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Was Ramona Real? How a Book Became More Than a Legend

Cut to Bob Dale - An off-camera chat with the bow-tied veteran of San Diego television

Salvation Row - An uneasy Episcopalian hears the word on Imperial Avenue

Lester Bangs -The Hardback

Dots on the Map - Heading East on Old Highway 80

Silents Were Golden - Why early filmmakers zoomed in on San Diego

Where Wild Things Were- Something is lost when something is built

One for the Zipper- The quintessential carnival ride must bring chaos to the calm center of the soul

Deadhead Redux - No one knows for sure why Grateful Dead fans have such a drive to communicate with each other but they do-and they’ve turned Blair Jackson and Regan McMahon’s “The Golden Road” into the most successful fanzine in the history of the form.

The Last Anniversary - An Altamont Memoir

Desolation Row -The lonesome cry of Jack Kerouac

Faster Than a Speeding Mythos: Superman at 50 - Superman at 50: The Persistence of a Legend

When Art is No Object -The Eloquent Object - At the Oakland Museum, Great Hall, through May 15.

“He Wasn’t Dying to Live in L.A.” - Intrepid Journalist’s Last Dispatch Before His Collapse

Search for Honesty in Post-war Life - Plenty

Armageddon Averted: Where Will You be on August 16. 1987? - Inside Art Goes to the Frontiers of the Mind

Of Speckle-Faced Rats and Supernovas - Michael McClure

George Coates - The Physics of Performance and the Art of Iceskating

No Escape from the SOUNDHOUSE - Maryanne Amacher

A Pynchon's Time

Grants - State of Art/Art of the State

Poetry from Outside the Pale - Allen Ginsberg

Once Upon a Time - In Berkeley

The poet from Turtle Island - Gary Snyder

Noh Quarter

Joyce Jenkins and the Language Troubles

Philip Whalen

Faster Than a Speeding Mythos:
Superman at 50

Superman at 50: The Persistence of a Legend - edited by Dennis Dooley and Gary Engle - Octavia (1987), $16.95

March 11,1988

It wasn't until the Marvel Comics group (Spiderman, Fantastic Four, etc.) came along to challenge the hegemony of DC Comics (Superman, Batman, et al.) in the early '60s that superhero stories began to be credited to the people who worked on them. Before that, in your typical comic, not one letter was expended to inform you just who had written and drawn the outlandish tales of science-fictional derring-do you were about to read. Then, following a precedent set by Marvel impresario Stan Lee, comic-book writers started getting credit where credit was due and in the process became, if not superheroes themselves, at least superstars. Every person interested in the arts, and of a liberal bent, will naturally applaud this all-too-belated recognition of the men and women behind the supermen and superwomen; but there's something to be said for the old style of creative anonymity, and I'm going to go ahead and say it.

The lack of creative credits in the Superman/Flash/Green Lantern/Batman comics I read as a small child in the '50s contributed to the sensation I had that what I was reading was real, not just something concocted by adult professionals on a deadline. Without thinking about it very much, I imagined that the stories I pored over had simply emerged from some secret and mysterious place—a belief that was enhanced by the difficulty I had imagining adults producing such stuff. In the '50s, grownups—that is to say, everyone over the age of 21—were a sober lot, preeminently dedicated to breadwinning and homemaking; I, for one, couldn't conceive of any adult I had ever laid eyes on sitting down and dreaming up a battle of wits, say, between Superman and Mr. Mxyzptlk, the imp from the fifth dimension. Children rarely waste time worrying over what's possible and what isn't, and without those names at the top of the story it was easy to think that the flimsy, gaily colored pages you held in your hand were nothing more than a passive record of actual (if fantastic) events. Like a Greek of the 5th century B.C. hearing the already ancient tale of brave Odysseus and believing that stalwart king was still out plying the hills and seas in his quest, a comic-book reader in those halcyon days could easily believe that Superman was even then soaring through the skies of Metropolis, which was located maybe a couple of towns over, on the other side of the county or right across the state line.

Another advantage to not knowing diddly about the creation of those stories was that one's enjoyment and appreciation of them weren't sullied by an awareness of how shabbily the "two Jewish kids from Cleveland" who invented the mythos were treated by fate and the comic-book industry. In the opening essay of Superman at 50: The Persistence of a Legend, a collection of new writings published in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the character's first appearance, you get a full recitation of that tragic tale; and if what Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (the original writer and artist, respectively, of Superman) went through wasn't a job for an otherworldly avenger, I’ll eat my Clark Kent reporter's notepad.

It seems our two young heroes fashioned Superman and his world out of the whole cloth of their '30s teenage metropolitan milieu. The newsroom of the high-school paper where they spent much of their time was the prototype for the Daily Planet, and they themselves—shy and bespectacled—prefigured the mild-mannered reporter. Siegel's readings in pulp fiction (Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, etc.) and secret adolescent yearnings prompted the Man of Steel (or, as he was first called, the Man of Tommorrow) to come to light. Shuster gave the inspiration visible form. They were only around fifteen or sixteen when the inspiration struck, and it wasn’t until 1938, after they graduated from high school that the first Superman story appeared on newsstands-in the premier issue of Action Comics. To the surprise of everyone concerned, the issue sold out almost immediately and left the public clamoring for more. This marked the birth of Superman’s hold on the public imagination and of the comic-book industry as we know it today. By the early ‘40s, Superman was spearing not only in comic books but in newspaper strips, on the radio, and in motion picture serial. Long before the decade was out, however, Siegel and Shuster were shunted aside by Action Comics, which possessed legal title to the character.

This is precisely the point at which the caped wonder should come streaking out of the skies to rectify the situation. But in this case Superman moved at something far below the speed of light, since it wasn't until thirty years later—just as Superman, the Movie was about to appear in theaters—that restitution was made to Siegel and Shuster. And it was a piddling restitution at that. Having been frozen out of the vast fame and wealth generated by Superman over several decades, the two creators were finally given by DC a yearly stipend of $20,000 for life plus health insurance. Plus­ yes—credit on each and every Superman product ("Created by Siegal and Joe Shuster”).

No one could ask for a more ironic illustration of the discrepancy between heroic fantasy and sad reality; yet this same depressing turn of events says something important about the word I've been tossing about so freely: mythos. It's taken for granted by the contributors to this book that Superman is a mythic figure in the same way that Apollo and Paul Bunyan are mythic figures, and it's probably true that, at bottom, such figures are not "created" by anybody; they arise, they evolve, they reflect, they body forth, they take on a life of their own. Looked at this way, Superman doesn't "belong" to Siegel and Shuster any more than he "belongs" to DC Comics. Rather, he belongs to every kid who gazes upon him and feels a world of infinite possibility and wonder deep inside. (Which isn't to say that Siegel and Shuster don't deserve our respect and veneration, just as they deserve everything they've wrested from DC—and far more.)

The editors of Superman at 50 describe the book as a festschrzft, a "festive anthology of essays" of the sort put together by scholars to honor some venerable and influential person in their field. Sure enough, the contributor bios at the back of the book include more academic credentials than you can shake a stick at. Anyone familiar with the usual quality of academic writing in this day and age has a perfect right to feel some foreboding at the volume's apparent ivory-tower slant, but the editors have managed to dig out pedants and researchers who know how to write fluidly, entertainingly, and with true in­sight—a rare achievement all by itself.

Like Hamlet or Finnegans Wake, except on a different order of formal sophistication and surface complexity, the story of Superman permits endless interpretations and provides vast food for thought; you can easily imagine that twenty books of this length wouldn't exhaust the possibilities. And the essayists in this book don't pretend to exhaust them. They plumb considerable depths, but don't imply that they are enunciating the last work on the matter. Each written thought leads to a whole chain of thoughts that readers can pursue on their own.

Take, for instance, the piece called (rather unfortunately) "What Makes Superman So Darned American?", in which co-editor Gary Engle (he holds a PhD and teaches in the English department at Cleveland State University) presents the tale of the displaced alien Kal-El (Superman's Kryptonian name) as embodying certain truths about the experience of immigrants in America and, in turn, the ways in which that experience is key to understanding American life as a whole. He points out that almost every American has some exploded "planet" of origin (Africa, Asia, Europe) just a couple of generations in the past at most, and that there's a constant stress between the need to become culturally assimilated (Clark Kent) and the need to keep in touch with original cultural modes (Kal-El). Although he admits that this stress can lead to a kind of schizophrenia (there's always been something unsettling about the Superman/Clark Kent charade), he makes a convincing argument that in the best case the melding of old ways with new context results in a dynamic, forward-looking, and resourceful sensibility that's typically American (Superman).

On the other hand, Dr. Engle doesn't connect every dot for you. He leaves the door open for other applications of the same concept—for instance, that the Superman story speaks to another extremely typical component of modern American life, the shift in population from town to city (from Smallville to Metropolis). If you look at the story this way, Superman's memories of Krypton aren't much more outlandish than his reveries of his earthly home town, and seem to be of a piece with them. As he sits at his desk high in the Daily Planet building, with the noise of traffic-choked streets rising from below, the semi-bucolic setting of Smallville must seem like life on another planet.

Speaking of schizophrenia, co-editor Dennis Dooley (a former instructor of medieval literature at Case Western University) has this to say in an essay entitled "The Man of Tomorrow and the Boys of Yesterday": "One thinks of Zorro and the Scarlet Pimpernel. But in each case, the civilian was the real person and the crusader (a la Batman) was the fabrication. . . With Superman, it was the wonderful being who was the reality, his civilian identity the fabrication." Sehr gut, but there's more to it than that. The Superman character actually has a number of facets—Superman, Kent, Superboy, Kal-El—and it's really not clear that Superman is the fundamental identity, any more than Kent is; especially since Superman is a flagrant piece of theater (the cape, the red tights, the melodramatic comings and goings). He may be a "wonderful being," but that covers a lot of ground; his true identity seems to have been literally lost among the stars. Kal-El (not Superman) is the intrinsic personality, but Kal-El was expelled from home in infancy, and has since then been forced by circumstances to adopt a succession of identities that are at variance with his beginnings. The tragedy of Superman's life is that he's nothing more than a swirl of personalities revolving around an unknowable core, around a lost essence glimpsed only in vision. His ability and willingness to right wrongs is an example of sublimation on a grand scale.

Superman's role as crime fighter and guardian of the commonweal brings up interesting questions of a constitutional nature, and Patrick L. Eagan (chair of the political science department at John Carroll University in Ohio) addresses a few of them in his essay "The Flag with a Human Face." He even (albeit tactfully) invokes Bernhard Goetz, whose name in proximity to Superman's brings a chill to one's democratic blood. In principle, the Man of Steel (or, in Russian, Stalin) has no more business foiling wrongdoers than Goetz does; the fact that his intentions are selfless and dispassionate has no final bearing on the matter, since the rule of law is meant to free us from having to rely on someone else's intentions. Superman is by definition a vigilante—a private, unauthorized individual who takes it upon himself to subdue and detain persons he believes to be criminals. In the 30's, of course, "Miranda" wasn't even Carmen's last name; so it's understandable if Siegel and Shuster didn't take the concept of suspects' rights into account when laying the foundations of their mythos. Even so, it's hard to imagine that having Superman in your town would do much for its law-and­order quotient, since he may be more of a provocation to malefactors than a deterrent. (Lex Luthor, to name only one, certainly keeps coming back for more.) And it's hard to imagine that his presence does much to promote the self-esteem—or the efficiency—of the Metropolis Police Department. After all, what mortal, time-serving cop would bother to turn in a peak performance during a crisis situation knowing that an alien with X-ray vision and the strength of a hundred thermonuclear bombs was going to come swooping out of the sky at any minute and set matters right with a flick of the wrist? It goes without saying that no one expects Metropolis' Finest to go head to head with your typical supervillain along the lines of Luthor or Brainiac, but when it's a matter of a bankrobber or two—the founding fathers' plan was that duly constituted authority attend to such law­breakers, not visitors from another planet who can't be served with a subpoena (no last name, no home address) and whose birth records went up in a ball of flame in a distant galaxy years ago.

Not every essay in the book was written by a PhD. There are fascinating entries by Curt Swan, who drew Superman for the comic books for thirty years starting in 1955, and by Dennis O'Neill, who wrote the stories during much of the '70s. Although Swan (probably at the misguided urging of the editors) spends too much time recounting his autobiography, his and O'Neill's essays go a long way towards providing an answer to the question I posed earlier—what sort of adult would dream up this stuff? One interesting piece of information is that comic-book writers and artists are (or were for a long time) freelancers who work at home and are paid by the page. This gives them something in common with the youngsters who read the stories: They spend a lot of time sitting in their rooms, dwelling on their fantasies. They also, like youngsters, don't agonize over every detail, every twist and turn of plot. (When children play make-believe games, they generally enact entire afternoon-long scenarios with no more than a few moments' preparation and without placing a single coast-to-coast conference call.) What these creative artists may lack in the way of childlike credulity towards the material is made up for by their unassuming professionalism, which is one reason their products could impress a kid (or me, at least) as being a record of events—they get the work out as quickly and as well as they can, rather than bringing their adult egos to bear on it.

Other writers describe what O'Neil calls the "maniacally accelerated version of the folk process" that resulted in the rapid refinement and headlong expansion of Superman's powers following his 1938 debut. When he sprang full-blown from the heads of Siegel and Shuster, Superman could indeed "leap tall buildings with a single bound," but his ability to fly came later; if he was "more powerful than a locomotive," it took him a few years to become almost as powerful as God. You learn along the way that the additions of Superboy, Krypto (Superboy's dog), Supergirl, and the Kryptonian criminals from the Phantom Zone to the scheme of Superman's origins were generally matters of creative expediency (for instance, Kryptonite—the greenish residue of Kal-El's home planet, to which Superman is mortally vulnerable—was invented by writers on the Superman radio show when the actor playing the role needed to take a couple of weeks off), and that many of these and other changes were brought about through a spontaneous process of "cross-pollination" between comic book and serial, radio and comic strip, movie and comic book. (Swan admits that one of the models for his comic-book Superman was George Reeves, star of the TV show; it is noted elsewhere that Jimmy Olson, who went on to become a story fixture in every media, was invented by the radio writers so that Superman and Kent would have someone other than Lois Lane to trade dialogue with.) It's enthralling to read how Superman's powers and circumstances (and those of the other superheroes on the DC roster) were elaborated and increased bit by bit over the years, with each increase necessitating some complementary alteration on another level, until sometime in the '70s things had gotten so out of hand that the creative minds at DC had no choice but to announce the existence of seven alternative earths so that it could all "rationally" coexist. When, in the '80s, readers and artists alike started to rebel at all this daunting complexity, DC higher-ups promulgated a doom upon all the alternate worlds and decided to start more or less from scratch. (O'Neil, during his tenure, wanted to dispense with Superman's ability to fly but realized he couldn't get away with it.)

If this well-documented evolution is indeed a souped-up version of the folk process, some folklorist or classicist might make use of it as a point of comparison with successive texts of the Gilgamesh epic, say, to see whether inferences might be drawn about the modus operandi of the anonymous Sumerians who handed the epic down. By the same token, a physicist could investigate the possiblity that this drama of an expanding and contracting comic-book universe might serve as an instructive model for the cosmos as it is now understood, with its big bang and Red Shift and collapsing galaxies. And liberal theologians could have a field day...

But the emotional purchase the Superman character has had
and continues to have on generations of Americans young and old can't be explained by the fact of his story's rich mythic diversity, or by exegetical musings on the immigrant experience, or by secular apologetics concerning his similarity (or lack thereof) to Hercules or Jesus. Instead, you have to delve into the heart.

In a brief prefatory statement, the science fiction writer Harlan Ellison tries to verbalize Superman's great appeal in this way: "He is courage and humanity, steadfastness and decency, responsibility and ethic. He is our universal longing for perfection, for wisdom and power used in the service of the human race."

I don't know about you, but this doesn't cut any ice with me. I never knew a ten-year-old kid who stayed up late reading comics under the blanket with a flashlight because of an intense preoccupation with "decency, responsiblity, and ethic." (These are, indeed, some of Superman's least compelling qualities. "Wisdom and power" are a different story, but by the time you get to "in the service of the human race" the child's attention has begun to wander.)

A more convincing account of the character's appeal is limned by David Galloway (he holds the Chair of American Studies at Ruhr University in West Germany) in his essay, "Pop Goes the Superhero," which deals with Superman's apotheosis into the realm of High Culture via the Pop Art explosion of the '60s. In a subjective aside, Professor Galloway describes his boyhood relationship with Superman as "a complex, intimate [one] that early assumed an erotic dimension as well. In secret I sewed a fraying letter 'S' onto an old jersey pajama suit, confiscated a red bathtowel, and slipped away to the nearby woods. I pursued no dastardly villains but reveled in the half-naked feel of pajamas beneath the open sky, in broad daylight, and lying in the grass imagined Superman's pulsing thighs hovering over me."

Now we're getting somewhere. The homoerotic element, of course, depends on your personal orientation, but some history of visceral participation in the mythos (whatever form such participation might take) is probably a prerequisite for appreciating this book. Speaking for myself, I know I didn't spend two evenings perusing Superman at 50 because I wanted to learn about Superman and constitutional law or even about Superman and the Pentateuch. I read it because, even today, if I close my eyes and remember the musical theme from the Superman TV show, it's like being four years old all over again and knowing that someday, somehow, in this world or the next, I will learn the secret that will enable me to leave the earth and fly into the fading afternoon.

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