75 Years of Superman - Part III
Truth, Justice and the American Way
"Superman has the big the big S on his uniform – we should, I suppose, be thankful that it is not an S.S.’" Fredric Wertham
In 1954, German-American psychiatrist, Fredric Wertham’s damaging study on the impact of comics on youth culture was reflected in his book, The Seduction of the Innocent. Not only did Wertham set out to prove that adult content, depicted in popular crime and horror comics, was corrupting youth culture, but also the positive role models of superheroes. It was one point to highlight and attempt to prove the influence of sex, violence and drug use corrupting the children of the time, but Wertham went further in the hidden conjectures of Wonder Woman’s bondage, Batman and Robin’s homosexuality and Superman’s fascism. Although Wonder Woman’s creator, William Moulton had admitted to misogynistic undertones during her early years, Wertham only further documented the evidence, fueling more claims that her strength and independence presented her as a lesbian.
Despite Siegel and Shuster’s left-wing stance that originally championed Superman as a social activist in his fight against corrupt politicians and businessmen, Wertham’s misguided theories were selective at best. Even in light of the Roosevelt era, which tended to lean more towards a more liberal idealism, there was still no denying the good causes that the character continued to uphold – non more so than his battle against the Ku Klux Klan during a 1946 Radio broadcast. Having tapped in to an important aspect of the American identity, made more relatable due to their own Jewish immigrant background, it seemed implausible for fascism to rear its ugly head. But in their links to Neitzche’s influential work and further evidence that Hitler had found relevancy in shaping his own new world order, Wertham stood by his beliefs.
Superheroes, have indeed gone on to glorify the physical form in much the same way as the historical, stylised images and sculptures of the Greeks and Romans. The study of human anatomy was one that related to power and godhood as much as understanding the processes involved in depicting the physical form and in looking at theses examples in more detail it is easy to see how vulnerable Superman is to such accusations of fascism. Even when considered coincidental, it is still enough to spark strong debate. His adversary, Lex Luthor is a man of high intellect concerned with domination and the manipulation of society, utilising both science and reason in his efforts to destroy Metropolis or rather bend the utopian city to his own means. Yet, it is Superman, with his sheer strength who prevails in forcing man to surrender his own beliefs in forcing the physically weaker to yield and prevent their twisted ideals. Either way, Wertham used both perspectives of the superhero and villain, only seeing the patriotic stance of, ‘Truth, Justice and the American Way’ as no more than nationalism. Fascists were not the first to use classical archetypes and physically imposing figures to convey a message nor will they be the last. Throughout history there are many beautiful interpretations of human nature that have inspired godlike figures and it is only in the eyes of those who wish to use these examples to empower and dictate that they should be labeled ‘fascist’. Superman reminds us that there is a limit to reason and that this is seen through his enemies in their own blind devotion to an irrational worldview.
Seduction of the Innocent resulted in the establishment of the Comics Authority Code and the banning of major horror and crime titles of the time, which resulted in the death of the Golden Age. Since its publication, Wertham’s theories have been disproven and his own motives questioned in targeting the comics industry. Superman survived the claims and in 1951 his first foray in to a feature length film was released. Superman and the Mole Men rejuvenated the ailing career of George Reeves who went on to star in the hugely popular television series, Adventures of Superman from 1952 to 1958. However, despite Superman surviving fascist accusations, news headlines in 1959 reported George Reeves’ apparent suicide – a mysterious Hollywood case that gave rise to the first, official ‘Death of Superman’. For millions of fans, Superman was dead and the empire surrounding the Man of Steel seemed more at risk than ever before. However, despite his film and television incarnations and the related merchandise linked to the popular series, Reeve’s death had no impact on the comics.
In their efforts to make the new stories less physical and more emotional, DC comics began to channel the current zeitgeist and build further on their success in channeling the popularity of the space related merchandise aimed at children. The late 1950s were considered to be the beginning of the Silver Age of comics and during the 1960s, Superman became more in tune with the newly elected John F. Kennedy’s values and optimism. However, when another generation grew disillusioned upon his assassination, optimism spiraled in to race riots and militant activism against the Vietnam War. After a more spiritual revival in the aftermath of the Vietnam, the Judeo-Christian allegory was brought more to the forefront – not so much a substitute for a religion but for the underlining mythology that had developed over the years and made Superman such a universal character. The time had arrived to inject the right amount of depth and poignancy and deliver a fresh cinematic vision that would serve the character justice.
This post was first published on May 7th 2013.