Why the Man of Steel Did So Little to Stop Hitler and Tojo
by Paul Levinson
[originally published in The Man from Krypton, edited by Glenn Yeffeth, Ben Bella Books, 2006]
“It is that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment which constitutes poetic faith.”
-- Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, 1817
The nice thing about Coleridge’s explanation of what makes poetry work is that it applies to much more than poetry. Nearly two centuries later, we know that we cry at sad movies, get angry at villains in novels, are thrilled by special effects because we voluntarily suspend our disbelief in all of these encounters, and pretend that what we know to be fiction is real. Unlike a rollercoaster ride in which there is a chance, however slim, that we can really lose our lives, our gasps at a horror or science fiction movie come completely from the success of temporarily believing that we can lose our lives, when we know full well that we cannot. The more effective the presentation in eliciting this grand pretense, the more highly we prize it.
Comic books in general and Superman in particular are no strangers to this wonderful wheeling and dealing with our emotions. A human-like alien from another planet with super powers is easy for fans to believe. All right, as a kid I always wondered why Superman didn’t use his x-ray vision to look though women’s clothing, but this super morality was a minor part of an otherwise convincing catalog of super strength, super speed, long-distance seeing and hearing, flying and leaping, and weakness to Kryptonite. With one glaring exception.
Why didn’t Superman use his powers to stop the German Blitzkrieg and the Japanese fleets during the Second World War?
The Size and Dates of Miracles
Wallace Harrington put the matter aptly in his 1999 Superman and the War essay: “most every Superman fan has asked at one point or another over the last 61 years: If Superman is so powerful, why does he not simply put an end to all wars and suffering?” Debuting in 1938, on the eve of World War II, Superman certainly blew his first big chance. It took D-Day and Hiroshima, and the loss of thousands upon thousands of lives, to put an end to the Axis powers.
Instead of applying himself to this worthy task – a task he could easily have accomplished – the Man of Steel for the most part used his powers during the war years to take out common criminals and petty dictators, and vie with fascinating fictional villains such as Lex Luthor who were not as evil as Hitler. There were a few exceptions.
First and foremost was the two-page “What If Superman Ended the War?” which appeared in the February 17, 1940 issue of Look Magazine. In this story scripted by Jerry Siegel and drawn by Joe Shuster, Superman flies to Berlin to pick up Hitler by the scruff of his neck (the classic Superman grip on a villain), does the same with Stalin in Moscow, and hauls the two to the League of Nation’s World Court in Geneva, where they stand trial for crimes against their own peoples. (In our reality, this court was dissolved by the final League of Nations assembly in 1946, and succeeded by the U.N. World Court in the Hague.) The Look story is noteworthy, even controversial, for a variety of reasons:
• It appeared before the United States entered the Second World War in December 1941. It thus was a safe fantasy story, in that it was not presented to the American public at a time in which the nation was actually at war. The story in this way avoided such questions as why didn’t the Man of Steel first destroy every weapon that was firing at American troops.
• The story has been incorrectly identified by many comic-book historians – including Harrington – as having been published not in 1940 but 1943. This may well reflect our yearning for Superman to have made an attempt to stop World War II after it had become a fully global war with massive American participation. Of course, the 1940 story is somewhat anachronistic in 1943 -- why would Superman in 1943 bypass Tojo and Hirohito in favor of Stalin, who while certainly no angel was then an ally of the United States and England?
• More recent anti-war advocates have correctly noted that Superman sought to put an end to the beginning of World War II by bringing its chief villains (Hitler and Stalin had both invaded Poland in 1939, which started the war) literally to justice, without firing a shot. The little story was thus a powerful brief for settling disputes among nations in a world court of law, and for holding the leaders of criminally aggressive nations, not their citizens, to task. These ideals have by and large yet to be adopted by the world, some 65 years out from the Look Superman story.
• The story was published as a special feature in Look Magazine -- not as part of the continuing DC comic-book series, or newspaper strips -- and thus was outside of the normal canon of Superman narratives. This meant that the comic books and strips could continue their accounts of Superman without making reference to the Look fantastic tale. Which was a good thing, since the U.S. was soon to enter World War II, and the comic books would have been utterly beyond anyone’s suspension of disbelief had they depicted a world in which Hitler (and Stalin!) were in prison.
How, then, did the Superman comic books handle the reality of World War II?
With scant use of the war as a central theme, and certainly no knock-out punches to the Axis. “Japanazis” were mentioned in Superman #18 (September-October, 1942), Superman helped train troops in issue #23 (June-July, 1943), and he saves a fictional comic-book writer from the German Bund (Nazi sympathizers in the U.S.) in issue #25 (November-December, 1943). That “King of the Comic Books” tale is a spectacularly inventive “meta”-story – the comic-book writer has angered the Nazis because he portrays Hitler unfavorably – but it is hardly a piece with any major or significant relevance to the actual war effort. Meanwhile, Clark Kent, who has been declared “4-F” because of his poor vision (nice touch – he accidentally sees through the eye-chart, courtesy of his x-ray revision, and reports the letters he sees on a chart in the next room!), helps with Air Force technical training in another memorable story in that same issue. But, again, the Man of Steel, this time in disguise, only helps in training, foregoing the front-line role one might expect of Superman, and which would have been much more inspiring to America.
Harrington accurately notes that, although the stories in the Superman and Action Comics had little relevance to the main battles and issues of World War II, the covers were often brightly patriotic. (Superman stories appeared in both of these publications.) Wartime covers showed Superman attacking battleships, tanks, and enemy positions. He sped to protect our fighting men, and (of course) delivered supplies (a valuable but behind-the-scenes activity). The cover of Superman #17 (July-August, 1942) does have him holding Hitler and Hirohito (no longer Stalin) by their necks and trying to shake some sense into them. And Superman #29 (July-August, 1944) depicted Lois Lane walking arm-in-arm with a soldier, a sailor, and a Marine, saying “You’re my Supermen!” But you couldn’t judge what was inside those comic-books by their covers: as Harrington remarks, “it was actually rare that the action went further than the cover.” In comic-book land, as in our reality, the war raged on, and took its course, with no significant impact from Superman.
The war fared about the same in Superman’s radio and cartoon exploits, 1941-1945. A Nazi spy appeared as a villain in Superman’s adventures on the Mutual Radio Network. Two cartoons produced by the Fleischer studios have Superman engaging the Japanese. Another has the Man of Steel against the Nazis. Although fans held and hold these episodes in high regard, none dealt with decisive events in the war.
Why Didn’t Superman End the War:
Of Superheroes and the Deity
We have already touched upon the very practical reason why Superman could not have put Hitler and Tojo out of their misery in 1941: the war in fact would rage on for another four years, and the comic books and radio broadcasts and cartoons would have been totally out of touch with reality had they allowed Superman to play such a conclusive role in the war. In terms of Coleridge’s analysis of poetry, we could say that, although Superman’s failure to fully confront the evils of Germany and Japan strained the willing suspension of disbelief of his fans, that suspension of disbelief would have been utterly shattered had the comics and broadcasts and cartoons brought us a world in which the war had been ended by Superman.
But there is a deeper, more profound, reason for Superman’s inaction. It has to do with the god-like powers that were ascribed to him. A more mortal superhero such as Batman would not have been in the same predicament. Had Batman and Robin devoted all of their energies to stopping Germany and Japan, they at best would and could have played only a minor role. The Dynamic Duo could have worked day and night in high profile to end the war, and the war could have plausibly continued, just as it did in reality, with no jeopardy to our willing suspension of disbelief. But Superman and the suspension of disbelief required to believe in him enjoyed no such luxury. His super powers were such that if he had applied them to the task of ending the war, it would have been over. We expected more of Superman precisely because he is able to fly at incredible speeds, lift extraordinarily heavy weights, see and hear what no mere mortal can, and is invulnerable to bullets, fire, water, and all manner of catastrophes except those packaged in Kryptonite.
Indeed, from the vantage point of 2005, we can look back and wonder why Superman did not lend a hand that made a difference in all kinds of disasters, natural as well as of human creation. Why didn’t the Man of Steel hold at least one of the levees together in New Orleans with his bare hands after Hurricane Katrina? Why didn’t he rescue at least some number of people when the World Trade Center towers were blazing and crumbling on September 11, 2001? His absence that day cuts especially deep, because he is so closely associated with tall buildings. (A poignant September 11th thread on the web which began just an hour after the attacks -- http://www.geocities.com/womenofgotham/sept11.htm -- is entitled “Where Is Superman When We Really Need Him?”) Questions such as these may seem unfair to pose about a comic-book character, but Katrina and 9/11 were if anything a lot less destructive than the Second World War, in which Superman did so little to prevent millions upon millions of deaths.
Perhaps we are inclined to ask such questions of Superman because we hold him, and his judgment as well as his powers, in such high, nearly god-like esteem. Similar questions have been asked for millennia, after all, of the Supreme Being. The Book of Job, thought to have been written some time between 700 and 300 BC, asks why, if God is good and all-powerful, would He allow such bad things to happen in the world? On an individual level, many who have lost loved ones have had similar concerns. Sometimes entire peoples have been haunted by this question. In the aftermath of the Holocaust in World War II, devout Jews had their faith severely tested: why would -- how could -- God allow such a thing to happen?
The answer provided in the Book of Job is that God sends these monstrous things our way to test us. Other religious teachings suggest that God might not be omnipotent – that God contends with powerfully evil forces, and is sometimes less than completely successful in stopping them. Several religious leaders made this point on the Larry King Show, after September 11: It was their view that the Supreme Being sought to sway the hijackers against their terrible acts, but did not prevail. Or perhaps He/She did, and this intervention prevented that tragedy from being worse than it was.
But Superman can be saved by neither of these answers. Surely the Man of Steel did not refrain from helping more in World War Two, and from intervening in recent disasters, to test us. And though we can understand that he might not be totally successful in vanquishing evil, surely he could make more of an attempt. While unshakeable belief in the Deity may survive the most unspeakable of evils on this earth, can a willing suspension of disbelief in Superman survive his general failure to even confront such evils?
The Real Limits of Fiction and Comic Books
Superman fans can at least have the comfort of knowing that all fictional characters who seek to fight evil suffer from this same exquisite problem, in direct proportion to the size and scope of their powers. Where were the wizards in Harry Potter’s world during World War II? Or were they checked by evil wizards on the Axis side? The annals of science fiction are chocked full of time travelers bent on killing Hitler before he does his damage. The travelers almost always run into some unforeseen complication – sometimes their intervention even ironically enables Hitler. This must happen if the story is to remain consistent with our reality.
Of course, a novel or a movie can posit a new reality, made different from ours by the action of the hero, in which Hitler is never more than a failed painter. But a comic-book series and character would have a very difficult time taking that route. The proximity of comic books to the real world, the pace with which they move, means their characters and stories must toe a fine, demanding line to real events. When I discovered Superman in comic books in the 1950s, they were sold on newsstands and in candy stores, right alongside of copies of The New York Times, The Herald Tribune, The Journal-American, The Daily News, The Daily Mirror, and The New York Post. The fiction in the comics had to be in just the right doses to thrive next to the black-and-white reality in the papers.
Further, the more horrendous the real disaster, the more careful the fictitious hero needs to tread, lest the real victims of the tragedy take offense at their pain being trivialized or exploited. Television and movie docu-dramas about September 11, announced in 2005, were subjected to criticism that the theme was inappropriate for Hollywood treatment. (I disagreed, and argued in a Reuters article “Third Hollywood Studio Sets Sights on 9/11” by Steve Gorman, August 16, 2005, that such presentations are “part of the process by which we come to understand our own feelings about this.”) But any comic book treatment of September 11th would bear a much bigger burden.
So what’s a Superman fan to do? Well, there’s always the approach of not pushing such questions of Superman’s non-intervention too far, and letting him off the Book of Job hook. After all, he is not a Deity, he is a just a comic-book action-hero, and if his life next to newspapers and chewing gum means he has to be more in touch with reality than does a character in a novel, well, maybe we should also give him the benefit of such casual company, and not hold him to impossibly exacting standards.
No ... I don’t think so. That’s not really very satisfying either. Part of the fun of all fiction, comic books included, is teasing ourselves and the stories against how well they relate to our reality.
Maybe a better answer is this: Comic books are inextricably part of the matrix of everyday life – in the case of Superman, our everyday urban life. These little story books work on the premise that, if you happen to look up at the sky for no particular reason, you may see a superhero flying by. Or, if you see a thief snatch a lady’s purse, Superman may well streak down to retrieve it, and haul the thief – by the scruff of his neck – off to jail. We can expand this thieving villain to the level of a corrupt politician, or even to a mad scientist, also living and working in the city, maybe just around the corner, right under our noses. But the key to all of these characters may be that something about them is intrinsically and irrevocably city-sized. Not bigger than or beyond the city, not world-sized or even nation-sized. City-sized. And that includes Superman, who came of age in the heyday of Fiorello LaGuardia, the bigger-than-life, beloved New York City Mayor who read comics to the kids over the radio on Sundays. And this may be as good as any an explanation for why Superman is singularly and frustratingly incapable of responding with real effectiveness to larger-sized threats and more pervasive evils. We can gauge him best in terms of intra-city issues and realities. When we get beyond that, we are in uncharitable territory for this kind of superhero.
But we can still draw inspiration from Superman’s successful urban-sized exploits. We can be awed by his powers. We can bemoan that he has been unable to use them to stop or end the debacles of our day since his first appearance back in 1938. And we can retrieve that noble, lost, impossible potential and do all in our limited, non-super power to help.