Sunday, September 24, 2006

The People's Superman

Matthew at the Legion Abstract has a great post about class and superheroes that you need to read right now and then come back here. This started as a response but it became very long and I remembered I have my OWN blog. (post on Detective 823 continues to be delayed).

His claim, and it's one I generally agree with, is that superheroes as a genre tends to be "classist." Heroes tend to be either actual nobility, such as Wonder Woman or Aquaman, or very rich, like Batman and Green Arrow, and they fight to save the masses from themselves rather than fighting to change the social structure that keeps the poor in poverty. There are obvious exceptions, but that seems to be true, going back to the proto-typical stages of Zorro and the Scarlet Pimpernel.

My one disagreement with Matthew is that he classifies Superman as an "aristocratic" hero, and quite frankly I feel the opposite is true. Superman did and does fight for social change. In the Superman Archive, he clearly starts out as a populist hero, a champion of the working class, taking on war profiteers, state-run orphanages, crooked boxing promoters and poor mining conditions. Watch Superman lead a party of upper class twits into a mine and then bury them alive to teach them a lesson and tell me that's not a guy who fights the power.

And today he fights against class elitists like CEO (and ex-PRESIDENT) Lex Luthor and monarchic dictators like Darkseid. Compare that to Batman's typically lower class, obviously criminal, more anarchic villains. Superman fights against those who would impose their own version of order on the world, while Batman fights those who would destroy the order HE imposes on Gotham.

And while Matthew's right, it would be morally repugnant for Superman to enforce social change, Clark Kent can and does champion those changes from his job as a reporter for the Daily Planet.

Clark, after all, had a lower middle class rural upbringing and a strictly middle class life style once he became a reporter. Sure, it's a "glamor" career that makes him somewhat famous, I'm guessing he doesn't actually make that much money (Lois might). He might not have Peter Parker's money problems, but Clark almost certainly knows what it's like to worry about the bills.

But Superman is the exception here, not the rule. By nature, a superhero is someone whose unique abilities place them apart and above, sometimes literally above, most of society. That these unique beings then go on to be vigilantes, placing their own personal definition of justice above that of the police and democratically elected government, is elitist, aristocratic, and borderline fascist (I'm looking at you, Batman).

It's something that the best superhero stories tend to examine, from Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns to Kingdom Come and The Authority (and which Civil War could have explored, but disappointingly cast aside in favor of shocking last pages and easily identified bad guys.)

And it's something the blogosphere should start discussing louder. So let's begin!


Matthew E said...

Everything you say about Superman is true. But you're talking about what Superman does, and what he thinks and believes and stuff. What I was talking about is who he technically is, and who he is is, basically, the Lost Prince of Krypton. He's like Carrot in the Discworld books.

This way, the Superman writers get to have it both ways. They can draw from the alien-aristocrat superhero archetype, but they don't have to make him act like it. (Contrast: Superman, and Dr. Tachyon from the Wild Cards novels.) This may actually be one reason (out of all the many reasons) why Superman is such a great character.

Anonymous said...

I'm finding this whole discussion fascinating.

Cole Moore Odell said...

Of course, Superman's birth father was not a noble but a discredited scientist whom the true aristocrats of Krypton mocked and rejected--for about two panels, until the sky fell on them. (Ha, told you, suckers!) It strikes me that this romanticizing of the noble scientist as ignored prophet was in keeping with Jerry Seigel's world view. Jor-El was an unrecognized natural nobleman based on his intelligence and actions, not his breeding. Quite in line with the American myth. Superman was created at a time when scientists, inventors and engineers were advancing human understanding by leaps and bounds and could be seen as true heroes by kids like Jerry--yet quite recently, when Jerry was 11, he would have also seen how the unjust world could treat science via the Scopes Monkey Trial.

Anyhow, Seigel and Shuster pretty much dropped Krypton after using it as a set-up and DC didn't look back for many years. All that mattered to the strip was the immediate present--Superman's actions as "Champion of the Oppressed", then as etablishment-defending patriot.

I agree that Dr. Tachyon's depressed, almost feudal but quite honorable sense of responsibility for what his invention wrought on Earth makes for a great contrast with Superman. Unlike Superman, he had a home to return to; and unlike Superman, he eventually did.

Steven said...

Superman's birth father was not a noble but a discredited scientist whom the true aristocrats of Krypton mocked and rejected

Good, GOOD, point, and believe it or not the launching pad for a new post soon.

(Ha, told you, suckers!)

I'm pretty sure that, after launching his only son into space and kissing his wife, of course, Jor-El's next action was to holographically moon the Science Council with "Believe Me Now, Bitches?" tattooed across his ass. They leave that out of most retellings of Superman's origin.