Happy Labor Day everyone!
For our non American readers Labor Day is an American holiday where we celebrate the social and economic achievements of the American worker by taking the first Monday of September off to celebrate the end of summer and eat even more than we should.
In all seriousness though, Labor Day was created in honor of the American worker in 1882, during a time when American labor was going through something of a rough patch involving quite a few labor strikes and even more strike breakers.
It was an important time in American history and I strongly encourage anyone who reads this to look into it further.
But we’re not here to talk about labor politics, we’re here to talk about Golden Age superheroes. And what better day than Labor Day to talk about the big blue Boy Scout of comics, the one who made it all possible, and the one who everyone looks up to.
Origin and career
Do you really need me to explain the origin story of Superman?
Okay, really quick for anyone who doesn’t know: Superman is an alien, his planet blows up but not before his father sends him away on a rocket ship just before the planet explodes.
After crash landing on Earth, the baby boy is taken in by a loving family in the middle of Kansas and adopts the persona of mild mannered Clark Kent.
He becomes a newspaper reporter and dedicates his life and powers to uphold the idea of
Truth, Justice, and the American Way
See, one thing that might be a bit off putting to comic book readers who are used to lot of moral ambiguity and complexity in their stories is just how sincere that phrase was in the early Superman comics. The character of Superman was created by childhood friends Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster.
They were two first generation Jewish immigrants who fervently believed in the idea that America was the promised land of opportunity and was a chance for anyone to make a life for themselves regardless of race, religion, or creed. Superman was created to be the embodiment of that ideal.
However, while America was the land of opportunity for many, there were still quite a few problems that had to be sorted out. Superman was created in a time when the food lines and horrific unemployment of the Great Depression was still fresh in everyone’s mind
Europe and Asia were undergoing massive and terrifying social, political, and military changes.
and there were many people who believed that the American dream should only be limited to those where worthy and racially pure enough to deserve it.
As a result, Superman had to fight for his existence in his new adopted home and fight for it he did. Thankfully, Superman was gifted with extraordinary abilities of strength, speed, and durability.
These gifts allowed him to wage a one man crusade on behalf of the common people and against anyone who sought to undermine the welfare of the common man in order to preserve their own selfish interests. And protect the common man he did, in the very first issue he brings a wife beater to jail
Saves a woman from a death row execution
And sends a terrified corrupt politician to jail by walking across a telephone wire leaping from incredible heights
It should be noted that the Golden Age Superman was kind of an asshole.
But his original purpose still stood. Superman was the great hero for the times, a tireless social crusader who campaigned for the rights of the common man against anyone who would take advantage of someone less powerful than themselves.
So what happened?
Time. Time happened.
Let’s be perfectly clear here, Superman never died. He’s one of only two superheroes (the other being Batman) who survived the superhero dead zone of the 1950’s due to his massive popularity, even becoming the first superhero to appear on television.
Despite everything that was going on in post war America people still gravitated towards the idea of Superman because he was above all else, a good man.
With that said, while Superman remain unchanged that didn’t mean the times changed around him. The 1960’s saw the rise of Marvel Comics and the Silver Age.
Comics became more focused on two things. First there was an emphasis on science fiction and the fantastic adventures many of these heroes could go through.
And more importantly, the Stan Lee led Marvel Comics introduced the idea that superheroes didn’t just have to be gods among men, the could be normal flawed humans just like us.
These new ideas were the complete opposite of Superman’s original purpose but the massive popularity of these ideas resulted in several changes to the character that took him away from the original vision. Not only was Superman incredibly overpowered and boring, but distrust in the American government in recent decades even resulted in Superman renouncing his American citizenship.
Bear in mind, the ideas that Superman stands for are still there. He’s still an incredibly powerful individual who stands up for those who cannot defend themselves, it’s just a little bit different and usually on a much larger scale.
In my own personal opinion there are still some fantastic Superman stories out there, and one of the best is Grant Morrison’s All Star Superman.
I won’t go into details, you can read it on your own if your curious, but if you ask me the reason why this story is so great is because Grant Morrison gets Superman better than almost anyone in the past couple of decades. Superman was created as an incredibly powerful being who stands against oppression, tyranny, and despair on behalf of the common people and at his core, he still stands for that.