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Time Machine

June 2024
1min read

Superman Goes to War

In November the writer Gilbert Seldes noted the profusion of “magazines in bright covers, all singularly alike, but each bearing a different name.” The comic book had taken off despite the paper shortages affecting more conventional publishing. “In many libraries,” Seldes noted, “the children’s room carries a message from Superman, recommending a good book.… It is hard for librarians to find themselves inferior to Superman, but they must learn to accept the common lot. All of us are inferior to him.” The rush to imitate Superman’s success with similarly caped adventurers had coincided with America’s entry into the World War.

The relatively new invention of the comic book provided light and inspiring reading for GIs at the front, and soon an army of superheroes of all shapes and abilities had joined them in their fight against the Axis Powers—from Captain Aero and the Fighting Yank (with his credo “No American can be forced into Evil”) to Bat Man, the Green Mantle, and Ajax, a visitor from the sun. They all followed, of course, in the trail of Superman, who had first appeared in 1938 and who, in addition to his radio show, starred in a film and a novel in 1942. The visitor from the planet Krypton had inspired at least a dozen second-tier adventurers by 1942, all fighting the good fight. When war came, Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, wasted little time having him choose sides on his adopted planet. The comic propaganda war would also involve the usually remote Tarzan, who, although born sometime in the late nineteenth century, found himself in the thick of present dangers when Nazis tried to set up camp in his jungle. There were those who predicted that adventure comics couldn’t outlive the crisis they had served so well, but after the war Superman returned to preventing drabber catastrophes, and new comics moved on to exploit peacetime concerns like nuclear mutation. One war product, Captain America, continued for decades to dress in skintight stars and stripes and to fight a red-skulled menace in a Nazi uniform who had somehow survived Hitler’s bunker.

No other nemeses would ever be as satisfying as Nazis. Joseph Goebbels himself reportedly envied the Americans’ propaganda invention enough to label Superman a Jew, which in a way he was—or at least he was the progeny of two Jewish newspapermen from Cleveland, one of whom had joked in his high school paper that he wanted to play pinochle with Hitler.

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