Sunday, 30 June 2013

Decoding The Superman Meme

You've seen the movies, you've read the comics, but do you really get the story?

Let me share with you my understanding of the Superman story. I was introduced to Superman at a very early age, perhaps before I was 10. I have always liked the character, not just for his superpowers but for his goodness. Even today, if I had to name a few characters from history and fiction who epitomise nobility and goodness, Superman would be among them. But it was only as I grew and reflected on the stories from time to time that the real theme of the character's life story began to dawn on me, and this realisation was entirely my own, uninfluenced by the reviews and critiques of other people. I now see in hindsight that the Superman story is an allegory that is just screaming out to be understood by anyone who looks a little beyond the superficial.

There's the purely literal storyline, of course, and most of us are content to accept this at face value.

Where is Superman from? The planet Krypton.
What kind of place is it? It's a doomed world that explodes just after he leaves.
What is his real name? Kal-El.
Where on Earth does the baby Superman land? In the US.
Where in the US? In Kansas.
Where in Kansas? In a town called Smallville.
Who are his foster-parents? Jonathan and Martha Kent, simple farmers.
What is he known as on Earth? Clark Kent.
Where does Superman go to work as an adult? In Metropolis.
What's his secret identity? A mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet.
Who's his girlfriend? Lois Lane, a smart and plucky reporter in the same office.

Look beyond the literal and you will begin to see the allegory. As I began to unravel it, I became somewhat disappointed, because Superman's story is an American story, and even though it has universal appeal, it's not really a story that's meant for non-Americans (except in that "what's good for America is good for the world" kind of way).

The planet Krypton is an allegory for a faraway country. The country itself has no hope, and is sliding into anarchy. Superman is therefore an immigrant, and a refugee at that. Of course he comes to the US, which welcomes the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. And where does he grow up? Well, if you look at the map, Kansas is a state that is right in the very heart of the US.

And "Smallville" very literally and obviously means a small town (for an allegory, it's big and unsubtle enough to trip over). So he grows up in a small town in the heart of the US, brought up by simple and honest country folk. The implication is obvious. Here's an immigrant, naturalised as an American by imbibing the best folk values of middle America. And even when he goes to work in the big city (named Metropolis - the allegory-spinners are really hitting us over the head with a sledgehammer here), he still doesn't lose his small-town values. He remains modest and well-mannered and more than a little socially awkward. But he then starts to do enormous good, and the stories are all about his wonderful deeds and exploits. In other words, the immigrant makes good -- big time.

That's really the core of the Superman meme - the immigrant who imbibes American values, realises his potential and makes good even as he does good.

What a package!

Why do I like Superman so much? Because I identify with him. No, I have no super-powers (not any that I'm conscious of, anyway), but I see in him an introvert like myself. People only know me by my accomplishments. They think about me in terms of where I have studied or what kind of work I do, but none of that is me. No one knows my inner self. I keep that strictly to myself. Similarly, it is a mistake to be misled by our hero's flashy costume and all those thrilling action sequences. They do not define him. In his heart, Superman is not a flamboyant super-hero. He is private and self-effacing. In fact, the costumed superhero is Superman's secret identity behind which he hides. His true persona is Clark Kent. I identify with Clark Kent.

But what about the superpowers? Where do they fit in? Look a little deeper at the immigrant angle to the story. Immigrants are self-selecting. They move of their own will, and even if some of them are in a sense "forced" to move by harsh circumstance, it is still their choice. After all, millions more of their kind never move even when faced with the same crises. So immigrants differ in a fundamental aspect of character both from their compatriots in the old country and from the natives of their adopted one. They have innate qualities of entrepreneurship and risk-taking, and when exposed to the opportunities that their new country gives them, they tend to become extremely successful. They attain superpowers under a yellow sun.

I'm reminded of Hungarian András Gróf, who fled communist Hungary to come to the US, where he changed his name to Andrew Grove and founded Intel Corp. That's a classic Superman story.

Or of German Heinz Alfred Kissinger, who fled Nazi Germany to arrive in the US, changed his name to Henry Kissinger and eventually rose to become Nixon's Secretary of State. Kissinger was even more like Superman than Andy Grove in a literal sense. He was legendary for being able to hop around the world at a frenetic pace without suffering from jetlag.

Is this just a wild theory with no supporting facts? Well, if you want to understand a fictional character and what makes him tick, you need to dig into the biography of his creator(s). Joe Schuster and Jerry Siegel, the creators of Superman, were both Jewish immigrants from Europe. Schuster's father was from the Netherlands and his mother from the Ukraine. Siegel's parents were from Lithuania. They and their families lived the Superman story themselves. They were outsiders in America, and I would guess they were grateful to their adopted country. That's why Superman is alien but loyal to America.

But there's more. Superman appeared in the 1930s, during a wave of exclusively European immigration to the US, supported by the National Origins Formula that favoured Central, Northern and Western Europe. That's why Krypton, although a planet far removed in geography and culture, is nevertheless populated by Caucasians. Superman may have had a strange foreign name and come from a different culture, but he was reassuringly Caucasian. He pretty much had to be. And the mere cultural differentness was overcome by American programming, which made him acceptable in a way that a truly alien alien, however benign and noble, could never be.

However, there are subtle undertones to Superman's Caucasian ethnicity. He has black hair, not blond. It further reinforces the idea that he represents an Ashkenazi (Caucasian) Jew, very few of whom are blond. And his name, Kal-El, sounds Hebrew, redolent of the name of the Israeli airline, El-Al. Some believe Kal-El means "Voice of God" in Hebrew.

There is one very powerful (dare I say "spiritual") aspect to Superman's character. He does not kill. He is merciful even to enemies who he knows would gladly kill him given half a chance. He's a far better man than I am in that respect. In his place, I don't think I'd spare someone who I knew was going to try to kill me at the next available opportunity. [Thirty years after I was introduced to Superman, I came across another such impossibly noble fictional character, and that was The Doctor.]

There are also some conflicting themes in the Superman philosophy for those who view the American model through a capitalist lens. If that other Jewish immigrant, Russian emigré Alyssa Rosenbaum (later known as Ayn Rand), had had anything to do with Superman's creation, he might have been a somewhat less likeable character. As it stands however, Superman's philosophy is community-oriented to the point of being a little socialistic. He doesn't use his super-powers to enrich himself, although he could easily do that. This talented and assimilated immigrant doesn't just live for himself. He believes in community values and works for those around him in the best tradition of volunteerism. Not only that, one of his biggest enemies is the ultra-capitalist Lex Luthor, the head of Lexcorp. For those looking for an icon of capitalist America, Superman isn't it.

This then, in a nutshell, is the Superman meme. Moviemakers may explore variants to the storyline, but they may not violate the meme itself except very carefully and consciously. In the hands of the uninsightful, the delicate strength of this epic can be rudely shattered. I'll critique the Superman movies next, using this meme as the framework.

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