To celebrate the release of The Man of Steel this month, we’re going Superman mad. Check back daily for Superman-related reviews.
It’s interesting to look back that the early Superman stories in Action Comics. Given that Superman has picked up a reputation for being boring or predictable or safe or conservative, it’s amazing just how radical and inflammatory some of these very early Siegel and Shuster adventures are. These early Action Comics strips were undeniably and overtly political, presenting a strong-willed and proactive version of Superman completely unafraid to impose his will on the citizens of the world.
It’s a dramatically different take on the character than the version we’ve come to accept in popular culture, the benign and well-meaning boy scout who plays by the rules. Even Grant Morrison’s affectionate throwback to these early adventures can’t quite capture the same sense of subversive radicalism which presents us with a version of the iconic superhero who does just flaunt the authority of law enforcement or legislature, but often directly challenges it.
It’s in the nature of comic book characters to evolve and change over time. Although comic books tend to be a conservative and a nostalgic medium, it does seem to take a while for comic book characters to find their groove. Those fans clamouring for a return to a “classic” version of a particular character very rarely want to take the character back to their original state. The “classic” version of a particular character, the most recognisable and enduring, often takes a considerable amount of time to evolve from the original idea.
That said, there’s still something very strange about this classic version of Superman, as imagined by Siegel and Shuster. To a generation raised on Christopher Reeve’s gentle do-gooder, the man who could not tell a lie, this proactive social crusader must seem pretty far from the ideal “Superman.” The version of the character presented here isn’t about maintaining the status quo or enforcing the law or even rescuing kittens from trees. He’s about fighting social injustice.
I’m amazed that the comic got away with so blatant a taste for social justice, and so frequent a habit of sticking it to the man. With Superman himself repeatedly described in terms like “savior of the the helpless and oppressed”, “friend of the helpless and oppressed” and “champion of the oppressed, the physical marvel who had sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need!”, I am surprised that the comic didn’t attract too much undue attention in the political climate before the Second World War.
With a habit of pursuing corrupt lobbyists, evil stockbrokers and contractors who construct subway tunnels out of “inferior material”, Superman feels like quite a subversive character. He demolishes slum towns to force the government to build better housing for its citizens. He breaks into the governor’s house to plead the case of a death row inmate. He is an enemy of the state. With a reward on his head, we’re assured, “Regardless of his motives and our personal approval of them, the fact remains that he has wantonly destroyed public property and must pay the full penalty to the law just like any other transgressor!”
This feels undeniably and overtly political – Superman is going after fat cats and corrupt officials as much as gangsters and mobsters. There’s an undeniably radical subtext to all this. In fact, this version of Superman behaves more like the Batman of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns than the character appearing over in Batman or Detective Comics at this same time. This is a version of Superman who has absolutely no qualms about the application of his absolute power. He doesn’t care about the law or the system, and relies entirely on his own code of ethics to justify his actions.
In contrast, the version of the Caped Crusader appearing at the same time was a bit of an upper-class toff who liked to hang around with Commissioner Gordon, using his wealth and privilege to insert himself into criminal investigations. There was no real political commentary in his stories, and Batman was more likely to fight fantastic threats and crush conveniently evil crime syndicates than unearth systemic and deep-rooted corruption.
It seems like, at some point, Superman and Batman swapped places. Superman became the disconnected science-fiction hero who played within the status quo, while Bruce Wayne became a grim anti-hero who played by his own rules and imposed his own moral authority over his own city. It’s a very interesting switch, and it’s fun to imagine how and why that shift took place – why Batman eventually became the more subversive of the pair, while Superman became the more generic and vanilla.
Here, however, Superman does not hesitate to impose his will on the city. When he’s shocked by the number of automotive fatalities, he hijacks the airwaves to offer an ultimatum to the city. “The auto accident death rate of this community is one that should shame us all! It’s constantly rising and due entirely to reckless driving and inefficiency! More people have been killed needlessly by autos than died during the world war! From this moment on, I declare war on reckless drivers — henceforth, homicidal drivers answer to me!”
Being frank, it’s the type of controversial posturing which could make the character more interesting in the modern day and age. These early comics don’t explore the moral and ethical implications of Superman’s posturing, but it’s the kind of thing that would add a great deal of complexity to a modern version of the character. At the same time, the character is very much a product of his time, reflecting various social attitudes and ideals.
The comic book heroes of the thirties and forties tended to be more ruthless and violent. We’d consider them to be almost villains today, with their smug indifference to the casual loss of human life. At one point, a criminal dies trying to stab Superman. He seems less than shook up about it, musing “If he hadn’t tried to stab me, he’d be alive now. But the fate he received is exactly what he deserved!” That’s pretty damn cold, Superman.
There are several points where it seems like Superman is a gigantic bully – effectively imposing his will on people because he can. He’s a creepy and all-power paternalist figure. “See how easily I crush your watch in my palm?” he asks a gambler at one point. “If you don’t quit gambling I’ll look you up and give your neck the same treatment!” Later on, he deals with a potential blackmailer, observing, “I don’t like you… and I don’t like your blackmailing activities! So clear out of this town… while there’s anything left of you!” I don’t doubt he’d follow through on those threats.
Even outside of these somewhat hard-edged moments, which are pretty hardcore on their own, there are some very strange sequences which seem to foreshadow the character’s infamous “superdickery” from the fifties and sixties. For example, trying to help a run-down circus, he throws the manager’s office through the sky. That’s impressive, but the guy’s tax returns and stuff were probably in there.
At one point, he sends a an escaped convict back to a brutal prison knowing that the man will be beaten and whipped. Clark’s argument is that he plans to expose the sadism in the prison, but he does that by infiltrating the prison himself. Plus, it seems like a pretty crappy thing to do to somebody who is genuinely afraid for their life.
And yet, despite all this, there’s a sense that Siegel and Shuster their hearts in the right place. At one point, the comic dares to suggest that maybe young kids who grow up in crime-infested areas might not be entirely responsible for the course their young lives take. “He’s my only son, sir,” a mother pleads in court, “he might have been a good boy except for his environment.” Superman tries to help those who are poor and in need of help from authorities unable or unwilling to provide it.
Of course, the comic isn’t quite sophisticated enough to tell these sorts of nuanced stories. The villains are always conveniently two-dimensional, and Superman’s idea of justice too often feels like petty bully as vengeance. His heart might be in the right place, but this early version of Superman feels like a malicious and occasionally aggressive bully. Is his use of intimidation or brute force any more justifiable because it happens to be in service of ideals we support? It seems that the answer is always affirmative.
Still, these are early days, and it’s interesting to see how little of Superman’s identity is firmly established. Batman actually established a lot of his core identity out of the gate – a lot of his recurring foes come from his first year in publication, and a lot of his supporting cast date back to his earliest adventures. In contrast, this version of Superman feels more like a rough outline of a familiar character than the same hero we know and love.
Lois Lane is here, and it’s nice to see that she’s a successful journalist. Her relationship with Clark – where she bullies him for not conforming to standard ideals of masculinity – is a little creepy and unnerving, but you can see the roots of the more gentle teasing that would become a hallmark of their flirtation. Clark Kent himself exists as only the broadest of outlines. His career as a crusading journalist speaks to the politics of Siegel and Shuster. As a man campaigning for the truth, the reporter is most heroic of professions, holding society itself to account.
At the same time, however, the dynamic between Clark Kent and Superman is problematic. Forced to hide his identity, Clark casts himself as “a spineless, unbearable coward.” Lois and his fellow co-workers bully him because of his “adopted attitude of cowardliness”, and it’s so absurdly over-played that one wonders why Superman bothers to pretend to be Clark Kent at all. It seems like Clark Kent is either a wimp or he’s just Superman in a suit. There are a few fleeting nods to his attraction towards Lois, but nothing that defines him as a character beyond the fact he’s a weak-willed loser.
There’s no mention of the family which raised Superman here. We’re told that he grew up in an orphanage. Perhaps that accounts for his sympathy for those disenfranchised and outside the system, as well as his somewhat radical approach to seeing justice done. There aren’t too many of the character’s recognisable supporting cast to be found within these pages, and there’s a sense that Siegel and Shuster aren’t necessarily interested in “world-building”, more in telling the moral story of a given month.
Indeed, these early issues don’t embrace too much science-fiction. Superman’s home planet is not named. It is only glimpsed briefly in the first panel of his origin story. His powers apparently don’t stem from gravity or solar rays or any of those explanations. Instead, Siegel and Shuster present him as something of a literal superman, from “a planet whose inhabitants’ physical structure was millions of years advanced of our own.”
The implication is that Superman isn’t really that much of an alien – he’s just from a species like us that has evolved a bit longer. It’s not too difficult to see how Grant Morrison was able to make the leap and provide Mark Millar with his beautiful ending to Red Son – a story where Superman doesn’t come from Krypton, but from a far more advanced version of Earth. It’s clear that Siegel and Shuster don’t want us to think of Superman as an alien, just as a hyper-evolved man.
However, towards the end of the collection, Superman does finally get a supervillain to face. When he first appears, the reader might be forgiven for confusing the character with Lex Luthor. He’s (mostly) bald and wears a white lab coat. He’s a “mental giant” with a whole host of clever ideas to counter Superman’s strength. Indeed, Superman first figures out his involvement because he’s using more advanced techniques than most common crooks.
“Poison gas!” Superman muses. “That seems just a little too ingenious for Reynolds to have figured out for himself.” When Superman confronts his adversary, the mad scientist introduces himself as “the head of a vast ring of evil enterprises — men like Reynolds are my henchmen. You have interfered frequently with my plans, and it is time for you to be removed!” However, this isn’t Lex Luthor. It’s the Ultra-Humanite, a DC villain who fell pretty far down the rungs of the villain ladder over the decades that followed.
It has been speculated that it’s no coincidence Lex Luthor came to physically resemble the Ultra-Humanite. Indeed, Luthor was originally introduced as a red-haired villain a few issues past the end of this collection. However, when the character appeared in Superman #10, artist Leo Nowak made him bald. It has been speculated that Nowak might have mistakenly used the Ultra-Humanite as a visual reference for Luthor’s reappearance.
Still, there’s a sense that Siegel and Shuster aren’t entirely sure how to write a supervillain. He initially appears a crook masterminding an attempt to gain control of the city’s taxi service. Given how frequently the narrative asserts he’s a megalomaniac with plans for world domination, one wonders what the next step of his evil master plan might be. The buses? The rail? He seems inserted into a couple of the early stories simply to give Superman an adversary with a bit of character, despite the fact that the stories open as the typical morality plays.
That said, it does seem like the Ultra-Humanite has figured out this whole “supervillain” thing by the final chapter collected here. Having been defeated by Superman quite a few times already, the villain begins body hopping, and plans to hold a bunch of celebrities hostage in order to finance his sinister plans. It doesn’t necessarily make a great deal of sense, but it is more generically supervillain-y. Indeed, you could argue that the Ultra-Humanite’s appearance and evolution represents the beginning of a shift for Action Comics, away from social commentary and morality tales and towards more generic superhero plots.
Still, either way, these comics make for fascinating reading, providing a brief glimpse at a version of Superman markedly different than the one we know today. Of course, it’s hard to imagine this version anchoring a major summer tentpole, it does demosntrate just how far the character has evolved in the past seventy-odd years.
Filed under: Comics | Tagged: Action Comics, batman, christopher reeve, clark kent, comic, comic book, dark knight returns, dc comics, frank miller, grant morrison, man of steel, Smallville, Steel, superman, Warner Bros |