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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Enlisted by a team of honor students for a seminar on superheroes, a mild-mannered professor discovers his inner obsession. Assuming the powers of a novelist, teacher, playwright, and scholar, Professor Chris Gavaler embarks on a mission to unlock the secrets of the multiverse.

Tag Archives: Jerry Siegel

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My wife has been trying to get our daughter to read Jane Austen since our daughter started middle school. She’s now a senior, and when faced with a summer reading list for A.P. English, she picked Pride and Prejudice because her teacher said he didn’t like it. She can be perverse that way, but her impish impulse backfired because then she couldn’t stop reading the entire six-novel Austen oeuvre (plus the incomplete Sanditon even though she can’t bear not knowing how a romance plot ends.)

I theoretically read Emma in college, and I have an increasingly thin memory of Northanger Abby from grad school, but my wife gasped—Yes! Gasped, I say!—when I admitted at our dinner table that I had in fact never read Pride and Prejudice. The characters in Karen Joy Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club give the same reaction when the lone male in the club makes the same admission.

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I’m teaching Fowler’s novel this semester as part of my New North American Fiction course, AKA “Thrilling Tales.,” so I’m braced for more gasps.

I stole the subtitle from the issue of McSweeney’s that Michael Chabon edited back in 2003. His pulp-reclamation project includes a range of highbrow authors writing in lowbrow genres: horror, scifi, mystery, but not—I only recently noted—romance. Same is true of the issue of Conjunctions Peter Straub guest-edited a few months earlier. So the proud gatekeepers of 21st century literature were allowing in zombie ghosts and steampunk Martians, but no tales with “Reader, I married him” closure.

I theorized the prejudice was against formula: any narrative with a predetermined ending is by definition formulaic, and so not literary. And though I think that’s largely true, the prejudice runs deeper.

My daughter told me I had to read Pride and Prejudice to avoid humiliation in my own classroom. My students will have read it, she said, and since Fowler’s novel references it so deeply, and since it’s considered the best of Austen’s novels, and one of the best novels of English literature, I agreed I had no choice. This implies I was resistant. I wasn’t. Fowler’s novel is brilliant (easily the most engaging metafiction I’ve ever read), and I had every intention of enjoying Austen too.

And yet why did I hesitate? And why hadn’t I included a work of romance in my Thrilling Tales syllabus the first time I taught the course? I’d covered so many other genre bases—time travel, superheroes, genetic engineering, vampires. It turns out the diagnosis isn’t all that complicated.

When I had a doctor’s appointment over the summer, I took the library copy of Pride and Prejudice that my daughter had read. The nurse (female) said, “Oh, what a good book.” The doctor (male) said, “Oh god, that thing.” He’d read it in his A.P. English class back in high school. I don’t know when the nurse read it, but I assume it was for pleasure. Non-literary female pleasure, the kind even the omnivorous Chabon and Straub couldn’t get their lowbrow brains around. 1930s space aliens is one thing, but Harlequin Romances? Please.

But what genre doesn’t suffer from bad examples? I’ve read some cringingly embarrassing sonnets, but they don’t reveal anything about the merits of 14-line rhyme structures. The best Shakespearean sonnet doesn’t reveal anything innately excellent about the form either. It’s just a form.

Few authors are regarded as their genre’s best practitioners. Even fewer are regarded as inventors of their genres. Ursula Le Guin (for example) falls into the first category, but not the second. Jerry Siegel, the co-creator of Superman, falls into the second category, but not the first. If you consider a Shakespearean sonnet its own genre, then Shakespeare falls into both. So does Jane Austen.

I’m looking forward to discussing The Jane Austen Book Club with my class soon, but first a superheroic revelation of my own: Without Pride and Prejudice, my favorite 1930s space alien, Superman, would not exist. Jane Austen is Jerry Siegel’s secret collaborator, and without her, the comic book genre that followed Action Comics No. 1 wouldn’t exist either.

To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever drawn an Austen-Superman connection. But the line of influence is direct. It’s called The Scarlet Pimpernel. The novel was published by Baroness Orczy in 1904 and is one of the most influential texts for early superheroes. Its title character is often cited as the first dual-identity hero and the inspiration for Zorro and dozens of other pulp do-gooders culminating in Batman and Superman. Siegel was a Pimpernel fan and reviewed one of Orczy’s sequels in his high school newspaper. Take away Orczy’s mild-mannered Sir Percy and the mild-mannered Clark Kent vanishes too.

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The Scarlet Pimpernel is also a romance, one that formulaically matches Pride and Prejudice. It’s told from the perspective of its female protagonist, Marguerite, who, like Austen’s Elizabeth, is blind to the true character of the novel’s hero. Elizabeth thinks Mr. Darcy is an arrogant jerk. Marguerite thinks Sir Percy is a cowardly fool. Or they do for the first halves of their novels, because after a pivotal middle scene (Mr. Darcy proposes, Marguerite confesses), the second halves are spent revealing Darcy’s and Percy’s secret heroism. Austen uses the word “disguise,” Orczy prefers “mask,” but both metaphors must be removed.

That also requires some suffering, since Elizabeth and Marguerite must recognize their mistakes in order to be united with their heroes. Austen says “humbled.” Orczy says, “the elegant and fashionable [Marguerite], who had dazzled London society with her beauty, her wit and her extravagances, presented a very pathetic picture of tired-out, suffering womanhood.” Unmasked hero and humbled heroine may now live happily everafter.

Jerry Siegel adopted the Austen-Orczy formula too. As long as Lois Lane can’t see through Clark’s disguise, she can’t be united with her Superman. But Austen mostly and Orczy entirely limit their perspectives to their heroines’ points of view. Siegel sticks with his hero. When Joe Shuster draws Clark changing into Superman, readers witness the unmasking, but Lois doesn’t. She’s stuck in the first half of Elizabeth’s and Marguerite’s plotline. Austen’s and Orczy’s readers learn with their heroines, but Superman readers can already see Lois’ mistake. Shuster even draws Clark laughing behind her back. She is “humbled,” but she can’t learn from it and so can’t be united with her would-be lover. The romance plot is frozen.

Siegel did try to reach the second half of Pride and Prejudice though—perhaps as a result of having reached marital closure himself. In 1940, two years into writing Superman, and two months into his own marriage, he submitted a script in which Superman unmasks to Lois.

LOIS:  “Why didn’t you ever tell me who you really are?”

SUPERMAN: “Because if people were to learn my true identity, it would hamper me in my mission to save humanity.”

LOIS: “Your attitude of cowardliness as Clark Kent—it was just a screen to keep the world from learning who you really are! But there’s one thing I must know: was your—er—affection for me, in your role as Clark Kent, also a pretense?”

SUPERMAN: “THAT was the genuine article, Lois!”

The revelation completes the Austen formula. When Darcy tells Elizabeth, “You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you I was properly humbled,” the two can unite because now they are on the same plane. Superman comes to his “momentous decision” after Siegel introduces the superpower-stripping “K-Metal from Krypton,” the only substance that can humble the Man of Steel.

But the story was rejected. An editor wrote in the margin: “It is not a good idea to let others in on the secret.” It would have run in Action Comics No. 20. Instead, Clark reveals himself to Lois in No. 662, fifty years later. They married in 1996, the year Jerry Siegel died.

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After calling Scarlett Johansson “the smartest, toughest female action star,” film reviewer Justin Craig declared: “it’s time ScarJo gets her very own Marvel franchise.” But when asked if a Black Widow film is in the works, Johansson had to fumble her way through a politic non-answer: “You know, I think it’s something that, um, again I think Marvel is is certainly, um, listening, and if, you know, working with them for several years now, you kind of see how, ah, they respond to the audience, um, demand I think for something like that.”

Marvel president Kevin Feige says it’s “possible,” but makes no promises. Meanwhile, Johansson is creating her own superwoman franchise. She literalizes her Black Widow codename by playing an actual man-eating spider in Under The Skin, and her voiceover computer operating system Samantha in Her is way way beyond anything Tony Stark could build.

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But I had my highest hopes on Luc Besson’s Lucy.

If there’s a director geared for writing and shooting a superheroine movie, it’s Besson. His 1990 Le Femme Nakita spawned an immediate Hollywood remake (though there really is no reason to see Bridget Fonda in Point of No Return) and later a Canadian-made TV series (thank you, USA Network, for keeping the French name). The Fifth Element was a bit of a mess, but an entertaining one, especially the fact that the “supreme being” is supermodel Milla Jovovich cloned from a severed hand to protect Earth from a giant black cloud of evil space death. I think magic space stones were involved too—the same plot Marvel seems to be headed toward now. And let’s not forget The Professional, Besson’s hyper-violent pedophiliac action-thriller co-starring twelve-year-old Natalie Portman (no wonder she fell for Chris Hemsworth when he and his hammer dropped out the sky in 2011).

I’m not really sure what Besson has been doing since the 90s, but it did not further hone his film-making skills. Lucy is not a good movie. But it is a superheroine movie. Lucy, like so many of her comic book counterparts, is the next leap in human evolution, one accidentally triggered by a ruthless drug cartel that continues to supply the script with shootouts and car chases. Lucy has Professor X’s mind-reading and telekinetic skills, invulnerability to pain, a cybernetic ability to interface with machines and airwaves, and the power to change her hairdo at will.  Johansson doesn’t wear an “L” on her chest (the t-shirt is cut too low), but her name does meet Peter Coogan’s requirement of “a superhero identity embodied in a codename” since Lucy, as we’re told very early, is the name of the first human being (who also makes two pleasantly bizarre cameos).

Morgan Freeman, reprising his science-guy helper role from the Batman trilogy, delivers some painfully scripted superpowers-science in the form of a literal lecture, complete with Powerpoint bullets and audience Q&A. Besson intercuts these with Johansson’s literal bullets and scantily costumed T&A. The film begins in Taiwan and ends in Paris, with occasional French and Korean subtitles. It would be significantly improved if the subtitles were deleted and the English dialogue dubbed in Latin or Old Norse or any other language the majority of viewers won’t understand. Because then we could enjoy the sequence of spectacle, which is Besson’s well-disguised strength.

Freeman’s faux-science distracts from the fun by pretending that the film suffers from internal logic. It doesn’t. Although the plot ostensibly follows Lucy’s brain growth, intercutting incremental percentiles from 10% to the climatic 100%, her actual superpowered behavior is random. When a kick to the stomach bursts the bag of drug-mule super-serum in her intestines, Besson flings Johansson around his rotating prison set till she’s writhing on the ceiling. This doesn’t really make sense—is she flying?—but it looks cool. The CGI team tries to disintegrate her during her flight to Paris, which looks cool too, but what exactly does that have to do with Freeman’s immortality soundclip? Once recovered, Lucy can dispose of a dozen armed cops with a flick of her hand—although for some reason those pesky martial arts gangsters require time-consuming one-by-one levitation. Also why, as she’s teetering on omnipotence, is Paris traffic quite so challenging? Oh, and why do her very first acts of drug-induced super-intelligence include hand-to-hand combat and two-gun marksmanship? Are those skills about brain capacity?

I prefer Johansson’s performance before her robotic transformation. Imagine the Black Widow quivering in fear and vomiting on herself at the sight of blood. Johansson fans could argue that Lucy should only be analyzed in relation to Her, since Lucy builds a supercomputer and downloads herself in her final moment of corporeal existence, ending the film with a text to her cop boyfriend: “I AM EVERYWHERE.”

But I’m gong to reroute us to 1933 instead.

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If you don’t think Lucy counts as a superhero movie, read Jerry Siegel’s short story “The Reign of the Superman.” Before teaming up with Joe Shuster to create their comic book Superman, Siegel wrote a tale about a ruthless scientist who uses a starving vagrant as his lab rat. Lucy is a privileged college student, but she’s equally clueless when abducted and implanted with a mysterious super-drug.  Siegel’s is derived from an asteroid, but its effects are similar. Soon his anti-hero is reading-minds and projecting his thoughts across the universe too.

Unfortunately such unlimited power transforms him into a hate-mongering monster bent on world domination. Lucy’s transformation leaves her morally challenged too. She murders a hospital patient to make room for herself on a surgical bed with the excuse that the guy wouldn’t have lived anyway. When her cop sidekick comments on the tourists barely scrambling out of the way of her car and the string of exploding wrecks she’s leaving in her wake, Lucy says something about the illusion of death, which apparently gives her a license to kill and collaterally damage.

But, like Siegel’s second and far more famous Superman, Lucy finds a way to hold on to her humanity. When her hunky sidekick complains he’s no help to her, she kisses him. She needs him because he’s a “reminder,” she says. One of the students in my Superhero course made exactly that argument about Lois Lane.

So while Lucy is not the leap forward in superheroine evolution I’d hoped for,  perhaps Johansson, like Siegel in “The Reign of the Superman,” is running some experimental test work before delivering a full dose of her superwoman prowess.

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(Tyler Wenger, another vet from my spring term Superheroes course, reveals Superman’s biblical roots.)

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One may find it hard to look at the red underwear-clad Man of Steel as anything more than a super-powered illustration on the pages of Action Comics and the light of the big screen. However, when ignoring the tights and cape and analyzing Siegel and Shuster’s character closely, Superman can be seen as more than Jerry Siegel’s brainchild, but as the savior of the imagination of this young Jewish writer. Superman, or Clark Kent, first appeared in Action Comics No. 1 in June of 1938 right before World War II began in 1939, a time in which Jewish people needed a savior more than ever. In Superman Chronicles, vol. 1, a compilation of the earliest appearances of the Man of Steel, Siegel and Shuster introduce Superman, a modern messiah. Though the caped crusader’s stories are extremely dramatized and embellished when compared to his robed counterpart, the parallels of defending the oppressed, possessing unequalled power, and ultimately ushering in peace remain strong.  Yet Siegel’s messiah surpasses his notion of the biblical messiah, Jesus Christ, through Superman’s conquering and avenging salvation of men. While both characters fulfill the messianic prophecies, Superman embodies the man of action that the oppressed Jews await. Here we see the pen of Joe Shuster and the mind of Jerry Siegel produce a fictional messiah comparable to Jesus of Nazareth in mission and grander than His spiritual salvation through physical action.

Jesus Christ and Superman both play the role of messiah, or leader and savior of a group of oppressed people. While salvation through Jesus is spiritual and salvation through Superman is physical, the mission of saving the oppressed remains constant. One of many messianic prophesies in The Holy Bible claims that the Jewish people “will cry to the Lord because of oppressors, and He will send them a Savior and a Champion, and He will deliver them” (New American Standard Bible, Isa. 19.20). Christians believe that this “champion” of the oppressed Jews came in the form of Jesus to deliver men from sin and to pave the way to heaven in His blood. In Action Comics No.1 when Clark Kent first dons his red and blue, Siegel introduces him as: “Superman! Champion of the oppressed. The physical marvel who had sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need!” (Siegel 4). Superman, like the prophesied messiah, is described as champion of the oppressed, but the deliverance he brings remains entirely physical and does not go beyond earthly oppression. In one of Superman’s earlier cases, he frees miners from the tyranny of a sadistic boss after which the newly enlightened boss, Blakely, asserts, “You can announce that henceforth my mine will be the safest in the country, and my workers the best treated…” to which Kent replies, “Congratulations on your new policy. May it be a permanent one! (If it isn’t, you can expect another visit from Superman!)” (Siegel 44). Superman caused Blakely to consider the abusive and dangerous conditions that he puts his workers through day in and day out, ultimately delivering them from their oppression. The Holy Bible proclaims: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him” (English Standard Version, Acts 10.38). Though biblical Jesus did free the oppressed from the grasp of the devil and sin, the Jewish belief is that this deliverance is meant more tangibly in freedom from their worldly oppression, which Christ did not bring in their eyes. Though deliverances by Superman such as the salvation of Blakely’s mine workers in Action Comics No. 3 meet the Jewish stipulation obliging physical salvation, Christians believe that their spiritual deliverance is more than enough to call Him the champion of the oppressed. Whether physically super or spiritually godly, both men succeed in fulfilling this prophecy in their own way.

Though not quite as defining as the act of salvation, one of the most universal, unquestioned aspects of a messiah figure is the possession of unrivaled power and dominion. Powerful is an understatement when talking about “Superman, a man possessing the strength of a dozen Samsons!” (Siegel 84). He is a warrior and a powerful leader, capable of overthrowing corrupt rulers and strong-arming the evil. To the defenseless Jewish people in Europe, and even to these Jewish artists in the United States, these qualities made Superman the perfect messiah. Therefore, it is no coincidence that Siegel references Sampson’s strength, represented biblically when “a young lion came toward him roaring. Then the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon him, and although he had nothing in his hand, he tore the lion in pieces as one tears a young goat” (Judg. 14.5-6). Having already granted enormous physical power upon one of His servants, the Jewish people expected God to send a messiah with even greater physical power to lead them in battle against their oppressors. Again, Jesus’s power comes in a less tangible medium than His bulletproof analog. Superman, however, was granted this physical prowess by his Jewish “fathers,” continuing to directly allude to the story of Samson when “with incredibly agile movement, he twists aside, seizes Leo by the scruff of his neck… ‘Wanna play, huh?’… And carries the ferocious carnivore back to its cage as though it were a harmless kitten!” (Siegel 95). Instead of physical power to fight a lion, the gospel characterizes Jesus with the power and strength of character of God. He is called “Immanuel (which means, God with us)” (Matt. 1.23). As God on earth, Jesus is given “all authority in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28.18). The bible seems to define power as spiritual authority rather than the physical strength of Superman Chronicles. Given that Jesus did not decide to use His authority to physically free the Jewish people from their Roman oppressors, instead choosing to defend men in spiritual warfare, it is not hard to see why some Jewish people of the time and in biblical times would prefer the tangible power shown by Superman. These passages do not only allude to Superman’s association with Old Testament prophecies, but they suggest that Siegel and Shuster considered these prophecies and stories during Superman’s conception, consciously creating a messiah figure.

Finally, the biblical Jesus and comic book Superman differ greatest in the nature of the peace reached through their actions. While both saviors usher in peace, the dichotomy of the spiritual repercussions of Jesus’s actions and the physical actions of Superman continues to appear. The Old Testament verse promises that the messiah “shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples…nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isa 2.4). In biblical times, people believed that this promised peace between the Romans and the Jews, among other nations, and this would give them their salvation and deliverance. Though Superman uses a vast amount of violence, he is constantly fighting for peace. In one of the Man of Steel’s most broad—and possibly his most destructive—rescues, he attempts to save the slums when he discovers that “‘the government rebuilds destroyed areas with modern cheap-rental apartments, eh?’ Building after building crashes before his attack! ‘Then here’s a job for it! – When I finish, this town will be rid of its filthy, crime-festering slums!” (Siegel 109). This passage acts as the perfect image of the messiah figure riding into battle to create peace among his people through completely active, violent, and destructive means. While Superman, or rather his writer Jerry Siegel, seems to prefer this method of justice, comic book readers can discover examples of peace through diplomacy. In Action Comics No. 2, he even settles a war between nations by bringing the opposing war-lords together and explaining: “‘Gentlemen, it’s obvious you’ve been fighting only to promote the sale of munitions! – Why not shake hands and make up?’ And so, due to the conciliatory efforts of Superman, the war is halted” (Siegel 30). Shuster draws Superman as a logical, supportive mentor, helping men to choose peace themselves rather than forcing it upon them. In the same way Jesus, King of the Jews, sought to bring His people to spiritual and eternal peace through His defeat of death in the form of resurrection. He points back to the prophecy in Isaiah by reassuring His disciples that “I [Jesus] have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16.33). This promise does not assure that God’s people will live life on Earth in utter peace and harmony, at least by the society’s definition, but rather looks to the peace granted by admission to the eternal paradise of heaven. However, Jesus does additionally promise peace on Earth in the form of the Holy Spirit, referred to the Spirit directly as “Peace” in reciting: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give you” (John 14.27). Though this peace is more physical than that spoken of in the passage above, it remains a spiritual peace in that it perpetuates as an inner peace despite the trials and tribulations of life. The peace brought by Superman does not deal with the spiritual or how people deal with situations, but focuses entirely on eliminating as many tribulations as possible; therefore, Superman’s goal of peace is yet to be realized. Regardless of the completion of his goal, the physical and spiritual missions perpetuated by Superman and God-as-man yield sufficient peace to bestow both heroes with the title of a messianic peace-bringer.

While Siegel found inspiration for the last son of Krypton in the only begotten Son of God, the two differ in one very distinct way: Jesus is the spiritual savior of eternal life while Superman is the physical savior of life on earth. In their defense of the weak, their strength in battle, and their strides towards peace, it is fitting to call Superman the Messiah of the twentieth century, at least in the fictional comic book world. With Nazi Germany attempting to enslave and oppress the Jewish people, the physical salvation of Superman would understandably sound more appealing to some than a spiritual salvation, just as it may have to the Jews of biblical times under the heel of the Roman empire. Just as the Christian messiah reshaped the religion of those Jews who accepted His teachings, “Superman is destined to reshape the destiny of a world!” (Siegel 16)… at least in the comic books and in the minds of his avid readers.

 

Works Cited

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010. Print.

Holy Bible: Updated New American Standard Bible. Anaheim, CA: Foundation Publications, 2007. Print.

Siegel, Jerry and Joe Shuster. Superman Chronicles. V1. New York, NY: DC, 2006, Print.

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(Tyler Wenger is an upcoming sophomore at Washington and Lee University from Franklin, TN. He is a pre-med student planning on majoring in Neuroscience and he has been both a Christian and a die-hard Superman fan for his entire life.)

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Man of Steel

There have always been two flavors of superhero: Marvel and DC. When my dad was reading comics in the 40s, Marvel (AKA Timely) threw anti-heroes into DC’s original, and so much blander. good guy mix. When I was reading comics in the 70s, Marvel put out the sophisticated stuff, DC the embarrassingly childish. My twelve-year-old son reads the occasional comic now but mostly takes his superheroes in movie form like everyone else in the 21st century. But Marvel and DC are still the reigning flavors. Only these days Marvel Entertainment tends toward the comically playful, Warner Brothers the pretentiously somber.

Look at Iron Man 3, an incoherent but highly entertaining comedy. The slapstick moment in The Avengers when the Hulk punches Thor after teaming up to fight alien invaders made me snort so loudly I embarrassed my teenaged daughter. Dark Knight Rises on the other hand, not so much with the uncontrollable laughter. Ditto for Man of Steel. Is that a bad thing? Well, it means my wife writhed in her seat for 143 minutes, tweeting updates of her torture. My son at least enjoyed the fight scenes.

I’m not a big Zack Snyder. 300 enraged me, Watchmen bored me. But Man of Steel I can mostly live with. Except for the shot after shot after World Trade Center-inspired shot of collapsing New York. When the hell did the 9/11 get downgraded to CGI fodder?

But aside for the drone Superman downs in the epilogue because the government keeps trying to invade his privacy, Snyder isn’t interested in the War on Terror. He, like so many recent superhero writers, is stuck in World War II. General Zod is this month’s Hitler reboot. If a field of human skulls is too subtle a Holocaust allusion, Superman spells it out: “You’re talking about genocide.”

There’s been some internet kvetching about the damage the movie does to old Superman mythology. Ignoring a few four-winged dragons, I disagree. For all his pretentious somberness, Zack Snyder gets Jerry Siegel. Superman was born to battle eugenics, and eugenics is what Man of Steel is most about.

Snyder’s Krypton isn’t a luckless ice planet dying of old age. It is the pinnacle of selective breeding, a planet whose inhabitants have taken the reins of evolution and engineered themselves into a race of violently amoral ubermensch. They breed scientifically, culling only the so-called best from a gene pool Registry. As one of Zod’s sidekicks quips: “Evolution always wins.”

Siegel said as much in Superman #1: “Superman came to Earth from the planet Krypton whose inhabitants had evolved, after billions of years, to physical perfection!” In Superman’s newspaper comic strip premiere, Krypton is “a distant planet so far advanced in evolution that it bears a civilization of supermen—beings which represent the human race at its ultimate peak of perfect development!” How can aliens represent the human race? Easy. They’re not aliens. The original Krypton was Earth:

“In his laboratory, the last man on Earth worked furiously. He had only a few moments left.

“Giant cataclysms were shaking the dying planet, destroying mankind. It was in its last days, dying . . .

“The last man placed his infant babe within a small time-machine he had completed, launching it as—

“—the laboratory walls caved-in upon him.

“The time-vehicle flashed back thru the centuries, alighting in the primitive year, 1935 A.D.”

That’s the script Siegel mailed Buck Rogers artist Russell Keaton in the summer of 1934. After drawing a few test scripts, Keaton turned him down, and Siegel crawled back to his high school pal Joe Shuster.

But his Superman wasn’t from a galaxy far far away. He was barely even scifi. After the German invasion of Poland and France, William Marston wrote that Siegel “believed that the real superman of the future would be someone with vast power who would use his invincible strength to right human wrongs.” That phrase, “the real superman of the future,” is literal. The Superman was the stated goal of eugenics.

Krypton’s Registry, the Codex of the genetically fit that General Zod wants so desperately, that’s literal too. American tycoon John Harvey Kellog (yes, you’ve eaten his cornflakes) and his Race Betterment Foundation started it back in 1915. Long Island’s Eugenics Registry Office opened in 1910, advocating the prevention of unfit breeding through immigration restrictions, racial segregation, anti-interracial marriage laws, sterilization, and “euthanasia.” The committee recommended every American smallville have its own gas chamber.

By the time Siegel was writing, Germany had adopted that American model and was expanding it into Auschwitz. That’s the Krypton Siegel was fighting against. His Superman was literally the Nazi Superman, plucked from the eugenic future and redirected to fight the superpowers who evolved him.

So I get why Snyder’s take is light with the laugh track. But didn’t we already win World War II? I wouldn’t mind a history lesson–in fact, yes, let’s please correct all the U.S. History textbooks that have conveniently written out the U.S.’s leadership in the eugenics movement.Eugenics was still taught in high school biology classes even while we were at war with the movement’s ultimate champions. A Superman fan in the late 30s and early 40s would have gotten Siegel’s allegories. But of the millions who saw Man of Steel opening weekend, how many registered anything but a Dark Knight-esque scifi romp? We should understand General Zod as more than just some alien supervillain. He’s us. He’s America’s darkest potential. I’m not sure even Snyder knows that.

I don’t necessarily object to Hollywood using the Holocaust and 9/11 to rake in profits. But I do expect something in the trade. Maybe some sly introspection? A little under-the-current thought-provocation on the socio-political issue of the film-makers’ choice? Instead, we get more destruction, a Superman who indifferently pulverizes his own Smallville and Metropolis during his ubermensch slugfests. Are we really not supposed to think about the collateral body count in the convenience stores and skyscrapers? There are a lot of reasons not to laugh during this movie.

I was being partisan as kid when I duped myself into thinking Marvel was so much more sophisticated than childish DC. Maybe I’m still duping myself. Marvel Entertainment has no trouble cranking out its own brand of pretension. But superheroes remain a goofy genre, endlessly championing CGI fight spectacles over story and character.There’s a rather low, Hollywood-imposed limit to what such a movie can do. Zack Snyder’s somber palette and frowning ubermensch (did I mention the Christ motif?) aren’t pushing any of those boundaries. Neither are the members of the cheerier, Joss Whedon team. But when I go to my smallville theater to watch some guy in a cape, I prefer to come out giggling.

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On the radio.

That’s the short answer.

Before DC handed over its biggest commodity to the Mutual Broadcasting System, press agent Duke Ducovny teamed-up with pulp writer Bob Maxwell to give the Man of Steel a radio make-over. Their revisions included a Krypton located on the other side of our sun and a full-grown Kryptonian stepping out of his rocket ship. They also dreamed up “Up, Up and Away!” and the swooshing audio effect that accompanied it. Technically, he was only leaping “into the air an eighth of a mile at a single bound,” but when MBS writer George Ludlam took over the scripts, he kept the “It’s a bird! It’s a plane!” shtick.  Listeners weren’t picturing a glorified high jumper. The Superman in their radio cabinets was flying.

But the comic book Superman remained comparatively earthbound. Though you can see why Ducovny and Maxwell made the imaginative leap. After his one-page origin, Joe Shuster’s first Action Comics panel shows his hero sailing over houses, with Jerry Siegel’s ambiguous caption: “A tireless figure races thru the night.”

The guy certainly looks like he’s flying. A few issues later, when he “launches himself out and down” from a skyscraper to save a suicidal jumper, Superman grabs him inches above the sidewalk. Which is to say, the creators had no problem breaking other laws of physics.

Yet they kept their hero stubbornly gravity-minded while the MBS incarnation was headed up, up and away. Six months after the radio debut, Siegel and Shuster’s Superman still “plummets earthward like a leaden weight.” But they didn’t ignore the airwaves entirely. “Seizing the sides of his cape, Superman navigates it like a sail so that he swoops out of sight in a giant curve before onlookers can quite understand what is happening!”

So why not just give in and let the guy fly?

Here’s the long answer.

Superman started flying out of Siegel and Shuster’s hands the moment they made him.

The two twenty-three-year-olds signed over all rights before the first 12-page feature hit newsstands. Has any company ever made a bigger return on a $130 investment? DC Comics, part of its boss’ mob-connected shell game of publishing companies in 1937, earned $2.6 million in 1941. Even the physical check they wrote Siegel and Shuster surged more than a tenfold in value when it was auctioned for $160,000 earlier this year.

So what did Superman’s creators get?

Their page rate leapt from $10 to $15. When DC signed Superman for a newspaper deal, the pair got a 50% royalty cut.  But the 1940 radio show? The 1941 cartoon? The 1942 novel? The 1944 Superboy comic? The 1948 film serial? The decade of toys and kid clothes? And after they sued and lost in 1948, DC cut them off completely.

Superman was literally a corporation. Superman, Inc. DC hired their press agent to steer their Man of Money. Which is why Ducovny hired Maxwell, not Siegel, to write the first radio adaptation. Superman’s creators lost more than royalties. Creative control vanished as soon as DC figured out Superman was driving Action Comics sales.

And Siegel saw it all coming. AC #6, a phony manager hires a fake Superman and starts signing merchandise deals for breakfast cereals, cars, and gas stations. “I have a contract from him giving me sole commercial rights to his name!” This is the same month Siegel’s bosses nixed his idea for a new title about Superman’s boyhood. They’d wait till he was drafted and forget to pay him for it.

In 1940, Siegel tried to shake up his storylines by allowing Clark to reveal his secret identity to Lois. His bosses nixed that too. The next month, Clark parrots his creators’ marching orders: “With Lois more friendly, I’m tempted to forget my identity as Superman—but of course I must go on as I have!”

Next thing Perry White and Jimmy Olen—characters from the radio show—are showing up in Action Comics too. And it’s another MBS scripter, George Lowther, penning the novel DC contracted with Random House. Siegel didn’t get a credit, let alone a royalty check. When he shipped out in 1943, other writers took control of his comic books too.

Joe Shuster, half blind with a degenerative eye disease, had been employing a studio of co-artists for years. Soon they were jumping ship and taking their paychecks directly from DC. That 1940 issue with Superman using his cape like a sail? It was one of the last that looks like Shuster drew it himself. He and Jerry lost their uberoffspring faster than a speeding bullet.

Of course they didn’t want him to fly.

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The most annoying panel in comic book history: young Bruce Wayne lifting a massive dumbbell with one arm. The caption tells us he “trains his body to physical perfection until he is able to perform amazing athletic feats.” It’s literally the centerpiece of Batman’s 1939 origin page. Fifteen years of effort reduced to a 2 by 3 inch box.

Other superhero origins are instantaneous: a spider bite, a lightning bolt, a planet exploding. Bob Kane’s stands out because of its compression. A long and painstaking process turned into a snapshot. It’s what superhero readers want. Instant transformation.  One-panel puberty. Just say the magic word.

My ten-year-old started jogging with me last fall. I made him a deal: run a mile and get unbound video time for the rest of the day. He’s a voracious reader and sporadic athlete, but lately his Wii alter egos could do anything but get him off the couch.

Day one he went a winded half lap, an eighth of a mile, before resting. Week two he was doing two sets of double laps. Week three we timed his first nine-minute mile. Now he’s talking about racing 5Ks in the not-so-distant spring.

My own exercise routine used to include push-ups. It took me five months to climb from three sets of thirty to three sets of fifty. This is not impressive. It’s an illustration of how mind-numbingly dull Batman’s origin story really is.

Superman co-creator Joe Shuster knew it. While his partner Jerry Siegel was handing him descriptions of their hero’s athletic powers, the twenty-year-old Joe was hefting real dumbbells. He was a bodybuilder, dedicating hours to gymnasium solitude. Jerry tried it too.  Briefly. It’s more fun imagining physical perfection than slogging toward it.

Jerry’s Clark Kent didn’t work at all: “As the lad grew older, he learned to his delight that he could hurdle skyscrapers, leap an eighth of a mile, raise tremendous weights, run faster than a streamline train.”

Shuster idolized real strong men, Benarr MacFadden, his loinclothed protégé Charles Atlas.  Both built business empires on the promise of instantaneous transformation. I remember the Atlas ads from the comics I read as a ten-year-old. A bully kicks sand in little Joe’s face, and Joe returns a panel later to exact revenge. It’s the Batman origin, only more so. The panel of transformation is split by the diagonal caption: “LATER.” In the second, lower half, Joe is preening at his mirror: “Boy! It didn’t take long. What a build.”

Manhood in minutes. That’s the heart of superhero origins. If it requires hard work, it doesn’t work.

Look at the obese and superhero-obsessed narrator of Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. He goes 270 pages without committing to his own exercise routine. But then a “couple of months” later he’s lost twenty pounds. It took one sentence. Four pages and Oscar’s “fatguy coat” is gone forever. We didn’t even see him sweat.

In fact, when we do see him sweating (the novel is filled with Oscar’s abortive attempts at exercise), the transformation fails. There’s a reason “his number one hero” is “Shazam.”

Oscar earned Diaz a Pulitzer in 2008. An instantaneous transformation that only took fifteen years. If you don’t count all the writing he did before starting his MFA in 1993.

I won’t theorize about Diaz’s motives, but Oscar’s are clear. He wants the girl. And after his magic transformation, his mutant heart gets her. Briefly. Charles Atlas promises the weaklings in his ads the girl too. It costs “Only 15 Minutes a Day!” If you count the time biking to the track, my son spends thirty. He just turned eleven. He doesn’t care about the girl yet. He still closes his eyes when characters on TV kiss. He comes home sweaty and proud to relax with a Wii remote in his fist.

One of Siegel and Shuster’s filler panels in Action Comics #6 offers “Acquiring Super-Strength” advice tailored to 1938 readers content to sit on a couch all day:

“Clench your fists as tightly as possible, exerting every ounce of energy! While in this tense state, sharply jerk them in various directions! This will eventually impart to you a crushing hand-grip!”

Eventually.

It’s been over seventy years. How’s that coming along?

[Addendum: Cameron hit a 7:40 mile in March.]

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A “super hero” is a “superhero” is a “super-hero.” It’s a trademarked term. Marvel and DC have owned it jointly since 1979. They argued that consumers associate the word with their products, and so any other company marketing a character as a superhero would be exploiting them.

That may have been true in 1979. Charlton Comics (they dropped out of the superhero comic book market in the late 70’s) called their superpowered do-gooders “Action Heroes.” It seems considerably less true after the emergence of other major comic book publishers, such as Dark Horse in 1986 and Image in 1992. Only in a legalistic sense are Hellboy, Spawn, and Michael Chabon’s The Escapist (Dark Horse published the comic book version) not superheroes.

My professional expertise is in literary analysis not law, but I do not expect Chevron and Gulf would have much luck barring other oil companies from using “gas station” on the grounds that Chevron and Gulf were the first to open ones. The term is used too generically now. Of course Marvel and DC can’t control generic use of “superhero” either. Other companies can call their characters “superheroes” within a text, just not in a title or an advertisement.

So someone tell me: Is Nostalgia Ventures following or breaking trademark law with the phrase “THE FIRST SUPERHERO” on the cover of their Doc Savage reprints? (This sounds like a job for those guys over at the “Law and the Multiverse” blog.)

Some dictionaries trace “superhero” to the early 60’s, fueling Marvel and DC’s claim since their Silver Age characters reinvented the genre then. But the word goes back much further. Popular wisdom has it originating shortly after 1938: since Superman established the hero type, imitations were dubbed “superheroes.” It’s a reasonable claim. Except that Joe Shuster used the term himself while sketching early drafts, describing Superman as “THE GREATEST SUPER-HERO OF ALL TIME!” years before he saw publication.

Pulp publishers Street and Smith advertised Doc Savage as a “SUPERMAN!” but in house they were referring to the Shadow and other mystery men as “superheroes” as early as 1932. Future DC publisher Harry Donnefeld launched Super-Detective magazine in 1934, but the prefix had been popular for at least a decade. Bruce Graeme opens his 1925 novel Blackshirt with a complaint: “A super-criminal—bah! It is all tommy-rot, this ‘super’ business.

The first published use of “super-hero” appears in Alan Bott’s 1917 Airman Outings. It was a complaint then too. Bott was objecting that members of Parliament were exaggerating the powers of British fighter pilots by calling them “the super-heroes of the war.”

The prefix had been circulating in variations on “ubermensch” for over a decade. Nietzsche made the word famous (or infamous), but he borrowed “ubermenschen” from Goethe’s Faust. The first English translator of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra named his ubermensch “beyond-man.” The second went with “superman.” But he was only following George Barnard Shaw. His play Man and Superman introduced the word to English in 1903. And “super-heroes” soon followed.

So conventional wisdom is right. If you subtract 35 years and forget that it’s a different superman (Shaw had Don Juan in mind). By the time Jerry Siegel attached it to his hero, the word was everywhere. Type it into The New York Times archives, and you’ll find hundreds of listings.

Superman appeared most regularly on sports pages. While Jack Dempsy insisted that “It will take a superman to beat” boxer Tom Heeney, football stars Red Grange and Frank Johavac were both declared “Superman.” Babe Ruth was a “Baseball Superman,” as was Giants pitcher Red Ruffing, and golfer Cecil Leitch was a “superwoman of the links.”

Other Supermen leapt from the arts pages: dancer Michel Fokine was a “Superman of the toe,” actor Robert Loraine a “Superman of the Stage,” Stravinsky a “Superman of Jazz,” Schoenberg another musical “Superman,” and singer Enrico Caruso had the “lungs . . . of a superman.”

According to book reviews, any person worthy of a biography was by definition a superman: Napoleon, Charles II, Garibaldi, Genghis Khan, Cromwell. Ben Franklin was honored as a “Super-man” on his 217th birthday. Among living politicians, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Mussolini were all repeatedly called or compared to supermen.

By 1938 the word was generic for any kind of excellence. Jerry Siegel wasn’t even the first author to apply it to a pulp hero. The honor goes to Edgar Rice Burrough, whose Tarzan is called a “superman” in his 1912 debut.

Using the word for a name today would be the modern equivalent of calling a character “Genius” or “Epitome.”

Or, better still, “Superhero.”

I doubt Marvel and DC’s lawyers mentioned any of this when presenting their trademark case. “Superhero” is the definition of a generic term. Their companies briefly capitalized on it, but they did not coin it, and its exclusive association with their products was temporary. It wasn’t the case for the thirty years before Action Comics #1, and it hasn’t been the case for the last thirty years either.

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