At Vulture, we love comic books. We think they matter, they’re fun, and they deserve our attention and not just our snark (though some of that’s cool, too). But the proliferation of big brooding men in masks, what some call the Frank Miller Effect, has become tiresome; that self-serious Batman v Superman trailer probably needs to speak with a therapist, it’s so melancholy. And yet the notion that superheroes have only become mean and dark in recent years, that Superman has traditionally been a nice, smiling savior, is erroneous. Truth is they’ve always been kinda mean.
Over at The Atlantic, Charles Moss has penned an excellent essay that vivisects Superman’s morally ambiguous origins. As with Bob Kane’s Batman, who began life as a guy in a mask who threw thugs off of rooftops and hanged people by the neck from his Batplane, Superman had a mean streak back in the day:
[W]hat many fans don’t realize is that Superman hasn’t always been the Big, Blue Boy Scout they’ve come to know and love. In fact, in the very early stages of the character’s development, he wasn’t a hero at all, but a villain. And even after Superman became an enforcer of good in his earlier years, his brand of justice was as gray, morally speaking, as the color palette Snyder’s films embrace. In other words, the newest incarnation of Superman isn’t so much a betrayal of the character’s origins as it is a perhaps unwitting return to them.
Moss looks at Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s iconic creation, who some scholars and comic-book aficionados think acted as a sort of Jewish Golem and hero for recently assimilated Jews at the advent of World War II. Contrary to popular belief, Superman didn’t make his initial appearance in Action Comics #1, but rather as the subject of a short illustrated story "Reign of the Superman" in 1933, in which the Man Not Yet of Steel uses his mind-reading abilities (yes, that was his power) to thwart a bald, proto–Lex Luther baddie. Once he began appearing in Action Comics, Superman had no qualms about shooting people or threatening to kill women. Akin to the original Batman, Superman lacked a strict moral code. He was an Old Testament hero, only later reformed into something more palatable:
Superman’s more violent, or perhaps more grounded persona changed after The Adventures of Superman hit the radio airwaves in 1940. It was on that show that he gained the ability to fly, the nickname “Champion of the Oppressed” was dropped and the catchphrase “Truth, Justice, and the American way” forever became associated with the hero now known as the Man of Steel. Other changes occurred in the radio show that became part of the Superman mythos in the comics, the 1950s TV show starring George Reeves, and the Christopher Reeve movies in the 70s and 80s. Kryptonite was created as Superman’s only weakness to allow voice actor Bud Collyer, who voiced Superman and his alter ego Clark Kent, vacation time. Characters such as the Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White and his best pal Jimmy Olsen were created for the show and later incorporated into the comics.
So when that new Frank Miller–Brian Azzarello comic comes out and inevitably spurs readers to bemoan the recent trend of super-dark comics or blame Christopher Nolan for making superheroes super serious, remember that Superman once watched a man choke to death on poison gas with his arms folded contentedly.