Superman turns 80 – Just a few days ago it was “Superman Day”, and indeed the first registered appearance of this iconic character is dated June 1938. However, The New York Times devoted an article to the superhero in April, since comic books are dated a couple of months in advance, the June date corresponds in fact to April 1938. On the other hand, the two Superman creators, Jerry Siegel, the writer, and Joe Shuster, the artist, had already produced a strip for a fanzine that they have called “The Reign of the Super-Man” in 1933. Curiously, in that strip, the character was a villain.
In 1938, when the two were working for the company that would later become DC Comics, publisher Jack Liebowitz was looking for a new comic strip to appear in a new monthly: Action Comics. Siegel and Shuster successfully submitted their character, now reformulated as a good superhero fighting gangsters, since organized crime was the perceived main evil affecting the American society then. (It is interesting to point out that being an American superhero, Superman has usually fought what the U.S. society has perceived as a menace at a given time. The Man of Steel was recruited to fight the Nazis during World War II, Communists and the Soviets during the Cold War, terrorists in recent times, and when the menace seems obscure, he will battle some sinister extraterrestrials who may stand metaphorically for some not-yet-well-defined threat, as in the episode in which an alien creature killed him.)
Superman was a success, growing in popularity during the next decade appearing in newspaper comics in 1940 and then getting into other media. First a radio show, followed by a cartoon series produced by Fleischer Studios –the same that had taken Betty Boop and Popeye to the big screen– and then a serial (a popular movie genre until the early 1950s) featuring George Reeves. This actor would also personify the superhero in a TV show in the 1950s.
An article by Joe Sommerlad in the British newspaper The Independent highlighted the Jewish connection of Superman, his two creators being Jewish. (Shuster, the artist, was also a Canadian, having born in Toronto). Sommerlad quotes Siegel about what was then happening in Nazi Germany: “I had the great urge to help the downtrodden masses, somehow. How could I help them when I could barely help myself? Superman was the answer.” He compares the powerful superhero with the Jewish legend of The Golem, created to protect the Prague ghetto in medieval times.
Italian writer and essayist Umberto Eco, on the other hand, finds in the origins of Superman (the baby being sent from the soon-to-explode planet Krypton to the Earth) a connection with Christianity. As the story was re-told in the 1980 movie with Marlon Brando as Jor-El, the father of Superman, and Christopher Reeve as the superhero, Eco wrote in his essay “The Gods of the Underground”: “he should give his son a highly, Trinitarian viaticum, put him in a spacecraft in the form of a cradle, which navigates through space like the comet of the Magi. […] He is the Son of Man […] the reincarnation of Superman would seem to be the pop version of a series of more complex and profound phenomena that apparently reveal a trend: the return to religious thought. ”
Superman as an allegorical metaphysical figure? Maybe. In a world marked by more cynicism and disbelief the gods that people may worship should also be more accessible, the characters of pop culture could well fit into that scheme. As for the American perception of Superman as the incarnation of their own “manifest destiny” the fact that Superman has his alter ego, Clark Kent, an average guy, may also reflect the duality of the ordinary American who may be leading a dull, unremarkable life, but when he changes into that other imaginary self, he will become a formidable being. Although fiction, the superhero paradigm may feed some of the Americans’ perception as self-appointed guardians of the world. Although to explain the behaviour of their leader one may better resort to that other character in Superman’s universe, Bizarro, who possesses superpowers too but whose brain functions at a kid’s level.