4 Reasons O.G. Superman Is Even More Relevant Today
Between the debuts of Zack Snyder's Justice League and Superman & Lois, this month is shaping up to be unusually Supermanly. To celebrate, Cracked's on-call Supermanologist Maxwell Yezpitelok will be conducting a week of lectures on the superhero who is a metaphor for absolutely everything. So please: settle in, and mind your Supermanners. Check out part 1.
"Angry socialist Superman" sounds like the premise of a 2021 meme, but nope -- it was actually how the Man of Steel's creators themselves saw the character in 1938. Early Superman comics were less about platitudes inspiring and uplifting humanity and more about beating the crap out of social inequality, one corrupt authority figure or unscrupulous rich person at a time. And it was awesome. Here are a few reasons why the rowdy old-timey Superman might be better suited for our times than the present-day character:
He Was All About Dismantling Corrupt Power Structures
The formula for every early Superman story was:
1) Clark Kent encounters some bullshit
2) Superman knocks people around until he fixes said bullshit.
The very first Superman comic spends exactly one panel on outer space mumbo jumbo (just as a formality to explain why the character is so strong) before moving on to the important stuff: F'n up terrible people's days. In that issue alone, Superman whoops up a wife-beater, throws a car at some dudes who were hassling Lois Lane, and terrorizes a lobbyist who was bribing a US senator on behalf of the grand American tradition of inciting wars in third world countries.
In the next issue, Superman grabs the wealthy arms manufacturer who was bankrolling that lobbyist and forces him to enlist in the same war he's promoting, which makes him reconsider his career choices somewhat.
The same thing happens with the heads of the armies at war: once Superman puts them in a room and tells them to fight each other hand-to-hand, they suddenly decide to get into pacifism. This Superman was a huge fan of ironic punishments of that sort. In another issue, he deliberately traps a coal magnate and his swanky friends inside an unsafe mine so they can find out what it feels like to work there.
Superman wouldn't even meet his first supervillain until his series' second year, and it took several more years for that concept to catch on. Before he started fighting telepathic aliens and giant gorillas who shoot kryptonite out of their eyes, Superman's baddies were mostly real people who profited from others' misery.
The tension in these stories came from Superman collecting evidence and outsmarting criminals so they'd lead him to their bosses; he didn't just fight injustice -- he made sure to eradicate it at its root. He also liked staging elaborate cons of his own, like in the classic issue where he buys all the stock in a worthless oil well, finds oil, sells the stock back for $1 million, and then torches the well, all of that just to mess with the greedy owners.
Other targets for Superman's fury included protection rackets, corrupt politicians, abusive officials, and basically any other asshole who might take advantage of a position of power. The villain in one issue was the superintendent of a state orphanage who was pocketing money intended for food and seemed to get off on watching children suffer. Of course, Superman busts his ass with great delight and personally makes sure conditions at the orphanage are improved. Or else.
The character's focus on social issues makes a lot of sense when you consider that he was created in the middle of the Great Depression by two young guys from humble immigrant families. Superman was born out of the almost unbearable frustration of watching inequality and injustice all around you and being unable to grab the ones responsible by their feet and swing them in the air until they repent. There's a good chance they made the character super-strong specifically so he could do this:
The villains in these early stories are the embodiment of the anxieties that plagued Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, like getting screwed by their employers, ending up poor, or being shipped off to fight in a war -- and those are just the ones that came true. Unlike them, Superman could do something about those situations other than sitting back and going "dang" at a newspaper. And if "doing something" involved breaking the law, well ...
He Acknowledged The Flaws Of Policing (Or: Superman Ain't No Bootlicker)
Be it 1938 or 2021, a big part of Superman's job has always been just beating up low-level thugs. Thing is, the early Superman had a lot more empathy for street muggers and such than he did for rich people who technically haven't broken any laws. In one issue, Superman prevents the suicide of a guy who admits to stealing from his employer and, instead of throwing him in jail, he gives him a little pep talk.
Superman finds out that the guy became a thief due to gambling debts, so he decides to address the root issue -- he goes to the police commissioner and tells him he sucks at enforcing the city's gambling laws. And when the commish isn't receptive to Clark's critique (probably because he's in bed with the head of a parasitic gambling ring and uses cops to protect them), it's time to break out the ol' blue pajamas.
Superman's respect for the law was rather loose in those days. In another issue, he finds out some juvenile delinquents are planning to rob a bunch of rich houses, and the police have already been tipped off. Instead of helping catch the little hoodlums, he literally snatches them away from the cops, aware that sending them to jail isn't an effective solution if the goal is to make them less criminal.
You see, Superman was intimately familiar with the prison system, having spent some time in the slammer himself. During another adventure, he intentionally rammed his convertible into a prison superintendent's fancy new car so he could get sentenced to six months in jail. Once he had enough evidence about the prison's miserable conditions for an article, Superman put the superintendent through the same torture methods he used on his prisoners (including the culinary ones).
A recurring character during the early years was Sergeant Casey, who was obsessed with catching Superman because of, well, everything we just said. While Batman was getting chummy with Commissioner Gordon, Superman routinely gave Casey and his men the runaround in ways that seemed like he was intentionally making fun of them.
Way too often, Superman is written as "a cop who can fly," but Siegel and Shuster's original intent was pretty far from that. This Superman defies the laws of man just as easily as he defies the laws of physics -- one of his greatest powers is the ability to not give AF, because what's gonna happen to him? Prisons can't hold him. Torture doesn't work on him. Dentists HATE him. He's unencumbered by our flawed mortality or legality, and he uses that freedom to do what police officers by design can't do, which is directly addressing the source of a societal problem (financial interests, high-level corruption) instead of merely focusing on its symptoms (hooligans, kids with machetes).
Admittedly, his quest to single-handedly fix society could lead him down some pretty strange paths ...
He Spent A Lot Of Time Just Doing Weird Favors For Regular People
Another common trope in the early Superman comics was Superman finding out someone was going through a rough time and deciding to help them out ... in unnecessarily bizarre ways. During the story about the juvenile delinquents, Superman determines that those kids turned up like that because they came from crappy homes -- as in, the physical homes, not the families living in them. Superman decides that the best way to help them is to force the government to build them nicer apartments, and the best way to do that is to destroy their entire neighborhood. Eventually, everyone agrees that this was a genius move on Superman's part.
We've also written about the time Superman drugged and kidnapped a football player and impersonated him during several games, majorly helping his career and relationship. He did the same thing with a down-on-his-luck boxer the next year, but at least he asked for his consent beforehand in that case (character development!).
Another time, Superman overheard a circus owner talking about his poor finances and decided to join the circus to help him ... but not before kicking a perfectly good cart into the stratosphere for no reason.
One adventure is entirely about Superman raising money for a home for at-risk children in danger of closing: he gives them the $1 million he earned on his stock market scam, then raises another million in a more literal sense by fetching a sunken galleon from the bottom of the sea. While at it, he takes the opportunity to dress up as a ghost and spook some random scuba divers (who turned out to be crooks, but Superman didn't know that).
Superman's methods may be ... questionable at times, but his heart was in the right place. The opening text on every issue called him "the savior of the helpless and oppressed," and he took that role seriously. This Superman loved common folks with the same mad intensity with which he hated unscrupulous businessmen and bullies. After breaking up that illegal gambling ring the cops were protecting, Superman goes out of his way to make all that money rain over a poor neighborhood.
These weren't just little digressions from the main plot -- often, moments like these were the main plot. For Siegel and Shuster, the entire point of Superman seemed to be that he was someone capable and willing to do the impossible to help those in need. He was like a force of nature that went around righting wrongs in sometimes brutal or darkly ironic ways, very rarely stopping to consider the moral questions that weigh down present-day Superman. And if you're thinking that this almost makes him sound like some sort of religious figure, you can scratch that "almost" ...
Superman Isn't Space Jesus; He's Anti-Fascist Space Moses
People were comparing Superman to Jesus long before Hollywood decided that a guy floating with his arms stretched out counted as subtext. After all, both came to Earth to help people with their special powers, both died and returned from the dead, and it's been established that both can rock the long-hair look.
The problem is, none of those elements were there when Siegel and Shuster were in charge of the character. The whole thing about Superman's dad taking the time to record ghostly messages telling his son to help guide humanity was added by the 1978 Superman movie. The original Superman wasn't deliberately sent to Earth as a savior -- he was put in a "hastily devised" vessel and launched into the unknown to avoid being killed as a baby.
In other words, Superman isn't a sci-fi reboot of Jesus; he's a sci-fi reboot of Moses, substituting a basket and a river with a spaceship and outer space. Like the young Moses, Baby Superman was found and raised by those unlike him (Egyptians/humans) and had to learn to pass as one of them. Both then grew up to become a vehicle for righteous retribution against the abusers in charge of their adoptive communities, with the difference that Superman used punching instead of plagues.
As the children of immigrant Jewish families during an era of open anti-Semitism, Siegel and Shuster probably knew a bit about having to assimilate to a society that hates you. They also had to know about the myth of the golem, the powerful being that used special powers to defend Jews from oppression in 16th century Prague. If most readers missed the Jewish themes in Siegel and Shuster's work, here's someone who sure didn't:
Yes, the Nazis knew about the Man of Steel, and they weren't fans. After the release of a special comic in which Superman gleefully manhandles Hitler, the German SS's official newspaper published an article calling Siegel an "intellectual and physically circumcised chap." The anonymous writer, whose name probably rhymed with Goseph Joebbels, also takes the time to lay out some devastating nitpicks about the comic, like the use of the outdated uniforms by Nazi officers or the unlikely phrasing of the German dialogue (that literal grammar Nazi).
Siegel himself never talked about the Moses or golem similarities, but he acknowledged that Superman was inspired by "hearing and reading of the oppression and slaughter of helpless, oppressed Jews in Nazi Germany seeing movies depicting the horrors of privation suffered by the downtrodden." He wrote that he had a "great urge" to "help the downtrodden masses, somehow," and since there wasn't much two unemployed guys from Cleveland could do to stop a fascist regime, they made up someone who could. In his words: "How could I help them when I could barely help myself? Superman was the answer."
So here's hoping the next movie dispenses with the crucifixion stuff and gives us a scene with Superman parting the sea, or at the very least throwing cars at Nazis. Apparently, there are still a few here and there.
Top Image: DC Comics