Noah was looking over All-Star Superman here, and he suggested I post one of my old Superman columns from TCJ. I chose this one, which is a Strunk-and-White attempt to talk about Superman’s meaning. Everybody agrees he has one; I wanted to pin it down and say it straight out. The idea was to talk about heady things while keeping the prose simple. At points the approach becomes jokey, because I think a lot of cultural argumentation sounds silly if you don’t dress it up. I love the stuff, though, and I take my view of Superman seriously. It’s just that, because the subject is so heady, I think any conclusions are especially subject to tricks of consciousness and outlook. When I describe our consciousness, it’s easy to end up describing my consciousness.


So how does Superman make sense to me? I see him as being more an idea than a character. Life in the modern world provokes irritating questions: What good are arms and legs when electricity does all the work and I don’t even know what electricity is?  Things like that. Superman is the answer, not a good answer but we’ll take what we can get. Anyone’s mind has a good deal of lint and crap floating about; Superman is one of the odd little tunes humming around in the skull of modern civilization. He’s there because every day we’re reminded that modern life doesn’t always make a good fit for our brains. 

Noah was explaining how Wonder Woman started as one particular man‘s whack-off fantasy; once the guy wasn’t around, nobody knew what to make of her, and she’s been a whole lot of nothing ever since. Superman has a similar problem, though turned inside out. Everybody gets him, but almost on the level of abstraction. He’s accepted as a necessary concept for making the modern universe seem like it makes sense. But people feel very little for him as a character. Noah and, in Comments, Cole More Odell were talking about all the fuss made over Superman in All-Star. You’d think, given Superman’s degree of fame, that a little fuss about him wouldn’t be a problem. But somehow it is. Talking him up doesn’t work; the praise always has a kazoo sound.

My explanation is that Superman doesn’t matter to us the way we think he matters. He’s a big handsome man with a cape. He heads the longest-running superhero title in history. So, when we dig up important feelings about him, we go looking for feelings about heroism, about Superman’s  absolute wonderfulness as an individual. But he doesn’t matter to us as a hero; he matters to us as a placeholder. He’s a mental stand-in for the answer to a question that we ask every day without ever knowing what the question is. So we can’t get him out of our heads.
Okay, but who’s “we”? Fair enough.
Final note: I changed the lead’s wind-up because the original had a plaintive sound. UPDATE: In Comments, Noah remarks that he posted about the essay when it came out and that he didn’t entirely like the piece. Actually, that was the reason I changed the lead. I think the original had an air to it that suggested I was talking about something sad and dear. That wasn’t the meaning I wanted at all. To compare, the original lead finished up like this: “Without him the universe is not the same place; it just doesn’t look the same, we don’t feel at home.” The new version is right below!
And now:
“Big Red Feet, Mighty Chest”

I got an e-mail with the subject line “Be Superman in Bed.” I knew what they meant. You could say “Play Pool Like Superman”; I would understand that too. Superman would play pool as fast and as well as possible, and everything would be a blur that stood in for the idea of a performance of that sort. Superman is an abstraction that exists because of other abstractions. He exists because of ideas like most, fastest, best. There is some simple grid of measurement underlying our sense of the universe, and Superman exists to represent its top mark. Without him the dashboard doesn’t make sense; we’re lost.

            During the 1980s, New York City began sticking big decal daisies in the windows of abandoned buildings in the South Bronx; the idea was that this way people on the commuter trains wouldn’t be so depressed at what they saw. Superman is the plastic daisy our minds have stuck on the universe. But he’s not there to brighten the place, just keep it from overwhelming us. To switch metaphors, he’s like the little man-figure drawn next to the dinosaur to show us how big dinosaurs were. Superman is the human-scale figure in our mental diagram of reality. But somehow he’s been rigged. No matter what he stands next to, that thing also becomes human scale: not just the dinosaur but also icebergs, moons, galaxies, giant robots—the universe. Superman keeps the universe our size. We need him, but we know he’s a lie; if the universe actually were our size, our stand-in wouldn’t need obviously nonhuman qualities (flight, planet-juggling ability). There wouldn’t be any need for superhuman, just human; there wouldn’t be any need for super.

It’s hard to love an abstraction. A being who is there just to represent the top mark on a universal dial—such a character is hard to warm up to. When DC assembled four writing stars for the landmark milestone Action Comics #850, what the stars gave us was an apology. Supergirl was sulking and had to be persuaded that her cousin was not a stuffy jerk. Which misses the point, because Superman has a fine temperament and a lovely smile. It’s not a question of him personally being cold. I saw him on the cover of a kids’ book of math problems, or possibly it was a display ad for an insurance company. But he was taking off into the air and looking delighted about it, and why not? The reaction was perfectly right for him. He’s agreeable and fun loving; that’s not the whole of his personality, but the stuff is in there. It’s there along with all the other qualities the best sort of personality would have.  You can assume the presence of all of them, whatever they are; they’re implied, and any of them can surface. If Superman flies off looking keen and determined, that suits him too. So the problem isn’t so much that Superman himself is pompous, either in his icon form or as a continuing-story character. It’s that, as a character, he seems like an afterthought to himself. Everything about him is derived in such a straight line from the central premise—this man is super—that there’s not much point to experiencing him.

            In the end, there’s nothing I can prove about Superman. This column may sound like an argument, but really I’m just sorting through my personal lifetime of exposure to a concept. All lines of thought here trace back to the same root: the impression made on me by reading about and hearing about him and by living in a Superman-inhabited world. Personally, I don’t believe Superman’s big, extra dimension is mythic in a Joseph Campbell or world-faiths way.  But I can’t argue against the idea because I’ve never heard the arguments for it. There’s no denying his name is Kal-El, which must be Hebrew for something, and a father sent him to earth. Like Moses he was given up by his parents and raised in exile. The conclusions fall into place and can be cited without sweating the details. I guess there’s something in them, but I’m not sure what. My own background is both nonreligious and without much grounding in literary studies.

I thought I might get the religious-mythic case out of a book I read just recently. But no. It mentioned the familiar items, threw in some newcomers, some others, then argued for a link between Lex Luthor and Aleister Crowley. The book pointed out that Luthor and Crowley look like each other. But they also look like Fred Mertz, so what happens if you’re writing about I Love Lucy? It was all clue picking, Paul-is-dead stuff, and I came away feeling silly and off base. I’d been looking for a treatise and the book had been done for the author’s self-entertainment. It wouldn’t be laying out any arguments.

            I will say that Christianity and Judaism don’t look very super. Elements of their story show up in Superman, but not the defining elements. Christ is most himself when he is nailed up on a cross; Superman, of course, tends to be robust. The Jews are special because God gave them a contract that says they’re special. Whereas being super is biological, in some complicated way that involves ultra-solar emissions; it’s not a contractual status. If you look at how Superman’s story has developed, you could make a good case for Jewish inflections. Rules and precedent come to structure his world, and we hear a lot about the Kandoran exile. On the other hand, you could also say that all the legal clutter was American in spirit, given the way America conducts politics and business.  (Come to think of it, Captain America is very good about paperwork, or he was in a story Busiek wrote for The Avengers a few years back. Of course, Captain America later led a revolt against the government and his head was blown off, so one can debate these things various ways.)

I define “super” as being able to do anything a hypothetical person might want to do with a hypothetical body. Forty or so years ago my brother explained Superman to me. Thinking back to that moment, I ask myself what super would look like to a five-year-old. The above answer feels right; in fact, when I got it, I felt like I’d been reaching around in the air and finally touched something, a hard piece of furniture, and maybe a floor was underneath me someplace. Being super isn’t just being powerful or mighty, and it’s not being able to do anything you personally might want to do (such as scream at people or take things from them). It’s being able to do anything a person might want to do, and the person referred to is strictly man as biological unit, a repertoire of physical and mental attributes: strength, hearing, speed, eyesight, precision, mental quickness. Given that you have arms and legs and can run out of breath and you cut your knee yesterday, what do you want existence to be like? Superman is the answer. When he stops being the answer to that particular question, he stops being of interest. Spider-Man can stick to walls just because his creators say he can. Superman couldn’t. The writers might say Superman could use superfast friction on the part of his palms and soles to attach himself to the wall, and under a given set of circumstances he might do so, but just saying he could stick to the wall because he was super would kill the character.

Michael L. Fleisher put it well in his Original Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes: “Superman’s powers are, by and large, extraordinary magnifications of ordinary human abilities.” The encyclopedia, in tracing through all the Superman stories, shows how his powers developed in straight lines: strong, stronger, superstrong. His heat vision and x-ray vision aren’t oddballs thrown into the mix. They grow out of his being able to see very well; he can see so well that walls get out of the way. I would quibble with one word in the Flesher quote. He says the powers are “extraordinary.” I would go for “limitless.” If you can do anything, which is my view of being super, it makes perfect sense for your powers to keep opening out and out and out, a never-ending demonstration of a principle. The sight of Superman throwing planets isn’t reductio ad absurdum, a corner lazy writers paint themselves into. It’s the point. That’s the sight we want.

            Now, to get very fine, throwing planets is not in itself a classic indulgence. It’s not something you lie back and fantasize about on summer days. Superman isn’t there to live out our fantasies. Having Superman eat a store’s worth of ice cream isn’t any more fun than having him sort a warehouse of mail. In fact it’s less fun, because we don’t want him to be self-indulgent; we want Superman keeping the world on track. Half the time he’s doing something you yourself would not want to do. But when he performs one of his feats, he’s making a point on our behalf: that the universe is still our size. Existence is so built to our scale. With the ice cream or the letters or the forest turned into boards or the billion tons of coal mined in one day, what counts is the blur of hands and the sight of the masses of material being processed, and Superman’s face stationed there with its hard-jawed grin, floating above the activity. The Superman titles spent a lot of years entertaining kids with industrial processes rendered in the dumbest way possible, as one guy working very hard.

  That’s a strange form of entertainment, when you think about it. It’s so specialized it’s freakish. All other superheroes tend to fight, but for Superman fighting is beside the point. By definition, by being super, he is the best of whatever comparison he finds himself in. If he is one of two large men, he is the best—that is, strongest—of the two of them. Starting in the 1970s, when the Marvel way became dominant, the writers have marched up a series of angry bald entities to fight Superman. They’re big fellows, and their anatomies look like jungle gyms made from bowling balls that were welded to other bowling balls. The characters are meant to be scary, but they’re dull. If they could really fight Superman, he wouldn’t be Superman. He would have slipped his job description and become a blob. Instead it’s the opponents who become pointless, a lot of heavy-breathing noise (Galactic Golem, Doomsday) made over a promise we don’t believe in and don’t want fulfilled.

Superman did start out as a fighter, but after a half decade he was branching out into high-speed assembly of dinosaur bones. Pretty soon the fights had reduced themselves to rounds of  “light taps” received by men wearing hats. Superman had found his vocation. He did things like read all the Metropolis municipal archives at once, or transport industrial sites. In 1951 he started with the making of coal into diamonds. (My source for these activities is Fleisher’s Original Encyclopedia. If you ever want a Superman overview, volume 3 is great.) Superman’s role in life is to engage in fussy interventions with immediate physical reality. He’s always imitating a factory or contriving workaround physical setups that depend on him as lynchpin: plug that volcano with that iceberg! He’s like someone stuck fishing rings out of sewer grates, one after the other, endlessly. The saving grace is that he’s super, so the work is never a sweat. Lois Lane watches Superman at work in Alan Moore’s “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” What she remarks on is his finesse. For a superhero, Superman is a lot like a golf pro.  He has to do things just so, and his triumph is that he can. But we’re all in the same boat. Modern life is mainly a series of contrived situations that we have to fit ourselves to and learn to manipulate: the alphabet, tax law, pill caps. Superman can fit himself to any and master them within seconds. He’s endlessly versatile, and it turns out that’s the key aspect of being super. Even as kids, we begin to suspect that lifting things doesn’t give you as much power as figuring out how to load a stapler or drive a car. If you live in modern society, Superman is your ideal self, or the ideal of that part of yourself suited to modern society.

Those blurry, superfast hands sorting machine parts could be called a kid’s version of industrial activity. But really, they’re my version of industrial activity. I don’t understand how machines work or how soda gets put into millions of bottles. I guess I could, if I thought about it, but in very rough outline and without any direct reference to my own experience. It’s all very abstract. To tell the truth, I couldn’t survive in a world that was simple enough for my immediate experience to anchor me, one where I could walk to the blacksmith’s and get some idea of how he banged horseshoes into shape. I need modern comforts. But, psychologically, modern life is uncomfortable. Enough people have remarked on the problems. Humanity has become so powerful over the past few centuries, but take us one by one and our choices are not really that broad, our knowledge isn’t that great. We don’t feel free, but we don’t feel like we have a place; we’re just hemmed in. We’re kings of creation, but we tend to be sitting around in offices and trying to figure out what happened to us—how did life become this? Huge swathes of existence feel like they’re not there or they’re not as described, like they’re ghosts of themselves. Being a peasant never allowed for great range of activity, but at least nobody was telling you that it did. A peasant could understand his situation, and he knew what his body was for. Whereas, for most of us, the relation between our spine and our hip is a very abstract matter.

            Superman is so powerful, but his existence keeps being turned sideways, equivocated upon, redefined away from what it’s supposed to be. Being a person turns out to be such a provisional, unreal state, at least if Superman really is our stand-in. I’m talking about his great years, the Weisinger period of the late 1950s and the 1960s. When Superman was selling his most copies, he was getting switched around and bounced through versions of himself, worked like variations on a theme. He was a baby or an old man or there were two of him. Batman had done a lot of the same stunts during the 1950s, but they worked better and longer for Superman. Add the Superman robots and it’s like personal identity becomes a devalued concept, starts wearing thin. Having the cape and the chest, or the glasses and the tie, turns out to guarantee nothing.

            There’s my Superman. He’s modernity. It’s what he stands for, and he grows directly out of it. He’s the odd doodle our collective mind drew when the second-by-second experience of modern existence, the way modernity feels, became impossible to ignore. “Super,” the category he embodies, represents the new dimension added to existence by technological development. The most extreme transformations in our physical environment are now produced by means we find unreal and abstract, that feel like they have nothing to do with us; he’s there to bridge the gap.

Like modern existence, he’s best in theory and becomes tenuous and overcomplicated in practice. We think of him as a pair of vast shoulders and a proud set of boots straddling the universe. But when stories have to be told about Superman he becomes an exercise in crosscutting rules or in the spinning off of versions of himself. Or simply in helplessness: Krypton is going to explode all over again and there’s nothing he can do.

            Finally, I’d like to note that reading Superman stories, taking in all that Silver Age lore about the rules of his existence, was my kiddie version of modernity—my starter kit, really. He helped get me ready to function as a member of a modern society. During my Superman years I learned to read, and I got a taste of what modern existence is all about. He explained the world to me. Superman dealt with people wearing suits and ties or engineer’s caps or baker’s aprons. I was five or six or seven and reading about adults out in their world, interacting with each other, and adults are the ones who know. (I remember that, even though Curt Swan was better, I found the old Wayne Boring stories in the annuals more official. They were old-fashioned, which was good: it meant they came from before I was alive.) What I learned about, aside from the absolute safety of everyone from everything because of Superman’s activities, was the central place of technical knowledge. Superman was the most important being ever, and his powers were governed by rules that we had to learn and understand; in fact you couldn’t imagine the powers without the rules. When I was reading Superman, I was getting ready for a lifetime of user manuals and tax forms.

All right, I’m bitter. And I suppose by now I’ve gone beyond a reader’s decent tolerance for fancy views about pop culture. Superman is such a huge fact in our media environment that looking straight at him is unsafe. It throws you into metaconsciousness.

            But at least I have deposed my psyche. Nothing above can be proved, but take it all together and you have some sense being made out of one life spent in the same universe as Superman.