Glen Weldon is a panelist on National Public Radio’s “Pop Culture Happy Hour” and contributes to its “Monkey See” blog. He is the author of “Superman: The Unauthorized Biography.”
On April 18, Superman will turn 75. Although still faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive, he’s showing his age. Recent movie reboots of “Batman” and “Spider-Man” won Oscars or broke box-office records, but “Superman Returns,” released in 2006, sold fewer tickets than expectedwithout managing to reinvent the hero. (Hollywood is set to try again this year with “Man of Steel,” starring Henry Cavill, Russell Crowe and Amy Adams.)
Yet, for a septuagenarian, Kal-El of Krypton remains remarkably spry. It’s not just the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound that keeps him in shape. In the decades since the first Superman comic book appeared in 1938, writers have inserted him into political and social debates from World War II to Vietnam, from race relations to the war on terrorism. As a result, Superman’s political and cultural sensibilities have proved a lot more malleable, for better or worse, than you’d expect from a man of steel.
(AP) - Fred Ray's original 1942 cover artwork for Superman #14. For 75 years, writers have inserted Superman into political and social debates from World War II to Vietnam, from race relations to the war on terrorism.
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As conceived by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, Superman was an aggressive, even brutal, social reformer who could strong-arm the cruel and unjust without mussing up his Brylcreem. “You see how effortlessly I crush this bar of iron in my hand?” he snarled at one arms manufacturer. “That bar could just as easily be your neck.”
As the nation emerged from the Great Depression, Superman went after those who would trample on the rights of honest working folks. He triggered a cave-in at a coal mine that trapped its wealthy owner underground, exposing unsafe working conditions. He terrorized a corrupt Washington power broker by tossing him around the Capitol dome like a rag doll. He torched an oil well, bankrupting its crooked stockholders. Artists often depicted him gazing past the horizon, burnished by the golden sunrise of a new day — iconography straight out of a socialist mural.
But this New Deal-inspired Democratic zeal faded with World War II. Suddenly, the nation looked to Superman as a patriotic symbol, and the Man of Tomorrow represented the status quo instead of challenging it. He nabbed Nazi saboteurs by the armful and hectored readers to collect scrap metal, plant victory gardens and “Slap a Jap With War Bonds and Stamps!” His “never-ending battle for Truth and Justice” became a fight for “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” By the end of the war, Superman’s cape and the American flag waved as one.
In peacetime, he settled into a comfortable, Ike-liking, slipper-wearing existence familiar to many middle-class American men. He became the coolly paternal head of agrowing family — although his super-powered coterie, including his perky cousin Supergirl, Krypto the Super Dog, Streaky the Super Cat, Comet the Super Horse and Beppo the Super Monkey, looked like no other. Domestic concerns and romantic entanglements drove more stories. On one 1945 cover, he helped love interest Lois Lane defrost her freezer. A 1949 story asked, “Does Superman Prefer Lois as a Blonde, Brunette or Red-head?” He grew so busy fending off Lois’s advances that fighting crime took a back seat — although he did manage to thwart the assassination of President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1959.