Since he debuted in 1938, Superman has gone on to become a cultural icon. While he may not be as commercially viable today as characters such as Batman, Spider-Man, or Iron Man, he remains an important figure of inspiration across the globe. But despite his reputation as a “boy scout” or “too powerful” for interesting stories, Superman’s publication history is littered with examples where that just is not the case. Often, these particular stories manifest from a desire by a creative team to return the character to his roots as a champion of the oppressed.
Action Comics #1 is not only one of the most iconic comics of all time, it is also the most expensive. Each time one is sold, it sets a new record for the highest selling price. But despite the insane price tag or iconic imagery of Superman’s first appearance, few people have actually taken the time to read this story or subsequent early appearances of the character. But those that do will find a Superman with a powerset and attitude that is far different from the mainstream depiction. This Superman isn’t nigh invincible, and he can’t fly. He’s strong, yes, but he’s not going to be lifting islands or reversing time. Furthermore, this Superman was not concerned with stopping mad scientists or alien threats, but those who would seek to exploit or oppress the marginalized members of society.
Superman was the creation of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, a couple of hard-working Jewish kids from Cleveland, OH. The two had humble childhoods, and bonded over their affinity for science-fiction stories. Despite modern history’s retelling, it should not be surprising that there was a good percentage of the American population that sympathized with the cause of Nazi Germany. This, along with having suffered in poverty, would influence Siegel and Shuster’s development of Superman. And while most refer to his first appearance as simply “Action Comics #1,” the young creators did not hide their intentions with the character. Like most comics at the time, Action was an anthology series with multiple stories contained within. While Superman did adorn the cover, the story featuring the duo’s new creation was aptly titled “Superman: Champion of the Oppressed.”
That first Superman story saw the hero rescue a falsely accused woman from execution, and the implication that he (as Clark Kent) prefers exposing the corrupt to covering foreign wars. That same attitude could be seen in subsequent issues, where Superman fights against a lobbyist boss (Action Comics #2) and the safe working conditions of miners (Action Comics #3). These progessive battles would continue throughout Siegel and Shuster’s stories, as Superman would make it his mission to fight for “truth and justice.”
As the years advanced and others worked on the character, more familiar elements were added to the character. The Max Fleischer cartoons of the 1940s gave him the ability to fly. The “American Way” was added to “truth and justice” by the 1940s and 1950s radio show Adventures of Superman. But these superficial changes did not stop Superman’s willingness to stand up for those that were unable to stand up for themselves. The aforementioned radio show’s finest moment came when Superman took on the Klu Klux Klan in 1946’s “Clan of the Fiery Cross,” which was recently adapted into the fantastic comic Superman Smashes the Klan. This image was reinforced by the famous anti-bullying poster of 1949.
Superman would continue to be used as a symbol of the oppressed during the Civil Rights Movement. While the idea of a white male superhero being used to promote the cause of civil rights may seem odd on paper, the “Fiery Cross” radio story was crucial in shaping the idea of race relations in young minds that had grown to be teenagers and young adults by the late 1950s and into the 1960s, when public discourse began to heat up.
With Crisis on Infinite Earths rebooting the DC Universe in the 1980s, Superman was given an overhaul. But perhaps more important was the overhaul of his arch enemy, Lex Luthor. No longer a mad scientist but instead a wealthy businessman, Luthor became a symbol of corporate greed that still perpetuates modern society. Moreover, it has been shown time and again that when people are reminded of this element of Superman’s character, they tend to rail against it as “too political” or “ringing untrue” because it challenges their worldview.
2011’s Action Comics #900 was a landmark issue filled with several small backups to go along with the issue’s main story. One of the backup tales, written by David Goyer, sees the Man of Steel renounce his American citizenship in order to help those in other countries without being seen as acting on behalf of the American government. The reasoning behind this act is core to Superman’s character, as it enables him to lend a hand to others that need his help – no matter where they reside. However, those of a certain political persuasion saw the act as an attack on their perception of the character and the world at large. Of course, the idea that Superman is technically an illegal immigrant tends to be overlooked…
Speaking of illegal immigrants, there was a lot of noise made when Superman prevented a gunman from mowing down a bunch of Spanish-speaking factory workers in 2017’s Action Comics #987. Granted, the factory workers are never identified as illegal immigrants, but that hasn’t stopped certain “news” organizations from trying to start a controversy over Superman saving the lives of the working class, as he has done throughout his history.
That brings us to where we are today, in this specific moment in time. The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, along with condescension toward the peaceful protests against systematic racism – as well as the President’s incompetence and fanning of divisionist flames – has created a powder-keg of tension that has exploded across the country. There has been rioting – several instances incited by counter-protesters and agitators – but for the most part demonstrations have been peaceful. That is, until confronted by trigger-happy police in full “battle armor.” Which side would Superman take? If history is anything to go by, it’s the side of the people and not the corrupted institutions that sow discord and thrive on injustice.
Throughout his history, Superman has stood for truth and justice for the oppressed and the marginalized. Today, he would stand with those protesters, and would stand against the institutions that have been perverted by extreme right-wing ideologies. He would do so because he’s Superman. And if you think that isn’t true to Superman’s character, then you probably don’t share his values. And if that’s the case, perhaps some soul-searching is in order, because Superman is a character that we should all aspire to be like. We may not be able to fly or bend steel, but we can stand with those fighting for so that all people have a better tomorrow.