Super Shame

NPR recently re-aired an episode This American Life from February 2001 about Superpowers. The entire episode is well worth a listen, but I’ll be focusing on Act One for this article. Act One of this episode features John Hodgeman’s “unscientific survey” about superpowers: “Would you rather have the power of Flight… or Invisibility?”

Which would you choose? It’s not an easy choice. There are clear advantages to either power, but then there are disadvantages too.

Most of the people quoted in the segment make their choice for based on some kind of practical convenience. From this point, Hodgeman begins a social commentary about why people choose their power – and what they would do with it.

“People who turn invisible will sneak into the movies or onto airplanes … people who fly stop taking the bus. Here’s one thing that pretty much no one ever says, ‘I would use my power to fight crime.’ No one seems to care about crime.”

Super-heroics don’t necessarily go hand-in hand with super powers. There are, of course, practical reasons for this as well. Superman is able to fight evil because he can do a great deal more than fly — he’s also super-strong and practically invulnerable. Invisible Woman can also create force-fields and is part of the Fantastic Four, only one part of a team that fights evil. Even the anti-heroic Shadow (who uses psychic tricks to make himself invisible) relies heavily on guns to do the fighting for him.

Flight or invisibility aren’t enough to make us safe from someone stronger or better armed than us. So we ask ourselves, “Why take the chance?”

Back to Hodgeman’s interviews:

“More than the ability to, say, burst into flame or shoot arrows with uncanny accuracy, flight and invisibility touch a nerve — actually they touch two different nerves. [They] speak to different primal desires and unconscious fears.”

One interviewee noted the following:

“One superpower is about something that’s obvious, the other is about something that’s hidden. I think it indicates your level of shame. A person who chooses to fly has nothing to hide, a person who chooses to turn invisible wants to hide themselves.”

Another interviewee made this observation:

“It all has to do with guile. If you want to be invisible, it means you’re a more guileful person. If you want to fly it means you’re guileless. And I think the reason that I’m so conflicted about flight vrs. invisibility is that I have guile, but I wish that I didn’t.”

Whether or not you’re willing to admit that you have guile (sly cunning and dishonesty), another interviewee made the accusation that people who would chose flight are lying. All of us want to be invisible so that we can do any number of sneaky or voyeuristic things, she insists. She believes that if you really want to fly, you’ve made yourself believe something false about your own heroic identity.

Hodgeman ends up his act by saying this, “At the heart of this decision, the question I really don’t want to face, is this: who do you want to be? The person you hope to be, or the person you fear you actually are?”

Superheroes already have a complex relationship with expectation and shame. It’s one of the sources for the problem of needing a secret identity. How can Peter Parker deal with the expectations of being Spider-Man all the time? He can’t, which is why it’s important that Peter Parker and Spider-Man be (at least nominally) different people. Most superheroes will also have a secret identity to protect their loved ones from harm at the hands of a supervillain who would use them as leverage against the hero.

But there’s an aspect of shame tied to every masked super-hero. What they’re doing must be done, at least partially, in secret. At the end of the day, every superhero with a mask is a vulnerable human being (whether or not they’re actually human) that fears for their own safety and social stability enough to adopt a new personality and hide it from their old one.

Like any classic hero, we’re all often stuck between two worlds. We’re public and private. We’re graceful and awkward. We’re brave and fearful. There are times where we’re proud – where we accomplish things that put us above our peers, soaring through the air. And there are times where we hide – when we’re embarrassed or afraid and we want to disappear into the shadows. The choice between two powers is more than arbitrary, and it’s difficult for an important reason: according to Hodgeman it’s not a once-and-for-all question of whether we fly or whether we fade. We all do both every day. 

Secret Origin: Superman and His (Fore)Fathers

Some superheroes’ origin stories are so deeply woven into the larger cultural tapestry that it’s become annoying when we see them re-hashed. But while we’re busy being totally bothered by reading something we’ve read a few times before, we tend to miss just how significant a character’s origin can be.

Poor Batman has relived the murder of his parents just so many times. It seems like you can’t write a Batman stand-alone story without flashing back to Crime Alley, two white chalk outlines surrounding young Bruce Wayne (and maybe a pearl necklace for emphasis).

Kryptonian Baby-Rocket

Superman’s origin is just as ingrained in us: Kal-El, the last son of Krypton, shoved into a baby-rocket and sent off to Earth, right as his home world falls (literally) to pieces. Then the safely-crash-landed superbaby is adopted by the lovable yokel family, the Kents. Ma and Pa Kent teach baby Clark all about what a good human is before telling the confused space-man that he isn’t one.

Superman is often criticized for not being “relevant.” In his 2004 graphic novel, It’s a Bird…, Steven T. Seagle writes about being asked to write Superman at the same time as he is coming to terms with the fact that he is a carrier for Huntington’s Disease. Seagle devotes nearly half of his pages to ruthlessly deconstructing the Man of Steel, pointing out how in all his “power” and “courage” and “perfection,” he remains an entirely unrelatable character.

But that’s a narrow reading of ole Supes.

Let’s jump into the WABAC machine with Mr. Peabody and Sherman and learn Superman’s true origin story. The one that missed out on being woven into the cultural tapestry.

The character entered the world consciousness in 1938 with Action Comics #1. His creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, were high school students in Cleveland, Ohio. Both were sons of Jewish immigrants (Siegel was the third child of his Lithuanian parents to be born in America, Shuster’s family immigrated from the Netherlands to Canada, where he was born, and then from Canada to Cleveland when he was young).

Gosh, Mr. Peabody! What do Siegel and Shuster’s parents have to do with how totally unrelatable Superman is?

I’m glad you asked, Sherman. But let’s put that question to the holographic recording of Jor-El, Kal-El’s biological father. “You must remember you were sent here because you look like one of them – but you are not one of them. Our culture survives with you.”

The computer simulation of Jor-El from Geoff Johns and Adam Kubert’s “Last Son of Krypton”

Krypton’s last hope is to “immigrate” to Earth.

Not all earthlings are happy to see him, however. Lex Luthor, Superman’s constant opponent, constantly seeks to remind the world that Superman isn’t one of us. He’s not human, and he can’t be trusted.

So Superman is the ultimate immigrant, and Lex is the bigot who forgets that everyone who Superman “looks like” comes from people who immigrated here, including himself.

Lex from Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo’s series “Lex Luthor: Man of Steel”

Superman is the escapist ideal for the young, first generation American children, perhaps picked on at school for being different (I don’t know anything about Siegel and Shuster’s childhood experience). Maybe Superman will never feel like he “belongs” here, maybe the Lex Luthors of the world will never make him feel “welcome,” but he proves time and time again that he’s a better champion of our virtues than we could ever hope to be.

Truth, Justice, and the American Way…

When Steven Seagle and other would-be Super-detractors insist that Superman isn’t relatable, they aren’t looking deep enough. He’s strong and brave and perfect because he has to be — his perfection is his only way to be accepted. He’s the classic American story of a newly-immigrated family that works for their entire lives to be great, to live the “American dream,” and to be woven into the tapestry. In Siegle and Shuster’s day, European immigrants faced similar racism that Latino, Middle-Eastern, and Indian immigrants face today.

So the question isn’t really, “Is Superman relatable or relevant?”

The question nowadays is, “Should Superman still be a white guy?”

 

(P.S. Steven Seagle’s It’s a Bird… is an AMAZING graphic novel. Well worth a read. Don’t let my thoughts about Superman keep you from reading it!)

Zod With Us: Superman, Jesus, and the Redeeming Power of the Human Experience

It’s not cool to like Superman anymore.

This is a relatively new development in geek culture, and I’m going to have to pin part of the blame on one of my favorite people, genius auteur and world-famous foot fetishist Quentin Tarantino.

Fanboys latched onto the Superman monologue in Kill Bill like crazy.  The eponymous Bill says:

“When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent…Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He’s weak. He’s unsure of himself. He’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race.”

I argue that this understanding of Superman is completely flawed.

Bill, like many Superman detractors, does not understand what makes Superman super.

Which brings us to Jesus.

Superman as a Christ figure is old news. The much maligned Superman Returns and the by turns awesomely campy and unbearably awful Smallville did everything but literally crucify their Superman to drive that point home.

superman copy

It’s an obvious metaphor (though I wonder if young Jewish-Americans Siegel and Shuster didn’t have Moses in mind when they sent Kal-El down the galactic Nile in a Kryptonian basket of bull rushes). Superman came from the heavens to live as one of us in a lowly, unimportant town, and grew up to be the savior of all humanity.

The part of that simple story that Superman detractors fail to appreciate is the incarnational aspect – the significance of the omnipotent becoming human. Much like Christ, it is through Kal-El’s incarnation as human that he is able to become a savior.

Clark Kent (or alternately, Jesus of Nazareth) is not a misanthropic performance; he is an omnipotent being’s only connection to humanity.

Consider this: there is no reason for Superman to have an alter ego; he could be Superman all the time if he wanted to.

He lives among humans—and as a human—out of deep affection and admiration for the human race.

And this is what makes him superhuman – because of his love for humanity, he lives up to the highest standards of human morality, unwaveringly, despite the greatest temptation any human could ever face: the availability of absolute power.

By setting this example, Superman elevates all of humanity; for there is nothing that makes him “super” that we can’t accomplish ourselves. We don’t need his superhuman, fantastical levels of power; we only need the willingness to use what power we do have in service of those who are not as powerful as we are.

supermoon

Superman #156, “The Last Days of Superman”

Any time that Superman spends as Clark Kent – catching a movie with Lois or eating Christmas dinner at the Kent farm – is a time when someone somewhere is dying in an accident that Superman has the power to prevent.

And yet I do not believe this constitutes moral negligence.

If Superman stopped being Clark Kent; if he stopped taking the time to connect with individual human beings; if he had no personal relationships with anyone and therefore forgot what it is to love another human; he would soon cease to be Superman.

We’ve seen what rogue Kryptonians usually do when they end up on Earth: they conclude that they are superior to humans and attempt to subjugate us. But because he has lived among humans and as a human, Superman is no Zod.

His morality is intrinsically linked to his sense of humanity. As Superman’s connection to humanity, Clark Kent is as key to his superheroic identity as his ability to squeeze coal into diamonds.

all star

All Star Superman #10, “Neverending”

This modern American myth serves as a carnival-mirror reflection of the story of Jesus. In fact, it is perhaps more serviceable than the story of Jesus, which over the past 2,000 years has been robbed of much of its subversive power.

As Christian revolutionary Clarence Jordan said:

“Jesus has been so zealously worshipped, his deity so vehemently affirmed, his halo so brightly illumined, and his cross so beautifully polished that in the minds of many he no longer exists as a man…By thus glorifying him we more effectively rid ourselves of him than did those who tried to do so by crudely crucifying him.”

This deification of Jesus makes the Man of Steel feel more human than the Son of Man. But the Gospels paint a much different picture. Jesus, like Superman, is redeemed and made able to redeem by his humanity.

Take the famous story of Lazarus.

Usually this story’s big special-effects moment gets the most attention. Jesus calls into the tomb: “Lazarus, come forth!” and the four-days dead man rises to life. But in my opinion, the real emotional peak of the story comes earlier, when Jesus finds out that his friend Lazarus has died.

When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”

Jesus began to weep. Because of the death of one man. In the infinite span of time and space, this man’s lifespan is less significant than a single grain of sand on the beach.

And yet Jesus – who, according to the book of John where this story is found, existed from the beginning of time, with God and as God, the nexus of all creation – weeps at the death of one man.

And so the point of the story is not that God raised someone from the dead.

Of course God can raise someone from the dead.  God can stop the rotation of the Earth.  God can simultaneously occupy the past, present, and future.

God can apparate inside Hogwarts grounds.

The point is that God was moved to raise someone from the dead because God loved him. Lazarus was so much more to Jesus than an insignificant grain of sand. In dwelling in the dirt and messiness and beauty of the human experience, Jesus discovered a deep love for humanity as we are – flawed and weak and constrained by brief lives.

God became more fully God than God ever was before. The miracle isn’t the point.

It’s love.  

And so the point of Superman’s story is not that Superman is faster than a speeding bullet.

The point is that Superman is moved to throw himself in the path of those bullets because he loves humanity.

The stories of the Last Son of Krypton and the only son of God teach us the same thing: power is not what makes a hero. It’s love.