Heinz Politzer

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1022

[Superman] has hardly more than his name in common with [Friedrich] Nietzsche's blasphemous and iconoclastic phantasm; in fact one suspects that he originally owed his "super" to the "super-duper," the "ne plus ultra and then some" of advertising usage. This Superman is a Li'l Abner without Mammy Yokum and without popular background, a hillbilly without the fertile background of folklore or remnants of creed. He is a Goliath rather than a David, but a Goliath who has joined the side of the conventionally right. The most serious objection to him I have heard from the mouth of a child: that he is immortal, and therefore the amazing things he does are not miracles.

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The emblem of his supermanhood is inscribed on his chest, not on his forehead. He is as guileless as Li'l Abner, but he lacks the primitiveness of the country boy; the old magic that flows from the contrast between city and country is missing. Li'l Abner is at home in Dogpatch, Superman in the universe—that is, nowhere. Superman is on the side of the right as well as of hygiene. He uses violence against violence. His eyes penetrate granite walls and steel plates, but he does not see what Mickey Mouse always sees: reality. Plants serve him and the elements lie at his feet, but in the main his accomplishments are limited to smoking out a small gang of criminals or outsmarting some master mind. The mountain labors and—with the help of modern technology—brings forth a stunt.

An example of the irony unintentionally provided by Superman is the sequence in which he magnanimously carries away a glacier in order to help a village with its drainage problem. His work done, he has to bring a new glacier from the North Pole, because nature … plays a trick on the winged lord of creation and floods the village. Superman has about him something of [Johann von] Goethe's Sorcerer's Apprentice, of Dr. Faust, of Hercules, and of Atlas. To be sure, Jules Verne and H. G. Wells also make their contribution to his costume and trappings, but essentially he owes his effect to the vanishing remnants of ancient mythology, that collective memory of mankind which has here been combined with utopian anticipation. He does not embody all this, for Superman has never achieved such density of personality as Li'l Abner, for example, but he does draw constantly from a plentiful, if shallow, reservoir of watered-down myths and pipedreams of the future.

Superman is a product of the last war, the shadowy but legitimate son of the Hitlerian age and the atom bomb. Although, as we have stressed, he comes in the wake of a long tradition, it is upon the miracle of technology that he finally calls in situations that can no longer be met with the implements of reality. The deus ex machina has become the machine god. Superman is the boy's dream in pictures, but through the dehumanization of the miracle and the substitution of technical for poetic fantasy, his face has acquired a terrifyingly unhuman, aggressive, and hard profile, foreshadowing a world in process of formation, a world that is certainly new but far less brave than it thinks and claims to be. Seen politically, Superman is the promise that each and every world problem will be solved by the technical trick. He is the Man of Tomorrow; so he says himself. (pp. 50-1)

Myths crumble, heroic figures can be watered down, but symbols and names cannot be used with impunity. And even though this bashful, amiable Superman is to the petty Ubermensch who unleashed the Second World War as Robin Hood to a storm trooper, they have one thing in common: they both blur the transition from the technically possible to the miraculous-irrational, their efficacy rests on the vague hybridism of heroism and Utopia, of technology and the miracle.

Superman announces himself the ally of right, the people, and democracy. Prankster is his enemy, Lynch is a thorn in his side; he issues forth to vanquish the tyrannosaurus rex, as Siegfried did to slay his dragon. But his credo, like the "balloon" in which he expresses it, is loosely attached and interchangeable. It is not the natural expression of himself, like Li'l Abner's far more modest self-avowals. He has merely put on his credo like his winged cloak. He lacks human reality; is it not precisely his mission to abolish reality?

Superman, in fact, is a figure of dual identity. He slips from the civilian clothes of his everyday life into the ceremonial garb of his miraculous deeds and back again; he is a quick-change artist, and even more amazing than the ease of his metamorphoses are his trifling reasons for undertaking them. But the dual identity motif is the schema of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—a pattern bordering on that of the pathological swindler and criminal. For a popular figure, it is not without its dangers. The double face and the split personality are symptoms of a disease that has attacked our civilization. And, more often than not, it is also an attribute of modern dictators, perhaps of the tyrants of all epochs.

Superman has become anchored in those sections of the population that are most naive, most capable of enthusiasms, and most susceptible to revolutionary impulses. By the technique—general in the comics—of breaking off the text just before the climax, by creating new climaxes almost from day to day, it creates an excitement close to enchantment and frenzy. A toy, a puppet, Superman is a monstrous carnival figure combined of wishful dreams and present anxieties, of sensationalism and abused enthusiasm. Accustomed to change his identity, Superman has it in him to become a political figure. To play with him is to play with the dynamite of our times. (pp. 52-3)

Heinz Politzer, "From Little Nemo to Li'l Abner," in The Funnies: An American Idiom, edited by David Manning White and Robert H. Abel (excerpted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.; copyright © 1963 by The Free Press of Glencoe, a Division of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.), The Free Press, 1963, pp. 39-54.∗

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