Truth and Justice Aren’t Enough
Who says superheroes and religion don't mix?
I’ve always liked a good slogan. As a second-wave boomer raised in the heyday of Mad Men advertising, I have quite a few corporate mottos, mantras and ridiculously catchy jingles permanently embedded in my brain. Few of them are important or useful — except maybe as an object lesson. Be careful what junk you expose your children to, because they may spend their lives believing it’s true.
As a kid, I consumed a lot of pop cultural junk, especially animated cartoons and comic books. Lots of it was utterly disposable, some of it was clever entertainment, and a little of it was genuinely inspiring. There’s a whole other conversation to be had about the visual artistry of this stuff, but right now we’re discussing the message. And one character, with one motto, really spoke to me.
The mid-1960s was a fraught period that would grow more troubled (and troubling) as the decade continued. Even as a pre-adolescent in a quiet suburban town, I didn’t have to look any further than the stack of Newsweek magazines in the living room to know that times were tough. Civil Rights. Vietnam. Generation Gap. War on Poverty. Air Pollution. I could read the words but I didn’t know what they meant. Except that they were bad.
When things are bad, you look for someone to make it better. Someone you can trust and share your authentic self with. If you’re lucky, that’s a parent or a family member who loves you unconditionally. Many of us are not that lucky. So if you are a little smarter than average, and a little more anxious as a result, you look elsewhere. I looked to a strange visitor from another planet.
Television wasn’t simply an escape from reality, it was a window that opened to a larger world. In that big, wonderful, scary world, people spoke words I never heard around my house. Those words were spoken with meaning, clarity, and conviction — and sometimes with a thrilling soundtrack that gave me goosebumps. Nothing made the hair on my neck stand up like announcer Jackson Beck intoning “…Fighting a never-ending battle for Truth, Justice, and Freedom, with super-powers far beyond those of ordinary mortals.”
Did I mention that I was raised Roman Catholic?
As an eight-year old, I thought that line wasn’t just Superman’s motto — it shoulda been Jesus Christ’s too. Trying to make sense of a Latin Mass was too much for this third grader, but I could parse the English language Gospel readings. Tales of walking on water, magical meals for thousands, and bringing the dead back to life. Plus, a hero who arrived on Earth by very unconventional means, to say the least. For me, religion and superheroes were intertwined from a very early age.
I credit the earnest morality of a Catholic school education with making Superman’s motto so powerful to me. Whatever other issues the Church would raise in my life (and there were plenty), I learned to be a good boy and to treat others the way that I wanted to be treated myself. Problem was, there were bullies and jerks and other creeps that had to be dealt with. A lot of Injustice and a lot of Lies. Who are you going to turn to?
It wasn’t long before I realized that neither the guy in the blue-and-red suit nor the guy on the cross was going to come to my rescue on the school playground. But I was still inspired by the slogan. I later found out that, not unlike the Pledge of Allegiance, Superman’s motto had undergone a few rewrites. In the early 1940s, he simply fought for “Truth and Justice.” By the ‘50s, they’d added “…and The American Way” for wartime and commie-fearing audiences. Unfortunately, that version stuck in the public’s mind for decades.
Last year, the folks at DC decided on another, official rewrite for the 21st century. In case you missed it, Superman now fights a never-ending battle for “Truth, Justice, and a Better Tomorrow.” I like it, I can get behind it. But what I really hope is that today’s eight-year olds read that slogan and believe in it. Especially the part about a better tomorrow.
Because I want kids to grow up believing the future — any future — is possible. And that they have the means to make it better.
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