Eco and Superman
July 10, 2006

I mentioned in my Superman Returns review a bit about an essay by Umberto Eco. It is in The Role of the Reader and is called "The Myth of Superman." Unfortunately it is a bit dated. It was written in 1962 and thus primarily is dealing with the Superman of the 40's and 50's both in the comics and the television series. This was before DC, presumably to compete with Marvel, made Superman's "history" continuous. Up until then most stories were free standing and didn't make reference to others. Occasionally when something new was introduced, say Supergirl, other stories would utilize it. But there was little consistency and certainly no sense of the progression of time. Since one of the primary issues in Eco's essay is this role of time in Superman stories this changes things somewhat.

The point that Eco wishes to make is that Superman's time is essentially the time of modern media, such as advertising. The clock is reset at the end of each story. No real progression can be made. Superman can't really progress as a person. I believe Marvel Comics with Spiderman, The Fantastic Four, and others were the first to change this. Suddenly characters were more grounded in reality. They had emotional trials and progression. They were much more like real people. This was a huge revolution in comics.

Yet, the problem of time persisted. After all Superman came on the scene in the late 1930's. He'd be quite the retiree by now if time was working normally. This is, of course, a problem besetting all comics. I should add, by way of digression, that some writers at DC noticed this and "re-invented" the character in 1986. I didn't care for the re-invention too much myself. But by then I'd stopped buying comic books so it wasn't a big deal.

The second issue is that of change. That is, if there was a real Superman he'd make a huge impact on the world. Just look at how a relatively small tragedy like 9/11 reorganized the world. Imagine what would happen if an alien like Superman showed up with his powers and the associated implications of all the doings of the supervillians he combats!

The ultimate point I'm getting at is that while Eco's essay is very dated it is in some ways still very relevant. So I thought this week I'd take a few quotations from the essay on various topics and discuss them. I'll start tomorrow on the issue of time.


1: Posted By: Dallas Robbins | July 10, 2006 06:20 AM

Time in comic books has always been a "problem." I have not read Role of a Reader, but it sounds interesting, I'll have to catch up.

2: Posted By: Clark | July 10, 2006 12:04 PM

I have to confess I've just not read comics much since I was 14. I like the idea and have liked some graphic novels like Alan Moore's The Watchmen. But overall I just find the scripting kind of poor. (Not that this is unique to comics: I find this of novels as well)

Having given that caveat, let me say that I seem to recall this being less of an issue with DC than with Marvel. As a kid I was more a Marvel guy although I always loved Superman. But DC didn't re-energize Superman by taking X-Men's John Byrne over until after I'd stopped buying comics. (I still have most of the X-Men of Byrne's reign at that comic) I like the Superman comics from the late 60's through early 70's especially those Jack Kirby was involved with. I've always thought Kirby captured something about both Superman and Captain America which later more cynical authors and artists missed. But enough digression.

As I recall DC actually does allow the universe to develop further and further divergent to our own. Thus while I may be wrong, I seem to recall Lex Luthor becoming a significant politician and making big changes. Superman actually does get involved in events. And of course in graphic novels like Dark Night Returns this is even more true.

Marvel on the other hand always tried to have their cake and eat it to. I distinctly remember some Hulk comics from around '79 that had the Hulk laying waste to a huge swath of land. They have Jimmy Carter there looking at it all. Yet imagine if that actually happened. That would be considered far worse than 9/11 and certainly the public would be up in arms to do something more about the Hulk than was done.

It's that odd disconnect where events happen but don't really happen that I think Eco is getting at. And it was much, much more dominant in the Golden Age of comics. Thus the oft made comment of how Superman develops during the period of WWII.

3: Posted By: Stephen M (Ethesis) | July 11, 2006 09:04 PM

The same issues that occur about Superman, I first noticed when watching the later episodes of MASH. Every episode, someone learns something humanizing.

Every new episode, all the characters revert to archtype. So they are ever learning, but never changing.

4: Posted By: Ivan Wolfe | July 11, 2006 11:48 PM

Marvel and DC deal with time by claiming that the modern heroic age started a perpetual 10 - 12 years ago. (this occasionally leads to odd inconsistencies when things like the Fantastic Four's origin was tied up in the cold war, or that Iron Man was created in Vietnam - but current writers "rewrite" the past tales to make them fit into whatever was going on 10 -12 years ago).

5: Posted By: Clark | July 12, 2006 12:05 AM

I think Stephen though that while that was true of some aspects of MASH other things do change. The main characters that change are the main nurse (forget her name) and then even Peirce becomes somewhat more mature by the end. The big problem in MASH is that the time frame is supposed to be one or two years but the show lasted for 10. Heck the people really changed in that time. I did like the last episode which really shook things up by having Peirce have a nervous breakdown.

Ever since watching that show as as kid I've always wondered if Korea really does look like Southern California.

Ivan, Marvel must have changed a bit. As I recall back when I still read comics they would regularly refer to events in the 1960's despite it being 20 - 25 years earlier. I always wondered how they dealt with it now.

The bigger issue with Marvel is how much change they really would have on the world. I mean, come on, Galactus invades and nearly takes out the planet? Wouldn't that have huge ramifications on the planet's politics? Marvel always seemed a bit more problematic there than even DC.

The biggest problem for both though was how many Superheros and villians there were after a while. Something the show The Tick played up on and made fun of. They also had a certain unorginality about origins. For DC almost everyone is an alien born that way whereas with Marvel everyone is either a mutant or a victim of radiation.

6: Posted By: Ivan Wolfe | July 12, 2006 06:18 PM

Well, Marvel's "ten - tweleve years ago policy" has been unofficial and inconsistent until about five years ago, when editors have made it very official. A recent Iron Man story arc referred back to his origin, but changed quite a few things about it to make it fit more into a 1980s/90s era.

As for the politics: Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross's series Marvel dealt with that a bit, by having doomsday cults become popular when Galactus appears (he avoided the time problems by, in the script, directing the artist to make the main character look like both a well preserved 70 or a hard lived 35). That, combined with J. Jonah Jameson's "reporting" that claims that Galactus was a hoax perpetuated by heroes.....

As for the origins - they are tied up in the era. The radiation thing was popular in the 60s, but in modern Marvel and DC the heroes are now all the results of genetic experiments or unethical scientific research. Hero origins reflect the concerns of their eras. Most people aren't worried about nukes as much as they were in the 60s when Stan Lee, Ditko and Kirby essentially created Marvel.

7: Posted By: Kent Worcester | January 24, 2008 06:25 AM

Your readers may be interested to learn that Eco's 1962 essay is also reprinted in a recent collection, Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium, that was issued by the University Press of Mississippi in 2004. Arguing Comics features over twenty-five essays on comics by major twentieth century writers, from Irving Howe and Dorothy Parker to Walter Ong and Manny Farber. While the book has not been widely reviewed, it has been assigned in a number of college courses on different aspects of comics and the graphic novel.

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