And, no, I’m not talking about Wonder Woman. A while back, I did a post about my favorite Superman story from the Silver Age, and enjoyed writing that. I’ve decided to continue that theme with this post which will highlight another Silver Age Superman story that I really love. “The Sweetheart Superman Forgot” from Superman Vol. 1 #165 from November, 1963 (which is not yet digitized on DCUI). According to the DC Wiki, it was written by Robert Bernstein with art by the great Curt Swan, so, yeah, let’s go with that.
First, let me go into my general philosophy regarding Silver Age Superman stories and that is: Often, there is more going on with them than what’s on the surface. The tldr explanation for this being: Editor Mort Weisinger was going through something of an existential crisis during this period and his real-life hang-ups and anxieties leaked into the stories. With that brief explanation of how I read Silver Age Superman out of the way, let’s get on to our story:
“The Sweetheart Superman Forgot” is a Red Kryptonite story. During the Silver Age, Red Kryptonite had a sort of “wild card” effect on Superman. Each time he was exposed to it, it would do something different to him like give him amnesia or cause him to lose his powers or even just grow a really long beard and this effect would last for 48 hours. Essentially, Red Kryptonite was a plot device that allowed the writer to change the rules of Superman just enough so they could tell the story they wanted to tell. In this story, Superman is exposed to Kryptonite and it causes him to lose his powers AND develop amnesia. Fun fact: In their New 52 Action Comics run, Grant Morrison retconned the effects of Red Kryptonite to being something that makes Superman hallucinate. I can definitely see how that retcon works:
Anyway, Superman is wandering around without his powers or his memories when he runs into his new love interest, Sally Selwyn:
Sally gives him a drink, but Superman passes out from exhaustion and/or Kryptonite poisoning. Sally gets him inside her family’s mansion to allow him to recover, and this is when we get the most significant part of the story.
While recovering, Superman has a nightmare:
Now, you might see these panels and say, “That’s the Silver Age for you. It’s ridiculous.” But, let’s really unpack what is happening in this nightmare. First, he’s having a nightmare about BEING Superman. That in and of itself is pretty significant because, in the Silver Age, being Superman meant everything to him. Don’t believe me? Ask Lois:
It really means something that his subconscious is telling him that being Superman is like a nightmare. Now, let’s take a closer look at how he sees his role as Superman. In the dream, he sees Superman as being like a movie theater doorman. We don’t have movie theater doormen anymore, but their role was to keep people without tickets out of the theater, to exclude. However, that’s not exactly what Superman is doing here. He’s trying to keep a dragon that has escaped from the movie in. Meaning, his role as doorman is to keep what should be on the inside trapped inside, to suppress. And this is where I go, “Holy $%@#, this is how he sees being Superman.”
This brings me to my rant about the toxic definition of what it means to “be a man” in American culture and especially in American culture in the 1950’s and 60’s. The generally accepted path to “being a man” in classic American culture is pretty straight forward: You get yourself a career, you build that career into a success, you get yourself a wife, and you start a family. That was it. You do those things in that order. To do anything less or anything else made you “less of a man.”
So how does that affect Superman and what exactly is he suppressing? Well, Superman is a bit different. He isn’t just a man in the 50’s and 60’s, he’s THE man. He has THE best career: Being Superman. And, as Lois pointed out, that creates issues. He won’t marry because there’s never going to be a point where that career takes a backseat to a family. Plus, how can he trust that anyone wants to marry him for him and not just because of his career as Superman? How can he know if someone really loves him? Therein lies what makes him the SUPERman in the 50’s and 60’s, what he does overrides everything else.
However, he is afforded a rare opportunity in this story. He doesn’t have his powers and he doesn’t remember he’s Superman. Taking on the name “Jim White” (a combination of Jimmy Olsen and Perry White), Superman gets to know Sally Selwyn and they fall in love. This is great, right? Finally, all the barriers are gone and he’s found a woman who loves him for him. He can finally stop suppressing, right? Wrong. There is always a barrier:
Ironically, now that he isn’t THE man and doesn’t have the great career, Superman doesn’t consider himself worthy of marrying Sally. It’s that toxic, classic American culture seeping through: Because he has no career, he’s a lesser man and lesser men don’t deserve to get the girl even when the girl is telling him otherwise.
This has been a long post, so let me finally get to the point. I love this story because it says something honest about the modern American ego. In this story, Superman has trapped himself. In his real life, he’s so ambitious about his career as Superman that he suppresses everything else about himself inside. The cultural wiring that drives this behavior is buried so deep that he can’t even forget it when he has amnesia. This means he can’t be with Lois when he’s Superman and he can’t be with Sally when he’s not. And there is something so tragically relatable to this that it hurts. Have you ever stood in the way of something you wanted because of how you needed society to see you? That’s what this story is about and that’s why it’s one of my favorite Superman stories.
Thanks for reading! What do you think about my interpretation of this story? Are there any other lover interests of Superman’s that you wish he would remember?