When you sit down to write about the influence of a man who doesn’t even exist, it is perhaps inevitable that you start thinking (and talking) in symbols. And that’s particularly appropriate for a discussion of Superman, because Superman is a symbol, an icon not just in the modern sense but in the classic one, with all the religious overtones that implies.
You can’t grow up in the United States and not feel something about Superman. You can’t escape his mythology. Rocketed to Earth from a doomed world, the son of aristocrats and scientists, but raised by solid American farmers, molded by the values we, as a nation, claim to hold most dear. Even his profession, as a reporter, was about bravery and justice when the character was created.
But we tend to forget the original context of the character. Appearing at the tag end of the Great Depression, conceived by two young men who understood the hardships and challenges of common people in that era, the original Superman wasn’t just a wish-fulfillment character in terms of power, but in terms of what he did with that power.
The early Superman was, in his guise as Clark Kent, what we’d call an investigative reporter. He covered crime and government corruption, poverty and suffering. And unlike the diffident, ineffectual Kent of the Silver Age and onwards, the original version was an effective social justice crusader himself. His alter-ego even more so.
Superman’s early adventures were about taking down corrupt politicians and government officials, crooked cops, slum lords, gangsters and all those who prey on the poor and disadvantaged. He was a blue collar hero for a blue collar audience. An embodiment of the justice that most downtrodden people never find in real life.
That drive for social justice lead the character’s writers into having him participate in World War Two, as a form of militant, militaristic patriotism replaced the patriotism of the informed, engaged citizen. And after World War Two, in the repressive, conformist and increasingly paranoid late 40s and 50s, social crusading Superman vanished entirely, his quest to make his adopted nation and world a better place replaced entirely by fights with costumed villains, alien menaces and the occasional giant monster. And Clark Kent became a weak, ineffectual shadow of himself, writing about Pat Boone, becoming a TV anchor and generally embodying the nation’s shift away from seeing reporters as people to be admired.
In the original incarnation of the radio show, Superman fought for ‘Truth and Justice’. Post World War Two, the iconic intro was changed to ‘Truth, Tolerance and Justice’ and as America rolled into the 50s and Cold War panic set in, that became ‘Truth, Justice and the American Way’. And Superman as a champion of social justice simply faded away. The hero who had taken on City Hall, the mob, war profiteers and the Klan became a bland defender of the status quo.
But a funny thing happened. A strange alchemy of pop culture and creative work on the part of the myriad of people who wrote and drew the character over the years. In removing his leftest, popularist political bent and putting him above and beyond politics, the working class hero of a pair of Jewish boys from Cleveland because a secular messiah figure.
The modern Superman is still a defender of the status quo. With the occasional swerve into declaring racism, sexism and other things ‘generally bad’ but things he won’t confront directly, because he’s here to be an example and it’s up to humanity to live up to that example, Superman is Jesus, without all that messy religious baggage. Superman doesn’t judge (unless you try to zap Metropolis with a death ray). Superman doesn’t make war. Superman doesn’t have human politics. He’s just there to fly over society without being a part of it, occasionally answering prayers to save a life or get a kitten out of a tree.
Our hero has become a kind of bland, red and blue deity, humble in that he keeps his throne out of sight, but offering us salvation and redemption in this life by following his example. A bodhisattva who punches the occasional bad guy.
For me, Superman, the Superman I think of when I hear the name, the Superman I idolize died before I was ever born. He had a good twenty or thirty years and then was quietly replaced with a figure who taught us passivity, rather than action. Taught us blind faith, rather than informed citizenship. Taught us ‘The American Way’, rather than ‘Tolerance’. Who was above and beyond our struggles. We gained a god and lost a comrade.
Would Superman have persisted, as an American myth, as long as he has without that four color beatification? Probably not. But in the character’s shift away from social justice, our nation’s shift is manifest. And frankly, we all could all benefit by going back to that mindset. Of actually applying Superman’s values, rather than paying lip service to them.
Sure, celebrate 75 years of Superman. But me? I’m going to try to live by the first 20 of them or so.