Superman to Analyze Relationships Among American Literature, History, and Culture

Rationale: Comic books can be used as the main source material in a comparative lesson about American history and the role of popular culture as it relates to two different eras.

Grade Levels: High School, Middle School

Objective: The student will be able to describe the development of American literature in the 20th century, contrast periods in American literature, differentiate among archetypal characters in American literature, and determine the impact of the times on the literature that is produced.

Time Alotted: Depending on class length. One 90 minute class or two 45 minute classes.

Materials: Superman Archives, Superman: Birthright

Vocabulary: Golden Age, origin, archetype

Anticipatory Set: Throughout history, literature and art have been the soul of the American experience. While documentation and record keeping tell the timeline of history, it is literature that tells its story. One such literary form is uniquely American and has mirrored history as much as any other art form: the comic book. We will demonstrate the evolution of the American experience through the depiction of one of America’s most iconic fictional characters: Superman.

Direct Teaching: Draw a table on the blackboard or overhead projector. Label one side "1939" and the other "2003." Instruct the students to copy the table and have them form small groups to brainstorm by listing aspects unique to each year. You may need to guide some groups by giving them subjects to list like "technology," "events," etc.

After the students finish their initial brainstorming session, as a class, have students share their responses as you write them down on the large table on the blackboard/overhead.

To further illustrate the difference in time periods, assign two sections from Superman Archives — which reprints classic Superman stories from 1939 to 1940 — and Superman: Birthright — a modern retelling of Superman's origins published in 2003.

After reading, have the students answer the following questions:

  • What are the biggest differences you noticed when reading the Superman stories from each time period?
  • How did the creative team on each book reflect the time period? (I.e., what aspects of technology, speech, character actions and motivations, etc. were utilized?)
  • The Superman stories of the late 30s and early 40s were written just as the world was descending into World War II. Similarly, Superman: Birthright was written in a post-9/11 world that was also heading toward a "War on Terror." How do these events affect the stories?
  • It has been said that the story of Superman is the ultimate American immigrant story. Considering his creators — Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster — where the children of immigrants, explain how Superman’s story fits into that paradigm. Does the 2003 version of Superman hold true to that idea? If so, how? If not, why not?
  • Even though the books are decades apart and are reflections of their times, what aspects of the story remain timeless? Why do you think some things changed while others stayed the same?
  • Why do you think the legend of Superman has endured over six decades and continues to thrive today?

After students have answered these questions on their own, use them as a basis for a classroom discussion.