Though I was never a regular reader of Superman comics, his presence was felt. In the Justice League comics and on cartoon shows of the era, Superman was always featured, his powers looming large over other characters. His early days as Superboy set up the Legion of Superheroes, which I did read. The multiple members of the Super Family – including non-superheroes like Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen – meant Superman was never too far away from any comic in the DC Universe. In television and cartoons, Superman led the way for other comic book heroes.
As an irregular reader, Superman’s influence on me came most directly from the 1978 film starring Christopher Reeve. Its iconic nature stays with me as a memory: I can still remember being in the theater as the film began with a shot of Action Comics #1 being opened. Sitting in the darkened cinema, on the film’s debut weekend, seeing a comic book on the big screen – a comic as a legitimate entertainment option – brought a hope of acceptability for an art form that meant so much to me, yet seemed so demeaned by other’s views. Even now, superhero films have not conferred as much respect on their comic book origins as I had hoped, but there is a grudging respect slowly being offered, if only for the amounts of money these films can make.
Yet for me it is always the story, the myth a story can create no matter the media, which brings meaning to any comic or film. The 1978 film echoed Superman’s character from many of the years leading up to it: Superman as “boy scout,” the doer of good deeds, the protector of truth, justice, and the American way (when the American way was “known,” even through the radical debates on politics and troubling world events of the sixties and seventies). There seemed to be an agreement on what was considered wrong – it was obvious – and Superman was the hero to defend what was obviously right. Even today, with Superman comics intensely complicated over the character’s history, and a trend toward darker heroes, it seems difficult to change the general perception of Superman: he is the truest hero in the minds of most of the public.
As I worked on my book about Marvel Comics, I kept thinking about DC. When thinking and writing about superheroes, the path has to begin with DC and with the original caped hero, Superman. So much has been written about Superman, but I felt the need to gain a deeper knowledge of the hero through his stories, the early stories that were mostly unavailable for reading until the current era of widely available reprints. I wanted to know how this superhero genre got started. I began with Brad Ricca’s bio of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in “Super Boys” and then picked up DC”s “Golden Age Volume 1.” I was rather surprised by what lay within.
Superman begins with an attitude. I wouldn’t say he was a “dark” character, as we know superheroes today, but he is a sort pf smart-ass, more in deed than in words, though examples of both will follow. Superman is more human in the beginning, but also less, in the sense that his knowledge of what is right is true – and he will not be deterred from doing the right thing. When someone is living under some injustice, he does what needs to be done to get a fair, possibly even redemptive, result for that person. Superman, as they say, doesn’t take any guff. He doesn’t presume to act nice to anyone who is not acting nice themselves – Superman wants justice, pure and simple, and he wants it quickly.
In his very first panels, Superman is bounding through the air (unable yet to fly) with a woman who is gagged. We are not introduced to the details, but he leaves her, bound and gagged. He doesn’t have the time to attend to her.
I will admit to being surprised. My impression of Superman, besides being the ultimate hero, was of the gentleman hero – leaving the woman unable to speak or move seemed rather un-Superman like. He then barges into a mansion determined to see someone. As it’s late at night, he is told to come back at daylight. Superman says, “I’ll see him NOW!” and busts open the door. As it turns out, this is the governor’s mansion, so when Superman refuses to listen, and picks the man up and carries him through the house, it is a page of introduction to someone not quite fitting my image of who Superman is.
Besides a rather more direct and almost surly Superman, one of the stranger tropes Siegel and Shuster were employing stemmed from Superman as yet being unable to fly. This two panel sequence from Action #8 illustrates it perfectly, though he seems to be flying, Superman has leaped out a window. When he gets to his destination, he is clinging to a roof to spy on the criminal inside the window, acting more like the Batman than the powerful Superman I know.
Superman’s rough treatment of the governor’s man is really incomparable to what he does to an actual criminal. Later in the tale from Action #8, he confronts a criminal element and is surprisingly cheeky with him, giving him a face-palm with his left hand, knocking the man to the ground with a kind of shove that somehow just seems out of character. The panel also shows Superman with his right hand in a fist and the criminal’s dialogue in the next panel suggests Superman hit him even as he face-palmed him and shoved him down. And then – he’s suggesting he “wants” to do something more to him, taking “another poke” at the prone man just like a street tough.
This kind of behavior was new to me for Superman, but was building a version of Superman that was refreshing, a hero for the streets that took matters into his own hands and dealt with the wrongdoers in a way they could understand. In these early stories, there is no way to escape the wrath of Superman – unless you have a change of heart and truly learn the error of your ways and actions.
The unexpected actions continue for this early Superman, seen here in Action #12. Here he smashes his way into a radio station and deals with the radio show host using the same face-palm (i.e., complete dismissal and humiliation of someone) he used on the previous criminal. Superman then threatens the radio engineer with similarly serious treatment if Superman is not allowed to commandeer the air waves.
Perhaps most unexpected is Superman’s tactic of scaring the pants off the criminals he needs information or changed behavior from. When he confronts a crook and demands a written confession, the guy knows he will go to jail and refuses. What does Superman do? Hang him outside the window, obviously threatening to drop him, until he concedes.
Superman: The Golden Age, Volume One (reprinting Action Comics #14), DC Comics, 2016, p.217.
This begins Superman’s tactic of scaring criminals with his super strength – and his menacing personality – to get them to do what he wants. In a clever sequence of diabolical frightening, Superman here punches around a crook into the wall, creating holes around the man’s head, until he threatens to do to the man’s face what he has just easily done to the wall.
This culminates with our more human Superman, one much less omnipotent, allowing a criminal to die. The death is from his own ineptness, but it is a rather surprising sequence to see Superman allow the man to inhale his own poisonous gas and die on the spot, “One less vulture!” as Superman leaves. The now-familiar super-breath seems not to have been invented yet, but without even moving the man out of the range of the poison gas, Superman’s character as a “boy scout” has obviously not yet been built.
The more direct, and less powerful, Superman was unexpected, yet refreshing. While the darker heroes of today’s comics bring up issues for us as to who is right, or gets to decide what is wrong, this Superman, confronting criminals, is not wrong – he unerringly knows who the criminals are and does what he needs to do to stop them. The feelings of the criminals are not held as equal to the feelings of their victims: threatening a crook with dropping them out the window is acceptable if they give in to what Superman needs. Still, in another early story, when a crook has a heart attack and dies from this kind of treatment, in addition to this last one wherein the crook is allowed to die in a cloud of poisonous gas, it is still a bit of a shock to see these origins.
Siegel and Shuster’s own origins, including Jerry’s father having died during a robbery at his modest shop, almost certainly set the tone for their new creation. Superman needed to deliver direct justice. His instincts needed to be correct and he needed to help those who could not get real help elsewhere. For two young adults from a typically crime-ridden American city of the thirties, Superman seems to have been invented to eliminate that crime so the lives of normal citizens, not the politicians and the wealthy, could proceed without harassment.