It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s America’s most iconic superhero and national role model! (Sorry, Batman and Captain America—we still love you, but even people who don’t read comics know the Man of Steel.) For the past three-quarters of a century, Superman has represented and reflected the “ethical American Dream”—a dream not necessarily of economic prosperity, but one of justice, strength, and moral integrity.
Superman is an outsider—a literal alien with unparalleled powers—who could have easily seen only the worst of humanity and America, who could have used his powers to take over the world and turn it into something “better.” Instead, Superman focused on the positive, decided to be inspired by the best of people and in turn inspire others, both within the pages of comic books and in the real world.
The Origin Story
Created in 1933 by high-school students Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (but not published until 1938 in the first issue of Detective Comic’s—later renamed DC Comics—Action Comics), Superman was inspired in part by mythical heroes and their fights against tyranny and evil. During the Great Depression, those adversaries took the forms poverty, villainous businessmen, and unsympathetic politicians. Left-leaning Siegel and Shuster often had Superman playing the role of social activist and people’s champion during a time when Americans needed a dash of hope and inspiration, however whimsical it appeared.
Superman Through Time
During the political and social chaos of the late 1930s and early 1940s, the (literal) black-and-white view of America’s “Right” versus Evil’s “Might” provided a simplistic escapist fantasy for millions of Superman’s readers—most of whom were young and impressionable. Consequently, Superman was inscribed in their minds as everything they should want to be: hardworking but triumphant, outwardly unremarkable and secretly amazing—not a bad role model at all. No matter how the details of Superman’s ethical identity may have changed (and changed they have), those basic components of his image have remained constant over the past 75 years.
Superman began changing during World War II: instead of fighting for “truth and justice,” he began fighting for “truth, justice, and the American Way.” It was an extremely slight change considering the mass outpouring of patriotism and nationalism that America experienced during the war, but one that lasted well into the next decade and the height of the Red Scare, not-so-subtly reinforcing the idea that the American Way of capitalism was inherently allied with moral righteousness and shouldn’t be questioned. After all, isn’t Superman always the good guy?
Superman changed again following the massive cultural shifts of the 1970s and the aftermath of the Vietnam War, becoming a more complex, introspective, and flawed character—much like America. For a nation in doubt about itself, Superman proved that we could be imperfect but still be heroes.
Throughout history, Superman has at once been an image of contemporary American values and an ideal to live up to, both influencing and being influenced by American culture.
The Image of Superman
Of course, the moral image of Superman hasn’t been the only impact he’s had on American culture. In a more superficial way, the visual image of Superman has created a lasting impression: his bright, skin-tight uniform set a standard for superhero style for generations. Flowing capes, spandex, primary colors, and that underwear-over-the-pants thing became ubiquitous identifiers of fictional heroes of all origins, power sets, and affiliations. It’s only relatively recently that superheroes have been portrayed with more muted or practical costume designs—such as Marvel’s leather-clad X-Men.
Along with Superman and other comic book heroes, Vince Callahan writes on MTG, board games, strategy games, video games, movie trivia, geek conventions and other such subjects. Vince recommends card kingdom for other nerds looking to further their nerdy interests.