Hello everyone, as most of you know I’m still deep in the trenches of college. However, today marked the end of the semester, so for a little bit at least I am free of academics! While that means I have been unable to post much this last week, I have lined up something special for you all. As apart of my academic career I am increasingly interested in comic books as academic material, thus I was able to do my final rhetorical analysis over comics (I do pretty much every semester).
Thus I will use this post to share with you what I’ve spent most of my week working on!
I hope you enjoy as I get nerdy and academic with Superman Red Son.
Power or Persuasion? Champion or Conqueror?
Popular culture has quickly garnered a new found importance within American Society. With characters that have become not only symbols within American culture, but universal symbols for “truth, justice, and the American way”. However, is our society fascinated with the characters themselves, or the power they have? Friedrich Nietzsche coined the term Ubermensch, loosely defined as “over-man” or “super-man”. Nietzsche went on to say that the Ubermensch would have great powers, and utilize those great powers and be a revolutionary advancement past humanity. In Thus Spake Zarathustra Nietzsche stated “I teach you the Superman. Man is something that should be overcome” (1883), this has always defined the Ubermensch not as an ultimate savior, but as an ultimate conqueror. Thus by embedding super hero mythology into culture, are societies really reaffirming moral traditions, or simply destroying them? The graphic novel Superman: Red Son by Mark Millar, Dave Johnson, and Kilian Plunkett takes the most recognized and most symbolic hero of the super hero genre, and shifts its ideologies to create an interesting look at whether the Ubermensch has to seek power over others. By analyzing the text I hoped to gain a clearer perspective on what Nietzsche’s ideal reality for the Ubermensch was, how that definition is meant to be read rhetorically, and whether or was the precursor for Lawrence and Jewett’s Monomyth theory.
Superman: Red Son takes the traditional cast of Superman characters and assembles them in a completely new world. Rather than landing in Kansas, Superman’s ship lands in a Soviet collective in the Ukraine. The story is told through the perspective of Superman, which allows readers to understand his motivations better than the other characters. While many key players in the Superman mythos show up in interesting new ways, the most noticeable and important character that appears within the work is that of Lex Luthor. While the story sees Superman becoming the leader of Soviet Russia (and later most of the world), the book sees Lex Luthor become the champion of democracy and capitalism. Red Son exists outside normal comic book continuity, which means that characters are not bound to corporate gains and can instead become a part of a complete narrative. It is these types of books that are most often examined by scholars, as they offer the purest look at a character. The book creates an interesting ideological shift, in which the familiar hero Superman is cast as the conquering Soviet dictator, as his arch nemesis assumes the mantle of hero as he serves as the champion of the American way of life. While the book is full of interesting parallels and intriguing looks into the super hero mythos, for this analysis I focused solely on Superman and Lex Luthor, to determine if Nietzsche predicted their actions or whether good characters will always remain good characters.
The narration through the story makes it clear that this Superman is the same as the one we are familiar with, save the ideological and political shifts. It is this fact that would challenge Nietzsche’s theory the most. Superman has never once sought to lord his powers over humanity, but if placed in front of him, would he take the chance? Scholar and writer Adam Roberts summarizes Nietzsche by stating “The Superman is something radically different from, and superior to, man” (2005). He later goes on to say “The Superman is beyond value judgment, beyond conventional morality, beyond the limitations, servility and petty resentment that hem about the lives of people like you or me” (2005). Thus does Superman truly embody Nietzsche’s belief on the “will to power”? Through the course of the story, we see Superman save everyone he can. Within the story he says “I answer every cry for help”, and indeed he seems to, often to absurd lengths. This would make it appear that Superman was free of value judgment, judging humans not by ideological or political means, but as people. In the midst of a battle with American forces, Superman accidentally causes collateral damage in Metropolis. As a giant piece of sky scraper plummets towards the crowd below, Superman stops it and saves the innocent American bystanders. In perhaps the penultimate image from the piece, Superman is seen holding up the piece of skyscraper and handing a frightened boy (standing directly where the debris was about to collide with the street) his balloon. While I had initially been thrown off by it, this scene represents the “will to power” better than anything else in this work. Superman is above all normal human bonds. He sees no race, class, gender, politics, or ideology. Superman only sees humans.
While this confirms that Superman does indeed qualify as Nietzsche and Roberts’ definition of the Ubermensch, it leads to the problem as well. Because Superman does not worry about what defines us as humans, he misunderstands humanity. By not recognizing in form of social classification, Superman ultimately alienates himself from humanity. In the book, Superman witnesses a line of starving workers in Red Square, waiting for food. Due to his lack of understanding when he tries to amend the situation, he only makes it worse. It is at this pivotal point that Superman lives up to expectation and takes it upon himself to “fix” the world. The book sees him unite the entire world under a communist regime and eliminate crime and poverty across the world. While America survives the last holdout of free enterprise and democracy, their unwillingness to convert to Superman’s way of life causes Superman to make radical policy changes. While he repeatedly advocates “peace and peaceful solutions”, Superman almost gleefully terrorizes and tortures the opposition. All those that stand against him are “reprogrammed” by being lobotomized and put to menial tasks.
So while a promising chance to disprove Nietzsche at first, even Superman becomes the exact definition of the Ubermensch through the course of the story. What’s worse, his dictatorship of fear and power only reaffirms Lawrence and Jewett’s theory of the Monomyth. Superman only springs into hyper-violent action after he feels he needs to redeem himself in the eyes of his fellow countrymen. By doing so, he enacts the redemptive violence ritual that Lawrence and Jewett have theorized will bleed over from popular culture into American society. The combination of the two gives a glimpse into a frightening reality that we might share (1988, 2002). But is this the only way to look at Superman’s actions in the book? Does the ideal Ubermensch always pair so well with the American Monomyth?
Superman isn’t the only hero of the story, nor could he be seen as the true protagonist of the work. Red Son gives Lex Luthor a surprisingly different interpretation, and this time as the real hero of the story. While just a man, Lex Luthor repeatedly proves himself superior to everyone else using his intelligence. He demonstrates this by balancing the national budget within a minute, never losing a chess game, and in many other feats. So while he has no powers, nor does he strive too, his intelligence and “human ingenuity” alone place him well above the other people and beings in the world. It is this intelligence that allows him to do things no other man on earth could do things that even the likes of Superman can’t do. Thus he fits within Adam Roberts’ modern definition of the Ubermensch. In the story, Lex is hired by the President to work on an anti-Superman device, one that will end the Soviet threat and possibly end the Cold War. After years of failed attempts, Lex pairs with an alien invader to destroy Superman. While that too fails, they succeed in shrinking the entire city of Stalingrad and placing it in a bottle. When Superman arrives to amend to situation, Lex challenges him to return Stalingrad to its original size, to which he fails.
It is this scene that sets the tone for the entire story. From a critical standpoint, this moment in the narrative reveals that Lex has permanent power of Superman. Lex becomes the only person capable to save the city, and proves that Superman can’t do everything. This is Lex’s “Will to Power” moment. This is what places him not only well above the rest of humanity, but above even the supposed Ubermensch as well. As the true Ubermensch, Lex is able to not only save and reunite the struggling United States, but prove that democracy and free enterprise can work. Lex gets himself elected President and returns America to the super power status it had been missing since Superman conquered the world. All of his accomplishments after Stalingrad, allow Lex to maintain his power of Superman. He solves all known diseases, advances life expectancy, and truly unleashes humanities potential for good. His final victory over Superman comes not with weapons, but with words. As Lex says “Why don’t you just put the whole world in a bottle, Superman?” Thus not only does Lex distinguish himself as the true Ubermensch in the work, but is able to establish peace in a non-violent fashion. This would make it appear that Lex is the ultimate savior of the story, and serves as a contradiction to both Nietzsche and the American Monomyth.
However, this realization could be seen as a falsehood. The end of the book sees Superman stepping down, and Lex reestablishing world peace. In the process, he creates the Global United States, the ultimate democratic endeavor. Using the resources of the world, Lex Luthor is able to eliminate all worldly problems. Shortly after he is seen disbanding government entirely, governing the world with top minds in every discipline. All of this is meant to paint the picture of a brighter tomorrow, but only serves to exploit the ideological shift. The reader is supposed to believe this is good, as the Americans and the American way of life won. In reality, it was Lex Luthor that won, and then proceeded to do everything that Superman did, but with different methods and a different ideology. Lex is able to do all this with less violence, torture, and corruption than Superman, but the result is the same. Lex establishes himself as the ultimate power in the world, so powerful that he defeated a god with only a single sentence. While a better alternative to Superman; even Lex Luthor’s “Will to Power” resulted in him seizing power over the world. Thus he becomes Nietzsche’s ultimate Ubermensch. Not only is he a more super-man than Superman, but he does it all while technically being man. It is common place for The Ubermensch to be forgiven of his violations, as he is not human. However, scholars have stated that for there to truly be an Ubermensch, it would have to be human or of human design. Thus while Superman might get a pass, Lex stands as the golden model of the Ubermensch. A being that is well above humanity, while still being of human origin, that uses his power to seize control over humanity.
However, how are we supposed to read the Ubermensch rhetorically? While yes, both of the “over-men” I have discussed ended up conquering the world, wasn’t it for the right reasons? Nietzsche said “What is the ape to man? A laughing stock or a painful embarrassment. And just so shall man be to the superman; a laughing stock or an embarrassment” (1883). Neither Superman nor Lex was laughing or scorning the human race, they were trying to save it. They didn’t pity them; they actively sought to make the world a better place for them. Nietzsche’s theory seems off base in this aspect. While our two over-men were supposed to seek power over humanity out of shame, pity, or pride they did not. They only cared for humanity, and each did what they thought was best. This brings us to the dilemma. Does the Ubermensch have to be a negative entity? While Nietzsche certainly seemed to say so on multiple accounts, it appears that the text of Red Son seems to disprove the idea of a dark overlord. While the characters may have established themselves as overlords, they did it for the right reasons. This isn’t to excuse them from their actions, but to determine that Nietzsche’s definition of an Ubermensch needn’t be so dark. That the over-man could be a being with the best intentions, even if they falter the attempt to do good is still there.
If that’s so, where does that leave Lawrence and Jewett’s American Monomyth? While a convincing theory and one that tends to hold true within American popular culture, it appears that the comic book medium is more diverse than they thought. Lawrence and Jewett quantify terms in a black and white sense, and as demonstrated by Red Son. Comic books can’t be read as a black and white, good versus evil story. While the ideological conflict presented in Red Son is unique to the story, the characters are not. By following them to the main stream medium, it would appear the lesson learned from Red Son (there is no black and white) can be applied to the normal medium as a whole. By reading Red Son using Nietzsche’s lens on “Will to Power” and his thoughts on the Ubermensch, it would appear that Nietzsche does not confirm the reality of the American Monomyth, but can be used to either confirm it or combat against it. Nietzsche said it best in Beyond Good and Evil “He who fights with monsters must take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you” (1886).
The text of Superman: Red Son allows for a pure dissection of the theories and ideas behind Nietzsche’s Ubermensch. While both principle figures follow Nietzsche’s definition and course of action, they are able to do so all while retaining a “super morality” about them. While this leads both characters to do bad things, their intentions are pure. Perhaps one aspect of the Ubermensch has yet to be fleshed out. If an Ubermensch is supposed to be above humanity in every way, then they would indeed have to have “super morals”. Both Superman and Lex Luthor are able to demonstrate a sense of higher morality, but one that can not only be understood by the other characters in the work, but are easily mistaken by the reader as well. It would appear that Nietzsche’s argument for the “Will to Power” wouldn’t be entirely accurate. If two fictional characters can be written to follow the exact letter of Nietzsche’s ideals and yet overturn them, it would appear possible that characters and people actively trying to resist his definition could. Thus while both characters that have the ability to supersede humanity do so, they don’t become the dark overlords suggested by Nietzsche and subsequent scholars. This would also seem to debunk the long standing argument that the Ubermensch played right into the theory of the American Monomyth. Lawrence and Jewett’s theory exists in a world of absolutes, and this text is decidedly not absolute. The higher morality, or “super morality” that both characters display complicates the original American Monomyth in a way that is not addressed by the theorists. Thus not only can one seek power over people for good reasons and maintain morality after the fact, they don’t inherently play into the hands of the American Monomyth.
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I hope you enjoyed, and I hope to hear your feedback!
Until the next time, Rn