Despite the pending status of my formal mythology education, one of the more salient features of any myth tradition, to me, seems to be revisability. In order for a culture to make use of a myth, that myth must be able to adapt to the culture's changes over time. In effect, old stories have to be updated. Mind you, I don’t consider this revisability to be a function or defining aspect to mythology; it is more of a superficial component that allows mythologies to function. But more on that later.
Now, if one there is one that word Microsoft Word does not consider a word that applies to the superhero genre, revisability (seriously, MCW does not accept revisability as a real word), I think, is that word. Take for example the recent update to Tony Stark's origin: though in his 1963 debut the events that led to his capture and later creating the Iron Man suit occurred in Vietnam, Warren Ellis's Iron Man: Extremis and the blockbuster film Iron Man place Shell-head's formation in the Middle East. Revisability.
Not only do superheroes change over time as they pass from one writer to the next, but every so often these heroes undergo rather substantive overhauls or alternative explorations. If I may use some genre vernacular, these overhauls or alternatives (consider especially Marvel's Ultimate universe and DC's New 52) usually involve origin stories, the tales that explain both how and why--the latter usually being the more interesting--a superhero comes to be.
Many of the recent superhero films act as re-tellings of our favorite heroes beginnings (or re-beginnings, if we're discussing the recent reboots of Batman, Spidey, and the Man of Steel). Of course, this makes perfect sense since the filmmakers are introducing these characters to a much broader audience than they may have had on the page or TV; however, these re-tellings also act simultaneously as updates to these heroes' origins. The simple fact is that we love origin stories—en medias res has little narratological standing in this realm.
Into this arena enter J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis’ Superman: Earth One, the beautiful, stand-alone 2010 graphic novel that retold the superman origin.
In this story, an already mature Clark Kent (I’m just going to assume that if you’re reading this blog, you know who Mr. Kent is), moves to Metropolis seeking employment and, more importantly, purpose. Upon informing her that he doesn't know how long he’ll be staying or what he will do, Clark’s new landlady tells him, “Well, you gotta decide what you want to do with your life, other people can’t do it for you.”
By now, Clark’s adoptive father Jonathan Kent has already passed away, leaving Clark to care for his adoptive mother Martha, so Clark seeks only the best, most top-paying jobs in the city. He almost instantly wins a contract to play for the Metropolis football team and later scores an R&D gig at a Metropolis think-tank after offering them a key equation necessary to obtain electricity from salt-water, among other jobs. He tells Martha that he can make enough money to set her up for several life-times, but she instructs him to follow his own dream.
“Besides,” she adds as Clark looks in his closet at a blue shirt with the corner of a yellow and red crest showing, “If we make this about what I want, well—I want the same thing Jonathan wanted.”
This sentiment is repeated throughout the narrative as Clark struggles to find a career meritorious of his devotion while attempting to reconcile his desire to be happy and comfortable with his need to help people. He is trying to justify not doing…something. Later, when Clark visit’s Jonathan Kent’s grave, he says that he knows what his parents want him to be, but he just can’t do it. Whereas he once struggled to fit in, he says, he knows now how to hide his abilities. He can have relationships and make money (for the sake of supporting his mother, of course) and be happy.
“If I expose myself to the world,” he says, “if I show them what I can do…I’ll never fit in. . . . I’ll be all alone. Worse still, I’ll have made the choice to be alone. I couldn't make that choice before, but I can now. And I choose to be happy…to have a life. And isn't that what you wanted most? For me to be happy?”
But he knows his father expected more, and he assures his father’s grave that he can still help people within the confines of a normal life. “I can find cures…expose corruption…give the average guy a leg up when the world wants to crush him. . . . I won’t disappoint you, dad. I swear it.” Of course he says this while hovering next to the tombstone, obviously with the potential for far more than normalcy.
However, though Clark would prefer to help the world as a member of the world, events soon unfold that force the young Kryptonian to embrace both his identity and a purpose. After his alien (yes, the extraterrestrial variety) ships take strategic positions across the globe Independence Day style, the mother-ship conveniently parked directly over Metropolis, a white-faced villain named Tyrell (perhaps a Shakespearian connection?) announces that his forces have come to earth seeking a certain surviving Kryptonian.
“If he is here, I will continue the attack until he is provoked into revealing himself. If it turns out he is not here, then I’ll leave your world and try elsewhere. But only after several million of you are dead, so that I will know that I have done everything possible to provoke a response. . . . To my target, if you are listening, those are the terms. Reveal yourself and surrender, or watch your world die around you.”
Sound familiar? Check out this trailer for the Man of Steel film.
Ultimately, Clark’s choice is stripped away. Either he reveals himself, risking death, or he allows millions of the people he vowed to somehow help perish because of him. Gone is the possibility of him fitting into the world in which he lives without feeling tremendous guilt.
“I hope you can manage your own way without revealing yourself Clark,” Jonathan Kent says in a flashback, “But you there are things you can do that nobody else can. Important things. Things that can mean the difference between life and death for a whole lot of people. I came up believing that sometimes we all have to serve something bigger than ourselves. We don’t want to do it, we’d give anything not to have to do it…but we square our shoulders and we get it done.”
But with the extinction of one choice, another takes its place. Clark Kent must act, but how? Does he simply surrender himself? Does he try to fight without being seen? Or does he embrace the superhero persona his parents envisioned? To, as Tyrell says when he finds Clark at last, “stand revealed in all our power.”
Of course, after another brief flashback explaining how and why Martha Kent created the suit, Clark Kent becomes the iconic Superman and launches his assault of earth’s attackers.
“When we say ‘I won’t take this anymore,’” Clark, while trapped beneath Tyrell’s ship, recalls his father saying, “that’s when we know who we are and what we’ll tolerate. Until we’re tested, we don’t know those things. That’s when we wake up. That’s when people know who we are. That’s when people show up and take your side.”
And thus a hero is born. After some clever maneuvers, several hurricanes’ worth of damage to the city, and much exposition from Tyrell about the destruction of Krypton, Superman finally defeats his enemy. The earth is safe, for now, and Clark, after witnessing the heroism of a couple Daily planet journalists, now knows exactly what career he wants to pursue as the boy from Smallville, Kansas. He finds the job fairly easy to land since he gave himself the only exclusive interview with earth’s newest champion.
The ultimate theme of this story, I think, is identity. While accompanied by some very clever explorations of Krypton and a great subplot about journalism, the entire narrative hinges on Clark’s discovering, accepting, and embracing who he is and who he can be. It’s about embracing one’s differences, and it very much has a “with great power comes great responsibility,” tone to it, which makes complete sense considering Straczynski wrote Marvel's Amazing Spider-Man from 2001 to 2007.
As a college senior still unsure of what I want to do after graduation, this narrative certainly resonated with me. How does one balance the desire to follow a calling or, forgive the cliché, make the world a better place with the need to live happily with a house, a family, and Saturday barbecues Clark has accepted his identity as a superhero and a journalist, but I think this is a question that will be further explored in following volumes of this can’t-miss series. Just because a decision has been reached doesn't mean that decision can’t be doubted.
Perhaps this combination of the superhero with real-life struggles is another part of what may allow to superheroes into the hall of mythology. Joseph Campbell says, “When a person becomes a model for people’s lives, he has moved into the sphere of being mythologized” (15). One could make the argument that since Clark’s struggles with identity and purpose mirror so many of our own, his story could identify as a “model” for reference. But, again, more on this later.
What I would like draw special attention to is how this recent revision of the Superman origin story relates to the original 1938 comic by the character’s creators Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster. While this new story strays considerably from the original vision, it may surprise some that it also brings the character back to his roots.
First, I posit to you that the entirety of Superman: Earth One, and every other Superman origin story for that matter, is simply an elaboration of the first Superman comic page found in Action Comics #1. In a single page, the authors breakdown the character's essentials: saved from his planet’s destruction by being launched to earth where his advanced “physical structure” would allow him heightened strength, speed, and invulnerability, Clark Kent became Superman and dedicated his life and powers to helping those in need. Because some editors at DC Comics thought the story may be TOO fantastical to catch on, the authors included a lovely “Scientific Explanation of Clark Kent’s Amazing Strength,” which consisted simply of ants lifting more than their own weight and a cricket leaping a relatively massive distance.
Superman’s mission statement, however, is what interests us now: “Early, Clark decided he must turn his titanic strength into channels that would benefit mankind. And so was created SUPERMAN! Champion of the oppressed, the physical marvel who had sworn to devote his existence to those in need.” Indeed, Earth One, is simply a story about how and why Clark came to dedicating his life to helping the helpless. One could say that, concerning this topic at least, Earth One is more elaboration than revision.
Now, while this story may be an elaboration of Superman’s origin, Earth One still takes the character places the 1938 character would never know, but, oddly enough, it also brings the character back to his original form with one subtle distinction.
If I were to ask fans of the character what Superman fights for, most would respond with three simple nouns: truth, justice, and the American way. However, these words were not associated with the Superman of the late 1930’s. That character fought solely for the downtrodden. Remember, this time in American history was characterized by economic depression and rumors of war, so their hero represented the people’s will to cure the social ills that plagued them daily: corruption, corporate greed, robbery, abuse, and so on.
“[T]he 1930’s Superman’s purpose was to fight against problems and help average people,” says historian Jeffery K. Johnston in Super-History: Comic Book Superheroes and American Society. “Look at the first story’s villains: a sheltered and misguided state official, a domestic abuser, several smart-mouthed mobsters, a lobbyist, and a corrupt federal politician. These are hardly the world-conquering madmen that would later be comic book staples, but that is Siegal and Shuster’s intention” (15-16).
Of course, in order to do this, Superman had to work outside the law, outside the system that had thus far failed those to whom he now devoted himself. He represented the voice of the people, not the establishment.
The Superman of Earth One shares a similar sentiment. Nowhere in the novel does Clark mention fighting for the American way. What he does seek, however, is truth, and he is not alone in that pursuit. When Tyrell attacks Metropolis, only Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane and photo journalist Jimmy Olsen run towards the action.
When Tyrell, wondering if such courage could mean he had discovered at long last his missing Kryptonian, Jimmy replies, “No—we stay and we die for the truth. Because that’s the only thing worth dying for.” Unconvinced, Tyrell moves to smash Olsen, but Clark crushes the robot just in time. “That’s the other reason you stay,” Olsen says to himself. “Because the truth kicks serious ass.” Later, it’s his desire for truth that leads Clark to settle on being a journalist for the Daily Planet.
In the interview between Clark and Superman included at the end of the novel, Clark declares that while he loves his home country, he does not belong to it. “I was raised in this country. I believe in this country. Does it have its flaws? Yes. Does it have its moments of greatness? Yes. . . . But if I do what I do just for the U.S., it’s going to destabilize the whole world. It could even lead to war. So I’m here to do what I can, whether that’s in the U.S. or elsewhere. But I can never get involved with politics or policy. . . . [I]f I start down that road, then I can’t serve humanity as a whole, which is what I feel I’m here to do.”
Of course, though combating Tyrell and his alien invasion force is a far cry away from correcting corrupt officials and thugs, this Superman’s adherence to objectivity and truth ties him back to his 1938 ancestor. While it could be said that “the American way” does not necessarily mean American interests, but rather the ideals upon which this nation was founded, even that is too narrow a scope for the Man of Steel who simply desires to help all people in need for any reason.
Well that’s all I have for today. Check out Superman: Earth One, don’t forget to go see the new Man of Steel film releasing tonight, and check back soon for more superhero stuff—I’ll be doing a similar analysis of Geoff John’s Batman: Earth One.
Campbell, Joseph, and Bill D. Moyers. The Power of Myth. New York: Doubleday, 1988. Print.
Johnson, Jeffrey K. Super-History: Comic Book Superheroes and American Society, 1938 to the Present. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012. Print.
Straczynski, J. Micheal. Superman: Earth One. New York: DC Comics, 2010. Print.