(No Series)
To Be Published August 4, 2015

How superheroes grappled with industrialization, modernization, and capitalism

"Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound . . . It's Superman!" Bending Steel examines the historical origins and cultural significance of Superman and his fellow American crusaders. Cultural historian Aldo J. Regalado asserts that the superhero seems a direct response to modernity, often fighting the interrelated processes of industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and capitalism that transformed the United States from the early nineteenth century to the present. Reeling from these exciting but rapid and destabilizing forces, Americans turned to heroic fiction as a means of explaining national and personal identities to themselves and to the world. In so doing, they created characters and stories that sometimes affirmed, but other times subverted conventional notions of race, class, gender, and nationalism.

The cultural conversation articulated through the nation's early heroic fiction eventually led to a new heroic type--the brightly clad, super-powered, pro-social action heroes that first appeared in American comic books starting in the late 1930s. Although indelibly shaped by the Great Depression and World War II sensibilities of the second-generation immigrants most responsible for their creation, comic book superheroes remain a mainstay of American popular culture.

Tracing superhero fiction all the way back to the nineteenth century, Regalado firmly bases his analysis of dime novels, pulp fiction, and comics in historical, biographical, and reader response sources. He explores the roles played by creators, producers, and consumers in crafting superhero fiction, ultimately concluding that these narratives are essential for understanding vital trajectories in American culture.

‘We’re all a product of our times’ would be a worthy adage caption for this book.
Bending steel has a long introduction breaking down the upcoming chapters. The point at the beginning with grabbed my attention was the catchphrase tune for the intro of Superman.
"Faster than a speeding locomotive, can jump single skyscrapers. They were the techno advancements of that time specifically, but in a way, especially the skyscrapers, they were the restrictive obstacles for those who had to work in them."

The author points out this is not the story of any one hero in particular with their storyline, and I see what he means as I keep reading. It is a book about the times and authors influenced by those times. The crucial issues such as racism are discussed A LOT. The writer makes long reaching connections for influences and then dives off into other author’s stories, like Edgar Allan Poe and Lovecraft. After these authors there is much emphasis on Tarzan and how his strength and abilities combined with popularity were likely a huge influence on the minds of the creators years later.

These are interesting in themselves but some of it feels a little disjointed. It’s all to illustrate the larger point and to provide the tiny intricacies that were brewing in order to cultivate the seeds that would spark up Superman eventually, but if you’re casually reading it seems to lead in bizarre directions and, at times, loses interest with its boldness.

Around 35% in, the story starts dissecting actual Superman stories – in who he fights villain wise, not especially the origins of the alien himself. It was interesting that Superman failed to sell initially, that he was scrapped and reborn by the very men who made him, and when he appeared – he appeared not as a single comic book edition but buried with others sharing semi-common characteristics in a magazine. After it was realized people were scoping out the action comics specifically for Superman, that bolstered his appeal for DC Comics and made him the success he became.

I’m still not completely on par with all the racial relevance that the author kept highlighting, although of course that was present in the times and for the authors specifically considering their Jewish ties, but I bore great scrutiny when the author brings up the Depression-era influence. Superman’s direct, supremely powerful defiance in the face of wrongs in the times and protection of the innocent – even from government neglect – was strong and encouraging to readers in that time period. This is something I completely agree with the author on.

I give kudos to the book for opening my eyes to Superman and the times with the question of science’s opinion of itself to affect morality and modern world so well during that time period. I didn’t think of this before and a good non-fiction book teaches something, not only in the details but things never before even considered by the reader. The way it’s broken down and explained makes perfect sense.

"Far from being an extension of official authority and culture, Superman often worked at odds with authority figures in his fight against business, political, and urban corruption and in his mission to change social systems that either cause human suffering or systematically prevent hardworking Americans from engaging the nation’s promise of economic success.”

Around 40% in we have the introduction of other superheroes such as Batman, their creators backstories and histories, and who they are fighting against (on the surface), which we know to mean their fighting reaches a deeper sociological level. With Batman it is interesting that the reliance on earlier American Gothic trends comes into play when they were forming Batman.

The author pens his words well, although this an academic style nonfiction work. It’s one of those lengthy pieces that goes into such detail that it’s best to be read in smaller, drawn-out bursts. Not only well researched, but also plenty of psychological musings about the time periods and its influences. It’s worth it if you’re into Superheroes but is more of a book aimed to understanding the times that influenced them and why the appeal of them took off as well as they did.