(Note: While googling to research this essay, I learned that Christopher Reeve had just died so perhaps it was somehow fated to be written this day.)
I went to see Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow this weekend. It’s a great romp if you’re the kind of person who like retro golden-era style science fiction pulp adventures that features amphibious P-40 Warhawks. Before the movie, the theater showed “The Mechanical Monsters” one of the great Dave and Max Fleischer Superman cartoons from 1941.
The cartoon got me to thinking about what it says about America that Superman is our archetypical hero.
Some have theorized that comic books serve the modern function of the epical myth. Instead of Hercules, son of Zeus, we get Superman, Batman, Spiderman and host of other super-powered characters. As modern myths, superhero stories embody our core moral precepts. Comic books are a medium that we use to instruct children in our idealistic values. (Which is why comics were so often targets of censors.) For example, American superheroes are individualistic like cowboys, and often people isolated from their fellows by the moral responsibilities their powers bring them. They seldom work for or even with the government or any greater authority. This reflects the American idea that conscience and moral choice lie with the individual not the collective. Through comics, we teach our children that every person must decide for themselves what is right and wrong and accept personal responsibility for those decisions.
Superman is the American superhero. Worldwide he is recognized as an American archetype. He fights for “Truth, Justice and the American Way!” The superman character has been a part of the childhood of every American since the 1930s. Obviously, culturally, we as a people are very comfortable with the example that Superman sets for our children.
So, here is the weird part: Superman isn’t a native-born American. He isn’t even a human being. Superman is a space-alien from the planet Krypton! This fact is not some modern invention but is explained right there in the very first Superman story.
Generations of Americans have never had a problem thinking of a member of an alien species as the ultimate American. What does it say about Americans’ conception of ourselves that our archetypical superhero is the ultimate outsider? Europeans never developed a superhero genre, but if they had it would be difficult to imagine the Germans, French or even the British of the 1930s anointing a complete alien as the archetype for their people.
I think the phenomenon of Superman teaches us that for Americans, our collective identity is about values and ideology, not race, culture or religion. Superman is ultimately an American because he is really Clark Kent, a person raised in Smallville with middle-American values. His origins don’t matter, only his values do. Culturally, we don’t have trouble accepting Superman as a full-fledged American because we don’t really have a problem accepting anybody as an American. If you believe in American ideals, you are an American. The fact that you are a space-alien who is given near godlike powers by the rays of the Earth’s yellow sun does not really enter in to it.
Conversely, one ceases to be an American when one rejects those values. When we describe someone as un-American, either seriously or in jest, we are accusing them of betraying those values. One can conceptually cease to be an American overnight even if one’s roots in the physical nation extend back generations.
No other people of the world conceive of themselves in such a way. For Europeans, Japanese, Koreans, Chinese and the handful of other peoples for whom integral nation-states exist, nationality is very much about “blood and soil.” It is tied to race, culture, religion and geography. Saying an individual is French, German, Japanese, etc. tells one nothing about that individual’s core values. If you are of French descent in France, you’re French and that is all there is to it. A French communist is just as French as a French monarchist who is just as French as a French fascist.
One reason that America so discomforts Europeans is that they project their own cultural concepts of nationalism and patriotism onto America. For the European in particular, nationalism and patriotism are inherently xenophobic to a significant degree. For a European, love of a nation-state means love of one ethnic group above others, but for an American, love of nation means love of an idea. As in many areas, we use the same words and phrases — patriotism, nationalism, love of country — to describe fundamentally different concepts.
Long before the Superman story arrived to reveal it, Americans had moved beyond the tribalism of the old world. If he found out the Earth would soon explode, an American Jor-El could place his child in a rocket ship, toss in a copy of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and shoot the child off to an alien world, confident that as long as the child grew into those ideals the struggle for Truth, Justice and American Way would survive regardless of what planet that struggle occurred on.
So the ultimate moral of Superman is that America isn’t a place, it’s an idea. As long as the idea lives so does America. Wherever the idea lives, that is where America is. Whoever believes in American ideals is an American even if he has tentacles and breathes methane.
14 thoughts on “American Superman”
Your conclusions are moving – and I believe true. I suspect that we may need to fight tribalism continually – that it is human nature to value narrower loyalties. But that here, we value that fight and we value the kind of vision that emphasizes vision a good deal more than blood. Isn’t that vision the necessary base on which to build the rule of law?
While I think this is very perceptive and do believe our nationalism is best signified by our vision and by the melting pot and while I also believe that Americans have traditionally valued the loner pushing at the frontiers that signal convention and tradition — yes, all that is true. And jingoism here may be obnoxious but is seldom xenophobic. (The stereotypical movie of the 40’s with WWII crews including one of every type was repeated in Star Trek.) Remember the national service on the Friday after 9/11 and Bush’s attempt to bring together representatives of all branches of religion. That, too, is this vision.
Nonetheless, the “foreigness” of the hero is not unEuropean. In describing the archetype of the mythic hero, Joseph Campbell notes first of all that he is generally an outsider of some kind who demonstrates leadership by walking in and solving a community’s problem – then, of course, causing more think Oedipus, Othello).
Back to reinforcing your point: One of my old teachers used to say that antinomianism was the American heresy and that we all tended a bit toward it. Whether Natty Bumppo or Hester Prynne, Shane or Sam Spade – the knight follows a value system we respect (“natural law” sometimes is what the author implies), meanwhile disobeying “Man’s law.”
Good essay Shannon. The Germans did in fact develop a superhero genre around the same time as when Superman came out (which was our answer I believe?). Of course, unlike our characters who remaind fictional, they took it a step further and made theirs real. But as you say, Nazi super men were quite tribal, xenophobic, and very much tied to race.
I don’t think that Superman is a classic outsider hero. The outsider hero solves problems by bringing a new perspective into a community and by being wholly uninvolved in the local quarrels. He is mentally or culturally an outsider. Whatever physical attributes he may possess are seldom central to his hero role save as special effects.
As a person, Superman is really Clark Kent, the all-American boy. Raised in small town America, he is thoroughly mentally and culturally an American. He is an insider. Superman differs from other Americans only physically. The fact that he is an alien being is really just a rather trivial plot device to explain his super powers.
I think the fact that Superman’s alien physical nature is considered to be a trivial matter says a lot about how we view ourselves.
Very thought-provoking essay. Thank you.
Your comments about America being more about IDEAS and VALUES than about ETHNICITY or GEOGRAPHY reminded me of a wonderful essay by Bill Whittle (only one of many). Check it out HERE.
One reason that America so discomforts Europeans is that they project their own cultural concepts of nationalism and patriotism onto America.
What a fascinating insight.
What do you mean, no European superheroes? What about Captain Euro? (His nemesis is Dr. D. Vider. Geddit? Geddit? Pretty clever, huh?)
Superman is one of a number of fictional American hero characters that include Queequeg, Natty Bumpo, Superman, and, most recently, Mr. Spock. They share features: alien, taciturn, stoic, powers and abilities beyond those of mortal men. Ultimately, Rousseauan, I believe.
Not to claim priority or anything, but I had this debate with Joe Katzman at Winds of Change over two years ago. Katzman suggested that Bruce Banner a.k.a. “The Incredible Hulk” was he archtype of the American Hero.
I mailed him a demurral, which he posted:
“Ha! I’ll see that and raise you:
“An immigrant from an oppressed and decadent land who is sent to America as an infant, an orphan and refugee, to be raised by adoptive parents in the midwest. Farmers, later shopkeepers, who watch him grow and thrive in his new land’s freedom and light — who raise him to celebrate and protect and revere Truth, Justice, and The American Way.
“Who, you’ll notice, chooses to fight the neverending battle not with brute force. No “Clark Smash!” here. No. To celebrate the virtues and values he inherited from his Kansas kin, he becomes a journalist, a reporter, to win the hearts and minds of his fellow citizens — fellows every bit as important and powerful as he himself, where it counts: at the ballot box.”
In my defense, I have to point out that the post’s enoblement of the journalist as a seeker of Truth, agent of Justice, and guardian of The American Way was composed BEFORE Dan Rather’s recent exposure of himself and many of his peers as self-aggrandizing hacks.
Still, I think that’s an important part of the myth. Strong enough to change the course of mighty rivers, yes. But can Superman change a voter’s mind? Faster than a speeding bullet, okay, right. But faster than a meme spreading across the blogosphere? More powerful than a locomotive, maybe. But more powerful than a woman’s first vote in Afghanistan; Farsi-language rock’n’roll broadcast into Iran; the careful juxtaposition of the candidate’s current stump speech with that Senator’s years-old speeches during deliberations on declaration of war?
Superman is kinda bigoted — I believe it was Jules Fiefer who pointed it out: Superman says that unless you’re from HIS planet, then you can’t fly, you can’t see thru walls, you can’t do any of the feats Superman allows himself. But, any four-eyed mild mannered dweeb can, with luck, pluck, and determination, slip past the gates, figure out the truth, and publish the story. Heck, even a girl, even LOIS LANE can do THAT, and she will, too, if you don’t beat her to it! (Earns her ire if you do; and her scorn if you don’t — partnerin’ up with a gal like that is a super-feat all by itself …)
At some point there in the 1970’s there was an effort to “update” the myth and Clark Kent became a television anchor man. For awhile. I’m wondering if these days he might not be a blogger.
Please have a chat with Leon Kass, and explain to him that gaining powers and abilities far beyond those of normal men, through the application of super-science, isn’t un-American…
Euros had superheroes from way back. King Arthur. El Cid. Roland. Beowulf….but you’re right; they’re all exemplars of their ethnic groups.
ARTHUR: How do you do, good lady. I am Arthur, King of the Britons. Who’s castle is that?
WOMAN: King of the who?
ARTHUR: The Britons.
WOMAN: Who are the Britons?
ARTHUR: Well, we all are. we’re all Britons and I am your king.
WOMAN: I didn’t know we had a king. I thought we were an autonomous collective.
DENNIS: You’re fooling yourself. We’re living in a dictatorship. A self-perpetuating autocracy in which the working classes–
WOMAN: Oh there you go, bringing class into it again.
DENNIS: That’s what it’s all about if only people would–
ARTHUR: Please, please good people. I am in haste. Who lives in that castle?
WOMAN: No one live there.
ARTHUR: Then who is your lord?
WOMAN: We don’t have a lord.
DENNIS: I told you. We’re an anarcho-syndicalist commune. We take it in turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week.
DENNIS: But all the decision of that officer have to be ratified at a special biweekly meeting.
ARTHUR: Yes, I see.
DENNIS: By a simple majority in the case of purely internal affairs,–
ARTHUR: Be quiet!
DENNIS: –but by a two-thirds majority in the case of more–
ARTHUR: Be quiet! I order you to be quiet!
WOMAN: Order, eh — who does he think he is?
ARTHUR: I am your king!
WOMAN: Well, I didn’t vote for you.
ARTHUR: You don’t vote for kings.
WOMAN: Well, ‘ow did you become king then?
ARTHUR: The Lady of the Lake, [angels sing] her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water signifying by Divine Providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. [singing stops] That is why I am your king!
DENNIS: Listen — strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.
ARTHUR: Be quiet!
DENNIS: Well you can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just ’cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!
ARTHUR: Shut up!
DENNIS: I mean, if I went around sayin’ I was an empereror just because some moistened bint had lobbed a scimitar at me they’d put me away!
ARTHUR: Shut up! Will you shut up!
DENNIS: Ah, now we see the violence inherent in the system.
ARTHUR: Shut up!
DENNIS: Oh! Come and see the violence inherent in the system! HELP! HELP! I’m being repressed!
ARTHUR: Bloody peasant!
DENNIS: Oh, what a give away. Did you hear that, did you here that, eh? That’s what I’m on about — did you see him repressing me, you saw it didn’t you?
Good post, and you’re right about how the rest of the world sees Superman as being a metaphor for the United States. After all they all think we’re insanely powerful, terribly niave and provincial in outlook.
But you’re wrong that he is the best example of a mythic America. Instead that’s Spiderman. He’s an average Joe who suddenly finds, through no plan or action of his own, that he’s more powerful than his peers. He makes sacrifices to help others even while a hostile and shrill press blames him for the very problems that he’s trying so desperately to combat.
In the comics, Superman is the beloved hero of the entire planet who never has to decide between trying to do what’s right and taking the time to take care of his personal life. Spiderman is a schmuck who does what’s right even though he’s reviled and condemned for it.
There is a sad undercurrent in Superman – he can never go back to his country of origin. What was once there, what gave birth to him, no longer exists.
That was the experience of my Russian / Ukrainian ancestors who left in the early 1900s. And for my Welsh and Swiss ancestors on my mother’s side, their homelands were changes beyond recognition by outside forces as well.
It’s a quintessential American story, redeemed by a willingness to belong here now, in the best of ways.
Dude, if your name wan’t on that artilce, I could have sworn I wrote it in my sleep. I am an American who grew up in America, and have been living in Europe for a couple years now. You can’t understand how right you are about the misconceptions Europeans have about the US. Thank you.
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