Superman turned 75 Thursday. For a septuagenarian, he remains remarkably spry.
It’s not just the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound that keeps him in shape. In the decades since the first Superman comic book appeared in 1938, writers have inserted him into political and social debates. As a result, Superman’s political and cultural sensibilities have proved a lot more malleable, for better or worse, than you’d expect from a man of steel.
As conceived by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, Superman was an aggressive, even brutal, social reformer who could strong-arm the cruel and unjust.
As the nation emerged from the Great Depression, Superman went after those who would trample on the rights of honest working folks. He triggered a cave-in at a coal mine that trapped its wealthy owner underground, exposing unsafe working conditions. He torched an oil well, bankrupting its crooked stockholders.
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But this New Deal-inspired Democratic zeal faded with World War II. Suddenly, the nation looked to Superman as a patriotic symbol. He nabbed Nazi saboteurs by the armful and hectored readers to collect scrap metal and plant victory gardens. By the end of the war, Superman’s cape and the American flag waved as one.
In peacetime, he settled into a comfortable, Ike-liking, slipper-wearing existence familiar to many middle-class American men. Domestic concerns and romantic entanglements drove more stories. He grew so busy fending off Lois’ advances that fighting crime took a back seat – although he did manage to thwart the assassination of President Eisenhower in 1959.
Four years later, he made the unprecedented decision to reveal his secret identity to someone outside his superfamily: President Kennedy. “If I can’t trust the president of the United States,” Superman reasoned, “who can I trust?”
In 1970, the dogged pursuit of relevance resulted in goofy stories such as “I Am Curious (Black),” in which Lois steps into a handy Kryptonian Plastimold outfitted with Transformaflux technology that turns her into a righteous African-American woman who goes undercover to expose racial prejudice.
In 1986, the Man of Steel was retooled from scratch, transformed into an icon of the Reagan era. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, led a somber Superman to compare his amazing powers with his inability to “break free from the fictional pages” of comics to save lives in the real world.
In an ill-considered 2010 story line, he tried to connect with humanity by walking from city to city addressing street-level social ills such as illegal immigration, pollution and child abuse.
In 2011, Superman decided that his responsibility to mankind required him to renounce his U.S. citizenship. “I’m tired of having my actions construed as instruments of U.S. policy,” he said. “The world’s too small. Too connected.” The story caught fire on the right. On Fox News, Mike Huckabee decried the announcement as “part of a bigger trend of Americans almost apologizing for being Americans.”
The Man of Steel has changed as his world has changed. When he remains above the political fray, he represents truth, justice, compassion and mercy. When writers push him into politicians’ squabbles or social debates, they do him a disservice.
We don’t look to Superman because he responded meaningfully to World War II or was saddened by Sept. 11. We look to him because, no matter what decade it is, he reminds us that we can be better than we are.