Fearing what he can do. Fearing what he won't do.Recently, one of my friends told me that Superman was an inch from becoming a dictator. It didn’t seem likely to me, but I didn’t have any arguments, just a sense that Superman wasn’t inclined toward world domination. Luckily enough, the public library system provided me with, The Man from Krypton: A Closer Look at Superman, a collection of essays edited by Glenn Yeffeth.

The Man from Krypton is part of Benbella Books Smart Pop series. Smart Pop includes geekily academic and academically geeky books on The Matrix, NYPD Blue, King Kong, The Golden Compass, Farscape, Pride and Prejudice and anything Joss Whedon. Sadly, aside from the pastel Lichtensteinish cover, there are no pictures. Still, it’s a fun book with essays on Krypton, Christopher Reeve, Smallville, Lois and that one by Larry Niven about how Superman’d kill Lois if they had sex. Ladies, I suggest staying away from it. Gruesome. The Man from Krypton also gave me some perspective on how the Superman might differ from other Men of Steel, say Josef Stalin (despite obvious differences like never creating a system of gulags, Phantom Zone aside).

king%20superman%202.jpgSure, Superman has the ability to set himself up as King of the World, but he chooses not to. That choice counts, just as my own choices not to be an asshole count. I think I hadn’t read much Superman because it was hard for me to sympathize with him—his power, his belief in Truth, Justice and the American Way. Maybe as I get older and more aware of how I can hurt people, I sympathize more with Clark, who can hurt people every day if he’s not careful all the time.

In “History of Violence,” David Hopkins surveys hundreds of covers and consults an uber superman geek friend. He discovers that Superman damages a lot of property, but not people. He concludes that Superman’s nature is “one of power, restraint and, finally, theatrics” (19). It’s a side issue, but theatrics is worth pondering. Jules Feiffer wrote in another book that Clark Kent was Superman’s cover and reflected his view of humanity. Hopkins adds, “Clark Kent, the mild-mannered Daily Planet reporter, is an act, but, to some degree, so is Superman. Both hold back. Power and violence do not show the true strength and courage of a person, but control and restraint do.”

Screw the flying, super strength and heat vision, Superman’s greatest power might well be that he’s always in control. He always restrains himself while appearing to hit a thug as hard as he can.  But Superman never does. That restraint is exactly where stories of alternate universe or Kryptonite-addled Superman gone wrong or Superman letting loose get their thrill. The Warner Bros. animated series managed to reflect the fearsome nature of his power, mostly in the amount of crater-causing damage he took because he could and, occasionally, in his letting go on superpowerful villains like life-hating alien dictator and bad father, Darkseid. In one episode of Justice League, an other dimensional Superman imposes order and security by killing Lex Luthor and lobotomizing antisocial elements. Encountering this alternate self reminds Superman of what he could become and clarifies why Superman binds himself with human-imposed limits like the law and Clark’s daily life. The fact that it’s Superman binding himself—choosing not to be a dictator–and nothing else, is part of what worries people, mostly fictional people but also fans like my friend.

Of course, people don’t just worry about what Superman could do. They worry about what Superman doesn’t do. Paul Levinson agonizes over the implications of Superman’s restraint in “Superman, Patriotism and Doing the Ultimate Good: Why the Man of Steel Did So Little to Stop Hitler.” And what Superman doesn’t do is stop World War II. Levinson’s caught like a coat in a car door on why Superman lets bad things happen to good people. In his desire to maintain his suspension of disbelief, he disregards his best answer: Superman couldn’t end World War II because readers in the 1940s would find it unbelievable. For Levinson finding an explanation outside the story kills the magic. He wants to believe in Superman. And so he tugs away, pained by Superman’s refusal to do more about suffering in the real world, pained by Superman’s refusal to take the control people want to give him to end evil.

Levinson might not be the only one frustrated that Superman doesn’t force the world, even a comic book world, to be a better place, despite the universal experience of fucking things up when we’re trying to make them better. I think Frank Miller is frustrated Superman doesn’t. And sometimes that frustration leads to dismissive representations of Superman as a boy scout or a government flunky—someone who submits to imperfect authority even though he seems to know innately what is right and good. Superman could be a tyrant for truth, justice and the American way, but he’s just not that Man of Steel.

~~~Born under an alien sun, millions of lightyears from earth, Carol Borden tries to use her power for awesome. And just so you know, the illustration comes from

10 replies »

  1. Hi Carol,
    Thanks for writing this piece. It seems like there’s a lot of envious shadenfreude in arguing that Superman is fascist. He becomes an allegory for rigid masculinities, reductionist utilitarianism, Western imperialism generally, and US foreign policy in particular. As a symbol, he is American patriotism, and we all know there’s a downside to that, but he does not actually embody that downside in the non-alternative universe. It’s just not there in the way that people want it to be.
    I wonder if it’s actually people’s own discomfort with what they would do with all that power that causes them to be so sure that Superman abuses it. I mean, I’d melt people with my eyes all day. People are really stupid! But Superman doesn’t do that, so, like you say, he must be some Mensche!
    Also, “Superman is fascist” is just such a ubiquitous, pop-academe opinion to hold that I suspect most people who smuggly spout it at parties actually have no idea what they are talking about and just do some free association thingy on Nietszche. I mean, hey, if post-structuralism has taught us anything, it’s that whatever’s in your head is insightful and that clever-clever puns are koans.


  2. I was reading the DC Archives Superman Action Comics (vol. 1) and in the introduction, Mark Waid talks about how Superman started out as “a super-anarchist” who “made his own law and enforced it with his fists” – Superman finds a crooked mine owner and forces him to suffer the same dangers as his overworked miners, or he gives a wife-beater a taste of his own medicine. The police shoot at him when he snatches a young culprit away from them, and he intimidates his human foes in order to get his way.
    What made me think about this passage is the way Mark Waid explains how Superman’s character later changed to become restrained and law-abiding. The explanations offered are, like Carol’s, outside the story: as Superman became more popular, he needed new challenges and so super-villains were introduced – social crusading was dropped in favor of more exciting “larger than life” stories. But Mark Waid actually credits America’s entry into the Second World War as a primary reason why Superman’s character changed.
    The U.S. was forced to focus on an enemy “that epitomized all the injustice against which Superman had previously crusaded” and that this “more than anything, sapped Superman’s power.” Waid notes that “the Nazi regime ws a tailor-made opponent for their Man of Tomorrow, but it was the one threat they could never allow Superman to face, not without trivializing the very real sacrifices of G.I.’s worldwide.”
    I found this comment very insightful, and especially interesting considering Frank Miller’s recent project to have Batman fight Al Qaeda terrorists as an exercise in modern wartime propaganda: “It just seems silly to have Batman out there chasin’ the Riddler when there’s al-Qaida out there!”
    This also started me wondering about Frank Miller’s statement that “Superman punched out Hitler. So did Captain America. That’s one of the things they’re there for.” It seems DC was quite reluctant to pit Superman against real-world foes and Superman didn’t start to be portrayed as a combat hero until after the attack on Pearl Harbor. (The earliest reference I could find to fighting Nazis is a footnote referring to a comic originally printed 1943. I couldn’t actually find any reference to Superman punching Hitler, although the cover of a 1944 issue of Superman apparently featured the Man of Steel throttling Hitler and Tojo by the collar.)
    In contrast, Captain America was introduced as a wartime comic, punching Hitler on the cover of his first issue from March 1941. Curiously, Wonder Woman also first appeared in 1941 and was also originally created to fight Nazis – although there’s little evidence of that left in the current portrayal of her character.
    Why was Superman’s character so late to enter the war? I think it is because, unlike Captain America or even the Wonder Woman of that day, he really was an invincible force to which any number of soldiers, tanks and bombs would be no threat. It does a disservice to both the story and to the real danger experienced by soldiers in wartime by explicitly comparing or contrasting him with those who were heroically risking and losing their lives in those battles.
    But what struck me most was Mark Waid’s suggestion that the final transformation of Superman’s character came out of the postwar era: “Just like his adopted country, he had grown up. He now symbolized wish fulfillment tempered with a sense of responsiblity. Like America, the world’s newest superpower, Superman became defined by what he would not do.”
    This still seems to be the basic character of Superman today. I wish it were still the defining characteristic of modern America. Maybe this is where the confusion lies? In conflating Superman with America, people start to say or think things about Superman that are really more about America’s modern role as a world superpower.


  3. hey weed–
    thanks for the comment. i can’t say myself i’d be responsible with the power to melt people with my eyes. but we do live in a society.
    anyway, i know your comment’s not about this but i should make clear that the superman-dictator my friend imagines is probably was more bossy and authoritarian than involved in political parties, uniforms or ideology. you know, sammich-demanding like in the illustration.


  4. A phrase formative to my conception of Superman came not from comics but rather from TV’s Lois & Clark. I a ‘Superman uncovered!’ type of episode, Clark tells Lois: “Clark is who I am; Superman is what I can do.”
    Yeah, I know, television. But it’s not without a certain amount of sense.


  5. if you can’t talk about tv here in the gutter, chris, where can you talk about it?
    and the idea that superman is what clark does is worth pondering. making clark central was a neat choice. kinda like the mirror image of those superman family comics where superman is inserted into ordinary life with lois or jimmy.
    and mr. dave, holy cats. i’ve gotta digest your comment, but thanks. you know we’re looking for guest writers, right?


  6. I liked the Lois & Clark TV show (back when Teri Hatcher wasn’t so frighteningly skeletal and Dean Cain seemed… less doofy?) but I think that show was unusual in making Clark Kent’s life and concerns the focus of the story and the character.
    In most of the other Superman shows, movies and comics, it seems like Clark Kent is mostly a disguise and that Superman (or Jor-El) is the real person who hides underneath the suit and glasses.
    But I’m glad they fleshed out the Clark Kent side of Superman (and I guess continue to do so in Smallville) because it gives a kind of sanity to the otherwise schizophenic Clark/Superman duality, and a more understandable human and moral focus for an otherwise god-like character.


  7. Carol & Mr. Dave: That’s what I liked about the show – that Clark, not Superman, was the focus. Also, ditto on “frighteningly skeletal”.
    You can’t quite see the same thing ever happening with Batman. Christian Bale did a terrific job in the newest movie, but it’s made very clear: Batman is who he is; Bruce Wayne is the mask he wears so he can continue to be Batman. And, y’know, pay for all the cool stuff.


  8. it’s all about the batarangs. and you bring up an interesting point. after years of clark kent being superman’s disguise, now bruce wayne is batman’s disguise. all switched up after seeming like obvious understandings. i wonder how a batman that was bruce wayne’s job would come across now?
    lois and clark was fun. i remember how much bruce campbell’s no stick surface awed me. all that cigar-chomping intergang villainy and the cheese just flowed through him. and yeah, what the hell with terri hatcher?
    if you’re curious, the man from krypton has some essays on both lois and clark and smallville.


  9. When I read the really old Superman comics, it seems like Clark Kent is just a disguise and that Superman is actually much better friends with Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane than Clark Kent. In fact, it almost seems like Clark Kent doesn’t have any close friends in Metropolis.
    But at some point this all got switched around – maybe whenever they decided that Lana Lang knew about Clark’s secret from his Smallville days. I guess I haven’t followed the comics closely enough to know when this changed. Maybe when John Byrne started reworking Superman?
    I also seem to recall that Bruce Wayne was not such a shmuck in the old comics, and there was more of a sense that he was “moonlighting” as Batman but still had friends and a regular life as Bruce Wayne. I’m not sure that has entirely switched around – and even in the Christian Bale version he seems to have friends and a life as Bruce Wayne. But maybe there’s always been more of a duality with Batman, while it seems that writers tend to strongly favor either Clark Kent or Superman as the primary persona.
    It’s interesting to consider that Batman may continue to develop to the point where Bruce Wayne becomes “the mask” and Batman the real person. I don’t know if I’d like that character so much. I actually like it when Superman or Robin call Batman “Bruce” in private – like only Batman’s closest friends get to know him as Bruce Wayne and everyone else is kept at a distance.


  10. maybe there’s some anxiety about the emotional core of the characters and so it shifts. with superman has basically the same set of people in his life, but he relates to them differently depending on his role. batman has developed so that bruce wayne has a set of friends and special ladies that are cover. the people that he is really close to are ones he relates to in costume or that know about his dual life. in the old comic, bruce was in love with vicki vale. now she has to know about his alter ego.
    now i’m going to try and remember what i was going to write in response to mr. dave’s first comment.
    thanks again, everyone.


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