On “How Superman Would Win the War”

One of the best Superman stories – and probably one of the most important super-hero stories ever told – is also one of the shortest. What’s more, the story didn’t appear in a Superman comic; while authorized, it didn’t even appear in a DC comic. Even more surprising, this two-page story appeared in 1940, when comics were generally quite primitive compared to later fare. In fact, the story was printed in black and white with red applied as the only color, making Superman look a little abnormal.

How Superman Would End the War (Look magazine)

Scripted by Jerry Siegel and drawn by Joe Shuster, Superman’s co-creators, the short story appeared in the 27 February 1940 issue of Look magaine. The tale itself is simple: Superman zooms off to Germany, where he picks up Hitler, like a dog, by the scruff of his neck (Superman often held villains this way in those years, signaling his superiority). Superman repeats the process in Moscow with Stalin. He takes the two dictators to Geneva, Switzerland, where he delivers them to the League of Nations’ World Court for trial.

page 2 of the recolored How Superman Would End the War

It should be pointed out that Stalin was, at this time and despite their ideological opposition, an ally of Hitler; only later would Stalin switch sides and join the allies. This is why Superman goes after Stalin instead of, say, Emperor Hirohito or General Tojo of Japan. The League of Nations, of course, was the predecessor to the United Nations and the brainchild of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson; it dissolved after the war, in 1946, to make room for the U.N. The League’s World Court in Geneva was succeeded by the U.N.’s World Court in the Hague.

Historically, the story is remarkable. The Japanese would not bomb Pearl Harbor until nearly two years later, so the U.S. had yet to enter the war. While U.S. involvement in the war looked likely, especially with F.D.R. in the White House, plenty of Americans were isolationists, against entangling the U.S. in another costly war abroad, if not openly pro-German.[1] While Superman is merely stopping the war in Europe, his actions and the story itself does condemn living national leaders. This wasn’t the only comic book story to take a stand on the war before Pearl Harbor, but it was remarkable in how completely – not to mention quickly – Superman solved the problem.

The story in Look magazine may have been inspired by an item that ran in Time magazine on 11 September 1939. Entitled simply “Superman,” the item is really a profile of the character, who was “rapidly becoming the No. 1 juvenile vogue in the U. S.”[2] The piece ends by talking about Siegel and Shuster, and concludes by again noting Superman’s popularity, saying that many cities “have Superman clubs; in others[,] youngsters have taken to wearing Superman capes and carrying shields. In Milwaukee[,] one enthusiastic young Superman fan jumped off the roof of his house and survived.” Essentially, the story simply takes note of the new character’s popularity, particularly with kids.

But guess how it begins: “How to end the war quickly seemed ridiculously simple to readers of the comic strips last week: send Superman to clean up Hitler. One reader wrote to the Philadelphia Inquirer suggesting precisely that solution.” Whether or not Look got the idea from Time, a competitor in the general audience magazine market, people were clearly thinking along the same lines. So Look commissioned a two-page story, referenced it prominently on the cover, and prefaced it with a full-page look at the character, his creators, and his popularity (much like Time’s earlier coverage, but this time with lots of images).

There’s another interesting contemporary newspaper article in connection to “How Superman Would End the War” – and this one’s German. That issue of Look had apparently made it into the hands of someone at the weekly newspaper of the S.S., Das Schwarze Korps, which ran an article condemning the story in its 25 April 1940 edition.[3] The article attacks Jerry Siegel as a Jew, calling him “an intellectually and physically circumcised chap,”an “inventive Israelite,” and “Jerry Israel Siegel.” It reiterates the Nazi comparisons between Jews and animals and echoes beliefs in Jewish conspiracies, calling Siegel “a Colorado beetle” who “works in the dark, in incomprehensible ways.” No mention is made of Joe Shuster, who was also Jewish, perhaps because the Nazis only guessed Siegel’s Jewishness from his name.

The article also foreshadows some of Dr. Fredric Wertham’s later critiques of Superman, noting that Superman “ignores… [the] laws of physics” and accusing him of poisoning the minds of America’s children. Most amusingly, the article accuses Siegel of stealing the idea for Superman from the “manly virtue” of the revived Germany and Italy. “As you can see,” the article states, “there is nothing the Sadducees won’t do for money!”

It wasn’t the last time that politics in comics would spark controversy, but it was probably the first time a super-hero spurred a denunciation by real-life Nazis.

Because of where the story appeared, not to mention the title that suggested the speculative nature of the tale, the story was neatly out-of-continuity for Superman comics. In his own comics, even after Pearl Harbor’s bombing, Superman would be far less aggressive. He occasionally helped train troops, foiled Axis agents within the U.S., or transported supplies behind-the-scenes, and derogatory references were made to the Axis. But Superman did little else, and the same with DC’s other characters. In fact, Clark Kent even was designated 4F (undraftable) when he failed his eye exam due to inadvertently using his vision to see through the wall and read the eye chart in the next room.

The company’s covers, on the other hand, sometimes looked like U.S. propaganda posters. The cover of Superman #17 (cover-dated July-August 1942) shows Superman standing on a stylized version of the Earth holding a thrashing Hitler and Hirohito by their necks, while that of Superman #29 (cover-dated July-August 1944) features Lois Lane walking arm-in-arm with a man from the Army, the Navy, and the Marines, telling them (and, implicitly, all U.S. soldiers), “You’re my Supermen!” The interiors of such books rarely had any rapport with the patriotic covers.

Superman Vol. 1 #17 Superman Vol. 1 #29

In fact, DC had a policy to avoid having its heroes engage in the war. Of course, Diana Prince, Wonder Woman’s alter ego, served in the U.S. military, first as a nurse and then as the assistant of Steve Trevor, her love interest. DC’s Justice Society of America, in the pages of All-Star Comics, did sometimes contribute to the war and even visited F.D.R. But DC was generally conservative about involving its characters in actual combat.

Other publishers weren’t as timid. Timely, which later became Marvel, routinely had its characters on the front lines. Captain America, for example, had been against the Axis powers even before Pearl Harbor was bombed and fought right alongside the troops in Europe. His first issue, Captain America Comics #1 (cover-dated March 1941 but on sale in December 1940, a year before Pearl Harbor), sports a cover featuring Captain America socking Hitler in the jaw.

So why did DC keep its heroes out of action – making “How Superman Would End the War” so unique? World War II was a problem for American comic book super-heroes, who lived in the U.S. in the present with more than enough power to make a difference in the war. In fact, every U.S. war since then has proven problematic in super-hero comics for the same reasons.

On the one hand, companies felt obligated, if not for patriotism than for economic reasons, to depict their characters as patriotic Americans fully in support of the U.S. war effort. On the other hand, if those characters did so through super-powered action, either the stories would change radically in tone or the war would end in the comics but not in reality.

Consider the case of Batman and Robin. They might have gone to war and been a great asset, going on risky missions behind enemy lines – essentially, becoming Captain America and his sidekick Bucky. But this would have changed Batman and Robin stories considerably and would have removed their unique charms.

On the flipside of the power equation, Superman was even more problematic. Having him fight along the troops would have changed his stories, to be sure, but the problem was that everyone would expect Superman, defined by his great power, to actually win the war. “How Superman Would End the War” proved that, as did the opening and conclusion of the Time piece, with its reference to a similar letter in the Philadelphia Inquirer. It was one thing for Timely to have the Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch fighting the Axis and another thing to have Superman.

So what would be the point of having Superman directly fight the Axis in his own comics? If the story would be labeled in some way as not-in-continuity, it would essentially simply repeat the Look story – and out-of-continuity stories were hardly common at the time. Alternately, Superman could fail – but, as we have seen, this would thrawt readers’ expectations in a bad way, showing that the powerful Superman beloved by so many kids was really impotent. Or Superman could win and Superman’s comic stories would occur in a world in which the war had already been settled – essentially bringing Superman from the realm of fantasy and into the genre of speculative fiction which imagines and follows alternate timelines (something certainly not done in comics at the time). Essentially, this is the same reason why all the advanced technology seen in super-hero stories cannot filter down to widescale distribution: it would render unidentifiable the world in which the stories occur.

Not only would this have changed the popular character and his stories, but this might well have offended. Imagine the horror of a wife, left at home while her husband faces death on gruesome battlefields, reading these stories, printed in lowly comic books, in which the war had ended at the hands of a colorful character with unrealistic powers. It wasn’t to be.

During later American wars, most super-hero publishers would follow DC’s example during World War II. The Korean War occurred as comics in general were tending towards other genres and super-heroes were tending towards the fantastic. While references to the Vietnam War were made, and the origin of Marvel’s Iron Man was intertwined with it, neither Iron Man nor other super-heroes stopped battling aliens and mad scientists to lift a hand in Indochina. The whole of the Cold War, which played a part in many Marvel characters’ origins, saw occasional super-heroic intervention, but never anything decisive. Later wars, like those in Panama and Iraq, had no chance of super-hero involvement.

When comic book stories, such as JLA #83, questioned 2003’s second war in Iraq, a slew of conservative columnists attacked, often citing “How Superman Would End the War” to show how much American media had changed. Joshua Elder of FrontPageMag.com did just this, slamming the story and concluding that “AOL / Time-Warner [DC’s parent company] may own Superman, but he belongs to America. And we deserve a hero who isn’t a shill for murderous tyrants.”[4]

Of course, the parallel with “How Superman Would End the War” is faulty, and not only because the War on Terror (of which the 2003 invasion of Iraq was seen to be a part) isn’t parallel to World War II (though some, eager to justify war, once depicted Iraq’s Saddam Hussein as a sort of miniature Hitler or Stalin). “How Superman Would End the War” wasn’t a case of super-heroic patriotism during a war: it was a case of super-heroic intervention against dictators before the U.S. had entered the war. In other words, Superman’s intervention in “How Superman Would End the War” wasn’t based on nationalism or patriotism at all, but on his own moral judgment. It was simply a case of a super-hero intervening, on his own, in geopolitics, equivalent not to supporting a war but to a super-hero today suddenly going off, capturing today’s prominent dictators, and delivering them to the Hague for trial.

Not to mention that, by 2003, the super-hero genre had grown up a bit. The 1970s saw super-heroes address social problems, such as drugs and racism. The 1980s saw super-heroes turn to larger issues, and 1986-1987’s Watchmen saw super-heroes seriously alter history, causing the U.S. to win in Vietnam and resulting in a greatly (and subtly) altered present. Alan Moore’s run on Miracleman concluded with the destruction of London and the title’s titular hero taking over the world and remaking it economically, politically, technologically, and socially – leaving his Moore’s successor as writer, Neil Gaiman, to explore this alternate history.

The big-name corporate super-heroes remained less active, comfortable addressing social issues but incapable of changing the world. Continuity between super-heroes had grown much tigher by then, and one character changing the world meant those changes would have to be reflected in other titles – and all the characters, designed for wide-scale licensing and exploitation, would increasingly inhabit an unrecognizable world.

This meant that, while high-profile super-heroes could attempt to change the world, they had to recant. Because actor Christopher Reeve demanded it as a precondition of his return to the franchise, the 1987 film Superman IV: The Quest for Peace saw Superman attempt to rid the world of nuclear missles – only to later urge humans to find new ways to peace, stating that he can’t solve Earth’s problems. This tact was taken by comic book stories as well, as Superman could attempt to stop world hunger, genocide, or fictional foreign dictators, so long as he was brought to his senses. Perhaps the most memorable of these stories was 1998’s graphic novella Superman: Peace on Earth (written by Paul Dini with painted art by Alex Ross), which saw the hero fight famon in Africa – only to once again realize that he can’t fix the world’s problems. Even in his out-of-continuity stories, Superman rarely intervened in historical events – with the notable exception of Mark Millar’s Superman: Red Son.

While the major super-heroes and their universes followed this pattern, more minor super-heroes followed the pattern set by Watchmen. Mark Millar’s run on The Authority (2000-2002), occurring in the WildStorm Universe, saw the titular team intervene in the abuses of nations around the world, causing the richest nations to object. Traditionalist fans objected too, while the title’s sales and critical acclaim shot through the roof. Millar had his characters passionately speak against the way super-heroes enforce the status quo by stopping alien invasions and super-criminals but standing by in the wake of genocides. It was heady, revolutionary stuff.

But all of this, from Watchmen’s use of super-heroes for speculative history and Moore’s heralded conclusion to Miracleman to The Authority’s interventionist super-heroics, can ultimately be traced back to “How Superman Would End the War.” In the sparse pace of two pages, the contradiction of super-heroes existing in the real world, with its real problems, was laid bare. Not only can super-heroes in such continuing corporate stories never cause lasting political change, but they cannot effect lasting popular change of any sort. For two pages, “How Superman Would End the War” ignored all this and turned Superman loose.

The briefness of the story only enhances its effect. Look how quickly Superman saves the world with all the effortlessness grace so trademark of Siegel and Shuster’s creation. Look how readily the super-hero changes everything when placed at last in the real world. Look how Siegel and Shuster could, in two pages, explode the limits and contradictions of their own continuing stories. Look.

It would take half a century for his regular comics to catch up – and, in some ways, they still haven’t.

from page 2 of the recolored How Superman Would End the War

The story is included in The Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told.

Notes

[1] The reasons why Americans would be pro-German were complex. For one thing, a large percentage of Americans were of German decent. And despite Hitler’s aggression (Germany invaded Poland in 1939), this was still the Great Depression, from which there seemed no short-term way out, and Hitler’s national socialism seemed to have solved his nation’s economic problems and galvanized the German people.

[2] http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,711787,00.html

[3] A full translation is available at http://www.calvin.edu/academic/cas/gpa/superman.htm.

[4] http://www.frontpagemag.com/Articles/ReadArticle.asp?ID=9298

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

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2 Comments

  1. This is a really interesting article in so many different ways. I know that the Nazi Party and their allies had issues with Mickey Mouse (the resonance of which Art Spiegelman utilized as part of his influence for Maus), but it never occurred to me that they encountered or interacted with the character of Superman: which in retrospect seems so obvious that they totally would have.

    What I find really intriguing is Superman himself and how he was made. In one of my own articles, I said that Superman was arguably a moralistic reconception of Friedrich Nietzsche’s ubermensch (or superman). But when I really look it now and especially after being reminded of these old propaganda comics, one could argue that Superman is really a subversion of the “Aryan” or proto-Nazi idea of the ubermensch which was, in turn, a distortion of Nietzsche’s ideas. He is neither human nor from our planet, he does not have blond hair and in these early comics he is wholly against Nazism and other ideologies like it. He also serves America and then eventually as time goes on the entire world. I mean, you can look at his two creators and their ethnic backgrounds and have some idea as to why this all is.

    At the same time, in these initial stages Superman is also a subversion of Nietzsche in that while he has the power to go beyond conventional morality and even implement or impose his morality on others, he adopts what is characterized as “American values” or “good old hardworking farmer Kansas” values: in a way to humanize and, at the same time, provide a nationalistic slant to him. Again, I do know that he goes beyond this long after the era being portrayed in your article, but they were some immediate thoughts that I had.

    Then you have Miracleman or Marvelman who was derived from Captain Marvel who existed about the same time as Superman (and who, it is argued, was derived from Superman: the first known and popular comic book superhero). Alan Moore doesn’t even pull his punches with the fact that Marvelman is strong, blond-haired, blue-eyed and has incredible power. He is the ubermensch: albeit with initially a British or Western mentality. However, Alan Moore portrays his origins in the Cold War and while Superman is a refugee from a lost world (which is a nice metaphor in itself) and literally a resident alien, Marvelman is the result of human beings meddling with alien matter and making a weapon that pretty much gains self-awareness and evolves beyond them. That said, that moment when Marvelman encounters Gargunza’s former Nazi soldier guards and they believe he is the Ubermensch–their ideal incarnate–only for him to destroy them and for them to essentially let him was both satisfying and chilling at the same time.

    I also see your point as to why the big-name heroes like Superman couldn’t interfere with a facsimile of our world in the past, otherwise it would have changed everything then and made a sharp dichotomy between their world and ours. And in the time frame that these comics were made, continuity was not as much of issue because comics were still pulps and relatively simplified works: though this was obviously something that was in the midst of changing even as it started.

    Also, and I am not sure if you mentioned this, a really good creative interpretation of why the DC Universe superheroes did not interfere with the Second World War can be found in Darwyn Cooke’s DC: The New Frontier: a very well detailed and integrated reimagining of the DC Universe as something very akin to ours and much more three-dimensional while in no way taking away from the idea of the superheroes and the aesthetic of the 1950s “war stories” and “two-fisted tales” spirit involved.

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