes. But you can’t have Superman, a fictional character, win the war. For such a thing to happen would disrespect the real men fighting the war and of course for young children reading and watching the stories of such fictional heroes, make them question what was really happening overseas.

Instead, Superman took on the job of supporting the war effort. He was on posters asking people to buy war bonds and recycle, even if that meant having to recycle comic books. Batman and Robin delivered guns to men on the front lines, Wonder Woman used the heads of iconic people like Hitler as bowling pins. Comic books were also used to help teach many of those entering the military how to read. During a time when literacy rates were not as high, the military had to find away to encourage reading among soldiers, and comics was a great way to do so. Over 30% of printed materials sent overseas during the war were comic books.

Even though Superman could not directly fight the war, comic books and radio plays were still being written and somehow had to deal with what was going on in the real world without it directly affecting the fictional one. Clark Kent was rejected from the draft because of poor eyesight, accidentally using his X-Ray vision to read the eye chart. Though many comic covers saw support from Superman for the War, many of the stories inside the comics stayed away from direct conflicts with German dictators, choosing to remain with Superman fighting criminals at home and attempting to defeat his arch-nemesis, Lex Luthor.

Though many probably imagined what would have happened if Superman were real and it was even postulated how Superman might have ended the war, in the end it was not something that could really happen. Stories that had to be written for so many different medias for Superman and other comics had to focus on more than just what was happening overseas. Stories arcs can be finished in an episode or a month, WWII lasted for years. Thus Superman and others had to stay in the background, reminding people to keep supporting the boys overseas and keeping those serving entertained. There were stories now and then that those reading could tie to the war as superheroes fought evil dictators, spies, and on occasion Superman would run into Nazis outside Europe, but overall comics were used as an escape from war rather than a reminder.

It was a time like America has not seen since, a time that changed a nation, it’s people, and helped propel a new genre of storytelling and heroes who stood up for what they believed in and encouraged a nation to do so as well. Created by immigrants who found themselves fighting for the country they were so proud to live in, these stories were each in their own way touched by the lives and the commitment of the people who created them. Over the years they have changed as America has changed but they still retain many of the core values instilled in them by their original creators; themes brought on by a nation on the brink of war and characters filled out by the lives of those who wrote them.

Superman may not have won the war but he helped define and was defined by a generation and continues to be a beacon of hope today.

For more information, I recommend you visit the supermanhomepage.com and see the documentary Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics. ■

julyaug2011

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