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Superman: Revisionist Superhero

Superman is one of the most well-known characters in the United States. Since his

creation in 1938, he has been in continuous publication, yet he has changed throughout his

existence in various ways. When he was first published Supermans powers consisted of only

superhuman strength, superhuman speed, superhuman senses, and invulnerability. Then other

powers were added like heat vision, flight, and the ability to break the time barrier. He was

eventually to the point where he was so powerful that writers had a very difficult time creating

stories that would be able to challenge Superman. This caused him to seem God-like and very

unrelatable to readers, which is why stories like Superman for All Seasons were used to revise

the character. Superman for All Seasons by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, illustrated by Bjarne

Hansen, reinvents Superman into a more human character that is more relatable to readers than

the God-like being he previously was. Superman embodies many different values that are

embedded in American culture and as a God-like figure he began to lose what made people like

him so muchhis Americanness.

Superman has reached the level of being a myth that is deeply rooted in American

culture. As Gary Engle wrote in his analysis of Superman called What Makes Superman So

Damned American he points out that Superman achieves truly mythic stature, interweaving a

pattern of beliefs, literary conventions, and cultural traditions of the American people (Engle).

Superman reflects the current beliefs of the society of the time period and changes alongside

American society. When Superman was first created his virtue and morality coincided with

Franklin Roosevelts New Deal. Superman prevented the United States from becoming

embroiled in European conflict, destroyed slums to force the government to build better

housingtore down a car factory because its shoddy products caused deaths, and fought a
corrupt police force (Gordon 181). All of these things reflected the hardships that the American

people experienced on a daily basis during that time period. However, as the United States

started to get close to getting involved in World War II, the writers of Superman added in the

idea that Superman fought for the American way. In doing so, Superman was transformed

into a symbol of more general American cultural values in that his individualism was tied to

consumerist values (Gordon 181). American ideals were at risk because of a rise in fascist and

communist governments during the time that this change was made and Superman was right

there to figuratively protect these ideals. Superman is a cultural icon that always possesses the

values that American society does because Superman fights for truth, justice, and the American

way, but the American way isnt immutable.

Superman for All Seasons also modifies the character to match society. When it was

written, society had become nostalgic for better, more simple time. Technological growth had

become rapid, issues that were hard for some to understand like global warming became a

pressing topics, and Americans couldnt even trust their own president because of his sex

scandal. Changes such as these caused Americans to have a feeling of nostalgia for a simpler

time and Loeb, Sale, and the illustrator, Bjarne Hansen, reflect that in this book. One way that

they instill a sense of nostalgia into this book is through the artistry and illustrations of

Smallville. Smallville is drawn in a style that is similar to the Americana paintings of Norman

Rockwell. In fact, they even dedicate this book in part to Norman Rockwell. Loeb writes, For

Norman Rockwell and his love of a vision that resonates through its limitations (Loeb, Sale 5).

Reading the name Norman Rockwell and then seeing frames in the book that were modeled after

his Americana paintings were meant to make the reader feel a sense of nostalgia that is

commonly associated with Superman. Supermans sense of nostalgia comes from the idea that
nostalgia looks to the past as a stable source of value and meaning but not necessarily with

the desire for a stable, traditional, and hierarchized society (Gordon 179). This is precisely why

Superman must be continually reconstructed. Superman has always embodied the values and

morals of American society, yet the encounters he faces are not the same because society always

changes. When Lex Luthor infects Metropolis with the virus he created, Superman is unable to

understand precisely what is going on so he has to ask for help. Superman shows the desire to

help those in need from evil, which is an American value that is embedded in his ethos, but it

also reflects how society also has difficulty in understanding these complex scientific issues that

have come about.

Superman has undergone many revisions because the opinions and attitudes of society

has changed in the 78 years that Superman has been in print, but he is not the only well-known

character that has been revised. Batman also went through a period of revision; however, Loeb

and Sale modify Superman in a very different manner. The difference comes from the method in

which the two superheroes were revised. Batman was modified in The Dark Knight Returns

through reconstruction, while Superman was modified through reintroduction. In reconstruction,

the goal is to break down the traditional aspects of the character and rebuild them in a new way.

Prior to The Dark Knight Returns, Batman was portrayed as a campy, light-hearted, and

somewhat silly character. However, this is not the Batman that is found in The Dark Knight

Returns. Author Frank Miller first rejected the things that were commonly accepted about

previous versions of Batman and then reconstructed the character in a new way. For example,

Miller rejects prior conventions of Batman by setting the tone of the book to be very dark. On the

second page of the book, the reader learns that Gotham is in a state of absolute peril. There has

been an incredibly long and miserable heat wave, crime rates are higher than ever, and three nuns
had just been murdered, which is a direct rejection of the much more positive depiction of

Gotham that came before it. Batmans deconstruction happens most prominently a little bit later

in the book. It was previously thought that Batman followed a rigid moral code that was he

would break the law in order to stop crimes, but he would never go as far as to kill anyone in the

process. Miller breaks this accepted idea down by having Batman actually kill someone to save a

young child. After rejecting notions about Batman that were accepted by people, Miller was then

able to reconstruct Batman into a character that is dark, serious, and will do whatever it takes to

protect the innocent.

Supermans revisions come in a much different style than Batmans. Loeb doesnt break

down or reject anything that is conventional about Superman. Superman is still an alien from the

planet Krypton; he is raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent in Smallville, Kansas; and he rivals

Lex Luthor in the city of Metropolis, where Clark Kent works as a journalist for the Daily Planet.

All of this holds true for the traditional Superman myth, as well as Superman for All Seasons.

Rather than breaking down these aspects of Superman, Loeb magnifies certain aspects of

Superman while downplaying others. The small-town Americana upbringing of Superman, the

imperfections and limitations of Superman, and empathy for humanity are all magnified to

reintroduce the character as a more human figure than the God-like one that Superman

previously was. The aspects of Superman that are downplayed are his alien nature and violence

are downplayed. This serves to take the emphasis off of the tremendous power that Superman

has because it is unrelatable to the reader. Instead, it place the emphasis on the internal conflicts

that Superman has such as how he has to cope with realizing that he has limitations and how his

small-town upbringing affects him.


Another form of superhero revision is through deconstruction. Deconstructionist

superhero writing is when the traditional aspects of superheroes are questioned and sometimes

even rejected. Alan Moores Watchmen is a prime example of this. Traditionally when reading a

superhero comic, the reader expects there to be a moral hero that is trying to preserve the status

quo of the city that they inhabit. Watchmen rejects this on the very first page when the hero,

Rorschach, who is completely immoral, says, The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder

will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout Save

us!... and I'll look down and whisper No.. This shows that the heroes in this story are not like

a typical superhero in terms of morality and empathy. Superman for All Seasons does not

question the traditional sense of morality that superheroes have like Watchmen does. In fact,

Loeb does the opposite. He magnifies it. Superman is depicted as a very empathetic character.

One example of this occurs after the tornado hits Smallville. Clark Kent was able to save a mans

life, yet he still felt bad. He says, I cant help thinking I could have done more (Loeb, Sale 39).

Superman feels terrible for what happened even though he saved a mans life. Loeb shows us

that Supermans empathy for other people extends to far greater lengths than other heroes.

Furthermore, Alan Moore deconstructs traditional superhero characters through the use of

analogous characters. The most notable analogy is between Dr. Manhattan and Superman. Both

are the most powerful beings on the planet in their respective universes that basically have no

limit to their power. The deconstruction is shown through Dr. Manhattans lack of humanity and

lack of involvement. Dr. Manhattan is so powerful that he cannot relate to human beings at all

and Moore does this to show that if there was someone as powerful as Dr. Manhattan or

Superman, they wouldnt be able to maintain their humanity because they are too distant from it.

Moore further deconstructs the all-powerful hero because Dr. Manhattan doesnt step in to
save the day like Superman always does. In the end, Dr. Manhattan believes that the status quo

of the world isnt worth saving so he simply does nothing and feels no remorse for it. Superman

is depicted very different. When all of Metropolis is infected by Luthors virus, there is a close

up scene where Supermans face looks dejected and it even appears that his eyes are tearing up

(Loeb, Sale 140). He is distraught that all of Metropolis is dying and his face shows his

emotions. He knows that he has to do something to save them and ends up having to swallow his

pride by asking his arch nemesis for help acting completely unselfish, which once again

magnifies the empathy that Superman has.

An additional aspect of Superman that Loeb revises is Superman as an immigrant.

Immigration is a cultural staple in the United States because at some point in time a member of

every Americans family had immigrated to United States and in the traditional Superman

mythos, he is no different. In fact, he is the ultimate immigrant since he came from another

planet entirely, yet he still has an opportunity to succeed in the Land of Opportunity just like

everybody else. However, Joseph Loeb and Tim Sale downplay this aspect of Superman and

magnify the idea that Superman is similar to normal Americans, not just immigrants. The book

starts off by showing a series of photographs of Clark Kents childhood. It shows his baby

pictures, him sleeping with his dog, playing catch with his father, swimming with friends, and

even prom night. A major function of these pictures is to show that Superman isnt simply an all-

powerful alien, he is actually just like everybody else. For example, one picture shows that even

though Clark was able to throw a baseball so hard he hurt his fathers hand, he was still just like

everybody else because he played catch with his dad (Loeb, Sale 3). Downplaying his alien

nature takes away from that aspect of the mythos of Superman, but by magnifying the idealistic

American childhood that Superman had still shows that Superman embodies American values.
Loeb downplaying the fact that Superman is an immigrant and magnifying his small town

upbringing actually makes Superman more relatable to Americans. According to Engle, the

importance of Superman being an immigrant was that it gave him a dual identity. These

identities, one based on where he comes from in lifes journey, one where he is going reflect

the same identities that immigrants have (Engle). Although this book downplays Superman as an

immigrant, it accomplishes the same goal of showing how a persons past affects their present.

Every person in the United States has some sort of cultural background that serves the same

purpose that Clark Kent serves to Superman whether they are from a big city, a small town, the

east coast, the west coast, or even a different country. Clark has his set of moral standards

instilled in him by his parents to always use his powers for good and these standards influence

everything that Superman does moving forward in life. This is exemplified when Superman

returns home to Smallville after he was unable to save the city from Lex Luthors poison.

Superman returns to his hometown dejected because he had learned that he had limitations. Then

Pa Kent comes to talk to him and tells him a story about his experiences as a farmer. Pa Kent

explains to him, Its not nearly as hard learning you have limitations as it is learning how to

work with them (Loeb, Sale 180). Pa Kent uses a metaphor about farming, something that Clark

Kent grew up doing, to give him advice that translates to his life as Superman moving forward.

Superman is able to save the town from the flood and eventually goes back to Metropolis, which

shows that Superman is affected by Clark Kent just like the average American is affected by

their past and immigrants are affected by their home country after coming to America.

Furthermore, Engle points out that Superman came as an orphan which meant that he had

to make a name for himself just like everyone pursuing the American Dream, but Superman for

All Seasons downplays the fact that Clark Kent is actually an orphan. Superman is able to pursue
the American Dream just like everybody else, but he is given a set of morals and values to do so

from his loving parents. The first section of the book is told from the perspective of Pa Kent

which is significant because it downplays Superman being an orphan while also making

Superman more relatable to the reader. Pa Kent sees him as his son, Clark, rather than Superman.

He teaches Clark to be a good person and that translates to Superman always trying to help

people. When Clark saves the man from the tornado Pa Kent even says, There are so few things

a person can be really sure of. But, I believe, in the wild trouble of that momentour

sonbecame a man (33-34). He doesnt say that is the moment where Clark became Superman,

he emphasizes that Clark is his son more than anything else.

Superman is also revised to be more human than before is through the magnification of

Supermans imperfection. Superman isnt all-powerful like he was previously depicted in earlier

comics. Granted that he still has super strength, the ability to fly, super speed, and many other

powers he still has no control over nature and Lex Luthor proves this. By infecting the entire

population of Metropolis with a deadly virus and hoarding the cure for himself there is nothing

Superman can do to save everyone. He is powerless in this situation and he has to ask his

nemesis for help to save the day. Clark Kent even reflects upon the situation and says I began to

think that I could do anything. And I cant (Loeb, Sale 180). Loeb and Sale show that Superman

isnt as powerful as he was once depicted and do so to make him more relatable. Another

example of Superman not being all-powerful in the book comes when Smallville is flooding.

Again, Superman cannot control nature and stop the flood from happening, but he does the best

that he can. As the town pastor notes, many people lost their homes and almost all of them had

property damage, but he did save all of the people from being harmed physically. He got them all

to safety, but he didnt do a perfect job. Despite a magnification on his imperfection, Loeb still
holds intact what the reader knows to be true of Superman which is that Superman is always able

to save the day in the end. He doesnt always do it perfectly, but he is still able to succeed in

saving a man from a tornado, saving a woman from a burning building, saving all the people

(and his dog) in Smallville from the flood, and Superman still plays a role in saving the day after

Lex Luthor poisoned the city. In all of his forms, Superman finds a way to save the day because

he embodies the value of hope that is fixed into American society. No matter the situation

Americans believe that there is hope that someone will find a way to make things right just like

Superman does which shows just how American Superman really is.

Superman for All Seasons reintroduces the character of Superman by humanizing him

and making him more relatable. At the peak of Supermans power, he was able to use the moon

as a weapon, reverse the rotation of the Earth and turn back time, and basically was as powerful

as one could imagine. This caused him to be seen as a God and unrelatable to readers. This story

brings Superman back to being a more relatable character while holding intact everything that

the reader knows to be true of Superman.


Works Cited

Engle, Gary. "What Makes Superman So Damned American?" Xavier School IB English 2012.

N.p., 13 July 2010. Web. 1 May 2016.

Gordon, Ian. "Nostalgia, Myth, and Ideology of Superman at the End of the "American

Century"" Comics and Ideology (2001): 177-93. Academia. Web. 1 May 2016.

Loeb, Jeph, and Tim Sale. Superman for All Seasons. New York, NY: DC Comics, 1999. Print.

Miller, Frank, Klaus Janson, and Lynn Varley. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. New York:

DC Comics, 2002. Print

Moore, Alan, and Dave Gibbons. Watchmen. New York: DC Comics, 1987. Print.