Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1185
It was 1938, and the country was shuddering its way out from the crippling blow to its economy in 1929. The air was full of talk of war in Europe, and of the mad clown named Hitler…. It was a time of idealism and of shattered ideals. We were down but not out. Our world had crumbled, but we knew we could build a better one.
We hadn't grown up yet.
Enter Superman. (p. 28)
For a man who was setting out to "help those in need," Superman had a remarkably pedestrian mind. For the most part he did not occupy himself with sweeping social change; instead he battled crooks and racketeers, uncovering corruption in low places. (p. 29)
It's fortunate for Superman that neither Siegel nor Shuster had absorbed much from their high-school science classes, or, for that matter, from the science fiction of that time. Had the laws of inertia been in force while Superman was standing steadfast before a speeding car, the outcome might often have been quite different. And if Superman had actually had sufficient internal mass to stop a speeding car, I hate to think of the holes he would have kicked in the sidewalks with each of his aerial leaps.
But those were simpler times. And if the comic book had not originally been aimed at a specific age group, it had certainly found one: the kids. How many kids knew the science that would debunk Superman? How many kids, knowing it, would have cared?
Superman was a myth-figure: he was our dreams personified, even as he must have been Siegel and Shuster's. Superman was, almost literally, the perfect Boy Scout. We still believed in Boy Scouts then.
Most of the Superman myth was established within the first year of Superman's publication. (pp. 29-30)
Most of those early stories dwelled, with what I can only describe as a magnificent sense of wonder, upon Superman's physical attributes…. The pages in which Superman did little but outrace trains or cars, leap buildings, or toss crooks around … probably outnumbered those in which the plot (if there was one) was materially advanced.
But war was coming. Everyone could see it. In several 1939 and 1940 stories Superman found himself in mythical European countries fighting off invasions of one sort or another. (p. 30)
Then came 1941.
Suddenly, we were at war. It must have thrown Superman's publishers into a tizzy. Here was this marvelous man, this superman, who had already demonstrated his ability to handle almost any size war—what were we going to do with him? If he went to war against Hitler, how could we explain the fact that America had not instantly won?
The solution was ingenious. As Clark Kent, Superman went down to his local draft board to enlist. But in his nervous desire to get into the Army, he accidentally employed his x-ray vision during the eye test. Instead of reading the chart before him, he read the one in the room beyond! He was flunked out as a 4-F. The shame—!
Why this should keep Superman as Superman out of the war they never explained, but it at least solved the real-life problem. While Captain America, Sub-Mariner, and a host of other superheroes or quasi-super-heroes in the comics went off to war, Superman stayed home to deal with fifth-column saboteurs and war profiteers, and to continue helping little old ladies safely across the streets.
As time went on, Superman lost his early fragility. Rays, gasses, and even bursting shells no longer bothered him. Although he continued to leap into the air in his peculiarly characteristic way, resembling a leap-frog in motion, somehow he had found the power of sustained flight. His relationship with Lois Lane mellowed somewhat, and indeed led briefly to marriage. (pp. 30-1)
[By the mid-forties] he revolutionized the comics industry as a whole. (p. 31)
If Superman was such a hit, surely spin-offs of Superman would do equally well, or so the publishers reasoned. Thus Superboy—the Adventures of Superman when he was a Boy….
Early "Superboy" stories tried to be faithful in their fashion. The young Clark Kent wore a miniature Superman costume, but he was concerned with boyish pursuits. One cover showed him shooting marbles with his awed pals; a story in another issue of Adventure concerned soap-box racers—a plot closer at heart to those in the boys' books than to comic book superheroes….
By the mid-fifties, Superboy seemed to live in the present (the cars were all modern, and clothes and plots equally so—every home had television), coexisting with his older self.
By the late fifties, he had time-travel completely under control, and was spending most of his time in the future with that Legion of Super Heroes … and had established a high-school enmity with the youthful [Lex] Luthor…. (p. 32)
Of course, by then Superman himself was hardly recognizable. He was, we were told, totally invulnerable to anything except Kryptonite and—get this!—magic.
Kryptonite was introduced in the mid-forties (on his radio program, I believe) because Superman was, even then, becoming too powerful to be easily dealt with by his writers and artists. There was no excitement in a story about a man capable of doing anything required (including travelling in time) to right whatever was wrong within the first two pages of any story. It was decided, therefore, that if gas, rays, or automobiles no longer affected him, perhaps bits of radioactive material from the core of his exploded home planet, Krypton, might diminish his strength. (pp. 32-3)
In the late fifties Kryptonite mutated into a whole spectrum of materials: Red Kryptonite, Gold Kryptonite, etc., each with its own special powers over Superman. The authors of Superman stories have since gained a good deal of mileage from these convenient new forms.
In addition, they have given us Supergirl (another survivor of Krypton), Superdog, Supercat, and even Superhorse…. The mythos has become cluttered.
Indeed, if one wants to write a Superman story today, he will find little if anything of the original Siegel-Shuster Superman has survived. His story must fit within the ever more constrictive net woven by the interlocking mythos of Superman, Superboy, Supergirl, the stories in Superman's Girl-Friend, Lois Lane, and the stories in Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen, to say nothing of the shared Superman-Batman adventures in World's Finest Comics.
It is not altogether surprising that the best stories published in the last six to eight years have been the Imaginary Stories. In these stories the author can depart from the mythos. He can pretend Superman has married Lois Lane, and go on from there to see what might happen next. (pp. 33-4)
But, what nonsense, really! The proprietors of Superman have virtually painted themselves into a corner with their overwhelming mythos of sub-characters and sub-plot situations. Detail has been piled upon detail until the character and quality of Superman which so endeared him to us have been totally submerged. (p. 34)
Ted White, "The Spawn of M. C. Gaines," in All in Color for a Dime, edited by Dick Lupoff and Don Thompson (copyright © 1970 by Richard A. Lupoff and Don Thompson), Arlington House, 1970, pp. 20-43.∗