Why Does Superman Smash a Car on His First Comic?


– Superman was never intended to be a comic book character. Comic books were a relatively new concept at the time of his creation back in 1938. Instead, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster initially crafted stories
of the Man of Steel with the hope and intention that he would get his own
syndicated newspaper comic strip. They drew up a dozen or so strips and pitched the Superman
character to publishers for years only to be met with consistent rejection. But then, there was finally a bite. (lighthearted upbeat music) An upcoming anthology
magazine called Action Comics was looking for stories to
feature in its first issue that would captivate the
imaginations of readers. The publisher was interested in Siegel and Shuster’s Superman character to headline the book, but
all their newspaper strips would need to be cut up and rearranged to fit the format of comic book pages. And one of those images, from inside the Man of
Steel’s first story, would be lifted from the strips
and used as the striking, iconic, and instantly recognizable cover of Action Comics #1. It’s an image that has
spawned countless copycats, homages, and parodies in the 80 plus years since it was first published. It’s even on toy packaging! But, as the visual introduction to the most recognizable
superhero in the world, this cover didn’t do a
whole lot to make it clear that Superman was meant to be the hero. The men running away from this
scene look like terrified, unarmed civilians fleeing
a bizarrely colorful menace whose presence is announced by a fiery aura of explosive energy. With the context inside
the comic, however, readers learn the full
story behind this scene. Lois Lane and Clark Kent are on a date when a lowlife named Butch wants to cut in and dance with Lois. She refuses, slaps the
thug on the way out, and leaves, abandoning Clark who maintained his sheepish disguise and didn’t interfere in the conflict. Later, Lois is kidnapped by
Butch and his lowly crew, but the Man of Steel has
now shed his disguise, becoming Superman. He chases after the speeding criminals, lifts the car effortlessly into the air, carelessly shakes everyone out, and then just hammers the
vehicle against a boulder for seemingly no reason. If anything, this
aggressive act serves only as an opportunity for
the villains to get away, which is exactly what happens before the Man of Steel
catches up to them. It may not make sense to
the plot of the story, but it’s a dramatic,
triumphant hell yeah moment that showcases Superman’s power! I mean, back in these early stories, the Man of Steel was all
about tormenting villains and striking fear into their souls. So, destroying a car in an
exaggerated show of force just to make a statement
isn’t out of character for early Superman. But I think we can go deeper. There’s a stronger, more symbolic meaning behind this iconic imagery,
and it has less to do with Superman, and more to do with these things. Buckle up, ’cause we’re going for a ride down over-analysis avenue. Are these car jokes
doing anything for you? Are they gettin’ y’all revved up? Okay, I’ll stop. (upbeat music) So, the motivation and themes from early superhero comic books can be described pretty
succinctly like this: – Technology!
– Oh my god. – As comics scholar Alex Boney wrote in his essay Superheroes
and the Modern(ist) Age: – [Alex] The superhero
is, and always has been, a response to the rapid, dizzying forces of early 20th-century modernism. The first few decades of the 20th century were marked in America by
rapid industrial growth, a shift from rural life to
urban life, and worldwide war. At a time when basic human functions, labor, manual production,
even running and walking, were becoming redundant and obsolete, superheroes were a refreshing assertion of organic, physical accomplishments. – Now this idea isn’t anything new. Literary critic Umberto Eco wrote about the Myth of Superman back in 1972, giving a similar analysis of superheroes combating the spread of
dehumanizing industrialization. But what’s interesting is that
Superman initially started out not as a hero fighting
back against modern machines, but as a personification of dangerous technological advancements. Siegel and Shuster’s
first take on Superman from a short sci-fi story
features a mad scientist who, through innovative technology,
creates a super-man that goes on to kill its creator. Certainly not a metaphor
for anything I can think of. But, of course, they kept
tweaking the Superman character until we got: – [Announcer] Faster
than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings
in a single bound. Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman! – That classic intro from
the Superman radio program makes it clear that the
Man of Steel is superior to anything our technology
can throw at him. And this idea was reflected
in the opening pages of nearly every early Superman comic. The Kryptonian strongman
would constantly display his superiority to machines,
with a special emphasis on showing up vehicles. He’d either outrace them,
lift them into the air, or outright punch anything with an engine. Seriously, he loved punching vehicles. Which brings us back to the
cover of Action Comics #1, the seminal comic that
introduces the world to Superman as he lifts an automobile, an icon of America’s
industrial innovations, and smashes just it against a rock. I want you to remember that
Superman lives in Metropolis, a pretty on-the-nose archetype of a big, technologically advanced city, and yet he still found a rock to hit a car against, like a caveman. This is purposeful imagery. It was the late 1930s. Industrial assembly lines had continued to grow more concerned
with profits than people, building machinery that
phased out humanity, making workers miserable
or unnecessary altogether. There were struggles and anxieties that were masterfully expressed through films like Charlie
Chaplin’s Modern Times, which was somehow able to capture the life of an Amazon employee
all the way back in 1936. – Hey! Quit stalling, get back to work! – Everything in this
factory is being automated to optimize production speed, even at, or perhaps especially at, the cost of the actual workers. Even lunch breaks are
considered inefficient, so they bring in an eating
machine in an attempt to further optimize the workplace while stripping away more and more of the workers’ humanity until they effectively
become machines themselves. They would hit the same repetitive tasks for long hours every day in
the industrial assembly line that was made popular at that time by the commercialization of
one revolutionary product: the automobile. So here’s the thing, I’m 26 years old and I’ve never really
learned how to drive a car. I’m a fake adult. All YouTubers are. Regardless, allow me to
test my multitasking skills by discussing the
history of the automobile while navigating the
bustling city streets of, actually, you know what, that
sound like a terrible idea now that I it out loud. Can we go to someplace a little bit more? Perfect! How could I possibly
screw anything up here? – I want to move my car!
– Oh my god. I’ve already forgotten how cars work. – Dude, dude, dude!
– What? (laughs) It’s fine. So, Brian Cremins,
author of Captain Marvel and the Art of Nostalgia, describes the automobile specifically as, “A harbinger of a sometimes ominous, “inhuman future in American literature “published in the first
quarter of the 20th century.” So, think of F. Scott
Fitzgerald’s horrific imagery that he penned in The Great Gatsby as the character of
Myrtle is brutally mangled by Gatsby’s gaudy yellow car. Or, there’s also this pertinent exchange in Booth Tarkington’s novel
The Magnificent Ambersons. – I said automobiles
are a useless nuisance. Never amount to anything but a nuisance and they had no business to be invented. – I’m not sure George is
wrong about automobiles. With all their speed forward they may be a step
backward in civilization. But automobiles have come, and almost all outward things
are going to be different because of what they bring. – It’s difficult to overstate just how much cars have
changed modern life, though one of my favorite
illustrations comes from Swedish artist Karl Jilg who shows just how little
space in a typical modern city is dedicated to pedestrians versus the sprawling chasms of space dedicated to automobiles. So, when Superman takes
an object synonymous with callous American
manufacturing processes and the anxieties of
technological innovations threatening to change
society in immeasurable ways and then hits it against a
rock, that means something. To paraphrase Grant Morrison
from his book Supergods, this act by Superman
communicates that he is a hero of the people, a bold humanist response to Depression-era fears of
runaway scientific advance and soulless industrialism. I mean, heck, Superman’s
home planet Krypton was a thriving technological civilization that got too ambitious
and destroyed itself. Baby Kal-El was sent off to Earth where he crash-landed in
the heart of rural America to be raised by humble
farmers as Clark Kent. But that’s what’s
interesting about Superman. Yes, he’s a Midwestern
farm boy from Smallville, but he’s also that alien
from an advanced society and a reporter in the
bustling city of Metropolis. He’s simultaneously rural and worldly, and other-worldly. He’s the big, blue Boy Scout
and the Man of Tomorrow. There’s an inherent duality
built into the character, and I think this image on Action Comics #1 helps establish these
seemingly contradicting ideas inherent to Superman
and America as a whole. Like, I’d argue Superman
is pretty American. Yes, there are interpretations
of the Man of Steel that have him renouncing his citizenship and effectively becoming
a citizen of the world, and there are other versions that change him even more significantly, but the classic tagline I’d wager almost everybody can recite from heart is that Superman fights for truth, justice, and the American way. But much like Superman, at
the heart of the American way lies two very different, rivaling concepts of what America is and what its role in the world should be, which goes all the way
back to the foundation of the country, and yes,
this does have to do with him smashing a car into a giant rock. Okay? Just, follow me. (tires screeching) First, we’re going to have
to go to early America, and I mean really early, like when George Washington
was still President early. The United States was brand spanking new, and many of the shapers of the
country had different ideas about what this young nation would become. And these competing opinions coalesced into roughly two major schools of thought in early American politics. First up were the Federalists, who believed a united country, with its robust manufacturing sector, strategic distance from Europe, and vast land to expand into, steal, they thought America could become one of the great powers of the world. This thinking was popular in
a lot of modern urban centers and still resonates with
those who see America as a nation of big
business, a world leader. Many of the ideas the Federalists proposed were found in the creatively
titled The Federalist Papers, a collection of essays
written by James Madison, John Jay, and, (laughs)
you know what I’m gonna do. ♪ Alexander Hamilton ♪ – However, not everyone
was down with Hamilton and the Federalists, and
this rival group was burdened with an abundance of creativity and called themselves
the Anti-Federalists. The intellectual head of this movement was the founding father and
eventual third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, who imagined a very different America, one they called an agrarian republic. Instead of trying to be a big
shot on the world’s stage, Jefferson though that
America should be as loose and decentralized as possible, but still one where every
white man would be free to own his own plot of land, and live self-sufficiently
off it with himself, his wife, his kids, a couple dozen slaves. This idea of America as a place where people could live the
simple life of their dreams, free and beholden to no one is also very much at the core
of the American identity. And this tension between
these two American ideals is arguably the core of the American way that Superman supposedly fights for. We’re simultaneously supposed to be a superpower of innovators at
the forefront of technology and good, old-fashioned farm boys. And this brings us back to Superman, who embodies both of these
seemingly contradictory ideals in one figure. He’s an immigrant and a simple
square-jawed man from Kansas. He’s a farm boy in the big city. He’s a powerful, influential leader and he also secludes himself
in the fortress of solitude. He’s the shiny, new automobile, and the humble hunk of land
that battles it head on. Superman is America,
contradictions and all. And when readers saw this now
iconic image on the newsstands back in 1938, maybe they
merely saw an exciting, colorful illustration exploding
with action and intrigue. Or perhaps they looked a bit closer and found something
that resonated with them a little deeper, something that tapped into their fears, or their values about how the world could be, or how it should be. And at the heart of it all was this strange character dressed in blue tights and a red cape whose creators had no idea how much they were about
to change the world. And it all comes back to this cover, the one that started it all, Action Comics #1. Jordan, I’ll buy you a new car. I won’t, actually don’t hold me to that, it’s not in the budget.
(Jordan laughs) What do you think? Is there more to this image than Superman simply smashing
a car against a rock? Let me know your thoughts in the comments. And if you want more deep dives into comics and culture like this, I would love it if you subscribed. If you want to be super great, consider supporting me monthly on Patreon, or you can make a one-time
donation through PayPal. I would like to give a huge
thanks to Cristoffer Lange, Lori Thames, Billy Bombs, Everett Parrott, Havelock Smiggles,
Jonathan and Megan Pierson, and Jonathan Lonowski, Sonali Manka, and the rest of the wonderful nerds who support me over at
Patreon.com/NerdSync. Link in the description. Click or tap right here to learn about Superman’s uncomfortable
history with nuclear weapons, or right here to see why Spider-Man and Doctor Strange make
the same hand gesture. Once again, my name is Scott reminding you to read between the panels and grow smarter through comics. See ya. (soft upbeat music) Wee.

David Anderson

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