Saturday, May 14, 2011

Superman's History

With the series finale of Smallville this week, one reader asked me to give some historical context to Superman, a character now entering his ninth decade in American cultural life.  Joe Schuster and Jerry Siegel, two Jewish-American teenagers from Cleveland, created Superman during the Great Depression, with DC Comics publishing Action Comics 1, the first comic book to feature Superman, in 1938. Many have interpreted Kal-El’s (Superman’s given name) flight from war-torn Krypton as a metaphor for the American immigrant experience in general, or perhaps for Jews trying to escape Europe during the 1930s.  Clark Kent’s sense of otherness  as an “alien” in Middle-American Kansas can also be seen as an expression of the challenge of assimilation for the immigrants who arrived through Ellis Island between 1882-1924 and their children. During the depression, Superman reflected the politics of the time, acting as a proto-New Dealer, taking on corrupt landlords and businessman.
During the 1950s, Superman again reflected the ethos of his era, emerging as a champion of “truth, justice, and the American way,” during the Cold War conflict with the Soviet Union.  This phrase, now closely linked to the character, first became central during this time (though it had been used briefly during World War II.)  The first Superman television show, the Adventures of Superman, premiered during this decade, starring George Reeves, from 1952-1958.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, Superman re-emerged with the Christopher Reeve films, which became the most famous and influential depiction of the superhero.  The success of the films can partly be attributable to the fact that Superman is portrayed as an incorruptible hero in the aftermath of the cynicism wrought by Vietnam and Watergate.  The film also served as a template for most of the comic book movies since then, clearly influencing Tim Burton’s and Christopher Nolan’s  Batman films, as well as Sam Raimi’s Spider Man series.
Indeed, Smallville, which premiered in 2001, can be seen as a 10-year prequel to the Christopher Reeve films and has become the primary representation of the Superman myth for Generation Y.  With the arrival of yet another Superman film in 2012, it seems likely that the character will continue to endure in popular culture.

Sources: Bradford Wright, Comic Book Nation, (Baltimore, 2001)
Erik Lunegrad, "Truth, Justice and (Fill in the Blank), New York Times, June 30, 2006

1 comment:

  1. Prof. Fleegler,

    Great post. I've been a long-time fan of Superman in all its forms, but particularly of Smallville. Putting it in historical context is really interesting. No wonder this character continues to resonate across generations of Americans.