The United States of Superman : an analysis of Superman and relevance

Bevin, Phillip (2015) The United States of Superman : an analysis of Superman and relevance. (PhD thesis), Kingston University, .


This thesis traces the seventy-five year development of the cultural icon Superman across media, from his initial appearance in Action Comics in 1938 through to the 2013 film Man of Steel. It unpicks received critical understandings of Superman by comparing secondary interpretations of his history and evolution to primary evidence provided by Superman stories themselves. In so doing, it identifies how Superman's meaning has evolved across the seven decades of his existence and reveals the role played by popular perceptions and critical interpretations in shaping his significance. In particular, I critique the concept of social and political Relevance which has, in the past four decades, established itself as a prominent model according to which popular narratives, including those featuring Superman, are evaluated. Comparing the claims made by scholars and historians to my own readings, I argue that the Relevance discourse has led critics and commentators to erroneously claim that Superman and the stories featuring him either serve as expressions of America's cultural development or are irrelevant fantasies that and bear little relation to Real Life concerns. I evaluate these perceptions in detail through my four main chapters. Chapter One analyses the assertion that Superman began as an exponent of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, and suggests that this reading has little basis in evidence from the early comics themselves. Consequently, I argue that the New Deal interpretation is likely a retrospective account that only partially engages with Superman's contemporaneous significances. Chapter Two interrogates the perception that, between his initial appearance and the end of the 1950s, Superman developed into a socially and politically conservative figure, and analyses this interpretation in relation to the concept of ideology. I propose that, while there is some evidence of conservative ideological intent in the character's stories, this accounts for only a small aspect of his broader meaning and appeal. Chapter Three investigates the commonly presumed contrast between comic book stories from Superman's supposedly fanciful"Silver Age" period of the 1950s and 1960s, and the more relevant narratives of the 1970s and 1980s. Here, I argue that texts from these supposedly distinct periods have more in common than historians and commentators acknowledge, leading me to propose that academic understandings of Relevance should be reworked to accommodate a range of different narrative types. In Chapter Four, I propose that current perceptions of Superman's significance commonly centre upon his status as an idealistic figure who transcends the contingencies, compromises, and imperfections that characterise Real life. I suggest that this perception stems from Richard Donner's attempt to mythologise the character in his 1978 film Superman: The Movie, and the re-emphasis that Donner's interpretation has received in subsequent iterations of the character. Finally, in my Conclusion, I discuss Man of Steel, a film that seeks to change audience perceptions of Superman and which has provoked controversy by challenging the idealistic representation of the character popularised by Superman: The Movie. Through this analysis, I consider the implications of this controversy for Superman's future, in particular for perceptions of his Relevance, as well as what the debate surrounding the film and Superman more generally reveals to us about the concept of Relevance itself.

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