So, this past week (and the one before), several elements and ideas came across my radar as I sift and examine the role of Superman as a rhetorical model (a role model) worthy of emulation and inspired action.
While waiting for a wedding to begin the Saturday before last (the 18th), I was struck by something that I decided to write down. So, here it is: Superman, being the template for all modern “super” heroes, being the first, has a responsibility that is built into the very core of the character. This responsibility is to convey the same ideal that heroes have been “burdened” with since man first conceived of them and spoke of them in mythology – to project a model of responsibility of responsibility of those who bear witness to their deeds, who hear about them and who are inspired by them, to wish to emulate this example.
That is a weighty bit of both responsibility on the “hero” but also on those who wish, in some way, to emulate that hero or superhero. In Action Comics #775 entitled “What’s So Funny Bout Truth, Justice & The American Way?” write Joe Kelly has Superman declare that “Dreams save us. Dreams lift us up and transform us and on my soul, I swear until my dream of a world where dignity, honor and justice becomes the reality we all share I’ll never stop fighting. Ever.” Now…that is a tall order. However, it speaks to three very distinct points worth noting.
The first is the idea and value of dreams. Some people treat dreams like they are something that goes on in the unconscious mind, but America, not to mention Superman and almost every other superhero found in the pages of comic books, is a dream. Dreams are hope; they are a belief that the world can be a better place. People spend their whole lives searching or chasing after their own version of the “American Dream.” Even more important, in order to understand the true nature and function of Superman, dreams inspire people to action and change. They inspire real life men that American’s revere such as Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy. These real life men carried out change and inspired others to “dream” as well. So, one might venture that dreams, having dreams – particularly in America – is something we take a bit more seriously than even we often realize.
The second is the idea of a perpetual and never-ending fight. This is something built into the comic book medium, a trope, but one might argue it is also a stand-in for the notion that life is itself, in one form or another, a struggle. For superheroes, for men and women gifted with extraordinary ability, the “struggles” are more than average – the struggles themselves become “super.” Dreams are things we struggle to make real. While Superman can save the day by preventing asteroids from striking the Earth or warding off super villains, the everyday person usually struggles to ward off bills or prevent their life from spiraling into chaos. So, really, how can the life of a superhero, trapped in the comic book pages locked in constant battle with villains and disasters that go on and on really compare to those struggles of the normal, real, everyday person?
The answer lies in the third idea found in statement above. This third points out the disconnect between ideals and reality that need to be reconciled. Superman can inspire in an individual the idea that if he can fight off the very evils of the world, then why cannot you, an individual person in the real world press on. Superman is hope. He is not allegorical, but applicable in the ways that the struggles he faces are fictional and astronomical, but the way he comports himself, how he handles the tough decisions and challenges he faces are manners and actions that even the “real” average human man or woman can look to and admire. Superman’s function as a model of behavior, of who we want to be – our better angels or selves – is something that bridges the world of fiction and reality with applicable concepts anyone can admire and emulate.
The role of Superman, as a rhetorical model, a figure who can inspire action and emulation in an applicable (and comparable form) is perhaps his truest and deepest power. He has his secret power that is the most powerful one. It shows in the comic books he appears in but its power reaches out even beyond those two dimensional pages. It crosses the third and fourth dimensions (yes, time – 75-years and counting) as well. The power of Superman as a rhetorical model reaches our real world and gives voice to the potential that lies in each and every one of us to make the world a better place in our own way. Superman offers up a potential ideal, that though at first glance appears to be fictionally out of grasp for reality, is, in fact, when looked at carefully filled with small bridges that allow anyone who looks close enough and hard enough can see hidden power that bridges the dreams of tomorrow with the reality of today.
Big goals, but Superman is larger than life. So, no more chasing rabbit holes for me, its time to put on a cape and believe that a man can fly.