An unlikely 1949 brown paper schoolbook cover produced by DC Comics and distributed by the Institute for American Democracy (IAD) received a great deal of attention following the violent protests in Charlottesville in August 2017. The image, which features Superman speaking to schoolchildren about the ethnic, racial, and religious diversity of Americans, seems as timely today as it was when it first appeared seventy years ago. In fact, the image generated such tremendous interest on social media, DC Comics restored the image and shortly thereafter published it as a poster on its website. While the book cover was a singular project coordinated by the Anti-Defamation League (under the name of the IAD), it inaugurated a commitment to publishing public service announcements at DC Comics that would continue for the next two decades.
The likely author of the 1949 book cover was Jack Schiff, who served as an editor on Batman and Superman stories throughout his tenure at DC Comics in the 1950s and 1960s. Despite the apolitical tone of the comics he edited, Schiff was a committed liberal and sought a creative outlet for his beliefs in the comics medium. Thus, he was especially pleased to take on the new role of writer for a series of public service announcements that DC agreed to publish in conjunction with the National Social Welfare Assembly (NSWA). DC began publishing these one-page stories in titles bearing an August 1949 cover date, and Schiff would proudly serve as their author from the inception of the series through its end in the summer of 1967. For his efforts in promoting diversity, peace, service, brotherhood, and understanding, Schiff would receive awards from the National Conference of Christians and Jews and the American Heritage Foundation.
Over the course of nearly two decades, DC produced more than 200 of these PSAs, some of which featured popular DC superheroes. They premiered at a time when Cold War fears were rising and just before Joseph McCarthy would gain notoriety for his unfounded accusations that thrived on these anxieties. And so, it is worth looking back at these stories with a critical eye to consider what issues Schiff and DC were willing to engage with and those that they were more reluctant to mention. While they certainly did not call into question America’s moral superiority in a Cold War world, it is also unfair to dismiss them wholesale as “innocuous lessons” as one historian has recently done. Indeed, as a whole, these PSAs highlight the limits of social criticism and political activism in the mainstream popular media of the age.
Many, if not most, of the more than 200 PSAs published by DC as part of this partnership with the NSWA addressed uncontroversial topics that Schiff believed would appeal to his main audience. Subjects to which he devoted multiple stories include civic engagement and service, personal responsibility, education and vocational training, and health and hygiene. Arguably these one-page stories targeting pre-teen and teenage readers prompted them to think more deeply about their own actions and their engagement in the larger community. These tales were the least likely to provoke any sort of controversy, as many of them seem like they could have been taken from the civics instruction many DC readers might have encountered in their schools. It is not necessarily wrong to consider these PSAs as largely harmless, but it would be inaccurate to limit an accounting of Schiff’s work to only these saccharine stories.
Occasionally, Schiff would use the dedicated space of his PSA page to engage an issue that was more explicitly political. In these cases, his progressive outlook on the postwar world would become visible to the thoughtful reader searching for the deeper message of the piece. While Schiff intentionally avoided any sort of explicit reference to American political parties or leaders, there were a significant number of stories that undoubtedly drew inspiration from his passionate interests in social justice, the environment, and international cooperation.
If one did not consider the contemporary political context, the PSA entitled “Be Sure of Your Facts” may not have seemed especially timely or relevant to its readers. Featuring the wholesome teenager Buzzy, a kind of DC-version of the celebrated Archie Andrews, the 1952 story revolves around a group of youths who wrongly accuse one of their own for stealing money from the club treasury. The money is quickly found, and the boys apologize to their friend for their false accusation. At this point, the story takes a serious turn, as Buzzy wags his finger and says “Do you see how bad it is to jump to quick conclusions? You can ruin a person’s life by spreading false rumors! Next time check your facts!” It is, of course, unlikely that anyone’s life would be ruined by such an episode, as Buzzy seems to be referencing bigger issues. At the very moment this issue appeared on newsstands, Senator Joseph McCarthy was building his political power through making unfounded accusations against fellow Americans for their political beliefs and activities. Knowing that condemning McCarthy by name, or alluding to him even indirectly, would raise suspicions against him and perhaps prompt DC to fire him or end the PSA campaign, Schiff is subtle in crafting this story. He returns to the issue again in April 1955 in a PSA featuring Peter Porkchops entitled “Don’t Be Afraid to Speak Up!” By this point, McCarthy’s star had faded and the story, while still steering clear of politics, was likely viewed by other DC editors as innocuous.
Perhaps the most controversial stories – and the ones with the most continuing relevance in the twenty-first century – are those that took on the issues of prejudice and intolerance directly. These stories are smallest in number, yet they still pack a powerful punch more than sixty years later. In these instances, Schiff scripted stories devoted to ethnicity, ability, religion, and in at least one notable instance, race. These stories contained powerful commentary on prejudices in American society and encouraged readers to think beyond stereotypes in their relationships with others. While these PSAs are by no means as powerful as the provocative feature-length stories appearing in EC Comics in the early 1950s, there are some commonalities in both topic and tone.
Multiple PSAs published during the 1950s addressed ethnicity and prejudices against fellow Americans from different cultural backgrounds. One of the first of these appeared in 1951 and featured Superboy in a story involving prejudice against a Scandinavian family preparing Kottbuller for their dinner guests. Certainly not a particularly compelling example of ethnic discrimination, the final panel featuring Superboy’s moral was powerful nonetheless. He reminds readers that “no single land, race, or ethnicity can claim this country as its own. America is a blend of cultures from many lands! Never forget that!” This message was certainly transferrable to other groups in American society, but in 1951 Schiff presented it in as safe a context as possible.
Future PSAs addressing ethnic tensions moved into more contentious territory as they focused their attention on Latinos in the United States. A 1954 story entitled “Welcome Amigo” takes an upbeat approach in showing how Caucasian children might be able to learn from their new Latino neighbors. Here the story ends with the message that everyone should try to be “amigos.” By 1957, Schiff’s treatment of the topic exhibits a darker tone, as he has the young white characters say derogatory things about the new Latino kids in the neighborhood (“Danger: Prejudice at Work”). These white children say that they “don’t look like our kind” and criticize one of the Latino boy’s English skills. The moral here is similar to the 1954 story, although this time it is delivered by a finger-wagging adult.
Especially remarkable are the stories that Schiff authored that focus on disability. The first of these, “Buzzy Scores One for the Handicapped,” appeared in 1951 and featured a group of teens that included a deaf young man. In short, the story has Buzzy lecturing the antagonist about why it is wrong to treat someone with a disability as an outsider. The moral of the story, however, also highlights the limits of these lessons, as Buzzy says “remember, a handicapped person wants to join in things too. His attitude depends on how you treat him. So give him your help and understanding – and he won’t feel handicapped.” Here we learn that while Buzzy encourages others to act kindly, he also reinforces the notion of disability as both bad and abnormal. In 1959, Schiff published a story (“Fred Finds A Way”) featuring two young men unable to play on the baseball team: one who failed to make the squad and another on crutches. The injured player, who serves as the official scorekeeper, convinces the other to find ways to enjoy the game and contribute without playing on the field as he had. The story concludes with the second boy serving as a sports reporter and writing about the team’s games.
The only PSA authored by Schiff to explicitly engage racial discrimination appeared in April 1953. Published at a time when the legal doctrine of “separate but equal” remained in force (as the Brown v. Board of Education ruling came one year later), Schiff authored a compelling story of one white man’s implicit bias against African Americans. The story, entitled “Superman Says: People are People,” is deceptively simplistic, in that it comprises only seven panels. It focuses on two young men, one black and one white, who encounter an escaped lion at a circus. The African-American youth bravely subdues him until Superman can act. The next panel shows the owner, who has just arrived at the scene, thanking the white young man and offering a reward. Superman then asks the owner how he knows the other (African American) young man was not the hero. Unable to answer, the owner then receives a lecture from Superman. “Because of his color? As a matter of fact, he was the one! You just jumped to a conclusion because of a common prejudice!” By no means a critique of institutionalized racism in American society, Schiff’s story nevertheless forces readers to ponder their own ideas about race.
The final panel of “People Are People,” as was true of virtually all of Schiff’s PSAs, serves as the moral of the story. First, the lion owner, with his hand on the shoulder of the young African American expresses his regret for having gotten “some wrong notions” in his head. Then, it is Superman’s turn to instruct. Reciting a line that sounds not dissimilar to the words Martin Luther King would deliver a decade later, Superman says people have forgotten “an elementary truth: that people are people, and should be judged as such, regardless of color or beliefs.” It is noteworthy that Superman, who appeared in only a limited number of these PSAs, is the one who delivers the message to DC’s readers. While this PSA may indeed seem harmless today, it is important to remember the historical context. Criticizing implicit racial bias, referring to racial discrimination as “wrong,” and having America’s greatest superhero champion the cause of minority groups was a controversial move, especially for a business looking to sell its product in the South.
The partnership between DC and the NSWA helped the publishing giant defend itself against the widespread attacks on comics in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Over the longer term, it gave the company a way to demonstrate an interest in the welfare of America’s youth. While it is true that most of these stories addressed uncontroversial issues that would appeal to all, there were also tales that challenged readers to think critically about social justice, the environment, race, ethnicity, and ability. These powerful stories arguably packed more of a punch than most of the DC superhero stories of the era. That their messages still resonate and capture the interest of comics readers – and the American public more broadly – more than sixty years later is a testament to their author as well as a revealing commentary on contemporary America.
Additional information can be found at the following sites:
DC Comics webpage explaining the history of the iconic 1949 Superman image and its recent restoration: https://www.dccomics.com/blog/2017/08/25/superman-a-classic-message-restored
A fine overview of the DC PSAs by Linnea Anderson, archivist at the Social Welfare History Archives: https://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/organizations/national-social-welfare-assembly-comics-project/
NSWA Comics Project site hosted by VCU Libraries: https://images.socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/exhibits/show/national-social-welfare-assemb/gallery
An outstanding collection of the DC PSAs published in conjunction with the NSWA cataloged from 1949-1967: http://www.mikesamazingworld.com/mikes/features/gallery.php?page=psa