Monday, October 13, 2008

Umberto Eco's "The Myth of Superman"

Umberto Eco is essentially treating Superman as a mythical character, and utilizing this character as a sign for us as human beings. This chapter is from within a book entitled The Role of the Reader, and therefore Eco makes many references to the ways in which the reader interacts with, digests, and consumes (although never completely swallows and is rid of) Superman as a character within an iterative (cyclical) scheme.

The Superman serials also exemplify something about the nature of the reader and the way in which we consume stories of a cyclical nature. He refers to "self-identification" of the reader with Superman (108) and Superman's mortality (if Superman were immortal, we the reader would find it difficult to identify with him), the "'romantic' demands of the public" for Superman to find love and have impossible adventures in the Imaginary Tales serials (115), and the reader's author-inflicted and self-induced loss of temporal progression within an iterative narrative. All of these methods of storytelling and character development are what make the Superman franchise a successful and identifiable one, one in which the character can be upheld as a mythical, god-like figure yet still have a humanly sense of responsibility and civic duty, and mortality in the form of the threat of Kryptonite.

The concept of these Imaginary Tales represent the readers' need for romanticism and satisfaction, yet Eco believes the reader would not be fulfilled if Superman were to, for example, actually marry Lois Lane. If he actually had a definite end to his courtship (marriage) and could no longer question if his love for Lois would ever be returned, Eco notes "it would of course be another step toward his death, as it would lay down another irreversible premise" (115). The comic book character must never have any milestones that relate to a progression in time, or there would be a clear end to the story, or at least a certifiable end in sight.

We also see this to be true for cartoon series, especially one with such longevity as "The Simpsons." American pop culture has followed this family for the past 19 years, and yet none of the characters have aged: Maggie has remained in diapers with a pacifier when she should by now be in college. These characters are also see wearing the same clothes in each and every episode and spouting the same catch-phrases, relating to Eco's concept of redundancy and the reader/watcher's tendency to follow "certain 'topical' gestures of 'topical' characters whose stock behavior we already love" (121) as a form of comfort and familiarity. In "The Simpsons", we see parallels to the Superman Imaginary Tales serials where the characters are placed in "what if" situations, but these are always set as hypotheticals (what the characters would look like when they do get older, what would happen if Bart were to continue a life of malfeasance, etc.).


Princess Leah said...

For more on Superman and his place in American society, I recommend the novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. The two main characters, Jewish boys & cousins--one a NYC native, one escaped from Europe just ahead of the Nazis--create their comic book super-hero by drawing on the golem myth of Eastern European Judaism. The golem was an unkillable defender who was fashioned from river mud (just as Adam was formed out of earth) and animated by inscribing the name of God on his forehead. The golem was created by a village to fight against anti-semitic attacks. Kavalier & Clay's hero is not called 'Superman', but he clearly calls this character to mind. Plus Chabon is a hell of a writer.

Like you need me telling you to read more stuff...

Unknown said...

reminded me of this wonderful scene in Kill Bill 2