Out of the Sunday Panels and into WWII:

A Look at Superman’s Relationship with the American Working Class

In 1938, a future symbol of “Truth, Justice, & the American Way” was born, and the personification of these values formed into the character known as Superman.  The first conception of superman stands in contrast from the majestic figure of today.  The fictional character stood for heroic American values, which were tailored specifically toward the struggling working class in a time of economic depression when American people needed hope and a savior.  In this way, Superman flew to the rescue and inspired many of the working class.  Superman was an alien immigrant, a white-collar worker in service of the public, and he grew up in the heart of America: Kansas.  He was a perfect Robin Hood type champion for those in poverty.  He fought for social equality as he defended the helpless against the criminal gangsters and rich greedy businessmen looking to take what little the poverty-stricken had.  The publishing history of Superman reflects the historical environment in which the character was born, but before he was able to fight for social justice he first had to be printed.   After rejection from newspaper syndicates, Siegel and Shuster’s Superman first entered the public eye in Action Comics # 7 in 1939.  In a short time, sales sky rocketed off the charts after only the publication of  Action Comics #7 and from there his adventures were seen and heard-  in radio serials, television programs, films, plays, and finally newspaper strips where he more directly communicated with the working public.

In January of 1939, the McClure newspaper syndicate had begun publishing the daily Superman comic strip and in November the Sunday Superman comic strip began its debut in many of the local newspapers in America.  The main difference between the Sunday and daily comic strips, besides their frequency of appearance, was their length and color.  Sunday comic strips were often in color with more story panels while the dailies were black and white with fewer devoted panels.  In these longer Sunday strips featuring Superman, the “Man of Tomorrow” confronts many of the 1940s U.S. working class anxieties.  Superman embodies the opposing force against the aristocratic class as well as the threats outside of the nation.  With the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the American working class’s concerns were redirected to an external threat represented by the German Nazis and imperial Japan.  It is at this point, that the boundaries between the fictional and nonfictional world significantly blur and redirect Superman’s attention to the U.S. foreign enemy across the sea.  Here, Superman is seen on the battlegrounds of WWII alongside U.S. troops, supporting them and urging them on.  He ridicules the Axis powers by mocking them, and makes light of their abilities in a humorous way.  In this way, the narrative of Superman includes America’s own narrative and vice-versa as he himself acts outside of the panels of the Sunday newspaper to defend the American nation and the working class.  Individuals of the working class even take up the virtues of Superman thereby becoming supermen themselves as war is waged against the allied enemies.  It is through these interactions, that we see the Sunday Superman comic strips—published during WWII—develop a symbiotic relationship with the American working class, which reveals Superman as an evolving American mythos comparable to the gods of Greek society.

Superman resembles a godly figure forged from a mythos similar to the gods of Greek society.  For the Greeks, many of their gods were representative of the beliefs and understanding of the world in which they lived.  When analyzed, the Greek gods reflect much of the mythos of the Greek people.  The gods explained how the world worked around them as well as how the universe came into being (Frazer).  Zeus, for instance, is the Greeks’ explanation to the chaotic nature of how the weather worked.  When Zeus was pleased it would rain and their crops would thereby receive nourishment and when he was angry the elements would demonstrate a corresponding devastating effect on the people, such as famine.  This reveals the very human and emotional temperament of how the Greeks perceived the world around them.  The Greek society understand nature to be a human-like sentient being of fallibility, which became manifest in the character and actions of their mythological gods.  Likewise, Superman acts as an anthropomorphized representation of the American mythos.  He is a reflection of the sociopolitical influences surrounding the American environment.

The 1940s American environment that shaped Superman as a reflection of American mythos was composed from the experiences of the working class.  Many of the working class experienced unemployment and fell into poverty due to the financial decline of America.  The financial decline stretched the gap between the struggling working class and the upper class who owned a majority of American society’s wealth and means of production.  This was a hard time for industrial workers, banks, and especially for small business owners.  Industrial factories had a low supply and demand quota, resulting in an even lower demand for employees.  Less money in local circulation meant fewer paying patrons, and with the absence of proper financing, local business owners rapidly went out of business.  The same went for banks as property owners failed to pay mortgages.  In comparison to the working class, the American bourgeoisie rode out the depression, many of whom owned the factories and larger businesses.  These same owners took advantage of the lower class using ill means to thwart competition with smaller businesses and treated workers as disposable for production.  These victims of the financial decline comprised the working class whom Superman designated as his charges.

It was at this time that Superman entered the fictional and nonfictional scene draped in the American red and blue, protecting the everyday citizen both physically and financially.  On November 5, 1939, the first Sunday comic strip starring Superman appeared in the local newspaper.  The first Sunday comic strip of Superman introduces him as an alien from another world cared for by an American orphanage.  He had limited supernatural abilities: “leap 1/8th a mile”, “hurdle a twenty story building”, “raise tremendous weights”, “run faster than an express train”, and “nothing less than a bursting shell could penetrate his skin” (Siegel and Shuster, Superman Sunday Classics 2).  Despite not resembling the present incarnation of the godly invincible Superman of today, he was equivalent to a 1940s modern-day version of a Greek Hercules or Biblical Samson whom the character’s authors intended to emulate.  He was less of an omnipotent god and more of a demigod in ability.  This made the character seem less alien and more relatable to the average working class American.  Superman assumed the pretense of a member of the working class in his alternate identity as Clark Kent a journalist, this made the character in service of the American public on two levels.  He served American society by reporting honest news, while simultaneously protecting the public as a gleeful vigilante.  Thus, Superman served as an aspiration to the working class, he was a member of the working class who had the ability to fight back at the injustices of American society and did.

In the story arc following his introduction, Superman rescues a pedestrian from an assassination attempt via vehicular manslaughter.  After having a chat with the civilian, the reader finds that the pedestrian’s name is Mike Hensely, operator of a small business logging company, and that his competitor Lem Marston hired gangsters to kill him.  Furthermore, in order to keep his small business afloat and pay his employees he must procure a loan from the bank.  As Superman finishes listening to the story, he tells Hensely to meet him at the bank the next day where he eventually pressures the banker into giving Hensely the loan by threatening his financial well-being (Siegel and Shuster, Superman Sunday Classics 3-4).  This story marks the beginning of the American mythos in the Superman ideology.

(Siegel and Shuster, Superman Sunday Classics 3-4 1999)

In these panels, the reader can see that the pedestrian is a stand in for the working class American.  Hensely is simply an American worker trying to take care of his livelihood and his employees.  He represents much of what Americans were feeling:  hopelessness.  Those in a position of financial security like the banker act as antagonists in the early onset of the Sunday comic strips.  Antagonizing businessmen who hoard the means to help their fellowman, and serve as a reminder that these callous villains were real threats to the general public.  These antagonists were not fictional characters created in the comic strips, but walked into them from flesh and blood to cheap paper and ink.  Because of this reason, it was pivotal for Superman, a champion of social equality, to come face to face with a real life bully and threaten him where it could hurt him the most, his pocket.  Later, in the “Giants of Doom Valley” story arc, the reader can see the fiction turn from a kind of realism to science fiction escapism.

(Siegel and Shuster, Superman Sunday Classics 19 1999)

The entire arc only took about four pages worth of comic strips as Superman has his first adventure outside of the confinements of reality fiction.  In the story, Clark Kent and Lois Lane investigate a lead in Death Valley about giants living underneath ground in the desert (Siegel and Shuster, Superman Sunday Classics 17-20).  From there, Superman rescues a kidnapped Lois Lane, defeats the giants and monstrous vultures and escapes with flying colors.  This kind of change in the fiction of the Superman continuity indicates a noticeable change in the tastes of the working class.  More than likely, the comic strips’ audience was looking for an escape from their own reality much in the same way Superman goes out on his field trip to Death Valley.  These early comic strips set the stage for an eventual return from fantasy to the pre-WWII reality

Soon after Superman’s adventure into escapism, WWII enters the pages of the local newspapers.  As Superman evolves with the times of the Great Depression, he changes, yet again, as he enters the international stage due to the ensuing world war.  As Superman exists in this new and more global context, he gains an awareness of the international events occurring in the reality of American society.  This flood of influence from reality poses many questions to the narrative and nature of Superman.  Inquiries regarding how would Superman end WWII.  This “what if?” question acts as the title of a two-page spread seen in Look magazine published in February 27, 1940.

(Siegel and Shuster, Superman Sunday Classics 188, 190 1999)

In the short story, Superman takes an active offensive role making short work of the Axis power armies and delivering Hitler and Stalin directly to the League of Nations to be judged for their crimes (Siegel and Shuster, Superman Sunday Classics 187-190).  The character thwarts German tanks, bending iron cannons with effortless ease, pummels German airplanes, and demonstrates his immunity to gunfire.  Superman’s actions represent the exaggerated might of American political power in a purely imaginative though context in order to answer the “what if?”  As such, the “what if” implies an unspoken question: what if the United States was to enter the war?  The Sunday strip confronts this same question and the growing concerns of the American working class by portraying Superman as a courageous and victorious figure.  We see Superman ushering French Allied troops to victory as he stands unafraid with his hand raised gesturing them on ward out in the open telling them to “Come and get ‘em” (Siegel and Shuster, Superman Sunday Classics 188).  In this way, Superman is not just a superhero, but is the U.S. superpower.  He hypothetically portrays how U.S. intervention would affect the war and the role the U.S. would fill as a powerful and inspiring leader dealing out justice in an exuberant and fanciful manner.

Not only does the narrative of Superman portray an imaginative scenario of U.S. participation in the war, but it also predicts U.S. involvement in the war.  Though Superman acts in a fictional milieu, the story and character foretells the U.S. entering WWII.  Because of this prediction, which occurs almost two years prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it further demonstrates the symbiotic connection of the comic strips and the present reality of 1940, and the eventuality of the future reality of 1941.  This imaginary scenario reveals the desires of the American working class.  The working class feared and hated the war.  They wanted the war to end swiftly, and so Superman intervenes and accomplishes this task for the very people he defends in this hypothetical situation.

In 1942, after the U.S. joined the Allies, the story arc called “Champion of Democracy” redefines Superman.  Though the origin of Superman remains the same, the authors refit the character with new powers.  These new changes to his powers included the ability to lift any weight, invincibility, as well as superhuman hearing and sight, which gave him telescopic, microscopic, and x-ray vision (Siegel and Shuster, Superman Sunday Classics 137).  This new Superman was better equipped to combat greater dangers than before.  Whether it was near or far, nothing could be hidden from him.  The character even received a new nickname “Champion of Democracy”, which further marks him as a hero of the people.

(Siegel and Shuster, Superman Sunday Classics 137 1999)

Furthermore, his motivations become apparent:  “an innate desire to help those weaker than himself resulted in the creation of all-powerful Superman, champion of the helpless and oppressed!” (Siegel and Shuster, Superman Sunday Classics 137)  The character’s new title and purpose reestablishes his relationship with the American people.

The next week’s strip, a continuation of the “Champion of Democracy”, illustrates Superman’s focus from local criminals to international enemies.  The strip recounts and summarizes Superman’s battle against depression-era gangsters and has the first mention of the bombing of Pearl Harbor (Siegel and Shuster, Superman Sunday Classics 138).  This is a prime example of the relationship between Superman and the real world.  Fiction and reality come together as the war can no longer be escaped by either Americans or their hero in the Sunday comic strips.  The outside world’s news is in Superman’s world making them one in the same.  Superman always had the same enemies as the American working class, but now the real-life events of WWII existed for the U.S.’s “Champion of Democracy” as well.  Due to the Bombing of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. enemy and Superman’s enemy reach an undeniable intersection becoming perfectly aligned and unified in the fight against injustice.  Because of this, Superman’s enemies change from fictional super villains and native gangsters to the new U.S. enemy, the “international gangsters” known as the infamous Axis powers.

(Siegel and Shuster, Superman Sunday Classics 138 1999)

It is this juncture between fiction and reality, where questions regarding Superman’s vast superpowers must be considered.  Mark Waid1 reflects upon the impact Superman’s extraordinary abilities would have on WWII:

Once you link the ideas “Superman and “World War Two,” you quickly see the problem.  If the mightiest hero in comics applies his vast super-powers to ending all hostilities, which he could do in a day, the world of his fantastic exploits ceases to resemble the real world of his readers.  But if he sits the war out, what kind of man—what kind of Superman, what kind of American—is he? (Siegel and Shuster, Superman Sunday Classics 5)

This question poses a formidable problem for the writers and editors of Superman.  Instead of making Superman choose between joining the military or abandoning the American working class, they have him act in a capacity where he could do the most good while staying out of the front lines.  This left Superman with few options unless a creative solution could be found that would maintain Superman’s values and loyalty to the American people.  An American hero such as himself could not just dodge enlisting, but had to be denied the possibility of joining the American military.  Because of this, the writers had him fail in enlisting so by a “comical mishap” concerning his x-ray vision (Siegel and Shuster, Superman Sunday Classics 5, 84-85).

(Siegel and Shuster, Superman Sunday Pages 1943-46 84 2013)

(Siegel and Shuster, Superman Sunday Pages 1943-46 84 2013)

The November 7, 1943 strip gave another explanation as to why Superman could not enter the war effort: “How can you beat soldiers with that sort of spirit—the spirit that makes Americans fight against any sort of odds!  For me to interfere would be—well, presumptuous! (Siegel and Shuster, Superman Sunday Pages 1943-46 37)” Essentially Superman feels he has no place in the war because the American soldiers already have what they need to fight.  Therefore, Superman believes that it would be presumptuous to assume they require his help directly and at the same time preserves his American values and devotion to the American people.

Though Superman did not join the ranks of the American army, he primarily supports the soldiers in terms of morale.  Superman’s morale support acted both inside and outside the comics, proving his relationship to being symbiotic with the reality of WWII.  A New York Times article published June 22, 1941, called “‘Superman’ Gets His Tank By Diving on It From Tree”, reveals Superman as a real-life person participating in the war.  In the article, Sergeant Vandergroot of the U.S. army ambushes the driver of the enemies’ tank and disables it by crashing it into another tank thereby breaking the assault with nothing but his bare hands and a single pistol (‘Superman’ Gets His Tank By Diving on It From Tree).  Due to this heroic achievement in demonstrating virtues within the American mythos such as bravery, cunning, and justice, Vandergroot embodies the same virtues Superman stands for thus earning the nickname “Superman.”   Vandergroot is also a representative of the American working class drafted into the army.  A majority of the working class joined the military effort and formed the bulk of the U.S. military.  In the cadet training story arc spanning from 1942 to 1943, Superman as Clark Kent follows one such candidate named Dave Cooper in order to write a story on Cooper’s army air corps examination.  In the story, Superman ensures that Cooper becomes a model cadet by reminding him to study, helping him train, and even rescuing him from German Nazis bent on preventing Cooper from becoming an army pilot (Siegel and Shuster, Superman Sunday Classics 184-185).  In this way, Superman is constantly watching out for the troops as a guardian, enabling and cheering for them from the sidelines only intervening when absolutely necessary.

In August 15, 1943, Superman begins perhaps one of his most influential story arcs yet, entitled “Superman’s Service for Servicemen.”  The story arc was based on actual letters from the U.S. troops wishing Superman could help them in one way or another.  Sergeant Walter Cunnington inspired the first of the “Service for Servicemen” stories.  In the story, Cunnington requests that Superman deliver him to his family and girlfriend.  Superman answers this request in person and at the end of the strip announces the continuation of these supportive efforts to the troops (Siegel and Shuster, Superman Sunday Pages 1943-46 23-24).  While these stories center on the military troops, the strips are actually for the audience who are the working class families of the soldiers participating in the WWII.  The stories evoke comfort to the families at home and a kind of wish fulfillment for the troops as Superman breaks the fourth wall in order to fulfill the desires of the working class.  These stories continued for the next two years, Superman delivered mail, fixed romantic problems, assisted the troops in their chores and several other numerous and sometimes wildly absurd requests such as taming a horse and even providing showgirls for a dance party.

(Siegel and Shuster, Superman Sunday Pages 1943-46 23-24 2013)

The Sunday Superman comic strips published during WWII maintain a symbiotic relationship with the American working class, which reveals Superman as an evolving American mythos.   The character named “Superman” was born from the sociopolitical forces that shaped the American mythos of the events 1940s and likewise influenced the American people in the form of a caped crusader.  This hero performs as an American mythos, a construction of beliefs, wants, and fears of the American working class.  He acts as a conduit for the desires of the people.  As an aspiration of the American mythos, Superman’s function in society, similar to the Greek gods, reflects and fulfills the values and wants held by those same people.  Superman defends, comforts, and serves all in an effort to provide security and relief to the working class.  As a byproduct of this, the character goes where he is required, which includes operating in both the fictional world and the world of the readers.  As a result, he continues to fit the needs of the people by evolving with the times even to this very day.  This “Man of Tomorrow” will remain as long as American people require him.


1 Eisner award-winning American author of Superman: Birthright and Kingdom Come.

Works Cited

A.N.A. “‘Superman’ Gets His Tank By Diving on It From Tree.” New York Times 22 June 1941: 22. Web.

Frazer, James George. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. New York: Macmillan, 1922. Print.

Siegel, Jerry and Joe Shuster. “Superman Sunday Classics.” New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 1999. 60-64,153,171-173,180,186. Print.

Siegel, Jerry and Joe Shuster. “Superman Sunday Pages 1943-46.” San Diego: IDW Publishing, 2013. 29-31,103-107,131-133,147-148. Print.

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Jesse Cyrus is an undergraduate of Southern Illinois University of Edwardsville. After his soon-to-be graduation from SIUE, he plans to pursue a M.A. in English Literature in hopes of becoming a teacher. Between grinding espresso and steaming milk under the guise of a barista at a local cafe, he writes whatever is on his mind, dabbles in anatomy drawing, and strums soulful blues on his electric guitar that could tame the savage beast (or, at the very least, give it a splitting headache). In concerns to his writing and reading, his primary interests are comics, existential philosophy, and 19th century French and Russian literature.

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  1. Brent Holmes says:

    Jesse, thank you for writing so insightfully about my favourite incarnation of Superman. The sense he was here on Earth to fight for the little guy was never clearer. As many people have noted before me, two Jewish men who were well aware of Hitler’s activities in Europe wrote a tale of a strange and powerful man from far away who sent his only son to Earth. On Earth he was much more powerful and used these gifts to make the world better.

    I used to have an oversized reprint of Action Comics 1-4 . Superman tricked a man into his dangerous mine then proceed to cause a cave in to show said owner the plight of his workers. He kidnapped the top opposing generals in a war before explaining to them the war’s only real cause was to promote the sale of munitions. Never was the character more activist, more clear cut in his behaviour.

    While I know DC broadly used Hitler capturing the Spear of Destiny to prevent DC heroes from intervening in Europe; I had no idea of the hilarious sequence you showed where Superman’s x-ray vision actually thwarted his attempt to enlist! Again, great article.

  2. Thanks for the swell article.

    I find it odd how people conveniently forget Superman’s earliest incarnation.

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