Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Re-thinking Superman

Feb. 11, 2009
Posted by Noah

There are so many fantastic things to drool over in the upcoming comics auction – Feb. 26-27 btw – that I would be hard-pressed to choose just one or two lots were a suitcase of cash to fall out of the sky and land at my feet. I still look up every day when I leave the house, but so far nothing… Where was I? Oh, yes… Comics auction, many great lots... There is one lot in the sale, however, that I keep coming back to. It’s one of those things that has wedged its way into my brain in a way that happens only with certain rare and complex lots. I’m talking about Lot 91577, the Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster Science Fiction Fanzine "Reign of the Superman" Group from 1932. That’s right, a full five years before Supes appeared in Action Comics #1.

In this very early rendition of what was to become The Man of Steel, Superman is actually a villain, actually looks a lot more like Lex Luthor than Clark Kent and “The Superman” is used more in the sense of Friederich Nietzsche, which I am basing solely on my knowledge of Western Philosophy and my gut feeling whenever I see a maniacal bald man with an evil grit-toothed smile and creepy Montgomery Burns hands menacing me in a futuristic cityscape.

Let me be very clear: I would take The Flash, Mad Magazine or Groo the Wanderer any day over Superman. In my comics reading days – I was never so much a collector as a reader – I made a point of skipping Superman and heading to the latest JLA or Fourth World. There was never much mystery to Superman, as far as I was concerned at least. And he wasn’t particularly given to angst, which I loved dearly about Spidey or Ben Grimm, The Thing. After looking at this particular lot, and after being amazed to witness the sheer fact of its continued existence across the decades – read about it and you’ll do the same – I have definitely have to re-think the man from Krypton. How would the history of American pop culture have been different if Supes had stayed malignant?

There have always been many ways to read Superman. Siegel and Shuster were both Jews, and the comic book came about at a time when the world was heading for war, America needed a hero and the Nazis were starting their march toward world domination. Superman perfectly captured the American zeitgeist of the post-depression era. This original, villainous Superman can be seen also as an early reaction to the influence of Nietzschian thinking on Western civilization in the first half of the 20th century and its slide into totalitarianism. Either that, or it was a couple of kids jazzed by the sci-fi serials they were seeing at the movies and reading in fanzines, and they wanted to make one of their own. You choose.