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This Congressman-elect swears by (and on) vintage Superman

Rep.-Elect Robert Garcia (D-Calif.) speaks at a Congressional Hispanic Caucus event on Nov. 18, 2022 in Washington, D.C.
Anna Moneymaker
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Rep.-Elect Robert Garcia (D-Calif.) speaks at a Congressional Hispanic Caucus event on Nov. 18, 2022 in Washington, D.C.

This week, Congressman-elect Robert Garcia (D-Calif.) made some news by announcing he will (eventually!) swear himself in on a copy of the Constitution, a photo of his late parents, his certificate of U.S. citizenship and ... a copy of Superman #1, on loan from the Library of Congress.

Unusual, that last bit? Sure. But to me it makes a kind of baseline, profoundly American, sense.

Not just because Garcia is a lifelong comic-book nerd (though I mean ... that factors. Clearly.) But because of what Superman #1 is, as a historical and cultural object.

Follow me, here:

Superman #1 appeared on newsstands in April 1939. It was the first comic book ever to be devoted entirely to a single character.

For years before that, comics were afterthoughts – hastily slapped-together anthologies that simply reprinted and repackaged previously published newspaper comic strips. Money grabs, essentially – a way for publishers to get one last bite out of their pulpy apples.

But exactly one year before Superman #1 debuted, Action Comics #1 had appeared on newsstands, and changed the existing formula. Like the comics that came before it, Action Comics was an anthology featuring 11 different strips. But for the first time, the characters and stories in Action weren't retreads from the Sunday funnies, they were original, all-new creations. Most of them were square-jawed, two-fisted detectives with hilariously square-jawed, two-fisted names like Pep Morgan! Chuck Dawson! Scoop Scanlon! There was also a page of Hollywood gossip about Constance Bennett (gasp!) and it led off with this weird violent yarn about a guy in blue circus-strongman tights and a red cape who jumped around a lot and beat people up.

Every issue of Action Comics featured so many different characters, in fact, that it took the publisher months to figure out precisely why every issue was flying off the shelves. (Spare a kind thought to the poor, cigar-chomping schlub who convinced himself that America's youth were all going gaga for the pulse-pounding adventures of Sticky-Mitt Stimson.)

Once they finally got their act together, they published the Oops! All Supes! comic, Superman #1. Though it weighed in at a hefty 64 pages, it was mostly just a reprint of the Superman stories that had previously appeared in Action Comics #1-4. They did tweak things a bit, expanding his origin story and adding some pages to show how Clark Kent got his job as a reporter.

The important thing about Superman #1 – and if Congressman-elect Garcia is a nerd like me, he knows this – is that the Superman that appeared in its pages is not the Big Blue Boy Scout we know today. He's not the smiling cop-in-a-cape who enforces the rule of law and saves the occasional day.

The Superman that appeared in its pages is not the Big Blue Boy Scout we know today. He's not the smiling cop-in-a-cape who enforces the rule of law and saves the occasional day. No, the Superman of those first few outings was an agitator. He didn't reinforce the status quo, he upended it, again and again.

No, the Superman of those first few outings was an agitator. He didn't reinforce the status quo, he upended it, again and again.

In his very first appearances, years before anyone started calling him the Man of Steel, the only epithet applied to him was Champion of the Oppressed.

That was his whole, O.G. gig – looking out for the little guy, the defenseless, the marginalized, the exploited: anyone who got used and abused by the system. It's not a stretch to think of early Superman as a neo-socialist icon, a progressive activist in a leotard.

Don't believe me? Here's what Superman gets up to, in the pages of Superman #1:

  • Savagely beats up a man who's abusing a woman
  • Prevents the state from executing a wrongly convicted prisoner
  • Torments a corrupt Washington lobbyist (by hoisting him over his super-shoulders and leaping between the many towering skyscrapers of 1939 Washington, D.C.  – hey, it's comics)
  • Forces a greedy munitions manufacturer to experience the horrors of war on the front lines as his own products explode around him
  • Prevents a second execution, this time via firing squad
  • Cold-bloodedly murders a soldier for torturing a prisoner
  • Traps a wealthy mine owner and his high-society friends in his own mine to demonstrate how the mine's safety equipment doesn't work (look I know things are getting a bit more baroque, here, but stay with me), and 
  • Disguises himself as a college football player to expose a crooked coach (see above, in re: hey, it's comics).
  • He was a bully to the bullies, a guy who stands up for those who can't stand up.

    There is a throughline, here, and it's the forcible dismantling of systems that exert power over the weak and disenfranchised. He was a bully to the bullies, a guy who stands up for those who can't stand up.

    All of this changed with the advent of World War II, of course. Superman quickly transformed into an anodyne patriotic symbol, a rallying cry for the troops, a primary-colored nugget of cheap-to-produce propaganda. This is when "Truth, Justice and the American Way" first entered the mix, and Superman's socialist roots got swept under the rug – or, more precisely, into the Victory Garden.

    But in Superman #1, and for a few years after it, Superman's entire deal was to be someone who fought for those who couldn't fight for themselves.

    He's changed a lot, over the years. But I wrote a cultural history of Superman a few years back, and after spending so many hours reading and watching every piece of media Superman appeared in over the decades, I came away with the two essential elements to Superman. They don't have anything to do with what you might expect – the powers, the origin story, the costume, the politics, the patriotism.

    No, here's what lies at the heart of any Superman story:

  • He puts the needs of others over those of himself
  • He never gives up
  • That's it, it's not complicated. Those are the two things that make Superman Superman.

    And when it comes to something to swear by, or in this case, on – what are the essential characteristics we're talking about, here? Selflessness, and perseverance.

    As concepts go, they seem like a pretty solid pair of options for anyone – politicians included – to get behind, especially if those aspects work in sync with each other: Empathy met with determination, as an organizing principle. Sure. Why not?

    Unrealistic ideals, you say? Yeah, that's the whole point, I say.

    Superheroes are wish-fulfillment; that's their power. Superman was the first superhero, so he happens to be the best, the purest encapsulation of that notion. He's the self you aren't yet, but hope to one day become.

    Superheroes are wish-fulfillment; that's their power. Superman was the first superhero, so he happens to be the best, the purest encapsulation of that notion. He's the self you aren't yet, but hope to one day become.

    He's not Spider-Man. Spider-Man, famously, is the hero we identify with. That's what he's for; he shares our worries and fears – rent, girlfriends, family. But Superman isn't the hero we identify with, he's the hero we believe in, we look up to. Yes, he's better than we are – he's the ideal to strive for, the example to compare ourselves against.

    And it's his status as an ideal that matters, because it means he's always just beyond our reach. Like, say, Justice. And Truth.

    And, as was made clearer than ever this week, Democracy.

    Which, as I say, just makes a kind of simple, unignorable, rock-ribbed sense. Because it's only in the striving for an ideal – in the simple day-to-day act of chasing it, reaching for it, hoping that we can attain it – that we even approach becoming the best version of ourselves we can ever hope to be.

    This piece also appeared in NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter so you don't miss the next one, plus get weekly recommendations about what's making us happy.

    Listen to Pop Culture Happy Hour on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

    Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.