Power and Superman

“Like jazz and rock ‘n’ roll, the super-hero is a uniquely American creation. This glorification of strength, health, and simple morality seems born of a corn-fed, plain-talking, fair-minded midwestern sensibility. But super-heroes were nothing if not adaptable…” (Grant Morrison, Supergods 49). Superman has had numerous ups and downs for almost a century, yet he still remains an enduring mythological figure born of the ability to transcend and be a character that somehow finds the context and timber of the national dialogue of the times, especially in reflecting the politics and social issues of specific epochs. As Larry Tye describes Superman’s plasticity in his new book Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero: “Each era he zeroed in on, the threats that scared us most, [he used] powers that grew or diminished depending on the need […] Each generation got the Superman it needed and deserved. Each changed offered a Rorschach test of that time and its dreams. Superman, always a beacon of light, was a work in progress” (xiv). If Tye’s assumption is true, then who is the Superman of the comics for this decade of the 21st century? If Superman has powers to reflect the times, is Superman reflecting dominant political power ideology in America now from the current presidential administration?Such a question means that we have to situate Superman into a specific political ideology. But with two Superman titles currently on the shelf, Action Comics and Superman respectively, which one has been the one to showcase a specific political standpoint best for Supes that may or may not reflect the current administration? In re-examining the first 11 issues of both titles, it becomes clear quickly that Morrison’s take on our hero is attempting to establish a viewpoint. However that viewpoint (which Morrison has discussed) is merely taking the character back to his roots as a hero of the people in tough times: a socialist, inclusive humanist strongman embracing the core values of an America that can showcase for the rest of the world how to live in a country designed by, for, and with the people.That socialist viewpoint that Siegel and Shuster  first developed for the character was emblematic of a hope for the times. For them it was a time period pre-WWII that still had not experienced the red scare or the threat of a nuclear winter (those two time periods would push Superman into the heavy sci-fi Silver Age, but that’s another talk for another time). Superman for his creators was a “butt-kicking New Dealer” who saw the world in a black and white way, where the “no-goodniks didn’t deserve a Bill of Rights […] [Superman’s] messages were simple and direct: Power corrupts. The average joe deserves a super-powered friend and rich SOB’s deserve a boot in the rear” (Tye 45). This is representative of socialism as a movement in ideology but also in action, a politics of the people…a symbol or an encapsulation of ideas (Superman) will emerge to guide the masses towards a utopian idea about a world with no capitalistic influenced class structure– a complete equality. It is an idea hinged on an inclusive humanism belief that human beings will rise to eliminate unneeded or unwanted suffering towards a complete good. Superman himself was born, like so many cultural mythical heroes, as an idea. As Morrison believes “Before it was a bomb, the bomb was an idea. Superman, however, was a faster, stronger, better idea […] Superman is so indefatigable a product of the human imagination, such a perfectly designed emblem of our highest, kindest, wisest, toughest selves, that my idea of the bomb had no defense against him” (xv).So if Morrison is taking Superman back to a socialist/inclusive humanist representation, is it a reflection of how America is projecting power through policy and action in the current administration? I believe so. Let us take a recent example and build on it.

Clark spends his days in Action Comics through issue #10 wanting to investigate and expose corruption in the city of Metropolis through targeting the mob, financiers, and government contractors. As Superman, he tries to take action against the corruption he is uncovering as Clark–using his unique circumstance to try to move people to participatory social action. In issue #11, Superman returns to a tenement building damaged in a battle with a creature named Metalek. Afterwards, a resident points out to Superman that their homes are now destroyed. Superman calls the men, women and children to take action by saying “If everybody wants to pitch in, we can rebuild these houses better than before. Who’s with me?”. So Superman assists these people with rebuilding…no paperwork, no politics, no landowners, just the simple idea of doing acts free of power plays or expectation of repayment.

A complete transformational paradigm shift culturally and politically, as discussed in the previous atomized example, is a utopian idea championed by Superman (and Morrison). Obviously America is mired, as all modern countries are, in a political system, specifically a very class driven one moved forward by capitalism. Nothing in our country, due to the concept of checks and balances, can be enacted without influence from the right, left,  or middle. Superman’s core ideas within a socialist/inclusive humanist framework are about change, unity, and equality. Some would assume then that there is no way that Superman can reflect the current climate–perhaps he is opposing it, but not possibly representing it? I was hesitant myself at first, however, when I looked more closely at some of the policies and actions of the Obama administration I saw that it continues to run on a platform of change, unity and equality.

So three key words: change, unity, equality. Abstractions and generalizations? Of course, but there are connections when we do look at some of the ideas and action that have come about in the last few years from the Obama administration. An example of some of these policies in the last four years that Superman reflects in the current Action Comics include:

1) In protecting the American consumer from unfair business practices: Through Wall Street
Reform, President Obama created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The agency
defends consumers from unfair and abusive financial practices and makes sure that credit
card companies and mortgage and payday lenders follow the rules.

2) In encouraging to act local and work in the community: To give states the flexibility to use
local solutions to improve their schools, and in the face of congressional inaction, President
Obama acted to offer states relief from No Child Left Behind mandates.

3) In looking to pursue equality: President Obama believes that America is strongest when
everybody has a seat at the table. He’s expanded opportunity for every American by taking
steps to level the playing field so everybody plays by the same rules, e.g. repealing don’t Ask,
Don’t Tell; signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act; Revising the Americans with
Disabilities Act Rules.

4) In living up to American values: President Obama has upheld our American values by
reversing previous administration policies that harmed our national security and moral
authority in the world. President Obama has banned the use of torture, closed secret CIA
detention facilities, and reformed military commissions. He directed all executive departments
and agencies to ensure the lawful interrogation of detainees, requiring them to comply with the
Geneva Convention and U.S. law. (all points come from the Obama/Biden website ).

So does one of the key mythological figures of the last one hundred years, a uniquely American creation, still reflect the times as they are shaped in the halls of politics and corridors of power? I happen to believe so. Morrison’s Superman as represented in Action Comics does indeed reflect the original socialist ideas that Siegel and Shuster created so long ago, and those ideas have transferred to this era. Superman from the pen of Morrison is about representing the best foot forward that America can project a power on the world stage that is built around centralizing our citizens and strengthening the country in all aspects, while trying to fix our overwhelming social and cultural divides.

Will this last for Superman? No. History is cyclical, and our myths, our heroes, our legends rise to the occasions in which we call for them, when the times are indeed darkest or when the light is just a bit under the horizon and we need some help to see it. Superman will not maintain his current course in Action Comics (the main Superman monthly already reflects the “five years later” timeline in which he is dealing with other threats), it is not how he works. Superman must change to reflect the times, but yet the core values of what he represents, the largest in my mind being hope, still remains.

– “everything new is born out of the death of something old.” Mikhail Bakhtin, p. 64, the Dialogic Imagination.