The Re-telling of Superman's Myth: Superman Red & Blue
Superman Red & Blue is a graphic novel that groups six comic book issues that run from March 16 2021 to August 17 2021. The book is a collection of short stories by a number of different writers and artists. This article will examine how and what this recent graphic novel adds to Superman's mythos. To do so it will first explain what a myth is and describe Superman's character and why it is important. Next, Superman's myth will be examined and examples of it will be given. With this background covered, the article will address the main argument, namely, the relationship between the myth and Superman Red & Blue.
To begin with, the questions of what a myth is and what turns a narrative into a mythical narrative must be answered. Joseph Campbell (1949/2004), professor of comparative mythology and religion and literary theory at Sarah Lawrence College, states in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces that the “myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation” (p. 3). Myths are the forms in which our inner world is presented to the outside world. When forming a society, myths take the role of unifying the different inner worlds (psyche) of its citizens to construct a series of narrations that explain how the group perceives the world (Campbell, 2004, pp. 3-4). Today, we do not have myths as they were perceived in Ancient Greece or Rome, but we have stories that work as substitutes. For instance, Campbell (2004) compares the story of The Beauty and the Beast to the myth of Oedipus (p. 5). According to him, the myth of Oedipus narrates the passage of the hero as a way of transformation, focusing on the male gender, this idea is clearly seen in the figure of the Beast who suffers a literal metamorphosis (Bryant, 1989, p. 440).
One example of the connection between myth and psyche can be seen in the character of Heracles. When one reads a book about the twelve labours of Heracles, he is not just reading the tale of an ancient Greek hero, but the tale of the “Strongman,” a vigorous man of great strength who is moved by killing and conquest (Pike, 1955, p. 37). That is the essence and primal myth of the character, and it can be found in other mythological characters around the world, such as Gilgamesh. Superman also belongs to the category of the “Strongman,” but in many ways, he is the opposite power of Heracles, as he is moved not by murder and conquest but by truth and justice.
Superman is one of the most well-known pop culture icons of the 20th and 21st centuries. The character was created in 1938 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, both sons of Jewish immigrants who moved to the United States in search of a better life for themselves and their families. The immigration of their parents was partly what inspired the backstory of their most recognizable character, as the infant Kal-El's (Superman) parents saved him from his planet’s destruction by sending him to Earth. There, he was adopted and raised by a pair of Kansas farmers named Jonathan and Martha Kent, who named the baby Clark Kent. Journalist and biographer Larry Tye explains in his book Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero (2013) which narrates the life of Jerry Siegel, how the lives of Superman's creators affected the creation of the character. For instance, he states that Superman was created one week after Siegel's father was killed while his store was being robbed (p. 6).
Throughout the decades, Superman has seen many different iterations. In the 50s, for example, there were stories of the teenage hero joining a team to fight crime in the 31st century. At the end of the 90s, he was split in two, each representing different aspects of his character. In some cases, the changes were due to the different Comic-Book Ages in which he has been written about ever since he initiated The Golden Age of comics. This age ran from the late 30s into the late 50s and was when the first superheroes were created. The stories from this age were more kid-friendly and full of American propaganda due to the Second World War. This was followed by the Silver Age, which started with the creation of the second Flash, Barry Allen, and was marked by the Comic Book Authority, which did not permit the appearance of extreme violence on its pages. The current age is the Modern Age, which in itself can be subdivided as it does not have a fixed starting point (Woo, 2008, pp. 269-270). These variations of his character, even though some seemed rather outlandish, did not change the core of Superman's character, that which made Superman what he was. This immutability is the reason why Superman has become a myth. This notion is best explained by the philosopher and writer Umberto Eco in his text The Myth of Superman:
The mythological character of comic strips finds himself in this singular situation: he must be an archetype, the totality of a certain collective's aspirations, and therefore, he must necessarily become immobilized, emblematic and fixed nature which renders him easily recognizable (this is what happens to Superman); but since he is marked 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 (1972, p. 15)
As mentioned above, the graphic novel Superman Red & Blue is a collection of short stories about the Man of Steel throughout his career. Sometimes he is the protagonist, but on other occasions he is a side character or a motif for someone else. The graphic novel is nonlinear, and the stories may be linked to other Superman comics or be independent. The book also shows the character in a variety of his incarnations. Superman Red & Blue follows the path built by another famous graphic novel about the same character, All-Star Superman. In this latter comic, Superman is dying, and just like Heracles, he must carry out a series of tasks before his demise. However, it is not in the grandeur of the challenges where the appeal is found but in his interactions with his friends, foes, and the civilians he saves. The idea is best stated by the writer of the graphic novel, Grant Morrison, who, in an interview for Comic Book Resources, said:
The best stories are just about this guy trying to make sense of stuff and the girl doesn't like him as much as he wishes she would. The bad guy hates him, but he likes the bad guy. That real, small human emotional stuff works great when you blow it up to cosmic proportions (as cited in Mahadeo, 2011)
Superman Red & Blue is an excellent addition to the mythos since it takes Morrison’s idea and exploits it fully. There is not only one writer telling a single story about the character but many, each with their own independent views of what makes Superman Superman. Through different means, they all reach the same conclusion: what makes him super is not the godlike powers he possesses, but his humanity. A clear example is seen in “Generations,” written and drawn by Daniel Warren Johnson, where we see Jonathan Kent, Superman’s adopted father, afraid that he might do a poor job of raising this alien baby. Throughout the story we see him repeating a few key phrases to young Superman, who then, while saving the lives of people, repeats them to encourage them. These phrases are “You are special," "I love you," and "I’m proud of you.” The final image in the story is of the Man of Steel looking at Earth from space with a smile and tears in his eyes as he states his love for his adoptive home.
Another great example can be seen in the story "De-Escalation," in which a thief enters a grocery store at the moment when Clark Kent (Superman) is buying something. The superhero, without changing into his alter-ego, is able to talk the thief out of stealing, proving that it is not in his superpowers that the hero resides, but in his ability to empathize with others. As explained by the philosopher and professor of the College of Staten Island Mark D. White (2013), Superman finds a balance between his life as Clark Kent and his hero life, which is good for everyone as "It is through his relationship with his parents, his friends, and ultimately his wife that he is made human and made to care about the people who are not his own" (p. 269).
There are many factors that have made Superman one of the biggest modern myths, popularity and political ideology being two of them, but the most important of all is the continued reappearance of new comic books and graphic novels with a theme similar to that of Superman Red & Blue every few decades. These tales remind readers what the core values of the character are and why he still matters, even though he is nearly a century old. The character may have varied through the years, but the essential pieces of the myth are impossible to take away. The most crucial element is that Superman is a good person who was raised to believe that goodness exists in everyone. Unlike Batman, he is not motivated by grief and vengeance, but by love.
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Figure 4: Johnson, D. W. (2021, July 20). Superman red & blue #5 “Generations” [Illustration]. DC Comics.
Figure 5: Shaner, E. (2021, August 17). Superman red & blue #6 [Illustration]. DC Comics. Retrieved from: https://www.dccomics.com/comics/superman-red-blue-2021/superman-red-blue-6
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