Alvin Schwartz

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1870

Before the scientific hypothesis came along with its dependence on stored data and libraries and a written language, we structured the truths of our world in both physical and psychological terms by means of myths, legends, and fairy tales. The transmission of these fictional forms from one generation to the next was by word of mouth…. But when we examine the collected and printed forms of our oral tradition, we note how much of it, fairy tales in particular, has been relegated to the role of children's literature…. The fact is, of course, that fairy tales were never originally intended for children. But with universal literacy, children are the only ones left among whom the oral transmission of culture is still active for the simple reason that reading is not an innate capacity. Nor should we ignore the fact that fairy tales, owing to the kind of archetypal characters that people them, lend themselves particularly to the kind of acting out developmentally associated with childhood. (pp. 119-20)

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[It] occurred to me that Superman too was not originally written for children, yet somehow it had been taken over by them for the same reason that they had adopted fairy tales. I was to discover, bit by bit, that Superman was as much an archetype as many of his legendary predecessors and shared with them both a certain healing magic and a certain autonomy.

The Superman strip first emerged out of the world of pulp fiction at a time when that world was being transposed from the purely printed word into the graphic form of the comic strip…. Unlike many comic strips that have had a long history marked by a moderately ascending curve of popularity, Superman achieved a meteoric rise in a relatively brief period. But it peaked out within a period of about a decade, a meagre span compared to the longevity of appeal of many of our leading North American comic strips. At the same time, Superman spawned a host of secondary elaborations, "union suit" characters which in one modality or another tended to duplicate various extrinsic features of the Man of Steel without quite achieving his archetypal verisimilitude. (p. 120)

Superman may be ignored or forgotten …, but where he appears, he tends to retain his intrinsic character. And while Superman, like any other folkloric image, may become a subject and even a target for humor, within the strip itself, he can never become, as did Batman, a parody of himself. The differences between Superman and his "union suit" derivatives go deeper than that, however, as the following exegetical treatment of Superman's "secret" identity suggests.

Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet, is walking along when, suddenly, his super-hearing picks up the sounds of a robbery in progress. He steps into a nearby phone-booth. An instant later and the Man of Steel streaks toward the scene of the crime….

In the spate of recent books and articles on comics, I've not noted anywhere a sense of the significance of this familiar transformation scene. In switching from Clark to Superman, the comic strip hero is not donning a disguise but, in fact, stepping out of one. This is because Superman is the reality; Clark Kent is the disguise. To take this a step further, Superman is a hidden reality; his visible aspect, with the aid of his costume, is a highly colorful one, pointing precisely to his hiddenness.

Hiddenness in this special sense is a symbolic property since a symbol is one of the habiliments of value, and value is one of those ineffabilities that can only be made visible by its clothing. To put this seemingly paradoxical concept another way, there is that which we call "value" and which has no value unless it rests finally and absolutely in itself. That is, there is no "value" without a highest value and all other values derive from it hierarchically. This is a basic tenet of contemporary axiology, the science of value. (p. 121)

In his dormant or non-active, invisible, or "mild-mannered" phase, Superman is Clark Kent. In his active, otherworldly, or, if you like, avatar phase, he is made visible or incarnate by his colorful costume. Apart from that costume, he is largely colorless, pure essence rather than personality—and this is the case even apart from his role as Clark Kent, which is, at best, a simulacrum of colorlessness. It plays a part in the story, if you will, but it is not the essential colorlessness I refer to here. This notion will become clearer as we proceed with a more detailed analysis of Superman's Clark Kent persona.

Clark Kent, as we have already seen, is one of the aspects of Superman. As a reporter, standing at the center of the newspaper world of information and facts (how appropriately the newspaper is called The Daily Planet!), he symbolizes only a single higher function of Superman—the rational mind. In that role, he is the conforming, self-conscious mass man, completely anonymous, the split-off rational portion of that manifestation of wholeness which appears only at moments of crisis, embracing not only the mind but the imagination by its capacity for flight, by its otherworldliness, its irresistible power, its avatar role as it responds to threatening and extreme situations. Like the archetypal hero of many a myth, Superman broke into a particular segment of history, his moment of kairos, like an irrigation, a vivifying force arising out of what Carl Jung has described for us as the collective unconscious. And in the same way that Jung has treated the mythic tale as a "healing fiction," so too the adventures of Superman provide this type of "fiction par excellence"—a representation of reality from beyond the surface of the everyday; the Hidden, colorfully made manifest. But it is precisely by means of the "fiction," that is, the plot or story, that healing takes place.

To those of us with a secure share in the literate world of technology and information, who possess, in consequence, a variety of life options, there is no crisis and no healing irruption of the sort that Superman is capable of providing. But there are those who like children were much closer to the oral tradition when Superman first appeared. It was, it may be recalled, the height of the Great Depression. There were blacks, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans and, around the world, masses of semiliterate ghetto inhabitants, minorities, persons displaced by the devastating urbanization of rural cultures, who, in one way or another, were excluded; who, like children, had not attained that level of differentiated functioning that separated them from the oral tradition. And then too there were even those of us who maintained a firm grip on the rational until consciousness and rationality were shattered by World War II. This produced, to my mind, one of the most persuasive pieces of evidence that Superman had a certain healing quality for those who had no external choices. For during the war, fifty percent of the circulation of Superman went to the armed forces…. At the end of hostilities, when the conscript armies disbanded, Superman's circulation dropped severely. As ethnocentrism developed a new pride and new options among blacks, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, and other ghetto minorities during the fifties and sixties, Superman's circulation dropped further still.

What remains is now largely a children's market, not enough to sustain Superman at his previous meteoric level, but sufficient to keep him around for a while longer at a fairly steady rate. Children, of necessity, cannot escape from the kind of story-awareness that belongs to the oral mode. It is, in fact, one of the requirements of healthy psychic growth. (pp. 122-24)

If, as I have proposed here, Superman represented an archetypal intrusion from the unconscious, then for that reason alone there was a need for a separation of the realms. The promiscuous mixing of conscious and unconscious contents makes for psychological chaos and the character would have lost much of his numinous power and remarkable influence since he would then have been completely lacking in what E. F. Edinger has predicated of any genuine symbol—"a subjective dynamism which exerts a powerful attraction and fascination on the individual." So, in a sense, the character himself determined the conditions under which he was to operate, not the authors and editors.

It might also be worth noting that Superman, taken by himself, was like many heroes of his type, dull. Far more interesting were the Superman villains who, it should be remembered, had many things in common with Jung's description of the Shadow archetype. I refer particularly to such characters as the Prankster, the Toyman, Luthor, and certainly that fifth dimensional imp, Mr. Mxyztplk…. (p. 125)

The question as to why a hero such as Superman should be dull raises a similar question often posed in connection with [John] Milton's Paradise Lost, in which many have insisted that Satan rather than God is the real hero, since he is so much more fully realized as a character. The late C. S. Lewis has suggested that this is merely because we are incapable of fully realizing someone so much more perfect than ourselves. I don't think this is quite the case. Without the villains, there is no story, no plot, no "healing fiction." The problem of the separation and the need to reunify the opposites, the drama of the differentiated functions, imagination and rationality, consciousness and unconsciousness, struggling toward equilibrium, toward a self-regulating balance, is the important thing. Drama is never about wholeness. Wholeness is another state of being. It is unmanifest, withdrawn into itself. The cosmic dance goes on in costume.

Consider too that the Superman villains, like those in Batman and other comic strips of this type, are unwholesome precisely because they are specialists—not whole men. And it is out of their very lack of wholeness, that is to say, out of the conflict engendered by their fragmented or split-off personalities, that the drama develops and realization of sorts arises. (pp. 125-26)

[With] the Superman villains, their unwholesomeness depotentiated into a kind of dramatic humor by the healing magic of story. I introduced these comments on what we call "union suit" characters by suggesting that I was in thrall to an archetype. In fact, we all of us are. But not all of us have become conscious of it. There were several of us who wrote and edited and worked on the various Superman comic books, daily and Sunday newspaper continuities, and none of us, at the time, were in any way aware of what might be called the logic of the unconscious that compelled us to set up certain conditions for Superman's way of operating which, instead, we explained by means of the rationalizations I have described above. But in spite of our illusion of conscious control, Superman functioned with an autonomy real enough to have made his way into folklore. (p. 126)

Alvin Schwartz, "The Real Secret of Superman's Identity," in Children's Literature: Annual of The Modern Language Association Seminar on Children's Literature and The Children's Literature Association, Vol. 5, edited by Francelia Butler (© 1976 by Francelia Butler; reprinted by permission of The Children's Literature Foundation, Box 370, Windham Center, CT 06280). Temple University Press, 1976, pp. 117-29.

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