Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Deconstructing Superman

"Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Look! Up in the sky. It's a bird. It's a plane. It's Superman! Yes, it's Superman — strange visitor from another planet who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Superman — who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel with his bare hands, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a neverending battle for Truth, Justice, and the American Way."

“What a nice man! Of course, he’s Jewish.” – Superman II


Way back in 1932, Canadian artist, Joel Shuster, and American writer, Jerry Siegel, started to create a powerful comic book icon. The two friends, living in Cleveland, Ohio at the time, conceived of a super human character based on cultural icons and myths of their Jewish heritages to become the archetype superhero character: SUPERMAN. Over the years Superman developed and while working for Detective Comics they made the character the lead in a new title, Action Comics. History was born. Almost seventy years ago, at the end of the depression, America needed a hero to battle the growing threat from overseas and the economic low tide over most of the country.

From a planet many light-years away came a savior, a gift from a dying world.

In the generally accepted origin, Jor-El, a high ranking diplomat and scientist from the planet Krypton had been trying to convince his fellow leaders that the giant red sun at the center of their solar system was about to go supernova. Of course, like most diplomats and politicians, they ignored the sage advice of a respected individual and chose to do nothing, forbidding Jor-El from revealing what he found. Secretly, Jor-El was building an ark for his family to escape but when events came much quicker than he originally expected, Jor-El sent away his son, Kal-El, in a smaller pod so that he could fly at the speed of light to a distant planet, just forming its own civilization. Jor-El saw that the inhabitants of that new planet had great potential. He also knew that they would eventually need a great hero to help them find their way. Predicting that he’d gain super strength because of his alien genetic make-up and the mysterious effect the yellow sun had on Kryptonian biology, Jor-El sent his only son to Earth. Then, Krypton died in a supernova explosion. The only remnants of the great civilization were baby Kal-El, speeding toward Earth, and irradiated pieces of the planet spread out in all directions of space.

Thousands of our years later – but thanks to Einstienian Physics, it is only days or weeks to baby Kal-El – the pod, carrying the boy who would be Superman, crash lands on a roadside in Kansas. Luckily, Jonathan and Martha Kent, a farmer and his wife, find the baby and take him in as their own, naming him Clark, Martha’s maiden name. Throughout the years, as Clark learns his great power he also learns the morals and values of his adopted parents. While in most timelines, Superman starts out fighting crime in Smallville, Kansas, as Superboy, the comics industry likes to screw around with histories from time to time and it is currently unclear if a true Superboy existed, at least to this geek.

Still the basic premise is intact. Superman moves from Smallville to Metropolis (New York City in disguise) and becomes a reporter for the Daily Planet. Taking on the persona of a bumbling fool, in direct opposition to the confident and charismatic Superman, Clark tries to live among humans as a normal man. The relationship between Clark and Superman has taken many turns over the years as the comics, television and film versions differ in their treatment.

Sometimes Clark is seen as the “real” person and Superman the secret identity. Sometimes, Clark is simply a cover story for the great Superman so he can walk among normal men. And at times neither are the real person and the only real identity is the small-town, farm boy, Clark Kent, son of Jonathan and Martha. The dichotomy of personalities can be useful in certain storylines as a weakness to Clark/Superman/Kal-El as the invulnerable man can still be hurt emotionally. While there have been instances that this is used against the comic character, it is best used in the Smallville television series, especially by the young Lex Luthor. In the movies, Lex Luthor and the three Kryptionian convicts led by General Zod, also used Superman’s love of humankind against him. While Kryptonite can kill Superman, his compassion for humans is a huge emotional weakness.

Superman, the Prophet.

Many have criticized Superman’s godlike powers in limiting the ability to tell compelling stories. In the 1960s and early 1970s this led to a decline in readership. Comic lovers turned to Marvel comic’s more human characters like Spiderman. DC tried to remake Superman into a weaker character in the 1980s and 1990s to bring him down a notch but most people see the invulnerable character with super strength and abilities as the iconic Superman they love. Eventually the tide turns and reader fall in love with the original Superman again.

The mythos of Superman, created by two Jewish kids from the city streets of Cleveland, embodies some of the origins and strengths of their culture. Superman’s life spans not only the galaxy but America as well, from rural Kansas to urban Metropolis. Biblical characters like Moses also mirror Superman’s story. He is a powerful child send from danger by his parents to help the masses of weakened and troubled victims of oppression and evil. There is also the element of the Golem story in Superman’s own as he is the protector that all the world wished for. I’ve heard that Kal-El is the Hebrew translation of “Power of God,” “Voice of God” or “All of God.”

Calling Dr. Freud!

If you could get Superman on the couch you’d have a lot to talk about. Not only does he have either a split personality or identity issues, he also has a problem with his parents. First, his biological father is somewhat of an enigma to Kal-El. He understands why his father sent him away in the ultimate sacrifice but he is only a ghostly image, sometimes a computer embedded program giving sage advice across the millennia or sometimes a metal image implanted at birth with information about his natural home. Although his father was a brilliant scientists and leader of Krypton, his mother was no less a persona in his life. Instead of joining young Kal-El in his capsule to safety Lara decides to stay behind, dying by her husband’s side and also giving her baby a better chance of surviving the long journey. He truly never knew his parents because of their great sacrifice. They are spirits, imagined, yet real.

Then there is Jonathan and Martha Kent. In some storylines, both his parents die and in some only Jonathan dies. In any case he loses one or both of his adopted parents. As both Kal-El and Clark Kent, the man knows true loss. He is constantly seeing his parents leave him to the world on his own, trusting that the world will take care of him, as much as he’s entrusted to take care of the world. Perhaps fear of loss, fear of lost love is what motivates Superman. His parents sacrificed greatly for him, so he returns the favor with selfless service to the world, albeit at the cost of great personal pain.

As a grown man (one that wears tights) Superman becomes, once again, a new incarnation of himself. Madonna is good a reinventing herself, but Superman is the true champion of personal transformation. He is alien, orphan, small town boy, orphan again and then superhero and in one final incarnation he becomes a weak, pitiful character in Clark Kent. In this way he can see how the other half lives yet again putting himself in great personal pain. He knows that he is Superman but will someone love him as a regular guy? As Clark Kent, mild mannered reporter?

Think of the richest guy you know. Think of Bill Gates. He’s like Superman. He’s a geeky, mild mannered tech guy, but he has this huge corporation and more money than all the people you know, and all the people they know, combined and then some. He has astronomical wealth. This is his superpower personality, richest guy in the world. Now, take away all that wealth. Do you think that his supermodel wife sees him at the end of the bar, pocket protector, loose fitting clothes and all, thinks to herself, what a great personality and slides over to him? Not in this world! But he can’t know what people would think of him because everyone knows Bill Gates and everyone knows what he’s about. So what’s a billionaire to do? Adopt a secret identity and see how everyone treats him. Just like Clark Kent except Bill Gates takes off his glasses to be normal.

In a mock therapy session Superman goes to see Sigmund Freud:

“Tell me about your parents?” Sigmund says in a deep Austrian accent.

“Which ones, doc?”

“Your real parents.”

“Well, I really don’t know who they are. I mean I have the parents who gave birth to me on Krypton, Jor-El and Kara but besides that I really don’t know much about them. Then there are my Earth parents, Jon and Martha Kent. They raised me and taught me my values. Who are my ‘real’ parents? Jor-El and Kara or Jonathan and Martha?”

“Oy Vey, vat a pickle you’re in. No vunder your carry that blankey around with you.”

“Blankey? You mean my cape.”

“Cape, blankey… It’s all the same. You use it as security against the real world. So much confusion in your life.”

“Yeah, well you don’t know the half of it.”

“OK. Vell, tell me a little about how you feel about your Kryptonian parents abandoning you?”

“They didn’t abandon me, they send me away to safety.”

“Yeah, yeah, that’s vat Moses said too.”

“Moses didn’t have X-Ray vision.”

“That’s true. Good point. So you have any guilt about your parents?”

“What do you mean?”

“Vell, your Kryptonian parents died and you survived. Survivor guilt perhaps.”

“Hmmm. That’s a good point, doc.”

“Then your Earth parents had to hide out on that farm because with your powers, the government might take you avay from them. They were stuck in small-ville. Literarily.”

“I don’t think that…”

“Then let’s talk about why you are here? Do you have bad dreams? Do you wet the bed? Are you having sexual dreams about your mothers?”


“Sorry, I must ask.”

“I don’t have those types of problems.”

“Everybody has those types of problems.”

“Well, there is this one girl at work. I can’t stop thinking about her.”

“Vat is her name?”

“Lois. She’s beautiful and smart and a real pip, you know what I mean.”

“She’s got moxy!”

“Right, moxy. She’s a tough city girl. She doesn’t let anything bother her.”

“How many parents does she have?”

“Two, I think. I never asked.”

“And why are you so attracted to her?”

“She knows who she is, you know what I mean? She’s her own woman.”

“And does she feel the same vay about you?”

“Well, she doesn’t really know me like this at work.”

“Explain, please.”

“At work I’m a different person.”

“Go on.”

“I wear glasses and kind of act dopey and clumsy. She doesn’t like me at work. She only likes me as Superman.”


“Yeah, and I’m afraid she’s only into me because I’m all big and strong and invulnerable.”

“You are afraid she is idolizing your outward traits. Like, hero vorship.”

“Exactly. And I never really get to talk to her because she doesn’t like to talk to Clark at work and whenever we get together when I’m Superman it’s usually because Lex Luthor has her tied to a chair in a sinking boat or with a bomb about to go off.”

“I see. So you are conveniently unapproachable.”

“I guess. I never thought of it that way.”

“I think I know vat is wrong with you.”

“What is it, doc? What’s the matter with me?”

“You have multiple personality disorder by the fact that you have different identities depending on vat situation you are in and who you are vith. And you have a god complex. You also have commitment issue stemming from the loss of your parents. You do not vant to get close to anyone because you are afraid of loosing them.”

“You think so?”

“Sure. I also suspect you have depersonalization disorder and social anxiety. That is why you adopt different personalities to hide your true self from the world. Your repressed conflict over your parents’ abandonment and deaths are expressed by your multiple identities in your relationships. You act like different people to confuse your friends so that they never get too close to you, never know your real self.”

“Great Scott! What should I do, doc?”

“I’m recommending Paxil.”

If it wasn’t for the superpowers, this guy could be Woody Allen, another great Jew. In other words, Superman is a Jewish Superhero, guilty and neurotic. That’s not too far off considering his beginnings. Even in the real world he was rejected many times before he found a home at Detective Comics.

Shame on DC.

In the real world things don’t always work out the way we’d like. For Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, things didn’t work out that well at all. Sure, they created the greatest superhero in the world. You’d think they were millionaires! They’re not. We’ll they weren’t because unfortunately they both passed away a few years ago.

We’ll work backwards. On July 30, 1992, Joe Shuster died at the age of 78. On January 28, 1996, Jerry Siegel passed away. Luckily these men narrowly avoided dying of abject poverty; of course this was not the case all along. Around 1975 Joe Shuster, suffering from a life-long eye problem was mostly blind and living with a relative was, for the most part, poor. At the same time, Joe Siegel, while slightly more successful than his partner, having written for various comics over the years including Marvel’s The Human Torch, brought a campaign to the public to make the world aware that he and his creative partner were receiving no royalties or payment for creating the Superman character. Warner Brothers, owners of DC Comics, eventually gave the pair a $35,000 pension for life and full medical benefits, a small pittance compared to the multiple millions the company made on the Superman enterprise over the years. One of the few compensations that was made in the case was that from then on, the Superman franchise would forever carry the “Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster” tag line. Apparently this made them happier than the money.

What got these two into this situation? Well, as common practice in the early comics era, the publisher retained all the rights to the characters their artists created. When Superman became a phenomenon, Joe and Jerry earned a modest salary for their employment at DC. In the Forties they won a sizable lawsuit for the time for their creation, still a small portion of the proceeds DC made off the character. Then they won rights to the Superboy character in court, which they then turned around and sold. After that they were no longer employed by DC. If you look back, a company with morals would have somehow shared profits with these two for creating the biggest icon of all time in the comics business. Perhaps a good stock plan or a nice royalty-sharing program. Even a half of a percent would have been enough to help these guys out. Granted the company did promote and continue the Superman line successfully without the contribution of these two but a little compensation out of heart would have been nice. Even to this day, despite the required moniker, DC makes little fanfare of their relationship to Jerry and Joe. I guess if my company treated employees that poorly in the past, I’d hide the fact as well.


Inspired by not only Superman the comic hero but also the two men who created him, Michael Chabon wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Adventures of Cavalier and Clay. There is no doubt the story about two Jewish kids who create their own superhero, the Escapist, is based on the Superman creators.

There have been many others to follow but like the favored son, the ultimate athlete and the dashing, charismatic, leading man, Superman is the one all others who come after aspire to. Even if it’s only to be as different from Superman as possible, he pervades all of comic-dom. He is the one true American hero!



The Phoenix said...

Buddy, I'm so sorry for being absent recently. The new job has me travelling all over. Barely any time to post even just once a week...

I really find the Batman-Superman relationship very intriguing. Superman is this ideallic superhero where the world is simply black and white - good and evil.

Batman was forged from witnessing his parents being murdered, and it seems he's got vengence on his mind. In Batman's world, everything is grey.

ObilonKenobi said...

Glad to see you back. Also, glad the job is going so well.

I have a new podcast out at Check it out. I will be mentioning your blog real soon.

I also find the Batman-Superman dichotomy interesting. It's two approached to fighting crime that we face even in real life.

The by-the-books approach vs. the vigilante, by any means necesary approach.