'Our Hero' Is an All-Too Human History of the Last Son of Krypton

by Eric Altman

30 June 2010

Tom De Haven explores the tumultuous and surprisingly shady background of Superman by examining the all-too-human element of his progenitors and legacy.
cover art

Our Hero: Superman on Earth

Tom De Haven

(Yale University Press)
US: Mar 2010

Superman has always struck me as one of the most compelling figures in comic book lore. I think part of that comes from his simplicity as a character: Superman is extremely powerful. Superman is extremely good. His incredible strength and at times god-like abilities inevitably carry the day through any conflict he encounters, and he consistently emerges unscathed (except for that ever-so-brief period of Comic Book Death) and on the side of capital “J” Justice.

Superman is essentially perfect, both mentally and physically. He doesn’t have very many personal flaws: he lacks the troubled past of Batman, the systemic media oppression of Spider Man, or any of the other emotional malaise that so often plagues superheroes in modern comics. Superman is simply that: superior to the rest of us. In this fashion, he is frustratingly omnipotent compared to other, more “human” superheroes and that chagrin has alienated many would-be fans from Superman (though ironically, he is an alien, in case you’ve forgotten).

What has made Superman so intensely interesting to me is a single, nagging question: what is going through Superman’s mind when he sits down to eat a burger? Think about it. You have the world’s most powerful being, essentially a demi-god, and he has a vested interest in not only stopping world obliterating scenarios, but also assisting average citizens not immediately perish in the increasingly hostile DC world. These goals, in a world populated by Lex Luthors and literal hordes of lesser archvillains, are definitely time-consuming pursuits.

Sometimes a man, even (especially?) Superman, has just got to eat a hamburger; Superman has to sit down and eat it knowing that without him, the world is spiraling towards one abyss or another. A volcano is exploding, Bizarro is back, the time-continuum is rupturing, again; Superman chows down peacefully. What could possibly be going through his head? Does he feel guilt? Relief?

Superman is a strange fusion of an all-powerful alien with the needs of an everyday human being, and that contradiction has always been at the center of my fascination with the Man of Steel. How can an immensely moral being who once blew out stars with his breath justify eating a burger while Lois Lane is getting robbed down the street? He can probably even sense that it’s happening. Chomp. Chomp.

This contradiction between the omnipotent power of Superman and his obfuscated personal complexity as human define the character in a fashion that doesn’t particularly fly with his standard interpretation. In his book Our Hero: Superman on Earth, Tom De Haven explores the tumultuous and surprisingly shady background of Superman by examining the all-too-human element of his progenitors and legacy: the neighborhood boys who dreamed him up and were subsequently screwed, the sheisty editors who profited from their creation, the beleaguered crew of writers and artists, and the public’s insatiable demand for more and more Superman.

The result is an extremely scholarly and well-written book that addresses the impressive task of situating the concept of Superman in a historically informed relationship to America. Yet, for all the incredible scholarship that has obviously gone into this well-researched text, at times Our Hero achieves a personal intimacy between the writer and reader that really pulls you into the narrative; I finished the book in a single evening.

Part of what gives the book its charm to me might diminish it in the opinions of others; it’s much more about the cultural baggage of Superman than it is about the comic book character. While De Haven consistently draws upon the comics as reference points (especially in the hilarious chapters that center on the tenure of infamous editor Mort Weisinger, a supervillain in his own right), the book is much more focused on the people who helped create the Man of Steel.

In doing so, De Haven spans the entire length of time that Superman has existed, continually examining the industry and culture that Superman existed within in a compare/contrast relationship with his comic book exploits; the result is absolutely fascinating, as he exposes the cutthroat and often outright cruel nature of the business, especially in the formative years of Superman, with the constant foil of Superman’s often cheerful and dream-like fictional adventures. This people-driven analysis also highlights the impact of individuals on Superman himself, as the reader watches Superman evolve from a cheerful avenger of justice to an omnipotent near deity to his eventual reversion, all based on the whims of his editors and the general public.

The subject of Our Hero may be Superman, but De Haven focuses on the sad story of his progenitors, artist Joe Shuster and writer Jerry Siegel, using their plight as the unacknowledged and continually beset creators to clarify the inhumane nature of the comic book industry; Seigel and Shuster languish in obscurity and economic/emotional misery as their creation becomes a multi-billion dollar cultural paragon of Americana. It is difficult not to draw an obvious metaphor between the iconic double life of Ur-dweeb of Clark Kent and his soaring alter-ego.

What might put some readers off from this particular piece is De Haven’s organizational structure: without clear chapters, the book, though relatively short at 206 pages with large font, feels rather engulfing and the delineation between time periods is rather unclear; this results in the book having at times the unsettling feel of a long, if amusing and informative, rant.

De Haven also focuses less and less on Superman as the book progresses. Towards the end, the Man of Steel seems almost tangential as De Haven concentrates his efforts on discussions about that absolutely awful Christopher Reeves movie and cartoons on the WB network. Still, even the latter portion is very well written, and De Haven remains a very funny and engaging writer. This book about a comic book hero could’ve used a few more pictures as well, as I often really wanted to have photographs of the people and especially the artistic choices De Haven describes.

Our Hero thoughtfully presents Superman as not only a superhero but also a conceptual mirror that reflects our culture and our values back at us, both the good and the bad, all the while passively critiquing the human condition through his very existence. It ends satisfyingly enough, but its primary subject is no less mysterious and his appeal is no less diminished.

I still wonder what might be going through his head while the Man of Steel eats a burger, but De Haven’s book functions as an excellent analysis of Superman’s often ubiquitous presence in the real world. The character of Superman remains a consistent critique of America, as the incredible feats he performs succinctly illustrate what we desire Superman to be, up-to and including burger connoisseur.

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