I suppose that since he was a topic of my last piece it’s abundantly clear that I love Superman. If you were to kick aside the energy drink cans, masks, and bottles of hand sanitizer in my car you’d find my floorboard mats with the big ‘S’ shield. I only follow a couple of DC or Marvel characters and The Man of Steel is #1. I love that he has all these cool powers and earth-shattering villains but mostly I just love what he symbolizes to me. With all of his resources and abilities his main focus, at times sole focus, is to help others. Ostensibly helping “the little guy” because, compared to him, everyone is a little guy. But saving a lost little girl is as important to him as protecting a planet. And most importantly, Superman does all of this with joy. He may not always be smiling (just look at any Alex Ross painting) but he does what he does not for praise or profession or psychosis or anything else. He just wants to help people. Superman is, for the time being anyway, my favorite mythic symbol.
I call Superman mythic because he is not grounded in reality. He is purely a work of fiction and is a tool by which artists and writers seek to explain what they envision as higher ideals.
Did you know that Superman was a Jewish socialist? Okay, maybe he didn’t attend a synagogue in Smallville but his creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, were both the sons of European Jewish immigrants and both believed in the social justice causes of the late 1930s. While the “Golden Age” Superman may have used some irrational and brutish tactics (he was not afraid to threaten brainings or allow deaths) you could see where Siegel and Shuster’s allegiances lie based on their antagonists or conflicts: Corrupt politicians, unsafe mines, LOTS of shady businessmen, poorly built housing projects, war profiteers, and so forth. Superman was not always civil but he was often disobedient. And the fact that he chose the profession of journalist as his disguise was significant because even in his off time he wanted to speak truth to power. There is no denying what ideals Superman was to represent.
But with success came the scourge of capitalism. In what would lead to decades of court cases and billions of dollars for corporations but not creators, creative and licensing control were deceptively taken away from Siegel and Shuster. As editors of then-National Publications took over the creative reins of Superman, particularly under the watch of Mort Weisinger, Superman went from being a force of social upheaval to a stalwart of the status quo. No longer challenging law enforcement or the military industrial complex he became, proudly and literally, The Big Blue Boy Scout. His villains became more spacey and from the world of science fiction while trying to preserving a social order. The motto of “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” was introduced, essentially turning the super vigilante into a super cop.
Things change though, don’t they? Since then Superman’s origin has been revised and rewritten in at least 3 major stories all with different meanings. Was the “S” the symbol of Krypton or the House of El? Was he put in the spacecraft as a baby or was he in a gestation chamber and effectively “born” on Earth? Does he like meatloaf or is he a vegetarian? The point is that Superman isn’t real and that by being mythical we are allowed to embrace the parts of him we want. The ideals of a certain era may be more engaging to us but the power set of a different era may seem the coolest. Regardless of the details you prefer by wearing a shirt or protecting a floorboard with the Superman ‘S’ you are identifying with something mythic and selecting the meaning you want to embrace.
Which brings us to 1776. A good friend of mine, Tony Edwards, and I have had a bit of debate on social media. After the January 6 attack on the US Capitol by pro-Trump nationalists I have been criticizing some of the symbols and groups that have been associated with the coup attempt, namely QAnon and III%ers. Later on, under a different thread but under my same post, I mentioned “1776” shirts. Tony has given me permission to share a portion of his response to my identification of that symbolic number.
“Every American, of any background, has a good reason to celebrate 1776.While it is true that the promise of freedom promised in the Declaration of Independence wasn’t extended to everyone initially, it nevertheless set the stage for an advancement of liberty in the future.”
I wanted to respond to his comment there I realized that I would take up a lot of space in the thread and I decided I needed to take a break from my long “Be a Better Geek” hiatus and use this platform for what it was intended: combining the culture of geekdom with social commentary. The reason being that I think the symbol of “1776,” just like a Superman “S,” reflects a mythic ideal and is not based in reality. It might be based in a vision of the world we would like to see but it does not, historically, bear itself out in reality.
Capitalism, particularly as it was born and grew in the Americas, is a result of human slavery. And I don’t simply mean explorers seeking gold and then enslaving indigenous people though that is where it started. I mean the creation of capital is a direct result of enslavement in the colonies and settlements of the Americas. Banks and credit were created to facilitate the slave trade. From the northernmost parts of the colonies down to the southernmost point, from the east to the west, industries, wealth creation, and every aspect of trade existed as a result of enslavement. Human beings were the collateral for agriculturalists and merchants. And the Declaration of Independence in 1776 didn’t seek to change that.
No, the Declaration of Independence wasn’t about human freedom. It was about, OPENLY ABOUT, the creation of the white noble class in the Americas. It wasn’t to help out “the little guy” from the tyranny of “the man.” It’s intention was to liberate wealthy, white enslavers from a distant empire in order to build their own empire and to hold onto as much of their own wealth as possible. They weren’t even espousing bullshit about trickle down economics. They wanted to formalize American gentry, restrict land ownership to a few, and to be able to amass wealth from their already stolen property. This is much more than Africans, women, First Nation, and the poor people not yet reaping the benefits. It was intentionally excluding them from reaping the benefits.
We have since revised the meaning of 1776 though. As more people were able to incur debt to a banking system founded by slavery more people became land “owners.” We have embraced this mythic idea that the American story is about freeing our bonds from a tyrannical master and that we are willing to do anything to break those chains. That appeals to me. I get that. I feel that. But the reality is that even that mythic idea has been co-opted by American anti-government nationalists. Look at that 1776 symbol on shirts. How many times does it have crossed guns? How many times do you see some messaging about “God” as if to connect the mythic American past to one of divinity?
The people storming the Capitol weren’t wearing Superman shirts. Sure, I know Trump openly discussed the idea of brandishing a Superman shirt after getting out of the hospital with COVID but since he is a boastful, openly anti-social justice, anti-immigrant, and downright mean asshole he is the exact opposite of any era of Superman. These domestic terrorists had Confederate flags, Gasden flags, Qs, and 1776s as their symbolism. And while I don’t equivocate 1776 with a swastika I do think care, thoughtfulness, and consideration should be taken before using it as symbol of association and identification.
An aside, most of my friends seem to think Superman isn’t cool. They are right. He isn’t cool in the least. Which is part of why I love him. There isn’t an iota of cynicism. There isn’t a moment of nihilism. He represents hope and kindness and a universal embracing of humanity even when parts of it don’t embrace you. I’m going to continue to love Superman and, maybe only on the best of my best days, try to embody the values of my favorite mythic character.
Golden Age Superman by Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, et al
Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen
Man of Steel by John Byrne
Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi
Superman: Birthright by Mark Waid, Leinil Francis Yu, and Gerry Alanguilian
Superman: Up in the Sky by Tom King and Andy Kubert
Superman: The Unauthorized Biography by Glen Weldon
Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero by Larry Tye
The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist