Tuesday, April 16, 2013
April 16, 2013: Comic Book Heroes: Superman and Batman
[A series on AmericanStudying some of our most popular comic book characters. Add your responses, and takes on other heroes and comics, for a super weekend post!]
On two distinct AmericanStudies contrasts between our two most enduring superheroes.
A great deal of ink—actual and electronic—has already been spilled about the identities, not only individual but also as a matched pair, of Superman and Batman, Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne, the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight. Heck, there have even been multiple special comic book series dedicated to the pair’s crime-fighting adventures. Having been created at almost exactly the same time—Superman debuted in 1938 and Batman in 1939—and having evolved, through comics and TV shows and films and reboots, in eerily parallel ways, the two caped crusaders stand as the yin and yang at the top of the superhero pyramid (us Spiderman fans might protest, but, well, we’d be wrong). How much more can an AmericanStudier say about these two?
For one thing, I think more could be made of the immigrant vs. insider dynamic at play in the two characters’ backstories—and, more exactly, how each seemingly flips that backstory on its head in his present, mythic status. Superman, the immigrant from a foreign land (well, planet) who has to change his name in order to assimilate to his adopted family and the United States, ends up becoming the classic all-American symbol and success story, beloved of his countrymen. Batman, the son of privileged and powerful parents, born on third base holding a silver spoon, ends up rejecting much of that identity in favor of the shadows and dark corners, feared far more than he’s admired by his fellow Gothamites. Damned if I know what to make of those shifts exactly, but at the very least they reflect, individually and even more as a tandem, that superheroic myth-making is just as partially related to original identities and communities as is the self-made man narrative.
For another thing, I’d say that the two characters illustrate two very different models of American heroism, images that contradict each other yet have often seemed to coexist in particular moments and stories. In our narratives of the Union’s victory in the Civil War, for example, we tend to give similar credit to Abraham Lincoln, the larger-than-life superman giving the era its moral gravitas; and to Ulysses S. Grant, the down-and-dirty fighter willing to use whatever tactics seemed necessary to get the job done. The two are difficult to reconcile—at the same moment that Lincoln was delivering his unifying Second Inaugural, envisioning reunion between the regions, Grant was pursuing the final stages of his “total war” strategy, devastating the Confederacy on every front. Yet it’s also possible to see them as necessarily complementary—perhaps Superman’s idealism needs Batman’s realism to get the job done; and yet without the idealism the realism would perhaps seem too dirty or debased. The yin and yang of our superheroic myths.
Next hero tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on these characters? Other comics you’d highlight?