The Golden Age Superman was a Badass Vigilante (Part 1 of 2)

I had the good fortune of picking up Superman: The Golden Age, Vol. 1 while it was on sale at a few weeks ago. I like the Golden/Silver Age stuff as a historical artifact of how comics shaped pop culture. In the case of Golden Age Superman, the results were really eye opening.

I knew that Superman’s early days were very different from the Man of Steel we know today. He didn’t have heat vision, couldn’t fly, and kryptonite wasn’t a thing yet. However, I didn’t realize how fully early Superman embraced his role as a man of the people – or how well the stories serve as middle-class wish fulfillment.

The Golden Age Superman was a revolutionary figure. He didn’t save the world from alien invasions or serve at the will of the president. Instead, he stood up for the little guy, fighting political corruption, wife beaters, and even guys who cheated at football.

Superman was the embodiment of a frustrated lower and middle class that had endured the Great Depression. He didn’t represent some grand American ideal, but rather served as wish fulfillment for a population that felt powerless to effect a society mired in greed and corruption. As an example, let’s look at his very first story.

Superman’s Origin

Action Comics #1 begins with a one-page description of Superman’s origin and powers. It’s remarkably sparse given the in-depth details of Krypton that would come later or the plodding first act of the Superman movies. All we know is that Superman is an alien from a dead planet and that he uses his powers to benefit mankind.

Superman's Origin

Krypton doesn’t even get a name here, nor do we see any sign of familiar trappings like the Kents or Smallville. Instead we get “A Scientific Explanation of Clark Kent’s Amazing Strength,” which summarizes his basic powers. He’s strong, nigh invulnerable, and he can jump really far.

Superman's Strength
Let’s ignore that ants and grasshoppers have unique non-humanoid anatomies that allow them to accomplish these feats.

The brief origin is noteworthy because it emphasizes Superman’s role as an outsider who fights for the good of everybody. Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, were a pair of Jewish kids in pre-World War II America. They were treated as outsiders despite being native to America’s heartland and loving their country.

Later stories would do a lot of make Superman less of an outsider. He became more of a Boy Scout over the years, and the depiction of his foster parents as a salt-of-the-earth couple in rural Kansas who had simple small town values became the explanation for his morality.

Later retellings of Superman’s origin became a weird sort of American propaganda machine. It became implied that he wouldn’t have been such a good guy if Midwestern American values hadn’t been drilled into his head. By comparison, the original Superman was an outsider who saw America as a place that needed saving, and he went about doing it in the most direct way possible.

The First Superman Sightings

Before the main storyline that runs through Action Comics #1 and #2 kicks in, we get three Superman sightings that introduce him to the general public. The very first time he appears on the scene, he breaks into a governor’s mansion.

Superman in the Governor's Mansion

Supes busts through a steel door and wakes up the sleeping governor. In the process, he shows off his bulletproof nature when the governor’s bodyguard tries to shoot him. His motive in all of this? To save a woman who was sentenced to execution for a crime she didn’t commit.

Superman and the Governor
What happened in the three minutes between Superman taking out the bodyguard and giving the governor that note?

This introduction to the first modern superhero is an important one. This isn’t Superman foiling a bank robbery or saving a crashing airplane. This is Superman engaging in clearly illegal activity so he can perform a good deed. The threat here, and through many of these Golden Age stories, isn’t from criminal masterminds but rather from a broken system that fails to protect vulnerable people.

Superman’s next outing comes when Clark Kent hears a tip about a wife beating in progress in downtown Metropolis. He races to the scene and beats police there, again saving somebody who the system couldn’t protect.

Superman versus a Wife Beater
Are we allowed to dismiss the casual sexism as a result of the time period?

Finally, we get the introduction of Lois Lane, who allows Clark to take her out on a date despite the fact that she clearly despises him for his cowardly nature. Some toughs cut in and try to force Lois into a dance. However, Lois has no interest in being treated as a piece of arm candy.

Lois Lane versus some thugs
Even in her first appearance, Lois Lane didn’t have time for this shit.

Their egos bruised, the thugs chase Lois down, run her taxi into a ditch and kidnap her. Too bad for them that Clark changes into his Superman persona and chases them down. This leads to the iconic car smashing scene that adorns the cover of Action Comics #1.

Superman Car Smash

To summarize, the first three crimes Superman deals with are as follows:

  • A woman has been wrongfully accused of murder and needs to be pardoned by a governor who refuses to be disturbed until after the execution.
  • A domestic abuser is going to town on his wife in downtown Metropolis.
  • A group of thugs decide to take their frustrations out on a woman who scorned them and kidnap her with the implied plan of doing unspeakable things to her later.

Each of these scenarios paint Metropolis as less than the shining city that it appears as in modern comics. The authorities wrongfully sentenced a woman to death, responded too slowly to a wife beater, and might not have responded at all to Lois’ kidnapping.

The people Superman saves in these early cases are all women who are victimized in various ways by men. But don’t worry – there were plenty of men who also felt weak and powerless in the 1930s, and Superman would spend just as much time saving them down the line.

Superman and Politics

Anybody who thinks that modern comics are too political compared to what they used to be has probably never read Action Comics #1. The first two named bad guys in a Superman story were a corrupt senator and a munitions lobbyist that had him in his pocket.

Assigned to cover a story about a war in South America, Clark instead hops a train to Washington, DC, where he spies on a Senator Barrows and Alex Greer, the “slickest lobbyist in Washington.” During a secret meeting, Greer bribes a senator to push a bill through Congress that will result in major military conflict.

Superman spying on a lobbyist
Some things have changed since 1938, but sleezy politicians are eternal.

(Minor note: for years I took the “embroiled with Europe” line as an implication that the wicked Senator was trying to get America involved in World War II. Given the rest of the story, that’s probably way off base. While 1930s America had plenty of Nazi sympathizers, I highly doubt Siegel and Shuster were pro-Hitler.)

Following the meeting, Superman kidnaps Greer and terrorizes him, carrying across phone lines and leaping from buildings as the Superman portion of Action Comics #1 reaches its conclusion.

Superman carries Greer

The Beginning of an Iconoclast

By the 1980s, Superman would become so identified as a hero who served America’s institutions that Frank Miller made him an antagonist in The Dark Knight Returns, casting him as a character who served a government that he knew to be corrupt. That’s so far from the character’s origins that it’s almost ridiculous.

As I’ll touch upon next time, the Comics Code completely transformed Superman, moving him away from the iconoclastic Golden Age hero to a character that was essentially American propaganda. If Superman seems unrecognizable to you in his origin issue, wait until you see Part Two of the story. It really highlights the fact that the Golden Age Superman was a very politically charged character who called out corruption wherever he saw it, especially in positions of power.

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