Featured Post


In essays on the subject of centricity, I've most often used the image of a geometrical circle, which, as I explained here,  owes someth...

Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Returning to the question of Superman's status as myth--

I've said *here* that my criteria for the presence of mythicity in a literary/subliterary work depends on how it communicates Campbell's "four functions" of archaic myth: the cosmological, the metaphysical, the psychological, and the sociological. IMO the first two have no relevance within the sphere of the Siegel/Schuster stories I've finished in SUPERMAN CHRONICLES. I anticipate having more to say about the functions of psychological and sociological myths in the early stories in a future essay. But first I want to go into my criteria for evaluation a little more deeply.

It should be a given that no one cares what any given critic thinks, on a purely personal level, about a given literary object. If as a statement of personal taste I say that I like the Superman of the 1960s more than the Superman of the 1940s, then I'm the only one to whom that fact can conceivably matter. Others only may care about a critic's opinions/observations to the extent that they become (to borrow a Jungian word) "transpersonal."

To take a specific example, look at Gary Groth's summing-up for the life of Will Eisner after the artist's death. Groth includes assorted details on his personal reception with the work of Eisner-- not encountering it at a young age, for instance-- before giving a general history of the artist's career and then pronouncing that Eisner's "seminal creation," THE SPIRIT, deserved Groth's "measured appreciation" due to the "frivolousness that gave The Spirit its charm." I don't agree with this Grothian estimation or various others in the essay, but Groth's opinion has significance for me only on that transpersonal level where I ask, "Was humor the most important aspect of Eisner's SPIRIT?"

Now, though few elitists would begrudge Groth this "measured appreciation," given his almost single-handed founding of the elitist pattern of comics-criticism, hardly anyone else who mounts a defense of a despised "popular" work receives the same consideration. The usual refrain goes something like, "You're only making up reasons to justify liking the trash for which you have personal/childish/nostaglic reasons for liking." This lame accusation takes on new levels of stupidity whenever it is addressed to a critic who has parsed his personal reflections no less than Groth, along the lines of "I liked Work X as a kid but it clearly doesn't have the deeper resonance of Work Y, even though I liked Y as a kid as well." The world of the elitists is always governed by that Carrolesque law, "Sentence first, evidence afterwards."

Now, when I reread the early 40s tales from SUPERMAN CHRONICLES, clearly I can't read them exactly as did the kid-audience of the period. Of course, one also can't read fiction of any kind from any era but one's own and be well-attuned to the way one's own culture received the works in question. Again, one has to use one's intuition for the transpersonal factors that unite readers and audiences across barriers of time and culture. And it's such an intuition that makes me feel like the Siegel-and-Schuster original version of their character comes very close to being a null-myth.

I'm certainly not the only one to comment on unusual tropes in the Superman mythos. In a preface to the reprint-volume SUPERMAN OF THE FORTIES, Bob Hughes notes certain ways in which that mythos differed from that of similar characters before and after the Man of Tomorrow's advent:

"To start off, [Superman] wasn't a crimefighter. Superman, from the start, was a Personality. The original "Champion of the Oppressed" was a wise cracking, whirling dervish of energy, popping out of the sky to right a wrong..."

I'm sure Hughes was aware that the character did fight a lot of crime; what he probably meant was that Superman was not defined by crimefighting, as one might argue that a predecessor like the Shadow was. Alvin Schwartz's notion of Superman as a "guardian angel" may be helpful here, but if so it's a very populist version of a guardian angel, one who didn't mind breaking the law in order to achieve justice. Early Superman also showed more than a touch of the trickster in those stories where his creators chose to have him use his powers to hoodwink evildoers rather than simply beating them up.

A number of contemporary comics-fans have found this populist vision of a Superman more appealing than later versions, including one scholar, Bradford Wright, who expounds on his readings of comics as sociological myths in his book COMIC-BOOK NATION. I won't detail my specific oppositions to this reading of the 40s Superman (except to remind attentive readers of my objection to purely-sociological readings, seen here, but I will point out that if I were as incapable of measured readings as some of my opponents have been pleased to claim, my argument against the superiority of the 40s Superman's mythicity would probably begin and end with "I just didn't like it."

It's certainly possible to bring forth a high degree of symbolic complexity in a populist vision of wrong-righting, even one lacking any metaphenomenal aspects whatsoever. Many of the films of Frank Capra, both before and after WWII, evince a populist vision much like that of the Siegel-and-Schuster SUPERMAN: a vision whose protagonists combine a secular toughness with a sacred Good-Samaritan ethic. Two years before Superman debuted in funny books, Capra and his collaborators put forth a major populist film-myth in 1936's MISTER DEEDS GOES TO TOWN.

However, while MISTER DEEDS, despite existing in a "realistic" world, evokes a number of American mythic oppositions-- small town/big city, selfishness/prodigality, conventional sanity/wisdom-- the 40s Superman manages to touch on none of these sort of topics. Some might claim that this is only because Superman was written for kids, but the Kane/Finger Batman was also written for kids, and though the 40s Batman isn't as pure an emblem of populist sentiment as either Superman or DEEDS, one can certainly observe strong populist currents in many Bat-tales.

So SUPERMAN wasn't automatically bad because it was (as Gary Groth has often said) because it was written for children and sub-literate morons. But it doesn't satisfy my litmus test for symbolic complexity, even though there are some powerful symbolic subtexts, that I've already detailed in Christ with Muscles. Why not?

I would certainly put some blame on the artwork of Joe Schuster. Although Gerald Jones ably defended some of the aspects of the feature's artwork (both by Schuster and other hands), most SUPERMAN art is pretty workmanlike. Yet as I've also mentioned before, I sometimes find charming the simplicity of other Golden Age heroes to whom I was not exposed in youth. (I once remarked to Harvey Kurtzman that I'd discovered a passion for Quality Comics; from his expression I'd say he instantly consigned me to the pits of subliteracy.)

But the main blame IMO has to be the scripts by Jerry Siegel, for they do jump around-- and here's the relevance of this essay's title at long last-- like an OCD grade-schooler on a hotplate. In MOT Gerald Jones remarked on the "impatience" in Siegel's script for the original prose "Superman" tale, but Siegel's hopping-around isn't just impatience; it often seems like a genuine attention-deficit. One might not expect Aristotelian unities in a comic book story (although I could again argue that a lot of BATMAN tales did deliver same), but even considering the herky-jerky plotting one could find in many of the pulps and comic strips that inspired SUPERMAN, Siegel's scripts seem to wander without knowing what effect they're shooting for-- which I'd argue is the reason that his grand populist pronoucements often seem to have less foundation than the average simple melodrama.

Nor was it just that Siegel wasn't able to buttress concepts of realistic life (even though, as I observed in "Christ," his perserverance in a mostly-mundane world had a lot to do with his mirroring of Judeo-Christian attitudes). Siegel also didn't bring a lot of conviction to stories based around metaphenomenal concepts, which, in early SUPERMAN tales, usually stemmed from a mad scientist or some sort. The hero's first encounter with a villain able to invent weapons formidable enough to hurt the hero takes place in ACTION #14, but the evil Ultra-Humanite only shows up in the last four pages of a story that starts out concerned with faulty building materials in a subway. Contrast to the BATMAN tales of Finger and Fox. When the tales were about gangsters, they started and ended with gangsters. When the tales were about vampires, they started and ended with vampires. There were a few Golden Age creators who could leap about in an incoherent manner and still be entertaining-- Fletcher Hanks, for one-- but despite the innovation of Superman, Siegel's stories seem awfully unimaginative, and therefore bereft of the symbolism I'm looking for.

Interestingly, of all the Siegel stories I've read, the ones with the greatest mythicity are the ones he did for the 1960s SUPERMAN titles under legendary tough-editor Mort Weisinger. A story like "Superman's Return to Krypton" shows a far greater organization of story elements-- including symbolism-- than anything Siegel had done in earlier eras. Yet it doesn't seem that this was Siegel's normal mode of operation, for after he severed relations with DC in the mid-60s, his scripts became pretty wild-and-woolly once more, as one can observe from his output at the Archie imprint Mighty Comics.

In the final analysis, I think that some of the more covert themes of the 40s Superman do show enough mythicity to keep the corpus of tales out of the null-mythic dustbin, but I do have to admit that uncovering those covert themes is indeed, to pursue another (I think) Aristotelian paradigm, like digging diamonds from trash.

But as I hope to display when I get back to the theme of "the sex-war in Superman," even a diamond taken from trash is still a diamond.

No comments: