Now, I thought Superman said that flying was the safest way to travel, but here we are six minutes later, and Air Force One is approaching Metropolis International one engine short. And it was the best one, too; this is the one where if you lose it, everybody just gives up and doesn’t want to fly in an airplane anymore.
Now, you know me, I don’t like to be a stickler about these things, but in my opinion, saving the President of the United States from an imminent air disaster is pretty much the textbook example of interfering with human history, and Jor-El specifically said that Superman wasn’t supposed to do that.
But when you think about it — and I’ve spent the last 13 weeks of my life doing nothing else — the very existence of an extraterrestrial man-monster in primary color pajamas flying around and stunning cities is already going to interfere with human history in a fairly pronounced way, even if he confines his activities exclusively to getting cats out of trees. If Jor-El really cared about the natural course of human history, he would have aimed his slingshot at some other planet that didn’t have so many humans on it. You can’t help but bump into human history on Earth; it’s all over the place.
The real question is, how do you write eight decades of serialized narrative about an obviously history-warping main character, and still pretend that the characters live in a fictional world that’s anything like our own?
Now, you and I know that you don’t actually have to keep a fictional world in lockstep with ours; it’s a story, and you can do whatever you want. Watchmen and Miracleman — two 1980s comic book series written by Alan Moore, which offer skeptical and satirical takes on superhero stories — both take place in worlds where the existence of extrahuman characters drastically changes human history, and not necessarily for the better.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has recently made a big step in this area as well, establishing an ongoing continuity where half of all living creatures in the universe disappeared as of Avengers: Infinity War, and then reappeared five years later in Avengers: Endgame. According to the MCU’s Phase Four projects like Eternals and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, this period in history is called “the Blip”, and it’s resulted in major changes to the geopolitical status quo, except for most of the time when it seems like everything in America is basically the same.
But back in the days before Alan Moore changed how superhero comics work — remind me to tell you about that, one of these days — the creators of Superman comics and TV shows and movies tried to behave like Superman stories took place in a world that we would recognize. This was an unworkable idea, as it turns out, and they found that out almost immediately.
You see, Superman was invented in June 1938, and it only took a couple of years until human history got tired of being interfered with, and started interfering back.
Siegel and Shuster created Superman as the best and the fastest and the greatest at everything, in a series of tall tales that followed the Paul Bunyan model, making the hero increasingly powerful by consistently one-upping the previous story. The very nature of a Superman story is that he can perform any feat and solve every problem; that’s the guy that America fell in love with. So when real-life dictator supervillains Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin invaded Poland in August 1939 and kicked off a European war, Americans started fantasizing about Superman going overseas and taking care of the problem.
In February 1940, the editors of the weekly picture-magazine Look asked DC Comics to produce a two-page story called “How Superman Would Win the War”, dragging the year-and-a-half-old superhero into grown-up, real-world conflict.
It went great. Superman enters the theatre of war at full gallop, which was the only way he did anything back then. “Keep firing! Ach!” say the German soldiers in their underground fortifications. “That inhuman creature has got to be stopped!” But Superman can’t be stopped by artillery shells; the only thing that slows him down is when he notices there’s a wall that he hasn’t knocked his way through yet.
He twists some cannons into pretzels and tears the top off some concrete fortifications, then tells the French forces “Come and get ’em!” which they apparently do. Then he jumps into the air and punches a German plane in the face — “Himmel!” says the pilot, adorably, “Vos is diss?” — and by the end of page 1, Superman’s crashed through the ceiling of Hitler’s retreat.
Superman picks up Hitler by the neck and says, “I’d like to land a strictly non-Aryan sock on your jaw, but there’s no time for that!” This is how Superman used to behave, back in 1940. Not a patient man.
“Don’t fire!” the Germans cry. “He’s holding the Fuehrer hostage!” This just encourages Superman, who heads straight for Moscow, to pick up another playmate.
Holding his captives by the scruff of the neck, Superman whisks them away: “Next stop — Geneva, Switzerland!” I don’t know if he reads them their Miranda rights or not; Superman is just a law unto himself at this point.
One panel later, he breaks in on a meeting of the League of Nations, declaring, “I’ve brought before you the two power-mad scoundrels responsible for Europe’s present ills. What is your judgment?”
And look how grumpy the scoundrels are! They’re having a terrible day. Superman just stands back and grins as the League of Nations pronounces them guilty, which I’m not sure is a thing that the League of Nations ever did. But if you put a gavel in front of somebody, then it’s pretty much a guarantee that they’ll start delivering sentences on whoever’s in their line of sight.
And that is the end of that, as far as Look magazine is concerned. Case closed. They don’t bother to put any kind of framing around the story that calls it an “imaginary story” or anything, so as far as I know, this is how World War II actually ended, in the DC universe.
But that was in February 1940, when Americans could still view Nazi aggression from a distance. When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and America entered the war, readers expected to see Superman actually pitch in and do something about it. In that early rush of recruitment, American men who didn’t enlist were suddenly second-class cowards; obviously, Superman wouldn’t shirk his patriotic duty to defend America from the Axis.
The problem, for the Superman creators, was that they weren’t sure where to go with that story. As they’d proven in 1940, Superman vs the Axis was a two-page story — he’d hurtle right to the top, collar the dictators and generals, and everything would be over in a minute. And then what?
So they came up with an idea that was presented in the newspaper comic strip in February 1942: Clark Kent tries to enlist, but the recruiting office rejects him.
In the strip, Clark shows up at the recruiting office, strips down to reveal his massive physique, and passes all the physical exams with ease. Then the caption says, “When the eye tests arrive, he permits his thoughts to wander, visualizing what he’ll soon be doing to America’s foes…” and we see him absently reading from the eye chart, while dreaming of giving a German a painful poke in the ass with his bayonet.
In the next panel, Clark laughs, “Ha! Ha! For a second I imagined you’d just said I was rejected.”
“That’s right, young man!” the examiner replies. “The army doesn’t want you. Good day!”
Stunned, Clark asks why he’s been rejected, and the examiner tells him, “You’re physically superb — except that you’re obviously blind as a bat. When I asked you to read the eye chart aloud, you muffed every line!”
Then the caption explains: “Glancing at the wall, Clark discovers the answer — in his preoccupied state he had inadvertently glanced through the wall by means of his X-ray vision, and read the lettering on an eye chart in the adjoining room!”
It’s a cute trick, which establishes that Clark’s patriotic heart is in the right place, but allows him to stay in Metropolis, where he belongs. Then there’s a panel that explains what he’s going to be doing for the next three years, in the comic books, the comic strip and the radio show:
“The United States Army, Navy and Marines are capable of smashing their foes without the aid of a Superman! Hm-mm. 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!”
So that’s why Superman didn’t just go and grab Hirohito by the shirt collar and end the war; it’s because he had too much respect for the American armed services, and he didn’t want to step on their toes. Focusing on foiling the sneaky counterplots of German and Japanese spies, he could spend the war happily pursuing side quests without the responsibility of making any visible progress in the North African campaign.
He gets started right away, too: he sends a letter signed Superman to Congress explaining his plans, and he hasn’t even dropped it in the mail slot before an early version of Jimmy Olsen brings him a teletype with the stop-press news that there’s a fire raging at a munitions factory near Washington, D.C.
“I’ll bet those slinky Japs or Nazis know plenty about this!” Jimmy declares, and he’s right; the boy knows his slinky Nazis. Superman rushes to the site at super-speed and puts out the fire, and then finds that the foreman is one of those saboteuring fifth columnists. “For the destruction of the United States!” the foreman yells, and throws a hand grenade, which Superman catches and that takes care of the whole problem.
While he’s in D.C., Superman decides that he’s got something to say to Congress, so he asks them to call a special joint session, which they immediately do.
“Gentlemen,” the speaker announces, “I have the rare honor of presenting to you one of our country’s foremost citizens — a typical, clean-cut American — Superman!” I don’t know how typical Superman is supposed to be, exactly.
The Axis leaders respond to this development in an incredible panel that shows caricatures of Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito getting very upset.
“Superman!” Hitler shouts. “Speaking to Congress! Ach! He can’t do that to me!!”
Mussolini adds, “I’d stab him in the back as is my usual custom, but I know the knife would break!!”
And then Hirohito jumps in with a bit of impenetrable fake Japanese, strangling himself and shouting, “Why do I always guess wrong?” I don’t know what that refers to exactly, but it was probably funny in 1942.
Superman takes a deep breath and then embarks on a demonstration of his super-speechmaker powers, emitting words at a fantastic rate for two days without stopping.
“During the last several years a wave of evil has been sweeping across the world,” he says, “it has been known as fascism but in reality it is a repetition of conditions that prevailed during medieval times when feudal lords sought to wax powerful by crushing the privileges of the vast masses of their fellow human beings.” I bet it is.
“This modern plague has crushed one peace loving nation after another,” he continues. “Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, France. It has warred against Ethiopia, China… and now it menaces the stronghold of democracy — our beloved America!”
It goes on and on; I won’t trouble you with the whole thing. He name-checks all the Allied countries and commits himself to aiding in the downfall of the fascist vultures, and then he declares that he’s going to fight “our most insidious foes… the hidden maggots — the traitors, the fifth columnists, the potential quislings who will do all in their power to halt our production of war materials.” You’ve got to figure that’s going to create a stir in the quisling community.
He also says, “I will be on the alert for the old totalitarian trick of creating disunity by spreading race hatreds,” which is great although I don’t suppose it applies to Japanese-Americans, who he starts beating up almost immediately.
Now, this plan doesn’t apply to the comic book covers, where Superman takes a more active role — crushing Nazi cannons, punching Japanese U-boats in the face, catching artillery shells in mid-air. You know, Superman stuff. But these are individual acts of patriotic high spirits, rather than a strategy.
This panel is more Superman’s style during the war, wrecking a safe to discover the secret plans of the subversive “101% Americanism Society”.
“Here’s potential dynamite!” says one of the federal G-men who are apparently working with Superman. “According to this document, the brains of the Society is none other than Major Jonathan Ramsey!”
Superman — caught in mid-stride, having a lengthy conversation while rushing around the room — cries, “Ramsey? But he’s a World War I hero, respected by all!!”
Another G-man replies, “Which just goes to prove there may be quislings even in high places!” See what I mean, about the quislings?
So that’s how Superman didn’t win the war; he mostly just talked about how great America’s fighting men were, and then left them to it. Apparently, it worked, because we won the war anyway.
Now, obviously World War II wasn’t the only armed conflict that Superman had to avoid in the ensuing years; there’s also the Vietnam War, which he tried to monkey with in one very strange 1969 issue that I would like to tell you everything about. Come back tomorrow, and we’ll get into it.
How Superman helped out
during the Vietnam War!
1.64: Human History, and How to Not Interfere With It, part 2
— Danny Horn