Super good

There’s a whole subculture of scholarship looking into comics and religion, very broadly, by nearly any imaginable definition of both “comics” and “religion” and how they might interact. Who knew?

It’s an exciting topic: “Religion! Comics! Make sense however you think! Go!” with trust in everyone to open new doors and to see what happens, but not too easy to capture in this brief statement. I was introduced to the wealth of cool stuff by invitation from A. David Lewis and the blog Sacred & Sequential, and from there I swiftly discovered the book he co-edited with Christine Hoff Kraemer. The chapter by Lewis is called “Superman Graveside,” which has led me to add yet another Superman post here at the blog. Lewis offers what appears to me a very strong Jesus-Superman:

Batman may hold the line against Evil and Chaos, but Superman holds the line against Death and Inexistence.

However, Lewis’ position is that the Jesus/Superman identity is too tempting, too facile, when applied to the modern figure, meaning, post-Dark Knight (1985), post-Crisis (1986), post Death of Superman (1992), post Birthright Superman (2003-2004), and supplied with a considerable dose of Moore, Gaiman, and Morrison. He allows that the Jesus analogy/identity applies a lot better to the 1940s and 1950s Campbellian Superman. This comparison, however, leaves “my” Superman unaccounted for.

“My” Superman was about as far from Silver Age fandom as you can get: I was an occasional and indifferent viewer of Superfriends (I didn’t even know who the Wonder Twins were until 15 years later), a bemused occasional riffler through 70s DC comics which were as likely to be a reprint as not, a puzzled reader of the Spider-Man/Superman special who didn’t actually finish the story, and a viewer of the 1978 movie who thought the ending was annoying. Is that Superman Jesus-y or not?

To me the answer is “yes, very much,” but (1) not only am I focusing on a vaguer and less fandom-focused Superman, (2) I’m focusing on the American monomyth. It’s a core concept for discussing U.S. political culture, or “Americanism,” of any stripe, mentioned before in Everyday religion. There are various definitions and readings, as well as distinctions between secular religion and civil religion, but I favor the one I encountered in Armstrong’s The Battle for God: smooth-blend American Christian, not churchy or obviously denominational, lite in specifics but firmly present in all expressions of establishment power and personal commitment. (Lewis cites Lawrence and Jewett’s The Myth of the American Superhero and uses the idea as his metric for Superman’s humano-divinity or textual-Jesusy thing too, but again, his focus is on the textual comics character today, so the question about “my” rather vague cultural-70s Superman, and cultural-Superman in general, still applies.)

I’m trying to avoid over-literalism, just like the authors do at Superman Jesus similarities and Superman’s origin and parallels to Jesus … but like them, too, I struggle between “that’s too easy” and “but of course.” I’m in the tricky position of agreeing with Lewis that the American monomyth is the key religion, but disagreeing with him, or sort of (?), because I think that Superman is indeed identifiable with its Jesus. Therefore my argument doesn’t have anything to do with whether Superman does stuff exactly like Jesus does in the Gospels, because that’s not the Jesus I’m talking about.

As with so much about Superman, getting to the point includes not what he is, but what he isn’t. The two most relevant “isn’ts” in this case are intimately tied to one another, and perhaps in disposing of them something can be seen.

The first “isn’t” is the Nietzschean Nazi thing, which I’m certain has an extensive scholarly history relative to to the term ubermensch and the invention of comics Superman. In my readings it’s best expressed by Rick Veitch in his text accompaniment to The Maximortal, “Curse of the Superman,” as straightforward dismay and disgust.

I’m struck by how both sides in the largest armed conflict in history ended up exploiting Nietzsche’s archetypal concept for its mind shaping value. It’s no doubt unfair to categorize the outcome of the fighting in such simple terms, but the fact is, the side that utilized the Superman as a highly controlled, profoundly racist, depersonalized propaganda tool was defeated by opponents who transmuted the idea into a totally absurd fantasy character that embodied a form of patriotism run amuck.

So next time you curl up with some Silver Age classic, and find yourself awash in the warm glow of nostalgia and fantasy, remember that the SUPERMAN comic character isn’t just an imaginary visitor from another planet. His DNA is pure Nietzsche. And Nietzsche’s Superman is an authentic archetype constellating dynamic and numinous ideas active in the collective unconscious.

And both are important relics of the age of fascism.

I disagree with Veitch, pretty much, although not with the components he references. I acknowledge that the crap reading of Nietzsche was the reading trumpeted by Nazi propagandists and also uncritically taken as read by American academics until the 1960s or 70s. I also think his characterization of both Nazi and American values is sound. My objection lies in whether Superman expresses these things, especially culturally. It’s unequivocally a right-wing, xenophobic, militaristic construct, and I submit that’s one thing Superman has never been. Superman’s deal from the early war years on, and especially in the 1950s, was the tolerant liberal, urging understanding for the Negro and inclusion of the Jew, who were Other to be sure, but it’s not their fault. The only person to claim otherwise was Fredric Wertham in The Seduction of the Innocent, e.g., regarding the insignia, “we should, I suppose, be thankful it is not an S.S.,” and it’s startling to see anyone involved in comics take that source seriously.

Lewis’ chapter also refers to the current unseemly tug-of-war over Jewish vs. Christian Superman. One of the subtopics is the whole baby set adrift = Moses claim, which to my eyes seems overblown – i.e., if it’s so, then the next step isn’t say to “See? Jewish!” but to ask, non-dismissively, so what? More generally, my position agrees with the Sacred & Sequential post Questioning Frank Miller and Superman’s Jewish “essence”, which is to say, not so fast. As with the cherry tomato and smartphones, current Israeli-American jingoism includes a dedicated effort to brand Superman not merely as Jewish in effable or ineffable fashion, but as muscular “we stand together,” “together for good” rhetoric, itself cast in essentialist, even supremacist form which frankly borders on squick.

Whew, both of those are real sinks, potentially. More discussion for the comics would begin with how Superman was accused of being Jewish by Mussolini and Hitler, and how Harry Donenfeld successfully rebranded DC as wholesome-and-patriotic American in the first wave of anti-comics fervor in 1940. More discussion for the culture would focus on some pretty sore points. Is it accurate to call U.S. superhero comics a Jewish art form? Whether yes or no, what does that even mean? How does it relate to company or creator ownership? How does it relate to individual contributions? To mention that a given creator is Jewish – is that hearty acknowledgment or insidious Jew-counting? If the emails I received concerning Today is for Taboo II are any indication, the answers to these questions depend on who can Gish Gallop more quickly to score more points. There’s a defensive crouch embedded in what today is dressed up as “Judeo-Christian values,” for which I recommend the works of Marc Ellis, who sees the current political-religious environment as the juncture of bad conscience and imperial arrogance rather than a cultural resolution or in his terms, a valid covenant.

I’ll escape back to my point: that although the textual Superman is definitely not the textual Jesus, the cultural Superman is an aspect or application of the cultural American Jesus. The latter may be invisible to you: he seems so theologically bland, so commercially co-opted, so undemanding … but that’s what imperial religion is always like to the faithful citizen: “no big deal,” “tolerant,” “oh, it doesn’t mean anything.” Look at it as an outsider instead, to see the Christ-America whom all American politicians must honor, whose new Nicene Creed states that America is good. The one who’s fine with other, gaudier religions as long as they acknowledge their subordination. The one who is fine with evolution as long as it supports progress and human elevation. The one who holds, not the tattered Bircher flag with a rifle for staff, but the nice neat flag lapel pin, and doesn’t exhort – you don’t have to fight or preach when you’re at the center of power. The one who receives solemn and expected observance much more frequently than you think, e.g. pledges, songs, standing, nominally for the flag but in which the terms “God,” “Christ,” and “America” are synonymous, and for which failure to observe is absolute blasphemy. The Bible as a text isn’t the point, the point is that you swear on it in court after listening to a homily about the separation of powers. Prosperity at home for the deserving. Pride in our melting pot. Confidence in our progress. Tolerance for everyone as long as they believe and observe, and denounce the devil communism terrorism when asked. Hope for the future. Faith in the eventual workings-out of the system, hiccup as it might. Occasional sanctioned war “when we must.” Vibrant debate – strictly within the confines of these exact things.

And that’s how my cultural Superman stands: as kids’ catechism for cultural American-Jesus, with Truth, Justice, and the American Way embedded in him via the 1940s radio show and 1950s TV show. This is what the term liberal looked like before it was repurposed in the 1980s – staunchly strong, superior, comfortable, techno-wondrous, leading the way. Anti-communist through example, disdaining grubby scuffles; civil rights “coming along, any day now, getting better all the time.” We may bicker and lose our way, but the Way is there to be found, especially if you let things “work themselves out.”

The core belief of such liberalism is that the Promised Land has arrived, it’s right here, and we are righteously in it. That’s why literalism to Biblical text is irrelevant, and even derided as such insofar as “fundamentalist” is a mainstream slur. This is the Jesus of orchestral-rock versions of Christmas carols, and oblique references to “values.” The one that hipsters don’t make fun of. He’s not kitschy or actually doing anything, nor is he either dead or about to return – because according this religion ideology, he’s right here, we’ve already won, and we don’t have to do stuff like topple banks or piss off the mayor. Only uncomprehending malcontents would suggest doing so. Obviously Jesus isn’t going to do anything like “back then,” because, now the goodness is baked into our way of life. Just look “up” occasionally and you’ll see him there, with us. You want to see some worship? Right here.

I’m also interested in the modern today-Superman, but I submit that the most important variable is not would-be metaphysical meta-textual dissections by Brits in the comics, but rather the overwhelming reality of an America which now defines itself by war. Most specifically, that now, neoliberal is in no way genuinely opposed to neoconservative, and progressivism is all too classically submissive in terms of war policy.

I confess I’m impressed by “The Incident,” first appearing in Action Comics #900 (2011, written by David S. Goyer, illustrated by Miguel Sepulveda). Crucially, Superman did not go fight Nazis during WWII, nor has he been associated with military action at any other time. His cultural message is not we will arm and fight!, but rather, the Depression is over, the war is over, we are good. How is that to square with military-worship and constant action espoused and grossly obviously practiced by both American political parties for sixteen years? Superman’s classic Cold War liberalism – naive and self-serving as it was – no longer exists. It raises the possibility for the first textually-consistent subversive Superman since his first year and a half of existence.

Acknowledgments: Thanks to A. David Lewis for his comments and corrections on the draft for this post, also to Gerard Jones’ book Men of Tomorrow which is my go-to text for historical perspective on Superman.

Links: Adherents entry for Superman; my religion-y posting to date is here and my Superman posting is here

Next comics: Ophite, Gnosis, p. 8 (January 14)

Next column: More women (January 15)

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About Ron Edwards

Game author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor

Posted on January 8, 2017, in Heroics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. The degree to which the Zach Snyder Superman movies subvert this bland SuperAmeriJesusMan ideal is pretty much equivalent to the degree of admiration I have for them. My admiration is … moderate, but I do believe a fair amount of the disrespect they get comes as a reaction to their refusal to toe the simplicity of a “Superman is Truth, Justice and the American Way” line.

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  2. OK, let me say this as a potentially more comics-focused observation: one of my main takeaways from this blog generally is that contrary to common opinion, comics are worthy of close examination. That they posses resonance, consequence and connection with the complicated sociopolitical realities of their time(s), and since those time(s) are what led to today, the resonance follows right along to us, here-and-now.

    The thing about Superman “as kids’ catechism for cultural American-Jesus” that irks me is that it wants no close examination. It wants simply to resonate with what “everyone knows”, and to confirm that it’s all good here. Even when I might deem its’ ideals commendable, the rejection of complicated sociopolitical realities irritates me. And that irritation can slide towards rage when the rejection starts looking like smug anti-intellectualism of the worst stripe. It can (it seems to me) become bald, strongarm indoctrination, hiding behind a “gee shucks they’re just comics” facade.

    So, given those thoughts, this “Super Good” post generally, and those “renouncing citizenship” panels specifically, I’ll revisit and revise a comment I made in an earlier Superman post: the Superman that interests me, specifically the “American” Superman that I find has power and resonance, is of necessity an Alien American. A non-native American. In a real, not-just-set-dressing sense.

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    • Ah! I finally understand your earlier point now.

      I share your basic distaste for the establishmentarian Superman, and I agree that it’s classic indoctrination. That said, it’s also entirely normal both in the larger sweep of history and in the specifics of Cold War America. He’s what anyone and everyone wants to do with a successful property and what anyone and everyone wants to get when they put money down. “What, you think something’s wrong with that?”

      This opens up a wealth of unwanted conversation for comics fans, who seek and idealize “legitimacy” above all else – and miss that Superman was already entirely there. You don’t have to “legitimize” comics via writing Superman this way or that way, or marketing him this way or that way; he left comics behind almost immediately and they’ve been kid-gear for the other media ever since.

      I’ve learned a lot about DC history recently, and it’s making way more sense to me. Superman’s comic was a big hit at the stands, yes, but that didn’t last – he was outstripped there by Captain Marvel within a year or two. What matters is that he was on the radio, and had a magazine, and was in the newspapers immediately, which as I mentioned in the column are all where he gained his “real Superman” identity throughout the 1940s in part by ripping off a bunch of Captain Marvel’s stuff like flying. After DC or rather National Periodical Publications lawfared Fawcett out of Captain Marvel (which had entered film serials in the 1940s), the Superman radio show was rebooted into the TV show in the 1950s. There were a few other films and stuff too, it’s a complex history, but the point is that in short order, Superman was already firmly a piece of “what you did” with radio and film, and thus already “there to be done” with TV when it came into people’s homes. All Superman comics since that first wave on the newsstand have been tag-alongs, or even merely fluttering in this bigger-Superman’s wake.

      It’s success. It’s what all the entrepeneurs and wartime paper-ration-hustlers and retiring-gangsters and going-legit-pornographers wanted. Of course Superman was refined into a shining smooth-blend paragon of the dominant political and media culture at that time. Significantly, it didn’t matter one bit what the original heroes were like in their initial comics; once they were a hit and ready to be converted into radio-film-TV and merchandising, National painted over the initial content of Superman’s street-leftism, Batman’s lethality, and Wonder Woman’s fetishism. By that very moment, 1940, National and Fawcett would already have written their shared in-house “code of decency,” over a decade before The Seduction of the Innocent was published, even though comics fans like to pretend that the book sideswiped the industry and forced the Code into existence.

      They aren’t wrong about one thing: Superman is the American Dream. There isn’t a shred of dishonesty or hype in that statement. Nor in saying he’s unique among superheroes in occupying that particular cultural territory.

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      • You’re right, of course, nothing surprising about it. What’s actually surprising is that even someone like me sees there’s something MORE to this character hiding in there somewhere. Comics-lightweight, Superman-exposure more about Superfriends/TV shows, the movies, and things like the Miller’s Dark Knight, and yet … it’s the echoes of some other Superman that I’m trying to listen-in on.

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        • I speculate you’re talking about experiencing a standalone complex. The “real one,” with its attendant originalism and essentialism, must be there, right? All this couldn’t have come from “nothing.” Whether this applies to you personally or not, it’s certainly central to comics fandom, to which Supermania contributes a very large part: cue the feverish attention to every little draft or false start by Siegel and Shuster, cue the combing through the early issues to find it, cue the outrage over corporate vs. creator ownership. And exactly like the ur example of the standalone complex, Jesus Christ, they uncritically accept the institutional identity’s features as the things to seek in the hunt for the “entity’s” grassroots origin.

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