Mental floss for the discerning
19 March 2018 16:17 (South Africa)
Life, etc

Happy birthday, Superman!

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • Life, etc
brooks on superman.jpg

Superman – he may be 75 years old this week, but he’s still faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and still able to leap all those tall buildings at a single bound! By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

As a tiny baby, Kal-El was wrapped in those trademark red and blue, bright-coloured swaddling cloths, placed in a fragile lifeboat, cast adrift just as his homeland was about to come crashing down around him, and then, finally, rescued by kindly strangers who raised the orphaned infant as their very own child. As his power and strength came to be known to them all, the boy eventually left his bucolic home to go out into the wider world to do good, to protect the weak, and to mete out justice to evildoers wherever he found them. But no, this is not a beginning of the story of the baby Moses, even though it might easily have been such (especially since the English translation of his ancient Hebrew name, ‘Kal-El’, means 'The Voice of God').

Instead of a Bible story, of course, this tale is a capsule version of the origin saga of Superman, the character first dreamt up by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two Cleveland high school students, and then, eventually brought forward to the world in its full-fledged, classic formulation in ‘Action Comics #1’ - on 12 June 1938, seventy-five years ago this week. Superman, the ‘Man of Steel’, was well on his way to become “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings at a single bound” - along with all the other things he does to keep the world a safer place than it would be without him on patrol.

Although this writer has never been able to find anything noting this explicitly, it seems curious that this all-American but immigrant Man of Steel had an equivalently named figure in the then-Soviet Union. Joseph Stalin’s surname, adopted as his secret alias before the Russian Revolution, astonishingly also means “man of steel.” Given the level of support for Stalin’s USSR on the part of many before information about the purges really reached the US on the part of America’s leftist communities, it seems at least possible that here was yet another source for one of Superman’s monikers.

Some scholars – and, yes, there are actual Superman scholars – also argue Schuster and Siegel also drew upon some of the ideas in Frederick Nietzsche’s Man and Superman. Others, of course, argue that given Nietzsche’s influence and place in the harshly anti-Semitic Nazi ideology then coming to its ascendency in Germany, it is unlikely that could have been a conscious influence on two Jewish-American teenagers.

Watch: Superman (1979) trailer

In the years since his birth, Superman has become the preeminent superhero of our age, even though he influenced the creation of an entire pantheon of other superheroes, beginning with Batman and going forward to dozens more. Superman is now the figure in popular culture about whom millions everywhere would shout, “It’s a bird, it’s a plane, no, it’s Superman!” as he tirelessly races around the world to rescue the weak and helpless and put malefactors in their places in support of “truth, justice, and the American way.” Damn, but the people who kept coming up with Superman’s tag lines and slogans always managed to find just the right way to situate his power in those mythic and magical trinities - the most powerful numerical grouping (like the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost; or Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) - channelling ancient mythic rhythms that would have done Homer proud - had he but thought of them first for his heroes.

In the years that followed Schuster and Siegel’s creation of Superman, he has been portrayed in thousands of comic book episodes; a raft of Max Fleischer’s cinema-noir-style animated shorts that were shown for years on television in the 1950s as well their earlier runs in cinemas; on a long-running radio program; as a well-loved television series starring actor and amateur boxer George Reeves; yet another animated cartoon series; four highly-popular films starring Christopher Reeve; a second television series, Smallville, that depicts Superman’s teenaged years; a Broadway musical, It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman!; yet another Superman film, this time starring Brandon Routh; and now, in release from 14 June, the most recent (slightly reconfigured, retuned) version of the Man of Steel in cinemas around the world. In this newest film, The Man of Steel, Henry Cavill is the latest actor to portray the supremely popular superhero. And besides all these moving versions of the iconic superhero, there have been untold legions of product tie-in sales – all those Superman capes and full costumes, action figure toys, lunch boxes and matching thermos bottles, beach towels, bedroom duvet, pillow and sheet sets, colouring books – as well as what is often described as one of the worst-ever computer games – Superman64.

The power of the Superman story reaches deep down. The famous anthropologist-mythologist Joseph Campbell could argue that Superman tapped into the ancient story of someone like Samson or Hercules, who has to perform astonishing feats of strength and endurance to protect his people - perhaps with just a smidgen of the Jesus story thrown in for good measure. There is also good reason to believe the co-creators, as the sons of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, were also thoroughly familiar with the Golem legend, that medieval tale of an artificial giant crafted in the Prague ghetto in order to protect the Jewish community there from brutal pogroms and other depredations.

Watch: Superman Man of Steel (2013) trailer

Even though they were just two smart high school kids, Schuster and Siegel seem to have understood intuitively just how to reach down into those deep – Jungian-style “ancient or archaic images that derive from the collective unconscious” - archetypes that have been animating the stories of human – and super human – heroes since the beginning. Like Moses, strangers rescue him (or in the case of Hercules, some relatives), and they provide him with childhood sanctuary and a chance to grow up and explore his legendary powers. Because his destroyed planet, Krypton, is much more massive than Earth, his genetic inheritance and biology mean he is much more powerful on Earth – the origin of his super powers - that and the fact Krypton’s sun was red, rather than Earth’s yellow Sun.

However, just like Samson (or Achilles, for that matter), he has one fatal weakness – Samson had his long hair, Achilles an unprotected ankle and Superman, of course, his weakness when exposed to the powerful rays of radioactive Kryptonite, the meteoric residue of his exploded world of Krypton. Kryptonite, as opposed to the actual inoffensive, inert Nobel gas, has become a near-universal metaphor for a particularly lethal item that effectively and poisonously neutralises a person or organisation’s capabilities. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, Krypton will not cause anyone to lose their super powers – should they happen to have them.

The rest of the Superman myth involves his assuming a split identity. On the one hand, he is Clark Kent, the mild-mannered reporter for “The Daily Planet” where his would-be love interest, reporter colleague Lois Lane (who seems a particularly feisty version of Kathryn Hepburn in Woman of the Year) also works, along with their irascible editor in chief Perry White and the Energizer bunny-like cub photographer, Jimmy Olsen. In a weird love triangle, Kent’s challenge is that Lois Lane is in love with Superman rather than Clark Kent, and although they are one in the same, and she sometimes has her suspicions about that since they are never together, ever, neither she nor anyone else ever really sees the similarity. In creating the character, Shuster modelled Superman on popular actor Douglas Fairbanks Sr, while Clark Kent was a combination of Harold Lloyd and Shuster himself. The very name “Clark Kent” was derived from actors Clark Gable and Kent Taylor.

Superman has enemies, of course, chief among them Lex Luthor, the scientist arch-criminal who also grew up in Superman’s own adopted hometown of Smallville, before he moved to Metropolis. The latter is so named after the two creators’ love of Fritz Lang’s futuristic film by the same name that had been a hit in America after being made in Germany. Talking about these origins, in 1983 Shuster had recalled, “Jerry [Siegel] created all the names. We were great movie fans, and were inspired a lot by the actors and actresses we saw.”.

As time has gone by, Superman’s powers have grown in range, scale and extent. For example, rather than simply jumping over those tall buildings as he did initially like a humongous grasshopper, in response to complaints that all that leaping about meant too many intermediate illustrations in the cartoons, Superman began to fly for real. This cut out the visual middle spaces. His power grew eventually so much that he could fly across the galaxy (presumably holding his super breath for the trip) in pursuit of interstellar malefactors. In at least one film, Superman even managed to reverse time itself – presumably without hurting anyone or any thing – just so he could rescue Lois Lane from her demise in a crushed automobile. (Superman was obviously a confirmed believer in the space-time continuum, but heedless of the possibilities of causing paradoxes by time travel so beloved of SF writers and physicists.) Given his gradual accretion of super powers such as super breath, super sight, super hearing and the like, it is just as well he was a stout defender of truth, justice and the American way, rather than someone tempted by his powers to steal, cheat or use his x-ray vision for nefarious – or even deviant - purposes.

Perhaps it was a coincidence, but Schuster and Siegel first devised their superhero in the midst of the Great Depression and beyond the reach-back to myth, legend and Jungian archetypes, they also channelled the need for a national hero who could lift the country’s spirits and drag it out of its economic miasma. President Franklin Roosevelt seems to have been an explicit model of someone who had taken on the heroic mantle (and sometimes even wore a cape, for goodness sake) of saving the country. And Roosevelt, just like Superman, also had a tragic physical failing as well. In Roosevelt’s case, it was, of course, his polio, rather than the effects of Kryptonite. In fact, the left-leaning perspective of the co-creators shows up pretty clearly in numerous early storylines. Superman was a social activist, fighting crooked businessmen and politicians and demolishing run-down tenements. Comics scholar Roger Sabin argues this was a reflection of “the liberal idealism of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, In Superman radio programs, for example, the superhero tackled a version of the Ku Klux Klan in one 1946 broadcast. Siegel and Shuster's status as the children of immigrants also seems to have led them to, as scholar Timothy Aaron Pevey has argued, craft “an immigrant figure whose desire was to fit into American culture as an American”.

Photo: Max Fleisher's Superman

Superman didn’t single-handedly defeat Nazi Germany, his powers were still insufficient to do the job on his own, although some episodes during World War II did have him fending off some of the more fiendish Nazi plots. The government obviously thought Superman would help the war effort, however. Time magazine reported at the time that that “the Navy Department (had) ruled that Superman comic books should be included among essential supplies destined for the Marine garrison at Midway Islands.”

However, once the Cold War began, the original slogan where he had been fighting for “truth and justice” – the original injunction his adoptive father had given him before he moved from Smallville to Metropolis - had morphed into “truth, justice and the American way” - in visible deference to that long twilight struggle against that alien ideology of Soviet communism.

But the story of Superman and his creators would not be complete without at least a mention of the way his creators – and eventually their heirs – have done battle with the companies that published the comics, made the cartoons, and created the movies and television shows for more than just modest payments. This is especially true given the millions that Superman and his epic struggles have earned these same corporations, especially since in later life the two men had been living effectively as paupers, it was reported. The writer vividly remembers the public squabble over even giving Schuster and Siegel a mention in the film credits in Richard Donner’s “Superman”, let alone a modest ex gratia payment for conceiving the character that had led to those films.

But the fact that yet another film about the Man of Steel is about to be released upon the world, vividly demonstrates the continuing vitality of the myth two high school students conceived some seventy-five years ago this week, as well as the deep human need for some way, some person, some force that can do battle with the forces of evil. Because evil is never completely vanquished, it seems a safe prediction Superman will have his work cut out for him, for as long as there are people who hope for a better world – or just want to be gloriously entertained. And sub-teenaged boys will forever run through their homes wearing an improvised cape made out of a towel or pillow case, yelling, “It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Superman!” You can count on it. DM

Read more:

  • Superman’s home page at publisher DC Comics’ webpage
  • Superman and Batman, (a particularly interesting student essay for a class at New York University)
  • A Golem for Our Time? At the Hillel Society’s website
  • Man and Superman: how the Man of Steel became myth at the Telegraph
  • Man of Steel: the fight to control Superman at the Telegraph (a history of the legal battles over Superman)
  • Man of Action at the New York Times
  • In Search of Superman's Inner Jew, at Time magazine

Truth, justice and (fill in the blank) at the International Herald Tribune

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • Life, etc

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