Superman and the countless characters he inspired were champions designed to deflect the deadly one-two punch that had been inflicted on the world in the 1930s — the Great Depression and World War II.
Picking up Roy Thomas’ hardcover Superman: The War Years 1938-1945 at Midgard Comics, I was interested to see that it begins with the Man of Tomorrow’s first adventure in Action Comics 1 (June 1938). And why not? War was with him from the very beginning.
After smashing into the governor’s mansion to win a stay of execution for an innocent man, this mysterious superhuman crusader for social justice knocks a wife-beater senseless, indicating it will be healthier for the cops if they don’t discover his secret identity (“It would be just too bad if they searched me,” he says ominously, while waiting for the police and donning his Clark Kent disguise).
After discouraging some roadhouse hoods by smashing their car with them in it, Superman heads to Washington, D.C., where he spies on the corrupt Sen. Barrows, who is being bribed by a lobbyist to embroil the U.S. in a war. Dragging the evil lobbyist into the air, Superman attempts to leap from the Capitol Dome to another building, and falls short…
In the second issue of Action Comics, Superman recovers from his fall, having frightened the lobbyist into confessing that the war is being engineered by munitions industrialist Emil Norvell.
While Superman gets his bearings atop the Washington Monument, the lobbyist phones Norvell, warning, “You’re about to receive a visit from the most dangerous man alive.”
Norvell is forearmed, futilely. Superman wades through machine gun fire to seize Norvell, suggesting that the industrialist accompany him to San Monte, which is ground zero for the war he’s engineering.
“You see how effortlessly I crush this bar of iron in my hand?” Superman points out. “That bar could just as easily be your neck. Now, for the last time, are you coming with me?”
Superman forces Norvell to enlist in one of the warring armies in South America. It’s a technique he would use more than once — forcing a wealthy and ruthless predator to suffer the consequences he’d intended to inflict on the common man.
With his own shells exploding overhead, Norvell screams, “This is no place for a sane man – I’ll die!” Superman replies dryly, “I see! When it’s your own life at stake, your viewpoint changes!”
Point made, Superman drags the two warring generals from their tents and orders them to fight it out between themselves, taking time out to smash a fighter plane out of the sky, shield the captured “spy” Lois Lane from a firing squad and hurl a military torturer thousands of yards to his death.
In Action 17 (October 1939), Superman ends a European civil war while recovering a nerve gas formula, watching the spy who stole it die as the sole victim of the gas. Trapping the negotiators of the belligerent nations, Superman demonstrates that, like Samson, he will topple the pillars that support the ceiling over their heads unless they agree to an immediate truce.
In Action 22 (March 1940), Superman stops a false flag submarine attack designed to draw the U.S. into a European war. With characteristic subtlety, he hoists one of the plotters over his head and says, “Confess! Confess that you and Lita Laverne planned the bombing of neutral vessel – or I’ll bash your brains out!”
In the next issue, Superman defuses a world war planned by some mysterious “super-genius” named Luthor.
“My plan? To send the nations of the Earth at each other’s throats so that when they are sufficiently weakened, I can step in and assume charge,” Luthor explains.
“The only thing you should step into is a straight-jacket,” Superman replies, shortly before crashing Luthor’s dirigible and leaping to safety with Lois Lane.
Over the next few years, Superman will repel attacks by Hitler’s trained sea serpents (!) and defend Metropolis against an actual Nazi invasion disguised as a fake Nazi invasion.
War, as one of the greatest tragedies that can befall ordinary men and women, always finds an implacable enemy in Superman.