Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Superheroes, the US & the World (in brief)

As I noted in yesterday's post, last month I answered some questions on "the idea of the superhero" for a reporter from That's Beijing magazine. I've taken the opportunity to include a slightly reworked version of my original comments here. I wrote this mini-essay "off-the-cuff," so please take this cum grano salis. And with that caveat, away we go...!
What’s the connection between World War II and the emergence and popularity of the Superman character?

I’'m not sure there'’s a direct correlation, as much as there was a correlation between superheroes in general and WWII. The first published Superman story appeared in 1938 (Action Comics #1), while the US was still climbing its way out of the Depression; one theory about why superheroes caught on so quickly was that the country as a whole was looking for ways to boost its self esteem, so superheroes appealed to American’s' “"we can do better”" spirit –- although I’'m not sure that idea is entirely correct.

Some heroes began fighting WWII even before the US, most memorably Captain America, pictured on the cover of his first issue (1941) socking Adolph Hitler in the jaw. Even earlier than that, Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster, Superman’'s creators, did a two-page story for Look Magazine (Feb 27, 1940) entitled “"How Superman would End the War"” (you can read it here). Once the US enters the war, the superheroes pretty much all begin to fight for the US cause, although not usually overseas - instead, we see –lots of fighting spies and such on the homefront.

Why does Superman continue to appeal to Americans?

Well, he’'s been marketed for decades as fighting for "Truth, Justice, and the American Way" –- and given his catalyzing role in beginning the “super” costumed adventurer in comic books, he'’s pretty much the George Washington of superheroes. That marketing extended to the opening of the 1950s TV series, which superimposes Superman onto the American Flag. Superman is also the ultimate American in the sense that he’'s the ultimate immigrant -– who else traveled further than Kal-El to become an American? Plus, he’'s perhaps the only American who could literally pull himself up by his own bootstraps without falling over.

That said, he’'s possibly the most recognizable superhero in America, but he might not be the most popular. In fact, one of the reasons DC Comics used for “"killing"” Superman briefly in 1993 was to re-emphasize the character's importance. Superman, like all characters do at one time or another, was waning in popularity, and the “death” stunt –- along with its subsequent “"World without a Superman" storyline,” which lasted many months –- was designed to show just how important the character was, both to the fictional “DC Universe” of heroes and other characters, and to readers (read: consumers) as well.

Is America the only country that really celebrates cartoon book superheroes? (If so, why?)

Other countries have published superhero comics, of course, but I do think it’'s true that in no other country but the US do superheroes dominate the comic-book market. Calling that a "“celebration” of the superhero" sounds about right. TV and movies have helped to make these characters more recognizable and popular across the world, especially in the past decade or two; but the comic books themselves mean less to other cultures than do the uses of superheroes in other media.

The “"why"” is a trickier question to answer, because we need to consider both why the character type is so popular in the US as well as why that type is NOT as popular elsewhere. And I don’'t have a really good answer for this one. Perhaps it'’s because comics in other countries grew around different character types and formats, like Tintin and Asterix in the Franco-Belgian comics world, or Tezuka’'s more Disney-influenced approach to manga in Japan.

Also, there'’s something just very brash about the superhero –- these characters flaunt their special abilities by dressing so as to draw attention to themselves. Perhaps it’s this very brashness that seems “American” to other cultures (the USA calls itself a “"Superpower”" after all) and therefore a bit off-putting? Again, I don’'t know for sure, but these are some of the ideas I tend to consider.

Why are "super powers" so often part of the American conception of heroism?

It's difficult to say. But it’'s important to remember that the USA is a relatively young country, at least compared to “the "Old World”s" (Europe, Asia, Africa); and as a young group of people from many backgrounds, there’'s not nearly as much shared history and deeply seated cultural myths here as there are in places like England, or France, or China, or Japan. While the Native Americans did and do have their own myths, of course, for the most part these tales have not been embraced by broader American society.

The folk heroes that the US developed –- like Paul Bunyan and John Henry –- were sort of “super-powered” themselves (superhuman size, superhuman endurance). Perhaps that'’s because the story of America was in large part the story of "“conquering" the frontier,” huge portions of land which "needed"” to be claimed, cleared, and maintained: enormous tasks for any individual, and no mean feat for groups, either. In that way, it makes sense that the newer myths that twentieth-century Americans created -– the superheroes –- would also share in these larger-than-life motifs.

Why do you think Chinese superheroes are historical or are figures from legends, while American superheroes from the 40s and 50s come from science fiction or fantasy?

Again, because of the already-established tradition of legends and a long, long history on which Chinese cartoonists can draw; the US has been forced to create its own legends. Even in the US, some superheroes are re-imagined figures from classical and world mythology; Marvel Comics’' Thor is the most well-known example of this, along with Hercules.

Postscript: I stumbled across this item on the internet, from Time Magazine, Sept. 11, 1939. It's an incomplete quotation, but it does provide some early cultural context:
How to end the war quickly seemed ridiculously simple to readers of the comic strips last week: send Superman to clean up Hitler. One reader wrote to the Philadelphia Inquirer suggesting precisely that solution. Last word in adventure comics, Superman is rapidly becoming the No. 1 juvenile vogue in the U.S. A happy combination of Flash Gordon and Popeye the Sailor, Superman is an individual with the speed of an airplane, the strength of a locomotive, the leap of a cricket and the hide of a man of war. He was born on a distant planet called Krypton, whose inhabitants had a physical structure far...

So there you have it. If anyone has comments, I'd love to get into this subject more - of course, Pete Coogan's new book probably addresses all of this, as well...

Update August 8, 2006: I've also been able to include interviews conducted for this article with academic authors Ian Gordon and Peter Coogan.

Image: A panel from that 1940 Look Magazine story. I expect that Superman had a very good reason for not wearing any pants during this battle :-)


Blogger C. Margery Kempe said...

Can you say "pants" on "the Internets" (which is, as you know, a system of tubes)?

7/31/2006 4:56 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home