Superman's Radical Debut
If you are unaware of how Superman went from radical and revolutionary insurgent to fighting for the status quo, read on! Illustration by Leo Levy, and his latest comic project, Reflections: A Covid-19 Ghost Story, is available for purchase/download here.
My favorite benefit from creating the ModNomad project (and now building on it with Casa Minka here in Taos) is being introduced to the wonderful ideas and projects being instigated by young artists and activists today. Their enthusiasm and commitment to working on the challenges we face gives me a great deal of hope.
I'll be doing Q&A's with Casa Minka art and activism residents, and today I offer you a sample of the incredibly bright and curious mind of Leo Levy.
While getting this interview ready to post today, I was reminded of the Frederick Douglass quote: "Poets, prophets and reformers are all picture-makers---and this ability is the secret of their power and of their achievements. They see what ought to be by the reflection of what is, and endeavor to remove the contradiction."
Leo Levy strikes me as a fine example of what Mr. Douglass articulated, starting out on a career that I expect will be long and substantive, and will help to bring about the changes we need in order to have a society that works well and equitably for all Americans. If you'd like to read more about Levy's recent work, this article by Kathy Hovis offers some further background.
Jennifer Nix: Congratulations on being an inaugural artist-in-residence at Casa Minka! You arrived straight from Philadelphia for your artist residency. Did you know much about the Taos Modern artists, and Malcolm Brown in particular, before your stay here?
Leo Levy: Thank you, Jen! It’s been a really powerful experience getting to live and create in these environments that Malcolm infused with his own imagination. And it’s been educational, too! I had already gathered a bit about Taos’ modernist period, but not much. I knew that Agnes Martin lived here, of course, and I’d heard whispers about Rothko hanging around, but that was all. Malcolm and his circle were a revelation for me.
Nix: Do you see any parallels of inquiry between your own work and that of Malcolm or other Taos Moderns...perhaps along philosophical lines?
Levy: Mostly I connect with these artists on a more basic level, through their attachment to this place. It’s easy to see how the expansive landscape and eclectic cultural history of northern New Mexico gave the Moderns space and material to think freely and imaginatively. Malcolm’s architecture is so expressive and playful, always giving priority to delight over pragmatism. I don’t think it could exist in an environment dominated by the hegemony of convention.
Nix: You recently graduated from Cornell, and your thesis, which I read with great interest, opens with the surprising fact that the inaugural superhero in American comic book history, Superman, was created as "a revolutionary insurgent, who employed direct action tactics to disrupt the status quo and liberate the oppressed, all in accordance with a distinctly anarcho-communist ethics." I would guess most Americans have no idea of that history.
Levy: I doubt even most DC Comics fans know about his origins! And they’d probably be upset to find out. The Superman that America now idolizes has effectively reversed his politics since those early days. His rhetoric and story arcs have become so committed to “the American way” that he’s not much more than a super-cop, or really a mascot for the U.S. government.
Nix: Most of this history has basically been erased, right? How difficult was it to find information about this radical and subversive version of Superman?
Levy: Superman’s radical phase is more forgotten than erased. The first two years of Action Comics are still available in DC anthologies (although certain editions skip some of the most subversive issues). So anybody with a library card can flip through and see Superman going toe-to-toe with the cops, dissing the criminal justice system or campaigning against the exploitation of the working class. The real problem is that the history behind the comics has been erased, so the political ideology that Superman demonstrates has become illegible to modern readers.
These days, people know very little about the era when Anarchism was a major force in American politics. When that term is thrown around, people think of bombs, assassins and chaos, but those are skewed and mostly false images. All through the late 19th and early 20th century, Anarchism was a popular progressive movement with adherents around the globe, alongside Labor Unionism, Socialism, Communism and Social Democracy. And it just so happens that Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, both grew up in a particular community–immigrant Jewish garment workers in Cleveland–that was exceptionally active in the Anarchist movement.
Researching that element was trickier, for a couple reasons. First, there’s the U.S. government’s longstanding campaign to disrupt anarchist organizing. The FBI was actually founded in part to surveil and suppress American Anarchism. Over the years, they’ve seized and destroyed a lot of documentation about the movement, which means that researchers are forced to do a lot of guesswork. They also worked really hard to intimidate people away from radical progressive politics, which meant a lot of folks decided to abandon those ideals for the safety of mainstream assimilation. Along the way, a lot of stories were covered up, and eventually forgotten.
Nix: Can you share with us the ways you tie leading thinkers and activists of the day, like Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, to your exploration of the relationship between the heroic ideal of radical left-libertarian thought and American comic book superheroes?
Levy: It’s a lot to summarize here, but I’ll try! Next to Siegel and Shuster, Goldman and Berkman are really the protagonists of this project. Both came from the same cultural background as Siegel and Shuster, only a generation earlier. They got involved in the Anarchist movement through their work in the garment industry, and then went on to become some of the most famous radical activists in the country. Although they toured all over, they both maintained special relationships with their followers in Cleveland.
In their speeches, prolific writing and actions, they promoted some really unique ideas about what heroism looks like. They lauded people who took aggressive, direct actions to combat injustice, while villainizing war-mongering politicians, amoral policemen, and greedy capitalists. Siegel and Shuster grew up in a social environment that had been steeped in this sort of rhetoric, so it isn’t surprising that when they invented the world’s first comic book superhero, they basically imagined the ultimate revolutionary. In his first appearance, Superman is described as “the champion of the oppressed.” His enemies for the first two years aren’t supervillains, they’re corrupt politicians, abusive cops and heartless industrialists. And he fights them using tactics developed and espoused by Anarchist thinkers: direct action, propaganda by the deed, expropriation, property destruction, etc.
I’m not saying Superman was an anarchist himself, or even that Siegel and Shuster were. But their ideas about what heroism looks like owe a lot to the influence of Goldman and Berkman.
Nix: Anarchism may be a mostly non-violent movement, but there are exceptions. Berkman initially became famous for an act of political violence. How does that violence translate into the Superman comics?
This is the question that sparked my interest in the topic. I think it’s so important to examine the narratives about heroism that we’ve received through cultural symbols like Superman. Superhero comics have glorified extreme violence since the beginning, whether it’s committed to disrupt the state or to protect it. That analogy is what allowed Superman to switch from anarchic insurgent to quasi-nationalist so seamlessly. Whether he’s fighting against American militarism or fighting against American pacifism, he’s always fighting.
Personally, I don’t believe violence is the right way to build a more just society. There’s been plenty of debate among Anarchists and other progressive activists about this question, but proponents of violence have always been in the minority. So we should be wary of stories that give disproportionate credibility to the philosophy of violence.
Nix: Right. But particularly today, we see more violence being perpetrated by right-wing extremists and white supremacists, even as conventional and establishment thinking continuously tries to draw false equivalencies between right- and left-wing actions. Perhaps learning this history can help to change that thinking. This all sounds like the makings of a very interesting article or book. Do you have any current plans to publish some version of this for a mainstream audience?
Levy: Absolutely. I think we have a lot to learn from this history. Anarchist ideas have made a big comeback in this country since last Spring. That video of George Floyd’s murder left a lot of people questioning whether we really need to be policed. And then the Trump administration’s violent response to peaceful protests convinced them that the federal government is often more interested in protecting its power than its people. Early Anarcho-communists like Berkman and Goldman were some of the first people to call for the abolition of police, prisons and militarism in this country. They developed a unified critique of the way that those institutions profit off of the criminalization and exploitation of the poor. Learning this history---that the superheroes we grew up watching on TV were invented to fight against that very real sort of injustice---could be quite empowering for a lot of people.
And we need to know this history especially BECAUSE it was forgotten. The erasure we discussed earlier didn’t happen by accident. Berkman and Goldman were repeatedly imprisoned, and eventually deported from the US on trumped-up charges, while their followers were scattered and intimidated into silence. With nobody left to articulate the humanitarian ideals of the movement, Anarchism was easy to paint as a dangerous cabal dedicated to creating chaos. And Superman only stayed radical and progressive until he was swept up in the nationalistic fervor of World War II. Ever since then, superheroes have been fighting for the status quo. Turns out that in a capitalist economy, that’s a more lucrative gig than defending the oppressed.
Some things are definitely unique about this political moment, but other things aren’t. The progressive artists and activists of today need to know what happened to our predecessors, if we don’t want to fall prey to the same forces.
Nix: Here at Casa Minka, you've been at work on a new historical comic project, about a typhoid epidemic in Ithaca, New York, in 1903. Can you tell us about it, and what parallels you see for Americans in 2021 dealing with the COVID pandemic?
Levy: Yes, the comic is called Reflections, and I’m looking for places to publish it now. It’s another really relevant story from the early 20th century that was forgotten far too quickly. And unfortunately, we’re paying the price for our poor cultural memory right now. Like in the current pandemic, the suffering caused by the Ithaca typhoid epidemic could have been avoided––or at least drastically lessened.
Despite hosting Cornell University, a hub of biological science, the town’s response to the disease was sabotaged by callous officials and businessmen who downplayed the danger, denied the science, and shoved the blame onto immigrants and the poor. Sound familiar? The irresponsibility of the town’s leaders reminded me so much of Trump that I drew one of them to look like him!
The story revolves around a man named Theodore Zinck, who was a beloved tavern owner in town. In fact, he was so popular that he’s been immortalized in the lyrics of Give My Regards to Davy, the Cornell fight song. But all those students cheerfully singing his name don’t know how tragically he suffered during that epidemic. In the comic, his ghost returns to 2021 Ithaca, to share the lessons he learned and urge modern Americans to work together to overcome this disease.
I stumbled across this saga in the first few months of Covid, while I was still living in Ithaca and finishing my thesis. I was absolutely floored by the parallels between this history and what I was watching unfold in the newspapers. I hope that by recognizing the similarities, we can learn from our mistakes and prevent the next global health emergency.
And don’t worry, it’s not all dark! I made sure to include moments of humor and hope in Reflections. I think people need that right now.
Nix: With my evolving ModNomad social practice art project, and now here with what we're developing at Casa Minka, a primary part of the mission is to underscore the powerful unity between art and activism. Part of what we do is to offer space to and honor the work of both artists and activists instigating for the common good through our collaborative residency program. My own working theory is that establishment and extreme-capitalist forces propagandized to cleave art from activism and to diminish activism in order to protect the status quo. As a young writer, I felt forced to choose between the two. It was not until this interview I did with Aleksandar Hemon that I realized I no longer had to choose. Have your thoughts about the roles of art and activism in your own practice changed since being here?
Levy: They have. Even though I’ve been overtly involved in organizing campaigns around a bunch of different issues, and much of my creative work is colored by ideals that I have derived from socialist and anarchist thought, I have always felt obligated to choose between considering myself primarily an artist/storyteller or an activist. The last few weeks have reminded me that that’s a really useless dichotomy. Activism and art are both creative, imaginative, empathetic activities. Often, they are the same activity. Especially right now, when so many traditional forms of activism are complicated or disrupted by Covid, that imaginative dimension has taken on particular significance. The stories we tell ourselves and each other matter. They are the architectural plans of societal change. Now let’s get back to the drawing board! ###
Leo Levy on Instagram: @leoalevy