A 1981 documentary special by BBC 4’s series The Arena called Superman – The Comic Strip Hero shows The Man of Steel’s creator Jerry Siegel saying unequivocally that “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” is the perfect motto for his character because he stands up for the oppressed instead of ruling over them.
This should put a lot of the doubt and dispute of what Superman accurately represents to rest – which is a bigger issue today than in the 80s or the 40s thanks to the alteration of his iconic phrase to “A Better Tomorrow.”
However, in a move that one can only conclude was in the name of “fairness” and “equal time,” the BBC filmmakers sought a differing perspective on the essence of Superman and his values from someone whose name is one of the most controversial in comics history.
That person was Dr. Frederic Wertham, German psychiatrist and author of the book Seduction of the Innocent, whose crusade cast a white-hot, incendiary spotlight on the industry in the 1950s and brought hearings before Congress to stir up misconceptions of the effects comic books have on youth.
Decades later, when it pertained to Superman in the height of his popularity, Wertham confessed he didn’t believe the character stood for truth or justice or anything American. Instead, he thought the iconic first superhero didn’t stray far from the archetype of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Ubermensch – an ideal that fueled the Third Reich.
As Arena’s narrator says, Nietzsche believed in a man that could rise above all things through sheer force of moral will, and Wertham in turn believed Superman truly lived up to this idea.
“Superman is the direct translation of ‘ubermensch,’” Wertham said of the name’s roots. “Superman itself is a symbol of force, power, and violence. That is what it represents, and it is of enormous influence, one cannot possibly exaggerate, on the youth. Not only of this country but of the youth of many other countries, you see, especially Germany.”
Wertham was of the opinion that the war and genocides committed by Germans during the 30s and 40s were a result of being “imbued with Superman’s spirit,” and he made no distinction between the Nazi ubermensch idealism and the comic book character.
He also stated Superman’s powers placing him above “the democratic law, the real law,” and the laws of physics teaches young people that they have no responsibility and must appeal to a lone individual who can take care of everything.
The irony is – and the narrator points it out as we all would – Nietzsche’s concept would be appropriated by two Jewish storytellers from Cleveland once it gave way to Hitler.
Unassuaged, Wertham finds another fault with Superman and something else he represents – superstition. “Superman represents superstition, the superstition that a grown man can fly,” he said, adding he’s examined “countless boys” who jumped from a height trying to fly in an imitation of Superman that led to injuries.
“So here you have violence, superstition, complete distrust in the community…the law, [and] complete trust in a strong individual who can do things which cannot be done,” Wertham declared.
But what of Superman standing for the American way? Wertham, rejecting fantasy and impossible feats as superstition like he does, found this widely embraced maxim of the Big Blue Boy Scout and icon ridiculous.
First and foremost, Wertham balks that Superman has to be real to stand for something and next he answers it is clear to him Superman doesn’t stand for the American way because “he flies through the air and comes in at the last moment.” This wouldn’t help someone being “raped, killed, and mutilated,” he added. “They need a policeman on the beat.”
At this point, Wertham strangely winds up with the last word. “To say Superman stands for the right and stands for the good, that may have been in the beginning…but at this moment Superman stands for violence,” he said.
Interestingly, Frederic Wertham was born in Nuremberg, Germany, and died in 1981 shortly after the documentary was made. Many would find it rather odd he would get airtime on a program that also featured Superman’s creators, no matter what he brings to the conversation. His writings and actions brought scandal to a modern American art form and made it harder for the people in it to make a living when he himself obviously never read a comic book.
Reflecting on how that could have happened, none other than Stan Lee put it best in 2003, explaining to History Channel Wertham was a good huckster with “Dr. “ in his name, and that made people pay attention.