Jerome Siegel Stephen Becker - Essay

Stephen Becker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[By 1942, the critics were in action, pro and con, regarding Superman.] Superman was the ideal outlet for youth's unruly instincts; Superman was in the tradition of the American hero; Superman was a force for good in a world of evil. Or: Superman expressed an irresponsible social philosophy in which the average citizen abjured his own duties and let the marvel fulfill them; Superman was a glorification of the physical; Superman represented absolute power, which is ultimately corrupting. While the battle raged, kids bought the comic books, listened to the radio programs, heeded Superman's preferences in literature, clothing, bubble gum and toys.

He seems a little easier to explain now, twenty years later. The thirties were a period of trial, and many of us had lost our old faith in the traditional virtues. The gangster was an American institution, a salient figure in fact and fiction. War was imminent in Europe; Hitler seemed the personification of absolute evil with unlimited power. Superman may have been partly a wish fulfillment: hesitant to accept battle with the evil loose in the world, parents quietly approved the presence of this fictional strong man who would have been such a comfort had he existed. And then there were legitimate elements of suspense and melodrama. Superman's origins (he was a native of the planet Krypton) were mysterious and other-worldly. Set down on earth, he had become an American, which was properly patriotic. When war broke out, the country went through the necessary psychological preparations for battle, which included the process of persuading men that they were heroes. Irresponsible social philosophy or not, Superman was the sensation of the early forties…. He has persisted successfully into the fifties, as both a comics hero and a television hero. With trick photography now a fine art, his deeds are potentially as spectacular as they ever were, and his popularity seems as high. (pp. 240-41)

Stephen Becker, "More Big Business," in his Comic Art in America: A Social History of the Funnies, the Political Cartoons, Magazine Humor, Sporting Cartoons and Animated Cartoons (copyright © 1959 by Stephen Becker; reprinted by permission of the author), Simon & Schuster, 1959, pp. 237-45.∗