Bradford W. Wright says this about Superman in his earliest years:
Audiences familiar with the rather stiff and morally upright character that Superman later became would be surprised to discover that Siegel and Shuster’s original character was actually a tough and cynical wise guy, similar to the hard-boiled detectives like Sam Spade who also became popular during the Depression years. Superman took to crimefighting with an adolescent glee, routinely taking the opportunity to mock and humiliate his adversaries as he thrashed them.
Wright writes this near the start of his new book, Comic Book Nation, an excellent survey of comics from the 1930s to the 1990s. Wright looks at comics as an expression of youth culture–specifically, one that’s also a consumer commodity. Along the way he makes some interesting observations about familiar comic characters. Did you know that, early in his career, Superman fought fat-cat capitalists, as opposed to mad scientists and his fellow aliens?
Other Superman stories explore the conflict between corporate greed and public welfare. One finds Superman crushing a plot by wealthy American financiers working for a foreign power to manipulate the stock exchange and plunge the nation into another depression… In many cautionary tales Superman appeared as a sort of progressive “super-reformer.” In a crusade for automobile safety nearly thirty years before anyone heard of Ralph Nader, Superman destroys a car factory after finding that the owner has been using “inferior metals and parts so as to make higher profits at the cost of human lives!”
Imagine if Superman had stayed true to his origins, instead of mutating into a defender of the capitalist status quo. He would have spent the last year hunting down all those dot com idiots who screwed up the stock market. He’d burst into the boardroom of Firestone, hang a defective tire around the CEO’s neck, and set it ablaze with his heat vision. Now that’s a Superman story I’d pay to read.
According to Wright, greedy rich villains usually turned out to be agents of a hostile foreign power. Is there any doubt that Bill Gates works for North Korea? Get him, Supes!
Wright examines not only comic characters, but the industry itself. What is direct marketing, and how did it ruin the content of mainstream comic books? When did people start buying new comics as an investment, rather than entertainment? How was Marvel Comics almost pimped to death by Ron Perelman? (Get him, Supes!)
Take a look at Comic Book Nation. And watch the skies for a real hero.