It is an irony too delicious to miss…
Watching the United States Senate finally debate the meaning of “comprehensive immigration reform,” the more draconian responses – self-deportation, electrified fences and rewriting the constitutional definition of who is an American citizen – came back to mind. While some of those “solutions” are already widely and justifiably discredited, others are merely dormant until a more politically expedient (or intolerant) time arrives, or a more eloquent demagogue steps up to champion their use. Increasingly, these immigration debates seem to have less to do with the meaning of reform and more to do with the “mean-ing” of America.
Still the media is nothing if not agile and segues seamlessly from who can be an American (or who can even be in America) to introducing a new global generation to the 75-year old pop-culture icon that has come to define or at minimum, idealize America’s values to the world. We find ourselves celebrating the mythology of Superman, America’s quintessential illegal alien.
Like I said…an irony too delicious to miss.
This “Man of Steel” embodies, as symbolically as the Statue of Liberty, our national aspiration to “truth, justice and the American way.” Indeed, for some three-quarters of a century those very words have represented America to the world as clearly as Emma Lazarus’ welcoming call to “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Like so many other “aliens” and immigrants, legal and otherwise, Superman’s contribution to the American ethos remains potent at home and important around the world.
So, this summer’s mega-budget, “Man of Steel” juggernaut lands in theaters, reinterpreting, rebooting or at minimum, retelling the story of the infant of steel’s journey from the mythical, long dead planet Krypton to the mythical Middle-American town of Smallville, Kansas. It was there – before pundits, political handicappers and hacks advanced the notion of “Red States” and “Blue States” – that our future Superman was adopted by kindly farm couple “Ma and Pa Kent,” christened Clark, and taught to champion those American values we claim to hold dear.
The genius of America is that I can rightfully embrace the nation’s history as my own. I can celebrate its virtues and learn from its mistakes both honest and shameful. Despite the fact that my “people” came from Russia by way of Canada (at least most recently) and that my family history more closely resembles “Fiddler on the Roof” than it does “How the West Was Won” or even “It’s A Wonderful Life,” I embrace American history as my history, with all the proprietary pride of any other natural-born or naturalized citizen.
My own father Arthur, emigrated in the 1920s at little more than three years of age from the wilds of western Canada– along with his parents Joseph and Rachel, his older sister Clara, older brother Abe and younger sister Esther. He, like his siblings before and after him, was raised in the back room of a General Store built by my Grandfather. They lived in the town of Wroxton, Saskatchewan, about 230 miles from Saskatoon…and about the same distance from the border with North Dakota, USA.
When the time came to seek new (hopefully better) opportunities in the United States, the family departed Wroxton for North Dakota, traveling part way by horse-drawn wagon and part way by rail. Then as now, the border crossing from Canada into North Dakota was not exactly a hotbed of illegal immigration. Still, no lady in the harbor beckoned, no border guard barked for papers. To the best of anyone’s recollection, there may not even have been a border guard.
Around the time that my then-toddler father and family were making the trek from Western Canada to North Dakota, young Joseph Shuster and his family left Toronto, Canada for the U.S. Midwest, settling in Cleveland, Ohio. According to available biographical information, his father – a Jewish émigré from Rotterdam in the Netherlands – had been a tailor in Toronto; his mother had come to Canada from Kiev in the Ukraine.
It would be in Cleveland that Joseph, an aspiring artist met Jerome Siegel, an aspiring writer and avid science fiction fan. Born in Cleveland, Jerry Siegel was also the son of working class Jewish immigrant parents. By the age of 16, Jerry and Joe had embarked on a collaboration destined to alter popular culture for all time. They would create not simply a new genre and a new archetype, but a new industry.
Creators of Steel: Superman writer/creator Jerome Siegel (standing) confers with his partner and co-creator, artist Joe Shuster in an undated promotional photo from the author’s collection.
Ironically, Siegel and Shuster’s initial incarnation of the character was an evil Superman who actually bore a striking resemblance to the pair’s latter day villain (and Superman’s evergreen arch nemesis), Lex Luthor. Their first foray into Super fiction –memorialized in their self-published fanzine — was firmly rooted in the Germanic literary tradition of “the Ubermensch.” Ultimately of course, Jerry and Joe rethought the character and disposed of the amoral imperatives in favor of a benevolent hero who championed the marginalized and the weak (or at least the less powerful and connected).
When the world first caught glimpse of Superman in 1938, his powers were neither as pervasive nor profound as they are today. He could “leap 1/8-th of a mile; hurdle a twenty-story building…Raise tremendous weights…Run faster than an express train…and…nothing less than a bursting shell could penetrate his skin!”
This Superman would set his sights on a variety of villains, not the least of which are those who claim to defend our values at the expense of our values.
His debut mission in the June 1938 issue of Action Comics was to save a woman wrongly convicted of murder from imminent execution by busting into the Governor’s residence with proof of innocence minutes before she was to go to the chair, delivering the truly guilty party to the Governor in the process. From there our hero was off to break up a “wife-beating at 211 Court Ave” and to give the abuser a taste of his own brutal medicine while telling him, “You’re not fighting a woman now!” And then – foreshadowing the theme that would recur for much of the next 75 years – Superman rescues reporter Lois Lane from the clutches of the “hoodlums” that had kidnapped her. In 1938 values, a paternalistic instinct to protect the fairer sex proved to be the perfect introduction.
Next stop on the Superman express was the busting of a corrupt US Senator in Washington D.C. The Senator was in the thrall and on the payroll of a ruthless munitions manufacturer and war profiteer who was seeking to embroil the United States in Europe’s “problems.” (This was 1938 after all.) Our villainously enterprising warmonger was simultaneously fomenting a war in a fictional South American Republic, selling arms to both sides in the process. Before the calendar turned from ’38 to ’39, Superman rescued miners trapped in a cave-in while showing the big bucks mine owner the error of his ways, thwarted a crooked college football coach’s attempt to beat his rivals by stocking his team with ringers and thugs, and saved thousands from being killed and their town from being washed away by a collapsing dam.
Damn he was good!
“Superman is a Jew!”
Siegel and Shuster depiction of Superman choking Hitler as published in a 1940 strip created for LOOK Magazine. Image from author’s collection.
Still, the message of this new, distinctly American Superman began to have an impact on the war effort even before the U.S. entered it. While the character’s popularity fairly exploded once it was introduced in Action Comics’ first issue in June 1938, the “Man of Steel” was battling Hitler and the Nazis as early as 1940. Indeed, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels reportedly attempted to discredit the images of “our” Superman throttling Hitler by declaring, “Superman ist ein Jude!”
Like that other illegal alien who landed in American consciousness in 1938 (the one who could leap tall buildings in a single bound), my grandparents did not first settle in the Northeast urban stew of immigrants, but in the heartland of the Midwest: Chicago. While it was not exactly “Smallville,” there were really no familiar, cultural smells of the transplanted shtetl (Yiddish for “barrio”) that so typified the classic lower east side immigrant experience in New York City. In the end, the family did move east, settling first in Harlem and later, the Bronx.
In fairness, my father and his family became legal, registered aliens as was required in those days by a host of ever-changing and increasingly restrictive laws designed to inhibit or outright prohibit one or more ethnic or racial groups from calling America home. Still, from 1923 on, the family did not have to hide from authorities or live under assumed identities due to the circumstances of their entry into the United States. Their “pathway to citizenship” resided in their willingness to be good neighbors and good citizens even without the official papers. That pathway was paved by the willingness of the government and others to allow them to be good citizens and good neighbors without fear of deportation.
Assimilation was not a problem. As a teen, my father ran track and field, collected the Street and Smith Adventures of “The Shadow” along with autographs of movie stars and athletes. On one memorably fine fall day, he legged it the mile or so from his home on East 169th Street and College Avenue to Yankee Stadium where he watched Gehrig, Dickey and a rookie named DiMaggio lead the Yankees to a game-three victory in the ’36 World Series over the N.Y. Giants. (The Yanks went on to take the 1936 series, along with the ‘37, ‘38, and ‘39 contests).
My Super Dad…Age 16, The Bronx, NY
By the time Pearl Harbor happened, my father was the typical, urban all-American young man of 21. After graduating Morris High School in the Bronx, he worked as a carpenter alongside his father, dated the neighborhood girl who became my Mom and reported for the draft in January 1942. As he recalled years later, after lining up at the draft center, whoever was in charge of the assembled throng instructed anyone who was not a citizen of the United States to step out of line. As ordered, my father stepped out of line. The voice of authority then announced, “If any of you want to be citizens of the United States, step back in line.” My father stepped back in line. Nine months later, while stationed in Fort Riley Kansas, just outside of Junction City, Corporal Arthur Altman took the oath as a naturalized American citizen and shortly thereafter was shipped to war in the South Pacific. By 1943, the entire Altman family had become naturalized American citizens and my father was island hopping from the Philippines to New Guinea and lesser-known points along the way.
When “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, the tide of the war had turned. Germany and Italy’s surrender in Europe focused allied attention on Japan, and Arthur, all of 25 years old and now a Lieutenant in the U.S. Army, was on board a troop transport headed for the invasion of the Japanese mainland. The nuclear devastation effectively brought the war to a halt, though the official surrender would not be signed until September 2, 1945. Despite uncertainty as to what level of resistance would be encountered once the troops landed in Japan, the “invasion force” had become an “occupation force.”
Kobe Beefcake… Vintage snapshots of “Superman” A.K.A Lt. Arthur Altman coming in for landing and striking a super pose during the U.S. Army occupation of Kobe, Japan 1945. Photos from author’s collection.
History records that Japanese resistance to occupation was virtually non-existent. Stationed in Kobe, Japan until 1946, Lt. Arthur Altman had enough spare time for a little fanciful fun and photos. He fashioned a Superman costume, creating a cape appropriately enough, from a discarded parachute. A hand-drawn “S” shield emblazoned on the chest half of an army “union suit” (with the pants portion tucked into a pair of combat boots) made for a surprisingly convincing live-action “Man of Steel.” Snapshots of that adventure complete with handwritten captions on the back of each picture made their way into one of our family photo albums upon his return to the States in 1946. It was in that photo album that I discovered my Dad’s secret identity. As a child in the 1950s, I was already convinced that television’s George Reeves was the “real” Superman, so I was amazed and delighted to see my Dad dressed in the suit on a roof with a soldier under one arm…or leaping from that roof with his cape dramatically flaring up behind him.
“Stop acting like Nazi storm troopers…” Lobby card for Lippert Pictures’ “Superman and the Mole Men” (1951), starring George Reeves as Superman/Clark Kent and Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane. Image from author’s collection.
Back in 1951, Lippert Pictures made a low budget, live action Superman film called “Superman and the Mole Men.” Starring George Reeves as Superman/Clark Kent and Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane, the film is a refreshingly frank allegory against xenophobia and intolerance. The ”illegals” in this case were hairy but harmless munchkins who came up from the center of the earth courtesy of an oil well shaft sunk into their world by us surface dwellers. As the increasingly violent, small town lynch mob attempts to “string up” the little critters, Superman steps up and tells the menacing crowd, “I’m giving you one last chance to stop acting like Nazi storm troopers…” As shots are fired, narrowly missing “Miss Lane,” our hero wades into the mob and confiscates their weaponry since they “obviously can’t be trusted with guns.”
Saving the Children of War: United Nations commissioned Superman comic warning children against picking up unexploded ordinance and live land mines. Published in Latin/Roman, Cyrillic and English editions the comic’s back cover declares: “Superman Has Come to Help the Children of Bosnia-Herzogovina! But even when he can’t be here, you can keep yourself safe from landmines! Mines Kill Kids!” Images from author’s collection.
Of course, xenophobia, racism and “ethnic cleansing” (that ever-popular euphemism for genocide) are not exclusive to any region or peoples. Still, when the war in the Balkans wound down, the countryside was littered with unexploded ordinance and still active landmines. Children, unknowingly playing in those mine fields or scavenging for trinkets and remnants, were being maimed and killed by those abandoned, deliberately placed surprise packages. In order to alert all children to avoid those very real dangers, UNICEF commissioned a comic book featuring one universally recognized and trusted hero: Superman. Printed in English, Cyrillic and Latin/Roman scripts for the Serbo-Croatian population, the comics depicted Superman warning the children of the “Deadly Legacy” in and around their neighborhoods.
After returning home from Japan in 1946, my father remained in the service, transferring to the Army Reserves. After some 30 years of service to the United States of America, this one time “illegal” retired with the rank of Lt. Colonel.
A Farewell to Arms…Lt. Colonel Arthur Altman on the day of his retirement from the United States Army Reserve, following 30 years of service. Parade Ground, Fort Hamilton, NY. Photo: Richard E. Altman
In 2005, after acquiring a Christopher Reeve style Superman costume, accurate down to the leather boots, I asked my 85 year old Dad if he’d like to put his “uniform on again, for old time sake.” Still in remarkably good shape for his age and with the same sense of fun that inspired him to don the suit 60 years earlier, he slipped into the old red, yellow and blue and posed for a new series of snaps. This time, my Mom was around to do her very best Lois impression, sitting in his lap and planting a kiss on her very own Superman.
Up, Up and Away…60 years after posing for the first Superman pictures in Kobe, Japan, Arthur Altman, age 85, dons an updated Super suit and prepares “to take to the skies” over his home in Swan Lake, NY. Photo: Richard E. Altman
About the author: Richard Altman is a New York-based writer, Superman collector and quasi-historian of most, if not all things “Man of Steelish.” He is also a second-generation Superman fan…His father first donned the iconic costume in December 1945 while serving with the U.S. Army’s occupation of Kobe, Japan.