Where Superman Went Wrong

In my history of American comics class, we’re reading volume one of the Superman Chronicles, covering Action Comics 1-13.  The last issue in this collection features the first appearance of the Ultra-Humanite. The Ultra-Humanite, while a great character (and the superhero genre’s first transsexual–through a brain transplant rather than reassignment surgery, but still), marks a transition in the genre that probably kept it from maturing

Up to this point, Superman fought people in power—lax mine owners, corrupt officials, war profiteers, brutal prison wardens— who failed to live up to the responsibilities with which their power endowed them. The problems he faced all had ordinary human causes and could be solved through ordinary human institutions—in fact the early adventures of Superman are primarily stories of Clark Kent’s exposure of corruption through his newspaper stories; he only uses his Superman identity to enable him to get the story and write the expose. But the Ultra-Humanite, a power-mad supervillain who claims to have been behind many of the foes Superman has faced, alters this equation. If the Ultra-Humanite is behind the Cab Protective Association racket (Action Comics #13) or the graft that results in shoddy subway construction (Action Comics #14), then ordinary reform that average citizens can fight for in the political process is useless. The threat to society is shifted from inside the halls of power to outside the society, which means that defending society from these threats implies a defense of the status quo.

Because the source of society’s problems is now projected outward, the genre can moves away from direct confrontation of social ills and from serious social commentary.

The second Superman story that went wrong is the unpublished k-metal story.  In this story kryptonite (or k-metal) weakens Superman and he ends up revealing his secret identity to Lois.  The story ends with Lois pointing out that Superman would benefit from having someone to share his secret with, and they agree to be partners in crimefighting, and presumably in romance as well.  The story was Jerry Siegel’s attempt to move Superman and Lois toward a Nick and Nora Charles characterization, a more adult and mature presentation of the two reporters as equals.  The story was turned down by DC’s editors and the Superman-Lois-Clark triangle was enshrined until the 1990s.

Think what might have happened had Superman continued to face social issues directly and done so in a adult relationship with Lois.  The genre might have gone on to evolve in more interesting ways, instead of being as tied as it was to adolescent power fantasies and love triangles (with only two actual people involved).  Perhaps (though I feel this is unlikely), characters would have been allowed to age.  But I’ll take that problem up in a future post.

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One Comment on “Where Superman Went Wrong”

  1. Diana Says:

    What would have happened is Supes would have continued to deal with social issues? Superhero comics would have skipped 60 years. We’d jump right to Moore’s neo-dictatorial enforced utopia, hinted at in Watchmen and Swamp Thing and realized in Miracleman (due to be back in print soon, from the sound of things).
    Moore’s realization of the superhero, that it will lead to the hero either being hunted to near-extinction (Watchmen) or ruling the world, ideally benevolently but ruling nonetheless (Miracleman) has its roots in this early series of Superman stories.Of course, there are numerous stories between the early Superman stories and Miracleman that allude to these themes. A progression could easily be traced. The seemingly benign “imaginary story” of Superman Red and Superman Blue comes to mind as a subtle example of the enforced utopia model.
    When I taught the same book in Comics History a few years back, the class was astounded at Superman’s aggressive solutions to problems. The general consensus: “he’s a dick”. it served as a springboard to discuss character motivation and development, as well as social more of the 1930s.

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