The Many Faces of the Man of Steel


Go West, Superman

Superman as Western Hero

In June 1938, sandwiched between advertisements for model airplanes, fighting roosters, and assorted other novelties, an American hero made his debut in the pages of Action Comics. The public reaction to the new hero was quite favorable, and within months Superman was allotted his own series. Naturally, imitators soon followed, and before long the comic book industry seemed flooded with heroes capable of performing any number of spectacular feats here on planet earth. Indeed, Superman paved the way for the explosion of new characters with awesome powers by being the first comic book superhero to possess a variety of super-human skills, ie the ability to leap tall buildings, be impenetrable to bullets, etc. Granted, existing characters like Flash Gordon possessed certain heightened physical abilities, yet none had the all-encompassing super-talents that made superman seem so fresh. Moreover, previous superheroes generally existed in the distant future or in a foreign galaxy of some sort; yet here was Superman, reared in a small Mid-western town, fighting societies ills right here in depression-era America, today! While such a innovations surely changed comic book history forever, Superman is nevertheless not an unique figure. Further, many of heroic attributes Superman possesses seem to find their root in a collective consciousness already well established by 1938. Indeed, it seems that much of what makes Superman an enduring hero can be observed capturing the American publicís interest for generations prior to his inception; for an example of such, one need look no further than to the myth of the Western hero.

Our Hero
Superman traits are found in heroes throughout history.
The idea of the American Western hero is admittedly broad, as it covers everything from James Fennimore Cooperís Natty Bumppo to the tough-talking Clint Eastwood/John Wayne characters of cinema fame. While we could undoubtedly link certain traits inherent in Superman to any era of Western Hero, the most rewarding comparison comes from considering Superman in relation to the late 19th century western characters immortalized in the immensely popular pulp fictions that flooded the book market at the turn of the century. The success of such novels revolutionized the book industry, as a previously untapped American readership was discovered. Despite being wildly successful, such novels arenít remembered for their literary merit; instead their successes become what Henry Nash Smith calls "an objectified mass dream" where it is the similarity of the novelís story "to the dream life of a vast inarticulate public that renders them valuable to the social historian and the historian idea." Certainly, the Superman comics played a nearly identical role for depression-era Americans. For our purposes, however, these new, cheaply produced novels are especially important because of the new breed of hero they ushered in, men whom embodied a new concept of what it meant to be a hero.

One of the more popular tactics employed by 19th century pulp western writers was the notion of adding some sort of cultural hybridity to their hero, most often displayed by revealing that the rugged westerner has at some point been a well-bred easterner. Such culture straddling appeals to an American society reared on the notion of social mobility and self-invention. Obviously, the man of steel embodies such traits, as his white-collar simpleton persona Clark Kent is in constant struggle with the super powered immigrant from Krypton. It is precisely this duality that so captured the imagination of the mid 20th century comic book reader, just as the high born hero slumming in the American West had appealed to the pop fiction reader (and writer) a half century earlier.

Another unfortunate trait Superman shares with his 19th century western proteges is an inability to establish a meaningful relationship with a young lady. For our western heroes of yesteryear the problems are plentiful--from the hardships inherent in "domesticating" a hunter/trapper to the ingrained class system that generally prevented the genteel love interest from forming a respected relationship with the rugged (but handsome, and probably secretly high-born!) frontiersman. Superman, too finds courting Lois Lane to be something of a lost cause, for he too must conceal his true, highly appealing persona under the guise of the bumbling Clark Kent. The unwelcome advances from Clark and the ensuing rebuffs from Lois became something of a mainstay in the Superman tale, with the first episode including this gem:

A Super-date

How can Lois be expected to fall for the bookish Clark Kent when there are men like Superman around! Indeed, like the pulp western heroes who are able to marry their object of desire only after revealing themselves to be eastern gentleman, the reader knows that Lois and Clark could lead such a fulfilling domesticated life if only Clark would reveal his own illustrious origins.

In Virgin Land: the American West as Myth and Symbol, Henry Nash Smith writes that "the persona created by the writers of popular fiction was so accurate an expression of the demands of the popular imagination that it proved powerful enough to shape an actual man in its own image." Smith goes on to tell the stories of men making careers out of acting out the embodiment of the western hero that had been created by these pulp writers. Does the Superman myth prompt such real-life imitation? Certainly, one could make a rather tenuous case for the actors who would impersonate the man of steel in television and film; although the difference between real western men playing caricatures of themselves and an actor portraying a superhero is immense indeed. So, while Superman may often fall into the norms associated with the western hero, he most certainly embodies the characteristics the American public has come to expect from their heroes.

Created by: Erin Barnes • Dave Hendrick • Chris Yeung