Feb 19 2013, 7:46 AM ET
What is Superman’s greatest superpower?
Most people probably would argue for super-strength, though there might be votes for super-invulnerability or super-speed or super-flight as well. If you’re a super-contrarian with a few too many back issues in mylar bags, you might pipe up in favor of heat vision or x-ray vision or telescopic vision or super-breath or, in this decadent age, super-kissing.
However, Ben Saunders, an associate professor of English at the University of Oregon, suggests that Superman’s ultimate power is something different altogether. In his book Do The Gods Wear Capes?, Saunders argues that since his first appearance in 1938, Superman has been defined as a “moral agent who acts always out of his commitment to ‘the good.'” For Saunders, then, it isn’t superstrength or superkissing which makes Superman what he is; it is super-goodness.
The super-goodness that Saunders describes is a big part of why many fans are worried about DC’s decision to have Orson Scott Card write a story for Adventures of Superman. Card, the popular and critically acclaimed author of sci-fi novels such as Ender’s Game, is also an outspoken and active homophobe. He has argued in favor of sodomy laws, and is on the board of the National Organization of Marriage, which works against the legalization of gay marriage. In his fiction and non-fiction, he has often conflated homosexuality with rape and pedophilia, sometimes seeming to suggest that people become gay as the result of childhood sexual abuse.
News of Card’s selection has sparked a backlash. All Out, an international campaign for LGBT equality, has started a petition to call for his removal from the title, and it has already reached more than 12,000 signatures.
Most of the critics of DC’s decision, following Saunders’s logic, tend to base their objection to Card on an understanding of Superman as standing for, and representing, a kind of absolute, super-good. Graeme McMillan at Wired, for example, suggests that the anger over Card’s selection is natural—”After all,” he says, “doesn’t Superman stand against such bigotry?” Andrew Wheeler at the Guardian agrees:
Superman is a good guy. More than that, Superman is the best guy. Created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster in 1932, he’s the archetypal superhero, a man of enormous power who places himself in service to the powerless. To borrow a famous phrase from the 1940s Superman radio serial, he stands for “truth, justice and the American way.”
Richard Neal, a gay man and the owner of Dallas’ Zeus Comics, adds that his store will not be stocking the Card-written Superman, and explains “It is shocking DC Comics would hire him to write Superman, a character whose ideals represent all of us.”
By this logic, to have the actions and adventures of Superman controlled by an anti-gay bigot violates essence of the character.
But there’s another, less-obvious reason why people might find the juxtaposition of Card and Superman so disturbing. An anti-gay Superman is upsetting not just because Superman is not a bigot, but because, in some ways, he is one.
In an article in the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, Chris Gavaler argues that the Klu Klux Klan was one of the main historical sources for superheroes. Specifically, Gavaler says, pulp pro-Klan novels like Thomas Dixon’s 1905 The Clansmen put in place many of the tropes used by Siegel and Shuster when they created their first Superman stories. According to Gavaler, Dixon’s “Ben Cameron, aka the Grand Dragon, represents the earliest twentieth-century incarnation of an American vigilante hero who assumes a costume and alias to hide his identity while waging his war for good.”
As Gavaler argues, the KKK roots of the super-good Superman caused, and continue to cause, some problems for the character. Specifically, Superman may be committed to the good—but he’s also committed to vigilante violence. The fact that it’s vigilante violence in the name of good doesn’t resolve the contradiction; it simply heightens it. After all, there’s a pretty good argument to be made that vigilante violence is in itself an evil—especially in the American context, where vigilante violence is linked inexorably to racism, lynching, and the enforcement of 100 years of Jim Crow.
Gavaler notes that the connection between Dixon’s fiction and early superhero comics has been lost or erased from most historical discussions, and that’s certainly true. Nonetheless, vigilantism, and the problem of the good vigilante, has remained a live issue in superhero narratives. In Frank Miller’s much lauded Dark Knight Returns from 1986, for example, all superheroes are outlawed except for Superman. He works for an increasingly militarized and fascist American government, and ends up fighting the still-vigilante Batman. Similarly, in Marvel’s Civil War series, the government attempts to officially register superheroes, resulting an all out battle between pro-and anti-registration heroes.
These storylines don’t exactly repudiate vigilantism. Reader sympathy is often aligned against the encroaching government and with the unsanctioned rebels. But the narratives do serve to show that the comics are aware of vigilantism as a problem that needs to be justified if not repudiated. They also suggest the extent to which superhero-as-oppressor is almost as much of a trope as superhero-as-savior. Thus, the recent film Chronicle, in which a young boy gains superpowers and quickly morphs from superhero into supervillain, doesn’t so much undermine superhero tropes as fulfill them. Superheroes are always turning into supervillains, because, basically, everybody knows that vigilante violence is unstable and dangerous. Even at this late date, it’s just not that hard to look at Superman and see the outlines of the KKK.
It’s disturbing to have Orson Scott Card writing Superman, then, in part because Superman is supergood, and the supergood shouldn’t hate gay people. But it’s also disturbing, perhaps, because Superman is a violent vigilante—and because violent vigilantism in the name of good is often directed not against injustice, but against the powerless. Indeed, Orson Scott Card has actually made an explicit plea (in a now-deleted post) for the violent homophobic overthrow of any government that supports gay marriage.
How long before married people answer the dictators thus: Regardless of law, marriage has only one definition, and any government that attempts to change it is my mortal enemy. I will act to destroy that government and bring it down, so it can be replaced with a government that will respect and support marriage, and help me raise my children in a society where they will expect to marry in their turn.
If Superman thought the government was oppressive and that gay people were a threat to marriage and children, what would he do? It’s not like he’d reject violent vigilantism. Or to put it another way, Superman is not just a fantasy of goodness. He’s a fantasy of power. And I suspect it’s not just because of the first, but also because of the second, that we would rather not find out what Orson Scott Card has to say about the character.