Sunday, August 21, 2011

What Makes Superman So Darned American? (Or, is he?)

For years I have assigned Gary Engle's essay What Makes Superman So Darned American? early on in my Honors Sophomore English class. They have to write a response essay to it and for the most part (because it's such an interesting subject, full of allusions most of them get or are easy to research) it makes for an interesting bellwether of things to come. I can determine which of my students are good writers, have a commanding voice, hate/love The current President, love pop culture, love comics and I can usually approach the year with a firm grasp of the identies of my classrooms. I love this essay assignment, just as I love this essay.

I don't know where I was in April, but I did not know that Superman renounced his citizenship, so did not know how to react when one of my students said in response to the essay title, "But, he's not. He gave up his citizenship." I spent a couple of "I should be doing something else with this time" hours researching his citizenship. Was he ever a citizen to begin with? The answer, according to the articles I read is "No". It was only after the 1950s (and, I could wax on about why this decade is so important for such a movement) television show that "the American way" was added to "Truth and Justice". Superman has just gone back to his globalized roots. As GEORGE GENE GUSTINES of the New York Times notes, “'Superman is a visitor from a distant planet who has long embraced American values,' said DC Comics co-publishers Jim Lee and Dan DiDio in a statement. 'As a character and an icon, he embodies the best of the American Way.' And though Superman will 'put a global focus on his never ending battle,' the statement continued, 'he remains, as always, committed to his adopted home and his roots as a Kansas farm boy from Smallville.'”

The question I guess I'm asking is, what kind of United States do we live in that Superman feels he needs to publicly renounce a citzenship he never had to be able to fight for 'truth and justice' all over the world? I don't have an answer to that question. I'm still trying to figure out what Engle would think of it all! Superman and Clark Kent are two separate entities that make one figure. What happens when one entity (and, don't think I didn't notice it's the meek, mild, mannered reporter/broadcast journalist) is clearly American and the other (the stronger, more handsome and revered of the two) is Universal? And, you have to have them both in order to have the super hero. You have to have the man who is tied to the culture of one nation in order to have the alien who is tied to many.

How does this play out in my classroom? Clearly, it just makes Engle's essay even more poignant. Here are some wonderful things that Engle says about the Man of Steel, things that do not change even if he says he isn't a US citizen and, while we claimed him as our own, he truly could fit into any nation as a culture hero and into any nations' idea of 'truth and justice'.
  • Superman is the great American hero. We are a nation rich with legendary figures. But among the Davy Crocketts and Paul Bunyans and Mike Finks and Pecos Bills and all the rest who speak for various regional identities in the pantheon of American folklore, only Superman achieves truly mythic stature, interweaving a pattern of beliefs, literary conventions, and cultural traditions of the American people more powerfully and more accessibly than any other cultural symbol of the twentieth century, perhaps of any period in our history.
  • Superman is an orphan rocketed to Earth when his native planet Krypton explodes; he lands near Smallville and is adopted by Jonathan and Martha Kent, who inculcate in him their American middle-class ethic; as an adult he migrates to Metropolis where he defends America–no, the world! no, the Universe!–from all evil and harm while playing a romantic game in which, as Clark Kent, he hopelessly pursues Lois Lane, who hopelessly pursues Superman, who remains aloof until such time as Lois proves worthy of him by falling in love with his feigned identity as a weakling. That’s it.
  • It is impossible to imagine Superman being as popular as he is and speaking as deeply to the American character were he not an immigrant and an orphan. Immigration, of course, is the overwhelming fact in American history. Except for the Indians, all Americans have an immediate sense of their origins elsewhere. No nation on Earth has so deeply embedded in its social consciousness the imagery of passage from one social identity to another: the Mayflower of the New England separatists, the slave ships from Africa and the subsequent underground railroads toward freedom in the North, the sailing ships and steamers running shuttles across two oceans in the nineteenth century, the freedom airlifts in the twentieth. Somehow the picture just isn’t complete without Superman’s rocket ship.
  • He stands out among the hosts of comic book characters (Batman is a good example) for whom the superhero role is like a mask assumed when needed, a costume worn over their real identities as normal Americans. Superman’s powers–strength, mobility, x-ray vision and the like –are the comic-book equivalents of ethnic characteristics, and they protect and preserve the vitality of the foster community in which he lives in the same way that immigrant ethnicity has sustained American culture linguistically, artistically, economically, politically, and spiritually. The myth of Superman asserts with total confidence and a childlike innocence the value of the immigrant in American culture.
  • Individual mobility is an integral part of America’s dreamwork. Is it any wonder, then, that our greatest hero can take to the air at will? Superman’s ability to fly does more than place him in a tradition of mythic figures going back to the Greek messenger god Hermes or Zetes the flying Argonaut. It makes him an exemplar in the American dream.
  • On a human scale, the American need to keep moving suggests a neurotic aimlessness under the surface of adventure. But take the human restraints off, let Superman fly unencumbered when and wherever he will, and the meaning of mobility in the American consciousness begins to reveal itself Superman’s incredible speed allows him to be as close to everywhere at once as it is physically possible to be. Displacement is, therefore, impossible. His sense of self is not dispersed by his life’s migration but rather enhanced by all the universe that he is able to occupy. What American, whether an immigrant in spirit or in fact, could resist the appeal of one with such an ironclad immunity to the anxiety of dislocation?
  • The shape-shifting between Clark Kent and Superman is the means by which this mid-twentieth-century, urban story–like the pastoral, nineteenth-century Western before it–addresses in dramatic terms the theme of cultural assimilation.
  • Though a disguise, Kent is necessary for the myth to work. This uniquely American hero has two identities, one based on where he comes from in life’s journey, one on where he is going. One is real, one an illusion, and both are necessary for the myth of balance in the assimilation process to be complete. Superman’s powers make the hero capable of saving humanity; Kent’s total immersion in the American heartland makes him want to do it.
  • In America, cultural icons that manage to tap the national religious spirit are of necessity secular on the surface and sufficiently generalized to incorporate the diversity of American religious traditions. Superman doesn’t have to be seen as an angel to be appreciated, but in the absence of a tradition of national religious iconography, he can serve as a safe, nonsectarian focus for essentially religious sentiments, particularly among the young.
If comicbooks and their heroes are signs of the times in which they live, what does this say about the world today? And, is it a good or a bad thing?

Here's an interesting review.

6 comments:

  1. This sounds like a fascinating essay - and one that provoked some great discussion! I've added a link to the main Essay Challenge page. :)

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  2. What a great way to get to know your students. This is deep stuff for my not-yet-had-enough-coffee brain!haha

    Welcome to SS. Thanks for linking up!

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  3. I also have had to read this in a transfer level College course and write a reading response to it. I find it interesting that you have your high school students doing the same.

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  4. Mrs4444, it really is and thanks! Sorry it took so long for me to respond.

    Samantha, I think it's how you approach it and how you grade it that makes all the difference. Oh! and they are also honors students, which also makes a difference.

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