Well, here we go.
I'm Jack, and I read a lot of stuff. I mean, a huge amount. Comic books, classical literature, modern classics, pulps – you name it, I've at least dabbled, and that's come with a big, broad understanding of mythology, storytelling and character archetypes, and even how some of those characters revolve around or represent us.
Welcome to Supermythical, which is where I – with the backing of the marvellous folks at Proud Lion – take a close reading of where some of the characters in superhero comics relate to older stories. It's about tying our modern mythologies to the classical ones, exploring how they reflect and reinterpret ancient concepts. If you're really lucky, I'll even share personal experience on how some of them have affected me.
And we're going to start with Superman. Because if I'm going to talk about superheroes and comics as mythology, I have to start at the beginning.
Daunting, that. Superman, created in the 1930's by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, represents the genesis of the superhero and thus the root of their pantheon. He's the biggest and brightest. Batman might sell more t-shirts but Superman is infinitely more recognisable and, if we're honest, more appreciable as a character and a concept.
He's a sun god.
That's really all there is to it, on a basic meta-myth scale; he's powered by sunlight, he flies, he has more strength and capacity for survival than any average Joe. He's a Zeus, a Vishnu, a two-for-the-price-of-one Thor/Odin combo. He came first, he is the Alpha. There's really no one as powerful as he is conceptually – but what matters is his concept.
Superman represents something much, much more than most superhero constructs ever could. He's a perfect, honed personification of the idea of a sun god; he's not just great and powerful, he's endlessly benevolent. He represents the light inside of us all, and does it while absorbing the light beyond us all. He channels that universal energy into good deeds and a flawless soul in a way that can reduce grown adults to fits of tears, and sometimes becomes even more literal in the process, like when All-Star's take on the Big Blue Boyscout becomes one with the Sun itself. But on the flipside, this ascended, perfect character is also a very human dream made flesh – specifically, he's the American Dream, and even more specifically, the Immigrant's Dream.
Superman falls to Earth from a dead world, like endless men and women fleeing the worst places on Earth. Like them, he has nothing (he's a boy, a baby, a tabular rasa, but also comes sans heritage and history) but endless potential. Unlike them that endless potential is literal, realised in his own flesh and blood, and he grows strong of spirit and embraces his home as they might also hope to. The most furious patriots are often first or second generation – without our roots we tend to embrace what surrounds us with gusto – and Clark Kent is (as Waid's Birthright puts forward so eloquently) a product of the American heartland, a rural lad. He comes from an environment where your hard work really does equal bread on the table and the respect of your peers, and he emblazons that, perfectly. The purpose of the Clark/Superman division is not, as some would suggest, to make Superman more human, but less – it deliberately divorces the god from the man, and it does it to show that Superman/Clark (who I will always say is the 'real' identity) has a moral core even without his powers.
That's what the character is really about. Superman's position in the Super-Pantheon is to represent the good in all of us. 'Do good to others and any man can be a Superman' was written on the moon in the Pre-Crisis DCU and it's the truth. He's a humanist character, the ultimate anti-nihilist, a living and breathing force of good. Clark might represent how Super-values can be held by anyone, but Superman exists to show how those good ideas, that spark of kindness, can be drawn out. He thinks to do good and so good happens, he works hard and so good things happen, he is good and so he is loved. He's that dream of making your own way and it making things better made flesh.
His villains represent this, too. The best Superman villains are all antithetical to him – your Luthors and Zods, Parasites and Mxyzptlks. Lex Luthor is a normal man with endless potential – less than Superman, the inherent physical god – but he allows greed and bitter emotions to make him the worst of humankind. He lies, he cheats, he kills and he actively tries to murder the best person alive. Even without his powers, Superman would be a good man. Luthor could be, but chooses not to. He chooses himself over others and actively lies (especially in more recent stories) about his intent, even internally. Zod abuses his power. Parasite consumes the strength of others for his betterment. Mxyzptlk, a literal god, goofs off and plays tricks.
Superman, then, is the top of the tree. On the Super-Heroic Pantheon, he's the Sun God and the Spirit of Man. His stories should represent his position as a selfless, good-natured person of great power – they can and should be fun, imbued with his own warmth, or serious, and powered by observing it. They should be about truth, justice, and the heart of the American dream.
Jack Meldrum cannot leap tall buildings in a single bound, but he can eat a whole bag of Haribo in one sitting.
- Grant Morisson's All-Star Superman
- Morisson's Action Comics Vol 1-3
- Mark Waid's Birthright
- Alan Moore's 'For the Man who has Everything'
- Elliot S! Maggin's Last Son of Krypton and Miracle Monday
- Kurt Busiek's Superman: Secret Identity
- Superman The Animated Series
- Alan Moore's 'Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?'
- John Byrne's 'Man of Steel'
- Man of Steel
- Superman/Superman II
- Superman – Secret Origin
- The Dark Knight Returns