Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Great American Myth? Part 2: Superman

My apologies that this is so late in coming. I started a series on "The Great American Myth" months ago, and promised this entry. I began it in March, but haven't finished it until now. This series is a search for what might be the great "story" of American culture, and an exploration of several candidates. You may wish to read the first entry, which is more of an introduction, before this, though it is not necessary.

We may think of comic books and "graphic novels" as a mainstay of our entertainment world, but this was not always the case. While graphic storytelling has a history stretching back to prehistory (...if that makes sense), the familiar superhero comic book is a product of the 20th century and, I would argue, uniquely American. Though the form has taken off in Japan, pioneered by men like Tezuka Osamu, this art owed much of its genesis to American artwork (compare Astro Boy's design with Mickey Mouse, for example). And if it is indeed an American art form, the superhero comic book owes its existence to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and their creation of Superman.

The superhuman powers, the flashy villains, the colored tights that we associate with the genre date back to the 1930s and Superman. Other cultures have certainly had their heroic figures. Greek mythology features great men and demigods and their cosmic struggles. Yet the modern superhero is an American creation; a character with an elaborate backstory, a secret everyman identity, and the power to do the jobs our civil servants cannot. Superheroes never take the place of police or federal agents; they always work in tandem with them. Why? Because Superman did. Even the more subversive comic book characters generally only bend the rules that Superman established.

All right, you may be saying. Comic book heroes may be American, and Superman may have been instrumental in that origin, but what makes his story the great American myth? Is Kal-El of Krypton really any more relevant than Batman or Spider-Man? Stan Lee and the people at Marvel do deserve high praise for the work done in the genre. Spider-Man excelled at portraying a young hero protagonist in a real life city. And while Batman has steadily trounced Superman in popularity over the past twenty years, in essence he is a different type of character. Strictly speaking, Batman is not a superhero. Many argue this point, and will lump him in with other costumed heroes; but were it not for the Justice League of America Batman could be considered entirely separate from the superhero world. He is a superhero only by association. In reality, Batman is a costumed vigilante detective; this is especially evident in the early comics. While his brooding darkness and tragic backstory may resonate with readers and viewers, it is Superman's story that ultimately expresses American ideology.

Most Americans are familiar with Superman's origin from comics, books, films, TV or radio. Krypton was a dying alien world. It's destruction was foreseen by a scientist named Jor-El who, to protect his infant son Kal-El, sent him in a ship to the far away planet Earth. The boy's ship crashed in Smallville on Earth, where he was found by Jonathan and Martha Kent. The more familiar version has them adopt the boy and name him Clark. [The very first Superman origin comic depicted the Kents leaving Clark in an orphanage. That story soon changed, I think to give him more of a growing-up backstory, and to facilitate the Superboy comic series.] Clark grows up, moves to the big city of Metropolis and becomes a reporter for the Daily Planet newspaper, where he meets Lois Lane, the girl of his dreams. But Clark is no ordinary man. When trouble calls, his Kryptonian physiology and the radiation of Earth's yellow sun (along with gravity and half a dozen other conflicting factors) give him super-human powers; he puts on tights and a cape with a big red and yellow S on the front (all sown from the blankets found in the ship with him from Krypton) and becomes SUPERMAN! Though he hides this identity behind the guise of Clark Kent, and nobody knows they are one and the same, Superman fights for truth, justice and the American way!

When you look at it in its simplest terms, Superman is an immigrant who came to America for a better future. Isn't this the fable of Ellis Island that we've all come to know? He's just a boy who grows up to make something of himself. He not only becomes a great, productive American, he literally becomes superhuman and wins the adulation of the nation and the world. Is this not the American Dream restated? Do we not want to believe that anyone can be anything here? His origins further substantiate this myth by placing his childhood in Smallville. Not only is Clark Kent an immigrant, he is also the son of rustic country folk. He's a country boy who makes it big in the city. That notion of upward mobility cannot be overlooked.

But, you may say, Superman is an alien. This is true. It is Kal-El's uniqueness that empowers him to be the superhero for the nation. What once was Kryptonian became folded into the fabric of America, part of its crime-fighting and national propaganda. In this way, we might view Superman as emblematic of the "Great American Melting Pot" philosophy; the great parts of our foreign heritage is added to America without taking away from it. While he is Kryptonian, Superman still sees himself as American. He has a sense of loyalty to its people. He has familial love for the Kents. He stands for good American values. It is no coincidence that every episode of the old series stated he fought for "truth, justice and the American way." And what is the American way? What makes it better than any other way? The comic doesn't ask these questions because we aren't supposed to. The American way of life is perceived as a noble goal to do good; to right wrongs by strength if necessary, but never use that power for evil. It's a nice idea. Now, any student of recent American history knows that's also reasonably false. But the idea of that America is strong, and Superman is a poster boy for maintaining that illusion. It's curious that Superman seems to fight ONLY for America. Very rarely is he used on a global scale. Many comic authors have had fun in recent years positing scenarios wherein Kal-El doesn't land in America but in Soviet Russia (Red Son) or in England (True Brit). Such stories reinforce the notion that Superman isn't JUST a product of solar radiation and an alien genome; America is as responsible for making and maintaining the Superman as he is for maintaining her. And while I do not want to make to great a point of it, he does appear completely human, and as a white man. Life for this character would have been very different were he to be black. Maybe it's best that he share low origins, but be easily accepted into wealthy white society. The book's origins are in the 1930s, after all, and I don't wish to be racist about it. I simply point that out. In fact, some have argued that Superman represents something Jewish, noting that his creators were Jewish, and even his name Kal-El shares similarities with Hebrew words. Whatever that may mean, it is clear that Superman is an "other", one from outside the homogenous America who was able to join it.

I feel I would also be remiss if I didn't explore for a moment Clark Kent's job. Superman is not the only caped hero to be employed by a newspaper (Peter Parker is as well), but he was the first. But unlike Parker, who got the job at the Daily Bugle because of Spider-Man, Clark worked at the Daily Planet before becoming Superman, or at least before really bearing that mantle. They were separate notions. Now, we could delve into the holy apocrypha of the Superboy books, which feature Clark growing up and into his powers, which goes even further in the television adaptation known as Smallville. But even were we to believe Superman preceded Kent the reporter, they were never intentionally mingled. It is not Clark who does all the reportage on Superman, it is Lois. The Daily Planet was a way for Clark Kent to have a job; to be productive in society as a man, and not jut a thing. He has a boss; this being who could theoretically rule the planet submits himself to outside authority. Why? Because he just wants to be a man. And why a newspaper? Perhaps because part of what America prides herself in is freedom of the press. Clark Kent works for an American institution that is about the free exchange of ideas. How different we might feel as readers to see Superman disguised as Clark Kent, the banker!

Another fundamental aspect of what Superman is can be defined by his reality as Clark. They are the same, yet they are different. Clark Kent is a disguise, and yet more than a disguise. In some ways, it is a life that he has lived since he was a child. But he's also the man who can fly. So he lets the cape and the suit, the "big blue blur" as he's sometimes called, be the hero. He lets the world know about Superman. But the man who is Clark hides that identity behind a pair of glasses. In this way, there's a nobility represented about the good things done in secret. He's not only a hero because of what he does; he's a hero because he doesn't glory in it. Much has been made of the glasses disguise. How could Lois never know it's the same guy, but with spectacles on? The simple genius of the glasses, is that they are a barrier to the truth, but no so great a barrier that they hide all signs of it. They remind us that anyone we know, even those we least suspect, can be heroic in some way. Superman inspires us to be more than we think we are.

Quentin Tarantino puts some interesting observations about Superman and Kent in the mouth of Bill in his Kill Bill movie. I present that dialogue for you here. There's a teeny bit of profanity in this clip, if that bothers you, but nothing R-rated.
So Bill argues that Superman sees humanity as weak, and that Clark is a mirror of that. I agree with most of his observation, but not necessarily with his assessment. I think he puts on that costume because he wants to share that existence, and not solely as a necessary evil or a commentary on society. But yes, it may be a mirror for humanity, and that leads us to the final point about Superman; he is an alien Messiah.

There are many who read a Christological undercurrent into the story of Superman. Even the Superboy stories mirror those nonsensical Gnostic gospels where a young Jesus raises the dead. Bill is right, Superman does make himself like us. But maybe that's the point; he becomes like us to show us the way; he chooses to lay aside his "godly" attributes and walk among us. Yes, he does seemingly miraculous things, but doesn't seek great credit for it. In Jesus' early ministry he often expressly told people to keep their healings secret. This idea of a Superman who parallels Christ is perhaps most striking in Richard Donner's Superman film. In the movie, Jor-El has passages of seemingly biblical dialogue: "They can be a great people, Kal-El. They only lack the light to show the way. For that reason, I have sent them you, my only son." Other religious metaphors can be seen in that Kal-El is sent away in a ship, like Moses in the rushes. America, though never truly a "Christian nation", prides itself on many seemingly Christian ideals, and to equate our great hero with our great Savior seems to be an acceptable allegory to many. It plays into our notions of a country founded in religion. Yet in its own way, this red and blue Christ supplants the other in the popular mind. While not uniquely American, this devaluing of Christian faith is also not un-American. Many of our Founders were Deists, believing in a Creator who made things, but is no longer bothered in the day-to-day inner workings of them. Jefferson famously edited a Bible which presented the gospels stricken of supernatural elements. The "magical" Jesus was left to be Clark Kent; a man with something to say. There are indeed also those who read Superman as an anti-Christ, though this view is not as prevalent. In America today, as we endlessly debate such trivialities as whether to avow this nation "under God" or not, the thought arises that maybe it doesn't matter from what Krypton we sprang. Krypton has exploded. Superman, unlike Jesus, has no father and home to return to when he ascends into the sky. Those heavens have been destroyed, and there is only the here and now. America in her own way lives for a universe of freedom, even from our pasts. Superman lost his. We threw out Britain. We continue to lose those things which we were in efforts to be something else, to make ourselves better. To be stronger, faster, and without spending six million dollars. Superman is an expression of that ideal. America's blind faith in itself may in fact be its religion.

In Clark Kent, and his true super self, we have a figure who is so unlike us, and yet so obviously and acceptably one of us. And though his storyline became muddled again and again over the course of sixty years, and though his list of powers is seemingly unending, making him almost too powerful, he still gets up in the morning, puts on his suit and goes to work each day as an example to all of us. Superman is a living expression of the American dream, who speaks only truth, who fights for justice, and who models for us the American way of life daily, challenging us to look behind the glasses for the superman in all of us.

to be continued in "The Great American Myth?" part 3:
Star Wars

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