This is a short, interesting piece from wired. Neil Gaiman & Adam Rogers speak about Superman as a mythological figure.
About a decade ago, Alvin Schwartz, who wrote Superman comic strips in the 1940s and ‘50s, published one of the great Odd Books of our time. In An Unlikely Prophet, reissued in paperback this spring, Schwartz writes that Superman is real. He is a tulpa, a Tibetan word for a being brought to life through thought and willpower. Schwartz also says a Hawaiian kahuna told him that Superman once traveled 2,000 years back in time to keep the island chain from being destroyed by volcanic activity. Maybe it happened, maybe it didn’t, but it does sound like a job for Superman – all in a day’s work for a guy who can squeeze coal into diamonds. Schwartz then tells of his own encounter with Superman in a New York taxi, when he learned firsthand that Superman’s cape is, in fact, more than mere fabric.
An Unlikely Prophet brings up an important question about Superman: What makes people want to meet him so badly? It’s tough to imagine a similar book about, say, Green Lantern or Captain America. Superman is different because he doesn’t really belong to the writers who’ve created his adventures over the last 68-plus years. He has evolved into a folk hero, a fable, and the public feels like it has a stake in who Superman “really” is. Schwartz quit writing Superman because his bosses were telling him to put in things that he thought were out of character. That was admirable, but really, the specific stories we tell about Superman – the what-happened and what-he-did – don’t matter that much. Superman transcends plot. We retell his tales because we wish he were here, real, to keep us safe.
Everyone knows the Superman story: rocketed to Earth from the distant planet Krypton just before it explodes, raised by a loving Kansas couple, possessing powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, defends the city of Metropolis – and the world – from evil. His real-world origin is more humble: Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two Jewish kids from Cleveland, created him as a character in a newspaper comic strip. But the strip didn’t sell, so they reformatted it and flipped it to a publisher hungry to buy content for one of the first comic books. When the story appeared in the premiere issue of the anthology Action Comics, kids went crazy for it, as if there had always been a Superman-shaped hole in the world and it now was filled.
It’s a classic American success story on a couple of levels. Two outsiders create a new art form, and Superman – an alien in a strange land – takes off. “Given the nature of the US, it was only natural in the 1930s for our new hero to be the ultimate immigrant,” says Bryan Singer, director of the new movie Superman Returns. “I’m an only child, adopted, and as a kid I identified extraordinarily with that aspect of Superman. The scene where the Kents decide to keep him always touches me.”
Of course, baby Clark has a special destiny. He’s literally empowered to be our salvation, endowed with all the basics – flight, strength, invulnerability – plus the wildcard powers of super hearing, heat vision, x-ray vision, and supercold breath. He used to be even more incredible; before a radical overhaul in the mid-’80s, he could move planets and run faster than the speed of light. His cape was infinitely elastic and never tore. He had super-hypnotism. In the 1978 movie, he turned back time. He’s not a superhero; he’s a demigod.
What’s important, though, is how Superman uses these powers. Compared to most A-list comic characters, he has almost no memorable villains. Think of Batman, locked in eternal combat with nocturnal freaks like the Joker – or Spider-Man, battling megalomaniacal weirdos like Dr. Octopus. For Superman, there’s pretty much only bitter, bald Lex Luthor, forever being reinvented by writers and artists in an effort to make him a worthy foe. Superman’s true enemies are disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes, jet planes tumbling from the sky, enormous meteors that would crush cities. Superman stands between humanity and a capricious universe.
Singer’s movie hasn’t yet screened in its entirety, so no one knows what he’s going to add to the myth. The few minutes of the film that outsiders have seen (watched with a chaperone, on a DVD that gets shredded after viewing) look good, a spiritual successor to the Richard Donner films from a quarter-century ago. The special effects will be flawless. But Singer’s Superman is bound to be less interesting than his Clark Kent. Of all the relationships at the heart of the myth – Superman and Lois Lane, Superman and Jimmy Olsen, Superman and his adoptive parents – the most important is the one with his alter ego.
In 1959, Jules Feiffer did a classic cartoon about that dynamic. In it, Superman “pulled this chick from the river” and, after being briefly subjected to her Freudian questions about his motivation for rescuing people all the time, he quits. He settles down and spends the rest of his life pretending to be human – going to work, watching TV. In less than a page, Feiffer encapsulates the internal war between Superman’s moral obligation to do good and his longing to be an average Joe.
Other heroes are really only pretending: Peter Parker plays Spider-Man; Bruce Wayne plays Batman. For Superman, it’s mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent that’s the disguise – the thing he aspires to, the thing he can never be. He really is that hero, and he’ll never be one of us. But we love him for trying. We love him for wanting to protect us from everything, including his own transcendence. He plays the bumbling, lovelorn Kent so that we regular folks can feel, just for a moment, super.
Only a steel man.