Superman Returns

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.

Now he's just showing off.

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…”
–Abe Simpson

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?

12 Comments

  1. 1. The S symbol from a non-English speaking Krypton: For years, it was assumed that Clark just put the S there himself to stand for Superman. Then in the movie Marlon wore it and it’s pretty clear from his colleagues that it wasn’t actually a letter but some wacky symbol thing that just happened to look like an S. Then it was back to Ma making it up to stand for Superman. Now in the comics, it seems to be back to a Kryptonian symbol meaning “hope”. Bleh.

    Semi-interesting geek sidenote: John Byrne said when he was growing up he never saw it as an S but as 2 yellow fish swimming toward each other on a red background, and that’s how he learned to draw the symbol. I think that says a lot about Byrne right there.

    2. Clark Kent as a rail-riding hobo is a thought that gives me the vapors! I read and mostly enjoyed* “Men of Tomorrow” on your recommendation, now I have to find this one.
    *Did Bob Kane run over Gerald Jones’s dog or something? Yeesh!

  2. There’s a nice essay about Supes by Neil Gaiman and Adam Rogers that was up on Wired’s website last month – http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.06/myth.html – that makes interesting points about his lack of impressive villains (that disasters and natural disasters are more in his league) and about the fact that Clark Kent is the alter ego for Superman rather than vice versa (unlike Spider-Man or Batman, who are the alter egos of their respective persons.)

    Never having quite cottoned to Superman as I knew him from modern comics, I’ll accept your argument that he best suits the New Deal era. That point has made me reconsider what the era to which Captain America is best suited, though, since he’s one of the other greats from that age. I suppose that I’ve always considered him the best sort of anachronism (as a comparative character to set against the age he’s stuck in – though I realize how inadvertantly “Greatest Generation”-ish that sounds). Most of that is undoubtedly due to the Gruenwald-written era in which I grew up, what with Cap’n A replaced by an unbalanced lout… but now I’m threatening to geek out. By that point, though, Steve Rogers had become the alter ego of Captain America, just the same as it seems to be for Superman.

    As for the Frank Miller spin on Superman, I recall arguing with a prof who cast Captain America into the same crypto-fascist mold because of the way he’d been presented in some issues of Daredevil back when Miller was in charge there. It seems there’s a need for a certain authority figure in some people’s work, I suppose. Unfortunately, that’s part of continuity in Marvel – unlike the prognostication of “Dark Knight” – though with all of the rebooting* and reconning** over the years, who can tell anymore?

    (*Reboot – starting over with the basic elements in place, e.g. “Batman Begins”; ** Reconn – “retroactive continuity” = making a seemingly major change to canon and writing in an explanation for how it all fits and was there all along even though it’s really all new, e.g. bringing back Bucky in Captain America)

  3. Anything on Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay (Superman as wish fulfillment of Jewish immigrants)? Wright’s Comic Book Nation (more New Deal context)?

    On Superman/Batman, what do you make of The Authority‘s recasting them a couple, contra Moore?

    On Captain America, Gaiman’s 1602 recasts him in ways reminiscent of Deloria’s Playing Indian. Both definitely worth a read!

  4. Rob, It might interest you to know (or, wth, it might not) that when I was consulting with Library of America on its two volumes, Reporting Civil Rights, that I could not persuade the editors to include anything by Stetson Kennedy. That was a mistake, I think.

  5. Whee, lots to talk about.

    Last things first: Ralph, that does interest me quite a bit, mostly because I really don’t know much about Stetson Kennedy, or what people tend to think about him these days (if they think about him at all). From Freakonomics, the Woody Guthrie song, and a dim memory of having heard the Klan story ages ago, I had the idea he is a revered figure. From a little Googling from this post I got a sense that he’s a largely debunked and forgotten self-promoter. Does the truth lie, as Grandpa Simpson sagely put it, somewhere in between? Is there some reason he had to be left out of the Reporting Civil Rights volumes? Is it just that white Southern civil rights heroes are not in style?

    Simon / Constructivist: I loved Kavalier & Clay (big surprise) and talked about Superman’s Jewish side in my earlier Superman post. I looked over Wright’s Comic Book Nation while writing this post. It’s a good reference but unremarkable – I had a lot more aha! moments with Jones’ Men of Tomorrow.

    I liked the “Apollo + Midnighter are lovers” angle in the early Warren Ellis issues of Authority. It was done with a light touch and seemed like the obvious next place to take the Superman/Batman archetypes. But I was pretty dismayed by where the later writers took it. Once their plotlines became all about them being gay and other people’s negative reaction to it, it seemed exploitative and kinda juvenile (in a comic book? go figure) I recognize that it was the villains (the evil replacement Authority) who were homophobic, but the cool thing about the earlier issues was that the earth’s most powerful heroes were gay, happy together, and it was no big deal. Turning it all into a hyper-violent after-school special about homophobia was a big step backwards, I think.

    I haven’t read 1602 but I have read (and taught with) Deloria’s Playing Indian, so I guess I’ll have to check 1602 out now.

  6. On Moore’s politics, are you sure Moore is endorsing Batman’s politics, worldview, and actions in his two Dark Knight series? I always thought of the two series as a bit of parody of two DC icons (more light-hearted and less dark b/c Batman’s nihilism is portrayed in a tongue-in-cheek way), not to the level of Ambush Bug of The Tick, but still there. Which, BTW, may help explain why many DC fans were originally disturbed by the portrayal of Batman as, well, a psychotic neo-fascist (as intentionally exaggerated a portrait as Superman’s, in other words) in the first series before they realized Moore was bringing “coolness” to a tired cliche.

    Now, you could argue this kind of superhero ‘revisionism’ in general is what makes Moore’s portraits and politics “screwy”–but, when you look at his wider writings, it could just be that he’s intrigued with the question of how to fight evil without doing/becoming evil. A question the fire-bombing, atomic-bomb-twice-dropping New Deal generation has surely been pondering, not to mention every subsequent American generation in political power that finds that its foreign policy is a whole lot more indebted to Hobbes than most of the rest of the world is comfortable with. (Surely my own caricature of post-1930s U.S. foreign policy and the New Deal generation, but that’s in part my point: there are complexities behind caricatures that sometimes it takes caricatures to help expose.)

  7. Thanks for the Men of Tomorrow tip. I enjoyed your older post. Ever taught a comics course? I’ve thought about it but don’t know how to overcome the cost factor for students. Know of any digital archives or other ways of cutting costs of texts?

  8. Hi, Rollen. Thanks for the Gaiman/Rogers link. I love the idea of Superman as a tulpa. But I actually think they have the alter-ego thing backwards: yes, it’s literally true that Kal-El pretends to be Clark Kent while Bruce Wayne dresses up as Batman, but my sense of the characters, at least in my favorite stories, is that Batman is really Batman all the time and just poses as feckless playboy Bruce Wayne for appearances. While Superman’s inherent goodness, his aw shucks Americanism, all that, comes from his upbringing as Clark. Superman is a persona he adopts in adulthood. Apropos of this, David Carradine/Bill’s little speech about Superman in Kill Bill (“Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race”) is so wrong-headed I don’t even know where to start.

    Captain America is an odd case. I’m not as good with Marvel details as DC – but I think he only gets interesting as a character when they thaw him out of the ice. Captain America in WW2 is just a ploddingly literal wartime hero. He’s strong, he’s named after the country he fights for, he punches people. Ho hum. When he’s reborn in later years, as you say, you can have all these conflicts about his vision of America and the America he finds himself in. So, unlike Superman, it’s the anachronism that makes the character work. Now, why am I cool with making Captain America confront his own anachronism, but I have no interest in seeing Superman or James Bond or Tintin have to do the same? The root reason is probably that, unlike the others, I don’t like Captain America all that much. So I don’t mind seeing him suffer. :)

    Chris: Knew I could count on you for the backstory to the Kryptonian S. Even if it doesn’t really explain things. (Re: Byrne’s two fish, you can also see the S-shield as a stylized Yin-Yang symbol – I wonder if anybody’s ever done anything with that.)

    And yeah, you should like the De Haven novel, though I should warn you that Clark’s rail-riding isn’t a big part of the book, it’s just a minor detail that jumped out at me. The Great American Dustbowl-Rambling Superman vs. the Goldbugs and the Quest for the Big Rock Kryptonite Mountain Tale remains yet to be written…

  9. Good question about Miller’s politics (Dark Knight = Miller, not Moore, right?). I realize that everyone is getting satirized in DK, and especially DK2, but Miller’s bleeding hearts seem so much more idiotic than the reactionaries, and liberals seem like a strange target for so much abuse in the America of 1986. Miller may have meant it his portrayal of Batman as a satire, critique, deconstruction, what-have-you. I can only tell you that that is NOT how my friends and I took it at age 15. We thought the Dark Knight was awesome, we cheered when he kicked Superman’s ass, we loved it. (See also Watchmen’s Rorschach, speaking of Moore. You can’t deconstruct the masked vigilante character much more savagely than that, yet as a kid, I accepted Rorschach pretty uncritically as the “hero” of the tale.)

    I’ve never taught a course on or with – you’re right that the price could be an issue – but I may use some comics for a unit or two in future. In writing this post, I did come across this blog from a course called Comic Book Politics taught by Marc Lynch at Williams College. The blog is on hiatus now (He has a busy blog on Middle Eastern affairs) but the course looks to have been great.

  10. I am looking for a copy of the superman vs.the klan. Can ahyone help out with this?
    Thanks in advance.

    Sylvie

  11. Thanks for the information. I have always thought that the root of Superman was Nietzsche’s Übermensch. It’s far more complicated than I thought.

  12. Supermans home planet of KRYPTON had a red sun and the city of KANDOR was shrunken by BRAINIAC and is now in supermans FORTESS OF SOLITUDE

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