The United Nations Condemned Superman In The 1950s, And Believe It Or Not, They Made Some Valid Points
When people think of the backlash against comics in the 1950s, one name often springs to mind: Fredric Wertham, the author of the 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent, which linked comic book reading to illiteracy, sexual deviancy (by his definition), violence and drug use.
While Wertham’s book was certainly a catalyst for a lot of changes and censorship in comics, it wasn’t the first domino that fell toward the development of the stringent Comics Code Authority. Criticism of comics had been growing to a fever pitch for years before that, and io9 has uncovered one example that came a full two years before the publication of Seduction of the Innocent: a full-on United Nations condemnation of Superman. And guess what: It isn’t entirely wrong.
Here’s an excerpt from the text of a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization report on comic books, authored by Philippe Bauchard, a French press and radio specialist and professor:
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.
Bauchard then lays out specific criticisms of superheroes including: they look like “sportsmen or mechanics” rather than “men of the world,” have “narrow cranial capacity,” don’t speak well, are into bondage, are fascists, and are permanently “adolescent.”
In its piece about the report, io9 concludes that Bauchard was fully on the side of ignorance with his arguments, and while his ends were certainly dubious — it seemed as though he, like Wertham, wanted comics to be banned entirely — the arguments themselves look a whole lot like many of the criticisms of comics today, including those made by comics fans.
The notion that comic books are stuck in a sort of permanent adolescence and are geared toward male power fantasies are points that that critics who wish to better comics, rather than outright kill them, often make now. And plenty of people have leveled criticisms at superhero movies, particularly Marvel’s, for being far too militaristic.
Sure, Bauchard got a good many of his facts wrong (Superman didn’t routinely kill people in the comics of the early 1950s, to my knowledge), and the notion that superheroes are stupid characters is pretty misguided (comics were written for children, after all) but his overall point isn’t as invalid as it might look through the lens of history. He wasn’t arguing that comics would make you gay and a psychopath; he was saying that they can be sexist, overly macho and send bad messages.
Those things are still true. But that’s not a reason to end comics as we know them. It’s a reason to make them better.