August 20, 2014

The deaths of Superman

You bruise, but you don't kill, do you . . . Clark? - Batman, Justice League: War

Everybody knows Superman is the Big Blue Boy Scout. Sure, he and Brainiac might level half of Metropolis while duking it out. In the end, though, he'll find a way to banish the villain without destroying him. Superman doesn't kill his enemies, except when he absolutely must, and even then it's a shocking and traumatic experience. Witness, for example, his reaction to killing Zod in Man of Steel, or even accidentally causing Doctor Light's death in last year's "Trinity War" story arc.1

However, it wasn't always that way. Supes began his career as a bruiser, right from Superman #1 in 1939. In one story in that magazine, he kills a military torturer by flinging him over the horizon, then causes the death of an enemy pilot by wrecking his plane in midair.2 The body count just goes up from there.

Radio Superman is not immune from the Man of Steel's violent streak, either. As we saw in the last post, Superman is not averse to a little ultra-violence in the pursuit of Truth, Justice, and the American Way: when the Daily Planet building was threatened by the Yellow Mask's airborne atomic beam weapon, he foiled the villain by trashing his plane in midair. In addition to destroying the plane and weapon of mass destruction, Superman was also directly responsible for the death of at least one of the Yellow Mask's henchmen, and (as it was presumed) the Yellow Mask himself. In another story he indirectly causes another fatality when a goon, wanting to avoid a super-beatdown, dives out an upper-story window onto the pavement.

Installment 2 of my Superman Damage Tote Board is the Superman Body Count. Through the episodes I've reviewed thus far, it stands thus. Deaths occur more frequently in the series, but I have excluded anyone whose demise did not result from Superman's intervention (for example, a saboteur being blown up by his own dynamite):

Clark Kent: Unintentional Badass

Thus far, directly or indirectly, Superman has caused the following fatalities:

  • Plane crash: 1, plus 1 presumed
  • Defenestration: 1
  • Malfunctioning super-weapon: 1
  • Shot with own gun during struggle: 1

I imagine that Superman's no-killing ethos came into being during the 1950s, after Seduction of the Innocent scared parents with such post-war paranoia as "[the Superman comics] present our world in a kind of Fascist setting of violence and hate and destruction," and "Superman has long been recognized as a symbol of violent race superiority."3 This led to a Congressional investigation of the comics industry, and then voluntary self-censorship by comics publishers via the Comics Code. The Silver Age Superman was more likely to be battling science-fiction supervillains like Brainiac than run-of-the-mill corruption, and just at home helping underprivileged kids as battering gangsters. (Similarly, Batman—who also has a famous no-killing policy despite a pretty high body count in his early years—became campier and less dark.) The Comics Code was significantly weakened in the 1970s and has been effectively defunct since 2011, but its effect on comics heroes and their honour codes lives on. Superman isn't the man he once was, and the goons are probably very relieved.

Footnotes

1 Geoff Johns, Ivan Reis and Oclair Albert, Justice League #22, September 2013, DC Comics.

2 Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman #1, June 1939, DC Comics.

3 Frederic Wertham, Seduction of the Innocent (New York: Rinehart & Company, 1954), <http://www.dreadfuldays.net/soti.html>, accessed 19 August 2014.