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Review of Superman in Myth and Folklore

By Jesse Matlock

Peretti, Daniel. Superman in Myth and Folklore. UP of Mississippi, 2017.

In his book Superman in Myth and Folklore, author Daniel Peretti examines Superman’s unique status as a figure that reaches beyond his narrative roots as a comic book character and permeated the American cultural consciousness as modern folklore. Peretti explains Superman’s cultural status in his Foreword, writing, “[Superman] means something specific to the larger culture, and that meaning has caused people to internalize him and use him as part of their everyday expressions—in other words, Superman’s transition from popular culture to folklore signals his importance to American culture in general” (xiii). In a personal anecdote regarding his study of Superman, Peretti demonstrates the primacy of the character’s cultural status. The person with whom he conversed, a Spider-Man fan, argued her favorite superhero’s commensurate popularity, but when asked to recall a joke about each hero, could only tell one involving the Man of Steel. This anecdote is exemplary of Peretti’s folkloristic approach to Superman; he explains, “It’s not an analysis of Superman comics, movies, television shows, or video games,” but rather a look at the ways in which individuals perceive Superman in relation to their own personal experiences, worldview, and ideals (xiii).

The first chapter, “Superman and the Folkloristic Perspective,” is an extended definition of “folklore” that simultaneously establishes the disciplinary context through which Peretti approaches his study, and how Superman became a viable subject of folkloristic study. Peretti is primarily interested in how Superman appears in the breadth of genres and mediums folklorists study—”folktale, myth, legend, folk speech, proverb, riddle, folk song, joke, and a score of others”—to examine “the meanings of the character as he exists outside the official texts” (3). Peretti is primarily interested in how Superman appears and is used in these genres to examine “the meanings of the character as he exists outside the official texts” (3). The sense of public ownership of Superman, despite the fact that he is a corporately owned intellectual property, can influence how the character’s corporate owners use him or with whom he is entrusted. To this point, Peretti refers to an Orson Scott Card Superman story written in 2013 that remains unpublished due to fan backlash over Card’s public anti-homosexual stance, illustrating how “Superman’s values matter, as do the values of those who tell his stories, because Superman signifies something beyond his status as an intellectual property owned by a corporation” (6, emphasis mine). That sense of ownership comes from a public who are largely not comic book readers, but still have knowledge of and genuine affection for the character (as demonstrated in Chapter Four by the array of attendees to the annual Superman Celebration). It is for that reason that Peretti emphasizes the more fluid, oral nature of folklore as opposed to “history” of published texts, but also discusses the ways social dimensions of comic books and pop culture both relate and contribute to folklore, as discussed in later chapters.

With his disciplinary stance established in the first chapter, the second, titled “Three Cases,” is a presentation of Peretti’s findings from three case studies of individuals’ understandings and uses of Superman in their daily lives. The first subject, Jodi, is a writer and blogger and Peretti does not clarify how they met; Jeff, a fan of the Superman films, first met the author while working at a University of Indiana library; and Kristina is an acquaintance from the Metropolis, Illinois Superman Celebration, which is covered more thoroughly in Chapter Four. This fieldwork marks the beginning of Peretti’s folkloric argument of Superman’s specific cultural importance, conducting in-person interviews, over the phone, and occasionally through email. Peretti is frank about his approach to his case studies and informs readers that “I have chosen to focus on what I consider positive attitudes toward Superman; this applies to the book generally, but I do give some attention to the notion that Superman is not a worthwhile fictional character to read about or watch” (21). In these first three cases, Peretti notes a recurrent pattern: “that to ask a person about Superman is to elicit a life story” (21). The subjects of the case studies—two women and one man—represent a range of knowledge/involvement in Superman fandom: from basic, passing knowledge of the character and his origins, to casual fandom through television and pop culture to more involved, “esoteric” knowledge of Superman and his world (25-26). What is demonstrated in all three cases is how Superman functions as a moral and social role model, a character who endures a unique loneliness amidst humanity, and a hero that perseveres through hardship and struggle.

Having derived some insight about Superman’s cultural function through personal stories, two of Peretti’s subjects, Jodi and Kristina, also share about their Superman-related tattoos, which Peretti categorizes as a folklore genre. Both women discuss how their tattoos are of as much intrapersonal significance as they are interpersonal, if not more so. Peretti finds in these discussions that the Superman tattoos “go beyond aesthetic interests. They function as communication with the self, of controlling the self” (37). They are, for their wearers, a constant, permanent reminder of the ideals of strength, perseverance, and care that the character signifies for them.

For his third chapter, “Truth Means Many Things,” Peretti returns to theory. He makes use of Hans Vaihinger’s philosophy of “as if” to illustrate, through anecdotes of several writers, how Superman embodies the idea that “our highest ideals come from the fictions (not always stories, but often enough) we create” and treat those fictions “as if” they were real (41). In an “as if” mode of reading, it is not important “how real” the fiction is; in fact, it is necessary to acknowledge the artificial status of a fiction in order to engage in the types of play—pretending, cosplay, theatrical portrayal, etc.—that allow experiential philosophical knowledge to occur from the theoretical. To this end, Peretti points to scientists who use Superman’s abilities—super strength, sight, hearing, flight, etc.—in the textbooks they have authored as the basis for discussion, examination, and experimentation of scientific principles, but also as goals for evolutionary or technological development.

He also uses this chapter to discuss how Superman stories help us to view Superman as an ethical/moral ideal or role model. In fact, Peretti quotes interviewees comparing Superman to Santa Claus and Jesus Christ: two figures culturally related to proper behavior, if not morality. He also cites personal anecdotes shared by two comic book writers—Mark Waid and Josh Elder—who refer to Superman as a “father figure,” an example and a guide for how a man should act and think (44-45, 47, 51). The chapter concludes with a section labeled “Dissenting Opinions,” in which Peretti acknowledges the fact that many people find Superman boring or unrelatable, that he is “too perfect to be interesting” or that he is representative of “[t]remendous unearned power and exalted lineage” (60, 59). While Peretti uses the same method of anecdotes by authors who have written Superman comics to acknowledge this stance, he really gives it short shrift with a three-page section of his chapter, nearly half of which is spent undermining these criticisms.

Chapter Four, “Celebrating Superman,” is the book’s real centerpiece. In order “[t]o keep the analysis grounded in concrete experience,” one of folklore’s chief concerns, Peretti anchors this chapter to the experience and participation of Superman fan Brian Morris, as well as others, in the annual Superman Celebration of Metropolis, Illinois (63). This allows Peretti to synthesize the theory and practices of the previous chapters into an examination of the variety of rituals, social interactions, and tensions exhibited at festivals.

The Superman Celebration is an example of ritual’s intersection with folklore, “where the casual consumer mixes with the devoted fan in the ritualesque performance of cultural expressions” (63). Peretti points out how Superman is associated with various ritualistic activity—comic book collecting is certainly one of those behaviors but is more socially specific—and regularly reminds his audience that folklore occurs at a much wider social/cultural level, as demonstrated by the variety of attendees to the celebration: locals and outsiders; city officials, businesses, and citizens; regular attendees and one-time or infrequent visitors. Peretti also points out some of the folklore-related social stresses presented by the festival, such as the tension between local businesses and local citizens of Metropolis—businesses favor expansion for increased business; local citizens, however, fear that expansion will cause the festival to lose its local interest and involvement—and the tension between locals and outside visitors—typically also marked by a synchronous dichotomy of casual knowledge (locals) and esoteric knowledge (outsiders). In addition, the opening ceremony itself displays folkloric tension of play and ritual—committee members officially open the celebration, then turn proceedings over to outsiders who have written a Superman mini-play (folk drama) that reinforces the larger social concept of Superman as a figure of inclusion, who also personifies the ideals of “truth, justice, and the American Way.” The chapter concludes with an acknowledgment that an entire book could be written just about the Superman Celebration, along with the various ways folklore is demonstrated and practiced though all of the different aspects and events of the festival.

The subsequent chapter, “Metafolklore and Superman Humor,” concentrates on the use of Superman in mediums like jokes and cartoons/comic strips and how humor—an element of folklore—also serves a metafolkloric purpose in the way it comments on common cultural perceptions of Superman. Peretti uses transcriptions of jokes recorded in conversation at the Superman Celebration, gags pulled from online forums, and reprints from several cartoonists. Using these samples, he discusses how Superman sometimes simply serves as a shorthand for strength; he is not vital to the function of the joke and could very well be replaced by another strongman character. When Superman is an integral part of the humor, however, Peretti posits that the humor functions in the cultural consciousness as a comment on the idea of Superman as a moral figure because the humor of the joke depends upon the perversion of our typical moral-ethical perception of Superman. Peretti’s prime example are two transcriptions of the same joke, in which “Superman attempts to rape Wonder Woman but unintentionally rapes the Invisible Man” (105). It’s a stark, perhaps excessive, example, but one that effectively encapsulates Peretti’s argument of Superman’s function in humor.

Chapter Six, “Morality,” is the “final chapter based on fieldwork,” and the culmination of Peretti’s argument of Superman as a folkloric character (120). It centers on conversations with two more Superman fans who value Superman as a moral example, but from opposite religious perspectives. One fan, who identifies as Christian, creates Superman costumes for public wear at conventions or other occasions conducive to cosplay. He began making costumes primarily for his own use, but informs Peretti that, at the time of the interview, he’s beginning to make costumes for others by request. The other fan identifies as an atheist, but also acknowledges the ethical and social values of religious teachings, and views Superman in a similar manner to his religious counterpart, as a cultural touchstone for moral and ethical behavior. Peretti ends the chapter reaffirming how the subjects of his fieldwork demonstrate that Superman serves as an example of morality for people of various social, political, and religious persuasions and does so by being “content-indeterminate” at the social level (138). In other words, Superman’s significance is clear at the macro level because, as a character, he has proven to be adaptable over time and through cultural shifts; it takes very little knowledge of specific narrative content to understand him. The essential elements of Superman’s narrative, the stuff everybody knows and that remains consistent through virtually all retellings of his origin, are simple and easily summarized (as demonstrated by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s four-panel, eight-word version on the first page of All-Star Superman), which leaves him open for a wide variety of interpretations and narrative extrapolations.

The final chapter, “Mythological Considerations,” begins with a chapter-by-chapter summary of the “folklore genres” (tattoos, personal narratives, festival, jokes, and costuming) used by the people Peretti interviewed or corresponded with, touching once again on the “as if” philosophical orientation—audiences’ open awareness and admission of fiction that nevertheless influences their worldview. It is from this perspective that Peretti begins his discussion of how Superman folklore fits into the larger framework of Superman as modern myth, which simultaneously shifts the focus from “what changes” to “what remains constant” across individual perceptions: the understanding of Superman as an ethical ideal. Then, he transitions to a brief survey of various scholars’ definition of “myth” to demonstrate the wealth of elements and emphases related to mythic study: narrative, ritual, art and artifacts, along with topics such as the creation of the world, humanity and other creatures, ontology, and ethics. He brings these different ideas together under the umbrella of myth “as a vehicle for ideology,” explaining that it “is intimately tied to all aspects of culture, especially popular culture” (143). The term “belief” is also addressed in relation to myth, with two modalities defined by Peretti: one as “a presumption about the way the cosmos works” and the other (“‘belief in’”) as “a value judgment” (149, 150). The “as if” lens this book uses clearly favors the approach of mythic belief as that of value judgment or value adoption. We know and accept Superman as a fictional character, but derive value from that fiction as a model for real behavior. This works hand-in-hand with Peretti’s view of Superman as a figure of folklore, widely-adaptable across time and audiences yet consistently referenced for the same categorical values. The chapter then turns to a direct examination of Superman as a modern iteration of the mythic hero archetype, who serves as an ideological model for the balance of power and responsibility.

Peretti roots his work in scholarly study early and often throughout the text, citing the work of folklore-related scholars across disciplines, and connecting his own fieldwork and observations to established works in philosophy, psychology, and anthropology as well as folklore and mythology. He is also careful to contextualize the scholarly work he cites in a manner that is not exclusive to the layperson. Chapter One, as an extended definition of folklore, sets the stage for the remainder of the book by clearly differentiating folklore from myth. The topics of the subsequent chapters are all folkloristically exemplified through fieldwork observations, anecdotes from interviews, and photographs or reprintings of artifacts or other visual elements of folklore. Peretti also makes use of a variety of fans for his case studies and interviews, from writers of Superman comics to casual fans who have never read a comic book but know Superman only from television, film, or cartoons. This makes the text not only useful for academic purposes, but also an interesting and accessible read for audiences outside academia who are simply interested in Superman, folklore, and/or pop culture.

Some acknowledgment, as mentioned above, is given to those who are ambivalent toward or dislike Superman, but this topic is given very little space and even less serious consideration. The concluding portion of Chapter Three, the only place in which the book actively addresses non-fandom of Superman, spends nearly as many words on what reads as a correction of faulty perceptions of Superman as it does explaining why specific individuals do not care for the character. Peretti is forthcoming in his Preface that most of his case study and interview subjects were obtained through fan-related activities, and, in the opening to Chapter Two, that the book intentionally concentrates on positive perceptions of Superman, but more attention to non-fandom could have opened the discussion of Superman’s purpose to possibilities outside of the interpretation of Superman as a moral/ethical ideal to which we should strive. There are no interviews with non-white and/or non-male subjects who view Superman as a representative of racial/cultural/gender hegemony, nor is consideration given to those who feel that Superman is portrayed as the opposite of their personal social or political beliefs. Peretti takes care to balance the male/female ratio of his subjects, but all of the subjects photographed are white, as well as the comic creators interviewed or quoted. It would be interesting, for instance, to contrast the female fans who view Superman as an inspirational symbol of strength and perseverance to those of feminist critics, or to read what Superman’s essentially white, Anglo-American appearance means to American citizens of other ethnicities.

While the book short-changes the perspective of those who do not consider themselves fans of Superman or do not view the character in a positive light, it is ultimately a thoughtful study of Superman’s place in American culture. Because the book is a folklore study and its examinations, by definition, are not textually—or canonically—based, it is accessible to readers who are not very knowledgeable about the character. Peretti’s relation of folklore, in his treatment of Superman, to both pop culture and myth make this book relevant to cultural studies as well as to students of comparative mythology.

Posted in Volume 11, Issue 2