Sunday, February 27, 2011


Unlike the formalist reading, a structuralist reading really can be of Superman in general, not just of one specific comic.  Structuralism, as the name suggests, looks at the structure of ... whatever.  You can do structuralist readings of single texts or of entire genres, of language or of culture.  Anything that is organized or patterned is fair game for structuralism.

Let's start by looking at the central characters.  Superman is a hero, Lois Lane is a princess (the object of the hero's desire), Lex Luthor/Brainiac/Metallo/Etc is a villain, Jor-El is a mentor.  All of these characters fit their structural roles in a usually uncomplicated way.  A structuralist reading would suggest that these are roles or functions filled in every narrative.

Superman stories have not followed the same structure throughout the existence of the character, but there are in general three kinds of Superman stories:

1) Superman intervenes to prevent some threat upon another character.  Superman is rarely under any direct threat in this kind of story.  The tension comes from the possibility that Superman will fail in his purpose, rather than the possibility that he will suffer any physical harm.  This is partly a threat of identity, because if he fails then he is not the hero.  This kind of story is typical of the Golden Age.
2) Superman's secret identity is in jeopardy.  Again, Superman is rarely in physical danger, but the tension here is more personally connected to the character, since his identity is in danger.  This kind of story is also a threat to the continued narrative.  Part of the tension comes from the threat that Superman's identity will be exposed and that therefore there will be no more stories.  This kind of story is typical of the Silver Age.
3) Superman is under some direct threat.  Again the tension comes partly from the threat of conclusion--the threat that this will be the last Superman story.  This kind of story is typical of the Bronze Age, where the drastic reduction of Superman's powers meant that he could be seriously threatened.

There's a lot more to do with structuralism--a lot of what gets said about superheroes is structuralist in its slant--but I'm going to let it rest here because I've been heard some feedback saying that my posts tend to be to long.  I'll do another structuralist post next, and then move on to ... I'm not sure yet.  Poststructuralism?  Deconstruction?

*Superstructure is a term from Marxist theory, but this post is actually about structuralism.  In Superman.  It's a pun, get it?