The “Superman vs Bigots” series has reached the 1970s. From this point onward there will be a lot more earnest attempts by the creators of Superman stories to intentionally deal with themes of race (and I’m sure they’ll continue the unintentional ones too). I’m going have a plethora of potential stories to choose from, all coming at the issue from a variety of angles. But to ease into the decade, I’ll just start with another one that has Nazis in it:
“Leave Us… Or We Perish!”
Issue: Superboy #168, September, 1970
It’s 1938 and the story opens with Hitler declaring that the only thing standing between him and world domination is the existence of Superboy. Never mind the British or the Russians or the French Resistance or any other group. The only one who can stop the Wehrmacht is “Superjunge – that decadent democratic hero” in America. But one of Hitler’s men notes they won’t need to worry about Superboy much longer, because they have already put “Mission: Liquidate” into action.
In Smallville, famously the hometown of the young hero, Superboy is flying around on his nightly patrol when there is a sudden explosion at the power station. Superboy flies a wounded night watchman to the hospital, then returns to find the townspeople milling about. Investigating what they’re looking at, Superboy finds a message addressed to him. Whoever blew up the power stations wants him to leave the planet or Smallville will be destroyed.
The townsfolk turn on their former hero very quickly. Moments later, Clark is being chased through the streets by an angry mob. He’s hurt by their words and sees more copies of the message threatening the town painted all over. Only when Police Chief Parker arrives and holds them at gunpoint does the mob back off and let the Chief take Superboy into custody.
Superboy talks with the town council behind closed doors while the townspeople, including Clark’s parents, gather around awaiting the outcome. With dawn nearing, the doors to town hall finally open. But before the mayor can even make his announcement, Superboy makes a tearful goodbye and flies off.
The reaction of the crowd is mixed, some men in repair worker suits are particularly vehement toward Superboy, but obviously the Kents are worried. Jonathan tells Martha to head home, but he stays to investigate those repair workers. He follows them into a sewer and finds land mines (conveniently marked with swastikas) wired to blow all around town, proving that the message for Superboy to leave was no idle threat. Following further, Jonathan finds that the repair workers, actually Nazis, are calling home to report their success to the Fuhrer. Unfortunately, before Pa Kent can get away, the Nazis spot him and shoot him dead.
Meanwhile, in orbit, Superboy is using his super sight to scan nearby worlds, trying to see what otherworldly threats might be behind all this. He knows Pa is investigating and is surprised he hasn’t got any word from him, so he looks back to Earth and sees his fallen father. That leads him to notice the Nazi base in the sewers, and, by reading their lips (because obviously he can’t hear them if he’s in space), he learns that they have a device that will detonate the mines if he comes back into Earth’s atmosphere.
Clark won’t let being trapped in space stop him: he uses his heat vision to burst a water main, flooding the sewer and destroying the explosives, with the added bonus of washing the Nazis out of the sewer into the arms of the police. It’s now safe for Superboy to return home.
Mournfully, Clark retrieves the body of his father and carries it home where Martha sees it and cries out with worry. But then Jonathan, alive and well, steps out of the shadows. It’s quickly explained that the Jonathan who died in the sewer was a robot duplicate that Clark had created for just such an emergency. During the town hall meeting Superboy had been given one phone call, which he’d used to set up this plan with Jonathan. Doesn’t make sense? Can’t worry about that now, Superboy has to go off and warn Washington about the Nazi menace.
The “real obstacle” to Hitler’s conquest of America, Clark says, is “the people”. You know, those people who sided with the Nazis pretty quickly at the slightest threat earlier? Yeah, I guess they’ll deal with it.
SUPERMAN VS BIGOTS?
It’s been the case in almost every Superman vs Nazis story I’ve covered: the Nazis are presented here not as white supremacists, but just as bad guys who are our enemies because they are bad guys. Hitler is “would-be world conqueror” who is “rattling the chains of war” and he wants to beat up America and we can’t have that. At least earlier stories in which Superman fought Nazis would have them mention “the Master Race” or whatever so that I could make a tenuous claim that we were being shown their racism. But now it’s 1970 and there’s no way to pretend we don’t know the full extent of what the Nazis did. An argument could be made that delving into that stuff doesn’t make for appropriate material for a kids’ book, but I’d argue back that maybe you just found an excuse to not use Nazis as colourful cartoon villains.
To be clear, I’ll always have a decent base-level of happiness just to see Superman fighting Nazis. I don’t want us to have to stop using them as such. But I do think it’s important to use them responsibly. Even if just with those minor “Master Race” kinds of references, I want to be reminded why the Nazis are the villains.
Anyway, it’s kind of amazing how quickly the people of Smallville become a mob ready to chase Superman. The Nazis are in the crowd and yelling out things, but by no means are they the only ones. One man, named Hiram, says he “always felt yer super-antics would git us in trouble.” When reminded of all the good Superboy has done in the past, another says “Lotta good that ‘good’ will do us now!” And yet Superboy doesn’t turn on the crowd. He’s hurt, but to Chief Parker he says, “You can’t blame them, Sir! No matter how much they really love me – They have their own loved ones to think of!”
The Nazi rabble-rousers make a more xenophobic argument. “Just a trouble-maker here on Earth — Let him go back where he came from! The planet Krypton!” That line is the only one in the story to remind us that Clark is an outsider of the type Nazis would focus on. If this story were done better, this would be the insidious selling point the Nazis use to turn people against Superboy, rather that just the bomb threat. And indeed, we’ll see that kind of story down the line.
- For the record, this will be the last time that Superman is regularly depicted as though the Second World War occurred while he was active. Given that the comics have reached the ’70s and Superman hasn’t aged, it doesn’t make sense that Clark’s childhood occurred in the ’30s anymore. Just a few issues after this one (Superboy #170 and 171 specifically) the book will officially declare that Superboy’s career began in the ’50 and the title will be set in that decade.
- For some reason the narrative captions of this story claims that documents about Mission: Liquidate were found by the Allies after the War. I don’t know why they’re trying for this little extra bit of verisimilitude, because it doesn’t factor into the story in any way. It’s possible (but I’m not going to bother looking it up) that some Nazi documents had recently been released in 1970 and it was part of the public consciousness.
- It’s unrelated to the themes I’m exploring here, but the twist with Pa Kent being killed and then it being revealed that it was just a robot is nonsensical. If Clark knew all along that only the robot was shot, why was he so sad about it? It’s the kind of twist that should be on the cover (Pa Kent, Shot Dead by Nazis! Not a Dream! Not an Imaginary Story!”) to make people buy the issue and feel ripped off by the hoax, but this time it doesn’t even make the cover.
- At one point Clark pitches his voice to radio frequency to speak over police radios. That’s a power related to the unfairly maligned Super-Ventriloquism. But lest we think he’s overpowered, while running from the mob, Clark manages to forget that he can fly. That’s not me making a snarky comment about the fact that he doesn’t fly. We’re told in the story “the distraught teenager forgets even his ability to fly!”
- Another way this story could be expanded upon would be to remember any of the other cast members. Where is Lana during all this? Where’s Pete Ross? What of Bash Bashford? So many potential stories untold.
- It came up in the comments last time (Thanks, Simon DelMonte) that writer Frank Robbins (who wrote this story as well) would go on to Marvel as an artist on Captain America and The Invaders, two of Marvel’s most Nazi-fightingest series.