Last time we covered Superman’s brand of vigilante justice in Action Comics #1. That was the first of a two-part story, which continued in Action Comics #2. Part Two really highlights the wish fulfillment aspect of Superman standing up to corruption both in the United States and abroad.
The Adventure Continues
The Superman segment of Action Comics #2 picks up right where the first issue left off, with Superman hurtling above the streets of Washington, DC with the city’s biggest lobbyist under one arm. This loosens the lobbyist’ lips regarding his employer.
The first major Superman villain isn’t Lex Luthor, Brainiac, or any of the Silver Age standbys. Instead, we get munitions dealer Emil Norvell. Warned of Superman’s approach, Norvell unleashes some hired goons upon him.
Don’t worry – Superman’s just bluffing about the possibility of killing his attackers. He’s not—
Oh. Um…maybe they’re only on the first floor?
Superman intimidates Norvell into getting on board a boat bound for San Monte, where Clark Kent was assigned as a reporter with the Daily Star. Clark and Lois Lane both board the ship, with Clark appearing in front of Norvell as Superman to let the munitions dealer know he’s still got his eye on him.
Determined to fight back, Norvell hires some thugs to kill Superman, apparently not remembering the time when bullets bounced off him. Thanks to a convenient rail that gives out at the right time, the thugs do manage to knock the Man of Steel off the ship. Norvell then makes the very foolish mistake of not paying the murderers he hired, forgetting that they’re…you know…murderers.
The War in San Monte
Superman reappears and saves Norvell from his attackers, because he has a much more elaborate plan for the munitions dealer. Once the boat sets down on the mainland, he intimidates Norvell into joining the San Monte army, thus putting him on the front lines of a war where his weapons are being used. Any ideas Norvell has of bailing quickly disappear once he sees Superman again.
This is one of the big differences between Golden Age Superman and the modern era – the original Superman went sans costume a lot. In the first few issues, he disguises himself as a soldier, a miner, and a football player, just to name a few.
Of course, not all of Superman’s dealings in San Monte focus on Norvell. He’s also there as Clark Kent, and has no problem with using his superpowers to advance his career as a reporter.
Lois Lane, for her part, continues to play the role of damsel in distress when a spy frames her for espionage. Fortunately, Superman’s never far away.
He then tracks down a torturer and makes his feelings about enhanced interrogation clear by straight up killing the guy.
For good measure, Superman engages a pilot gunning down soldiers at his camp, single-handedly crashing the plane. Norvell figures that Superman died in the crash, because he’s obviously been on the front lines for so long that he’s incapable of rational thought.
The War Resolved
By this point, it should be very clear that this version of Superman has no problem killing people. So why hasn’t he taken out Norvell? Because he also loves to teach people lessons. Upon finding Superman alive, Norvell throws himself on the Man of Steel’s mercy.
This is pretty standard fare for early Superman stories. An issue not long after this has him intentionally trap a mine owner in a dangerous mine where he’s let safety measures slip. That’s what really seals the wish fulfillment angle: Superman isn’t just beating up bad guys, he’s giving them a healthy dose of irony, too.
But what about the rest of the war in San Monte? Well, Superman has a solution for that, too.
The generals refuse to fight and then realize that they don’t even know why their armies are battling. Superman delivers the answer.
While Action Comics #1 focused on Superman as the defender of the little guy by having him protect a series of individuals, Action Comics #2 has him take things to a larger scale. Regardless, he’s still all about protecting the powerless: torture victims, an innocent framed for a crime, and the men on the San Monte front lines.
Superman’s villains aren’t space aliens or mad scientists, but rather the wealthy and corrupt. And while he has no compunctions about killing evil men, he focuses more on affecting larger change when he can. Here, he radically alters the munitions industry and straightens out one of Washington’s most corrupt lobbyists.
Is this realistic? No. But for somebody who lived through the Great Depression, it had to be a breath of fresh air to see such naked wish fulfillment. As an adult in the 21st century, I still love the charm of a story where a good guy fixes the obvious evils in society. The villains of the modern day aren’t all that different from the villains of the 1930s.
So What Happened?
Over time, Superman shifted from being this badass vigilante to the more straight-laced Boy Scout that we know today. While it’s hard to pinpoint all the reasons, I imagine that there were three big factors:
- The need to tell fresh stories: You can only have Superman fight so many corrupt executives before the narrative gets stale. As the number of stories featuring the Man of Steel increased, things got more outlandish to keep readers interested. By 1940, we had Superman facing off against a guy named Luthor who piloted a flying city.
- World War II: A lot of Superman’s early stories featured enemies within America, especially corrupt millionaires and crooked cops. When World War II rolled around, America had a bad guy across the sea to focus on. It’s harder to tell stories about social injustice in America when you can have Superman fight Nazis instead.
- The Comics Code: Although Superman’s focus had already begun to change by the 1950s, the Comics Code Authority really sealed him as somebody who couldn’t fight corruption in America. The Comics Code flat out forbade the presentation of policemen and government officials as corrupt. Under this code, the first stories in Action Comics would never had been allowed.
While there are a lot of factors that moved Superman away from the role of champion for the little guy, I think it was probably the Comics Code Authority that really sealed the deal. The code remained in place through the rest of the 20th century. DC Comics didn’t abandon the code until 2011. And while the code did get updated in the 1970s, it still placed significant restrictions on Superman as a character.
While I like the do-gooder icon that Superman is today, I love the Golden Age Superman. He perfectly codified superhero comics as escapist literature while also serving as a voice for lower- and middle-class America. While the success of his direct methods were the stuff of fantasy, the fact that the comics spoke up and pointed at obvious evils in our society was refreshing. There’s nobody quite like the Golden Age Superman in today’s comics, and I feel like that’s a missed opportunity.