Thursday, January 26, 2012

Superman: Marxist.

Though it is true that Superman has been portrayed as a communist in at least one story, you should not understand "Marxist" as "communist".  Marx was, in Foucault's terms, the founder of a discourse.  He was the first to write from a certain perspective, and everyone who writes from the same perspective--even if it is to discredit Marx--is writing within the discourse of Marxism.  When we're thinking about literature, any time we focus on class, or economics, we're reading from a Marxist perspective.

That said, there are implicit class positions in Superman comics.  Grant Morrison once said in an interview that "Bruce has a butler, Clark has a boss".  In his earliest incarnations, Superman continually and predictably fights against the powerful on behalf of the weak; against the rich on behalf of the poor.  In one of his first appearances, in Action Comics #3, Superman rescues some trapped miners, then threatens the owner until he provides better conditions and pay for the miners.  In Action Comics #8, he destroys the slums of Metropolis to force the government to rebuild them.  I wrote each of these stories in a previous blog post, and I bring them up again now to stress that Superman, in his original inception, was explicitly concerned with class.

The Superman of the Silver Age (see this post for more on the "ages"), as Eco points out in his essay "The Myth of Superman", fought mostly for the protection of property.  Superman, whose power in the Silver Age was such that he could (and did) easily crush coal into diamonds, and search the bottom of the sea to find sunken treasure.  In other words, he was removed from the need for capital, but protected the capital of others.  In contrast to Action Comics #8, the Superman of the Silver Age does nothing to change society, but instead works carefully to uphold it.

We can read any individual Superman comic through a Marxist lens, and find that the subtext changes dramatically depending on the writer and on the editor, on the political atmosphere of the time.  I think that if we read Superman in general, however--if we focus on the parts of Superman that remain the same and on the impetus for the character--we'll find what in theological terms we call "a preferential option for the poor".  I think Superman is fundamentally a conflicted character.  He does uphold the status quo despite the fact that he has the power to change it.  But Clark Kent doesn't have a butler, he has a boss.

1 comment:

  1. But why does he have a boss? Isn't it just part of the act? A means to an end? Does he ever actually submit to his boss, or does he merely use his position for access to information and a convent cover story. As pointed out, it's not like he needs the money. And it's not like he's ever found his job difficult, has he?