Monday, March 28, 2011
MYTHCOMICS #1: ACTION COMICS #1-2 ([THE COMING OF SUPERMAN], 1938)
(Yes, I'm being conventional to go with this selection first. BFD.)
PLOT SUMMARY: Superman makes his first appearance in a story serialized across these two anthology-issues. After flexing his muscles with some minor threats he targets munitions-maker Norvell as being responsible for the horrors of war and starts haunting the industrialist like a Jiminy Cricket hopped up on steroids. Finally, without any direct contrivance by Superman, Norvell joins the army to get away from his nemesis, who naturally follows him. Norvell gets the chance to experience the horrors of war from the POV of a military grunt, and vows never again to make anything deadlier than a firecracker. He also deserts whatever army he's joined, but presumably that doesn't matter since Superman ends the war by telling the two enemy generals to fight it out. They won't, so peace reigns.
MYTHANALYSIS: Though Siegel and Shuster sketch the essentials of the Superman/Clark/Lois trio here, that particular aspect of the Superman myth takes a back seat to the character promulgating his philosophy, which might read something like, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, or I'll do something *to* you that you won't like." Elsewhere I've labelled this story-motif as "Christ with Muscles," and it catches perfectly the mood of the 1930s United States-- at once leery toward the rest of the world, and yet somewhat paternalistic toward it. But there's also a strong liberal bias against the ruthlessness of big business. When Superman asks Norvell why he makes weapons knowing that "thousands will die horribly," Norvell replies, "Men are cheap-- munitions, expensive!" One may discern a scintilla of socialist sentiment here, but of course Siegel's basic solution to war--to have a godlike figure show up to end it-- has a determined silliness to it that vaults the tale out of the realm of political discourse and into the realm of myth. It's of some interest that on occasion Superman's enemies at this stage call him a "devil," for though the character becomes more sociopolitically conservative in later years, the writers often returned to the theme of "Superman as trickster." For this reason it's interesting that Norvell in effect "tricks himself" by joining the army to escape Superman, for it's only by joining the army that Norvell is converted to Superman's gospel.
To pursue the Christ metaphor a bit more, it's significant that in order to move among human beings, "saving" them in a physical if not spiritual sense, Superman, able to tear apart cars and thwart international conflicts, must pretend to be an ineffectual coward. The few scenes between Lois Lane and Clark Kent only hint at this paradox of society's expectations of masculine behavior, but whatever its origins in predecessors like Zorro and the Scarlet Pimpernel, the Superman/Clark identity takes on a deeper resonance simply because it is self-sacrificing, rather than the hero's method of confusing enemies and preserving his own life.