Meeting Kal-El

—Philip Hooten

We flew to the metropolis just in time for the parade. Towering in the sky, he stood atop a silver cubed platform. The living monument glided through the horde of humans with his red cape swaying in the breeze. It was a day in his honor as hundreds gathered throughout the narrow street. Mouths agape in disbelief, the sun brightly beamed down on the Kryptonian. All gazed upon the icon that was neither a bird nor a plane. His stoic face crowned with black hair perfectly curled on his forehead. Proving pajamas are always in style, his blue onesie was accented by red boots. None dares criticize the supernatural being for wearing his red briefs outside of his clothes. Maybe it’s a custom on his planet to model your Hanes. His chest bore a red inverted triangle, initialed by a capitalized gold “S.” Standing with his hands on hips fairgoers knew Superman had arrived.

The heroic alien known by few as Kal-El, and by many as Superman, arrived at the New York World’s Fair on July 3, 1940. Prior to Superman’s arrival The Fair originally opened in April of 1939, but the idea of hosting The World’s Fair was formulated earlier as a result of the Stock Market Crash of ’29. Marked by a period of economic downturn, the sinister Great Depression had complete dominion over the nation’s economy. Six years following Black Tuesday, steps were initiated by New York businessmen to salvage the city, which was cluttered with bread lines and made chaotic by riots. These New York men, in their well-dressed Brooks Brothers suits, rallied together and formulated a plan to rescue the damsel America. Establishing the New York World’s Fair Corporation, their Fortress of Solitude (office) was located in the Empire State Building. After the assembling of the “Economic Avengers,” The Fair Corporation named Grover Whalen president.

A former commissioner of the New York Police Department, Whalen was a business man and politician before being selected the president of The Fair Corporation by The Fair’s board of directors. Being the leader, his first task was to market the idea of hosting the World’s Fair in New York, selling the concept to various nations around the world. Under Whalen’s direction 33 states, along with 60 nations and international organizations, united for The Fair. The goal was to show the interdependence among states and countries in the 20th century world. Stakeholders comprised mostly of businessmen who hoped the global kumbaya would lead to increased revenue and revive New York’s battered economy.

However, it wasn’t an economic success. The Fair was funded by New York City, New York State, foreign governments, and the federal government. Costing roughly $160 million, most of the money was used to construct, operate, and promote the fair. Whalen had to not only get the American people, but people around the world excited for the event. Promotion was crucial—The Fair was advertised in newsreels, on radio, and in print. The marketing team would go to companies that created compilations of gray papers—newspapers that contained black text and colorless pictures—to also advertise news about the upcoming shindig. Additionally, New York sports teams such as the New York Giants, New York Yankees, and Brooklyn Dodgers provided support by promoting The Fair. Players wore patches on their sleeves depicting the Fair’s two iconic structures, the Trylon and Perisphere.

The Trylon and Perisphere were two massive white structures at the center of the fair, known as the “Theme Center.” Designed by the architectural firm of Harrison & Foulihoux, the Theme Center was visible from miles away and depicted simple geometric shapes: a pyramid, and a sphere. Soaring into sky, the Trylon punctured the clouds at nearly 700 feet. It was a three-sided obelisk. The Perisphere was a large 200 foot hollow sphere. The duo appeared in memorabilia, pictures, on coins, and on various merchandise. Guests could purchase paperweights, lamps, and milk-glass vinegar bottles that combined both shapes together. Vendors would shout, “Come and get it,” over the white bottles that had a base shaped like a large ball with a long pillar erected from it.

The Trylon and the Perisphere from The 1940 World’s Fair in New York City.
The Trylon and the Perisphere from The 1940 World’s Fair in New York City.

Both structures were made from steel frames covered by cement stucco, the cheaper alternative to concrete. Together they were connected by a 950-foot-long circular ramp that led to the fairgrounds called the Helicline. With the Perisphere housing the main exhibit, the giant sphere was elevated on five steel pillars and had a reflecting pool beneath. Guests would ride an escalator from the Trylon to the center of the colossal ping-pong ball, which housed a 100- foot diorama of a miniature city. Standing on either of the two levels of rotating platforms inside, visitors glanced down in amazement at a fictional representation 100 years into the future. The utopian display placed government and business buildings towards the center. Their placement emphasizes their power and importance in the future society. Meanwhile farms, mines, and mills represented the middle-working class (the people visiting the fair), and were placed near the edges of the utopia, removed from the center of power. It was claimed that the design layout was meant to show more space within cities.

In the future the majority of citizens won’t be confined in overcrowded cities, thus having the ability to live in the suburbs/open land. The Perisphere’s futuristic city was depicting a utopia in which businesses and government reign supreme. The elite businessmen have a symbiosis with government while the majority is cast aside. The common man doesn’t have an impact or prominent voice. They live on the outskirts of society and are powerless. The Fair promoted this utopia, or vision for humanity in the United States, ironically called “Democracity.”

The first season of the Fair ended with only 26 million admissions of an anticipated 45-60 million. Coming up a smidge short of the expected attendance, they may have set the bar too high, especially since most were still struggling from the Depression. The Fair was criticized for the costs to attend. Adults had to pay 75 cents, and children cost one whole quarter. Parking also drained your pockets, with an additional 50 cent payment. The average family income was roughly $1,500. Not only were there additional costs for souvenirs, non-locals had to factor in food, lodging, and transportation into their vacation budget. Being high in the Empire State Building, the men in their Brooks Brothers suits were not thinking in terms of the average individual.

The cover of a ticket book for The 1940 World’s Fair in New York City.
The cover of a ticket book for The 1940 World’s Fair in New York City.

In total, 45 million people traveled to Flushing Meadows-Corona Park during the two seasons of the Fair. During the off season, photographs of the Trylon and Perisphere circulated newspapers, attempting to keep potential tourists interested. The goal of the marketing staff was to create anticipation for the summer season. Unfortunately, families decided to stay home. Promotional efforts failed and the fair closed with only 48 million dollars in profit.

Superman’s appearance on the float occurred in the second season of the Fair, and the event was deemed “Superman Day.” The fictional hero that graced the presence of mortal fairgoers was imagined by first-generation Jewish Americans Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in the early 1930’s. These childhood friends grew up together in a mostly-Jewish neighborhood in Glenville, Ohio. A descendent of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, Siegel would write science fiction stories in his youth, and longed to be a reporter. After the writer joined forces with friend and artist Joe Shuster, together the dynamic duo created the comic book icon.

Siegel and Shuster were influenced during a time of unemployment and discrimination. During the 1930’s and 1940’s, Jewish Americans dealt with prejudices in the job market. With limited job opportunities in newspapers and magazines for minorities, Shuster and Siegel turned to comics. Despite being viewed as the lowest form of entertainment at the time, the medium granted security during a hostile job market. Still trying to recover from the Great Depression, and living in a time of Jewish oppression, Shuster and Siegel discovered their Jewish Themyscira at National Allied Publication. The company was providing jobs to individuals who had nowhere else to go. Initially a place of sanctuary and job security, National Allied Publication, which would later be known as DC Comics, was co-owned by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Jack Liebowitz and Harry Donenfeld.

Saved from being homeless and finally working, Shuster and Siegel ended up selling the first 13-page Superman comic strip, along with the rights to the character, for $130. Not knowing the greatness they created, the duo sued the company at the end of their 10 year contract but ultimately failed at gaining back the rights to Superman. Yet Shuster’s and Siegel’s vision of a man impermeable to bullets was published, and Superman made his costume cloaked debut in Action Comics #1 in June of 1938.

After crash landing in Smallville, the little alien Kal-El became known as Clark Kent. The creation of Superman was influenced during a period when oppressed Jews were being slaughtered in Nazi Germany, which was busy the year following the first publication of Superman. The Nazis had already invaded and occupied Czechoslovakia since March, before invading Poland in 1939. Completely ruining the first day of September, Germany, under Chancellor Adolph Hitler, initiated World War II in Europe. To make matters worse the Soviet Union decided to join in on the gang-bang of Poland, entering from the east on the 17th. With the invasion ending 11 days before Halloween, Germany and the Soviet Union divided and annexed Poland under the German-Soviet Frontier Treaty.

Fear was further instilled into the Jewish community on Kristallnacht, also known as the Night of Broken Glass. Throughout Germany, Nazis decimated all Jewish structures on November 9, 1938. Not only were synagogues burned down, but Jewish homes, schools, and businesses were also vandalized and ransacked. With a death count close to 100, the night of terror resulted with 30,000 Jewish men being arrested and sent to concentration camps.

Hearing of the Jewish persecution in Germany may have influenced Shuster and Siegel to create a hero capable of saving the masses. Superman’s connection with Judaism goes beyond his creators’ religion as his origin story parallels the Biblical tale of Moses. An important prophet in Judaism, Moses was born at time when the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt. Similar to Kal-El’s parents, Moses’ parents packaged their baby up in a basket. He was then shipped down the Nile River. Moses’ parents were protecting their son from the paranoid Egyptian Pharaoh. Another crazed man in power, he ordered the death of all newborn Hebrew boys, fearful that the minority he was enslaving would revolt. Moses was discovered and adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter and grew up as an Egyptian prince, unaware of his Hebrew ancestry.

Differing from Moses, Superman was an alien who grew up among humans. Deemed as an “alien,” or outsider, his status resembles the identity of Jewish immigrants in the 1930’s America. Shuster and Siegel, thought first generation American Jews, were still viewed as strangers in the country. Neither men couldn’t get jobs, were broke, and close to being homeless before finding employment at National Allied Publication. In a period of history when Jews were persecuted, decimated, and left with nowhere to go, Superman becomes a symbol for the oppressed people. Although viewed as an alien, he fights to protect humanity. With all the injustice in the world, Superman uses his extraordinary powers to fight for social justice.

In honor of The Fair, DC Comics published a 96 page comic book entitled New York’s World Fair. The comic was released in April 1939, and featured Superman attending The Fair. In the comic he stops a head on collision of two trains, builds an exhibit for The Fair, and saves Lois Lane. The following year DC Comics published another edition, but this time the cover portrayed Superman, Batman, and Robin in front of the iconic Trylon and Perisphere. At the time, the 15 cent comic portrayed three notable heroes united on one cover. Before even opening the pages, you have feeling these costume clad wearing icons will face up against some unknown evil. Punches will be thrown, “BAM” and “POW” will litter the pages, and Lois will inevitably plant a kiss on Superman’s cheek. These united heroes provided hope with the emerging War.

In the end, the 1939-1940 New York World’s promoted optimism and fear. Although the Trylon and Perisphere were demolished with the Fair’s closing—the 4,000 tons of steel was used as scrap metal by military factories to make weapons for WWII. But despite the oncoming war, Kal-El’s attendance at the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair offered optimism as the country clawed its way out of the Great Depression, and preparing to fight in the Second World War. And in the end, both The United States and Superman reigned triumphant.