On “The Myth of Superman” : Superman — Not a Myth?

 Umberto Eco argues that the writers of Superman managed to create a myth out of a character who could not possibly be a myth.

Say what?

Let me put it this way —  pairing the words “myth” and “Superman” actually creates a problem. A man cannot be a myth, and yet, Superman cannot be a mere man.

That sounds …………. PARADOXICAL.

                         That’s where the genius comes in.

SUMMARY

Disclaimer: The following summary is an oversimplification:

1- Superman’s identity is totally relatable to the everyday person. That way every reader can have that totally secret fantasy that no one knows about in which they rise from their mundane life into something heroic. English Teacher? Nah, Super Mega Awesome Speed Reader.

2-  Superman can’t be a mythical hero. Mythical heroes are born from pre-existing  stories. Hercules kills the Hydra; it will always end that way. It’s all about HOW it happened. Superman is unpredictable–his story is all about WHAT happens. His audience aren’t “co=participants” but are actually “spectators.” He’s like novel characters–heroic, and typical, but not mythical.

3- Time works like this: one event causes the other until the initial event can’t be traced. While all that’s happening, hate to break it to you, you’re getting OLD.

Hang on…but Superman isn’t 80+ years old!

THAT’S BECAUSE HIS AUTHORS NEVER AGE HIM.

Superman is comprised of short episodes that are always solved by the end. When the next episode begins, it’s like the last one never happened!

Time passage doesn’t exist and Superman is stuck in a perpetual present.

 

4- Isn’t that boring? Yes. But that’s what the crazy weapons and enemies are for. Superman always wins, but it’s entertaining to see what unforeseeable enemy he’s up against.

5- A Superhero that has no past experiences to learn from? That means planning becomes irrelevant, as well as the responsibility for the choices made. No matter what he does, he’ll always ends up where he starts –  the present.

6- Humans seek repetition in narrative and characterization like I seek chocolate mousse in France.

There’s comfort in familiarity.

7- What is GOOD? Superman’s typical, non-mythical, unconsuming, time-ignoring version of good is in small acts in a small area — what most humans can amount to. Superman cannot be a part of something bigger or universal because he relives the immobile present everyday.

Unless it’s aliens.

Aliens are cool.

 

RELATION TO PRIMARY TEXT

OKAY so how does this help us read The Superman Chronicles?

It’s clear that timestamps, or the lack thereof, are important.

Eco’s article points out that time passes within episodes, but not between episodes.

For a moment, let’s contrast the use of timestamps and verbs in an an earlier episode as opposed to a later one to further add to Eco’s argument. It is also may be interesting to think about it in relation to commercialism and politics in a later discussion. 

In the first episode (June 1938) timestamps are emphatically clear and hint at large passages of time. For example, “that night”(9), “a few minutes later”(10), and “next morning” (13). This makes it very clear that time, days even, have passed within the episode. Likewise while the verbs mostly function in the present, a few slips into the past happen: Superman states “it WAS your idea”(6) and Kent says “Superman HAD DROPPED in”(9).

In later episodes, (May, 1939), Superman’s writers may have begun to understand the importance of his immobility. In this episode, only TWO timestamps are used: “a few minutes later” and “in a few seconds”(163), both of which allow little to no time to pass. Timestamps in the later episodes are replaced with verbs in the present tense, all of which create the feeling that Superman is constantly in action and constantly in the present. The reader jumps with Superman from verb to verb and the concept of time falls away. Superman “hears” and “lands” all in the same moment(160). Words like “suddenly” are overused. To the reader, the present is all that exists.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

1- At which point does time passage switch in episodes and why is that so?

2- Is time passage important  for a narrative to occur?

3- What can you do with an immobile hero?

4- Why are people so obsessed with superheroes like Superman? What is his appeal?

– Mary Edward

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16 thoughts on “On “The Myth of Superman” : Superman — Not a Myth?

  1. Mary, you do a great job at distilling and relating Eco’s ideas about time in Superman comics to these early issues we’ve been reading. What I found interesting is the repetition of the storytelling this week. Granted, these strips are supposed to be read monthly with long breaks in between but the sameness of it all is apparent. To a clamoring late-1930’s-audience yearning for regurgitated tales where Superman fixes traffic crime and beats up some scheming bookies, this might be sufficient, but today’s reader it’s all very silly and a little boring. I think our modern understanding of ‘floating timelines’ through pop culture storytelling may be different from when Eco wrote his original text in the early 70’s. Media itself is different, you know… with binge-watching and all that, we’re wont to absorb hours and hours or storytelling as quickly as possible now. However, to counter my point we still have this type of storytelling all over the place. Like, how The Simpsons hits the reset every week (or sitcoms). Certain BIG moments are kept over (character deaths perhaps), but generally all is status quo by beginning of next episode.
    Why is this narrative ‘stickiness’ in time okay in certain scenarios but laborious in others?

  2. Mary, your breakdown of the article was insightful. Your pinpoint “Humans seek repetition in narrative and characterization” I believe answers the question of why Superman is able to sustain throughout decades. It also allows readers to excuse the development in time. We forgive the repetition in plot – we are getting a “quick fix” of entertainment.
    I think Philip brings up a great point about how viewers/readers currently devour media, whereas Superman was a monthly publication. As we sit in the present, our characters do not need to move forward (months/years) or back, we are taking them in at this moment and at what they are currently doing. As long as we are entertained, we will believe the myth. If a new Superman was published weekly, or even daily, I think readers would still accept the lack of movement in time.
    On a side note — I found it really interesting that the first two publications were Superman vs the mob and then a corrupt senator. In 1938, I imagine average citizens felt that both government and organized crime were the big bad boogymen – having Superman defeat them secured a place for him in America, forgiving his stories for the lack of developing time frames. Readers wanted, and still want, to be apart of the growing myth of Superman.

  3. What is Superman’s appeal?? And by extension, since he seems to be the prototype, the appeal of superheroes in general?
    The obvious response is power fantasy. Superman is a modern day demigod, a heroic exemplar blessed with “…powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.” In this regard, he appeals to the 8-year old and the 80-year old in having control over oneself and one’s environment as described in Northrop Frye’s set of modes. Yet even characters like Batman or Green Arrow perform at physical and/or mental levels far above what the average human can accomplish.
    But that seems a superficial attraction. There has to be something beyond the ego gratification of projected power fantasies at work. One answer could involve a pastiche of elements from each of the articles read for class as well as Mary and Phil’s posts. An element of the superhero genre that merits further discussion is that of “retconning,” or retroactive continuity. This means that each new writer, editor, or artist who works on a particular character will offer a unique interpretation of the superhero. Thus, we witness the Superman of the 1940s as having enhanced physical abilities but has not yet displayed his heat vision, freezing breath, weakness to red sunlight, etc. Each of Superman’s (and other superheroes, for that matter) iterations ties into the genre convention of serialization and collective contribution to the hero’s ongoing story. Doing so reinforces Eco’s sense of temporal fluidity regarding the hero and his stories and ties in to Phil’s observation of “hitting the reset” on a monthly, yearly, or even decade-wide basis. Part of this is a commercial necessity-the longevity of a character makes it a merchandising cash-cow. In order to maintain this status, the hero must adapt to changing times and changing audiences while still somehow adhering to the core characterization that made him/her popular in the first place.
    Superman’s appeal lies in the fact that he begins as the creation of two young Jewish socialists raging against Depression-era industrial terrors and somehow morphs into the All-American Boy and the embodiment of the American Dream by the time of the Reagan administration. The fluidity describe by Eco is not simply in removing him from a specific time period but in finding a way for him to surf and glide through phases of real history so that he is both of his time and apart from it.

  4. Mary, your last question made me laugh because I have been asking myself the same thing. What is it about Superman that lures so many fans? I think, it has to do with the approachability that this character has concerning his origins. Simply put, Superman is the epitome of drags to riches kind of story. He is an orphan alien that found himself in a Kansas farm with a loving and doting parents that raised him to become the person that he is. Furthermore, his upbringing made him conscious of his powers and the responsibility that entails. In any literacy genre, this type of background lures the reader to connect with the character so the story presented transcends the pages. We have to remember that the main goal of any writer is to make his/her characters realistic and approachable without breaking the fantasy that it is been presented. I do think that Superman is a well made character, because it has the perfect balance of real human emotions with a great arsenal of super powers.

  5. Ironically, going along Eco’s comments of elapsed time or time continuum, when he says time elapses only within an issue but not between issues…in the first appearance cliffhanger in June 1938, issue # 2 picks up where 1 had left off. but the subsequent issues are one shot tales. So I’m calling some bilk on Eco’s theories here. As a young reader invested in characters and their cosmos, it was assumed that between issues, the character ate, slept and used the bathroom like normal people. Like Mary says, he is not a myth but he is obviously more than a mere man but as the hero proto/arche-type, he must be maintained relatable…or is that approachable? in the Chronicles, Superman is arresting wife beaters, getting innocents a reprieve from the death house and impersonating a football player; so in 1938, he sure is relatable or…rather…CAN relate to the problems of his community and it’s members. Eco wrote this in 1972 and there was the danger of Superman actually getting cancelled as a monthly publication for poor sales. As Kenneth points out, ret-conning is not only essential, but natural as one cannot expect ensuing writers to carry on in the vein of Jerry Siegel for 80 years. A final observation on Eco’s unsatisfactory time continuum psycho-babble…if Lois gets to know more about Superman than she did 6 issues ago and hence their relationship metamorphoses, has not time passed and has there not been a sequential linear path evolving issue to issue? Don’t ask me to evaluate that into our days months and years because as Mary rightly puts it, for us Superman is always in the here and now.

  6. “Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!” This quote is associated with Superman, picturing him as a “God like” figure where people look up to him literally and figuratively. These comics were written during a time when the audience favored a symbol of hope and righteousness. Eco believes that these concepts turned comics into a source of entertainment and escape (Eco 19-21). Eco states that Superman is seen beyond a normal being because of his powers so, people would not relate to him, instead they appreciate him as a representative and archetype. He is relatable to mostly all Americans because he is seen as an immigrant, trying to achieve success to fit into this world, therefore, making him a relaxing and comforting figure to the “Americans” who want to prosper in their lives. So, in “The Superman Chronicles,” Superman is given life by its readers (McCloud 59). Also, readers would relate more with Clark Kent because he represents the “average” person who will one day strive to excellence and superiority (Eco 15). All in all, Superman seemed charismatic to its readers due to relatability and reliability, born at a perfect desperate time of need. After all, he was the first superhero who opened the people’s eyes to a refreshing and new concept of media.

  7. Mary, I absolutely enjoyed the way you emphasized and articulated Eco’s criticisms about Superman. Very well done! I like this conversation that we’re having about “time stamps” and the absence of time progression in comics. I didn’t initially pick up on it, while reading through the Superman comics, but it’s true; time doesn’t really seem to be a tangible element when reading through the comics, which is ironic because the first comic emphasizes how Superman is able to save that woman from being electrocuted with only fifteen minutes to spare. My only counter-argument would be that comics aren’t the only source of entertainment where consumers see a disregard or lack of attention to chronology and progression. Many television shows, especially cartoons, employ the same strategy. Like a few of the comics we read this week, shows will feature two or three episodes that build upon each other, but most of the time, each episode of a television series is practically its own entity. If we think of the sitcom “Friends,” there would be occasional “story arcs” that spanned the length of two or three episodes or the story was revisited later on in the show’s season; however, there were many times in which a viewer could watch two episodes back-to-back, have no context of previous episodes, and it would not necessarily be indicated, to the viewer, how much time passed between both episodes. I’m also reminded of a beloved, childhood show, “The Fairly Oddparents.” That cartoon first aired in 2001 and didn’t conclude until 2017; meanwhile, Timmy Turner stayed ten the ENTIRE time.

    An argument can also be made that there are classical examples of heroic literature that fundamentally do the same thing. If we think of Arthurian literature, there are many times in which the knights’ various quests have absolutely nothing to do with other stories from the collection, and it’s seldom revealed how much time has passed between each account. Similarly to Superman, King Arthur’s age, for the most part, never seems to be a subject of concern for most writers. He transitions from being established to the throne of Camelot, reigning for 30+ years or so as young man in the prime of his life, to being betrayed, defeating Mordred, and dying. Likewise, most of Arthur’s knights are not described as aging, even though there are some of the romances (such as Chretien de Troyes’s) in which lengthy periods of time pass while the knight is in pursuit of his quest.

    With reference to your question regarding Superman’s popularity, I would say it comes down to archetype. He is the epitome of Ubermensch, and as much as modern audiences argue that he’s too much of a “Larry Stu,” at the end of the day, we would all love to be Superman. I think the naturally captivating aspect of his character is that readers feel naturally inclined to speculate what it would be like to have his powers.

  8. Perhaps they are revisited in later issues of the Superman comic, but based on this reading it seems as though almost the entirety of Superman’s childhood and adolescence are missing. The readers receive a brief introduction to Superman’s infancy (and arrival to Earth) and time in an orphanage before quickly moving on to “When maturity was reached” (4) which is a signifier of time that works to do the exact opposite of preventing Superman from “consuming himself,” as the article describes the consequence of Superman experiencing the passing of time – rather, he is sprung forward in time (to when he is at the peak of his physical strength, I suppose). At the end of this particular publication of the earliest Superman comics, Superman’s infancy and earlier childhood is returned to, which is perhaps a quirk of the publishing/republishing, but also perhaps exemplary of Eco and Chilton’s argument that, in an effort to avoid a chronological, sequential narrative that would “consume” Superman, earlier plot points are revisited and retold later from different perspectives or with more information (Eco and Chilton 18).

    It’s also interesting to think about what it means for Superman – or comics in general – to be considered “conservative” (as described by an earlier reading), particularly in light of the two comics in this compilation that engaged with social justice issues – depressed neighborhoods (and the consequences this has on the individuals who reside in them), and the state of prisons – that are often associated with more liberal politics. I’d love to look more into how the concept and priorities of conservative and liberal politics have shifted over the years and the implications this has for the iconic superheroes.

    Eco and Chilton’s explanation of the difference between the Superhero and religious figures in itself suggests certain similarities between the two, and I was particularly struck by this when reading what would later be titled “Superman and the Slums.” Prior to Superman’s destruction of the “slum,” children go from home to home warning everyone to take their valuables and vacate their homes; the residents have no reason to follow the orders of the children and if they act at all, they act on faith. This is reminiscent of the book of Exodus, in which the Israelites are freed from slavery because of their faith in (and covenant with) God. In the Superman comics “slavery” is depicted as subhuman living conditions (or the confines of poverty) and faith must be not in God but in Superman; however, in each narrative it is not God/Superman who delivers the message, but messengers – Superman sends children, and God sends Moses and Aaron. Perhaps this is an example of the mythic character being predictable and retelling a familiar story.

  9. Dear Mary,

    I was fascinated by your thorough analysis of the article and how you interpreted it through the layers of structuralism and bringing historical contexts and stressing the difference of mythical heroes and comic heroes to your writing. The way you emphasized on Eco’s critique of Superman was also endearing. The discussion questions that you have posted are also very appealing. I completely agree with the notion that Superman does NOT age since there is no progression of time between different episodes although within the episodes time is not absolute or fixed . One should read the texts through the lenses of post structuralism with no fixed initial point or perspective and enjoy the experience of each episodes without having any preconceived notions. Some of the actions shown in the comics may not be palpable to the mind of today’s generation because of the advent of so much technology and the rapid pace the world is transforming.

    When one closely analyze the time period when this character was created , one readily understands the popularity of this comic hero character and why he was so loved and revered. From a post modernist point of view , super man was the savior with a twist of
    mock and pun to entertain the audience. Every one wanted to escape from the obscure reality and existence preceded essence at that time. Super man was like the fantasy character that every human being wanted to become and he was more relatable because of his alter ego human like character. Superman can be thought of as a modern day religious figure where he would solve the hurdles and problems of the people by taking on responsibitlies and strenuous work. One could also find similarities to this stalwart like comic hero to mythical heroes such as Oedipus or Odyssey. During the late 20th century, Superman was the perfect figure that symbolizes power, freedom, strength , humility and positivity.

  10. Mary, you did a great job summarizing a very dense essay. I think that Eco’s argument on time and temporality in Superman is interesting and I like the idea of the comics being always in the present, I honestly never noticed that before. I honestly think this “immobility” of time is what bothers me about Superman. I have never really liked him as a character, and maybe it is because of this immobility. At the end of Batman, the Joker is put away, but you know the Penguin (or Catwoman, or the Mad Hatter, or the Riddler etc.) is around the corner, there is a sense of movement. Superman always feels stuck to me and when I was younger I attributed it to lack of depth of character. (He only can do this one thing, he only has this one story that is repeated as nauseum.) Maybe his story is not as fleshed out as Batman (or any number of other characters) as a way of distinguishing himself from the rest. He is NOT human (like Batman, or the X-Men or the Fantastic Four) and maybe by the reader forgetting that fact, and identifying with him (as a human) that makes Superman feel more flat than other superheroes.

  11. You asked “why are people so obsessed with superheroes like Superman? What is his appeal?” I believe people are obsessed because he is a character that can relate to most people being that he is from a different planet that came to the U.S. People in their own way can relate to the character being that they came from different country. There is also the sheer fact that people love someone that seems invincible. The fact of having the most invincible character and its only weakness is a stone (kryptonite) makes the reader wonder how is a small stone ever going to get near Superman? I think its this point that gets the reader hooked on Superman because then the authors need to create a story in which Superman does die or is harmed with kryptonite. The same concept occurs with the use of a red sun. How would superman react with his powers gone ? will he still be the same person? what will he do? how would he save the world? How will he get his powers back ? its also at that point that gets the readers to want more. Moreover, according to Eco Superman is a “romantic production” (pg 15) in which superman was also made in a novelist way for the public that has their hearts around romance. As a result, it’s about the way Superman grows in character. If he has someone special in his life what would he do? how would he make it last between saving the world and the villains that come after him? so that adds another layer of interest and questions for the readers. Superman tackles all of the aspects of what a hero/ human goes through (expect for heroes like batman who know the danger and prefers to stay alone.) I say human because the creators are humanizing an alien which the readers also find interesting. How can an Alien ever fit in human society? are questions that the readers also ask themselves. As for why is the timing important according to Eco “reader’s main interest is transferred to the unpredictable nature of what will happen” (pg 15) Thus the readers attention in relation to time is what keeps them hook on what is going to happen to Superman. As a result this is another aspect as to why the readers love Superman. Both the authors and readers are pulled in to Superman’s life because they both are at the exact moment where the story is being told. (This does happen to authors. For example J.K. Rowling apologies and is sad over the characters that she has killed throughout the Harry Potter series my favorite being Professor Snape, but as she stated that is just how the story took itself as she followed.)

  12. Mary,

    Wonderful analysis.

    I think the appeal of Superman has changed over the years. I would imagine that in his earlier years, the appeal of Superman was to see justice acted in increasingly fantastic feats. That’s why early Superman stories had been told in a “slice of life” format, instead of slow build to a climactic fight with the villain of the story arch. Now, I would imagine that the social implications of a living, physical God walking the Earth is the draw for many readers. Many superman stories tackle with the alien nature of Superman and how he’s struggling to do his best impression of a normal human male.

    I think that time passage is important depending on the format of the story. Much of time and motion is inferred in comic books, as readers have to fill in the spaces within the gutters. However, because early Superman stories just hover around Superman in seemingly unrelated feats, it gives off a feeling of “this is just a day in the life of this character.” So it’s not so important for readers to know how much time has passed within the story.

  13. Mary, I really liked how you boiled down the reading for us. I was halfway through the Superman reading and Eco’s article before I read your post and I started thinking about things different. To be honest, the Eco article was a bit cumbersome for me to push through, mostly because it seemed repetitive at certain points or perhaps redundant in others. What I really enjoyed is how you simplified it a bit for us, or drew our attention to the bigger theories Eco writes about.

    As I read I was trying to keep track of how time exactly worked within the comics. I’ve been reading comic books for a while, so I was used to the issue-by-issue story-telling, but what I had forgotten about Golden Age comics was how tangential connections from issue to issue used to be. It was only every now and then that an issue connects to the next, if a story arc takes place over two issues. To me this was most prevalent in Action Comics #9, but earlier issues also had a cross-issue story arc. That being said, there is still a sense of timelessness since dates, years, etc. are avoided other than a year printed on the cover of the issues.

    I was also interested in how the “Worlds Fair” issue would have coincided with the actual World’s Fair in 1939. To me this was interesting in considering the way that time and narrative work together when you then introduce a ‘real-time” event.

    Since Superman initially evolved from comic strips that were stitched together for a complete narrative, it seems to me that as they produced more and more issues, they realized that have some semblance of “this event happened in the past” became important to at least have a “past history” within the comic as a point of reference; however, there is still little sense of just how much time has passed between issues.

    It’s also interesting to see Siegel and Shuster playing with retroactive continuity (ret-con) in Superman #1, include the note added at the bottom of page 200.

    I think everyone in the above comments are right in their comments about the appeal of heroes like Superman, but I think it has to do with, specifically with these early Superman stories, exactly how he fights injustice. There is an “everyman” sense in that, in some of the earlier issues, he dons the clothing (or costume?) of “oppressed” or “helpless” peoples he’s fighting for. In the anti-war issue, he dresses as a soldier, in the mining-accident he’s dressed as a miner, but this is eventually dropped for his standard costume (also did anyone else notice the yellow boots in the circus issue?).

  14. Mary,
    What a great post! It was so helpful to have read that summary to help finalize some of my thoughts on the, what I found to be a little confusing and dense, article.

    You posed two questions asking why people are so obsessed with superheroes like Superman and what can you do with an immobile hero. I think I can respond to these two questions interwoven together

    Immobile heroes allow people to create an association with a symbol, making him easily recognizable (Eco 15). What that symbol is, is left up to the readers. Scott McCloud explains that the power of cartoons is “the ability to focus [the reader’s] attention on an idea” because cartooning is not solely about the “way of drawing [but,] a way of seeing” (31). When reading the comics, people are associating themselves with the characters: “[they] don’t just observe the cartoon, [they] become it” (McCloud, 36). I think the hero becoming a symbol of justice and hope helps the reader associate themselves with that hero. Readers may find the courage they need in themselves, when Superman keeps a bridge intact (Siegel, 64). They may find the comfort they need, when Lois Lane continuously turns Clark Kent down, to only find out that she is in love with Superman.

  15. Thank you all for your wonderful and encouraging comments — I read them all and am eager to open this discussion today based on many things you have written!

  16. Mary – Pardon my late response (tech issues). Absolutely terrific blog! More than anything, what resonated with me was your take on Superman’s identity being totally relatable to the everyday person. I think that’s consciously done to add to his appeal and to make him a a source of inspiration — not to mention, obsession. The balance between Clark Kent and Superman, in particular, really feeds into the aforementioned relatable factor. In Clark Kent, we have your nerdy, smart guy either shy to or trying to flirt with Lois Lane to no avail. When he turns into Superman and repeatedly “saves the day” for Lois, his Super powers are on full display. Same person deep down inside, with very different results. I couldn’t agree more when you stated: “Superman’s identity is totally relatable to the everyday person. That way every reader can have that totally secret fantasy that no one knows about in which they rise from their mundane life into something heroic.” So true. I also thinks what makes Superman relatable, especially during the time of his inception and soon thereafter, was that he was sort of a beacon of hope. No matter what was going on at the time in the U.S. or in people’s personal lives, they could look to Superman to provide that glimmer of hope. I think that also explains why Superman doesn’t age and why time is seemingly stuck in the present. Superman’s physique is permanently buff to go along with his Superhero strength and awestruck feats to draw more inspiration, more hope. Plus, we know how each Superman comic sequence, how each of these episodes are going to start and end —with Superman tapping into some sort of peril, before overcoming obstacles with his Superhero powers and saving the day. It’s an inspiration to see and it makes people feel good. It also plays on fantasy in the sense of we all have obstacles in our respective lives, too, but each of those trying episodes don’t always end on a Superman-esque note. Sometimes we try to summon our powers to save the day and that effort isn’t good enough. In comparison, Superman always seems to get the job done and we admire that and enjoy seeing it come to fruition over and over.

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