Tags: Saucer-Men from Saturn, death of a parallelogram, everybody loves robots, The WPA Guide to Smallville, Kludgeons & Klagons, Freakonomics, Superman Democrats, no good can come of criticizing The Dark Knight Returns.
I. It’s Superman!
When I wrote about Superman’s secret origins back in Smarch, I mentioned I’d just read two surprisingly non-terrible books about him. I talked at length about Gerard Jones’ Men of Tomorrow. The other book was Tom De Haven’s novel It’s Superman! I assume there are any number of Superman “novelizations” out there, not to mention “graphic novels” (which are neither novels nor, in Superman’s case, particularly graphic–discuss). But It’s Superman! is meant to be an actual novel for grown-ups, or at least Gen-X men. It has a real live author, a loose regard for continuity*, a snappy Chris Ware cover, and no Charles Atlas ads in sight.
*continuity = Comics fandom’s insistence that nothing written in any comic book anywhere may ever contradict anything else written in the forty years worth of pamphlets moldering in their parents’ basements.
De Haven, who wrote a series of novels about the creators of a Depression-era comic strip, knows his funny book history. He does a neat thing in It’s Superman! where he roots the character’s fictional origins in the same milieu that produced the real life comics–that 1920s and 30s pulp culture that I talked about last time. So De Haven’s Clark Kent is a shy Jerry Siegel-esque nerd who loves Zorro and collects rejection slips for his wooden “scientifiction” stories.** And Lex Luthor’s evil schemes include selling mail-order bombs and deathtraps in the back pages of pulp magazines. Here, Superman gets his costume and S-logo not from a Kryptonian receiving blanket but off the set of a B-movie called Saucer-Men from Saturn. (This occasions the question that always gets me: “Okay,” says Clark, “but why would they even have the letter S if they’re from another planet? I mean, do they have English there?”)
**Speaking of wooden science fiction stories: The first story that Jerry Siegel tried to publish was called “Death of a Parallelogram,” a fantasy about a world of talking geometric solids. It was rejected for “lacking human interest.” There’s a parable there for just about everything from Amazing Stories to Star Wars: Episode III.
De Haven tells a pretty low-key version of the Superman story, and to be honest, not a whole lot happens. The scale is modest, much more Smallville than Metropolis. Lois Lane is a journalism student who can’t quite tell her professors are hitting on her. Lex Luthor is a city alderman, and he seems to have three, maybe four minions tops. Clark really isn’t Superman until the final pages of the novel. I think when you’re writing Superman you might as well go big–my favorite incarnation of the character at the moment is Grant Morrisson’s All-Star Superman, with the Unknown Superman of 4500 A.D. battling Solaris the Tyrant Sun and reptile invasions from the Earth’s core. But De Haven’s insecure Clark is endearing in his way. And how could I not appreciate a novel with this exchange between Lex Luthor, Joseph Kennedy, and Gloria Swanson:
Lex was, he said, most interested in raising investment capital. Kennedy leaned across the restaurant table, eager to hear more. Lex smiled, paused significantly, then said, “I’m involved in something that you, yourself, may like to own a piece of. Considering that it’s certain to be the next … essential thing.”
“You mean television?” said Kennedy.
Lex pursed his lips, retracted them; leaned back in his chair, spread his hands and said: “Robots.”
“I love robots!” said Gloria Swanson.
“Of course you do,” said Lex. “Everyone does.”
De Haven sets the story in the 1930s, which works for me. Re-invention is overrated: these iconic characters so often work better in their native time periods. Give me a swinging James Bond in the early 1960s, a clueless Tintin in the last days of Belgian colonialism, an earnest Superman in the depths of the Depression. The historical ambience is probably the best part of De Haven’s book. His first chapter is called “The WPA Guide to Smallville,” and that New Deal context is key to much that transpires thereafter. The “colored” section of Clark’s home town is known as Smallerville, a detail that probably wouldn’t make it into DC Comics, but rings true. When Clark leaves Smallville he doesn’t head straight to Metropolis–he rides the rails as a hobo for a while. I love that. Isn’t that exactly what you would do if it was 1936 and you were an indestructible farm kid from Kansas? (Technically, Clark doesn’t go to Metropolis at all. He goes to New York, a detail I don’t love, even if it allows Fiorello LaGuardia to be a character in the proceedings. I know this isn’t canon, but to me, Metropolis is a shinier, sunnier Chicago.)
II. Superman vs. The Klan
“I ain’t the world’s best writer nor the world’s best speller
But when I believe in something I’m the loudest yeller
If we fix it so’s you can’t make money on war
We’ll all forget what we’re killing folks for
We’ll find us a peace job equal and free
Dump Smathers-Dupont in a salty sea
Well, this makes Stetson Kennedy the man for me”
–Woody Guthrie, “Stetson Kennedy”
Just so this essay has some actual historical content, allow me to make an argument for Superman’s progressive political bona fides: the fictional Superman beat up the real life Ku Klux Klan.
I’m not sure how much mileage I can get out of this story, since it was already in Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s wildly popular Freakonomics, but on the off chance you only read their chapter about why drug dealers live with their mothers and then skipped ahead to the one about baby names, I’ll recap: Dormant during World War II, the KKK surged in numbers and activity after the war. Two months after V-J Day, the Klan burned a 300′ cross on face of Stone Mountain, “just to let the niggers know,” in one Klansman’s words, “the war is over and the Klan is back on the market.” Atlanta was the headquarters of the Klan’s Invisible Empire, but it was also home to Stetson Kennedy. Besides having the most boss-ly American name since “Minnesota President,” Stetson Kennedy almost seems like a superhero in his own right, an undercover Atticus Finch who fought against racism, bigotry, and anti-Semitism in the 1940s and 50s. There’s controversy whether Kennedy himself ever really infiltrated the Klan or simply publicized the work of others who did, and Levitt and Dubner are revising the Stetson Kennedy chapter of Freakonomics for their next reprinting. But Kennedy did work to expose and sabotage the Klan for years.
According to his own version of events, Stetson Kennedy joined and infiltrated the Klan in the early 1950s, but had little luck in sabotaging it from within. Though he passed information on Klan activities to the state attorney general, to the Justice Department, and to progressive unions, nothing seemed to have much impact. Then one day, the story goes, Kennedy noticed a group of children playing a spy game in which they exchanged silly secret passwords. (This moment bears a suspicious similiarity to a key scene in The Birth of a Nation, parent to ridiculous epiphanies in movies ever after, in which the Southern colonel is inspired to create the KKK after watching white children scare black children by hiding under a sheet.) Kennedy contacted the producers of the Adventures of Superman radio show and asked them if they would like to write some episodes in which Superman fought the KKK.
What Kennedy understood about the Klan was that secrecy was crucial to its mystique. Strip away the violence and the mystic hoo-ha and the Ku Klux is essentially a pyramid scheme for selling robes and titles crossed with a seedy imitation of a fraternal lodge. (My own research in Muncie, Indiana, where Robert and Helen Lynd gathered a good deal of material on the Klan that they chose not to use in Middletown, made this laughably clear.) And as any Dungeons & Dragons player can tell you, the names and passwords that sound super cool and mysterious when you’re in your secret clubhouse with your friends sound totally lame when everyone else on the schoolyard hears them. (Foes of Scientology take note.)
So Stetson Kennedy fed the Superman writers all his info on Klan rituals and passwords–the Kludds, Klexters, and Klavaliers–and they used it on the air. According to Levitt and Dubner, this horrified the Atlanta Klansmen. Watching their own children play “Superman versus the Klan” and, worse yet, hearing them use all the proper ranks and passwords took all the dignity out of belonging to a violent racist Ponzi scheme with funny hats and goofy names. Application for Klan memberships dwindled to nothing, Levitt and Dubner report. Wyn Craig’s book The Fiery Cross calls Stetson Kennedy “the single most important factor in preventing a postwar revival of the Ku Klux Klan in the North.”
I’m not 100% sure what this has to do with “freakonomics”–or, as it used to be known, “sociology”–but it was all in a day’s work for Superman.
III. Superman Democrats?
“Then after World War Two, it got kinda quiet, ’til Superman challenged FDR to a race around the world! FDR beat him by a furlong, or so the comic books would have you believe. The truth lies somewhere in between…”
The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced the New Deal is Superman’s real yellow sun. The farther you remove him from FDR’s life-giving rays, the more his powers wane. Why is the New Deal context important for Superman? Superman is an avatar of the American nation, which is one reason the comics return again and again to “what if?” stories where Superman grows up in different lands. (The best such undertaking lately was Mark Millar’s Red Son, which tells the tale of a Soviet Supes with more finesse than you might expect–though the image of Joseph Stalin macking on Wonder Woman’s mother is one I wish I could expunge from my brain.) Put Batman anywhere from 21st-century Tokyo to Guptan India, he’d be essentially the same crime-whacking nutjob. Superman doesn’t translate in the same way. He’s like Social Security or the TVA. Or the Marshall Plan, or, yes, the Manhattan Project. He’s a stand-in for the righteous might of the American state, an optimistic, liberal vision of American power that doesn’t get much play nowadays.
You see this most clearly in the influential comics of my youth, which is to say the “Dark Age” comics of the 1980s. Removed from a New Deal or at least New Frontier context, Superman looks sinister or naive. In Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, Superman is a right-wing dupe, a Krypto-fascist doing the dirty work of the American war machine. Miller’s Superman takes orders from a star-spangled caricature of Ronald Reagan. In the sequel, Superman seems to have become Reagan, craggy face, shiny black spit curl and all. Batman’s steadfast refusal to play ball with the government is presented as the moral course of action. But Miller’s politics are all screwy. Dark Knight sets up a “debate” between liberals and conservatives–yet the story makes all the liberals into ridiculous caricatures and endorses reactionary vigilantism at every turn. Batman is the one with zero faith in human nature, the one who believes criminals are a cowardly and superstitious lot. It’s Batman who tarts a gang of street thugs up in jackboots and uniforms and calls them an army for law and order. Superman a fascist? Let he who is without sin cast the first chunk of Kryptonite.
In Superman’s early days his progressive agenda was more obvious. The most typical villains of Superman’s first few years were corrupt businessmen and their ilk. In one of the first issues of Action Comics, Superman demolishes a slum and helps the government build public housing in its place. In another, he smashes a conspiracy involving a senator, some lobbyists, and a munitions manufacturer who want to embroil the U.S. in a Latin American conflict, then indulges in a sermon against “merchants of war.” And what is Supes’ arch-nemesis, Lex Luthor, if not an embodiment of America’s military-industrial complex?
I’m not saying there are no problems or contradictions here. The Man of Steel warning against the military-industrial complex is not unlike Eisenhower warning against the military-industrial complex after eight years in office–thanks, Ike, now you tell us. And Superman, like the state he represents, runs into problems when faced with problems that can’t be solved with righteous violence and industrial force.
Still, as Supes returns again this summer, and as the Democrats flail around looking for a way to package their platform, an icon that manages to combine liberalism and strength, progressivism and American values is nothing to sneeze at. Should we be rooting for “Superman Democrats” in 2006? If you’ll believe a man can fly, might you believe a state–scratch that, a superpower–can do some good in the world? Could one employ that red, white yellow, and blue might against warmongering and corporate skullduggery? Or does that only happen in comic books?