(First published on Scan Journal, Vol 5 Number 2 September 2008).
by Michael Goodrum
Truth, justice and the American way: words we have come to understand as Superman’s motivation. What do these words actually mean, though? Certainly, following 1954 and the Senate Subcommittee Hearings on Juvenile Delinquency that effectively emasculated comic book superheroes, Truth, justice and the American way have represented a bland Superman who toes the government line, the ultimate goody two-shoes. The situation in the build up to the 1950s was, however, very different. In 1946, Superman embarked on a number of radio adventures that took a socially progressive direction, with Superman discarding “his conventional excursions in escapism… [in order to] combat the more mundane evils of racial and religious intolerance, adolescent gangsterism and other related problems of the juvenile” (Gould 1946: 7). Such a direction was not without precedent. Bradford Wright, author of Comic Book Nation, suggests that Superman, amongst other comic book superheroes, can be seen as a “super New Dealer,” criticising failures in institutions and stressing “a common interest between public welfare and a strong federal government” (Wright 2003: 24). For instance, in the comic-book Superman #1, Superman forces a mine owner to improve working conditions, whilst in Superman #2 he intervenes in negotiations to force through a peace treaty in a fictional South American republic. However, the radio serial concretised issues previously dealt with in a more abstract way by the comic-books, with the serial able to take such a different approach because the comic-books and radio serial were separate entities. Whilst both were presided over by DC, the publishing company that owned Superman’s copyright, each had a separate writing team and their stories developed independently of one another.
This paper will consider the ways in which the radio serial, the Adventures of Superman, promoted socially progressive ideas through four narratives produced in 1946, moving beyond the fantastic escapism that had previously characterised the series. In doing so, I argue that the producers of the series not only positioned themselves as constitutive participants in contemporary discourses on pressing topics such as tolerance and juvenile delinquency, but that they also began to offer different models of heroism as solutions to these problems. Redistributing the heroism in a superhero radio serial in this way is an unexpected development, and one that has profound implications for both the structure of narratives and their resolution. As such, it will be necessary to conduct an analysis of heroism, something that shall be undertaken using Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the rhizome. A complex concept, rhizome can briefly be described as “multiplicities… [that have ceased to] have any relation to the One as subject or object” (Deleuze and Guattari 2003: 8). Before we begin on this, however, it is essential to first know a little more about the Adventures of Superman.
On the radio, Superman was far more grounded in pressing contemporary concerns, as demonstrated by the story arcs this paper will focus on, featuring Superman battling, in turn, the ‘Guardians of America’, a group fomenting racial hatred to prevent the building of an inter-faith recreational facility in Metropolis; a racketeer promoting juvenile delinquency in league with a corrupt mayoral candidate threatening to block a slum clearance and regeneration program; an organisation closely resembling the Ku Klux Klan, trying to force a Chinese-American family out of Metropolis; and Big George Latimer, a crooked political boss using racial and religious intolerance to keep war veterans out of state jobs that they had been promised. In 1946, with the Ku Klux Klan capitalising on the social upheavals of the war, the problematic reintegration of veterans into civilian life a pressing concern and juvenile delinquency one of the most discussed topics in the US, Superman’s producers were clearly immersing the character in the social concerns of the time.
Superman reached a radio audience of millions; in 1946, the Adventures of Superman aired five times a week nationwide on the Mutual network and regularly attracted the highest juvenile audience of any show, according to contemporary Hooper ratings. (Superman Super Site 2008). It was also sponsored by one of the biggest names in cereals, Kellogg’s, ensuring that the character of Superman was used in large advertising campaigns, further raising his profile. Having also appeared in a run of lavish animated features produced by the Fleischer studio for Warner Brothers running from 1941 to 1943, and with the comic books still selling well, Superman was one of the most popular fictions in the USA. Taking a gamble on potentially controversial story lines was therefore a serious risk for the producers of the radio show. Had this backfired, they could have alienated their audience and lost their sponsorship. It is necessary to consider why they would ever have taken such a risk: the first of these stories, “The Hate Monger’s Organisation”, seems to be in keeping with the tradition established by the comic books and other popular culture. The story is slightly abstract and the villain is a former Nazi spy, seducing people to his point of view by telling them that foreigners are trying to take over the country. However, the adulatory response it received in the press from respected radio critics such as Jack Gould of the New York Times and Harriet van Horne of the New York World-Telegram,may have inspired the writers to take the initial idea further, with the subsequent story arc also being about juvenile delinquency (Widner 2006). In “Al Vincent’s Corrupt Political Machine”, however, the delinquents are transposed into a different setting. Al Vincent is a pawnbroker at the head of a ring of juvenile delinquents, capitalising on the poverty in the slums of Metropolis through a connection to a shady mayoral candidate planning to block a program of slum regeneration in order to allow this continuing exploitation. Whilst these first two story lines are admirable, they still have an element of the fantastic about them, something underwritten by the prominent role of Superman in these stories. All this was to change with the other two stories under consideration, “The Clan of the Fiery Cross” and “Big George Latimer, Crooked Political Boss”.
The high profile given to “The Hate Monger’s Organisation” by critics caught the attention of activist, author and journalist, Stetson Kennedy. In 1946, Kennedy went undercover in the Ku Klux Klan in order to gather enough information on their practices to force the government to take action against them. As discussed in Kennedy’s I Rode With the Ku Klux Klan, one method of getting information in to the public realm that Kennedy utilised was the Adventures of Superman radio show, something that appeared juvenile and yet was currently being lauded in the press for its stance on intolerance. In offering information to the writers of the show, information that was gladly accepted, Kennedy managed to both ensure its distribution and also the widespread ridicule of the Ku Klux Klan. Here they were, this supposedly terrifying organisation, being soundly thrashed on the airwaves for the entertainment of the juvenile audience, with all their secret passwords, language, and rituals being revealed. As reported by Kennedy, even Klansmen’s children turned against the Klan, with one Klansmen reported as saying:
When I came home from work the other night, there was my kid and a bunch of others, some with towels tied around their necks like capes and some with pillow cases over their heads. The ones with capes was chasing the ones with pillow cases all over the lot. When I asked them what they were doing, they said they was playing a new kind of Cops and Robbers called ‘Superman against the Klan’… I never felt so ridiculous in all my life! (Kennedy 1954: 92-3 ed. orig.).
Whilst caution must be exercised here as this is speech reported by an author hoping to make a point, it is still illustrative of what the Adventures of Superman was trying to achieve. By making the Klan appear ridiculous, “the millions of kids who had listened to Superman were not likely to grow up to be Klansmen,” not only because they might have assimilated the moral instruction inherent in the story, but also due to the fact that they would remember the Klan as something ridiculous (Kennedy 1954: 93).
Taking a brief break from these social concerns to return to the kind of stories one would expect of Superman, the Adventures of Superman made a strong comeback in September 1946 with “Big George Latimer, Crooked Political Boss”. This story concerns the eponymous villain, the power behind Governor Wheeler of Metropolis. Latimer forces Wheeler to use discriminatory practices when hiring veterans for state jobs, ordering him to rule out anyone who is not “a native-born, white, Protestant,” in order to accommodate Latimer’s henchmen (1946). In recognition of the ways this story line connected with contemporary concerns over the reintegration of veterans to civilian life, it was officially commended by the American Veterans Committee, live on air, on September 17, 1946. The fact that a serious veterans group was prepared to align itself with a show aimed at the juvenile market speaks volumes about how far the Adventures of Superman had come from the escapism that characterised its beginnings and the role it was seen as playing in contemporary culture by 1946. The more concrete link between actual events and these latter stories is underwritten by Superman appearing less frequently. Instead of being the driving force behind the story, the character of Superman acts more as a deus ex machina, brought in to save characters at the last minute. In fact, Superman is far from the main hero in either “The Clan of the Fiery Cross” or “Big George Latimer, Crooked Political Boss”. Whilst Superman’s absence can be attributed to attempts to titillate the audience, it certainly allows other characters to play a more heroic role than they had previously.
The question of which character can be considered the primary hero is important. Superheroic moral instruction, I argue, usually takes the form of an invitation to emulate the superhero, something that raises a number of problems. For instance, no matter how keen audiences for superhero narratives may be, they will simply be unable to reproduce the majority of the hero’s actions. Instead, they are invited to attempt to assimilate the moral code of the superhero in to their own lives. It also means that the superhero has to be the constant centre of attention, with all events being mediated through him in order to pass moral judgement. However, there remains the question of what values superheroes were defending in the first place and whether they were shared by the audience. This is of such importance because of the different strategies the audience could be employing when listening to the Adventures of Superman; for example, instead of engaging with the themes of tolerance in the story about the “Guardians of America”, listeners could tune in just for Superman’s fantastic exploits and the promise of a violent confrontation to resolve the story.
Regardless of these misgivings, Reynolds asserts “in the stories of the Golden Age, Silver Age and after, the superheroes enjoyed the backing of a social consensus – even if its terms and ideology were left undefined” (Reynolds 1992: 105). Superheroes generally do not set out their beliefs for their audience – unless they are very hazy about it, like Superman’s Truth, justice and the American way. Whilst this lack of definition is essential in appealing to a broad audience, it makes the specific stance on certain issues of the Adventures of Superman surprising, given that it could alienate members of the audience who do not share those ideas. Following on from this, in a society with an increasing multiplicity of values, there remains the question of whether a hegemonic reading of superhero narratives can be sustained. It is apparent from the clinical research of Dr. Fredric Wertham, a psychiatrist and comic book theorist of the 1940s and 1950s, that during this ‘Golden Age’ of consensus, certain members of the audience were practicing ‘bricolage,’ manufacturing their own meanings inside the apparently hegemonic narratives being offered to them, such as the widely publicised argument that Batman and Robin represent “a wish dream of two homosexuals living together” (Wertham 1955: 191 and Brooker 2005: 101-117). As such, it is impossible to say what members of the audience may have made of the values of the hero, or how their heroic adventures may have been construed.