What is the significance of Superman’s ability to function rhetorically as a model?
Superman functions as a rhetorical model that affirms cultural cooperation in a dialogic relationship with American culture. The significance of Superman, as a rhetorical model, is the characters ability to both affirm and challenge, even shape, the perception of what America is or can be, as well as represent an identifiable, iconic symbol of what is best in American excellence.
Evidence of Superman’s role as a model – throughout the major comic books periods –can be found in the ways that he has defined and helped redefined what American excellence, American identity, is about. Superman represents a concrete construction; a bringing together a multitude of abstract ideas and values that make up America. He has been a champion of the oppressed, Action Comics #1 (1938), and defend of American home front, as seen in Superman #23 and 29 (1943-44), and even tackled fears of radiation from atomic weapons, Superman #61 (1949), during what comics fans call the Golden Age (1938-50).
In the Silver Age (1956-70) Superman took on foes from outer space, battled our fears of aliens and invasion, Action Comics #242 (1958) and #252 (1959). He faced his own evil twin (Bizzaro) in Action Comics #254 (1959), made tough choices when visiting is own doomed home world in Superman #141 (1960), and even fought his nemesis and anti-model Lex Luthor in a “fair” fight, Superman #163 (1963).
In the Bronze Age (1970-85) and onward, Superman struggled to stay relevant as his powers and abilities became an inspiration and hindrance, “No More Kryptonite” storyline of Superman #233-8, 240-2 (1970-71). Questions were asked: “If Superman Didn’t Exist?” Action Comics #554 (1984) and speculation was made about a world after Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow.
The Modern Age (1985-2000) witnessed a continued struggle for relevance and more attempts to “depower” and reinvent Superman, John Byrne’s Man of Steel mini-series (1986). Superman became the poster boy for government stooge, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and even had his identity uncovered by Lex Luthor, Superman (vol. 2) #2 (1987). In his struggle to stay relevant, Superman even died, Death of Superman event (1992), and in reflection, mourned, Funeral for a Friend (1992). Eventually, Superman was replaced and then returned, Reign of the Supermen (1993), got married (finally), in Superman: The Wedding Album (1996), and attempted to end world hunger, Superman: Peace on Earth (1998). Attempts were even made to imagine Superman on the wrong side of growing public debate, such as in Kingdom Come (1996), where he went into self-imposed exile for not killing but returned to face his own demons and more.
The dark tone of Kingdom Come forecast questions of relevancy in Superman against the growing zeitgeist of late modern era. In Post-Modern Age (2001-Present), the challenges to Superman, as a model, have grown and a skewed in relationship to a growing divergence with the cultural zeitgeist and leanings with regards to superheroes. Superman: Red Son (2003) reimagined Superman as hero of the U.S.S.R. but even so, he remained a model of what was right and decent. In Superman: Birthright (2003-04) his origin and back story was revised for the 21st century, while All-Star Superman (2005-08) reimagined Superman in his idyllic mythos as savior. Finally, Superman Grounded (2010-11) again attempted to bring Superman closer to the people of Earth, to re-identify.
Since it’s earliest founding, America has struggled to find a true social and literary identity. Superman has provided that identity for the past 75-years by functioning as a rhetorical model of what American ideals and values are and communicating them to the nation and the world abroad.