As a kid I enjoyed watching Lois and Clark, or at least the first two seasons of it, but I never actually read any Superman comics. It’s only been recently with my kids interested in superheroes that I’ve started to learn more about them. At first I was thrown by the discontinuity of the stories. I tried to link things together looking for a big storyline, until I suddenly realized that like Archie comics, there isn’t one. There are story lines, but not one big single one. Suddenly I could start looking at the different stories for what they are. In the earlier Superman comics the little stories were similar to Tintin adventures where Superman was investigating some sort of conspiracy. The later comics are like little poems, each a little art form experimenting with a way of telling a little story or making a little point. There’s quite a few creating ideas in the comics.
Since my introduction to the Superman story was the Lois and Clark television show, I’ve been used to think of Clark and the real person and Superman his disguise, invented because he wanted to use his powers without being discovered for who he is. Reading some of the Superman comics and watching Superman: The Movie makes me realize that it can be the other way. Maybe Clark Kent is how Superman disguises himself to be inconspicuous. In one of the comics it talks about Superman wanting to get a job at the newspaper so he would get alerted to situations that need assistance.
Superman and History
Superheroes histories are divided into the Golden Age, Silver Age, Bronze and Modern ages. The Golden Age coincided with the late 1930s to the end of WWII. The Silver Age is from about 1956 to 1970. The 70s to mid 80s makes up the Bronze age or the Dark Age, depending on who you ask and everything after that makes up the Modern age.
My nine year old has enjoyed looking through the wikipedia pages of different superheroes and reading about how they’ve changed or been reborn during those different times, and we’ve talked about what was happening in the world to help inspire the changes.
During the late 1930s Superman fought corrupt politicians and police officers, particularly during his first year. In one early adventure he saw the slums and shanty towns as helping cause people to turn to crime, so he simulated a cyclone to destroy the shantytown and allow emergency squads to build apartment-projects instead. In another he trapped a mine owner and his friends inside a mine so that they could understand what the miners felt and recognize the inadequacy of their safety precautions. It was the time of FDRs New Deal, and the Superman writers believed in it. (45 – 46 Tye) The publishers were less excited about taking a stand on things and pushed the series in something of a different direction.
Many of the staples of Superman’s story arose first on the Superman radio show, starting in 1940. At a time when the comic book superhero was only leaping tall buildings, the radio-show version was taking flight. Jimmy Olsen was first named on the radio show. Kryptonite was also introduced on the radio, although, as Tye explains:
It would take another six years for the deadly metal to make its way into the comics and another two before a nation that was still at war, and understandably nervous about the mention of anything involving radiation, would hear much more on the radio about the glowing green element. (91)
In 1940 Superman was depicted taking Hitler and Stalin to a League of Nations courtroom. Once America joined the war, the Superman franchise was faced with a dilemma. Superman could rush in and end the war, but since the war was going to continue on past then, it didn’t make sense for him to do that. They had Clark Kent accidentally fail the Army’s eye exam (he was looking at the wrong chart in a different room, using x-ray vision) and had Superman declare that:
“The United States Army, Navy and Marines are capable of smashing their foes without the aid of a Superman! Perhaps I could be of more use to my country working right here at home, battling the saboteurs and fifth columnists who will undoubtedly attempt to wreck our production of vital war materials!” (59 – 90 Tye)
Superman was used to promote buying of war bonds, donating of scrap metal and the planting of victory gardens. Special easy reading editions were used to help promote literacy within the navy. More about Superman and the WWII is available at this website or you can check out how the Nazi’s used the Jewish background of Superman’s creator in their own propaganda.)
In 1946 the Superman radio show included a 16 episode series called “Operation Tolerance” that critiqued the Ku Klux Klan. More information is here (including links to the Youtube version). According to Larry Tye:
Maxwell used the threatening letter he got two days after the series started to stir up publicity. More to the point for his bosses, “Clan of the Fiery Cross” posed little risk of upsetting advertisers who paid the bills, especially since the focus was prejudice against Asians rather than the more culturally condoned bias against blacks. (83)
Regardless of Superman’s Klan-fighting action, comic books were under attack and people accused Superman of encouraging lynching. Superman “is really peddling a philosophy of ‘hooded justice’ in no way distinguishable from that of Hitler and the Ku Klux Klan,” wrote cultural critic Gershom Legman (Tye 128).
A movie serial in the 1948 created rules about what Superman could see through or not see through. The only two things he couldn’t see through were lead and clothing. (Tye 99) I don’t know whether the rules were stated explicitly to the public or just as guidelines for the writers but I have to smile at that decision and can almost picture the inquisitive children asking why he can see through curtains but not clothing? What about the clothing makes it impossible to see through? By the 1978 Superman movie it was acceptable to make a joking conversation about Superman’s ability to identify the color of Lois’ underwear. Times and rules change.
By the fifties fighting corrupt politicians and police were taboo, a taboo made explicit through the Comic Code Authority in 1954. Authority figures had to be respected. Comics had to support the “sanctity of marriage” and promote respect for parents.
According to Grant Morrison in the 1960s comics in general (not specifically Superman) helped make the fear of The Bomb less fearful by connecting radiation poisoning with heroic transformations, and encouraged children’s interest in science.
Villains were rogue personifications of scientific forces: thermodynamics (Heat Wave, Captain Cold, optical (Mirror Master), meteorological (Weather Wizard), sonic (the Pied Piper), gyroscopic (the Top), chemical (Mr. Element). Stories often turned around some simple scientific fact. Yet there was rarely the feeling of being lectured to. These science facts were exactly what the boys of the Silver Age wanted to know, and what better way to learn than with this new avatar of one of our oldest gods? Chemical reactions were acted out as drama, while physics lessons could become dreams of velocity and romance. (Morrison 83)
The Space Race was heating up and Americans wanted to prove their intellectual superiority over the Soviets through game shows. Superman was even recruited to help encourage physical fitness with an issue titled “Superman’s Mission for President Kennedy.” Publishing of that issue was delayed by President Kennedy’s assassination but published under the instructions of President Lyndon Johnson.
In the 70s Superman’s powers were cut back as were the various colors of Kryptonite, and an effort was made to make Superman more human and more relevant. Lois Lane spent 48 hours as a black woman and promoted native American rights. In the 80s there was yet another attempt to make Superman more human. Superman has changed over and over since his story was first introduced.
Using Superman to Explore Other Eras of History
Looking at how superheroes changed with their times not only allows a review of the last century, but can be the inspiration for some speculative discussions. How does superheroes relate to the old Greek or Roman heroes? If Julius Caesar was to invent a superhero, what type of superhero might he have invented?
Could you imagine a Superman in the time of Queen Elizabeth and Shakespeare? Raised perhaps by lower level courtiers he gains approval of the Queen for his loyalty to her. (Could Superman’s Elizabethan alter-ego perhaps be Lord Darnley?) What types of troubles would he save her from? Perhaps his super hearing and vision would be the most powerful, allowing him to spy on plotters, but perhaps he had a role in sinking the Spanish Armada? The possibilities for speculation are endless and with them the chance to review all sorts of historical events.
How would a member of the pre-Raphelite Brotherhood have Superman pose for a painting? What kind of picture might Picasso paint of Superman?
Whatever time period your kids are studying, the question can be asked, what would Superman’s childhood be like in that time? How would the people have responded to his superpowers when he was an adult? Would he have been a threat to the Republic as Julius Caesar was portrayed? If he was born in Athens and saved the Athenians from Persian invasion would he, like Thermistocles, eventually be exiled? How do different cultures deal with outliers?
The book Superman and Philosophy: What would the Man of Steel do? includes an essay by Robert Sharp speculating on what would have happened if Superman had landed in Germany in 1926. Superman could have been a weapon in the hands of the Nazi’s, and yet his unique and individual strength would have been a threat to the collective image of the German people as a superior people, and what too would happen if Superman absorbed the notion that the superior should rule over all? Would he have been content to serve Hitler?
Superman and Philosophy
In my discussions with my kids I also introduced the kids to philosophical dilemmas I remember from the first philosophy class I ever sat through, such as questions about whether it is justified to take one person’s life in order to save five others, and why we would accept someone doing so in some situations but not others. In one superman comic series Superman kills three kryptonite-injured Kryptonians so that they cannot cause more damage, so we talked about the death penalty, what defines self defense and about the stand your ground laws in some states.
In one Lois and Clark episode another man acquires Superman’s powers and goes into work as a superhero Resplendent Man. The catch is Resplendent Man charges for his services, and of course Superman (and my children) were disgusted by his behavior. The question of why a superhero shouldn’t charge is an interesting one. Is it because you can’t charge without prior agreement and it is tacky to stand around discussing price when someone is in a crisis situation? Is it because it would be profiting from someone elses disaster? Or is it because it suggests purposely withholding aid which one could give, if the person is unwilling or unable to meet the costs?
Superman can save lives, but does that mean he has to? In the Lois and Clark series, Lex Luther’s ex-wife sends subliminal messages to get people to blame Superman for not having saved Luther’s life when he jumped off a building. In that series Superman was unable to do anything because he was still recovering from the effects of kryptonite but one can ask other questions. Would Superman be at fault if he missed saving a large group of people because he was busy saving Lois Lane instead? What if he wasn’t saving Lois Lane but simply sitting down for dinner with her? Would he be guilty for those who he lets die while he has a date? Near the end of the second season of Lois and Clark there are a series of episodes about his struggle to carve out time for him to live his own life, but the show still suggests that while he is on call always there is plenty of time when he is not needed. Realistically, we know that there is violence or accidents taking place somewhere all day long.
Why does Superman have an ethical obligation towards people whose situations he did not cause but could potentially help? Do we have a similar ethical obligation to do good if possible? If Superman is obligated to help simply because he can, why should we not be obligated to use our money to help others whenever we can (rather than just when we want to)?
I also turned to the book Superman and Philosophy: What would the Man of Steel do? It is part of The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series, and is edited by Mark D. White. It reads like a first year university textbook attempting to explain philosophical terms like utilitarianism and deontological ethics using the cast of Superman. If you want to teach your kids the terminology of philosophy, I highly recommend the book.
Superman and Science
In Grant Morrison’s book Supergods there is a section talking about how adults have worried that superheroes would confuse children, who might not be able to tell fact from fiction. Morrison things kids are perfectly capable of telling the difference and continues by challenging adults abilities to do the same:
“Adults, on the other hand, struggle desperately with fiction, demanding, constantly that it conform to the rules of everyday life. Adults foolishly demand to know how Superman can possibly fly, or how Batman can possibly run a multibillion-dollar business empire during the day and fight crime at night, when the answer is obvious even to the smallest child: because it’s not real. (56)
That said, Superman can be a topic of studying science. There’s a documentary about science and superman.
Superman and Language Arts
Karyn Trip at Teach Beside Me has instructions for her method of doing a “choose your own adventure” story using superheroes and super villains.
When writing superhero stories, I think older children should be challenged to think of what element they could introduce to a superhero story that would make some sort of tension. Why can’t Superman just speed around and save everyone? What makes this story uniquely challenging for him?
Some of the earlier Superman comics seem very simple to me in that they seem only a question of finding the right person to torture to find out who was behind a particular criminal activity. (Superman was big on scaring people in the early ones, and then once the real villain confesses it was to the electric chair for him.) Some Superman stories build suspense by having disasters timed too closely for us to trust Superman will make it in time. Many Lois and Clark episodes build suspense by having Clark scared of revealing who he is. Even the ones that use Kryptonite often have some other aspect complicating things.
Older story writers can also be asked to include a side issue, like some sort of personal or interpersonal dilemma on the part of the characters. Maybe one of the characters is feeling insecure about themselves and wishes he or she could be really useful to Superman somehow. Maybe two characters are angry at each other, and that anger can either complicate the main story or be solved by the main story. Or maybe the characters could repeatedly refer to something – how their childhood affected them, a particular food they disagree on, or how life is like one big game of chess. Maybe one of the characters has discovered he can’t carry a tune, and carrying a tune somehow figures into solving the big problem at the end.
Superman can also be used for discussing the motif of the epic hero. Here’s a blog post about how a teacher contrasts Superman: The Movie with the Odyssey.
I haven’t seen the newest Superman movie, Man of Steel, but I think it interesting that a basic “Kryptonian language” was created for the movie, though apparently the scenes where it was spoken were cut. This article talks briefly about how they choose a set of sounds to use, and to reverse the sentence structure (subject, object, verb), and then to invent words from the sounds they had chosen. Children could be encouraged to invent their own language using those same steps, or to translate various sentences into the Kryptonian sentence structure (recognizing that we don’t know how they would use various phrases – perhaps a child could invent some other new rules?).
Superman Homepage – with lots and lots of good information
How to teach Superheroes – from the Guardian
How Superman Single-handedly Defeated the Ku Klux Klan. – probably a bit of an exaggeration as to how important the Superman series was.
German Propaganda Archive
Tye, Larry Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero. Random House: New York. 2012
Morrison, Grant: Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human. Spiegel & Grau: New York. 2012
White, Mark D. Superman and Philosophy: What Would the Man of Steel Do. Wiley & Blackwell. 2013.