(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.