Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Is Superman Fascist?


Despite the fact that many if not most super-hero comics are greatly influenced by the Jewish immigrant experience, there is always a looming sense that there’s something kind of fascist about them. Don’t believe me? Art Spiegelman once criticized Jack Kirby of all people for appropriating pagan images and overly glorifying the physical over the intellectual in his work, techniques that, according to Spiegelman, smack of fascism.

You can’t deny that the fundamentals of his criticism are sound. Super-hero comics do glorify the physical form, and the art is in many ways a stylized version of Greek, Roman, Norse and other mythologies where superhuman strength and will were akin to godhood.

Superman is the most obvious example and the most vulnerable to accusations of fascism. The mere appropriation of Neitzche’s term ‘Superman’, even if coincidental is enough to raise an eyebrow or two. In addition, the hallmark of Superman’s greatest adversaries is high intellect. They use reason and science to manipulate and destroy, whereas Superman, whose primary attributes are physical in nature always manages to stomp their nerdy asses.

‘Truth, Justice, and the American Way’ might sound harmless on the surface, but there’s some serious nationalism at work there. Frank Miller’s use of Superman as a tool for a corrupt government in ‘Dark Knight Returns’ is an example of many of these criticisms manifest in comics. Say what you will about ‘Dark Knight Returns’ but it’s an important piece, so you can’t just discount its portrayal of Superman out of hand.

And yet, despite all this, I’ve come to the conclusion that Superman and other heroes are not in the slightest bit fascist. There’s no smoking gun for totalitarian nationalism in these comics. What Spiegelman forgets, and what I sometimes forget, is that the fascists weren’t the first people to use classical images of physical greatness for their own means and they won’t be the last. The old pagan mythologies give us beautiful legends and images, and just because they were used by a bunch of racist, nationalist bastards in the 30’s doesn’t make them off limits for all time. If anything, super-hero comics reclaimed these images for the good guys.

In addition, Superman’s duels with Lex Luthor and Braniac aren’t about the dangers of intellect or any sort of demonization of thought or reason. Rather, they simply suggest the limits of reason. Superman reminds us that there is more to life than what can be rationally understood. There is love, friendship, and countless other inexplicable concepts that the likes of Luthor will never enjoy or understand because of their devotion to a strictly Machiavellian world-view.

I’m not saying there isn’t some serious alpha male action in comics. Hal Jordan and his cult of pure will does smack a little of neo-conservative foreign policy, but the message that we are at our greatest when we can overcome our fears is an inherently decent and liberal sentiment, seen everywhere from ‘Defending Your Life’ (great film!) to Barack Obama. It isn’t the images and sentiments themselves. It’s how they’re used.

14 comments:

Rob S. said...

If anything, super-hero comics reclaimed these images for the good guys.

Great point! And a nice examination of the issue, overall.

Jordan said...

Wow Big Mike, great post!

Devon Sanders said...

Incredible post!

Gyuss Baaltar said...

I dunno, maybe he should be.

If I learned anything at all from Red Son, the world is a better place if Superman ran things with an iron fist.

menshevik said...

Two little remarks:

The man's name is Nietzsche.

As far as I know, "truth, justice and the American way" is the result of a post-World War 2 addition. At least in the old Fleisher cartoons, Superman fought "a never-ending battle for truth and justice".

guttertalk said...

I certainly agree with your last sentence.

But without getting into the ongoing debate about fascism, I've never thought of it as just totalitarianism but as the subordination of the individual to the state. I've also thought Miller's depiction of Superman as somewhat sloppy: he's been depicted as patriotic, but I think anyone who seriously considers Superman can't rely on stereotypes of Midwestern farmers. Superman would be like most adopted kids I know who accept the parents that raised them but are aware of another life, another set of parents. But for Superman, it's more than that: he's an alien. I don't buy anyone aware of that fact would so totally buy into patriotism that he would be ignorant of the individual's value. Superman's own identity is too mixed to allow him to so totally identify with any group.

Even more so, he's aware of his power as an individual, aware of what one person can do.

Frankly, I can't buy where Miller or anyone would have to start to create Superman as this 'agent of the state.' It would require that Superman be so confused and diffident that he could overlook his own power to follow the directions of others.

I know that in some early accounts, he was an orphan, which you might be able to use to create a statist Superman. But this is history long pushed aside by the fortuitous and compassionate actions of the Kents.

I've taken enough of your comment space, but you get my drift about the psychology of fascism to see that it's hard to see Superman succumbing to that mentality.

Devon Sanders said...

Menshevik:

Seriously? It's a misspelling.

Let's focus on the purpose of the post, wgy don't we?

BIG MIKE said...

Guttertalk,

Interesting that you bring up Superman's past as an alien. Many nationalists throughout history have not fit their own ideals of perfection or purity. Hitler didn't remotely resemble his own aryan ideals and in fact carried some of the genetic traditions that he himself sought to eliminate. Often, the true nationalist is an outsider desperate to assimilate. Without the strong moral foundations provided to him by the Kents, it's not such a far cry to see where Superman could become an instrument of the state if only to make himself feel like less of an outsider.

It's why stories like Red Son are so fascinating, because they allow us to pinpoint those things without which our heroes wouldn't be heroic. Thanks for your comment!

kingbeauregard said...

Superheroes fascistic? Certainly not -- not at DC, at least (though Tony Stark probably qualifies). One very crucial point of superheroing is that the hero does not consider himself judge, jury, and executioner; he works more or less within the law, even when he could just run the place if he chose to. But Superman hasn't taken over, and the notion that superheroes are fascistic pretty much refutes itself.

Frank Miller may have depicted Superman as a Tool Of The Man, but that doesn't make it canon or even a worthwhile characterization. Frank Miller also gave us Spartans who fight like Jackie Chan rather than sticking to a phalanx, which is to say Miller doesn't know shinola from the other stuff (or, if he does, he doesn't mind switching the two if it fits whatever peculiar vision suits him).

Now as for Hal's cult of will and its resemblance to the neocons, actually it's been discussed before:

http://tpmcafe.talkingpointsmemo.com/2006/07/10/the_green_lantern_theory_of_ge/

Of course, since the Guardians are dead-set against anyone ruling the universe -- be it Sinestro or themselves -- not even the will-oriented Green Lanterns have much in common with fascists. Technically, they have exactly as much in common with the fascists as Triumph the Insult Comic Dog does, which is a word in the title of "Triumph of the Will".

guttertalk said...

Good points, King. I'm glad to see someone else say that Miller doesn't know what he's writing about. [The trailer for his Spirit adaptation has already made me cringe.]

Mike: Outsiders can be nationalistic, but they can't be too far outside. Just being an outsider isn't enough: being insecure about it is a critical point. I think Superman becoming a neo-Nazi would be like a black person joining the KKK. It takes several things to enable fascism, as Paxton explained in his "Five Stages of Fascism," stages that can apply to the individual as well as a nation. Two points in particular seem wholly absent with Superman.

Where's Superman's identification of him and his group as victims?

Where's his belief that his group has declined or is decadent thanks to liberalism and individualism?

For a character with a rather complex identity, Superman has not been diffident about who he is, needing to reaffirm himself through some group identification. Throughout the canon what has mattered most to Superman are his ideals of right and wrong and individuals like his parents and his friends. He has not been an insecure character, and his confidence is not exaggerated to compensate for insecurity. So, I don't see him putting a group and its values above individuals. His American patriotism has not been depicted as "America is greater than other countries and cultures." Where's the jingoism that goes with fascism?

Certainly, a great topic, Mike.

Gyuss Baaltar said...

Hey, he is a fascist!

http://tinyurl.com/6r5sbf

Tom Foss said...

I've been thinking about the "American Way" bit recently, and I don't think I'm saying anything new when I suggest that there's very little nationalistic about it. I'd say it's more of a statement of a set of ideals, ideals expressed in key Enlightenment documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers and Common Sense, ideals expanded upon by various Civil Rights movements throughout American history. They're not American ideals, but America requires those ideals.

It's interesting to look at stories where Superman goes fascist (there's plenty of them--Red Son, King of the World, A Better World, arguably Legacy) and see what is usually the key element to the turn: Superman loses that fundamental principle of "the American Way"--the sovereignty of the people, the primacy of personal liberty, and the inalienable rights of the individual. In "King of the World," "A Better World," and "Red Son," he made safety and security a greater priority than individual liberty, and everything went to hell because of it. It's Superman's respect for the people, his recognition that he serves them, that keeps him from going fascist.

Great post!

Mark said...

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