So Long Superman
So I’m not really getting along with the other Nonstop Karate contributors right now since I refused to take part in their plan to use the blog to launch their vanity albums.
So I decided to do a blog about Superman in order to keep the peace. I know how wet Matt gets about comic books, how wet Chad gets when I talk about anything you don’t need to regularly read a newspaper to understand, and how wet Kyle gets, period. (Nice. -Management)
For the sake of full disclosure I have to admit that I was never really that into comic books as a kid. I wasn’t exposed early, only saw the mediocre stuff, and always kind of thought they were lame. Of course, I was also the kid who ran a Dungeons & Dragons game at Space Camp, so it isn’t like I can really justify a superior attitude when it comes to nerd culture. Still, my general response to early suggestions that I take a look at comics was “That’s fucking stupid and so are you. Roll 3d6 for damage.”
It wasn’t until I was about 16 or so that a friend almost forcibly lent me a copy of Transmetropolitan, a vicious and funny cyber-punk what if about Hunter S. Thompson sticking it to a Regan analogue. Needless to say, I enjoyed the hell out of it, finishing the series in about a week, after which I secretly bought a pair of Spider Jerusalem glasses off the internet about which I’ve never spoken until today. N3RD AL3RT.
My first experience with Transmet opened me up to the notion that at the root of the comic hobby was, first and foremost, an interest in stories- in some enthusiasts bordering on an obsession resembling my own. And yet, I still couldn’t really get into the mainstream superhero genre. I think what always turned me off about comics in general was their general optimism, taken into account with my general cynicism.
I just found it really difficult to believe in uncomplicated heroes. They rang false to me. The human agents who were driven to do good exclusively by a desire to do good seemed altogether inhuman. I thought Luke Skywalker was a whiny bitch compared with Han Solo, specifically the Han Solo who shot first. The anti-hero who just happened to do good while pursuing their own goals, or did good begrudgingly has always been more compelling and approachable, they put the sacrifice required by heroes who put the interests of others over their own into sharper relief. Their virtue means more because they are susceptible to temptation to do otherwise.
The one exception being Superman.
I should say now that I don’t follow the comic particularly closely. Most of my familiarity comes from studying a lot of old microfilm comics I dug up from my university’s auxiliary library while I was working on a paper for a cultural history conference. While my primary area of interest is humor and comedy in it’s relation to social and political culture, particularly that of post-war America, I was really interested in comic books in their role as a sort of primer for the kids who would one day popularize rock and roll and follow the liberal satire of the 60’s. The exploding comic book market of the 50’s was a direct consequence of kids starting to have money to spend, and since then America gets the lion’s share of its culture from what the kids buy.
Superman follows this really interesting evolution in how he gets characterized. He began in the 30’s as a sort of quintessential story of the immigrant in America. The alien Kal-el falls to earth, is raised in the American culture of prosperity tempered by virtue and humility, and becomes a great champion of his new homeland. Notably, Superman’s original nemeses were not costumed super villains, but rather, those people, groups, and forces which antagonized the daily lives of recently immigrated Americans. Superman fought against the Mob, anti-immigrant or nativist groups like the KKK, and generally represented a set of Progressive values feeding into the advent of New Deal Liberalism. The central internal struggle of the character is the balance of heritage against his new home, and like so many first generation Americans he comes to bury his past and become a symbol of his future, of America.
The character evolved over time, becoming strongly intertwined with nascent American nationalism during WWII- the association fully sealed with Superman’s likeness being used to sell war bonds. Mirroring the experience of many immigrants at the time, Superman began to lose touch with his roots, shifting from perhaps a “Krypto-American” to merely “American”. The War Draft picked up Italian and Irish kids from Brooklyn and Five Points, Jewish kids from the upper West, Polish and Eastern European from Chicago and Boston, German and English from all over- and all these kids were mixed up in different units trained at different camps, then shipped off to fight and live or die in Europe or the Pacific. First generation kids who had previously lived in all ethnic towns or neighborhoods and in many cases spoke a different language at home came to form bonds of fellowship with people from cultures that they otherwise would never have been exposed to. And then when the GI’s came home from the war, the suburbs were waiting for them- furthering the trend of Americans distancing themselves from their immigrant heritages and instead becoming just homogeneously American.
And this is the Superman with which we are culturally familiar. The iconic American hero, informed by the values, prosperity and power of the post-war United States. Young American men went through hell in both theaters in order to save the world from the villains of the modern world, the Reich and Emperor Hirihoto, and were perhaps justifiably riding a wave of intoxicating righteousness. It was during this period that Superman became less and more than human, vowing never to take a life, developing an ethical code that came to contribute as much to the sense of his invincibility as his being impervious to physical harm. Superman, the morally incorruptible, who deflects the terrible temptation offered by his great power with the same ease that he deflects bullets.
This is the Superman that recently came under a rowdy internet discussion, the focus of which ultimately boiled down to whether the character of Superman is essentially good because he was brought up American, or because it is simply in his nature to be good. The occasion for the discussion was a recent article published by conservative news and commentary site The Blaze that was making hay over Superman’s decision in a recent issue to renounce American citizenship.
I came down on the side of Superman’s moral fortitude being an innate characteristic similar to his physical abilities. The thematic line of Superman is that he is strong in ways in which humans are not and maybe wish they could be. To me, this is the idea that Superman represents, and the thing that makes him unique from other superheroes.
My opinion was also influenced by a number of other factors- my fascination with heritage and inherited traits surfacing uninfluenced by or in spite of circumstances of nurture, my familiarity with the Red Son story arc, and oddly the parable related by David Carradine near the conclusion Kill Bill vol. 2. The idea is that unlike other superheroes, Superman isn’t just a human with extraordinary power in extraordinary circumstances- he is, rather, something other than human.
So as to the question raised by his renunciation of American citizenship and the postured outrage taken by politically conservative comic book fans, we are given to think about from where Superman’s impregnable moral structure extends- from his nature or from the values of post-war America. Further, we must then consider whether, if in fact idealized American values can in fact take full credit for imparting Superman with his embodiment of ‘Truth, Justice, and the American way’, Superman should be praised or criticized for renouncing citizenship and symbolic representation of the United States as it exists today.
The question runs parallel to that of whether America still stands for what it stood for in the 1950’s. This would excuse Superman for reasons of integrity, such that the America he once represented had lost its way. However, the question is loaded in that even in the 1950’s America didn’t really stand for what it stood for in the 1950’s. The same country that housed the city of Metropolis also viciously defended racial inequality under the auspices of segregation, fought ugly proxy wars all over the world, and eventually collapsed into despondency under the weight of the same righteous interventionism that pulled it through the two great wars. When looking at the 50’s with a critical eye, the argument that we’ve somehow fallen from grace begs the question of whether we were ever in grace to begin with. And so, if the time that Superman represents in our culture was as morally bankrupt as that of today, what does Superman really represent if not a better time from the past?
A better time, not from the past, but rather in the future- er, the future of the past, but not the present. That’s what I feel Superman represented to his contemporary readers who grew up with him in the 50’s and 60’s- the idea that somehow, things will continue to get better without ever really changing. So what has changed in our tackling of this idea, if in fact the world and this country are just about as bad as ever they were, that our way of life did not give us all the answers to the problems of a modern world?
Our innocence is gone.
Two generations were weaned on the hope that technology and democracy and capitalism would save the world, which they did to the extent that we all survived long enough to be disappointed by the extent to which they didn’t. And we no longer quite believe that party line any longer- particularly our generation with its cynicism, its obsession with authenticity, its fascination with dystopic conclusions. Our generation no longer believes that it will do better than the previous generation.
We don’t quite believe in Superman the way we used to, our modern day adaptations mapping dark and complex emotions onto the Man of Steel in order to make him more approachable and interesting for contemporary audiences. And what was Superman’s unwavering desire to do good other than a form of permanent innocence?
So should we be upset or surprised that Superman has left us behind? Or should we look at ourselves and the world and realize that we were the ones who left him behind, somewhere along the way?
Posted on April 29, 2011, in Adam Kornya, Comics, History Lessons, Uncategorized and tagged adam kornya, America, Chad Quandt, History, Kyle Mcvey, Matt Loman, Superman, The Blaze, US History, vanity album. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.