My first set of comments on Eco's essay "The Myth of Superman" consist of his contrasting of classic myths with the Superman stories. Fundamentally myths are a "complete" work. We know exactly where the story is going. The story is repeated over and over again. Yes people might add in new side stories but fundamentally there is an end that culminates the myth and makes it into myth. Myth by its very nature is what one could call a totalized story. That is it is the story as a known whole that makes it able to function as a myth. Modern sensibilities are different. We demand uncertainty in our stories. We, unlike ancient cultures, value the new over the repeated. This intrinsically creates a problem for Superman. His narrative is a narrative that attempts to have a foot in both camps but ultimately has it in neither.
Allow me some quotes from Eco's essay and then some commentary. Note the caveats I brought up last time. Eco's essay is dated having been written in the early 60's. But some elements are still applicable. Further the underlying philosophical issues are interesting.
The mythological character of comic strips finds himself in this singular situation: he must be an archetype, the totality of certain collective aspirations, and therefore he must necessarily become immobilized in an emblematic and fixed nature which renders him easily recognizable (this is what happens to Superman); but, since he is marketed in the sphere of a 'romantic' production for a public that consumes 'romances', he must be subjected to a development which is typical, as we have seen, of novelistic characters.
[ . . . ]
. . . . In fact, the obstacle once conquered (and within the space allotted by commercial requirements), Superman has still accomplished something. Consequently, the character has made a gesture which is inscribed in his past and which weighs on his future. He has taken a step toward death, he has gotten older, if only by an hour; his storehouse of personal experiences has irreversibly enlarged. To act, then, for Superman, as for any other character (or for each of us), means to 'consume' himself.
Now, Superman cannot 'consume' himself, since a myth is 'inconsumable'. The hero of the classical myth became 'inconsumable' precisely because he was already 'consumed' in some exemplary action. Or else he had the possibility of a continuing rebirth or of symbolizing some vegetative cycle-or at least a certain circularity of events or even of life itself. But Superman is myth on condition of being a creature immersed in everyday life, in the present, apparently tied to our own conditions of life and death, even if endowed with superior faculties. An immortal Superman would no longer be a man, but a god, and the public's identification with his double identity [Clark Kent] would fall by the wayside.
Superman, then, must remain 'inconsumable' and at the same time be consumed' according to the ways of everyday life. He possesses the characteristics of timeless myth, but is accepted only because his activities take place in our human and everyday world of time. The narrative paradox that Superman's scriptwriters must resolve somehow, even without being aware of it, demands a paradoxical solution with regard to time.
The problem is the traditional philosophical problem of the particular versus the universal or Being versus Becoming. Superman is not the traditional mythic character like Zeus or Thor. He exists in our time. As such each act is not the repeatable part of a meaningful whole that is present and repeatable. (Like the story of say Hercules) Rather its future due to the demands of modern narrative must be essentially open. But we also demand him to be mythic.
This leads to the odd situation where Superman can act but unlike either the mythic character or the human character these acts can not count. For the mythic character each act is part of a totality. Each act is essentially repeatable and it is this repetition that gives myth its power. For a human being each act essentially narrows down our possibilities. It is a kind of consuming of our life that points us to our final consumption in death. That is humans, unlike myths which are eternal, are essentially being-towards-death. It is death which gives us our characteristic nature.
Superman can't do this. He is neither universal like Zeus nor finite like you or I. Each act he commits is always committed under erasure. That is it doesn't matter. The authors might decide to "re-invent" Superman, as was done in 1986, erasing all that went before. Not an erasure like we find in the death of a human being. But an erasure in the sense of a forgetting. It is as if his actions never took place. But the re-invention of Superman by John Byrne wasn't the first instance of this. Rather it was but one moment in a history of erasures that Superman experienced.
Especially in the era of the 1940's and 50's - the era Eco addresses - each Superman story was largely independent of the others. When some new characteristic was introduced (say kryptonite) other authors might reuse it. But essentially each story was told, until the 1960's, as if the other stories hadn't happened.
So Superman's being is neither that of a Platonic universal like the Greek myths nor that of a finite singular mortal existence. It is something else entirely. Something in a way less than either of these. Superman isn't essentially repeatable nor is he essentially singular. Rather he is always under erasure with only traces (like kryptonite, his suit, some of his powers) remaining.
The proposed analysis would be greatly abstracted and could appear apocalyptic if the man who reads Superman, and for whom Superman is produced were not that selfsame man with whom several sociological reports have dealt and who has been defined as 'other directed man'.
In advertising, as in propaganda, and in the area of human relation: the absence of the dimension of 'planning' is essential to establishing paternalistic pedagogy, which requires the hidden persuasion that the subject is not responsible for his past, nor master of his future, nor eve subject to the laws of planning according to the three 'ecstasies' of temporality (Heidegger). All of this would imply pain and labor, while society is capable of offering to the heterodirected man the results projects already accomplished. Such are they as to respond to mar desires, which themselves have been introduced in man in order to make him recognize that what he is offered is precisely what he would have planned.
The analysis of temporal structures in Superman has offered image of a way of telling stories which would seem to be fundamentally tied to pedagogic principles that govern that type of society. Is it possible to establish connections between the two phenomena affirming that Superman is no other than one of the pedagogic instruments of this society and that the destruction of time that it pursues is part of a plan to make obsolete the idea of planning and of personal responsibility.
Here I confess I'm less convinced by Eco. His point is ultimately that of responsibility with the semiotics of advertising being the type. Advertising exists in an odd temporal structure that seeks to subvert our responsibility. We forget the past rendering purpose difficult. We are unable to see any future rendering planning impossible. Is Superman a type of this modern "ideal"?
I don't think so. For two reasons. For one, advertising is essentially unable to do this: either forget the past nor forget the future. So I think that on that analysis Eco is simply wrong, even in terms of the ideal of advertising. (Maybe things were different in 1962 when modern media had been around such a short time) Secondly I am just not convinced this captures Superman. Both due to the changes that took place in the comic media in the 1960's and the 1990's but also for other reasons I may get to later.
But allow me to continue to quote Eco.
A series of events repeated according to a set scheme (iteratively, in such a way that each event takes up again from a sort of virtual beginning. ignoring where the preceding event left off) is nothing new in popular narrative. In fact, this scheme constitutes one of its more characteristic forms. The device of iteration is one on which certain escape mechanisms arc founded, particularly the types realized in television commercials: one distractedly watches the playing out of a sketch, then focuses one's attention on the punch line that reappears at the end of the episode. It rs precisely on this foreseen and awaited reappearance that our modest but irrefutable pleasure is based.
This gets in, I feel, to the interesting question. Superman clearly partakes of types without being a type. Further Superman partakes of singular moments, without being essentially a collection of such moments. Our anticipation set some limits for the Superman character. Yet, and this is where Eco goes astray, we also demand a play that undercuts our anticipations somewhat.
So we are left with a kind of iterative scheme but one that isn't iterable the way a true archetype or myth is.