This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on January 26, 2017.
Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
Steve Rogers is the same character that he was when he debuted. Why isn’t Superman?
I don’t want to start any trouble here, but some people might disagree with the premise of this question. There’s a lot of talk going around these days about Captain America actually being a Nazi between conversations of whether he would punch a Nazi. No matter where you stand on the matter today though, looking back at Captain America Comics #1 it’s pretty clear who Steve Rogers is and what he would do. He was definitely not a Nazi and you’re goddamn right he would lay out any fascist scum that might approach him.
But I don’t want to confuse random events and twists designed to spike sales with the essence of the character. That’s what I think you’re getting at with this question. There is something more to iconic figures like Superman and Captain America than the most recent issue or movie of theirs to come out. They represent things much bigger than any one story, and it takes a long time to change truly big things. As towering figures in the superhero genre, it would take years, maybe even a decade or more, to actually change these characters.
So how hasn’t Captain America changed?
I don’t want to get into a big speech about what Captain America is about and define it with precision. That sounds like a lot of work and it’s not really what this question is about. It seems to me clear enough that if you pick up Captain America Comics #1 and then compare it to a modern incarnation like the film Captain America: The First Avengeror Ed Brubaker’s run on Captain America, that you’re looking at something with the same soul.
Cap is a forthright guy who is primarily interested in always doing the right thing. He’s the best version of what has been called “the American Way”: honest, loyal, concerned, and holding nothing but disdain for bullies. In the face of terrible choices he becomes earnest and willing to own mistakes or acknowledge struggle. But each conflict resolves with Cap continuing the good fight. All of that is there when Jack Kirby and Joe Simon first introduced the character; it’s all still there today. Cap isn’t just a patriot, he’s the idealized patriot capable of upholding a set of values over the flag or symbols he wears himself.
The easiest way to see this continuity is in examining the villains that Captain America fights. Red Skull has always been a standard (with a very different version appearing in the final chapter of Captain America Comics #1), and that’s for a very good reason. Red Skull is a symbol of tyranny, fascism, self-interest, injustice, and inequality. These are things that Captain America stood against on the cusp of America’s entry into World War II and they continue to be his main opponents today. All of the best Captain America villains continue to represent these negatives in some way, whether it’s Crossbones, Baron Zemo, or Arnim Zola, and they reflect what is most positive about Cap in return.
Following on that, your question implies that Superman has faced a shift from where he began and where he is today.
If we look back to Action Comics #1, there are a lot of similarities with Captain America in terms of their core values. Again, we can imagine Superman representing the best version of “the American Way”, to a point that it feels disingenuous to use the phrase now. The key differences between these two #1 issues and early appearances lie in the exact fights that Superman picks. In the same ways that Cap’s villains help to define him, so do Superman’s.
While Cap picks fights with the Red Skull and various other Nazi saboteurs and soldiers in his earliest fights, Superman stops the execution of an innocent woman, beats up an abusive spouse, and exposes a corrupt politician. Captain America’s values seek to bring justice abroad while Superman’s tackle injustice at home. Superman is continually finding the flaws within society and using his own abilities to end them or give people the chance to do so themselves. Much more so than his Marvel Comics counterpart, he’s an arbiter of social justice who does not hesitate to correct what he feels to be wrong.
That is not constant in the Golden Age as supervillains, sidekicks, and Kryptonite were all added, but Superman as the responsible moral figurehead of his world was a constant. His battles with mad scientists and gangsters sought to correct imbalances as he perceived them. It’s worth remembering that in the world of DC Comics, there was no combined universe or shared continuity yet. Superman was unique in his stories, not the figurehead of a pantheon or a pivotal figure in his own nation’s politics.
Yet we know that changed because we read comics today. Superman is the alpha and omega of DC Comics the way that the publisher has conceived of their line in the wake of Crisis On Infinite Earths. He is the most important superhero and they want you to know it. That also means he has been designed to be all things to all people, which isn’t a great recipe for battling injustice.
Superman as a father figure to the DC universe is a long distance from what he was to start with in Action Comics #1. The focus has drifted toward larger battles with grander scales, the mentorship of future Super-people and super-people, and providing wisdom that’s difficult to dispute. He presents the heartland charm of the Midwest that everyone likes to imagine because it seems so incredibly inoffensive.
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The current Superman run in which he is a father is incredibly charming because he is such a good dad. Being that version of a good dad though has left behind the social justice-focused version created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster behind though. He’s still interested in doing the right thing, but his battles have become less contentious. His politics have dropped away as he focuses more on his job and family, defined specifically (i.e. The Daily Planet and Kents) or more broadly (a flagship character and first among DC’s superhero stable).
Looking at it that way it seems like Superman has grown up. In doing so he’s gained a new role, but he’s also left something behind. And while you can still see glimmers of that original Superman in works like All-Star Superman, it’s hard not to miss and wonder if maybe that’s the one America needs today.