Our Accretive Creation, the Man of Steel
America's "Superman" Myth

Essay by
Kenneth Spell


February 2014


Truth as selective accretion of myth
But it's the truth even if it didn't happen.
Ken Kesey
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

We all know about him. He's one of the five figures known all around the world. (Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Robin Hood and Mickey Mouse are the others, in case you were wondering.) We know he's from Krypton. We know he was raised by the Kents in Smallville, Kansas. We know he's invulnerable to everything but Kryptonite and magic. We know he works as a reporter at the Daily Planet. He has a Fortress of Solitude up North somewhere. And he can fly.

Except for his being from Krypton, all those statements are false, or not quite true. In the beginning of the comic in 1938, there were no Kents. "A passing motorist" saw the baby come down in a rocket, and took him to an orphanage. In Superman issue #1, young Clark exercises his abilities in a small city where he can "hurdle skyscrapers" and "run faster than a streamline train". Smallville, and farm life in Kansas came later. Only an artillery shell could break his skin. There was no Kryptonite until 1943, and only in the radio series of his Adventures. It didn't reach the comic book till 1949. Incidentally, it wasn't even green in its first appearance. It was red, though it didn't have the mutating powers of Red Kryptonite.

He first worked for Mr. Taylor at the Daily Star. Perry White and the Planet came later. There was no polar Fortress of Solitude until 1958, just a Secret Citadel on a mountaintop in 1942 (Superman issue #17.). And he couldn't fly. Remember how he can "leap tall buildings with a single bound!" He had a range of 660 feet, or 1/8th of a mile per jump.

And as Ken Kesey might have said, some things aren't real even if they did happen. He had long hair in a Billy Ray Cyrus type mullet in the 1990s. He was a broadcast news anchor. Oh, that'll work. Nothing like keeping in front of a camera to preserve a secret identity. It happened in 1971, was part of the storyline for a decade. But ask anyone. They know Clark Kent works for the Daily Planet. He has the power of super-hypnosis, so nobody recognizes him in those glasses. He split into two bodies, one in red and one in blue costumes, with powers based entirely on electricity. In 1987 he was lost in time, and spent a while in prehistoric days with a beard, singing Was (Not Was)'s song "Everybody walk the dinosaur". Boom boom acka lacka boom boom.

Superman has been around for 75 years. He's gone through many changes, most of them flensed from memory. The character is bigger than the stories about him; those are shards, pieces, fragments, glimpses. We fit them to what we are sure of. If it feels right it stays. If not, it falls away and crumbles into dust.

He is from Smallville, Kansas. He was raised by a farmer. Lex Luthor runs a corporation and owns much of Metropolis. This is the Jeffersonian myth, the citizen close to the land versus the big city, pushed to the limit.

Superman, the surviving myth

There have been a thousand or more comic book heroes. Nearly all are forgotten except by nerdy fans. The public knows next to nothing about Dr. Fate, or Bullet-man, or Toro, sidekick of the original Human Torch, 20 years before the Fantastic Four. But of all the superhero comics, only three stayed in print in the late 1940s. Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman.

Why did they all lose their last readers while these remained?

Because Superman is an American myth, formed in one of the few original American art forms, the comic book. (Jazz, the detective story, the banjo, and Broadway musicals are the others, in case you wondered. Yes, detective stories. Edgar Allan Poe wrote them before Doyle created Sherlock Holmes.)

The Greeks had Achilles. The British have Arthur. And we have a hero who never was and never could have been, born on cheap paper in four colors.

"Gotta make the Myths, man!"
Ray Manzarek to Jim Morrison
Venice Beach, 1966

The human urge to myth, the dream of something or someone better and nobler than we are accustomed to seeing, is so ingrained we cannot fully destroy it. No matter how cynical we get, we still aspire, if only to be the most perceptive cynic in the room.

A Roman general named Arturius, last commander of his forces and defender of order on an island outpost of a falling Empire, fights his last battles, and leaves a memory of society before the barbarians won. As with most memory, the story improves. Arturius becomes Arthur. A General becomes a King. Some godforsaken outpost becomes all of Britain. The crude details of late Imperial law and social order soften into memories of better times, into great times, into the Camelot legend of "a fleeting wisp of glory", of "one brief shining moment".

A general named Hroudland, military governor of a province South of Normandy, died during a retreat from Basque territory in Spain (Iberia.) Hroudland becomes the hero of the Chanson de Roland, or Song of Roland. He was posthumously promoted in medieval and Renaissance stories, became Emperor Charlemagne's main champion. By the time the Italian poet Ariosto was done, Roland was Orlando Furioso, who fought the Saracens and encountered a sea monster and a hippogriff. He got around, too. Scotland, Africa, Japan ... Only Xena the warrior princess had more Frequent Rider miles.

He even survived being killed off at the end of the Song of Roland. They simply wrote epic poems about the early adventures of young Roland, the untold adventures, adventures of Roland as a child, and some of his friends and their adventures. The poets knew they had a marketable hero, and like modern comic book companies, weren't going to let go of a franchise.

Cervantes wrote Don Quixote as a satire of these outlandishly heroic knights off on their quests, mocking the myth. But even Cervantes praises one epic, the adventures of Amadis of Gaul, as "the best of all the books of this kind that have ever been written". Written to ridicule one myth, Don Quixote provided a new one, about a crazy old man making an effort to do right in a corrupt world.

Building myths upon real patterns

In America we turned barely literate thieves and killers like Billy the Kid into noble defenders of justice for the people. The Jesse James and Buffalo Bill Cody of dime novels bore little resemblance to the actual human beings who lived in this world under those names. In our fiction we had dime novels about gunslingers, then about crime-fighters, flying aces in the Great War, scientific detectives who found clues to be "elementary". All of these at least had some basis in reality. There really had been brave pilots above the mess of the trenches. A real Scottish surgeon and diagnostician named Joseph Bell actually could deduce all manner of facts from a patient's appearance. He taught a student named Conan Doyle, who created Sherlock Holmes.

The pattern had been to take someone real, or from a real class of people in some activity, and build your hero from there. Achilles could have just been a Greek soldier at Troy with a lucky streak at dodging spears. Now there was a new branch of fiction, about humans who were more than human, a very old story with a very new approach.

In the old days we had the Gods to give us our mythic heroes. Zeus would get lucky on a Saturday night with some lively human female. Nine months later Heracles would be resting in a crib, destined for great things. A protective mother would dip her son in the waters of the River Styx, holding him by a heel, letting the waters at the edge of the Underworld make Achilles invulnerable. There were seven league boots to let you bound 21 miles at a single step.

But we were all out of Zeus and the river Styx went stale. That's where science fiction came in, fueled from our enthusiasm for modern science as a source of progress. Want to leap higher than anyone around you, be stronger? Grow up on Earth and land on Barsoom, better known as Mars. Or be born on Krypton and live on Earth. But John Carter of Mars did it first, in the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Need a place to hone your skills and mind? Build a Fortress of Solitude in some cold and inaccessible territory. Doc Savage did it first, and that would be Doctor Clark Savage, the man of ... Bronze.

Clark did this in the novels of Kenneth Robeson, also known as Lester Dent. Fortress of Solitude ... Man of Bronze, Man of Steel ... Clark ... Dent ... Clark Kent. And what did they call Doc Savage? Superman.

Sad gladiator

There was a novel in 1930 by Philip Wylie, called Gladiator. A scientist named Abednego Danner injected his pregnant wife with a genetically powerful formula ... And his son, Hugo Danner, finds he can tear the doors off a bank vault, leap over the trenches of World War One and carry a German field gun in his hands, while bullets hit his chest without breaking skin as hard as steel.

"What would you do if you were the strongest man in the world, the strongest thing in the world, mightier than the machine? I ... would have won the war. But I did not ... I would scorn the universe and turn it to my own ends. I would be a criminal. I would set out to stamp crime off the earth; I would be a super-detective, following and summarily punishing every criminal until no one dared to commit a felony ..."
Gladiator, page 126

But Gladiator has a tone of constant sadness. Hugo plays college football, and snaps a man's neck with a careless move. He works in a coal mine but is fired for filling 203 carts a day, infuriating the union. He rescues a teller trapped in a bank vault and people suspect he might be a criminal. He offers to free two radicals convicted by a corrupt court, but political activists want them to hang as martyrs. He goes to the Capitol to stop a corrupt lobbyist, only to see a new crook take the old one's place. Even a man with all his strength cannot budge the dead weight of society as it is. He winds up shaking his fists at God during a thunderstorm.

There is no evidence Jerry Siegel ever read the 1930 novel, but the book was reviewed in one of his favorite magazines, Amazing Stories. It is true that in the first issue of Superman comics we see him breaking into the Governor's mansion to get him to stay an execution, and he tears a solid steel door open. And he goes to Washington, stops a lobbyist, and does end a war. Similar, with a clear difference. This one enjoys his mission, doesn't do a lot of brooding over what difference it can make overall.

What is more interesting is how Gladiator and Siegel and Shuster's 1933 fanzine story, "The Reign of the Super-Man", both end with a divine intervention. Danner is killed by lightning. Bill Dunn, one of those forgotten men during the Depression, is dosed with a serum that gives him the power to read minds, a memory to absorb entire libraries, an IQ higher than any human in history. Dunn, now the Super-Man, is off to a peace conference where he hopes to mentally drive all the world powers at each other's throats, then rule in the aftermath. A reporter prays desperately, and Dunn suddenly has a realization his powers based on the serum will burn out in hours and he will be just another bum on a bench. He wishes he'd used his powers for good instead, but it's too late. (Well, you have to think of some way to end a story.)

That was in 1933. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had a stew of materials around them, from Bible stories to pulp magazines and science fiction. They stirred and mixed over the next 5 years. Baby Moses was put into a basket and floated down river to be raised in safety by Egyptians. Baby Kal-El is put into a rocket and sent from doomed Krypton to be raised by humans. Science is our hope for progress, so his father would be the greatest scientist on his planet. Our hero can leap like John Carter, has the strength of Hugo Danner and skin that cannot be broken easily. He dresses like a circus strong man. He has a cape like Zorro. There is a fast-talking lady reporter in a string of B movies, a knockoff of Hildy Johnson from Ben Hecht's The Front Page (1928). Her name is Torchy Blaine. One of the actresses playing her is named Lois.

Did they steal Torchy Blaine to make Lois Lane? Is Superman stolen goods? No. As Mark Twain once said,

It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a photograph, or a telephone or any other important thing — and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others. He added his little mite — that is all he did. These object lessons should teach us that ninety-nine parts of all things that proceed from the intellect are plagiarisms, pure and simple; and the lesson ought to make us modest. But nothing can do that.

But when they mixed this together, added their little bit and created Superman, it worked. It had whatever its sources lacked. Gladiator barely sold a few thousand copies. Philip Wylie moved on to write novels like Finnley Wren and a bit of pulp adventure called When Worlds Collide. Sad Hugo Danner, child of scorn, who cursed the earth where he was born, had no sequel to Gladiator. And the only movie adaptation was a 1938 comedy about a boxer, played by comedian Joe E. Brown. Torchy Blaine is filler material on Turner Classic Movies. Doc Savage had a good run in the pulp magazines, was reprinted in paperback. But the movies based on Doc, and on John Carter failed at the box office. By the time movies could do John Carter of Mars, Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers had already filled that niche.

Superman was science fiction, but he was in a modern American city, fighting for every cause any reformer would favor. Social justice and mine safety, slum clearance and clean politics. No Clay People or Hawk-men, but wife-beaters, gangsters, corrupt car dealers and mine owners. In 1938, with a Depression and news from overseas that looked grim, he was an escapist ideal. For Jerry Siegel, whose father died of heart failure after his clothing store was held up, Superman was a hero who could not be taken away with a bullet, or ever feel fear at the threat of one.

They created their man with a little help from the universe. And the universe was never that generous again. Jerry Siegel had two other creations, The Spectre, a bone-pale wraith in a green robe who was the Wrath of God incarnate, was one try. The other was Funnyman, who dressed like a clown and fought villains with toys and gags. Superman was the Man of Steel, Funnyman was "The Invincible Imbecile". Six issues and cancelled.

The Big Blue Boy Scout

He still wasn't the Big Blue Boy Scout. Superman spent the first year or two in the comics with cops shooting at him. In the first issue of Action Comics he throws a wife-beater into the bedroom wall, clearly splintering wood, carries a suspicious Washington lobbyist in his arms over telephone power lines, threatening to drop him. He sees that a government relief program rebuilds after a tornado, so he deliberately empties a slum and tears down the buildings himself, while fighting off the National Guard and running away from Army bombers dropping ordnance around him.

There was a high mortality rate among villains whose schemes failed, and scientists whose inventions were used by them. A would-be war profiteer threatens Superman with a new lethal gas, drops it accidentally. (Superman issue #2):

"Don't just stand there! Blast you! Why don't you die?"

"The gas doesn't affect my physical structure ..." A moment later Superman looks at the body on the floor. "One less vulture. He won't need this formula any longer."

In issue #4 a scientist working for Luthor commits suicide out of guilt. In the closing story a tycoon named Curtis is about to trigger a second Depression when Superman climbs through the window. Curtis has a high voltage device in hand, electrocutes the witness who named him and threatens the guy in blue and red.

"Yield to me, or you too, will be struck down. .... What th' ... You're unharmed!"

Then, "reaching out, Superman touches the plotter's figure, the electricity passes from him to the other man's body, instantly electrocuting Curtis."

(As Sean Connery would say in Goldfinger. "Shocking. Simply Shocking.")

In issue #6, a burglar with a pistol is in Kent's apartment and sees him changing into his costume. After emptying his revolver to no effect, he realizes who he's dealing with.

"Yer gonna have to pay plenty, an' often ... if ya want it kept a secret!"

"Blackmail, eh? Has it occurred to you I could easily snap your neck with these fingers and I'd never have to worry about being exposed?"

"You wouldn't! No, no, keep away!" The burglar runs, shouts to any neighbor who may hear, "Superman's after me, and I know who he is!"

By this moment it's Clark Kent people see. One of the neighbors is asking the hood, "Quick, what's his real name?" At which point the burglar trips at the top of the stairs.

"And so passes the one man who might have revealed my true identity ..."

They cut down on this considerably by the 1940s as Superman was a respectable commodity. But even then in issue #15, April/May 1942, "Superman in Oxnalia", when he rescues the son of a good King from a plane flown by a pro-fascist schemer, Lord Murgot, he carries away only the Prince, leaving Murgot to crash and burn.

"The end of a traitor."

Well, this was during wartime.

From leaping to flying

Oh, and did I mention Superman was flying?

I looked through the Action Comics Archive Editions and Superman Archive Editions, 13 volumes in all. From 1938 to 1945, every issue is included. There was no "special adventure", or a New Amazing Power for the Man of Steel. There was no exact point in the comic where he suddenly could, no precise moment between he could not and then he could. In the October 1943 issue, in a story called "The Million Dollar Marathon", he raises money for a children's hospital. One of the sick kids calls out, "Let's see ya fly!" And he does. (Action Comics Archive #4, page 183)

At this point science fiction slides into mythology, has been sliding like twilight into night or morning, no clear lines to be drawn. He gains the powers of a god and gets the moral code of the Big Blue Boy Scout. As a matter of fact, he met a god (Mercury) in "The Quicksilver Kid" (Superman issue #26, Jan/Feb 1944). They fought each other with respect, pretty much as equals.

A digression about flying:

Just how does Superman fly, anyway? Say you're jumping off a platform, kicking it behind you, and you're off? In Newtonian physics, for your action there is an equal and opposite reaction. If you get airborne by kicking against the bricks, you're going to need a lot of office buildings. And as seen in an ABC superhero series called No Ordinary Family, those leaps are going to leave divots and shoe prints, craters and skids on the roofs of buildings.

So how does Superman do it? It seems to be a form of levitation through telekinesis, an act of the mind over the body itself.

In Superman Returns (2006), in a flashback to boyhood, Clark Kent falls through an opening in a barn roof, and ... stops himself in mid air. He hovers. As you may recall from Superman II (1980), General Zod discovers he can move objects by pointing at them, like taking a police deputy's shotgun away, or levitating as he walks across a lake.

On the radio adventures there were only sound effects. And the sound of whooshing through the air in flight came across better than the bounding up and down, a matter of Acoustic Aesthetics. The images in the comics followed, paralleled, then a comment admitted it. No explanation provided.

Henry Cavill's Man of Steel, in the 2013 movie, seems to take off by so concentrating the forces inside him that the ground shakes and he rockets upward. No doubt leaving shattered windows, insurance companies billing for property damage, trial lawyers trying to serve subpoenas ...

Look Homeward, Kal-El: Smallville and Krypton

By the end of World War II, Superman's powers were godlike and his enemies silly. He was up against the Toyman and the Prankster, and a swindler named J. Wilbur Wolfingham, whose schemes never hurt anyone but himself. There was Mr. Mxyzptlk, a little man from the 5th dimension whose idea of fun was to annoy the most powerful being on Earth.

Veterans were on their way home, looking for work or going to college on the GI Bill. The distractions of comic book battles were no longer needed. They had been cheap escapism from the depression and the war. With both ending there was a lot less to escape from. If a man still wanted strange visitors from another world, he could read all about them in the booming market for science fiction, read the magazines or grab a thick anthology edited by Groff Conklin.

The comic shifted to a younger audience. In February 1945, Superboy first appeared in More Fun Comics. Meanwhile, MLJ Magazines changed its name to Archie Comic Publications, named after its own very successful teenager, Archie Andrews. Riverdale and Smallville appeared, showing an Andy Hardy small town world of soap box racing and county fairs, flirtations and crushes. Lana Lang appeared, and Clark had as much luck with her as Archie had with Betty or Veronica.

Superman himself appeared on the first issue of Superboy, about to pull back the cover and reveal stories letting us all know what he had been like as a boy. This boy was well-behaved, hardly like the rowdy young man willing to mock the police on the streets of Metropolis in 1939.

These stories were mildly exciting cozy fun. Having already happened, things could never be a matter of life and death. You could see the comics on the spinning rack at the general store, with all the adult versions of our characters on the covers. Whatever jeopardy anyone got into back then, they clearly survived. This was Superman's past, a safe refuge of nostalgia and some regret, walled off by something even the strongest man on Earth could not break ... Time. His past could not be changed. Well, not by him. The publishers constantly adjusted his childhood.

There were no skyscrapers to hurdle in Smallville. It had been a little town on the outskirts of Metropolis. Eventually it slid across the map until it wound up in Kansas. The stories were always set about 15 years before Superman's current activities. I read early issues of the comic, noticed the army tanks in one scene were clearly World War One surplus. Biplanes flew low to dust crops or zoomed high to entertain crowds. Later I saw TV aerials on the rooftops and jet trails in the sky over Smallville.

At the same time Superman's boyhood was revealed, another part of his past made an appearance. Kryptonite. Fragments of his birthplace were toxic to him. Homesickness with a vengeance, when your native land is a glowing green poison. This was an Achilles heel, something to balance against his expanded powers over the years. It also resembled the glow of radiation in the atomic age, something the news of bomb tests and B-movies about giant insects kept lingering in our imaginations.

If Smallville memories were a comfort, and Kryptonite a menace, an even older past caught up with him by the late 1950s. Mort Weisinger was in charge of DC comics and bringing a science fiction touch to its heroes. Soon Superman was in story after story about Krypton, the wonders of a lost world, and could be seen grieving over how much he missed the place.

Adopted children at a certain age are known to wonder about their birth parents, where they came from, what sort of environment. So we get this romanticized Flash Gordon paradise of robot factories, fire falls, gold volcanos, jeweled mountains and anti-gravity palaces, enough to make Disneyland look like a Carthusian monk's cell.

By the early 1960s Krypton was a treasured memory, a home lost to disaster and remembered obsessively by its lone survivor. (Lone if you don't count Krypto the dog, Super Girl, a Super-Horse, Beppo the super-monkey, and 100,000 shrunken Kandorians living in their bottled city. The Kandorians could have tilted Presidential elections if they'd bothered to file absentee ballots.) Superman was always imagining Krypton. He went there by magic wish, by time travel, in computer simulations, in dreams, only to see it destroyed and his parents dead. He watched helplessly again and again, looking on and grieving. He could feel pain, loss, guilt at having survived.

That was then. Krypton had been exotic and appealing. By the 1978 Superman movie, it was a big crystal snowball of a world, white on white on white. In 1986 John Byrne was given the job of retelling the legend to a new generation of readers. He kept the desolation of the film's landscape, made the planet a sterile home to a test-tube race.

With 2013's Man of Steel, Krypton is a grave new world where births are all by artificial wombs, each newborn genetically engineered and set for its place in society. The warrior caste is designed to feel no empathy for an opponent. All in all, not a planet likely to attract a libertarian. It looks like a good place to be from. Its Council is set in its suicidal ways, drilling into Krypton's core for energy, destabilizing their world.

They have turned away from their space-faring era, abandoned their space program. One birth by natural means has occurred, an extreme rarity and violation of law. Jor-El's newborn is not only the Last Son of Krypton, but its Only Begotten Son. And his escape rocket is waiting. As it flies away, General Zod and his followers are sent into the Phantom Zone. Only these survive the death of a world.

There have been stories showing the fate of humanity if Krypton endured long enough to send a fleet of survivors. ("Return to Krypton", Superman #8, June 1988.) Or even if only Jor-El and kindred brought "The Last Family of Krypton" (3-issue miniseries, 2010). In both, mere humans wound up living in serfdom. "Any race of Supermen will be conquerors, even if they don't mean to", is the Last Son's sad conclusion

Krypton is his ancestry. Smallville is his upbringing, and it too has changed with the years. In the comics, the town announced on billboards, "Smallville, home of Superboy". The Kents had a grocery store, with basement access to the boy's underground lair and science lab. By the 1978 movie Clark spent his high school years in the 1950s, with no mention of Superboy.

It must have occurred to someone that advertising a flying teenage boy would be more of a tourist attraction than the world's largest ball of yarn, or a giant onion mentioned in the Guinness Book of Records. Or that even the most incurious would note that when young Clark went to Metropolis University, those Superboy sightings would drop considerably.

John Byrne's 1986 reboot of the legend had the good sense to shed all that. He got his powers in his teens. You got acne, he got heat vision. But he kept his talents hidden, and his light under a bushel basket.

In a time when every cell phone has a camera, with internet nearly everywhere, any careless moment and Clark's secret would be on a pic or YouTube video faster than any speeding bullet. Do school records show the boy never had an immunization shot? It is no surprise Kevin Costner's Jonathan Kent is nearly pathological in his secrecy.

In 2013's Man of Steel, Clark's father would rather his son let a busload of his classmates drown than save them and be revealed. Clark lifted the bus anyway, was seen but nobody quite believed their eyes. His father was more impressed with the boy's letting himself be bullied, never fighting, avoiding sports. Eventually his rule that people must never know, no matter what the circumstance, goes so far he refuses rescue from a tornado.

Pa Kent usually has a heart attack, a tradition going back to George Lowther's novel, The Adventures of Superman in 1942, through Glenn Ford grabbing his left arm and saying "oh no" before dropping dead, to John Schneider in the TV series Smallville. This is partial homage to Jerry Siegel's father, who died of heart failure. Usually the father has a dying message to Clark about his duty to use his powers for good in the world. Not in Man of Steel. Jonathan's last message is keep it hidden until it is time not to, with no clear idea when that moment will come.

It comes when Clark finds a 20,000 year old spaceship buried in the frozen Arctic, triggers a recorded message, and soon finds the worst of Krypton on the trail of the last and best of it.

Man of Steel: 2013

Man of Steel is a reminder that Superman is a science fiction story. Back in 1978 when Christopher Reeve's Superman told Margot Kidder's Lois Lane he was from Krypton, her response was to ask if he spelled it with a C or a K. (I am a humanoid survivor of an alien species, proof of life elsewhere in the universe, and that's the first thing going through your head?)

Like Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness, General Zod is a eugenic warrior, born into his caste. Not that Zod is a novelty. On Krypton, children are brought into their world already genetically assigned their roles. With one exception born to Jor-El and Lara.

"We believed that Krypton had lost something precious", Jor-El continued. "The element of choice, of chance. What if a child dreamed of becoming something other than what society intended for him? What if he aspired to something greater? We wanted to restore that possibility."
Greg Cox's novelization
Man of Steel, Kindle edition

Zod, played by Michael Shannon, is different from Terence Stamp's version of a Kryptonian conqueror. Gene Hackman's Luthor would last 3 seconds around this guy. The 1981 Zod was a poser, bored by easy victory and raising an eyebrow at the antics of his two fellow villains. This one is serious. He has seen his homeworld destroyed, been exiled to wander with a starship full of his followers. He is the last of his race, and he was shaped before birth to be its warrior.

When he finds our world, a habitable world, he does not demand that anyone kneel before him. He is not out to rule humanity. He does not want our submission. His technology will reshape Earth into another Krypton, and leave his people not the master race but the only race. If he prevails, humanity is extinct.

That is what he brings when he follows the path that led to a rocket landing in a Kansas field. And from there to a battlefield in Metropolis. He doesn't know how our yellow Sun will give him greater strength than he has ever known. Him and all those around him.

He is wired for war.

Clark Kent grew up holding back every violent impulse, every urge to fight. As Superman once told Darkseid in a classic Justice League cartoon,

"I feel like I live in a world made of cardboard, always taking constant care not to break something, to break someone. Never allowing myself to lose control even for a moment."

His momentary advantage is that he has lived in this world for 33 years. In those years he gained his powers and became familiar with them. Newcomers like Zod do not know what these changes are, what is causing them. This may put them off balance for a brief interval.

Those are the conditions at the point of the film's last battle. Zod will not give up, however hopeless his cause has become. No prison exists that could hold him. And this story takes place before anyone discovers Kryptonite. Superman's decision in this fight has been criticized. But his grief over it is intense, with a sense of loss that he never showed in his 1939 persona. He chose his loyalty to this Earth, to humanity, over any he might feel for his birthplace.

There are flaws in the movie, considerable ones. As there were with all the other movies about Superman. And all the television series. And almost all the stories in the comic books. It doesn't matter. From all these sources our minds create their own ideal, gather aspects from every source. We fill the gaps, plaster over the cracks.

"... a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way."

Superman II, released in 1981, showed Christopher Reeve flying, holding the American flag: Superman returning to the White House, restoring the flag to where President E.G. Marshall had knelt before Zod. In 2013's Man of Steel, Henry Cavill's last scene with the government has him drop a crushed spy drone onto the landing field at an Air Force base, and tell the General to "stop trying to find where I hang my cape."

Clearly something has changed.

To quote Perry White in 2006, "Does he still stand for truth, justice, and the other stuff?" He alludes, of course, to a line from a speech some of us know better than the pledge of Allegiance: "... a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way."

Well, does he? Would today's Superman tell a President his secret identity? He did in a 1963 issue, when John F. Kennedy covered for him at an event where both Kent and Superman had to appear. "If I can't trust the President of the United States, who can I trust?" In 2011's "The Incident", issue #900 of Action Comics, Superman flew to Camp David after the Administration complained about his participation in a non-violent protest in Teheran. All he did was stand there with a gathering of protesters against the regime. Not one twisting of a tank's gun barrel into a pretzel. Simply stood for 24 hours. A crowd of a million gathered. The regime in power called it an act of war.

"I'm tired of having my actions construed as instruments of U.S. Policy", was his reply to the President's National Security Adviser. He added that he would address the UN the next day to let them know he had resigned his American citizenship. This was a 6 page story, not that crucial given that they revised the entire DC comics universe only a few issues later with the "New 52".

What is significant is that the author of "The Incident" is David S. Goyer, who also wrote the screenplay for Man of Steel. Indeed, there is a scene with Lois Lane in an Army interrogation room with two-way mirrored glass windows where he describes with great detail what he sees with his X-ray vision, from the contents of Dr. Hamilton's breast pocket to hearing the General's heart beat. Earlier in "The Incident" he told the President's adviser, "When I look at you, I see you in every spectrum..the halo of electromagnetic radiation from your smart phone ... the pre-cancerous mole on your left cheek ... the microscopic Demodex mites that live in your eyelashes." When a writer uses a gesture twice with the same character, he is making a point.

"You're scared of me because you can't control me. You don't. And you never will. But that doesn't mean I'm your enemy ... I grew up in Kansas, General. I'm about as American as you can get. But Superman has to be more than that."

Man of Steel

"Truth, Justice, and the American way ... it's not enough anymore. The world's too small, too connected. I've been thinking too small." ("The Incident") Mr. Goyer also wrote the Dark Knight Rises script. In that, the American President tries to appease Bane when he holds Gotham City hostage. Clearly superheroes and the government are not as cozy as they were in the days of Eisenhower and Kennedy.

I believe that Superman does stand for "truth, justice, and the American way". As a former President from Arkansas might say, it all depends on the meaning of the word "American". In stories of how things might have turned out otherwise, we have seen him at the right hand of government, in "The Dark Knight Returns". In "Red Son", where he landed in the USSR, he grew up to become Stalin's heir to power. But all those stories were paths not taken, choices not made. Superman is a model of restraint of power, of self-imposed limits. As Shakespeare said in Measure for Measure:

                    O, it is excellent
To have a giant's strength; but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.

I could have drawn a line from flag-carrying smiling Superman to a solemn, fed up superhero laying down his terms for working with the government. It would fit well from the political consensus of 1963 to the sullen resentments of 2013. A sort of Ron Paul in tights, independent and critical of the State.

Such a Superman would be closer to the America that John Quincy Adams spoke of when he declared that this country

goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. ... The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force. The frontlet upon her brows would no longer beam with the ineffable splendor of freedom and independence; but in its stead would soon be substituted an imperial diadem, flashing in false and tarnished lustre the murky radiance of dominion and power. She might become the dictatress of the world: she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.
John Quincy Adams
Secretary of State
address on July 4,1821

But comics tell a long myth, composed from many creators. There is always a new issue in print with new stories. A year after "The Incident", in Action Comics #9, in a parallel world, Superman (Kal-El) is Calvin Ellis, a black President born on Krypton but raised in Chicago. In the story "Executive Power", he destroys Qurac's nuclear weapons program with the help of that world's Justice League. Afterwards, that world's Wonder Woman warns Ellis that

"You swore to uphold your nation's laws. I cannot imagine how many international laws we've violated today." She even echoes the Birthers when she reminds him, "You were not born on Earth, Cal. Let alone in the United States. Simply by serving as President you violate your nation's laws every day."

"I've considered that. I'm not Batman! But I have a responsibility to do what I can for the Greater Good."

"Tell me, what happens when, one day, you do what you think is the 'Greater Good' — but the world sees it differently?"

Is this a critique of President Obama? Forget the birthplace reference. Going into Qurac, clearly with better intelligence sources than we had looking for Saddam's WMD program, this version of Superman is hardly "leading from behind", or using soft power.

He is the decider, he doesn't wait for sanctions, he invades a country, strikes preemptively, and sends terms of submission to its dictator. It is the Bush Doctrine in a world where nothing goes sour. Is this a sound precedent for this President's future decisions?

Superman's "American way"?

The story ended on a question, and so must this essay.

Which American Way does Superman stand for? We can look at him as we do the Constitution. The Anthony Scalia strict constructionist view would declare the early and original Siegel and Shuster interpretation the legitimate measure of the character. While the 'living Superman' interpretation accepts the later changes and characterizations and declares he evolved and adapted to circumstances.

But even the original intent of the founders of Superman is not that clear. In 1938 he stopped a corrupt lobbyist from steering America into a foreign war. Was he an isolationist, an America Firster? A few issues later he stepped into a border war and forced both sides to negotiate. Was he therefore a Wilsonian, ready to "teach the South American governments to elect good men?" Which American way does he speak for? Woodrow Wilson's or John Quincy Adams'? Theodore Roosevelt's or Mark Twain's?

The American Way is not the property of the American government. Dr. Martin Luther King spoke for it more eloquently than his Presidents. It is an ideal, envisioned more than it is practiced, most visible when it is not practiced. To reverse the Supreme Court Justice's definition of obscenity, I know the American Way when I don't see it. From the Declaration on, it is a vision of what could and should be, and a condemnation of what is not or should not be. You must do better.

There was something very American about Jor-El, Superman's father, who spoke out to persuade his government to save its people. When they rejected his warnings, he set to work on his own spacecraft. If they won't listen, then build one yourself. Don't wait for a nod of approval from the State. Take your own initiative.

Do not wait for official permission to stand for an ideal. The Freedom Riders did not say, "Mother, may I?" The queens at the Stonewall did not contact the conservatively dressed and respectable members of the Mattachine Society when the police raided their favorite bar. They stood, and fought back.

The other part of Superman's credo reminds me of the tension between the ideal and the real. There is a "never ending battle", a struggle to contain yourself, rule over your impulses, help others but never to make them dependent upon you. Do good for others, because you can.

There are worse ways for a character to spend 75 years. There are worse ideals to admire than an adopted immigrant who could rule others but never would, with the powers of a god and the conscience of an Eagle Scout, who never lived and therefore never dies.

This is not the one or final interpretation of Superman. It cannot be. He is a myth, and as Claude Levi-Strauss said,

all available variants should be taken into account.....There is no single "true" version of which all the others are but copies or distortions. Every version belongs to the myth.
Claude Levi-Strauss
Structural Anthropology  (Basic Books, 1963, page 218.)


© 2014 Kenneth Spell

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