Jerry Siegel’s and Joel Shuster’s original creation was and –remains– one of the most easily identifiable characters of the twentieth century pop culture canon. But their Superman was very much a product of its time, an icon not of the ages but of an America struggling to overcome the Great Depression.
More recently the Man of Steel has been depicted as Earth’s champion, protecting the planet from the greatest threats his writers can imagine, but his first appearance in Action Comics #1 presented a quite different character. Not only did he lack many of his most iconic powers –he was unable to fly, for instance– but his attitude, outlook, and concerns reflected the period which created, and eagerly consumed, this archetypal superhero.
In that regard, Superman’s debut appearance serves as an important historic source, providing insights into American socio-cultural attitudes in the late 1930s. There are a range of other sources historians might consult on the attitudes and aspirations of the American youth during this period (McLean 2011 and Simmon 2003: 99-178) but, considering how eagerly it was consumed and celebrated, Action Comics #1 provides an ideal source for those interested in the country’s popular values, particularly with regards to gender politics, on the eve of the Second World War.
In later incarnations, Superman would come to be defined by three guiding principles: Truth, Justice, and the American Way (Tye 2012: 64-65). These three tenets have proven contentious in recent years with the 2006 movie Superman Returns coming under particular fire for daring to modify this apparently untouchable mantra (“Truth, justice, and all that stuff”) whilst Action Comics #900 (2011) received coverage across the globe when Superman announced his intention to renounce his US citizenship.
Such media-baiting approaches to the question of Superman’s national attitude certainly raise some interesting questions but they also serve overshadow his pre-Cold War characterisation as “Champion of the Oppressed”. Unlike his later, more conformist belief in the “American Way” (Herberg 1955: 78-80), Superman’s original label reflected an open admission by his fiscally challenged creators that oppression and imbalance were fundamental aspects of the contemporary American experience (Daniels 2004: 35).
World War II, and the Cold War after that, would serve to provide Superman with a range of real world foes to contend with but in 1938 the Man of Steel faced threats of a more societal nature; the problematic aspects of a troubled society rather than outside threats to an idealised nation-state. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this initial presentation of Superman’s guiding principle is that women were the first “oppressed” group to seriously come under his protection.
Superman’s appearance in Action Comics #1 can be divided into three sections wherein his character is repeatedly defined through his defence of female victims. In the first part of the story, he confronts the governor of his unnamed home state concerning the impending execution of Evelyn Curry, a woman falsely imprisoned and sentenced to death for murder. Aside from convincing the governor to pardon the falsely convicted Curry, Superman demonstrates the truth of his name, displaying his physical prowess with only the slightest of causes, his hyper-masculine attitude finding further expression as he intimidates the governor’s baffled butler (Siegel and Shuster 1938: 3-5).
The “man” in Superman was not incidental and whatever moral questions might be raised by some of his actions, each one is justified through contemporary attitudes towards idealised gender roles. Like other hyper masculine archetypes that appeared in pulp fiction in the years leading up to the release of Action Comics #1, Superman drew upon violence and physical intimidation with little reservation and an implied justification (Nash 1950: 90-108). In his debut, Superman’s actions were framed by the defencelessness of the female victims he strove to protect, the oppressed he championed throughout Action Comics #1.
Strictly speaking, the rescue of Ms. Curry fell short of fully demonstrating Superman’s early status as a defender of women –the real murderer, whom he delivers to the governor, was also a woman. In the second part of the story, however, the gendered nature of the comic was underlined when Superman intervened in a “wife-beating.” Arriving just as an abusive husband raises a belt over his stricken wife, the Man of Steel violently hurtles the perpetrator against a wall whilst shouting “You’re not fighting a woman, now!” No, he was fighting an idealised vision of purely expressed masculinity (1938 5-6).
In this sequence Siegel and Shuster emphasised a connection between physical strength, justified violence, and masculinity by placing a female victim at the centre of Superman’s actions. According to this comic, super men did not hit women. Rather, they utilized their masculine qualities to defend those who could not defend themselves. That this category was entirely characterised by women reflects longstanding contemporary attitudes towards gender roles in American society; throughout the entirety of Action Comics #1 the Man of Steel rescues no men whatsoever.
Unlike the previous two rescues, the third and final victim in Action Comics #1 served to muddy the gendered waters by reflecting not just the longstanding prejudices of the early twentieth century but the ways in which the accepted place of women was beginning to be challenged prior to the paradigm shifting events of World War II (see also Yellin 2004). In the final section of Action Comics #1 readers are introduced to one of the staples of the Superman mythology –Lois Lane– the strong female lead. At the start of her introduction Lois is depicted, in contrast to the briefly glimpsed women Superman had previously saved, as totally in-control. In addition, she is shown to be completely unwilling to bend to the desires of the men around her unless those desires happened to coincide with her own.
On a date with Clark Kent, this attitude is expressed explicitly when she refuses the advances of another man, the bluntly named Butch, even going so far as to slap him across the face when he insists “You’ll dance with me and like it!” She then goes on to show no small amount of disdain for Clark’s “weakling” persona after he failed to stand up for her during this incident, sweeping aside any ambiguity when she tells him: “You asked me earlier in the evening why I avoid you. I’ll tell you why now: because you’re a spineless, unbearable coward!” (1938: 7-8). In Superman’s first story Lois is a strong, empowered character, but she nevertheless continues to be marked by certain pervasive gender specific stereotypes. Clearly, she desires strength and courage in a potential partner and, considering the context of her words and actions, the physical might to back-up these traits. In short, she desired the idealised vision of masculinity Superman represented.
At first glance, the Lois and Clark relationship appears to offer something of an inversion of the male/female dynamic established in this comic. In contrast to his Superman persona, Clark is weak willed and cowardly whilst Lois is determined and unflinching. This play upon gender assumptions does not, however, represent a complete or true inversion of their roles; it is hard to imagine Lois’s desires for a strong willed masculine partner being expressed by any of the males who inhabit this universe. Lois may eschew the passive victimhood of the book’s other female characters but she continues to place significant value in an idealised form of masculinity. Nor is she, for all her strength of character, free from the looming spectre of victimhood.
Shortly after dressing Clark down for his masculine ineptitude, Lois is kidnapped by Butch and his cohorts. It seems telling that from this point onwards Lois is given no more dialogue of consequence – during the ordeal she tells her attackers to “Let me go!” but is otherwise silent until she tries to convince her unnamed editor that she really did see Superman. For his part, Lois’s editor replies condescendingly: “Are you sure it wasn’t pink elephants you saw?” In every way Lois’s depiction following her kidnapping (and rescue) strips away much of her distinctive strength (1938: 8-11). Lois is certainly the strongest female character in Action Comics #1, but even she cannot escape the contemporary stereotypes associated with her gender. Even empowered and in control, Lois looks for strength and protection from the men in her life, a characterisation which ably reflected contemporary attitudes towards women.
There is another angle from which to approach Siegel and Shuster’s depiction of women. Contemporary stereotypes do indeed abound throughout Action Comics #1 but the victimhood of the women featured therein is associated not necessarily with weakness, but oppression. Such a distinction is important because it suggests that Siegel and Shuster recognised that the place reserved for women in society was not necessarily the result of weakness on their part but the willingness of men to oppress and abuse them. At the very least, this association –particularly in the context of the domestic violence depicted in this story– suggests that women deserved protection from men who might otherwise use them for their own selfish, destructive ends.
Few of the male characters in this issue, Superman aside, are represented in positive terms with most instead depicted as thoroughly villainous in nature (1938: 12-14). Although superheroes tend to be associated with super villains, in this story men in general fulfil the corrupted, oppressive role that these larger-than-life characters would eventually come to embody and exaggerate. In contrast, the women in this tale tend to be victims not necessarily of the stereotypical weaknesses this story references but of the men who seek to dominate their lives and affairs.
Thus set against a backdrop of negative gender stereotypes Action Comics #1 was able to create a blunt depiction of the idealised man which demonstrates much about contemporary attitudes towards gender. Women may have been depicted as weak and unable to defend themselves but their suffering was most acute when those who claimed superiority over them failed to act as the “champions” they deserved.
Perhaps the most important take-away from Action Comics #1 is not its reliance upon negative stereotypes but rather the manner in which it subtly reflected contemporary challenges to them. Women in this story tend to be victims of oppression but in one particular scene Siegel and Shuster reflected their evolving place in American society. Fed-up with Butch’s bullish advances, Lois slaps him across the face. Looking on, Clark, who must protect his secret identity through a mask of passivity and cowardice, reacted against the blow – “Lois – - Don’t!” whilst under his breath whispering “Good for you, Lois!” (1938: 8, 1-3).
On the surface, Action Comics #1 presented its readership with a strong male role model who stood out against a backdrop of dastardly men and victimised women. In Lois, however, the pair created a female role model who, in spite of continued negative stereotyping, reflected at least some degree of the tangible empowerment possible for American women at the latter end of the Great Depression.
Daniels, L. (2004) Superman: The Complete History (San Francisco: Chronicle Books)
Herberg, W. (1955; reprint, 1983) “Protestant, Catholic, Jew: An Essay on American Religious Sociology” (Chicago: University of Chicago Press)
McLean, A. (ed.) (2011) Glamour in a Golden Age: Movie Stars of the 1930s (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press)
Simmon, S. (2003) The Invention of Western Film: A Cultural History of the Genre’s First Half Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
Smith, H. N. (1950; reprint 1978) Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (1950; reprint, Cambridge: Harvard University Press)
Tye, L. (2012) Superman: The High Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero (New York: Random House)
Yellin, E. (2004) Our Mother’s War: American Women at Home and at the Front During World War II (New York: Free Press)