The Many Faces of the Man of Steel


The Strong Arm of The Law

Superman's Early Foes

During the 2000 presidential campaign, Texas governor George W. Bush was fond of sheepishly nodding towards his wife during campaign speeches and saying something along the lines of, "You know, they say you can tell a lot about a man by the company he keeps." The implied message being that his librarian wife was a reflection of his own character in some way. Should we attempt to hold Superman to such a test, our opinion of him would no doubt plummet, as he's so often surrounded by any number of shady characters. Indeed, the plot of any Superman comic revolves around our hero's never ending struggle against the corrupting power of evil, and the men that harbor or embody such wickedness.

Yet what strikes a modern reader about the earliest Superman books is the sheer blandness of Superman's first adversaries, who are more likely to be corrupt politicians or generic seeming "toughs" than the super-powered foes we've come to expect. Yet the changing nature of The Man of Steel's adversaries loosely mirrors Superman's own evolution, as he wasn't but so super at first either. In Superman #1, his powers are limited to the ability to "leap an eighth of a mile...raise tremendous faster than a streamline train...and nothing less than a bursting shell could penetrate his skin." Impressive, to be sure, but not all that astounding when one considers that Superman soon began to fly, relax inside the Sun's core, and become invulnerable to everything save for the dreaded Kryptonite.

In the first Superman adventure our heroís initial battle is with an angry mob attempting to lynch a man imprisoned for murder. Superman easily subdues the crowd of middle-aged, stick-wielding men with a few well placed punches, but not before sternly telling the angry mob, "This prisonerís fate will be decided in a court of justice. Return to your homes!" Superman then goes on to clear the the incarcerated man of his charges and arrest the real perpetrator, who will presumabley go to the electric chair, as Superman has just narrowly saved the wrongly imprisoned from such a fate. Indeed, superman began his crime-fighting years acting as an abnormally strong policeman and his chief foes were those who sought to thwart the American way. The implied message here is that in 1938, the rules have changed and those formerly entrusted with maintaining order have fallen from favor in the public's eye.
Superman with Eagle
Superman is intimately enmeshed with symbols of America

Likewise, in episode number two Supermanís detective work pays off when Clark Kent spots "Senator Barrows" speaking with "Alex Greer, the slickest lobbyist in Washington." This looks like a job for Superman! Soon, the Man of Steel learns of a dastardly plot between Barrows and "Emil Norvell, the munitions magnate" to embroil the United States in an overseas war. Superman, playing the seemingly incompatible roles of ardent isolationist/humanitarian, forces Norvell to enlist in the army so he can witness first hand the destruction his munitions cause. Soon, Superman has norvell pledging, "From now on the most dangerous thing Iíll manufacture will be a firecracker." Hilariously, The Man of Steel is also able to bring the entire war to a close by forcing each opposing general to admit that neither has any reason to be fighting. Superman pats each general on the shoulder and gently scolds, "Gentlemen, itís obvious youíve been fighting only to promote the sale of munitions. Why not shake hands and make up?" Superman, master peace negotiator!

Over the course of the next few early issues of his comic book, Superman manages to perform a number of similar tasks, always in conflict with those attempting to subvert American notions of what is good and right, no matter how petty. Within the span of four adventures Superman manages to catch the perpetrator of a hit and run, stop a college football team from injuring the oppostionís star players, reveal an orphanage baron to be a money launderer, stymie the corrupt weapon industryís attempts (again!) at starting a war with a deadly gas, stop a washed up boxer from committing suicide, and prevent a crooked ad man from using a faux Superman to endorse his products, all the while ensuring that the miningís industryís safety standards get upgraded--seriously. Now, not to suggest that such things arenít noble pursuits, but are they really what we expect from our superheroes? In these early episodes Superman seems to be little more than a mouthpiece for abstract American notions of fairness and the importance of rule of law. Perhaps itís just such traits that made Superman so universally popular to a country founded on supposedly immutable principles of law. Whatever the case, Superman soon slowly but surely proved his unwavering committment to the authority of American law and the regulation of the neíer-do-wells who would seek to subvert our Constitution. Presumabley, Superman grew tired of the ease with which he could subdue these perpetrators of painfully dull infractions, as in the coming years he began to battle a host of more interesting villains, from mad scientists from other dimensions to brillaint criminals from other planets. A more likely scenario, however, is that as the Great Depression began to wane, the American people's faith in existing instituions designed to protect and serve were restored, making Superman's old role less crucial.

Created by: Erin Barnes • Dave Hendrick • Chris Yeung