First, an admission: the main reason I’m thinking about the two nice Jewish boys who created Superman is that my superhero play REALS is going up tonight. The Taffety Punk Theatre Company is doing a one-night-only bootleg reading — actors off book, in full costumes, all rehearsed and blocked in a single day — at the Corner Store on Capitol Hill tonight. The reading is being streamed live on the Arena Stage New Play channel, but I hope you’ll come in person: if you’ve seen any of their other bootleg productions, you know it’s going to be a wild ride.
But seriously: Siegel and Schuster. So much has been written about the amazing feat of these two gentlemen that I fear it might be difficult to say something new… but there is one point I’d like to make.
For my money, Superman can best be seen in two ways.
First, he can be viewed as a kind of Christ figure: Jor-El having given his only son to the earth to be its savior, which is how the most recent film portrayed him. My own distaste for that particular comparison aside, it does work, at least a bit. If Superman is Christ, however, he’s a very liberal version; the character’s first stories were focused around addressing injustice and making things right for the little guy.
Second, Superman can also be viewed as an immigrant: arriving in white-bread America with a vaguely Hebrew name like Kal-El and doing his best to assimilate, all while keeping his origins secret — even though they’re the source of his power. He adopts American values — truth and justice chief among them — and makes them his own. Meanwhile, he keeps a secret Fortress of Solitude in which he hides away the relics of his true identity. This, to me, is the much more effective reading of Superman.
Whichever way you prefer, however, it’s quite clear that Superman must be read not only literally, but as a symbol as well. This dual nature is something I have tried, at times, to do with my own characters… but it’s very hard. Albee does it, in a great deal of his work; I see George and Martha that way, and certainly the entire cast of The Goat. Kushner goes there as well; so did Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, though neither of them did so very often.
As brilliant as they all are, however, none of them have created a character as iconic as Superman. The closest comparison: Willy Loman. But Loman hasn’t been spun off into several television series, thousands of graphic novels, and a growing string of films, not to mention incalculable products. He doesn’t hold a candle to the Man of Steel.
So… which writers have created icons in, say, the last 50 years? There aren’t many. J.K. Rowling might be the newest example… and Harry Potter has yet to stand the test of time. (Also: of what is he a symbol, one might ask?) I suppose one would have to include George Lucas and Gene Roddenberry on the list as well… but the list is almost certainly very short.
Imagine setting out to create a similar character today. As a playwright, the possibility almost certainly doesn’t exist for me — unless I’d be willing to make the jump to film. (And who says I wouldn’t? I’ve done it before; I could do it again!) But even if it did: where would you even begin?
I think the answer is this: you can’t actually try to create an icon. A writer creates a character; the world makes that character an icon.
I’m just so glad the world did that for Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster.