Superman As Postmodern Spectacle
by Matthew Klauber
Imagine an old Rock Hudson / Doris Day romantic comedy in which Rock plays a god attempting to live on earth as a mortal, his power limited only by the need to keep his identity secret from his love interests and everyone else. Also kryptonite. It is precisely as such a whimsical camp spectacle that the Superman of the early 1960s should be appreciated.
Long neglected by comic aficionados because of its overpowered yet almost smugly righteous hero, language that is stilted even by the standards of that era's DC comics, and sitcom-like throwaway stories that often see the invincible hero struggling with personal issues in outlandish situations more than fighting evildoers, early-'60s Superman actually does have a surprisingly great deal to offer. One must simply read it ironically.
Even more than most pop culture, Superman offers a unique window into the broader society that generated it. Superman is the quintessentially American hero, an immigrant alien brought up on a Kansas farm who uses unstoppable power only for the most impeccably moral purposes.
Golden Age Superman was less powerful than his Silver Age counterpart, and also quite a bit more savage. He would routinely smack around street criminals, Nazis, and arch-villains alike with what clearly appeared to be lethal force, not to mention an air of supercilious disrespect. That was the Superman of rough-and-tumble high modern America, the industrial powerhouse of the early 20th century, with its teeming immigrant slums, rampant street crime, depressions, labor unrest, and world wars dressed up as moral crusades.
By the early 1960s, modernity had begun to give way to postmodernity. The world of grimy tenements and factories gave way to suburbs and service industries. The total wars fought with such self-certainty gave way to a stalemated Cold War with mounting costs and ambiguities. The world was being drawn together by trade agreements even as it was burst apart by the collapse of colonial empires.
In short, a world of stark binary opposites had been replaced by one of mosaic fractures and self-questioning anxieties. Under these conditions, the ruthlessly righteous Superman had been replaced with a banausic god. Now less a reflection of real conditions than a projection of an ideal fantasy, America's iconic superhero was becoming less and less representative of a nation slowly beginning to understand the limitations of its power and its values.
Where modernist narratives concerned the emergence of a new rationality from violent chaos, postmodern narratives told of an irreconcilable fragmentation of life and reason and the inherent artifice of truth. The hero from Krypton now spent much of his time unraveling pranks played by his own friends while playing a few of his own.
For instance, in one story Lois Lane and Lana Lang strike a deal to end their rivalry for Superman's affections by pretending to challenge each other to a duel. Superman guesses what they are up to and, enlisting Jimmy Olson as a mostly unwitting accomplice, creates robot copies of the women and uses them to convince each that they had accidentally killed the other.
Instead, it's Lois and Lana who teach Superman a lesson. When he tries to explain the situation to them, they cause him to think that they had fallen over the side of a building after fighting over who was responsible for faking her death. When Superman saves them, he realizes that he had really just saved his own robots, as the real Lois and Lana mock him from above.
Other story lines are equally convoluted, farcical, and self-contained. Superman discovers that his friends at the Daily Planet are going to reveal his secret identity in a story, then that his friends are actually robots who work for a robot master. The master is ultimately revealed to be the Justice League, who had planned the ruse to lure Superman to his Fortress of Solitude for a surprise birthday party.
Mr. Mxyzptlk erases the entire world's memories of Superman and all trace of his existence, until Superman tricks him into saying his name backward and temporarily disappearing. The League to Destroy Superman fools him into stepping into a kryptonite-based space ray that cancels his powers unless he's upside-down. Superman in turn fools them by having Supergirl disguise herself as Circe the witch and pretend to force him to do demeaning stunts that always involved standing on his head. And so on.
It's a Superman self-parody situated in a world of fragmented, autonomous storylines. However, the theme of mischievous deception that pervades so many of these stories also ties them together, while drawing attention to the nature of the medium itself. Pop culture in general, and comics in particular, may be seen as a larger-scale version of the trickery highlighted by the 1960s Superman.
Again, by this time in history, Superman, like much of the rest of American pop culture, could be seen as a kind of lighthearted ideal that stood increasingly at odds with the real society that gave rise to it. Whether this was in any way consciously intended by the comic's creators is unclear; neither is it clear why it should matter.
Why should a discriminating collector be interested in early-1960s Superman? It is because the apparent superficiality of the characters and plots can be read as a kind of ruse of the same kind that feature so prominently in these comics. There is a vast ocean of meaning under the surface, if only one knows where to find it.
Part of the value in collecting comics is the thrill of literally owning a piece of past culture, and in the nostalgic joy of appreciating as an adult things one loved as a child. In turn, much of the charm of nostalgia is that one appreciates these things differently, knowing more about oneself and the world. One collects early '60s Superman for exactly this reason. In fact, once one understands the story behind the story, the seeming simplicity of these strips only serves to highlight their nostalgic and historical appeal.