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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Friday, December 11, 2015

MYTHCOMICS: "SUPERDUPERMAN" (MAD #4, 1953)

Looking through the seminal early MAD issues, one often finds a lot of clever puns and inversions of pop-culture tropes. However, the famous "Superduperman" story goes a little further into the realm of psychological myth than its contemporaneous fellows, like "Plastic Sam" and "Batboy and Rubin." At a time when the superhero genre was at its arguably at its lowest ebb in the history of American comic books-- when said genre certainly was nowhere near dominating the medium as would be the case from the 1980s onward-- Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood crafted a story that embodied the anti-mainstream arguments of Adorno and Wertham: the argument that I summarized thusly:

In elitist criticism, it's a given that all escapist fiction is by its nature a "negative compensation" that insulates the audience from reality, as I've noted with respect to Theodor Adorno in particular. "Positive compensation," if one could put the elitists' convictions into Adler's terms, would presumably be the sort of "high literature" that validates the intellectual's struggle for personal meaning.
Kurtman and Wood, being concerned with gonzo slapstick and puns, don't put forth any grand schemes of meaning in "Superduperman," but by making their spoof-hero a real nebbish instead of a pretend-one, they cast a critical eye upon the idea of superheroes as compensation for one's failures in life-- a fair enough subject for satire, given that creator Jerry Siegel himself framed Superman's appeal in such terms:



Clark Kent grew not only out of my private life, but also out of Joe Shuster's. As a high school student, I thought that someday I might become a reporter, and I had crushes on several attractive girls who either didn't know I existed or didn't care I existed.-- Jerry Siegel.
In addition, over ten years before Julies Feiffer suggested that Superman might be a "secret masochist," Kurtzman and Wood present their nebbishy ne'er-do-well "Clark Bent" as the helpless thrall of "Lois Pain's" charms.




Shortly after this encounter, Bent changes into Superduperman and goes looking for the story's mystery thief, "the unknown monster."  The heist artist obligingly reveals himself to be a fellow superhero, Captain Marbles, who has decided to quit fighting crime and to begin looking out for number one. Countless critics have mentioned that the year of this story's publication was the same year Fawcett Comics quit publishing Captain Marvel features as well as discontinuing their comics-line, largely in response to the expensive plagiarism suit DC Comics had filed against Fawcett. It's hard to tell whether or not the outcome of the super-dudes' battle is a comment upon the legal battle, but it's at least significant that Superduperman must resort to a dirty trick in order to win.



Lastly, Kurtzman and Wood undermine the wish-fantasy implicit in the Superman mythos, and in many-- though certainly not all-- superhero narratives. Instead of responding to Superduperman's bulging muscles, Lois rejects the hero and knocks him on his ass just as she did when he was Clark Bent, averring that his super-bod doesn't obviate him still being "a creep."


 I might argue that no single comics-story of the period-- not Kurtzman's war-stories, not Barks' duck-stories-- had more effect on the intellectual development of comics-fandom than "Superduperman." I can't say that it was always the *best* effect. But "genre politics" aside, it's no less a masterful story of its kind.

2 comments:

Robert Stanley Martin said...

"Countless critics have mentioned that the year of this story's publication was the same year Fawcett Comics quit publishing Captain Marvel features as well as discontinuing their comics-line, largely in response to the expensive plagiarism suit DC Comics had filed against Fawcett. It's hard to tell whether or not the outcome of the super-dudes' battle is a comment upon the legal battle, but it's at least significant that Superduperman must resort to a dirty trick in order to win."

The ending of the Superduperman-Captain Marbles battle could not have been intended as any kind of commentary on the outcome of the lawsuit. Mad #4 was published in January of 1953. At the time of the story's publication, DC and Fawcett were awaiting a new trial due to a remand decision from the federal appeals court.

The companies settled later in 1953. I don't know the exact date of the settlement, but it appears to have been sometime that summer. Per copyright records, the final issue of Captain Marvel Adventures came out in August, and the last Marvel Family was released in September.

Gene Phillips said...

Thanks for nailing down the relevant dates, Robert. I imagine Wood and Kurtzman were at least aware of the ongoing legal battle when they collaborated on the story, but that may be all that they were obliquely commenting upon, if anything. I confess I didn't check on the date of the legal settlement, having heard other critics harp on the theory before me. Wood and Kurtzman may have had some inside info about the way things were going for Fawcett, as Gerard Jones said something to the effect that the company was undergoing hard times in the early fifties, thus causing them to dump their whole comics line and not just the Captain Marvel stuff. Possibly Wood and Kurtzman *anticipated* that DC would win the legal battle-- or they may have just let Superduperman win the battle because it was a good set-up for the end joke.