How Superman turned right-wing from his progressive roots

How Superman turned right-wing from his progressive roots

A while back, I wrote an article about how Batman was a right-wing vigilante. In it, I mentioned how the entire construct of superheroes is based off of the proto-fascist idea of the ubermensch, or “overman,” and how as a result, all superheroes were, at heart, going to be pretty right-wing — focusing on petty crime instead of larger scale corruption or theft, espousing anti-crime vigilantism which would be justified by incurably crazy supervillains, and basically reinforcing the status quo rather than agitating for change.

I happened to mention how Superman was a right-winger as well. The post sat for months, and somehow, commenter Thad Komo again stumbled upon it, and he disagreed with my understanding of Superman. Usually, getting comments from people who disagree with me is an atrocious experience (because seriously guys, fuck trolls), but Thad’s comments were actually really interesting to the point that I thought they’d be worth sharing here. Here’s Thad:

As with so many Batman essayists, you give a very good analysis of Batman but fall short on Superman, at least as originally drawn. Review the original Superman/Action Comics and what Siegel and Shuster had to say about Superman. He was, after the original Nazi idea, constructed to be its polar opposite in 1938. A kind of superpowered Tom Joad or, maybe even more, Jim Casy. Batman took on street level thugs and gangsters. Superman might take on gangsters but was also taking on corrupt and powerful businessmen and politicians more often than not. Until WWII, he was a cartoon hero for the New Deal and always, always, always, represented the “little” guy, exploited by the man. Batman was the 1%. The war made all the heroes patriots. And then, the 50s turned Supes into an Eishenower Republican. And very boring.

It’s sad how many folks think Batman represents some kind of rebellious, anti-establishment figure when he is just the opposite. And it is what ruins what could have been the brilliant “Dark Knight Returns” of Miller. If anyone would be working for the government, it would be Batman, not Superman, if we’re going to be true to their original “concept”. I never quite understood the whole “bring Batman back to his dark roots” from comic fans while never hearing the same for Superman. But most comic fans are pretty right wing when it comes down to it. Maybe they never age mentally past 13.

I responded:

Hey Thad, thanks for commenting! I’ve actually never read the original Action Comics, so I’ll defer to you on the original Superman… it seems to me, though, that Siegel and Shuster were probably trying to subvert the Fascist idea of a Superman by making their Ubermensch a good guy and a populist, and not the violent racist with an interest in eugenics that was so popular in Europe and in America at the time. But even if they WERE doing that, they were still writing him with the proto-fascist concept of the Ubermensch.

Since the concept was inherently fascist, it seems kind of inevitable that most depictions of superheroes — even ones that were originally meant to be populist or left wing — are going to be more right-wing than left-wing. You kind of need to be making a conscious effort to be writing your superhero as left-wing, whereas all it takes for a superhero to be right-wing is for the writer to relax in the construct.

Thad wrote back:

Yes, I think just the fact that he was “Super” would eventually lead to some “inherently fascist” tendencies to arise. Interestingly, Clark Kent was conceived as being so different in personality (in the original comics he is a cowardly, selfish, man who seems to always defer to the fascists) that no one could possibly believe he was Superman. The Donner movies made him cowardly but lovable and took out the more political overtones of the original character. Superman was super, in his creators’ eyes, more because the real (hu)man fights them (the fascists) and doesn’t bow down like Clark. But this all ended with the late 40s and 50’s conformity.

Siegal and Shuster’s hearts were in the right place, I think.

But you are correct, I think, nearly all superheroes are never even conceived as anything even remotely left-wing. Which gives me little hope for the general population as they seem to crave their fascist, macho (be they male or female) gods. And I don’t believe for a second it is just mere escapism.

And then he followed up with:

One final point. This was the original introduction to the radio show Superman:

Yes, it’s Superman–strange visitor from another planet who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Superman–defender of law and order, champion of equal rights, valiant, courageous fighter against the forces of hate and prejudice, who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth and justice.

That basic opening (“a never-ending battle for truth and justice”) was later used in 1941 for the acclaimed Fleischer Studios Superman animated serials…

“American Way”, like God in the pledge of allegiance was a later addition.

Comic books are a rare medium that takes characters created by one (or, in Superman’s case, two) people, and then puts their futures into the hands of entirely different writers. This means that the original intent for a character can be (and often is) totally subverted by future writers.  While this can be a good thing, it also means that what might have been a progressive hero from the start can later be stripped of any political identity and made into a kind of white-washed defender of the rich and powerful.

Thank you, Thad, for both teaching me something and for restoring (a very small shred) of my faith in internet commenting.

Featured Photo: JD Hancock

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