The Myth of Superman Revisited

The Myth of Superman

When I was ten years old I lived in Caracas, Venezuela. My parents were both professors and liked to frequent bookstores in Caracas. I saw a cover that interested me because Superman was on the cover. The Spanish title of the books was Apocalípticos e integrados ante la cultura de masas by Umberto Eco. My parents bought me the book and I struggled with the Spanish but mostly looked at the pictures. Years later I would return to the subject matter of the book again!

Umberto Eco (Eco, 1972) analyzed the Superman myth in a very important article that makes several assertions about the Superman mythos and comic books in general.  I assert that this analysis is based on how the Superman story used to be.  Since then, the Superman story has undergone extreme changes that contradict Eco’s analysis.  This paper is an attempt to provide an updated analysis of the Superman mythos.  I agree with Eco that the Superman myth is of great importance.   The Superman mythos is perhaps the most important mythos in modern American culture.  Perhaps far more people can tell you the story of Superman than the story of Hercules.  Eco’s paper in turn is the most important analysis of this mythos and thus deserving an update.  This paper will also attempt to explain why the Superman mythos has undergone so many extreme changes since the time Eco analyzed the mythos.  The changes in the Superman myth tell us a great deal about how society has changed.

Eco asserts that Superman develops in an oneric climate were the reader does not know what has happened before.  Superman does not consume himself.  This cryptic phrase means that Superman unlike a character in a novel does not change from story to story and does not develop as a character.  Superman shares a timelessness with other mythic characters such as Hercules.  There is an illusion of “continuous present”.

This was true of comic books from their inception in the 1940’s through the 1970’s but market forces forced a change in this plot system.  The price of paper went up dramatically and so did the price of comic books.  Comic books became too expensive for young readers that outgrew the product.  According to a survey by DC Comics in 1995, the average age of comic book readers was 25 years of age.  Older readers do not like stories set in an oneiric setting but instead obsess over what is referred to in the comic book industry as continuity.  Superman is also a product of a particular comic book company, namely the afore mentioned DC Comics.

In the sixties Stan Lee revamped a comic book company called Marvel Comics that produced such titles as the Amazing Spiderman and the Fantastic Four.  One of his practices was to insert the comic book equivalent of footnotes!  The reader was given information in the form of a small box about prior comic books.  For example if Thor and the Hulk fought again.  Thor might mention their last battle and the box would have comic book issue information in a small box.  This practice soon became cumbersome and is rarely used today but the readers came to expect continuity in their comic books.  DC did ignore the Marvel continuity system for many years but eventually tried to deal with continuity issues in its own way.

One DC plot device was the creation of parallel Earths.  The Superman of the 1940’s had a very different history than the Superman of the sixties. DC explained these differences in continuity by telling readers that the Superman of the 1940’s came from Earth 2.  The Superman of the sixties was from Earth 1.  The two Superman’s could and did meet on occasion.    Readers and writers alike became more and more self-conscious of the issue of continuity and this has been a widely discussed topic in the letter’s column of comic book issues and comic book conventions. There are whole websites that feature elaborate explanations of how this issue or that issue might have occurred in Earth1 or 2 or some other Earth. The number of Earths became cumbersome for DC and there was an attempt to meld all the Earth’s in the Crisis of the Infinite Earths (1985) story arc that involved all of the DC titles.  An explanation of this story arc is beyond the purview of this paper but the point is that comic books are anything but oneiric since the time Eco wrote his critique.

Eco makes several claims about the civic consciousness and political consciousness of Superman.  Superman could take over the government rather than using his cosmic level powers to combat petty street crime.  Superman could effect the causes of crime i.e. social causes but chooses not to.  This is a fair characterization of Superman from his inception all the way through the 1970’s.  The actions of Superman are absurd.  Superman literally saves cats while watching the world burn.  The shift in the average age of comic book readers led to readers that recognized this absurdity and Superman had to be changed to fit the needs of these readers.  Superman was depowered.

John Byrne was given the task in 1986 to write a miniseries, The Man of Steel, that would reboot the Superman mythos.  Can a rebooted mythos be a mythos?  The new Superman that was much less powerful than the Superman of the sixties which in comic book jargon is referred to as the Silver Age Superman.  John Byrne destroyed one of the essential features of the Superman mythos.  Superman does not kill!  Superman will go to absurd lengths to even avoid killing animals!  Byrne had Superman kill (Superman, vol. 2, #22, 1988)!

Superman #22

Superman is on an alternate Earth that is the home of the Silver Age Superboy.  The Byrne version of Superman did not develop powers until much later and did not go through a Superboy stage.  The modern Superman faces Silver Age Kryptonians super villains from the Phantom Zone.   The Kryptonians  are far, far more powerful than him and have already destroyed the Earth of the Silver Age Superboy.  The modern Superman does not have the power to contain the Silver Age Kryptonians and must take radical action to prevent his own Earth from ever being destroyed.  Superman accepts the utililatarian logic of war that the lives of billions outweigh the lives of three villains.  Furthermore, the villains have killed billions already and deserve the death penalty.

The modern Superman is immune to the Kryptonite of this Earth and uses the Kryptonite of this Earth to kill the three evil Kryptonians.  One of the Kryptonians is a woman!  Superman kills a woman!  Does this mean Superman is not myth?  I would argue that the Superman mythos is so powerful that if you asked a dozen people if Superman kills that most of them would say “no” and that the mythos is more powerful than the comic book.  While this reboot was dramatic, Superman had undergone changes in the past and Eco was probably unaware he was largely dealing with the Silver Age Superman rather than the Golden Age Superman.

The Superman of the 1940s and part of the 1950s was referred to as the Superman of the Golden Age.  The Golden Age superman could leap over a building.  The Silver Age Superman could leap into a space.  The Golden Age superman could lift a battle ship.  The Silver Age Superman could move planets.  The Golden Age Superman was less powerful and also much more likely to take the law into his own hands.  The Golden Age Superman was not a boy scout and even killed.  In Action #2, 1938, Superman does kill a villain.  Eco is obviously unaware of this part of the Superman story.  The Golden Age Superman was actually a fugitive because of his vigilante activities until 1942.  Eco is therefore not discussing Superman but the Silver Age Superman.   The Golden Age Superman slowly became the almost all powerful boy scout of the Silver Age.  The Silver Age Superman was too powerful and too much of a boy scout for the eighties.  The Modern Age Superman is much less powerful than the Silver Age Superman and much more critical of his heroics.

The absurdity of the still very powerful Modern Age Superman following the orders of a US President almost to the letter rather than taking a more critical political role was explored in the Dark Knight Returns (1986). The Dark Knight Returns is a seminal miniseries about Batman.  In this series Batman starts to question whether or not super heroes should use their powers more directly to shape the social and political landscape.  The arguments between Superman and Batman become the argument between the absurdist Superhero Eco describes and a post-modern self-conscious hero in the form of Batman.  The Dark Knight Returns was a huge hit and led to a whole series of comic books that explored the theme of a modern versus post-modern hero.  Batman argues that in some cases super heroes have a duty to disobey governmental authority but what are the limits of such disobedience?  In the same year another title at Marvel explored this issue more directly.

In 1986 the 12 issue miniseries called the Squadron Supreme was published by Marvel and featured a thinly disguised Justice League of America.  Hyperion is the Superman of this group and he decides the Squadron Supreme needs to take over the world!  The Batman doppelganger is Nighthawk and he opposes this move by his former teammates.  Nighthawk is the President of the US who was under the mind control of an alien and created the horrible conditions of that Earth due to that mind control.  This is reversal of the roles of Batman and Superman in the Dark Knight Returns.  Still the Squadron Supreme will not kill.  When Nighthawk dies in a battle with the Squadron Supreme, Hyperion decides the Squadron Supreme has gone too far and Nighthawk wins a pyrrhic battle.

By the year 1999 the world is ready for a super hero team that goes further than the Squadron Supreme.   The Authority has a team of super heroes flat out taking over the US government.  Again, if super heroes stage a coup are they still heroes?  The Authority is not presented as a rogue super hero team but rather as a super hero team that has decided to rebel against its absurdist role and are sane in an insane world.  The Authority does kick the Chinese out of Tibet.  The Authority does overthrow dictators violently.  Most of all, the Authority does terminate super villains, often brutally, rather than put them in jails that can’t possibly hold them.  The Authority occupies the Wildstorm universe that is part of the DC imprint but not part of the DC universe and is very much a “mature” title.

The absurdity of Superman’s boy scout persona was dealt with directly in DC universe in the Kingdom Come (1996) story line.  Magog kills the Joker after the Joker poisons all the workers in the Daily Planet including Lois Lane the great love of Superman.  Superman arrests Magog.  Magog is later acquitted of the death of the Joker by a court of law.  Presumably, the jury realizes the absurdity of trying to imprison someone like the Joker who will not stay imprisoned.  The legal system commits a blatantly illegal act.  In this story line, Superman then retires when faced with this fact.  This is assumed to happen in a parallel Earth rather than “real” Earth that the “real” Superman occupies

Overall, the extent to which a super hero crosses or does not cross two lines that define a super hero becomes a major theme of comic books in the new millennium.  One line is obedience to authority.  Super heroes obey the law.  Super villains do not obey the law.  This consensus was made official policy with the introduction of the comic code authority (CCA) that was adopted in 1954.  The CCA prohibited the presentation of “policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions … in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.”  This code was adopted due to the fact that the readership largely consisted of youngsters.  The first defining characteristic of super heroes has been explored in the new millennium on a large scale.

The one enemy Superman cannot defeat!

Marvel had a multi series story line called the Civil War (2006-2007) that looks at how super heroes and communities of super heroes react to a superhuman registration act.  I found the story line a bit silly since the government does not attempt to ban super humans and super heroics but instead register super humans and have them work for the government the same way a policeman or soldier would.  Iron Man is the main proponent of this act and proposes this legislation to stop the banning of super heroes altogether.  The compromise strikes me as very reasonable and very American and I absolutely did not buy into the plot line extension that has Captain America leading the rebel super heroes who fight the act.  Worse, you have Nick Fury the ex-director of SHIELD, the Marvel equivalent of the CIA and the FBI put together, aiding the rebels instead of the government.  What hero was on what side of the Civil War plot line seemed fairly arbitrary.  The fact that the numbers were almost equal was also ridiculous.  More people will follow a law than not follow a law all other things being equal.

Plus, wouldn’t most super heroes prefer to get paid for their work rather than risking their lives for free?  The financial woes of Marvel super heroes is one of the themes that Marvel pursued early on rather than DC.  When the King Pin discovers Daredevil’s real identity in the Born Again plot line, he destroys his civilian identity professionally and therefore economically!  In the very first issue of Amazing Spider-Man, Spider-Man attempts to join the Fantastic Four for a pay check since he is teenager making minimum wage when he can even get a job and promptly leaves the Baxter Building, home of the Fantastic Four, when he finds out there really isn’t a salary.  One of the heroes that joins the government initiative does mention looking forward to getting health insurance for a change!  Under the super human registration act, the super heroes even get to keep their secret identities, they just have to reveal them to the government.  We are supposed to believe about fifty percent of all super heroes will rebel against the government and turn down a paycheck.

The second line a super hero cannot cross is not killing.  Super heroes do not kill!  This is what makes them heroes and not soldiers.  The fact that super heroes do not kill has a history.  The Golden Age Superman and Batman did kill!  As mentioned, Superman beat a robber to death in one of the earliest issues.  Batman killed a villain in his very first appearance.  However, a consensus was reached at DC that super heroes did not kill and more especially Superman did not kill.   A similar consensus was reached at Marvel Comics.  One and only one major super hero in the Marvel Universe, the Punisher, will cross the second line and kill super villains.

Captain America beats the crap out of the Punisher when he joins the Civil War rebellion because the Punisher kills some super villains that want to also join the rebellion and arrive with a white flag.  Turns out the government is employing pardoned super villains to bring down the rebel super heroes so it is a fight fire with fire situation.  For Captain America you can cross the first line and disobey the government but cannot cross the second line and still be a hero.  Cap is a rebel but only to a point.  So lets get this straight Cap, violate Federal law ok, turn down pay check ok but kill scum not ok?  I think it would have been more interesting to see a third rebel group led by the Punisher.  Hey we are outlaws anyway, why not go all the way and do it right and kill the scum who the jails can’t hold anyway.

A really radical rebel hard core minority of super heroes armed to the teeth and trained by the Punisher versus a superhero establishment majority would have been an interesting story line.  Maybe it can be a What If graphic novel in the future.  What if the Punisher had led the rebels during the Civil War instead of Captain America?  A much more interesting exploration of crossing the second line, killing super villains, happened a year earlier in the Batman #635 and #636 over at DC.

In the Under the Hood (2005) story line, Batman faces an ex-Robin, Jason Todd returned from the dead in the form of the Red Hood who argues that Batman is a paper tiger since his rule about not killing is literally a fatal error.  The rogues gallery of Batman is one of the scariest around and I do have a hard time believing that his opponents care about a busted nose or going to jail at all.  If Batman is not a deterrent then how effective is Batman?  Any one over the age of ten realizes that ninety percent of law enforcement is about deterrence, via the threat of punishment, before the crime rather than punishment after the crime.  This is precisely the argument that the Red Hood makes.  Psychopath maniacs like Two-Face and the Joker think Batman’s code of honor is a joke pun intended.

When the Red Hood was Robin, the Joker killed him and the Red Mask was resurrected via cosmic means.  The Red Hood has “really” died in the Death in the Family (1988) story line.  Readers voted to have him killed!  The Red Hood hates the Joker and the demise of the Joker is one of the big goals of the Red Hood.  The Joker was the original Red Hood in the Killing Joke, often considered the best Joker story ever, by Alan Moore.  The Killing Joke may or may not be part of the current continuity, so there is a bit of inside Joke with Jason adopting this persona.  Incredibly, Batman tries to stop the Red Hood from killing the Joker.  The Joker is a mass murderer with hundreds of deaths under his belt largely due to mass poisoning who escapes from Arkham Asylum with ease.  He has shot the original Bat Girl for a lark and made her a permanent cripple.  The Joker has not just killed innocents but permanently injured one member of the Batman super hero family and killed another.  Sorry I am with the Red Hood on this one.  Kill the Joker!

The Red Hood is basically DC’s version of the Punisher.  DC tried a character rip-off of the Punisher called the Vigilante but he was pathetic.   I do think the Red Hood is a much more interesting character than the Punisher.  The Red Hood uses ironic dialogue while attacking Batman and blowing up bad guys that is much more interesting than the Punisher’s pseudo noire cinema dialogue.  The Red Hood, like the Punisher uses firearms but also uses exotic melee weapons that are not the Punisher’s style.  I find the armory of the Red Hood more interesting than the armory of the Punisher.  Go Red Hood!  I do a DC versus Marvel series on this blog and sooner or later will have to pit the number one vigilante of  the DC Universe, Red Hood, against the number one vigilante of the Marvel universe, the Punisher.  Comments ahead of time are welcome but back to the main topic.

Eco makes two errors of fact in his paper.  Eco asserts that comic books are published weekly.  American comic books are published monthly and bimonthly.  Certainly this is the case with Superman and all the other comic book titles he mentions in his paper.  Generally, US comic books are reprinted weekly in Europe and this leads to problems since the entire series is quickly reprinted.  Eco mentions a comic book named Devil.  There is no such American comic book and the author suspects that perhaps Eco is referring to Daredevil.  Daredevil in Italian is titled Diablo or Devil but this is not the name of the title in English.  These are minor factual errors and do not detract from the general validity of his thesis.

Finally, is the story of Superman actually a myth?  A myth is timeless and the fact that the Superman story has been changed to make the story more current and marketable suggests the Superman story is an intellectual property driven by market forces and is not timeless unlike a myth.  On the other hand, many persons familiar with the Superman story may only be aware of an archetype, Silver Age, version of the Superman story that may be timeless because it affects some core element, Jungian(?), of the reader’s psyche unlike revisions of Superman.  The Superman Eco describes may be in fact the Superman most of the world still knows and identifies with.  I would assert that not all comic book heroes are mythic especially in the present but if there is one comic book hero that is mythic then that hero is Superman.


Eco, Umberto. “The Myth of Superman.” Diacritics. Vol. 2, No. 1. (Spring, 1972), 14-22

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12 responses to “The Myth of Superman Revisited

    • Thanks! I am not sure this is the final version yet. I do plan a future post of my DC vs. Marvel series in which I look at how the US government is portrayed in each universe. To some extent ideas in this post, Superman as super boy scout, will be extended in the next post.

  1. John Ryan Recabar

    great essay. i love umberto eco.

  2. “Superman could effect the causes of crime i.e. social causes but chooses not to. ”

    That’s an interesting thought, but how much can he really do to combat these so-called social causes? The original critique is correct, in that Superman could do a lot more to affect society, like removing rogue dictators and weapons of mass destruction as The Authority does, but even that has a whole other set of problems. Sure, for example, Superman could have just flown over to Iraq, picked up Saddam Hussein, and take him right to Gitmo, but then what? As we see in real life, just removing one dictator doesn’t turn a country into a utopia. So would Superman now have take over Iraq himself to ensure peace? What about Iran, or North Korea, or Darfur? This was something that Mark Millar didn’t address in The Authority, what happened to that country after they let the leader get hacked to death by machetes? They just burst in, kill someone, and then leave. Ed Brubaker was the one who explored the real consequences of this type of action, when he took over the Authority. If you haven’t read his run, I recommend it. He had the team take over American, and inadvertently they just made things worse.

    Now, getting back to social justice, there are definite limits to what Superman can do. Sure, he could fly to some inner city neighborhoods and disarm gang members and track down drug dealers, and maybe personally clean up graffiti, and stuff like that. But can he provide jobs for these disenfranchised youth? Can he provide updated text books and equipment for the public schools? Really, when you think about it, using his powers the way he does, by combating supervillains and stopping fires, probably is the most effective thing he can do.

    If anything, this type of criticism is more properly directed @ someone like Batman. Is Bruce Wayne really making the best use of his talents by being a costumed crimefighter? Wouldn’t he be much better off by dedicating his life, and fortune, to doing things like donating to schools, creating sponsorships, building hospitals and homeless shelters, using his influence to elect and support politicians who will try to make things better, etc.? No, instead, he sleeps all day so that he can spend his nights jumping across rooftops to punch muggers. Bill Gates is much more of a “superhero” than Bruce Wayne ever was.

    • Excellent comments! I have not read the latest Authority stuff and you have given me an incentive to do so. I totally agree that just getting rid of a bad leader like Saddam is not a solution. As real life demonstrates, “liberation” is easy compared to nation building after liberation.

      Comic books in general revolve around a simplistic, but perhaps comforting, paradigm that bad guys cause suffering and if we remove the bad guys then we remove the cause of suffering. What if the root cause of human suffering is human nature? Humans may be programmed at the sociobiological level to be predatory, insatiable in terms of needs and this expresses itself in modern times as a destructive consumerism that destroys the environment, and ultimately a flawed creature whose technological prowess is far more advanced than its mechanisms of social or psychological discipline? Should Superman then change “human nature” and is he any better than Doctor Doom if he takes such a course of action. In other words we are the bad guys! Its not “us vs. them” but “us vs. us”. Alan Moore, in my opinion the greatest comic book writer period, does explore this in V is for Vendetta. V blames the British electorate for allowing a fascist government to take over when he takes over a TV station (Jordan Tower). The bad guys would not be possible if not for the instrinsic weaknesses of “The People”.

      Your take on Batman is excellent! I hadn’t really thought about it. I agree Bruce Wayne can do ten times more to alleviate human suffering than Batman. Batman must realize this at some level but of course Batman is motivated by a primordial desire for revenge and uses his Batman activities as a catharsis for the childhood trauma he suffered. The Nighhawk Marvel doppelganger of Batman does become President of the US and this a logical extension of the Bruce Wayne role but it of course ends in disaster because Nighhawk is take over by the Overmind (Squadron Supreme Miniseries, 1985).

      The mainstream DC Batman does something worse than not becoming President, he allows Lex Luthor to become president! To quote Plato:
      “The price good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.”
      I am sure Batman has read Plato and must have thought about this as he and Superman had to battle Lex Luthor, President.

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