Stupid Question ™
Jan. 4, 2001
By John Ruch
Q: How did DC Comics explain why Superman didn’t use his powers to end World War II?
A: Superman debuted in 1938 and quickly became the most powerful comic-book character, possessing almost infinite strength, speed and invulnerability.
But the outbreak of World War II put his writers in a pickle that was widely discussed in the popular press. It was impossible for Superman not to get involved in the war, but it was a war he’d win within minutes—and that would be absurd and insulting compared to reality. “Time” said of Superman in 1942, “As the mightiest, fightingest American, he ought to join up. But he just can’t.”
The Nazis noticed the irony, too. A 1940 SS newspaper mocked Superman: “Once there was a man so strong that he could stop a speeding locomotive with his ring finger, but he didn’t do it.”
For a while, Superman merely reflected America’s isolationist position with storylines in which Superman forced the Germans, French and Russians to talk peace. (Canada, already in the war, booted one such cartoon from its newspapers.)
But such fantasies disappeared after the US entered the war in 1941. Superman was then appearing in a daily newspaper strip and monthly comic books, each of which came up with a different excuse for his failure to intervene.
In the newspaper strip, Superman enlisted in the Army. But during his eye test, he became lost in patriotic thoughts and accidentally used his X-ray vision to read the wrong eye chart. Thus, he failed his physical. (Similarly, bad eyesight exempted Superman co-creator Joe Shuster from the draft.) Superman decided this was just as well, since the US armed forces were strong enough to win “without the aid of a superman.” He vowed to fight spies and saboteurs at home instead.
In a 1943 comic book, Superman participated in war games with the US army—and lost. He again concluded the military could beat the Axis without him.
After Iwo Jima and the Nuremberg Trials, these Super-excuses seemed Super-lame. So in 1981, DC Comics revised history with its “All-Star Squadron” comic, about the adventures of a team of superheroes (including Superman) during the war. The new explanation was that Hitler and Tojo possessed magical items, including the Holy Grail, that allowed them to control the minds of almost any superhero who entered Axis territory, turning them into traitors. This included Superman, who due to his vulnerability to magic was physically incapable of ending the war.
Another dilemma discussed during the war was that Superman and Nazism were both directly inspired by Nietzsche’s philosophy of “the superman” (or übermensch). Originally, Superman’s powers were explained as due to his belonging to a genetically superior “super-race.”
Superman couldn’t end the war, but it ended part of him. In 1945, as the Nazi horrors became widely known, this explanation was changed to one involving solar radiation and gravity rather than übermensch theory.