Truth, Justice, and Who’s Way?

Hello Everyone,

Here’s a final report I did for a  college media criticism course back in 2007:

Look, up in the sky, it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Superman! For seventy five years, Superman has been a legend among many circles in the comic book industry. In fact, he has become not only a national icon, but an international one as well. The only thing that can rival this hero’s strength is his popularity. After all, who does not respect a hero who fights for truth, justice, and the American way? However, who’s version of truth, justice, and the American way does he fight for? Is it his own? In other words, does Superman accurately represent America? To answer these questions, it is necessary to analyze a Superman comic book in order to see certain media representations from the World War II era, which would show that Superman does not represent the actual America. In other words, how are gender and race represented? Finally, how is Superman portrayed today? Does he still fight for truth, justice, and the American way or has he been turned into a super advertising icon?

First, it would be wise to explain the Man of Steel’s biography and the history of DC Comics Co. to those who might be unfamiliar with both of them. The idea of the Man of Steel or rather, the Man of Tomorrow was conceived of by two Jewish immigrants by the names of Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster. Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. Together, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster used to work on school newspaper strips and read science fiction magazines. Jerry Siegel was a writer and Joe Schuster was more of an artist. After their school years, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster create stories for science fiction magazines. However, the Great Depression hit and its effects were felt by everyone. Siegel and Schuster witnessed and felt the devastating effects of the Depression and decided to create a superhero comic strip. They decided to look back on their previous brainchild, “The Reign of the Supermen”, which was a story about a man who inherits the power of mind control and ends up using it for his own selfish gain. They would now redefine the concept of Nietzche’s Superman in order to create someone who would fight for good and not evil. And thus, Superman was born! Superman was a being from a planet called Krypton. On his birth world, his mother (Lara) and his father (Jor-El) knew him as Kal-El. Krypton could best be described as an intergalactic utopian society. The Kryptonians were beings who looked like humans, but surpassed our civilization in almost everything. They were literally a race of supermen. Jor-El was one of Krypton’s top scientists and had just made a horrifying scientific discovery about their great world. It was about to be destroyed. However, the rest of his colleagues laughed at him and thought he was crazy. Their laughing soon turned to sorrow as their planet became riddled with natural disasters like major earthquakes. Jor-El, however, had a plan to send his wife and child to a planet called Earth. Jor-El did not want to leave out of loyalty for his planet and his wife wanted to stay by his side. So, they placed their child into a rocket and sent him to his new home. After that, their planet exploded and was no more. Kal-El landed safely on Earth and was found by a couple named Jonathan and Martha Kent. With his new adoptive Earth parents, Clark lived on their farm, became familiar with his world, and discovered his “unique” powers. The boy then grows up and moves to Metropolis, but in order to keep his powers a secret; he needs to keep his true identity a secret. He invents for himself a weaker side, Clark Kent, which is what his adoptive parents had named him. As Clark Kent, he finds a job at a local Metropolitan newspaper called the Daily Planet, where he meets the love of his life, Lois Lane. The two become co-workers and the legend begins.

Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster had developed a fantastic idea and were able to put it to paper, however there was one obstacle left. Trying to find a newspaper company to print their comic in the comic strips section was the last thing left to do. However, they faced rejection after rejection from various newspaper companies. Siegel and Schuster finally found a break when they went to McLure Syndicate to get their strip published (Wright, 7). The editor was about to reject them, however, he did like the strip and decided to send it to Harry Donenfeld , who was then manager of DC Comics and was looking for a feature to put in their new series, Action Comics (Wright, 7).

DC Comics at this point was in its early history and had evolved from earlier comic strips. Comics first came about in the 1890s, which were newspaper comic strips (Wright, 2). These parts of the newspaper became known as the “funnies.” (Wright, 2). As comic strips became more increasingly popular, pulp magazines began to evolve (Wright, 2). They were called “pulp” due to the fact that they were printed on cheap paper (Wright, 2). Pulp magazines also increased in popularity like the comic strips, but they would only cater to a certain audience (Wright, 2). Pulps also did not demand much from its writers or its audience (Wright, 2). However, in 1929, pulp heroes like Buck Rogers and Tarzan appeared as newspaper comic strips (Wright, 3). Also, Dell Publishing became the first to experiment with weekly comic magazines that were distributed to newsstands (Wright, 3). This led other companies to explore the commercial potential of comic magazines (Wright, 3). One example of this is when two sales employees at Eastern Color Printing Company in 1933 came up with the idea of the standard seven-by-nine-inch printing plates, which were used to print Sunday comic pages that were twice that size, could also print two reduced comic pages side-by-side on a tabloid- sized page (Wright, 3). This means that when folded in half and bound together, the pages would fit into an eight-by-eleven-inch pulp magazine of color comics (Wright, 3). The two salesmen told their company to print these types of magazines for manufacturers who would use them as advertising premiums and giveaways there (Wright, 3). Eastern Color agreed to support them and printed 10,000 copies of Funnies on Parade for Proctor and Gamble (Wright, 3). This idea was a success and Eastern Color continued this method with its other comic magazines (Wright, 3). One of the two salesmen, Max Gaines saw that these comic books had great market potential, which could help him and his family out of the Depression (Wright, 3). He persuaded Dell Publishing to finance Eastern Color’s printing of 35,000 copies of Famous Funnies, Series I, which was distributed to chain stores at a dime an issue (Wright, 3). The move proved to be a success, but Dell Publishing was very skeptical, so it ended up withdrawing its deal with Eastern Color and made a deal with American News, who cautiously distributed 250,000 copies of Famous Funnies, Series 2 (Wright, 3-4). That move generated a huge amount of wealth for Dell Publishing and put them ahead of Eastern Color (Wright, 4). However, this success did not last very long as other publishing companies caught on to the idea (Wright, 4). By 1936, newspaper syndicates began to publish their own comic books (Wright, 4).

In 1935, a U.S. Army Major and a pulp magazine writer named Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson started National Allied Publishing (Wright, 4-5). They distributed comic books created by free lance artists, which resembled newspaper comic strips (Wright, 5). However, because Wheeler was not a business man, his companied struggled in its beginning years (Wright, 5). However, in 1937, Independent News, Wheeler’s distributors, partnered up with Wheeler and made Detective Comics, which would later be known as DC Comics (Wright, 5). DC Comics was different from any other comic book at the time, especially since its first cover had a sinister looking Oriental face on their cover (Wright, 5). It also had more adventure, more inventive page lay-outs, larger panels, and heavier shading to create atmosphere (Wright, 5). In 1938, Independent News bought Wheeler’s interests and DC became more of a viable publishing operation. DC Comics also opened up several comic book studios (Wright, 5-6). Creating comic books in the studios was a collaborative process and involved many freelance cartoonists (Wright, 6). It would be with DC that Siegel and Schuster would create Superman in their Action Comics series. The feature had Superman on the cover and was the lead story and was very successful by its seventh issue, which sold half a million copies (Wright, 9).

In the comic books, Superman would go around fighting crime with adolescent glee and would even sometimes taunt his opponent (Eagan, 89). In many ways, Superman is a real American hero, especially when it comes to other races. It would not be until World War II, when the comic book industry decided to support the war effort by creating stories where American superheroes would fight against the Nazis. Comic books at this time were very successful. Since there were more jobs created by the war, the income of many parents went up and more kids could afford to buy comic books (Wright, 60). Throughout the war, the Nazis and Japanese would be portrayed in a negative light. For example, in the commemorative comic book, The Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told, Superman becomes an active participant in the war. He even goes into a war zone to help troops by bending the nozzles of tanks, bringing down airplanes, and beating up Nazi soldiers. In the last part of the comic, Superman picks Hitler up by his neck and says, “I’d like to land a strictly non-Aryan sock in your jaw.” It is clear that Superman, who represents America, is mocking Hitler and his Aryan ideology. On the cover of many comic books at this time, the Nazis and the Japanese were portrayed as vampires, animals, the “enemy” or “them.” It is also interesting that a story like this would end up in a fifty year commemorative issue published in 1985 and is considered one of Superman’s greatest stories. It shows that even today, Nazis are hated especially in the United States.

At this time during World War II, there were no other representations of race found in Superman comic books other than those of Nazi or Japanese. Every character was white from Superman to Jimmy Olsen, there were no African American characters. Even on the planet Krypton, there were only white people portrayed. This “tradition” continues still today, however with racially stereotyped representations of the African American citizens of Metropolis. According to Marc Singer’s article, ““Black Skins” and White Masks: Comic Books and the Secret of Race”, white people were always portrayed as handsome and heroic, but non-whites are inferior and subhuman (Singer, 108). In the Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told, most of the comics from the World War II era did not even have any African American representations. However, this could be due to the fact that most of the racial stereotypes were focused on the enemies of America at that time. According to Marc Singer, “Comic books, and particularly the dominant genre of super-hero comic books, have proven fertile ground for stereotyped depictions of race.” (Singer, 107). This is true in the case of the Nazis and Japanese, especially since DC started out with a sinister looking Oriental face on their cover. In the case of African Americans and other immigrants, there were no representations of them in Superman comic books at the time. Psychologist Fredric Wertham stated that these representations not only motivated children towards prejudice, but “normalizes” racial stereotypes through repetition (Singer, 109). By constantly showing racial stereotypes of Nazis and Japanese, many children would grow to hate them even more.

One question remains: Has anything changed? In the Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told, a comic called “The Death of Superman” appeared. The artists and staff wanted to represent everyone from around the world and in one part, there was a picture of an African American male viewing Superman’s body and under it read this caption: “The sea of faces slowly eddies by…faces of every race and nationality…young faces…old faces…each face sorrowful at the passing of a great man…” It is interesting that it took Superman’s funeral to represent every nation or “face” of the world. Where were they when Superman was alive? It is obvious that until this time (the sixties) when The Death of Superman was created, African Americans were not even represented in DC Comics. Also, looking at a Superman comic book from 1993, Superman: The Man of Steel, African Americans are represented, however the representations are still stereotyped, including the superhero Steel, who is an African American superhero and one of Superman’s closest allies. In one scene, Steel is shown fighting off a group of thugs without his armor. He would have lost the fight if Superman had not come and shoved the thugs against a wall. All of the thugs in this incident were African Americans. Steel was extremely well built and when he was fighting his face looked like an animal growling. The faces of the thugs also looked like growling animals when Superman shoved them against a wall. Superman looked more human that anyone in that panel. Of course, he was the only white person there. Another depiction is when two African American children, who appear to be wearing clothing resembling Fubu gear, are spray painting graffiti in the middle of railroad tracks. First of all, the children looked old enough to know that playing in the middle of railroad tracks is a foolish idea. Secondly, they were spraying some insult about Superman when all of a sudden a train comes out of nowhere and Superman rescues them. Finally, their response to Superman is that of remorse and gratitude. They vow they would never do that again. It was apparent that these children had negative ideas about Superman, but were not allowed to voice them due to some outward threat, namely the train. However, Superman saves the children and instead of telling Superman how they actually feel about him, they literally ask him for mercy. It is clear the artists wanted to put down Superman’s critics, but it is interesting that they would use two African American children to portray this.

Superman’s relationship with other races is questionable, but the relationship that is not questionable is Superman’s relationship with Lois Lane. In fact, it is downright obvious. From the early comic books, Lois Lane had a certain degree of independence. She is the best reporter for the Daily Planet, she gets all the good stories, and likes to do things on her own. However, when she does go off chasing a story, she always seems to get into trouble. It is always up to Superman to rescue his “damsel in distress”. For example, in the Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told, in a comic from 1941, Lois Lane is trying to escape from a mad archer. Just when the archer fires an arrow at Lois’ back, Superman swoops out of the sky and shields her. He then says, “What a genius you are, Lois—for getting into trouble.” Superman is really mocking at the fact that he needs to save Lois most of the time. Also, when Superman appears on the scene, Lois turns into somewhat of a giggling schoolgirl with a huge crush on the “handsome jock.” There is no doubt about Superman’s role as the handsome hero, but what does this tell about Superman? Why is Superman always so good looking? One of the most important factors here is Superman’s muscular body. According to Jeffrey A. Brown, “One of the most obvious and central focal points for characterizing masculinity has been the male body.” (Brown, 27). Brown has described the male body as an external signifier for masculine superiority and muscles being a sign of masculinity (Brown, 27). The masculine body serves the purpose of differentiating the hard male body from the delicate female body (Brown, 27). Race also affects how masculinity is portrayed in comic books (Brown, 28). For example, Jews or Asians were portrayed in feminized bodies, which are not at all muscular like the white superhero (Brown, 28). Superman’s X-ray vision also serves to boast his masculinity, because it gives him the ultimate male gaze. He can always keep an “eye” on Lois Lane if he needs to. In fact, Superman’s ability to fly has an erotic connotation to it (Connors, 109). Many dreams about flying actually have a sexual nature to them, according to Freud (Connors, 109). This might explain why Lois Lane becomes so giddy when Superman takes her flying.

However, there is something unique about Superman’s masculinity and that is his alter- ego Clark Kent. Clark and Superman are one in the same person, but have two entirely different personalities. Clark is the exact opposite of Superman. In fact, Clark seems to possess a “feminized” body rather than Superman, who possesses a very masculine body. Clark Kent could be a sign portraying the fact that all men have a delicate feminine side and Superman is a sign that all men have a tough masculine side as well. Superman and Clark, however, do have one thing in common: Lois Lane. Lois Lane loves Superman, but he knows he could never have her due to his superhero career. This could be a sign that also has a connotative meaning suggesting that Superman wants to remain “pure” by not having sexual contact with a woman (Connors, 111). However, Clark Kent always vies for Lois’ affection, but is always is too shy to tell her how he feels. This shows that in comparison to Superman, Clark is basically weak and is incapable of getting the woman he loves. However, Clark Kent trying to date Lois Lane could be Superman’s attempt to test Lois Lane to see if she could truly love the man he really is: a bumbling gentleman with a soft heart (Connors, 110). However, it is apparent that Lois Lane does not see through this guise and is blinded by the manly alter-ego of Clark Kent (Connors, 110).

Superman is still as popular today as he was seventy years ago. However, Superman’s popularity has turned him into somewhat of a pop culture icon. He has appeared on cereal boxes, Pepsi cans, and has just recently premiered in his fourth movie, Superman Returns. In many ways, Superman has become a super advertising icon. He has even appeared in Visa credit card commercials with his “pal” comedian Jerry Seinfeld. Superman Returns toys were also being given out with every Kids Meal at Burger King. Superman even has a show on the CW 11 named Smallville, which is about the superhero’s teenage years in his hometown. Finally, it should be mentioned that Superman has recently come under religious influence. For example, on the cover of the Smallville first season DVD box set, Clark is shown in a crucified position, alluding to Christ on the cross. Some Christian writers, including Stephen Skelton, who wrote the book, the Gospel According the World’s Greatest Superhero, have stated that Superman can bring Christians and non-Christians alike to appreciate Jesus Christ.

Superman has been a legend for seventy years and will continue to be a legend in the eyes of children around the world. Many scholars can try to explain what it is about Superman that makes him so popular. Some will say it is his portrayal of masculinity or his superpowers. However, there is only one simple explanation: people like Superman because he is Superman. In other words, Superman is a one of a kind character. Who do people always think of as a defender for truth, justice, and the American way? It is Superman. Even though Superman does not accurately represent America, people will always respect him not only for his personality, but for the fact that he tries to make the world a better place. This sentiment is as true today as it was when his legend first began.


Works Cited.

Brown, Jeffrey A. “Comic Book Masculinity and the New Black Superhero.” African American American Review 33. 1 (Spring, 1999). 25-42.

Connors, Joanna. “Female Meets Supermale.” Superman at Fifty: The Persistence of a Legend. Ed. Dennis Dooley and Gary Engle. Cleveland, Ohio: Octavia Press, 1987. 108-115.

Eagan, Patrick L. “A Flag With a Human Face.” Superman at Fifty: The Persistence of a Legend. Ed. Dennis Dooley and Gary Engle. Cleveland, Ohio: Octavia Press, 1987. 88-95.

Singer, Marc. ““Black Skins” and White Masks: Comic Books and the Secret of Race.” African American Review 36. 1 (Spring, 2002). 107-119.

Wright, Bradford W. Comic Book Nation. Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

DC Comics Inc. The Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told. Canada: DC Comics, Inc., 1987.

Simonson, L. Wojtkiewicz, Janke. Superman: The Man of Steel. Issue 37. DC Comics Inc. 1993.

Skelton, Stephen. The Gospel According to the World’s Greatest Superhero. Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 2006.


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