The question for Superman, at least for me, is always, “Could they know?” And I usually ask that question of the Superman creators, and engineers-in-chief of the superhero genre, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Could they know what they were building? Could they know the lasting impact it would have? (For me the slightly more disappointing option always is to answer yes, it just robs Siegel and Shuster of that human frailty that Superman itself is designed to overcome). But after reading Superman Family Adventures #2, I’m beginning to ask, “Could they know?” of Art and Franco as well. In the pages of a single issue, of a comicbook meant for kids (so you shouldn’t read it, right?), Art and Franco manage to make the singularly most profound statement about popculture and its ability to nurture the human spirit. A statement, every bit as powerful as… well, let’s just say it’s a statement more powerful that a locomotive.
Superman is just fraught with sublime imagery. He comes to us dressed in the blue of Liberal values. The idea of change, of envisioning a new kind of society, and of racing to build it here, in the world we live in. And he comes to us wrapped in the red cloak of Conservative values, of tempering that change, and conserving the great strides made during the Revolution, and ensuring that that will remain a light in the world. And of course the third thing. Superman comes to us as popculture. A story that can be passed between us, one that’s been handed down from an earlier generation. One that can unite us.
It’s hard for me to read any story and not summon to mind images of Hokusai’s Great Wave. The image’s popularity has lasted nearly 150 years. It was one in a series of paintings about Fujiyama, featuring the ordinary lives of the everyday people who live and toil beneath the peak. Each of these paintings was rendered not as brushstrokes on canvas meant for display in a museum or in the homes of the rich, but as word-carvings on blocks. Each image was meant as a print, meant to be mass produced, meant to appear everywhere. It is one of the finest examples of the democratization of art, some 150 years before Warhol and Basquiat. It was when the image reached France during the late 19th century, and later during the Belle Epoque that the Great Wave truly entered the global mind.
And the image itself is moving. Although, as outside persons, you and I might fall more easily into the trap of reversing the linear lesson the image presents viewers with. Reading left to right as we do, we often “read” the image as telling viewers of the unmitigated sound and fury, the raw power of nature, threatening to overwhelm the human condition. But in a right-to-left oriented writing tradition, like that of Japan, a different story emerges. What we see instead is a singular fearlessness, and act of surrender to The Void that appears just before the tuna fishers hit the fury of the wave.
Flip the image upside down and you’ll see the negative-space wave. It’s that emptiness between the boatmen and the actual wave that represents The Void, the highest element in traditional budo. Surrender to the emptiness of The Void is surrender to the infinite. It is the only legacy a human can leave—the courage to surrender control. The Great Wave then is a lasting statement about the true value of popculture; how the popular culture of human endeavor (the boating and the tuna fishing) brushes up against the true high culture of raw power of nature.
Ironically, Hokusai had to be coaxed out of retirement to render his most powerful, most recognizable work. Maybe, coaxed is too subtle a word. Forced into doing the series of wood-carvings to settle gambling debts, would be correct. The gambling debts were not even his own, but his son’s. Hokusai in 1844 had already had an illustrious career. He’d already retired and retired well. His family as well his daughter’s family would be financially comfortable until their dying day. But Hokusai’s son had fallen in with gamblers and perhaps even yakuza.
Isn’t this the true plea of the Occupiers in Zuccotti Park? That we need to reengineer the economy in such a way to ensure that we have the capacity to care for others? To express that care financially? To extend ourselves?
If not Occupy, this is certainly the challenge Bizarro represents to Superman. The idea that he can extend his cloak of family to include even the most imperfect analog of himself. And at the same time, begin to hold that imperfect clone to the higher standards of the Kryptonian symbol for hope that is emblazoned on both their chests. Red cloaking blue, and facing The Void. Art and Franco find both the inner Hokusai and the inner America in this magnificent issue. But their true genius lies in making this insight available for an audience still steeped in their own childhoods.