The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.
Superheroes reflect the hopes and fears of their era. In 1933, in the depths of the Depression, two recent Cleveland high school graduates, writer Jerry Siegel and illustrator Joe Shuster, conceived of a hero with power to halt a reported crime wave and to alleviate the suffering of millions of unemployed factory and farm laborers. Early drafts described robberies and industrial strife.
Their much-revised story featuring Superman finally appeared as Action Comics No. 1 in 1938. The Man of Steel proved an instant success and he became the standard against which all subsequent superheroes were judged. Over the next eight decades, their character appeared on radio, television and in a string of blockbuster films.
Shortly before Siegel and Shuster first conceived of Superman, delegates to the 1932 Democratic convention in Chicago gathered to select a challenger to President Herbert Hoover. After many ballots, they nominated New York governor Franklin D. Roosevelt.
FDR, as journalists and the public soon knew him, called on government to help the “forgotten man” and pledged to deliver a “new deal for the American people.” In private conversations during the following months, Roosevelt worried that “Nazi-minded” Americans craved rescue by a “man on horseback,” like Germany’s Adolf Hitler or Italy’s Benito Mussolini.
Fear of collapse and looming dictatorship increased as the economy spiraled downward between Roosevelt’s election in November 1932 and inauguration in March 1933. Opinion surveys revealed widespread agreement among Americans with Mussolini’s prediction that “democracy was destined to perish.” Many politicians urged the president-elect to assume dictatorial power. The Senate even approved a resolution offering the incoming chief executive “unlimited power.”
The audience at FDR’s inaugural speech on March 4 responded tepidly to his best remembered phrase — that Americans “had nothing to fear but fear itself.” In contrast, they cheered wildly at his promise to seek special powers to “wage war against the emergency,” which he compared to a foreign invasion. Eleanor Roosevelt confided to a friend her fear that ordinary Americans, like those in Germany and Italy before them, were so desperate “they would do anything” and follow anyone who promised work and food.
After 1933, a host of New Deal agencies, such the Federal Writers’, Art and Theatre projects produced socially conscious murals, plays and books. None, however, enjoyed the reach of comic books.
In one early episode, Superman’s alter ego, “mild mannered reporter Clark Kent,” investigates a mine collapse. Donning his cape, he rescues the trapped miners and discovers they lacked safety equipment. When Kent subsequently interviews the mine owner, he scoffs at adopting safety measures. “I’m a businessman, not a humanitarian,” he scowls.
The plot thickens when Superman lures the owner and his friends into the mineshaft, which promptly collapses. After they experience the absence of safety measures, Superman rescues the group. The enlightened boss repents, explaining, “I never knew what the men down here have to face.”
Echoing the demands being made by the mine workers’ union and federal safety inspectors, the mine owner tells Kent, “Henceforth my mine will be the safest in the country and my workers the best treated. My experience ... brought their problems to my understanding.”
Life imitated art as first lady Eleanor Roosevelt strapped on a hard hat and descended underground to observe firsthand safety conditions in the coal industry.
The storylines of these comics may appear simplistic, but spoke to real issues. In a time of global violence, as millions of refugees attempted to escape persecution in Europe and Asia, America’s doors remained firmly shut. Siegel and Shuster — two Jewish-Americans — subtly chided the nation’s inflexible immigration policy.
Their Superman was the most alien of undocumented aliens, coming not from another country, but as a refugee sent by rocket as an unaccompanied child by desperate parents from a doomed planet in a distant galaxy.
Discovered, like Moses, in a basket by a kindly Midwestern couple, Ma and Pa Kent, he is sheltered by them despite his illegal arrival. As he grows, the Kents convince their foster son to keep his origin a secret and to prove his worth by using his superpowers on behalf of America.
Superman embodied more than boyish fantasies. During the 1930s and early-1940s, he battled both criminal masterminds and social injustice. When not combating treacherous villains such as Lex Luthor, Superman stymied Nazi saboteurs and fought for workers’ rights, advancing the ambitious “New Deal” agenda.
In 1940, chief Nazi propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, denounced Superman, whose preoccupation with social justice contradicted the Nazi ideal of an “ubermensch,” or superman, who crushed the weak. Goebbels consigned the comic to the mounting pyre of publications by the likes of Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud banned or burned in Germany.
Just as many of the comic’s plotlines extolled the New Deal, the Roosevelt administration found much to admire in Superman’s adventures. However, during World War II, the United States Department of War intervened to censor one story.
The villainous Lex Luthor planned to use a secret weapon, dubbed an “atomic bomb,” against innocent civilians. Unknown to the comic’s writers, an actual atomic bomb was under construction at a secret site in New Mexico. Like other wartime references to atomic energy, this was stripped from the storyline. Again, life imitated art.
Roosevelt, the only president with a physical disability, lacked Superman’s strength. But to a generation of Americans whom he shepherded through depression and war, he became the ultimate superhero.