In 1952, the UN issued an urgent report warning that American comic books and their sadistic superhero characters had become a threat to world peace: "By undermining or warping the traditional values of each country, the Superman myth is becoming a kind of international monster."
To be fair, it was an uneventful year… well, except for the Korean War, the detonation of the first hydrogen bomb, and the usual mass floods, earthquakes and uprisings. But nothing pushes people's buttons quite like an imagined threat to their children — and back then, that threat wore blue tights and a red cape.
This rhetoric probably sounds very familiar to anyone who has followed the long history of anti-comic book hysteria. The most famous of those anti-comic book crusaders was psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, whose bestselling 1954 book The Seduction of the Innocent created a moral panic in the U.S., convincing parents and politicians alike that comics were a direct cause of violence, drug use and homosexuality among young people.
But the backlash against Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman and the other members of the yet-to-be-formed Justice League began long before Wertham. The first rumblings of anti-comic book sentiment are widely attributed to an influential 1940 editorial written by book critic Sterling North, titled "A National Disgrace," which declared:
Ten million copies of these sex-horror serials are sold every month. One million dollars are taken from the pockets of America's children in exchange for graphic insanity. . . . we found that the bulk of these lurid publications depend for their appeal upon mayhem, murder, torture and abduction—often with a child as the victim. Superman heroics, voluptuous females in scanty attire, blazing machine guns, hooded 'justice' and cheap political propaganda were to be found on almost every page.. . . Unless we want a coming generation even more ferocious than the present one, parents and teachers throughout America must band together to break the 'comic' magazine.
Superman and supermen
After World War II, American comics were increasingly printed and sold abroad, and the moral panic they inspired traveled with them. So, it comes as little surprise that, in 1950 — when UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization) was authorized to conduct a comprehensive study on how to "protect children" from the "undesirable influences" of mass media — it would be comic books that would bear the brunt of international outrage.
The primary author of the report was Professor Philippe Bauchard, a "press and radio specialist" who was a dumber, French version of Fredric Wertham. Bauchard devoted dozens of pages to "Superman" (the guy from Krypton) and "the superman" (his catch-all term for "superhero"):
The superman takes a great many forms. At one extreme we find Superman, the superman of the American "comics," a demi-god with unlimited powers. Superman flies through the air by spreading his arms, holds up collapsing bridges, and kills with a look or with cosmic rays emanating from his fingers-tips, etc.
The strong attraction of the superman myth is probably the most marked feature of the modern children's press. In all probability, this subject of the undefeated, superhuman, eternal, etc. hero satisfies a deep-seated popular instinct. Supermen are to be found in all traditional folktales, from the medieval verse-chronicles to Oriental legends. Moreover, the superman has always had a particular appeal for those whose own lives lack the unexpected, the violent or the exciting. There is some truth in the argument that the "superman" formula acts as a safety valve, although its value for that purpose, both on the screen and in the press, has on occasion been deliberately exaggerated.
From there, Bauchaed delves into specific critiques—separated into categories for your convenience:
Superheroes have no sense of style
The classical superman is most frequently clad in very close-fitting tights of striking hue (red or black). Masks (Mr. X, the Bengal Ghost, the old version of Zorro) are not obligatory. Embroidered initials are much in evidence. Obviously this garb enables a child to distinguish the superman quickly from the surrounding personages.
The man-of-the-world appearance of Mandrake, King of Magic, is no longer very successful. It should be noted that most supermen look like sportsmen or mechanics, rather than like men of the world (top-hats, evening dress, walking stick, etc.). A short cape negligently thrown over the shoulders is often "the thing" (cf. Captain Marvel).
Superheroes have limited "cranial capacity"
The superman is typified by his stature and the disproportion between his head and other limbs. He is always tall and slender (if he is a sociable superman) or stocky (if he is the demi-god type of superman), and must dominate other men physically.
His narrow cranial capacity has become classical and his receding forehead contrasts with very muscular arms and legs. This systematic bias has caused a belief in some quarters that strips are deliberately inducing a form of retrogression, by likening the superman to a higher type of animal scarcely more intelligent than the gorilla.
We meet his systematic retrogression when we study the superman's behaviour. He acts in simple circumstances: a fight or a brawl usually enables him to liquidate his adversaries. While he is the defender of the right, he does not hesitate to proceed to summary executions.
Superheroes have limited vocabulary
It has been said that the superman's conversation is restricted to inarticulate ejaculations. The superman does in fact produce a few short (and, incidentally, grammatically incorrect) sentences, and from time to time he grunts. It may be a grunt of triumph to express his satisfaction over a well-managed climax, or a "rallying" grunt. The most common ejaculations, which require no translation, are: Oof, Wham, Bam, Ugh, Bang, Beeyah.
Superheroes are totally into bondage
Some superwomen… also wear a minimum of fairly suggestive garb, and the draftsman always emphasizes the sex and the breasts of the principal characters. There is, however, little directly pornographic allusion in the drawings. It is rather the general atmosphere of brutality that some critics have come to see alarming indications of sadism and sexual perversion. From that point of view, it is interesting to note that the superwoman is becoming more and more important in "comics." Booted and armed with a whip or crop, she performs acts of violence by no means less radical than those of her male colleague.
Superheroes are immortal man-children
Not only does the superman not die; he never grows old, and is always at the height of his powers. He will live forever between the ages of 20 and 30, subject to no sickness and no wrinkles, but from time to time acquiring some "distinguished" wounds.
This impression of the superman's immortality — which perhaps appeals to children on account of their own confused concept of time — is particularly marked when the superman takes the form of an adolescent prodigy.
Superheroes are lazy freeloaders
Being above human contingencies, the superman is also free of material difficulties. Not only do no money problems afflict the hero, who does not apparently have to provide for his own needs, but motor cars, buildings, telephones, planes, etc. are used without it being thought necessary to state who owns or maintains them. For the average reader, living in relatively poor circumstances, Superman's life soon becomes as intoxicating as the cinema, though no doubt it is less all absorbing.
Superheroes are ultra-patriotic fascists
The outer garb of the superman has on occasion been compared with the S.S. uniform… The superman's co-operation with the authorities is symptomatic of his "conforming" character. It is exceptional to find a superman who is an anarchist or a revolutionary.
Superman quite naturally offers his services to the government, which in return is only too happy to find in him such a sure and faithful helper. He co-operates with the police and with justice, and has no hesitation in serving his country in the event of war (although he is by definition stateless).
The superman's respectful attitude to government, and his submission to law and justice, are not always merely passive. Sometimes he will summarily execute a few villains or enemies. Where it is a question of destroying an enemy fleet or of overthrowing the "chief traitor", the superman usually fails to give the appropriate authorities advance notice of his intentions. This does not constitute flagrant violation of the law, since such punitive operations are always carried out for a good purpose.
Superheroes suffer from PTSD
A final feature of the superman's behavior is his dramatic tension and total lack of any sense of humor. A tragic figure in a world painfully emerging from the war, the superman behaves exactly as though he had been unable to free himself from the nightmare of summary executions, air raids and atrocities.
The constant recurrence to violence, and the forms taken by projection into the future, reflect the worst horrors of the last war and drag the children, at the superman's heels, into an abnormal, unbalanced world. The superman's world is joyless, devoid of daily pleasures and of any light and shade — a drama swinging perpetually between violence and anguish, fear and horror.
Resistance is futile
The roar of rocket-aircraft, the yells of the demi-god hero, the fire of cosmic rays and the more or less deliberate sadism practiced by detective supermen exacerbate and warp, by dint of repetition, young minds that are already saturated with the violence of life as it is in fact lived today.
Pure criticism apart, therefore, it is difficult to devise any solution for the problem of the superman. He cannot be abolished by legal sanctions; he is rarely pornographic, and is, indeed, generally respectful of law and order, and vaguely altruistic. To mitigate the effect of his violence would be gradually to disinterest readers in him, a possibility which the publishers of children's papers naturally refuse to contemplate.
Meanwhile, back in Metropolis….
The UN report definitely had an impact in Europe. In Scandinavian countries, citizen groups urged their governments to stop importing American comic books.
In the United States, some academics were speaking out against anti-comic book hysteria. Robert Thorndike, at Columbia University's Teachers College, conducted a survey of the vocabulary in Superman and Batman comics, and concluded that a child "gets about as much wordage of reading as he gets from even the new fourth or ﬁfth grade reader." Iosette Frank, an adviser to the Children's Book Committee of the Child Study Association of America, wrote that "there is abundant evidence that many children who read comics also read books — often very good books. Library circulation figures and book sales suggest increases in juvenile reading which hardly bear out our fears."
And Lauretta Bender, a prominent child psychiatrist at the New York University College of Medicine, published a study that was a thoughtful rejoinder to the likes of Bauchard, North and Wertham:
We concluded that the comics… like the folklore of other times, serve as a means to stimulate the child's fantasy life and so help him solve the individual and sociological problems inherent in his living. To remove fantasy (as embodied in "Superman," "Wonder Woman," "Captain Marvel" and "Captain Midnight," the "Phantom," "Batman," and "The Flash"), or to reduce comics to the true and the real… tends to make them more threatening and productive of anxiety, because they offer no solution to the problem of aggression in the world.
One bright 11-year-old boy said, "I like all the mystery comics because they tell what is true. I mean, Superman always gets the bad guy. I know it is fiction, of course, but it is the true way of things. That's what I like about it. I like the detective pictures because they always ﬁgure it out and catch the bad guys. I like the crime pictures, too, because the police always catch the criminals and take them to jail." (But sometimes the comics are not too convincing, and suppose the criminals kill the police and get away?) "Well, there are plenty of police in the country and others will catch them and take them to jail somewhere sometime." (But suppose in the comic they didn't?) "Then I wouldn't read the comic." This was a boy who was intellectually and emotionally capable to deal with reality; but he also enjoyed, in comics, fantasy which enhanced the securities needed to solve life's problems.
"Wonder Woman" is in many ways the counterpart of "Superman." For adults she apparently is erotically unattractive if not repellent. For children, she deals with all the important psychological problems. She is an ordinary but good human being until she puts on her costume, when she can overcome all physical resistances. She can help people in need. She can change the direction of a warship or a bomb in ﬂight. She can make herself little and offer herself for play to a lonely child… "Wonder Woman" represents a good try at solving the very timely problems of the girl's concept of herself as a woman and of her relationship to the world.
Voices of reason didn't prevail. Bouchard had sadly concluded, "it is difficult to devise any solution for the problem of the superman." But all he had to do was wait — and let ignorance and fear take their natural course.