May 23, 1944
To The Sponsors of SUPERMAN
Mutual Broadcasting Company
This is written in a spirit of friendly criticism, but definitely criticism.
Your Superman Program seems to me to defeat the very purpose for which it was intended. I assume you mean to "get across" the idea of Superman as the power of Good which overcomes or frustrates all the evil in the world.
At this point let me say that I believe it is wrong to implant in a young child's mind the idea that the control of good and evil may be lodged in a being such as Superman. We should rather try to raise a generation of healthy minded youth with well-balanced emotional lives. For when people grow up mentally and emotionally in a healthy and well-adjusted way the juvenile problem will be so minor as to be practically extinct, and children are not going to achieve healthy emotional adjustments by being fed such food for emotional digestion as your program furnishes.
So began a long and well-reasoned letter from listener Margaret Linnell detailing her concerns and likely reflecting those of other parents.
"To the average child your program is emotionally exciting, the lurid and frightening events (such as gas attacks terrorizing a whole city, ape men, men with queer quirks of personality and physique, gunmen, spies) assuming such prominence as to be the one thing which remains in their minds. They mull it over and feed their imaginations with it until real harm results.
Children have unusually vivid imaginations and little sense of discernment.
My own son, aged six, perhaps a bit young for Superman, but the same experience has been true of [my] older boy became frightened to go to bed, had nightmares and finally became very upset when left in his room to go to sleep. He never had been a timid child.
I finally banned Superman and in a few days everything was back to normal."
Linnell's rational letter resonated. This wasn't a knee-jerk diatribe written by a parent with an unfocused sense of moral outrage. Moreover, the problems she had with the radio version of Superman could also be applied to the published one.
"Do you not think that instead of holding before children the evil, the undesirable ways of acting, the wrong sort of conduct, and dramatizing it, that a better approach would be to feature the normal, clean everyday goodness and fun which should be at the root of a child's life?"
Josette Frank was effectively employed to be the arbiter of Superman's moral code. Given that she had invested so much of her own belief system into his heroic persona made any such attack personal. The Child Study Association had been founded upon Felix Adler's principles that premised the Ethical Culture Movement. Its most important goal was educating children and along with that, stressing socially responsible morality. That a parent could find a character imbued with those attributes troubling was in itself troublesome. Frank's oversight of Superman had taken him from his roots as a Jerry Siegel's wisecracking, vigilante strong man, through his evolution into the virtuous Big Blue Boy Scout. A teenage fantasy re-imagined as a symbol of
America itself. Was the letter-writer objecting to this personification in light of the German Übermensch that the country was fighting at the time or was it a rejection of a preternaturally powered, God-like protector in general?
Furthermore, Linnell's letter seemed to fear the effect of the, "emotionally exciting, the lurid and frightening events," would have upon children. This stance flew in the face of Frank's assurance that not all childhood reading need be "saturated with sweetness and light" and that a healthy serving of "good red meat" reading was allowable as well.
Linnell wasn't the only one expressing these complaints. Her letter was representative of other parents, of certain other concerned adults, whose voices would become increasingly louder and far less polite.
While many historians have usually viewed the controversy surrounding comic books in a vacuum, the fact is that effect that such popular mass media as radio and film had upon children was a larger battleground of which comics, initially, were just a skirmish. The brewing conflict over comic books
was already being fought over children's radio programming and Frank was
uniquely positioned to see both battles.
Frank and Bob Maxwell saw the Superman radio program as an opportunity. Rather than just choosing to not offend, they sought ways to set an example.
"I have given a great deal of thought to the problem we discussed the other day--the possibility that something new and fine and important can be added to the late afternoon children's radio hour," wrote Frank to Maxwell in a September 29th, 1944, letter, "And
the more I think about it the more excited I am about what might be
done. It seems that the time is ripe for just such an event in juvenile
Frank further noted, "In
a country where radio is doing such magnificent things for adults, we
have really neglected our children, both in terms of their commercial
potential as an audience, and--since I am concerned , after all, as an
educator--in terms of offering them really fruitful, in creative,
"There is a great
stirring in our educational and cultural world, and children are a part
of it. I believe that some of our "best minds" are turned toward
children these days and I believe could be brought to focus right now on
the really rewarding business of shaping a new kind of radio
entertainment for children."
At the same time, comic publisher DC was doing all it could to get on the good side of the public. Their public relations arm, Superman, Inc., was actively coordinating very visible activities that would undoubtedly garner a favorable response. In a December 20, 1944, letter to Frank, Harry Childs described some of these efforts.
"At the request of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, we prepared a specialized History of the United States in comics continuity written with a slight emphasis on the contribution made by Spain and Portugal. This continuity was written in English and then translated into both Spanish and Portuguese. Two editions were printed for Latin-American distribution and I am enclosing copies."
"At the request of the Navy Department, we are preparing a series of graded readers for use with Navy Personnel. For sometime [sic] the Navy has been taking men who must be classified as illiterates and has undertaken the job of teaching them to read. In setting up the requirements of reading material, the Navy selected comic magazines since they are both extremely popular with service personnel and are well suited to providing reading experience--small blocks of copy supported by illustration."
Childs went on to inform Frank, "These two activities, plus many more in the work, underline the increasing recognition of the comics continuity technique. As additional material becomes available I will see that you are kept informed...".
One such widely distributed publication was the SUPERMAN WORKBOOK, which reportedly made its way into some 2,500 classrooms across the country. This effort as part of the Superman Good Reading Project contained, "...vocabulary exercises of various kinds in addition to the pictures stories.", 1 and sported Fred Ray's classic SUPERMAN #14 cover of the titular character holding a bald eagle and posing before a stars and stripes emblazoned shield on both its front and back. The choice of this cover, which featured Superman virtually wrapped in the American flag, was certainly not coincidental.
"In the meantime," Childs implored Frank, "I hope you will give some time to the thought of the potential application of "words, pictures and color in continuity." Needless to say, I will be anxious to hear your opinions, criticisms, suggestions, etc."
Even with the efforts to set the Superman program apart from the rest of the offending rabble, Frank found that not everyone saw the difference. An indiscriminating view that crossed international boundaries.
Dear Miss Grannan:
I am very much interested in the new that the question of "horror programs" is to be on the agenda of your CBC national conference. It seems a little strange that such programs as the general run of our afternoon serials should be included in that category, since when I think of horror programs I think of the more or less adult presentations such as The Shadow and The Inner Sanctum etc.
There was a growing backlash in Canada against "horror programs" aimed at children. So much so, that during 1944, the state-owned Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) recommended that local stations not renew the contracts for such shows. The Canadian Association of Broadcasters went a step further, "...endeavoring to find concrete cases of this type of program contributing to juvenile delinquency." 2
Frank's January 9th, 1945, letter to Mary Grannan, CBC supervisor of children's broadcasts, was likely a preemptive strike meant to provide some separation between Superman and legitimate horror programs. Still, Frank didn't totally disagree with Grannan's view.
"However I do think that once or twice the Superman program has gone overboard in that direction--notably when I was away on my vacation last summer, and in case you heard last Friday's Superman (which I hope you did not) it had a few touches which were done over my dead body and screams of protest. But this is not the usual thing, and as a rule I would hardly call it a horror program."
There was related matter, unaddressed by Frank, that concerned the producers of Superman. A concern detailed in a February 12th letter from Robert Maxwell to a parent.
Dear Mr. Duboff,
The production department of the Mutual Network has informed me that you called to discuss the HOUSE OF MYSTERY program on the basis that a large group of parents in your locality objected to its content. Since HOUSE OF MYSTERY is produced under my personal direction, your inquiry was referred to me.
As I understood it, you characterized HOUSE OF MYSTERY as "too much like INNER SANCTUM". I am amazed at this since the two programs are diametrically opposed. As a matter of fact, HOUSE OF MYSTERY was created to combat the so-called "unexplained" or psychological horror programs to which so many children are addicted. The main purpose of HOUSE OF MYSTERY is to explain and expose, to assure youngsters that the occult, the supernatural and the spiritualistic do not exist; to allay fears of the darkness and to show them that wherever supernatural manifestations are said to exist, they can be traced to natural phenomenon or man-made effects.
The HOUSE OF MYSTERY program is under the editorial guidance of Miss Josette Frank of The Child Study Association of America and the psychiatric guidance of Dr. Loretta Bender, Chief of the Children's Psychiatric Division of Bellevue Hospital, both of whom are convinced that in HOUSE OF MYSTERY we have the first children's entertainment vehicle possessed of therapeutic value.
Although its spooky organ music and funereal intro delivered by Roger Ellliott, "the Mystery Man", would seem to belie the difference between House of Mystery and other horror programs, Maxwell's assurance was backed by his offer to Duboff to have a meeting. The meeting, which would be attended by either Frank or Bender, was Maxwell's attempt to find a common ground.
"You have a great deal at stake as the parent; we have a great deal at stake as the creators and producers of juvenile entertainment, which, to be successful must meet with your approval."
Whether such accommodating measures were common in an attempt to placate upset parents is unknown. But it does go to the heart of the matter as it shows the level of concern felt within Superman, Inc. and by extension, throughout DC. Although Superman had originated within the pages of comics, the radio program had brought the character into virtually every home and decisions made on the show affected how he was presented in the comic book. And other than Bob Maxwell, nobody affected how he was presented on the radio program more than Josette Frank.
Novelty Press was the comic book imprint of Curtis Publishing, publishers of the venerable SATURDAY EVENING POST, influential LADIES HOME JOURNAL and JACK & JILL children's magazine. With such a respectable legacy to protect, managing editor Robert D. Wheeler hoped to show that his comics were on the side of the angels and
the quickest way there was to get Frank's approval.
March 7, 1945
Dear Miss Frank:
The inclosed [sic] copy of FRISKY FABLES represents our effort to produce a magazine of the highest type in its field, a "comic" appealing to very small children.
You will notice that some of the humor will go over the heads of our tiny tots,. We don't think the story value is impaired thereby, however; and frankly our intention was to give a bonus of entertainment value to the adult who has to read the comic to the child.
As arranged in our telephone conversation, Novelty Press would like an appraisal of FRISKY FABLES by your staff, on the usual paid basis. Not a detailed analysis and study of individual strips, but a general summing up of how ell or how poorly we have accomplished our aims, with perhaps comment on anything particularly deserving praise or censure.
We appreciate greatly the fact that you have found TARGET COMICS, BLUE BOLT, and 4-MOST of a standard high enough to warrant your recommending them. I am inclosing [sic] a recent copy of BLUE BOLT to show how our Q and A feature is liked by readers, as shown by readers' letters. Note how we have sandwiched educational [material] among others.
Frank's response apparently pleased Wheeler, as a few weeks later in a letter dated March 29, she received his appreciative reply along with his acknowledgement of a recommended aid.
"All the members of our editorial staff are pleased to think that you were so favorably impressed by our new comic magazine, FRISKY FABLES.
We appreciate also your comments about the Q's and A's, and about the way in which the negro child is introduced in "Fearless Fellers". We are familiar with the booklet "How Writers Perpetuate the Stereotypes" and believe our policies generally are in accordance with the ideas expressed therein."
Wheeler's familiarity with the recently published (January, 1945) booklet is not surprising, nor is the implication that it was mentioned to him by Frank.
Produced by the Writer's War Board (the main propaganda organization for the U.S. during WWII), "How Writer's Perpetuate the Stereotypes" took a hard look at the prevailing racial stereotyping in America at the time.
The Board, chaired by famed mystery writer Rex Stout, conducted an extensive survey of current media--film, radio, advertising, theater, and the various print forms--and ranked each according to how sympathetically it treated minorities. Theater was at the top of the list, novels and motion pictures followed. More than halfway down were comics.
Frank was certainly aware of this poor showing. It follows that she would attempt to change the portrayal of minorities within comic books as it fit with her, and the CSAA's, similar efforts in children's literature.
In 1943, the CSSA had established its Children's Book Award based upon rewarding a book, "for young people that deals realistically with problems in their own world". The CSAA was especially appreciative of books that reflected its own progressive attitudes of brotherhood and social significance.
This sometimes meant that they would attempt to influence authors themselves. Frank was known to have asked writer Doris Gates to change a white character in a story to an African American 3. That she would hope to similarly influence comic book editors is understandable and it didn't end with her suggestions to Wheeler.
March 4, 1946
Dear Mr. Maxwell,
It is with the greatest of pleasure that I accept your invitation to serve as the consultant for the Superman Radio Program insofar as the subject of intergroup relations is concerned. Those of us associated with me and I are delighted that you are going ahead with this type of program because we think it can make a very important contribution to the promotion of understanding and respect among Americans of all backgrounds.
This letter from Willard Johnson, vice-president of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, was welcome news. Frank had solicited this organization for their help 4 and this confirmation of their input was just what she and Maxwell had hoped for.
Frank had long envsioned a greater purpose for Superman beyond the everyday crime-fighting limitations placed upon him by his writers. She found a sympathetic ally in Maxwell, who was able to convince W. H. Vanderploeg, president of the program's sponsor Kellogg's and its advertising agency, Kenyon & Eckhardt, that having a social conscience was commercially possible.
It didn't take long after the first installment of "The Hate Mongers Organization" broadcast on April 16th for the first reviews to come in.
"Though he did not make the headlines, Superman was news of a rather high order last week," wrote radio columnist Jack Gould, "Disregarding his conventional excursions in escapism, he set out on a new series of adventures in which he proposes to combat the more mundane evils of racial and religious intolerance, adolescent gangsterism and other related problems of the juvenile." 5
The story arc follows the efforts of Superman and his pal Jimmy Olson to thwart the Guardians of America hate group and their acts of terrorism against the multi-cultrural Untiy House. Though the malicious organization is revealed to be [SPOILER ALERT] conveniently led by a former Nazi spy, this was the show's earliest attempt at potentially controversial subject matter and its positive reception encouraged further socially conscious storylines.
The vice-president of the CSAA, Mrs. Hugh Grant Straus, took the occasion of a mention in the liberal PM daily newspaper to explain the rationale and development of the new direction of the radio program in a letter to the editor dated May 20th.
I was delighted to note your salute to the new series on the Superman radio program.
I believe your readers would be interested to know that the Radio Committee of the Child Study Association of America through Josette Frank, its staff adviser, has been consulting with the Superman program and working with its producers for a number of years. The idea of using Superman's special popularity for fighting intolerance was a composite of many consultations and was directly encouraged by a meeting called by this Association to discuss ways in which children's programs might be used to further good interracial and intercultural relations. For the present series, our Committee listened to trial recordings and called upon psychologists, psychiatrists, and propaganda specialists to advise the producers who found themselves with a challenging problem on their hands--entertainment with a purpose.
We want to join with you in applauding the sponsor (Kellogg's) and the producer (Robert Maxwell Associates) who were willing to put so much blood, sweat and tears into a risky and difficult experiment. We who watched and worked with it since the inception of the idea know what it takes.
While the next story arc concerning the corruption of poor youth from the slums by a crooked politician ("Al Vincent's Corrupt Political Machine") continued along the path of social awareness, it was the following episodes that elicited both the most praise and the most condemnation.
Beginning on June 10, "The Clan of the Fiery Cross" depicted the torments visited upon a young Chinese-American boy named Tommy Lee and his family by a group of "True American" bigots determined to drive them out of Metropolis. Clearly based upon the real Ku Klux Klan, the organization dubbed the Clan of the Fiery Cross is [SPOILER ALERT] eventually stymied and captured as Superman, once again, saves the day.
Perhaps predictably, there were threats from what Frank characterized as "the lunatic fringe" 6 and some southern U.S. radio stations protested this storyline, but the press was generally positive in their appraisal of Superman's newly formed social agenda.
Typical was Harriett Van Horne, who wrote in her September 10th column,"Kids admire him now more than ever, it would seem, because his exploits concern matters within their ken. He talks back to the governor and outwits the state police and raises funds for the needy. Along with eating bins of corn flakes, the sponsor hopes the youngsters will imbibe some of Superman's sympathy for the underdog." 7
Unmentioned, but an underlying motivation was the bedrock belief of the Ethical Culture movement to which the CSAA was dedicated: the establishment of a morality based upon socially beneficial acts free of religious dogma. It can't be overlooked that as the other-worldly Kryptonian was inherently devoid of Earthly religious ties, a being who did good deeds for the sake of goodness itself, Superman was the fictional personification of that belief.
Harry Childs was serving as editorial director of promotional comics publisher General Comics when he received a December 11, 1946 letter from Frank regarding her critique of a proposed comic he had sent her.
"My criticism had to do solely with the philosophy that was enunciated by the hero of your strip when the only advice he could offer to two quarreling children was to learn how to fight so that one of them could win. You realize of course that by this precept one of them will also lose. It seems to me that on the positive side we will do well to teach our children that there are things worth fighting for and worth fighting against in this world, and that they can find things more worth fighting about than petty personal advantage. The fight against injustice, against disease, against ignorance--all these offer a most valuable outlet for children's aggressions too."
Later that same day, Frank wrote yet another letter to Childs concerning a feature at DC.
"I have been thinking quite a lot about Johnny Everyman and the possibilities he offers for selling America to American children. In a way I think it would be a pity to take him off his international mission. All the educators right now are urging us to do something for children on the U.N. theme, and certainly you are doing it in Johnny Everyman. This idea is more wanted now than ever."
Ostensibly created in cooperation with the Pearl Buck-led East and West Association, Johnny Everyman was an attempt,"to further understanding between peoples", according to the blurb prominently displayed on the splash page of each story. Often scripted by Jack Schiff, DC editor and writer well-known for his liberal views, the feature put the lead character in situations wherein he could teach impressionable youngsters lessons in tolerance.
"It occurs to me that you might do one of two things: (1) Introduce a new character of this type in another book whose mission would be to show our children what goes on in these United States. There is plenty of wonderful material to draw from, and I would like to talk with you about this idea. Or (2) you might use Johnny Everyman in the United States to show the contributions of various nationality groups to the building of America. I have some excellent source material of this kind and this too, is an aspect of American life which is very much wanted by educators and librarians and which plays into the U.N. theme."
"Think about these two possibilities a bit, and let's talk about it further. I'd like to see you take the lead in this."
Despite Frank's enthusiasm for the feature, Johnny Everyman disappeared from the pages of DC comics within a few months, doomed, perhaps, by George E. Sokolsky's nationally syndicated column of June 29, 1946.
"Do you know what your children are reading? Do you ever pick up the comics to which they are so devoted?", he asked rhetorically.
"The other day, I picked up "World's Finest Comics" and noted a distinguished editorial advisory board," wrote Sokolsky as he dutifully listed Frank and the others, "So I thought that with such a group of advisers, this must be something extraordinary indeed. On the very next page to this listing of these great names appears a comic entitled "Johnny Everyman".
Sokolsky recounts the story of a young boy named Niikitin ("Nicky") brought before a "young people's court" in the Soviet Union on a charge of theft. The boy kept the bolt of cloth he claimed to have found since he "had his head turned" by pictures he saw in an American magazine. Johnny Everyman appears in the court and is allowed to speak in the boy's defense. "You see, Nicky, in the first place, although America is far ahead of Russia in production, not everybody in America possesses the things you saw advertised in that magazine."
This does not sit well with Sokolsky.
"Of course, Nikitin does not read that. No Russian child will read any American comic. All this is for American children."
Sokolsky finishes detailing the rest of the story and concludes that this means just one thing.
"In a word, to the child reading that strip, Americans must appear mean and hateful."
"And there is not a single thing in the cartoon to show democracy or decency in America. The question is asked, by no one answers about freedom of speech, of movement, of thought, of the press,of secret elections, of trial by jury and the privacy of one's home and possessions. Not one word of this."
"Is that what you want your children to learn about their country? Is that how you would teach them to love their country?" 8
Any dreams Frank may have had expanding Johnny Everyman's mission were never going anywhere. Having already incurred the wrath of the powerfully connected Sokolsky (he counted J. Edgar Hoover among his close friends), DC wasn't about to draw any more unwanted attention to its comics.Soon there would be attention enough coming from other quarters and Sokolsky wouldn't be among its biggest concerns.
1 "Issues Relating to the Comics", THE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL JOURNAL, pg. 642, (May 1942).
2 "CBC Hits Horror Shows", BROADCASTING, pg. 24, (Dec. 25, 1944).
3 Mickenberg, Julia L., LEARNING FROM THE LEFT, pg. 329, (2005).
4 Bowers, Rick, SUPERMAN VERSUS THE KU KLUX KLAN, pg. 119 (2012).
5 Gould, Jack, "On the New Superman", NEW YORK TIMES, April 28, 1946.
6 Ohio State University, EDUCATION ON THE AIR YEARBOOK, vol. 17, pg. 158, (1947).
7 Van Horne, Harriet, "Superman's Message is For Grownups, Too", NEW YORK WORLD-TELEGRAM, Sept. 10, 1946.
8 Sokolsky, George E., "These Days: The Reading of Children", June 29, 1946.