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After 75 Years, an Untarnished Reputation for America’s Man of Steel

September 5, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
It's a bird... it's a plane... it's Superman! In the book "Superman: The Unauthorized Biography," author Glen Weldon of NPR chronicles 75 years of the Man of Steel, from his changing costume to his "truth, justice and the American way" mantra. Weldon joins Christina Bellantoni to discuss the evolution of the iconic superhero.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: the life story of the world’s first superhero.
NewsHour political editor Christina Bellantoni is our guide.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: There’s something about the Man of Steel.
Superman has endured for 75 years, captivating people of all ages through. From scrappy crime fighter to American icon, the character reflects the changing world around him, but Superman always stays true to one ideal: helping others.

The hero’s evolution is the subject of a new book, “Superman: The Unauthorized Biography,” by Glen Weldon. He covers pop culture and comics for NPR and joins me now.

So, I would like to start with the big picture. Why do superheroes and comic book characters resonate with America, and how do they evolve along with our society?

GLEN WELDON, “Superman: The Unauthorized Biography”: Sure.

Well, these characters — it might sound corny to say these characters are our modern myths, but it’s true. They exist on a symbolic level. And there’s no more symbolic character than Superman, who created the archetype of the superhero. And everything that has come after him that’s touched on the idea of somebody who dresses up in a weird outfit and fights for the powers of good comes from him.

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CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: And so, turning directly to Superman, in your book, you chronicle his journey from his comic book debut April 18, 1938, to the silver screen, and call him the most recognizable figure of the superhero genre.

Why is it? Is it just longevity?

GLEN WELDON: No, actually. He — because he created the archetype, and that’s also because, you know, his costume is primary colors, red, yellow and blue.

And he was the one who everybody who came after him was imitating or reacting to. But he does evolve. That’s the thing about these characters. When I was researching the book, I wanted to show both what has stayed essentially the same about this character over 75 years and what’s changed.

And, specifically, what do those things that have changed about him say about us? And what does the fact that a certain part of him has stayed completely the same for 75 years say about us as well? And, basically, the only thing about him that hasn’t changed at all in 75 years is his motivation.

At first glance, it’s a pretty basic hero motivation. He puts the needs of others over those of himself, and he never gives up. And when both of those things are present, you have a Superman story. When one or more of those things is missing, it just doesn’t feel like Superman, because that’s who this character is.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: It’s the motivations for his good deeds. You wrote that he was once decidedly anti-militaristic, far removed from the uber-patriot he would become.

So, how did that happen? How did truth, justice, and the American way really become his motto?

GLEN WELDON: Well, when he was created both by Siegel and Shuster, they wanted him to be a — sort of a progressive character.

And he starts off going after people we would now consider the 1 percent. Who does he go after? He goes after corporate fat cats. He goes after crooked politicians. He goes after manufacturers who created shoddy goods that were unsafe for the public.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Coal miners that had unsafe practices. Right?

GLEN WELDON: Absolutely

So, he was going after and trying to upset the status quo, and he was kind of doing it in a kind of very rough way. He wasn’t the paragon of virtue we see today. He was kind of a tough guy. But World War II came along and softened all of those hard edges.

And, all of a sudden, he went from attacking the status quo to vigorously defending it. 

So when World War II began, he was basically a children’s comic book character. But because of the patriotic imagery and his use as a patriotic symbol throughout the war, by the end of the war, he was an American icon.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: And, so, specifically on that World War II shift, you saw him used in war propaganda from the United States government.

GLEN WELDON: He was helping to sell war bonds and telling people to plant victory gardens, absolutely.

And he was doing that on the cover of his books, not necessarily in the adventures, because the editors and writers were very cognizant that if you show Superman going over to Europe and bashing some Nazis around, you would be trivializing the sacrifices of the American G.I.

So they wrote a story in the comic strip where Clark Kent goes to enlist, but he gets so excited that he accidentally reads the eye chart in the next room and fails his exam.

So, he had to stay home and fight saboteurs, but, yes, he stayed home-side — he stayed home-side during the war. 

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: One of my favorite little details is the aesthetics.
Superman’s costume and look has changed so much over the years.

GLEN WELDON: Oh, sure.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Talk about that.

GLEN WELDON: Well, it started off as — they were inspired by very popular figures of the time, circus acrobats and trapeze artists.

And so that’s where the tight — tights come from, because you needed something that would allow for freedom of movement, but you also needed something that the people in the back rows could really see. So you wanted to outline the form, but you also wanted it to pop, so you would have these very garishly colored outfits.

The cape was there to really convey speed, because, remember, he started off as a creature on the page. And the only way you can really convey how fast somebody is moving, especially back then, before they had the iconography we now have today in comics of speed lines — you draw little lines after somebody to kind of signify that.

That was — before that time, somebody needed a cape to flutter and flap. You could actually almost hear it snapping in the breeze in those first few images that we know of Superman.

Certainly, the Superman “S”, which is now a very recognized symbol throughout the world, took a long time to evolve. And if you look at it over the course of 75 years, you see that it’s still evolving. There’s still tweaks that we make to reflect the style of the time. So it’s constantly in some kind of state of change.

What they have done now is they have taken away the tights and they have replaced it with kind of a weird armor. They have taken away the red pants. The red pants will return, but they took away the red pants. But they kept a big old chunky belt, a belt that is not holding anything up.

So everything about this character, the spit curl, the pants, the belt, the boots, constantly cycles in and out of fashion. And it always will.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Is the message coming from the comic books one that reflects what we’re thinking or is it coming from the creators trying to send a message to society?

GLEN WELDON: Well, there’s the character of Superman and there’s the idea of Superman.

The character is constantly iterated and reiterated, because he doesn’t have what makes a story a story. He doesn’t have an ending. He’s part of an open-ended narrative in the comics, which means he just keeps churning over. They keep rebooting and killing him off and then bringing him back, and taking away his red pants and bringing his red pants back.

But there’s the idea of Superman which is bigger than that. So the character is owned by D.C. and Warner’s. The idea of Superman, which is more powerful, purer than that, which transcends the media that deliver him to us, is owned by the world. And that’s why we constantly look to him and look to have him inspire us.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Glen Weldon, the author of “Superman: The Unauthorized Biography,” thank you.

GLEN WELDON: Thank you.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: We’re going to continue this discussion online.

Also there, you can find a slide show of Superman through the ages, and a look at the science of superheroes, from Spiderman’s silk to the Flash’s speed.

And we want you to weigh in: Who is your favorite comic book character?