BEHOLD, I TEACH YOU THE SUPERMAN!
The title of this section is part of a quote from the philosopher Friederich Nietzsche, from his seminal book, Thus Spake Zarathustra. The full quote is; “Behold, I teach you the superman! He is this lightning! He is this madness!” It has been used before in relation to comics of course. Alan Moore used it in his 1980s deconstructionist superhero work Marvelman (published in the United States by Eclipse Publishing as Miracleman for trademark reasons that I’ll get into in a later section of the book). Grant Morrison used it as the opening quote of his 2011 book, Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human. It’s a great quote, and fits the themes of superheroes incredibly well.
Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1938, wearing bright primary colors and creating the tropes of the superhero genre and archetypal imagery we will forever associate with it. The story of his creation by Siegal and Shuster is well known. They were two young men of Jewish descent from Cleveland, Ohio who wanted to create a comic strip of their new character. After being rejected by the newspaper syndicates they took their creation to National Publications where they were working as writer and artist for the comics features Federal Men and Dr. Occult, among others. They sold the rights to National for $120 and the rest is history.
Much has been said and written about Siegal and Shuster’s legal wrangling with DC Comics over the rights to Superman over the years. It is a complicated issue and without a doubt they were mistreated and ripped off. But at the time, this sort of deal, fair or not, was the industry standard (and stayed that way for a very long time). For good or ill, if they hadn’t taken that $120 the world may never have seen Superman and the subsequent growth of the comics industry. We would all have been poorer if that were the case.
But I’m not here to discuss the moral and legal complexities of this issue (though I’ll certainly touch on it in the context of creator’s rights later). At this point in my story I want to teach you the Superman.
The editors and publishers at National Publications didn’t have very much faith in Superman. Remember, this was at a time when no one had ever seen a super-powered hero in bright tights and a cape before. The powers that be thought he looked silly next to the more traditional detectives and Pulp heroes. Superman didn’t appear on the cover of Action again for several issues, and then only sporadically. But sales on Action were phenomenal. Anecdotal stories came into the National offices that kids everywhere were asking specifically for “that comic with Superman in it.” Beginning with issue #19 he appeared on the cover of every issue.
I want to stress something here; before Action Comics #1 there simply was no such thing as a superhero in the way we think of it today. Siegal and Shuster had created a brand new, never-before-seen genre, one that would explode in very short order and successfully continue, with occasional dips in popularity, to the present day, with no signs of it ever ending. The form changes over time, as I’ll address in great detail later, but the basic form endures.
Though Superman arrived as the proverbial bolt out of the blue he was not without his literary and mythic precedents. Siegal and Shuster were both readers and fans of Pulp fiction and the burgeoning Science Fiction and Fantasy genres that were a part of it. They acknowledge that a book entitled Gladiator by Phillip Wylie was a huge inspiration on Superman. They were part of a culture that read the heroic fiction of writers like Edger Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard. They were being weaned on characters like Tarzan, and John Carter. They were visiting the strange worlds that were being presented in Weird Tales magazine.
The name Clark Kent can be traced very specifically to two of these Pulp hero precedents. Clark Savage is better known as Doc Savage, the Man of Bronze. The Shadow’s real name is Kent Allard.
As Jews they were also versed in their cultural heritage and the legends and myths that accompany it. The concept of a Messiah, the perfect man who would one day arrive and save us all was a familiar refrain (and I realize what a tremendous simplification of Judaism this statement is). Surely they knew the legends of the Golem, a protector of the Jewish people, brought to life by the word Truth being inscribed on its forehead (does this tie in symbolically with Truth, Justice, and the American way). The name Kal-El, Superman’s Kryptonian name, translates as “All that is God.”
Elements of the story of Moses are also evident in Superman’s origin. At the time of Moses birth the Pharaoh has ordered all Jewish babies to be drowned in the Nile (similar to what was happening to Jews in Nazi Germany at the time). Moses’ parents set him adrift in the Nile in a small boat. He was found by the Pharaoh’s daughter and thereby saved. Kal-El’s home world of Krypton is dying. To save him his parents place him in a small space ship and launch him into space to save his life. He is found on Earth by Jonathan and Martha Kent.
Superman is also, symbolically speaking, a Sun God. The mythic precedents for this idea show up in most mythologies around the world. Superman gains his powers from our yellow sun. He stores this energy in the cells of his body and converts it into strength, invulnerability and all of his other magical powers. He is Ra the Egyptian God of the Sun with the all-seeing eye of daylight (heat and x-ray vision, anyone?). He is Apollo, the Sun God who flies his chariot across the sky, the very embodiment of life-giving light. He is the lightbringer who banishes the darkness, (e.g., Evil). Medieval paintings feature saints and deities with a shining halo of light around their heads, indicating their divine nature and the light of inner wisdom. He is warmth and comfort. This mythic archetype touches some of the most basic of human needs as well as points to higher planes of being and awareness.
As the first superhero, Superman is the Ur-Hero of the modern pantheon, the one from which all others are descended. In addition to being the Sun God, this makes him the symbolic father of the gods as well. He is Zeus the lightning-bearer, Odin the All-Father, both destined to replace the gods of a previous pantheon, just as Pop Cultural mythology has, culturally at least, replaced the old gods of traditional religion for many.
I don’t really think that teenagers Siegal and Shuster, sat down and thought about all of these things at the time of Superman’s creation. Whatever the case, they tapped into some very universal concepts that have resonated with people for thousands of years. But there were more practical reasons for Superman’s resonance with the audience of America in 1938.
Superman’s origin can be seen as the American Immigrant Story. He came to America from a dying world. In the case of Krypton it was literally dying, in the apocalyptic, being blown to pieces sense. Europe wasn’t literally exploding, though the rise of Nazi Germany proved to be just as apocalyptic. America was the land of opportunity, where you could leave behind your old identity and forge a new life. No matter how poor or destitute or homeless you were, in America you had the chance to create a new life and be successful. Kal-El came from the Old World (Krypton) and became Clark Kent, Americanized in name as well as culture, just like so many of those who passed through Ellis Island. He was raised in Kansas, the geographic center of America’s heartland with the simple values of hard work and a simple and practical moral and ethical code. He was the farm boy who moved to the big city to pursue a professional career, proving that anyone, no matter how humble their beginnings could aspire to the highest levels of success in America. His job as a reporter was part of the mythology. It is a reporter’s job to uncover the Truth. You know… the magic word that brings the Golem, the protector of the people, to life.
And this was all as Clark Kent! These symbols of success had nothing to do with his superpowers. This was an idea that spoke to people on many levels.
But the dream simply didn’t come true for many immigrants. While opportunities did exist here for many, America was in a state of economic depression. Crime and ethnic prejudice were rampant. Many people were faced, day-to-day, in addition to the fears of actual crime, with the petty offenses of corrupt politicians, landlords and businessmen. In his earliest stories, these were the very criminals Superman engaged most often. He was striking a blow for the little man that most people could relate to. The concepts of the larger-than-life, apocalyptic cosmic threats that have become the mainstay of superhero fiction of the last few decades were not present in the later years of the Depression. Losing your home to a corrupt slumlord was a much imminent threat to most people than large scale death from above (that would change with the advent of the Atomic Age). Superman confronted these evils in both of his identities.
Which brings us the idea of the secret identity.
There were precedents for the secret identity of course. It had been appearing in the Pulps with characters like the Shadow and the Spider. Zorro first appeared in 1919 with a secret identity. Reverend Syn, the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh appeared in a series of novels by Russell Thorndike beginning in 1915. The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emma Orczy appeared first as a play in 1903 and the novel followed soon after, providing the first literary precedent for the idea of a conscious duel identity. Robert Louis Stevenson dealt with the idea in The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Once introduced in the Superman mythos it became one of the most common and defining tropes of the superhero genre.
The reason for the secret identity most often given in comics by the characters usually involves the idea that anonymity allows them to operate in private, giving them far more autonomy than working within the boundaries of law-enforcement agencies. There is also the common thread of protecting their families. If the superhero’s enemies discover who they really are then they could use threats against the hero’s mother, father, aunt, siblings, children, or whoever to stop the hero.
Much has been said about the psychology behind this. Anthropological studies of the mask have been part of that branch of academic literature for decades. By wearing a mask one not only identifies with a higher power, whether a god or a spirit animal or whatever, but also takes on their characteristics. Donning a mask and a costume literally transforms the normal person into a superhero. That shaman drawn on cavern wall at le Trois Freres is wearing the skins of animals. This isn’t just a fashion statement. It is a magical attempt to become one with the gods. It is ritual and ceremony designed to physically embody the powers of the Divine. The examples of this type of ritual and belief are widespread and continue in various forms to this day, in both religious and secular arenas.
Perhaps no single Mythological construct has been applied to superheroes as much as Joseph Campbell’s idea of The Hero’s Journey, first introduced in his book, The Hero With 1000 Faces. I’m not going to rehash those ideas here. They are covered in great detail in many sources. As a really brief description I will say that in essence it is an exploration of how the same images, ideas and themes concerning the idea of God or the gods can be found in religions and cultures all over the world. The contention is that each of these are symbols that point back to one underlying, common idea. Campbell followed this with a series of four books collectively titled The Masks of God. These were an exploration of the many ways the Divine has been seen and represented around the world. Even if you accept the idea that all of these symbols represent the same basic concept it is fascinating to see the manifestations. If the Divine is ineffable it must cloak itself in the masks of any given culture to be perceived at all. Authentic identity was subsumed by cultural identity.
To circle back to the idea of Superman being the American Immigrant story, many of those new to American shores took on new identities. Their old lives were gone, as irretrievably as Krypton. The people they were had transformed into something new. They were Germans, or Slovaks, or Italian, or whatever, but now they were also American. Balancing the needs of these two identities, maintaining a sense of ethnic pride and connection while making a new life in a new country was difficult at best. Many of those who passed through Ellis Island were given new, Americanized names and identities. To fit in, many ethnicities tried to hide their cultural background so as to avoid discrimination in the new land of equality and opportunity. This was especially true in the Jewish community, a fact that many early comics creators were extremely familiar with. Ask Jerry “Segalovich” Siegel, Max “Ginsberg” Gaines, Jack “Kurtzburg” Kirby, Stanley “Lieber” Lee, and dozens of others about this.
Of course, in Germany in the 1930s, Jews were suffering a much more horrendous cultural upheaval thanks to a very different manifestation of the concept of the Superman. The ideas I’m about to talk about are not new ones. The connection between the Nazi ideal of the Superman, their misinterpretation of the writings of Nietzsche, and the American superhero have all been made before, in greater depth than I plan on going into here. But, there are aspects of this that deserve being touched on.
In the original German, Nietzsche introduces the terms Ubermensch and Untermensch. Literally meaning “Overman” and “Underman.” So, the original quote is more literally translated as, “Behold, I teach you the Overman.” Throughout his writings he plays the terms Over and Under against each other. The translation as “Superman” loses this wordplay and diminishes what Nietzsche intended.
He used the terms as part of his concept of Master mentality and Slave mentality. While this is debatable, and volumes of commentary and analysis on Nietzsche are available, the basic ideas are very simple. Most of humanity, every one of us at times, is susceptible to Slave mentality. We accept our roles in life and go about our daily business as if we have no control over our own destiny. Everything is someone else’s fault, or too big for us to have any control over. So whatever is wrong in our life, whatever is keeping us down, is beyond our ability to change. When we live with this slave mentality we are making ourselves the Untermensch, the Underman.
The Master mentality, by contrast, refers to the person who is able to take control of his own situation and change it for the better. It is the person who recognizes that they do have the power to change their lives and take the responsibility to do so. By actively attempting to better yourself one becomes the Ubermensch, the Overman. One overcomes his own tendency toward a slave mentality and masters his own life. Nietzsche terms the ability to achieve this the “Will to Power.”
Now even within this incredibly brief description there is the possibility of not only misinterpretation, but there is also room for abuse of power. A deeper reading of Nietzsche reveals that his Will to Power refers primarily to power over oneself. It is claiming the power of your own life and overcoming your own self-defeating tendencies. It is overcoming that which keeps you under. Many people have misread this to further their own agenda of power over others. The Will to Power can easily be read as Might Makes Right. The idea of mastering your own base nature can all too easily be misconstrued as mastering others. It is easier to psychologically project our own slave tendencies onto others than to change them within yourself.
From within this context rose the manifesto of Nazi Germany. The idea of mastering oneself became the concept of a Master Race. The Slave mentality was then shuffled off to all those who were not part of that Aryan ideal, specifically the Jews (though obviously, the Gypsies and Homosexuals, and anyone else seen as an inferior race suffered as well). The irony here is that blaming the problems of the world on someone other than yourself is a slave mentality.
But unfortunately, this irony led to suffering and the deaths of millions. As a symbol, the concept of the Master Race as espoused by the Nazis was successful, whether it had anything to do with Nietzsche’s original concept or not. Millions of Germans fell under its spell and were able to commit atrocities in the name of being superior. In the end, they were all slaves to a symbol and a power beyond themselves. Average citizens were sold a bill of goods that not only made them feel better about their situation, but gave them a scapegoat for their woes.
The inherent problem with identifying with our higher selves, the Ubermensch in Nietzsche’s terms, is then seeing ourselves as above everyone else. The moment we do that we have once again become the Untermensch. There is a reason that Superman’s secret identity is Clark Kent, a humble and unassuming Everyman (Jedermensch).
I think we have all felt the somewhat schizophrenic pull of the different aspects of our lives. We all must wear the masks that are expected of us in the roles we play. We wear the mask of our job for forty-plus hours a week, and then have to don another one to be a parent. There’s our Saturday night out-drinking-with-the-guys mask and our Sunday-Go-To-Meeting mask. It can be easy to play these roles so completely that we forget that we are playing roles and believe our masks are our true faces. Our real identity becomes secret, even from ourselves.
There is a famous Zen Koan that asks, “What did your face look like before your parents were born?” It is an attempt to get at the core of authentic identity.
For Superman it is important to remember that Kal-El, the Kryptonian with all the superpowers is his true face. Clark Kent, the common man, is the false identity, though “false” is perhaps the wrong way to look at this. Clark is the morally centered, good man the Kents raised him to be. It is a core part of his true identity and cannot be separated from who he is as Superman. This eventually becomes true with a lot of the more iconic heroes. Bruce Wayne is his birth name, but it can be said that Batman became his true identity. Bruce is the mask he wears to protect the Dark Knight, and is in many ways, far less important to who he is than Clark is to Superman.
We all have those parts of ourselves we wish to hide. We all, at times, are guilty of “hiding our light beneath a bushel” because we all have parts of ourselves that are greater than we think we are. We all wear costumes and masks: the business suit, the wedding gown, the football jersey, the t-shirt with a band logo or the symbol of our favorite superhero… each of these allows us to identify with and take on the powers of those we emulate. Outsider culture (and comics culture has until recently been outsider culture), creates its own costumes and the identities that go with it, so much so that the accepted modes of expression in these outsider groups, whether Punk or Hippy, Bikers or Drag Queens, end up being much more restricted and impersonal than the culture they are rebelling against.
And then there is the phenomenon of Cosplay, but I’ll talk about that later.
It’s appropriate to ask why Superman, the very epitome of the middle-class Caucasian appealed to the American immigrant. On the surface he exhibits nothing that defines him as any ethnicity whatsoever. Superman is so white that it’s difficult to imagine how so many people of all races came to embrace him and relate to his ideals.
It could be that his very bland whiteness is the quality that allowed everyone to project themselves onto his image. Scott McCloud makes the argument in Understanding Comics that the more simplified a drawing of a person is, the more iconic, the easier it is for the viewer to see himself in it. A photograph is of a very specific person, someone other than yourself. The simple line drawings of Charlie Brown can be seen as the Everyman. The earliest drawings of Superman are simplified, but certainly not to the level of Peanuts. But then that was true of most comics at that time. But it is Superman’s essence that seems to be the simplified, iconic image. Superman is the conceptual equivalent of the smiley face, a template in which we can all see ourselves, a mirror for our self-image.
Immigrants of all kinds could see in Superman the American ideal that they had endured hardship to obtain. In the process of becoming American they needed to let go of their old, ethnic identities (to some extent, at least), and their old cultural mythologies to embrace a new, American cultural identity and mythology. As a relatively new country, and the proverbial Melting Pot of ethnic diversity, this identity was still developing. The only real archetypal precedent to the superhero in American culture were the heroes of Tall Tales, such as Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, and Pecos Bill. The latter of these was a superheroic version of the Cowboy, which had seen tremendous success in Dime Novels and pulp fiction. The Cowboy stands out as perhaps the first, distinctly American character type and while actual cowboys and western types were as ethnically diverse as all of American culture that wasn’t seen in any of its earliest depictions.
What all of these had in common is that they are all rugged individualists, forging their own paths in the world. They are the epitome of the can-do, “Pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps” attitude that characterized the American self-image. These figures were not bound by tradition or cultural roles. They were ethnic blank slates, in spite of their overt Caucasian features. Some of this can be blamed on the monolithic white culture of the times, but the cowboy shares the same qualities of the ethnic blank slate as the superhero. American immigrants could project their experience onto this. They were the ones, after all, who had walked away from their roots to seek a new and better world. They were the ones who took their destiny in their own hands and struck out on a new path, where they could succeed or fail on their own merits instead of being trapped by the weight of the past, in theory at least.
In their 1977 book of the same title, authors Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence outline what they call The American Monomyth. Though it is a variation on Campbell’s Hero’s Journey they see a scenario that they believe is specific to American heroic fiction.
The general outline of the story goes like this;
A community is threatened by evil. The usual sources of order, such as the police or community elders, are unable to deal with this threat. An outsider appears, turns his back on the temptations of a normal life (usually represented by the possibility of love and stability with a marriageable partner), and confronts the villain. Typically in possession of some special gift, or aided by fate, his victory is decisive and returns the community to its previous state of peace and prosperity. At this point the hero, unable to live in the community, leaves. It is the traditional riding off into the sunset scenario, never to be seen again.
Much can be said about this trope (and Jewett and Lawrence do so in their book). In brief, it seems to speak to our mixed belief in the efficacy of a lone savior figure who will miraculously save us from anything, as well as our inability to incorporate this type of figure into our sense of community. We all believe in the strength of the individual, but someone with these abilities threatens our stated belief in the equality of everyone. The gunslinger with the skills of violence necessary to save us from our oppression is not welcome in our paradisiacal abode once the enemy is dispatched. He is not only a reminder of our own weakness and inability to cope with the problem, but the very skills that saved us are now threatening once the original evil has been vanquished.
No figure embodied this idea of individualism better than the superhero (as I see it. This kind of conclusion can obviously be debated or dismissed and I’m okay with that). Superman appeared with a symbol on his chest, a logo that said, “This is who I am, and no one else is Superman.” The stylized “S” was a personal monogram. It was a symbol that embodied strength. The shape of the symbol was that of the classic shield. Not only did this conjure the image of the chivalric knight in shining armor, it was also personal identity serving as protection. The emblem was also diamond-shaped, a subtle allusion to both invulnerability and great value. In later stories Superman would frequently squeeze a lump of coal in his hand with enough pressure to form a diamond. The symbolism of this is the classic alchemical idea of turning lead into gold. Base material can be transformed into something valuable. Every poor immigrant can become a wealthy and successful American. Every Untermensch can become an Ubermensch. Every humble Clark Kent is, in actuality, a Superman.
In our current society the concept of personal branding is well-known. Everyone who aspires to celebrity of any kind is aware of that kind of power. No one buys Under The Dome, they buy the new Stephen King book. People will go see a Tom Cruise movie, no matter what it is about, because it is a Tom Cruise movie.
But when Action Comics #1 appeared on the stands, with Superman wearing his own, personal symbol, this idea was new (though the precedent of a familial Coat of Arms certainly existed). It immediately became one of the most enduring of the superhero tropes. Soon, super people were wearing their personal symbol on their chests for all to see: Bats and lanterns and stars and lightning bolts (more on that specific symbol in the next section). These symbols served to illuminate a characters identity and his abilities. Putting on the costume, wearing the symbol, was wearing the essence of the powers one wanted to emulate. Like the ancient shaman at La Frere Trois, a hero would don the raiment of the gods to manifest their power in the world. The mask and costume that hid their identity is the thing that allowed them to be individuals.
No discussion of this idea would be complete without addressing the corporate nature of comics. The Superman “S” symbol is one of the most recognized symbols in the world. It is also a trademarked logo. It may have once symbolized the individualism of a new kind of hero, but it is also a symbol owned by a giant mega-corporation, in this case Warner Brothers.
Grant Morrison has talked at length about the idea of the Sigil, a symbol that embodies and propagates magical ideas. It is usually defined as a symbol designed for a specific magical purpose. In his definition of the word, corporate logos are magical sigils. Everyone recognizes the golden arches of McDonalds. This is more than a simple logo; it is a meme that gets into people’s heads and changes the way they think about the world. Any successful symbol is the same, corporate or not. The Soviet Hammer and Sickle, the American flag, the Nike slash and the logo of the Pittsburgh Steelers are all sigils, given this definition.
The Christian Cross and the Jewish Star of David are sigils. So is the Nazi Swastika. While Superman was wearing his “S” to identify himself as an individual, Jews in Germany were being forced to wear the Star of David to identify them as undesirables.
We here in the West simply cannot see the Swastika without immediately associating it with fascism, Nazis, and the atrocities committed in the name of Adolph Hitler and the Third Reich. But that wasn’t always the case. The image of the Swastika is found in cultures from around the world, going back to ancient times, and in most cases the associated meanings are positive, pertaining to ideas of luck and good fortune. It was used as the coat of arms for many Japanese families and is a symbol used widely in Buddhism. A simple internet search will yield a wealth of information on this topic. But in spite of centuries of use as a positive symbol it only took a period of a few years for it to become charged with such negativity as to forever change it’s meaning. To use magical terminology (and this is in no way meant to devalue the genuine horror and human suffering that took place), the Nazi Party performed a blood sacrifice to empower their sigil. Though they were defeated the Swastika still encapsulates their regime, and unfortunately still inspires many people to follow their twisted path.
In the world of superheroes, the emblem emblazoned on a character’s chest serves as a sigil. When Tim Burton’s movie version of Batman premiered in 1989 the first promotional poster to appear featured nothing but the Batman symbol and the release date for the film. Nothing else was needed. The symbol is a meme that has entered the symbolic consciousness of the public (at least the public who were the target audience). This idea informs Morrison’s DC Comics series Batman Inc. wherein Bruce Wayne publicly announces that he is the financial supporter of Batman and that it has now become a global network. Batman recruits people from around the world to be his agents, so that the symbol of the bat is recognized and feared by criminals around the world instead of just in Gotham. In the DC universe the bat symbol is a force of good and represents an attempt to fight crime. In our real world it appears on posters and lunch boxes and t-shirts; it is a marketable, money-making trademark far more than an inspiration to fight crime. Transforming the one idea into the other, and maintaining both meanings is a remarkable piece of sigil magic.
But in the big picture, no matter how these logos and characters are used to turn a profit (and I don’t even really have a problem with that), the underlying ideals of the superhero are larger than their strictly commercial application. When people buy and wear their Superman t-shirts, or get a tattoo, or don the S-shield in any manner, they are embodying their ideal of Superman more than they are the ideal of corporate profiteering. The same is true of band logos or sports jerseys. As much revenue is generated for the corporate owners of these brands the people wearing them are participating in the same behavior as primitive man in Lascaux. We are donning the skins of our sacred beings so that we may better identify with the positive qualities we believe they embody. We want to be Troy Polamalu, not the corporate entity of the Pittsburgh Steelers. We want to be Superman, not Warner Brothers.
The psychologist Carl Jung used the term Participation Mystique to talk about the psychological connection between people, and between people and things, specifically symbols. It is a term borrowed from the anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl and means, literally, a “mystical participation.” The controversial subject of mysticism aside, there is something powerful about the connection people feel with their symbols. Ask any stadium full of people wearing their team colors about this experience. This isn’t a team; this is My team. They didn’t win; We did. By wearing their colors, by donning their symbols, we become them. We participate in their glory. Symbols come to represent very powerful beliefs and values, and the more we identify with them the more powerful they become. People die for the flag or for the cross. Canny leaders can easily manipulate the belief in those symbols to get people to do most anything.
The nature of a true symbol is that it encompasses a very complex set of ideals. Ask any ten people who wear the Christian cross and you will get ten different definitions of what it means to the person wearing it. Likewise, the idea of Superman is larger than any one iteration of the concept. The idea of the superhero has entered our collective unconscious as a modern avatar of eternal ideals. The best of them, and Superman still holds that title, continue to grow and change with the culture around them. For any myth or legend to remain relevant they have to. The Superman of the 50’s TV show was not the Superman of Action Comics #1. Nor are the various cartoon versions, or movies. The Smallville television series was a pretty radical reinterpretation of all of the classic elements of the Superman mythos but was popular enough to run for ten seasons (I have some thoughts on the reasons for this that tie into a much larger, and much later in this book, conversation about the transformation of the superhero over time).
In 2012 DC Comics launched its New 52. This is a company wide relaunch of their entire line, with every title being a new #1. Action and Detective, the two longest running titles in comic book history, are both being renumbered (this leaves Archie as the one remaining comic from the 1940s being published with its original numbering intact). Part of the mission statement behind this relaunch is the need for DC characters to grow and change to better meet the needs of a 21st century readership. There is a recognition that for things to survive they need to change to reflect the times.
The Superman that burst onto the scene in 1938, the symbol of the American immigrant, is not the Superman the world needs anymore. At that time his story spoke to the psychological needs of a vast group of people, in subtle ways that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster could never have imagined when they first committed their ideas to paper. Over time he has, through many changes in culture, continued to speak to generations of people.
But, increasingly, the idea of Superman seems to have gone out of fashion. His inherent goodness has become more and more difficult to relate to in our ever more cynical world. His credo of Truth, Justice, and the American Way seems naive. He has been derided as a “big, blue boy scout.” As an image and an ideal his standards are difficult to live up to.
Batman wishes to inspire fear in his enemies (“Villains are a superstitious and cowardly lot” as the saying goes). Superman is a beacon of hope, an icon of the very best we can be. In our post 9/11 world fear is a more palpable and concrete concept than hope. It is easy to be cynical in the wake of suicide bombers and collapsing buildings. It is easier to seek revenge on those we blame for our fear than it is to aspire to be better ourselves. It is easier to be afraid than it is to be hopeful. Belief in fear is rewarded immediately. Hope is a slipperier thing to grasp, more difficult to feel rewarded for, harder to maintain. It is far easier to maintain the personal mindset of the Untermensch, to blame others for our woes and feel we have no power, than it is to master our own base natures and take personal responsibility for the world we live in.
But I believe that it is times like these that we most need to pursue and adhere to our higher ideals.
In Christianity there is a tradition known as Imitatio Christi, or the Imitation of Christ. While countless volumes of writing exists about this concept, in essence it boils down to a phrase that can be seen on bumper stickers all over; “What Would Jesus Do?” Stripped of all of the conflicting theologies and biblical interpretations, what is the essence of the life of Christ? It is a higher ideal, one comprised of authenticity and compassion (truth and justice). The life of Christ is seen as a model for right behavior toward others. The true and simple lessons of Christianity can easily be twisted for personal and political reasons. All of the preaching and pontificating and quoting of scripture means nothing if your heart is filled with hate and vengeance. But, in the day-to-day, aspiring to the simplest teachings of love and compassion in all we do should be enough. Strange how these simple concepts, like hope, are so difficult to manage.
In Buddhism this notion is expressed through the concept of Buddha Nature. This is the realization that all beings have the potential for enlightenment. The person of Gautama Siddartha became the Buddha by awakening from his ignorance and gaining transcendent wisdom and peace. But this transcendence is available to everyone. It is a higher ideal to aspire to. Everyone can be the Buddha. Everyone has a Buddha Nature.
The image of the superhero, Superman very specifically, is the modern, secular equivalent of these ideas, stripped of religious raiment and the cultural biases against them. The ideals can be restated:
“What Would Superman Do?”
“Do I have a Superman Nature?”
“Does Everyone have a Superman Nature?”
In the 1930’s Superman provided the blank slate for a generation of immigrants to project their ideals on. Perhaps the relevance of Superman to our current society and its needs is to be the blank slate on which we can project our better nature. Superman is our higher self. We need to wear the ideals of his symbol on our hearts instead of simply on our chests. Wearing a cross is nothing but fashion if one does not act as Christ would. Wearing a Superman symbol is nothing more than corporate advertising if one does not embrace and exhibit his qualities.
Superman, as a concept, has always been bigger than any specific manifestation of the character. Admittedly, this makes his image difficult to live up to. The need to always be “Super” puts one under a lot of pressure.
But remember, that pressure is what turns the base material of coal into a diamond.