Superman. He is one of the greatest American hero. An icon of American culture. An ideal of the nation of immigrants. More precisely, an object that expresses the values, ideologies, hopes, fears of the American culture. A symbol of hope to a struggling nation. A hero who stands for the American Dream. But – in the words of Gary Engle – „what makes Superman so darned American? “ Superman’s story reflects the life story of his creators, Jerome Siegel and Joseph Shuster, who were friends since their childhood. They lived in Cleveland, Ohio.
Both were born in Jewish family who immigrated to America to seek a better life, to follow the American Dream. Eventually, they completely adopted the American way of life. In 1930s, as high-school students, Jerry and Joe were impressed by mythical heroes and their fights against injustice and tyranny. This inspiration led them to create a character which expresses their belief that such evil could be overcome. As a result, in 1933, The Man of Tomorrow, i. e. Superman was born who reflected the troubles and challenges facing Americans in that time, especially the Great Depression.
They made an effort to create a character that would not only be admired by children, but also be the leading inspiration when Americans needed hope and a real hero. Superman’s original name was Kal-El and was born on the planet Krypton. As an infant was rocketed to Earth by his scientist father, Jor-El. He was found and adopted by Jonathan Kent and Martha Kent. The boy grew up as Clark Kent in Smallville, Kansas. Later on, as adult he moved to Metropolis and became a mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet newspaper.
In spite of the fact that he is an alien immigrant, he exhibits human behaviour who uses his powers to take over the world and turn it into something better. Along his path of life, he stands against corruption and injustice of those times and constantly stands for the moral integrity, truth and freedom. First of all, what I want to deal with is Superman’s origin. According to Gary Engle and his essay „What Makes Superman So Darned American? “, Superman’s immigrant identity is the key of his success as an American symbol. In other words, Superman’s history as immigrant only serves to make him more American.
But why? The reason is very simple: immigration represents an essential and inseparable part of the American history since everyone has – directly or indirectly – foreign roots. He emphasizes that Americans were all immigrants at some point and then all of them have assimilated. He claims: „Americans have an immediate sense oftheir origins elsewhere. “ This demonstrates that at one point all Americans came from somewhere else and now created this diverse society. Moreover, according to him Superman’s powers are metaphorically a representation of how immigrants contribute their traditions and values to the American society.
Engle states: „Superman’s powers – strength, mobility, x-ray vision and the like – are the comic-book equivalents of ethnic characteristics, and they protect and preserve the vitality of the foster community in which he lives in the same way that immigrant ethnicity has sustained American culture linguistically, artistically, economically, politically, and spiritually. The myth of Superman asserts with total confidence and a childlike innocence the value of the immigrant in American culture. “ This indicates how immigrants’ values blend into the culture and add a little more diversity.
Not many comic-book hero can boast about having such a long history as Superman can. However, he went through a lot of changes during his life due to social changes on one hand, and the perception of American Dream on the other hand. The first appearance of Superman dates back to 1938. That time he dealt with social issues prevalent in the 1930s when the Great Depression was on the increase. The Great Depression generated a big gap between the rich and poor, and the policies of the New Deal attempted to close that gap.
Superman comics reflected the hard times of the Depression and the aspirations of the New Deal. This is the main reason why he fought for truth and justice during the 1930s. Superman’s motto from Action Comics #1 stated that he was „the champion of the oppressed. The physical marvel that had sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need! ” (Siegel and Shuster). In this premier issue Superman saved an accused woman from death row, but not physically. Instead, he stood up against the system and convinced the governor to pardon her.
According to this, Superman tried to work on the government system and promote some changes. He fought for the justice in the government and encourage people to be honest and care about each other, otherwise the government wouldn’t have worked effectively. This theme of the moral and social problems of the American government are also present in the character of Superman, and that we can find concerns over national safety, private property, and social order throughout Superman comics.
This theme appeared almost in every issues and reflected Siegel and Shuster’s faith in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Superman’s never-ending fight against corruption and injustice was often carried out by his alter ego, Clark Kent. For instance, in Action Comics #4, a football coach wanted to engage thugs as extra players, but Clark tipped him off so he prevented the coach from hiring them. Similarly, in Action Comics #7, Clark acted like President Roosevelt. He interviewed a man losing his circus and he stepped up to help him. Clark executed his plan directly, approaching the circus owner and performing in his circus, attracting new paying customers.
No person, big or small, was insignificant to him – in his opinion, everyone deserved an equal amount of respect and support. Siegel and Shuster wanted to stress that everyone can be a real hero, or rather, an ordinary man can fought crime without any help of superpowers. As it was mentioned earlier, Superman originally fought for truth and justice. In fact, it changed during the World War II. When the war turned up in 1942 – and the nationalism with it not only in America but throughout the world –, the media added the slogan „The American Way“.
It is imporant to note that the media created the patriotic imagery of Superman. The media was the reason why Superman became „so American“. It is interesting that the WW II made him a real American, but when the United States finally entered the war, Superman stayed home fighting corruption, did not intervene in the European situation. After the war in 1944, the „American Way“ became less popular among the frustrated Americans, so the creators felt it was pointless to keep the last line in. Superman instead fought for tolerance to shorten the motto.
During the Cold War when patriotism and paranoia was on the increase, many Americans were shocked that the American Way segment was removed. So during the run of The Adventures of Superman (1952-1958), the „American Way“ again appeared and remained with the character since. A few years later, in the 1960s with the The New Adventures of Superman (1966-1970) that they created a new slogan, where Superman fought for truth, justice and freedom. This line has remained with the character since then as many fans felt it was right for the hero that cares for all humanity, not just for the American nation.
Born from the imagination of two Jewish immigrants, Superman grew to incorporate the American Dream. The concept that has changed significantly throughout the decades – and the identity of Superman with it. It may happen that the Superman will continue to change and be shaped by the history. But, one thing is for sure: he sacrificed his life to protect the weak, fight for truth and justice. In one world, he is America’s hero. A hero that Americans feel they need in order to support who they are as a nation.