Neil Gaiman, who has given some thought to the nature of heroes and myth in his time, takes on “The Myth of Superman” with Adam Rogers in Wired this month. Unlike other comic book superheroes (or, in Cory Doctorow’s preferred usage, “underwear perverts”), they write, who have remained purely the creatures of their writers, Superman transcends his depiction in comic books, TV shows, radio shows, movies, and Atari games, and “…has evolved into a folk hero, a fable, and the public feels like it has a stake in who Superman ‘really’ is.”
Gaiman and Rogers track the appeal of Superman, the mythic quality, to the “internal war between Superman’s moral obligation to do good and his longing to be an average Joe” – a tug-of-war between doing the right thing and playing along, embodied respectively in Superman and his nebbishy alter ego, Clark Kent.
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.
I disagree, though. OK, in Superman II he falls in love with Lois Lane and rejects the difference that sets him apart, but more often what really plagues Superman is not that he is not like other humans but that he’s not unlike enough, not super enough. In many of the comic book cycles (as well as the first Christopher Reeve movie) Superman’s defining moment is his inability to save his adoptive parents from death, despite all his powers. In Superman: The Movie he is driven by his need to save both the world and the woman he loves.
What sets Superman apart from most superheroes is not, I think, his relationship with his alter ego but both the nature of his super-ness and his relation with the rest of us. Batman, Spiderman, Hulk, Captain Marvel, Captain America, Wonder Woman, and most other superheroes became what they are; Superman just is super. It’s his nature. There is no childhood trauma that drove him to fight crime, no nuclear or genetic accident that warped him, no pre-super Superman taunting him with lost normality. In this, Superman is more like a god than a prophet – his powers are his nature, not his gift. He am that he am.
Unlike other heroes, too, Superman is not so much defined by his opposition to super-villains. As Gaiman and Rogers note, there’s “bitter, bald Lex Luthor”, but Superman seems oddly untouched by his battles against Luthor’s schemes – unlike, say, the mutually defining opposition between Batman and the Joker. Luthor is, after all, just an incredibly smart human, rarely much of a match for Superman; his only real weapon against Superman is kryptonite, which is basically an accident of Superman’s nature, rather than the kind of moral or psychic flaws other super-villains exploit.
Superman’s real function is not protecting us against super-villains but protecting us from the worst aspects of our own nature. Superman catches thieves and spies, fights Nazis and Commies, and when a piece of technology goes awry – when lightning strikes a plane or a dam is about to burst – Superman is there to prevent the worst. Gaiman and Rogers see Superman standing “between humanity and a capricious universe” but I see him standing between humanity and itself, both its conscious evils and its mistakes.
As myth, Superman holds a unique place among superheroes. Other superheroes play out anxieties about science in our society – many of them are the products of Cold War nuke fears, acting out a decidedly Derridean deconstruction of the ambiguous nature of new technologies like nuclear power and genetic science – and about the loss of connection inherent in the shift towards an urbanized, anonymized society. Many superheroes live in worlds that are inherently chaotic, inherently threatening. Superman’s world, though, is inherently orderly. The government is fair, the newspapers are filled with hard-working journalists devoted to “the story”, science promises unlimited potential. Superman is there to assure that order is kept – he protects his orderly world from the chaos of technological failure and, more importantly, from the occasional misfit who simply cannot conform, cannot fit in.
Like Luthor. Or, indeed, like himself. Gaiman and Rogers miss the other great super-villain in Superman’s world – Superman himself. Or, rather, the negative potential inherent in anyone so far removed from the ordinary human realm, embodied by Superman’s other alter ego, his true alter ego: Bizarro Superman. In battling Bizarro – as with catching thieves and defeating Nazis – Superman wrestles with his, and our, worst tendencies.
In this sense, maybe he, too, helps us deal with anxieties over the dual nature of modern technology – like nuclear science, Superman’s awesome power can both save and destroy. But Superman is not as easily made into a template for the technological anxieties that plague us as other superheroes. Rather, Superman takes on our innermost fears about human nature. Not the everyday fears that hang on our consciousness, but the moral fears that hang on our consciences. At the end of the day, Superman is incorruptible, in a way that humans are not. For all his super powers, Superman’s ultimate strength is moral, not physical. Unlike the Fantastic Four or Daredevil or Spiderman or the X-Men, Superman stands for something. That’s right: Truth. Justice. And the American Way.