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Superman has a brand new mission statement, and it’s one that speaks to the realities of both the 21st century and the history of the character.
“We’re excited to announce that to better reflect the storylines that we are telling across DC and to honor Superman’s incredible legacy of over 80 years of building a better world, Superman’s motto is evolving,” DC Chief Creative Officer and Publisher Jim Lee said at DC FanDome. “Superman has long been a symbol of hope who inspires people, and it is that optimism and hope that powers him forward with this new mission statement: Truth, Justice, and a Better Tomorrow.”
For fans of a certain age, the phrase “truth, justice, and the American Way” is the ultimate summation of the Superman mission statement. It’s as associated with the character as “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.” And like that similarly iconic phrase, it was added to the character as part of his adventures not in the comics, but on radio. But it also has only appeared sporadically throughout history, and has taken on an outsized importance whenever critics want to draw the wrong conclusions about the character and what he stands for.
Truth and Justice
In the early part of the 1940s, The Adventures of Superman radio drama was even more popular than the Superman comics themselves. The show was broadcast in 15 minute instalments, three to five times per week into millions of homes beginning in February of 1940. For most Americans, it was their very first exposure to the Man of Steel. This radio show (which introduced such now-familiar elements as Kryptonite, Jimmy Olsen, and Superman’s power of flight to the mythos), as well as the extraordinary Fleischer Studios Superman cartoons which began playing in cinemas in 1941, helped evolve the character into who he is today and cemented the Man of Steel as we know him in popular culture.
If you listen to the opening narrations of those early radio adventures, as well as that of the Fleischer cartoons, you’ll note that Superman’s “never-ending battle” is referred to as one for “truth and justice,” not “truth, justice, and the American Way.” But that doesn’t mean the character was any less rooted in the American experience of his era.
Pre-World War II Superman was a depression-era hero billed as the “champion of the oppressed.” A look at his earliest comic book adventures sees him dealing not with alien invasions or mad scientists but instead clearing the names of wrongfully accused prisoners, stopping munitions manufacturers from fueling wars overseas, giving corrupt business owners who exploit miners and other laborers a taste of their own medicine, and more stories that show a distinctively progressive and idealistic streak in the surprisingly two-fisted and tough-talking Man of Steel.
The radio show took that streak even further, often focusing heavily on Clark Kent’s career at The Daily Planet, sometimes talking extensively about the importance of a free press in preventing the rise of tyranny. One 1946 adventure, the 24 chapter “The Hate Monger’s Organization” saw Superman taking a crowd to task over religious intolerance in its final episode.
“Remember this as long as you live,” Bud Collyer’s Superman intones. “Whenever you meet up with anyone who is trying to cause trouble between people – anyone who tries to tell you that a man can’t be a good American because he’s a Catholic or a Jew, a Protestant or whatever – you can be pretty sure he’s a rotten American himself. Not only a rotten American, but a rotten human being. Don’t ever forget that!”
It’s fiery stuff, even for a guy with heat vision, and the general sentiment still applies today, whether we’re talking about religion, race, or sexual orientation. Not even two months after that episode, the series kicked off “The Clan of the Fiery Cross,” an adventure designed specifically to undermine and embarrass the then-ascendant Ku Klux Klan. Needless to say, the Man of Steel didn’t have time for their nonsense, either.
What does all this have to do with “the American Way?” Well, the kind of inclusiveness preached by Superman in “The Hate Monger’s Organization” and the fact that people spreading bigotry as in that story and “The Clan of the Fiery Cross” were frequent villains in his adventures is pretty telling. The United States is a nation of immigrants, and particularly at the time of Superman’s creation and earliest stories, immigrants were pouring into the country in search of their own “better tomorrow.” I’m the grandson of one of them.
The earliest instance of “truth, justice, and the American Way” that I can find is from Episode 331 of The Adventures of Superman, which aired in September of 1942, well after the United States had entered World War II. The Superman cartoons of Fleischer and then Famous Studios never adopted “truth, justice, and the American Way” at all, despite releasing new episodes well into 1943 (in fairness, that’s likely more because it allowed them to just re-utilize the same intro for each cartoon thus keeping costs down, but it’s still important to understand that “the American Way” was far from official doctrine for the character).
Once the war ended, “truth, justice, and the American Way” were dropped from the radio show’s intro. In fact, I can find no trace of the signature phrase by October of 1945, just a few short months after the end of the war.
As for the comics themselves, despite the fact that both Action Comics and Superman magazines were routinely putting patriotic, pro-war, and anti-fascist themes on their covers and in their stories all through World War II, as far as I can tell “truth, justice, and the American Way” never even makes an appearance on the page. But DC (then known as National Periodical Publications) was clearly intent on making sure their flagship characters were symbols of tolerance, producing public service messages where the Man of Steel or Batman would talk about the importance of welcoming refugees into your community, and speak out against religious and racial intolerance.
DC even partnered with the Institute for American Democracy and the National Social Welfare Assembly to produce posters and paper textbook covers for schools. And Superman’s idea of what made a school All-American? Well, see for yourself…
Truth, Tolerance, and Justice
The character’s very first appearance in live action, Columbia Pictures’ 1948 Superman serial starring Kirk Alyn, continued to omit “the American Way” and instead added something else to Superman’s mission. In the opening chapter, Pa Kent tells Clark that he must use his powers to fight for “truth, tolerance, and justice.”
While the Man of Steel’s conflict with underwhelming villain the Spider Lady in this serial was a far cry from the politically charged adventures like “The Hate Monger’s Organization” or “Clan of the Fiery Cross,” you can’t help but notice how appropriate “truth, tolerance, and justice” feels.
Despite its goofy b-movie title, 1951’s Superman and the Mole Men, which introduced George Reeves in one of the definitive Superman performances of all time, is another parable of tolerance. Here, Superman has to step in and solve problems created by closed-minded people who fear anyone different. In this case, the “others” are literally creatures from Earth’s core, but despite their odd appearance they mean no harm, yet find themselves hounded and attacked.
Reeves’ portrayal of Superman is often one of amused impatience as he lets mortals exhaust themselves trying to take him on, but he sure talks like the Superman of the earliest comics or the radio show. He tells an angry mob, “I’m going to give you one last chance to stop acting like Nazi stormtroopers,” just in case anyone was wondering the kind of contempt Superman holds racists in. He hoists the ringleader up by his belt after relieving him of his shotgun with a deadpan “It’s men like you that make it difficult for people to understand one another.” The parallels to this story and the burgeoning political paranoia of its era are unmistakable, and it’s clear where Superman’s sympathies are. While there’s no mention of “truth, tolerance, and justice” in the dialogue, that’s very clearly the order of the day.
But Superman and the Mole Men was really just a pilot for what came next, and one of the most impactful chapters in Superman history.
Truth, Justice, and the American Way
“The American Way” took hold in the public’s consciousness largely because of The Adventures of Superman television show which once again starred Reeves, and hit the airwaves in 1952. It isn’t coincidental that the weekly reaffirmation of “truth, justice, and the American Way” during the opening credits narration came at the peak of America’s red scare, when Hollywood was operating under fear of the blacklist for anything resembling communist sympathies.
In any case, The Adventures of Superman TV series is likely where “truth, justice, and the American Way” became so closely associated with the character. The show ran for 104 episodes across seven seasons between 1952-1958 and then in near perpetual re-runs over the next 30+ years.
But not even the presence of those three magic words could keep The Adventures of Superman from falling under scrutiny from the House Un-American Activities Committee, with actor Robert Shayne, who portrayed Inspector Bill Henderson on the show getting called before them. According to Hollywood Kryptonite by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger, early in the show’s run, two FBI agents showed up during production, “handcuffed [Shayne] and dragged him off the set.”
According to the account in Hollywood Kryptonite, series lead Reeves “grabbed one of the FBI men by the lapels and threatened to knock him off his feet.” Reeves escaped that encounter unscathed but continued to stand up for Shayne. Kellogg’s (who had also sponsored the radio show) told producer Whitney Ellsworth to cut Shayne from the show or they’d pull their sponsorship, but Ellsworth held his ground and stood up for Shayne until the sponsors relented.
When Superman returned to the small screen in 1966 for the animated New Adventures of Superman, that famed opening narration was now talking about “truth, justice, and freedom” across its 68 episodes. Even a cartoon aimed squarely at children in the 1960s had shed its McCarthy-era jingoism. The stories, however, aren’t particularly memorable, and this series is mostly notable for the return of the voice cast from the Superman radio shows of the 1940s.
As for the DC Comics? Even in stories that clearly acknowledge Superman as a proud American citizen (and to be clear, not all of them do), I can’t recall ever seeing the phrase appear on a cover or spoken in dialogue. While I can’t claim to have read them all, a random sampling from various points in each decade seem to bear out the fact that this just wasn’t part of the lexicon of the comics.
The only time I can remember the phrase actually being uttered by the character unironically is in the pilot episode of the 1988 syndicated Superboy TV series. While that show is better than its reputation suggests, that first episode is a truly dismal affair, and hearing Superboy (John Haymes Newton) intone that phrase isn’t particularly awe-inspiring considering the generally low quality of the episode, tin ear dialogue, and flubbed lines.
But what about the all-American imagery of Christopher Reeve carrying a flag to the White House in Superman II? It’s probably the most overtly “patriotic” moment in the character’s post-World War II history, and it’s undoubtedly a concession to the new breed of patriotism that was sweeping America during the early 1980s. But it’s also a knowing Easter egg for fans who grew up with he flag-draped opening credits of the 1950s TV series.
The closest we really come is in 1978, where Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie sees the Man of Steel earnestly tell Lois Lane that he’s “here to fight for truth, justice, and the American Way.” Margot Kidder’s world-weary Lois Lane scoffs, warning him that he’s “going to end up fighting every elected official in this country.” But Reeve’s gentle, sincere portrayal of the character and delivery of that line in particular seems to indicate that his idea of the “American Way” is as idealistic and inclusive as his radio and TV predecessors.
Perhaps what he really meant was “truth, justice, and a better tomorrow.”
Truth, Justice, and a Better Tomorrow
In recent DC Comics we’ve seen something of a full circle moment, with Gene Luen Yang and Gurihiru teaming up on a modern (and spectacular) comic book reimagining of “The Clan of the Fiery Cross” as Superman Smashes the Klan. It’s one of the best Superman stories in a decade, in any medium.
In the pages of Superman: Son of Kal-El, where Clark Kent’s son Jon has taken on the mantle of Superman while his father is off-world, we heard “truth, justice, and a better world” with Jon seeking to address the root causes and not just the symptoms of the world’s ills. Jon is not only the first member of the Superman family to come out as bisexual, he’s taking a hands-on approach to superheroics very much in keeping with the activist roots of the character.
But “truth, justice, and a better tomorrow” has an even more hopeful ring to it. Necessarily so. And when you look at the entirety of Superman’s history, it’s pretty undeniable that’s what he’s been fighting for all along.
As for the rest of us? It’s been a brutal half decade, not just for America but for humanity as a whole. “A better tomorrow” isn’t just all we can hope for, it’s a truly never-ending battle. But it’s the only one worth fighting.