More powerful than a locomotive
How Superman has been shaped and defined by the 20th century
Keep your poor and huddled masses
Modern America was built by immigrants, but immigration peaked in 1907. By the Great Depression more people were emigrating than coming in. The Immigration Act of 1924 particularly restricted immigration from Europe; by the early 40s, America had become increasingly insular.
An alien sent to Earth from a dying world, Superman was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the children of immigrants from Europe.
In an increasingly isolationist US, Superman was an immigrant who embodied the values of his adopted home; enemy of corruption and crime, friend & protector of the little guy, both as hero and as reporter Clark Kent.
Meanwhile, his creators sold the character who gave his name to a whole genre to DC Comics for $130.
The 50s & 60s
To suburbia and beyond
The Cold War brought a new paranoia to postwar suburban America, and yet took Americans further from home than ever before. Outer space became a frontier in the conflict between the US and the USSR.
Throughout the 50s and 60s Superman's powers steadily increased and his adventures became cosmic in scope; yet at the same time they developed a strong focus on domesticity and personal relationships.
His sidekick, photographer Jimmy Olsen, got his own comic; so did "Lois Lane, Superman’s Girlfriend", whose adventures revolved around her endless attempts to force Superman to reveal his true identity and marry her.
The 70s & 80s
Truth, justice and the American way
The war in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal punched holes in America's view of itself as moral force in the world. Through the 1980s it turned to the 'soft power' of economics and culture in the fight against communism.
Under editor Julius Schwartz the comics & their audience began to change - Superman became less cosmically powerful, his adventures less deliriously childish.
These changes were reflected in the 1978 film, with Christopher Reeve striving to make Superman a believable character for both children and adults.
By 1986, however, another reinvention was required, this time in John Byrne's harder edged Man of Steel comic book series.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the USSR left America, for now, the sole global superpower. The threat of mutually assured destruction receded and the world became a less clearly divided place.
Superman went through changes in the 90s: killed in '92 by one-note monster Doomsday, replaced by four Supermen, returning from the dead and becoming a being of pure energy in an electric blue containment suit, struggling to find an identity in a world suddenly devoid of existential threats
He also returned to the small screen in 1993 in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, as a result finally submitting to happy matrimony with Lois Lane.
In America we distrust
The millennium brought a hyper-connected world of limitless information and previously unimagined threats to America's grand isolation. Terrorists coordinated online to strike at its heart. Behind picket fences and in brownstone apartments grew new communities and information sources beyond the pale of established power.
The endless reinventions and reboots of Superman continued. Bryan Singer’s retro Superman Returns movie felt curiously out of place, but Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel created a conflicted Superman for a new millennium: a superhero afraid of his government, his origins and his own power.
In the comics, however, the superhero multiverse was yet again reimagined, and Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly's psychedelic All Star Superman gave him a mythic apotheosis.
The man of tomorrow
Superman is often derided as the big blue Boy Scout: too good, too powerful, too uncool.
But Superman stories are essentially moral fables. How much can the individual do in the name of the multitude? How can we use extraordinary power in a moral way? What is 'good'?
Superman is the embodiment of a democratic superpower, teasing out American confusion that its overwhelming capacity does not translate into perfect omnipotence and an ordered world. His stories are the stories of the modern world: its politics, its society, its future.