Peter Coogan on Superman and The Superhero
Now Pete Coogan (author of Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre) also has let us publish his own interview answers. Taken together, these three not-quite-essays discuss the topic of the superhero from different, occasionally overlapping perspectives.
Take it away, Pete!
What’s the connection between World War II and the emergence and popularity of the Superman character?Image: Pete Coogan speaking at the 2001 Comic Arts Conference, which Pete co-chairs with Randy Duncan. The CAC is held each summer in conjunction with Comic-Con International.
There are a few connections. In one sense, there is no connection. Superman was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in the mid-thirties and expressed much of the powerlessness they felt as adolescents. Superman was everything they were not - adult, powerful, supremely capable—he was an embodiment of wish fulfillment. This is not surprising given that traditionally hero stories deal with adolescence — narratively animating and resolving the problem of binding adolescent males to the larger community. Hero stories traditionally have fulfilled this function by narrating the adventures of young men who learn to apply their strength to benefit their social group. Myth narratives going back to Gilgamesh tell stories of young men moving from selfishness to selflessness, because young males who are not bound to the community are extraordinarily dangerous, as can be seen in any state where law breaks down and young men pick up AK-47s. So in that sense, Superman’s emergence and popularity was just the contemporary expression of a timeless need.
Siegel and Shuster were not looking forward to World War II in the mid-thirties, and in fact took an anti-militarist stance in the early adventures of Superman. In his initial adventure in Action Comics #1 (June 1938), Superman strikes at Alex Greer, a slick lobbyist who works to influence a U.S. senator to vote the service of munitions manufacture with the purpose of embroiling America in the European war. But in a few years in Superman #8 (January-February 1941) Superman exposes the Committee Against Militarism's push to keep America from aiding threatened democracies as a part of their sabotage in service to a warring totalitarian nation. He then goes on to have several adventures in which he fights thinly disguised Germans or Japanese saboteurs and foreign agents until the U.S. enters the war and the Nazis enter the comics directly. During the war, comic books were distributed free to the troops, and superheroes were popular because they could embody a vision of America very much in line with the official myth of America as a good and powerful nation, using its strength in service of the right against an enemy of absolute evil. Superman stood for that vision of America. In his debut, Superman is presented in a way that still matches America’s vision of itself, "A champion of the oppressed...who had sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need." The war just enlarged the scope that Superman operated on and provided a stage that seemed to mirror the confrontations of good and evil that took place in the comics.
In Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay", Joe Kavalier, a Jewish refugee from Prague who has become a comic book artist in America, uses his superhero, the Escapist, to symbolically strike back at the Nazis who drove him from his home. Joe Simon and Jack Kirby did the same very literally on the cover of Captain America #1 (1941), which shows Captain America punching Hitler in the face. Siegel and Shuster used Superman in much the same way, as a symbolic stand-in who had the strength to take on the nation’s enemies in a direct and satisfying way. In fact, in 1943 Look Magazine ran a two-page strip by Siegel and Shuster titled, "What If Superman Ended the War?", in which Superman captured Hitler and Stalin and flew them to Geneva to stand trial for war crimes before a League of Nations court. Superman offered a powerful means of wish fulfillment for his producers and readers.
Why does Superman continue to appeal to Americans?
Superman still embodies ideals that Americans want to believe in, regardless of whether we as individuals or as a nation actually live up to them. Superman presents a vision of right and wrong that is fairly straight forward - he uses his powers to help others and to stand up against powerful, selfish forces. That's the vision that Americans wanted to have of themselves when President Bush used rhetoric that drew on the mythic tradition of American exceptionalism to drive the nation to war in Iraq. It matters little when that image is shown up by reality — myth is neither true nor false, but believed in or not believed in, and the myth of American exceptionalism goes back to the Puritans with John Winthrop’s image of a city on a hill and is embodied in the foundational documents of the country — the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Additionally, Superman, or the superhero in general, stands as a metaphor for America's position in the post-Cold War world. Superheroes embody a vision of the use of power unique to America. Superheroes enforce their own visions of right and wrong on others, and they possess overwhelming power, especially in relation to ordinary crooks. They can project power without danger to themselves, and they can effortlessly solve problems that the ordinary authorities cannot handle. This vision of power fits quite well with the position America finds itself in after the Cold War. America is the only superpower in the world, something like Superman in the days before other superheroes and supervillains.
These uses of Western metaphors can be summed up in the Truman Doctrine of containment, the idea that a frontier has to be defended against an alien culture bent upon the apocalyptic destruction of America. That the Western so neatly fits the Cold War can be seen in the common interpretation of High Noon (1952) as a Cold War Western with Sheriff Will Kane representing America, Frank Miller and his gang in the position of the Communists, and the townspeople standing in for the rest of the world. But now the Powell Doctrine of overwhelming force has replaced the Truman Doctrine, and it seems more based on the superhero metaphor. In the Gulf War, Kosovo, and Afghanistan the United States acted more in the line of a superhero than a Western sheriff. Saddam Hussein, Slobodon Milosovic, and Osama Bin Laden are portrayed in the media as power-mad, meglomaniacal supervillains who threaten the world and whom no one but America can stop. The American military's invulnerability and quick victories fit in well with the superhero genre, as do the recurring fights with Hussein, Bin Laden, and their proxies. Admittedly, it is unlikely that either Powell or President Bush consciously draw on superhero comics when thinking about world events, but it is similarly unlikely that Truman had the Western in mind when he propounded his doctrine of containment, although in retrospect the connection is fairly obvious. So in that sense Superman is popular because superhero genre narratives are a way that conflicts are ritualistically animated and resolved, and Superman has retained resonance as a metaphor for a variety of aspects of the American condition, both at a personal and a societal level. As long as Superman retains that resonance, he will continue to be a popular character.
Is America the only country that really celebrates cartoon book superheroes? (If so, why?)
Yes and no. Comic book superheroes have been popular in other countries, such as Britain, Brazil, Canada, and Germany, where reprints of American superhero comic books and new, licensed adventures have been produced; and the Phantom, who is essentially a superhero, is popular world wide. Additionally, locally produced British and Brazilian imitations of Captain Marvel and Green Lantern have been popular, respectively. And clearly the global success of superhero films like the Spider-Man, X-Men, Batman, and Superman films argues that the superhero has become a globally popular character. The superhero is not as inherently American as the Western cowboy, but the genre does seem to have an American bias. It is difficult to say what the relationship is in terms of influence between American-style superheroes and Japanese figures like the Power Rangers or masked Mexican wrestlers, both of which seem to draw on the superhero genre, though with specific inflections from their nations of origin. Additionally superhero comics have been launched recently in Egypt and India, produced independently in the case of AK Comics in Egypt and in coordination with Marvel Comics in the case of India, so the superhero’s popularity may be spreading.
Why are "super powers" so often part of the American conception of heroism?
In one sense, super powers are organic to heroes — heroes of myth and legend have abilities beyond those of ordinary mortals, and the American superhero is merely an extension of these sorts of characters, as I discuss in answer to the next question. In another sense, super powers are an aspect of a specifically American story that underlies most American adventure narratives and genres, such as the Western and the superhero genre. This "American monomyth" began in Puritan captivity narratives, but flowered in the Western, which repeatedly presents an innocent community attacked by an alien culture threatening apocalyptic violence, which justifies an overwhelming response. This mythic structure helped to explain and justify the genocide of Native Americans and has been used repeatedly ever since as a way of explaining American foreign policy, including the Cold War and the Vietnam War. It was used by President Bush in response to the 9/11 attacks, and the rhetorical tropes of the American monomyth have suffused American Presidential elections at least since the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976. Most Presidential candidates — and all the winning ones — employ the tropes of the American monomyth. John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett, who theorized the American monomyth, explain that superpowers allow vigilante heroes to overwhelm their enemies, to deny the effects of boundless power because superpowers enable the hero to defeat the villain without injuring the villain. Thus total power is pictured as totally benign, and it is this mythic vision that prevents Americans from seeing the effects of their national power and its projection in the world. This is why President Bush was able to position the American response to 9/11 as purely good and the motive of the terrorists as purely evil, without any consideration of the roots of that attack in American foreign policy in the Middle East.
Why do you think Chinese superheroes are historical or are figures from legends, while American superheroes from the 40s and 50s come from science fiction or fantasy?
There is an important distinction at the root of this difference, the distinction between super heroes (heroes who are super) and superheroes (protagonists of the superhero genre). Heroes who are super go back in the Western tradition to Gilgamesh, and include Greek heroes like Achilles and Heracles, Arthurian knights like Lancelot and Gawain, the German Siegfried, the Danish Beowulf, and the French Roland. These heroes, like Chinese heroes such as the Monkey King, emerge from myths, legends, and epics. All national traditions include super heroes (heroes who are super).