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Superman Week: On Origins, Mythology & Resonance

To me, the best element of the Superman stories is his origin.  Or as Bill said to The Bride, “the mythology is not only great, it’s unique.”  Consider that everyone knows the elements of the story:  Krypton’s destruction.  Jor-El.  A rocket ship to Earth.  Landing in Kansas and being found by the Kents.  Raised in Smallville.  Trained in the Fortress of Solitude.  The blue outfit.  The red S.  You don’t even need to be raised in the United States to know them — the character is such a global icon that everyone knows the story and the iconography.  Superman Origin - The Original Superman

It’s widely known that the iconic hero wasn’t the original Superman that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had in mind when they thought him up.  At first, he was a villain. A bald headed, telepathic villain with dreams of world domination.  Does that sound like anyone in this story?  OK, it may be a bit extreme to say this was Lex Luthor, but good writers don’t throw away a bad idea.  The bald headed villain would return.

When Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel sat down and re-imagined their Superman character, they went the opposite of the villain they had created.  Instead of a genius whose power was in the brain, their hero would be one whose power relied in brawn.  To denote his physicality, they dressed him in strongman tights with a circus cape.  They took the heroes of their pulp comics – Doc Savage and John Carter – and went one step further.   They made him colorful.  They put a cape and a giant shield on his chest.  To give him otherworldly powers, they made him someone from another world.

At the same time, the influences of their era and its societal problems were reflected by Siegel and Shuster in Superman.  This was the time of the Great Depression and of the Mafia-run crime businesses.  So Superman fought gangsters and crooked politicians.  He fought Klansmen.  When World War 2 came along, Superman fought Nazis.  When the Cold War took hold, the famous catchphrase of “Truth & Justice” was amended to become “Truth, Justice & The American Way.”

Superman Origin - Fleischer SupermanWhat’s interesting is that it didn’t happen all at once.  Elements were added one upon another by the character’s growing success as well as its transition from the comics to other media like radio, newspapers and TV.  Kryptonite is first introduced in 1943 during the Superman radio show.  The newspaper Clark Kent and Lois Lane work at was originally named The Daily Star in comics, but was rebranded The Daily Planet when it jumped to newspapers and the name change stuck.  The Fortress of Solitude arrived decades later in 1958 — a creative loan from the Doc Savage pulps that influenced Siegel and Shuster. The famous “faster than a speeding bullet” line also came from the radio show as well as the famous Fleischer cartoons from the 1940s.

Even Superman’s vaunted moral code was not an original Siegel/Shuster idea.  Their Superman was far more direct and dangerous with how he handled bad guys – most of which where non-powered henchmen and criminals.  When new DC editor Whitney Ellsworth took over the comics, he made sure that Superman was more careful with his ability and demanded that he never kill a foe.  It’s odd to think of a Superman that’s more akin to Wolverine or The Punisher, but for a time, he was.

This adding onto the story has extended even into today’s adaptations.  The idea that the big S shield stood for something besides “Superman” was a result of Marlon Brando’s desire to wear it during filming of Superman: The Movie.  So the writers came up with the idea that it was his family crest.  The change has stuck till today – when it appears that Man of Steel will have it mean something else.  Lex Luthor, originally an evil scientist bent on world domination, was reimagined by John Byrne’s 1986 retelling of the origin story in “The Man of Steel” series as a business tycoon – a corporate overlord whose multinational firm lent him both real power and a mask behind which to hide his crimes.

But is the story unique?  I’ll accept that he was the first modern superhero and that his story is different from every other comic book superhero that followed.  Unlike Batman or Captain America, he is not the result of human ingenuity.  Despite being born with their powers, Superman is different than the X-Men.  But it’s not unique when compared to the origins and stories of ancient mythology and legend.  Superman is less like Spider-Man and Wolverine and more akin to a modern day Achilles or Heracles.  Superman Origin - Brando Jor-El

Consider the elements once again: a child of a powerful father from beyond our world.  He is raised by mortal parents in a mortal world.  He’s powerful and accomplishes great feats.  He’s adored for his great works and the evils he defeats and becomes a legend in his own time.  But he has one great flaw — one weakness that can destroy him. Now does that sound like Superman or Hercules?

Now this isn’t a surprise.  Siegel and Shuster themselves admitted that they drew as much inspiration from classical mythology as they did from pulp novels.  Heroes like Samson and Hercules – strong warriors who fought for good and accomplished great deeds fighting monsters – were as much an inspiration.  But I’ll suggest that it is Superman’s similarity to ancient heroes and ancient myths that helped him resonate with audiences around the world.  It’s far harder to explain mutant powers or alien police force with mystical jewelry.  But a demigod from another world?  We get that.  Even if we don’t know where Metropolis is or care to ever swing by Smallville.

Superman taps into an intense human need for heroes. For characters that are larger than life.  For warriors that stand up to the darkness and can face it and defeat it.  This is a desire that is ancient and global and occurs in every civilization.  The Greeks had Achilles and Hercules.  The Sumerians and Babylonians had Gilgamesh.  The ancient Saxons had Beowulf.  The Japanese had Yorimasa and Yamato Take.  The Spaniards had El Cid.  And so on and so forth.  In all these stories, you have heroes who arise out of nowhere to fight great evil and triumph.  It’s the old “hero with a thousand faces” doctrine of Dr. Joseph Campbell.

What is unique about Superman is that, while he is quintessentially an American creation, it has transcended nationalistic and cultural mindsets.  Superman is a global icon – to steal a phrase from LeBron.  He’s as popular in America as he is in Asia as he is in Latin America and everywhere else in the world.  The addendum of “The American Way”  keeps getting slowly phased out in every new adaptation of the character.  Now yes, some of that is simple economics – Warner Brothers and DC need to sell him in China and in Russia and in India and everywhere else that is not America.  But to me, it seems more than just that.

Superman Origin - SteelThe character is broad enough and ample enough to fit whatever imagery, ideas or concepts people want to see in there.  Whether your reading of the character is of an outsider who can’t fit in, an immigrant who seeks the acceptance of his new home, a warrior who fights for the weak or even a symbol of potential goodness, Superman can be all that.  Kids in Japan, Jordan, Brazil and Canada can all put on a red towel and put their arms up and dream of being Superman as much as any kid from the American Midwest.  Or a kid from the Southwest.  I mean, look at Shaq!  (Still haven’t forgiven him for Steel).

And that is possible because of his origin.  By making Superman someone from outside of Earth, Siegel and Shuster have, in an ironic sense, created the most humanistic fictional hero possible.  Their superhero can be all things to all people because he draws from our collective imagination and legends.  By borrowing, lifting and bringing together the various threads that influenced them, the two boys from Cleveland created something that reached millions, entered into our global zeitgeist and will continue to influence generations into the future.

Next for “Superman Week”: can we make an honest appraisal of arguably the most famous adaptation?

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