THE MAN OF TOMORROW
How the Great Depression helped create one of the greatest icons of our time: Superman
(a look inside the creation of Superman and the first issue of Action Comics)
by: Sarah E. Doyle
History of the 1930’s
Columbia College Chicago
November 25th, 2008
America in the mid-1930’s was a place of desperation. The Great Depression and the stock market crash had ravaged the country and stripped them of their hope. The people needed a hero, even if that hero was drawn on the pages of a comic book and came from the planet Krypton. “People felt fear, shame, despair; the suicide rate soared, and the nation trembled at the prospect of a dark, uncertain future.” (1) America was at war, but at war with a seemingly unbeatable foe. The enemy couldn’t be seen or touched; all the country knew were the after effects. The Depression was everywhere and it lasted a considerable amount of time. Although the Government had plans for pulling the nation out of economic turmoil, the people needed hope and the people needed an escape. And the “experience of the Depression…extended the sway and power of the vision of an American way of life.” (2)
The comic book form came directly from the comic strips in newspapers that have been around since the mid 1800’s. The subject matter, however, was more influenced from that of Pulp Magazines. Pulp Magazines, named for the cheap paper they were printed on, appealed to the more offbeat taste in reading. Newspaper comics had a much wider audience. The magazines were very cheap and their increasing popularity “…indicates that there existed a lucrative, and mostly young, market with tastes well outside of the mainstream.”(3) The introduction of Famous Funnies in 1934 was the first real comic book in its modern day format. But it wasn’t until two kids from Ohio met each other and created a story about an alien kid from the planet Krypton that the comic book industry was truly born.
Superman was created by two Jewish kids from Cleveland, Ohio named Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster. Siegel and Schuster were both “perfect clinical illustrations of psychological compensation.”(4) Looking at them you would see “two small, shy, nervous, myopic lads, who can barely cope with ordinary body-building contraptions, let alone tear the wings off a stratoliner in mid-air.” (5) Both boys went to high school at Glenville High School and were introduced to each other by a mutual friend. They bonded over their mutual love for science fiction, Buck Rodgers and Tarzan of the Apes. It would be from these loves that the boys would eventually create Superman. Jerry describes the exact moment that he came up with the idea: “I am lying in bed counting sheep when all of a sudden it hits me. I conceive a character like Samson, Hercules and all the strong men I ever heard tell of rolled into one. Only more so. I hop right out of bed and write this down, and then I go back and think some more for about two hours and get up again and write that down. This goes on all night at two-hour intervals, until in the morning I have a complete script.” (6) Jerry was influenced by the super men who he had read about, but he wanted somebody stronger. He wanted someone who was invincible. Jerry’s father was shot and killed in his store while Jerry was still in high school. The police never found the person who did it, but they assumed it was just some random out of work drunk in desperate need of money. The Siegel family had to band together and tighten strings financially, and the Depression hadn’t even hit yet. Jerry retreated into the world of comics and dreamt “of men who waged war on crime and of heroes who were above need and above pain.” (7) Joe’s family troubles weren’t much better. His father lost his job at the onset of the Depression and they struggled for money. Joe had to “continue his drawing on scraps of butcher paper wet with blood and strips of wallpaper plucked from trash bins.” (8) Both boys would use these hardships and eventually benefit from the despair the Great Depression had brought. Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster both grew up with “the view that America offered no place for the artist and the intellectual.” (9) Before the Depression, comic books were just a small notch below pornography on the cultural scale. The Great Depression and, furthermore, the New Deal created a whole new arena for their talents. An arena where they would be celebrated, welcomed, and best of all, paid.
The era of the Great Depression really could not have been a better time for the coming of Superman. The young kids at this time had nothing new or different that belonged to their generation. The fact that “something cheap and colorful and exotic” (10) could come out of an economically depressed country was astounding. Also, this generation wasn’t used to having something entirely new to the world available to them; they had been “raised on lower expectations and hard realities.” (11) The Superman that we are familiar with today is righteous and law-abiding; the Superman that Schuster and Siegel originally created was a bit different. He followed the rough detective-like persona that was more popular in the Depression era. Kids wanted to read about someone who wouldn’t take crime sitting down and would do anything it would take to make things right again. Popular culture in America during the Great Depression had a profound effect on the national attitude of people living in incredibly harsh conditions. Although Franklin Roosevelt was credited (and deservedly) with managing to prevent some sort of revolt of the people during the Depression, it can also be said that Americans “shared national purpose forged by the creators of popular culture.”(12); Superman was a part of that. Popular culture at the time (which included books, movies, music and cartoons) echoed the voices of the people of America. “From Depression-era popular culture, there came a passionate celebration of the common man.”(13), and despite the fact that Superman wasn’t human, he was “always benefitting humanity” (14) and “fights a never-ending battle against…oppression.” (15) In his many adventures, Superman confronts a lot of issues that regular people were familiar with. One Superman story finds him “crushing a plot by wealthy American financiers working for a foreign power to manipulate the stock exchange and plunge the nation into another depression.” (16) Superman was relevant and, although fantastical, “offered an escape but remained within the reader’s frame of reference.” (17)
The business of comic books and, more specifically, of Superman was a good one. For a time where money and jobs were hard to come by, the comic book makers did fairly well. Many industries were drowning after the stock market crash, but the comics and the eventual comic books were gaining immense popularity. All of the success was due to the creation of Superman, but it took him a long time to reach that success. Jerry Siegel said that “it took us [Joe Schuster] six years to sell Superman.” (18) A retired Army Major named Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson started a small publishing house called National Allied Publishing in 1935; he gave jobs to unknown comics writers and illustrators in need of work. His comics weren’t selling and his distributor, Independent News Company, was frustrated. The founders of Independent News Company, Jack Liebowitz and Harry Donenfeld, partnered up with Wheeler-Nicholson and Detective Comics was born. Later on the company would come to be known only as DC Comics. After Donenfeld and Liebowitz bought out the company in 1938, they started paying their creative teams much more money, under the idea that they would turn out more comics and thus, more profit. Most of the writer/illustrator teams were splitting a profit of $1.50 per page. During all of this Siegel and Schuster were trying to sell Superman around, but most of the older men didn’t really get the comic. The “superhero” and the idealism was lost on them. In 1938, Donenfeld and Liebowitz were getting ready to launch a new comic book called Action Comics. The Superman comic that Siegel and Schuster had created fell into the hands of DC’s editor Vincent Sullivan and he optioned for it to be featured in the comic book. He called the boys from Ohio and offered them $10 per page for 13 pages. Jerry and Joe had waited so long for that moment, so they signed a release form and Superman was on its way to print. Although it took six years for Superman to get noticed, it didn’t take long for the people of America to get excited for it. “The public, mostly Depression-reared kids who wanted the most they could get for their dimes…recognized Superman as something special…”(19) After the 4th issue of Action Comics was released, each issue “regularly sold about 900,000 copies per month.”(20) By the end of the fiscal year in 1941, DC Comics had brought in about $2.6 million dollars.
The first issue of Action Comics debuted in June of 1938 and it had not just the introduction of Superman, but a few other comics as well. There were also stories about Chuck Dawson, Zatara, South Sea Stratedy, Sticky-Mitt Stimson, Marco Polo, “Pep” Morgan, Scoop Scanlon, Tex Thomson, and Stardust. Superman was the star of the issue, however. Schuster and Siegel knew that Superman would reach the middle-class of America and one of the ways they did that was by “dealing with the social problems of the day.” (21) Throughout his early history, Superman was constantly facing issues that were in the news and that people were aware of. He wasn’t fighting aliens or super villains; he was fighting the enemy of the common man. In the first issue of Action Comics Superman deals with “unjust imprisonment, spousal abuse, and corrupt government officials.” (21) Superman helping out the needy came straight from the tough life that both Schuster and Siegel had, still being in high school at the onset of the Great Depression. Something interesting about the cover is that it looks like Superman is smashing a car and people are running away afraid of him. Later on, you realize it was full of “bad guys” who kidnapped Lois Lane. Looking at the cover, without knowing what happens later, it looks like a representation of a fledgling auto industry. The first page of Action Comics introduces us to Superman very quickly, telling us briefly about where he came from and why he is the way he is, even offering a scientific explanation for his super-human abilities. The “super hero” genre was really created by Superman, so this was the first time audiences were seeing someone like this. A man, who wasn’t really even a man but an alien, with extreme abilities which were used for good. This was someone people wanted and needed, but someone they almost understood. So many people living in the United States could be considered aliens as well; moving to America from other countries trying to seek a better life. They were just like Superman in that regard. Superman was all-powerful, but he didn’t want to take away anyone’s jobs or money; he just wanted to help people in need. Superman even tries to blend in with the everyday man as “mild mannered” Clark Kent, who works as a reporter. He gets an assignment, but instead of going to report on it he takes a train to Washington D.C. and, as Superman, discovers some sort of shady business going on with a couple of politicians. He basically frightens one into talking to him about any corruption going on. After that, we are left with a cliff hanger about will happen next. In the last panel, Superman is said to be “destined to reshape the destiny of the world.” (23) This is, despite the fact that it is a fictional character, an insight into what the people of the United States needed at the time. They needed someone to reshape their destiny. Superman was, at heart, a social activist and a champion to many social causes. He reflected everything that Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was attempting to accomplish.
The Great Depression was one of the worst times in American history, but it was also a time of true survival and a real test of our ability as a nation. We came out relatively unharmed, but the years in between were tough to manage. Today, even in a time of our own economic instability, it is hard to imagine all the ordeals they had to go through. No wonder they needed an escape. It is no wonder that they fell in love with Superman and his ‘right-vs-wrong’ nature. It is no surprise that kids secretly hoped they would look up in the sky one day and see the “man of tomorrow” racing through the heavens. Looking at the Great Depression through the history of Superman really gives an image of what it was like to be a normal person living in that era. It shows us what made them happy. Instead of focusing on all the bad things during the Great Depression, here is something positive that came out of it. Here is something to look at that made people happy and brought them joy, and it didn’t even cost them that much money. Many years after, “the fact remains that the era made a significant contribution to our development in the acculturation of the idea of culture and of the idea of commitment.” (24) Superman truly was a hero, a defender of the oppressed, and the man of tomorrow.