Good thing Superman has strong shoulders, because he
carries the weight of the world on them. We project all of our
cultural fears and anxieties onto him, constantly ask him for help
and rescue, and although times change, we prefer him not to.
Nevertheless, we tell his story over and over again. It
never gets old. The Daily Planet has yet to go digital, and
Clark Kent could no longer find a phone booth for a quick change,
yet Superman remains stronger than Kryptonite. We continue to want
to know what makes him make us tick.
In Larry Tye’s new book, Superman: The High-Flying
History of America’s Most Enduring Hero [Random House], we learn
why we have Superman on the brain, and how the Superman story is
actually Biblical (even more specifically, Jewish). We also examine
why, in this digital age, Superman continues to outsell all the
other sucker superheroes.
We think of Superman as a constant, but how can any
character continue to inspire millions through so many decades?
It’s his never losing the sense of right from wrong. Dark
heroes like Batman had a problem with that, and [Superman] was never
fraught like Spiderman. He was always the familiar Dudley Do-Right
kind of character. In times of trouble, like what we are going
through right now, I think he is really reassuring to people.
In your book, you theorize that Superman’s story is
actually based on a biblical theme.
in my firm opinion
— Jewish. I knew that his creators were
Jewish and his publishers were Jewish, but everything from the fact
that his name
— when he came down from the Planet
— was Kal-El, which in Hebrew suggests
the vessel or the voice of God. His “truth, justice and the American
way” were strained out of the Jewish book called The Mishna [which
instructs that] truth, justice and peace are what Jews must strive
for. He floats in from outer space and is rescued by his parents
two Gentiles named John and Martha Kent. They adopt him and raise
him in the Midwest. If that’s not the Moses and Exodus story, I
don’t know what is. Most compelling of all to me, any name that ends
in “man” is either a superhero or a Jew. In this case, it’s both.
In the Fifties, conservative America was spooked by the
immorality of comic books. This led to comic books being tossed into
bonfires and burned, which was a troubling reminder of Nazi Germany.
At that time, was even Superman considered immoral as well?
What we now refer to as The Comic Book Scare coincided with
The Red Scare. The idea that the PTA and various clergy were going
after comic books was surprising to me. The fact that one of their
prime targets was Superman was even more surprising. He was the most
straight-laced and un-sexiest of all the comic book characters. But
they couldn’t make a compelling case for comic books polluting the
minds of kids unless they went after the titan of the comic books,
and that was Superman. The fact is, he outlasted the scare.
We often think of a Superman curse, inflicted upon actors
like George Reeves and Christopher Reeve, who both played Superman.
Do you subscribe to this theory?
I would say that it certainly is compelling. Starting with
George Reeves and his suicide, continuing with Christopher Reeve and
his accident. On the one hand, you look at it logically and you say
that there were tens of thousands of people involved with Superman
in various media over the years, and bad things would happen to some
of them. It’s just a matter of chance. On the other hand, the notion
of a curse is too compelling to throw away. Too many bad things
happened in too dramatic a fashion that, even given chance, is an
awful lot of bad stuff.
Why does Superman continue to be so popular today? Aren’t
we more sophisticated and jaded now?
What we know for sure is, in the 1990s,
the bestselling comic book of all time was The Death of Superman
issue. So when we tried to get rid of Superman, people were
shocked and outraged. I think, when next summer we come upon
Superman’s 75th birthday, and with the new Man of Steel
movie, we will show that we need Superman now more than ever. Guys
like me would like to think that behind my Clark-Kent-nerd exterior
is a Superman. I think that everybody still can relate to that.
There are more Clark Kents than there are Supermans or Batmans out
there. And each story is still as compelling and as hopeful as it’s
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