The Genuine Thing, Superman
Superman is the genuine thing. First of all superheroes, sometimes cited as the best of all superheroes by other DC heroes, and generally accepted among readers as the foremost superhero, if not the most interesting. The invention of the character, by two young Jewish boys in Ohio, is itself legendary. Jerry Siegel lay awake one night, perhaps tossing and turning, when the concept came to him: a strongman, like Hercules, Samson, and other legendary, mythical heroes, who uses his strength for good. Throughout the night, another piece of the character’s story would come to him, he would write it down in his notebook, and he would lay back again before another piece would come.
In the morning, he ran twelve blocks to his friend and creative partner, Joe Shuster. Shuster drew a muscular man in skintight blue and red bearing a shield with the letter “S” on his chest. Shuster outfitted him like a gymnast or a circus strongman with a belt, briefs, boots, and cape. More can be said about colorful tights as a design choice, but for the time being I will point readers toward Michael Chabon’s intriguing reflection, “Second Skin: An Essay in Unitard Theory.”
1932 rolled over into 1938 before Superman saw publication. One publisher told Siegel and Shuster that the hero would never catch on. They were also told that the character was too juvenile. Another publisher accepted the boys’ story pitch, if only they would rewrite it in prose. Interestingly, they felt that their story belonged in the visual medium of sequential art, and when Action Comics #1 hit stands, Superman was an immediate sensation. This is confirmation of the iconic quality of superheroic action—that it belongs in the frames of an image rather than in fluid text.
Superheroes proliferated. Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s darker take on the concept, Batman, appeared a few short months later in Detective Comics #27. In early 1941, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s patriotic take debuted in Captain America Comics #1. The Captain joined Namor and The Human Torch, an Atlantean Sub-Mariner and a fiery android, as the first notable superhero among DC’s competition. Then came many others.
These historical facts only surround the central point, however, that the essence of a superhero is already in that first concept. As Superman is historically the first superhero and arguably the best, so he is the essence of a superhero. He is a hero to whom every other hero and human being can look and whom they can emulate. I remarked at the outset on the irony of “super hero.” But Superman’s name does not place him twice above an “ordinary” human being or once above an “ordinary” hero. His name, or rather his deeds, rank him only as the hero of heroes. The Hebraism, “hero of heroes,” seems especially fitting, too, not only because of Siegel and Shuster’s Judaism, but also because Superman is the reversal of an anti-Semitic concept.
Nietzsche’s Übermensch (“Superman”) was one of Siegel’s influences. According to my research, Siegel knew Hitler’s exploitation of the concept for his anti-Semitic and broader eugenic and genocidal program. Siegel took Übermensch for his creation’s namesake. But Superman is not a Nietzschean “Superman” that creates a new morality with his own superior and self-defined strength and imposes that morality on all other, inferior beings. Nor does the Kryptonian execute a program of eugenics and genocide. He uses his strength for the good of all. He puts his strength in the service of a morality that he believes demands no less from him than from everyone else.
I make a note here that other superheroes also represent other specific ideals. The X-Men, for example, seek peaceful coexistence between the human population and mutants such as themselves. Wonder Woman is ambassador to the world of men from Themyscira, an island of Amazonian women, and she seeks non-violent means of conflict resolution whenever possible. Marvel’s Ultimate Thor has a special interest in the flourishing of the natural world. But they are superheroes insofar as they represent what Superman represents, the ideal of moral, personal, unbounded, godlike salvation.