How Taking Ownership of "The Superman" Changed World History

Browsing through the selection of patriotic WWII-era Superman-related comics available in Session 5 of Comic Connect's Event Auction 42, which ends May 22, reminds me of some of my very favorite little-known Superman-related history. Generally speaking, I think we have the notion that "The Superman" was a vague, Nietzschean concept barely remembered by the early 1930s. Introduced into the vernacular due to Friedrich Nietzsche and George Bernard Shaw around the turn of the century, but then revived with the likes of Gladiator and Doc Savage. This notion is wrong in every regard. I'll be covering pre-Nietzsche American usage of "Superman" in a future post. Still, the term was vaulted (it might be more accurate to say "re-introduced") into significant mainstream media attention in America directly after WWI. I've collected ten representative newspaper clippings from 1918-1930 here, shown below. I could easily have clipped 10,000 articles, and perhaps more.

The Superman--He's Here, The Washington Times, 06 Jan 1918, via newspapers.com.
The Superman–He's Here, The Washington Times, January 06, 1918, via newspapers.com.

It's crucial to this history to understand that the word "Superman" was already part of the mainstream conversation during this period. Athletic Supermen, Scientific Supermen, Superman leaders, and on and on. Such examples are more influential as antecedents than Gladiator or Doc Savage. These usages of "Superman" were part of the daily news and daily conversation.  Superman had already arrived.

You can also see the glimmer of the start of something here, which is likewise essential yet rarely discussed. Between WWI and WWII, the Nazi propaganda machine took ownership of the word. With the help of people like William Randolph Hearst (for whom Hitler, Mussolini, Goering, and others all were paid writers for Hearst newspapers), that propaganda was reaching America.

And so was the concept of the Nazi Superman.

Superman as Coming Ruler of World clipping, The Akron Beacon Journal, 28 Mar 1923, via newspapers.com.
Superman as Coming Ruler of World clipping, The Akron Beacon Journal, March 28, 1923, via newspapers.com.

Until, that is, around the beginning of 1940. By which point, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had taken ownership of the word. Dominant ownership. After that, Superman belonged to America and the entire world and stood for something very different than what the Nazi propagandists had in mind.

It's impossible to overestimate how important that was in the context of the global events of the time. Some may have heard about the existing Nazi propaganda efforts against Siegel and Shuster, in the April 25, 1940 issue of  Das Schwarze Korps, the weekly newspaper of the SS. It's no surprise. Knowingly or not, the two kids in Cleveland beat them at their own game — badly.

The social and political history of the usage of the term "Superman" is another reason that DC Comics founder Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson likely played a role in bringing Superman to the public. He was an experienced soldier and military historian. Out of all the players involved, he alone had the requisite knowledge to understand what this could be, from a political and wartime perspective.

Note: once you click through to the gallery of clippings below, right-click open in new tab to get a readable size.

The Superman-related comics shown here and many more are available from this post's sponsor Comic Connect, during the May 22 Session 5 of this week's Event Auction #42.

About Mark Seifert

Co-founder and Creative director of Bleeding Cool parent company Avatar Press. Bleeding Cool Managing Editor, tech and data wrangler. Machine Learning hobbyist. Vintage paper addict.

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