Friday, September 7, 2012

Superman of Kansas and Krypton and Cleveland

By Kenyon Gradert, Course on Midwest Culture Series Editor
“Behind the high-flying legend lies a true-to-life saga every bit as compelling, one that begins not in the far reaches of outer space but in the middle of America’s heartland. During the depths of the Great Depression, Jerry Siegel was a shy, awkward teenager in Cleveland.”

 Much like a comic book origin story, thus begins Larry Tye’s Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero, released last June.  

I grew up on comics. When I met others like myself, the inevitable question was “Marvel or DC?” Expected to declare an allegiance, I placed my loyalty with Marvel, avowing that they do “more human stories.” Spiderman grew up in a place on a real map (Queens) and generally seemed like me.  Where was Gotham City? Aquaman from Atlantis? Wonder Woman was Amazonian? Why were the rest from space?

Superman seemed the height of this romanticism. He was a god with but a single weakness that seemed tacked-on so that writers could actually create stories (which, we all know, require weakness). To boot, the magnitude of superhuman power was grafted onto an utterly bland personality. He was a terrible combination of übermenschlich Everyman (Walt Whitman being a fantastic combination, for the record). At least Marvel’s equivalent, Captain America, came from New York City and fought in a war I’d heard of through grandparents. Even if Marvel writers risked the ridiculous by freezing Cap in ice, they revamped him through showing the moral and psychological tensions of dropping a robust member of The Greatest Generation into the 21st-century. Superman was from space and a fictional place blandly called “Metropolis.”

But he wasn’t just from space, which makes for the draw of Tye’s biography. Superman, the quintessentially red-blooded American, was created by two Jewish kids in Cleveland trying to fit in to a part of the country that too often considered itself quintessentially American. Ironically, in the process of trying to fit in, Siegel and Shuster stood two heads above all by creating a definitive American myth.

What’s more, Superman’s Jewish-Cleveland creators dropped their mythic creation from the starry heights of Krypton and into Kansas to be raised by humble farmers—not without significance. Superman would not be the same were he placed in Brooklyn like Cap. He’d be too earthly and less pure. As an Americanized Christ-figure, Superman could come from nothing short of a backwoods Nazareth, a pastoral landscape famed for supposedly producing the good, the representative, the plain, but also safely distant and ideal.

As stories have matured, writers increasingly paid attention to Superman’s earthly dwellings to ward off these potentially alienating mythic qualities. Smallville was perhaps the most popular renovation of the character, which materialized after series developers Gough and Millar pitched their "no tights, no flights" rule in the wake of a failed pitch for a Batman series.

The new film, Man of Steel (June 14, 2013), holds the promise of producer Christopher Nolan (of The Dark Knight franchise fame) and his trademark realist perspective on a story that is often too hard to make realistic. What can we expect? The recently released teaser-trailer focuses heavily on Superman’s rural origins (read, “cornfields”) but also frames a mythic struggle. In the American teaser, the montage features a voiceover of Superman’s earthly parent, farmer Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) telling his extraordinary son “you’re not just anyone.” The European trailer is identical, but with a voiceover from Superman’s celestial father, Kryptonian Jor-El (Russell Crowe) telling his son “you will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will rise behind you. They will stumble. They will fall. In time, they will join you in the sun.”

By the teaser’s account, the film promises to be a balance between Superman’s mythic strengths and his earthly troubles, between Krypton and Kansas, between the ideal and the real. Although the teaser seems to emphasize Superman’s troubles fitting in to the Heartland, it also balances these human struggles with the mythic image of a god’s loneliness in sea, earth, and sky. The balancing act is a tricky one, but necessary for a figure both ideally mythic and near to our hearts.

• A final Midwest connection. Larry Tye also wrote an award-winning biography on Satchel Paige, a southerner who made his name as a wild pitcher for the famed Negroe-League Kansas City Monarchs and later, the Cleveland Indians and St. Louis Browns.