Jun 26, 2009

Up In The Sky: Moses, Jesus, and Superman

This is an essay I wrote for my Biblical Traditions in Literature course this summer. It appears with many thanks to Jeffery Donaldson, my professor, who introduced me to the writings of Northrop Frye.

Up In The Sky: Moses, Jesus, and Superman

In The Great Code Northrop Frye states that “[f]or Judaism [one of] the chief antitypes of Old Testament prophecy [is], as in Christianity, the coming of the Messiah” (Great Code 83). Of course, for Judaism, the first coming is still being awaited, while the Christians await the second coming. From outside of these two viewpoints, one might be inclined to pose the question of how long these two faiths will wait for a saviour or, perhaps, has a saviour come already? In typology, a “type” prophesies and an “antitype” fulfills. Biblically, the best example is that of Moses and Christ. Where Moses is a saviour figure for Israel, Christ is a saviour figure for all of humanity. The promise of Moses is borne out by the actions of Christ. The awaiting of the second coming by Christians supposes that Christ is the type, and that the coming saviour will be the antitype. What one must bear in mind, however, is that these types and antitypes are illustrated through stories. While there are some who take the Bible as literal truth, there are many who take it as metaphor, as teachings and morals written as fiction, myths that concentrate “on the primary concerns that human beings share” (Frye, Words with Power 136). And if this is the case, does the next Messiah (or the first one, depending on your faith) necessarily have to be real, or can he or she be fictional? Further, are the distinctions between a fictional and a real Messiah necessarily mutually exclusive? As a test case, we will consider the recent series All-Star Superman. A comparison of Superman to both Moses and Christ, and a consideration of his qualities as fiction teaching primary concerns, will show that he is an antitype of the Biblical saviour, perhaps only one of many.

D.C. Comics' “All-Star” line debuted in 2005 with All-Star Batman & Robin. The “All-Star” moniker serves two functions, highlighting both the featured characters and the well-known creators producing the series. The mandate of the series is to tell iconic stories of the greatest superheroes without being constrained by the volumes of history and continuity those heroes carry with them. As such, All-Star Superman kicks off with a one-page synopsis of Superman's origin, a story firmly entrenched in the Western imagination, and drops the reader in media res, with Lex Luthor having finally succeeded in his plan to destroy Superman. The series itself, which ran from 2005 to 2008 and lasted 12 issues, chronicles Superman's final weeks as he sets his affairs in order and takes care of last-minute tasks. Of course, for Superman, those last minute tasks involve renegade Kryptonians, dinosaur invasions from the center of the Earth, and living planets from the “Underverse.” The stripping away, or rather the subsuming, of the previous seventy years of Superman's history allows the story told in All-Star Superman to achieve a more mythological tone. What is important in the stories is left in, that Superman never kills, that he cares about each and every person on the planet, regardless of colour or creed, and that he will always do his best to help when it is required. While the bulk of the series deals with super-powered adversaries, there are interspersed amongst these titanic tales brief glimpses of everyday people, of commuters and suicides, of reporters and cancer victims, all of whom Superman goes out of his way to help. He is here to save us.

In establishing Superman's credentials as an antitype of Moses, one need look no further than the birth stories (or “origin stories” in comic book parlance) of the two characters. The correlation, as Northrop Frye states about typological interpretation of the Christian Testament, “conforms to the intentionality of the book itself” (Great Code 80); the parallel is so obvious that to ignore it would be to ignore a fundamental part of the story. Faced with the destruction of all male Hebrew children, Moses' mother makes an “ark of bulrushes...daubed with slime and pitch” (Holy Bible, Exod. 1.3), and sets it adrift. It is eventually discovered by the Pharaoh's daughter. Moses, then, who becomes leader and saviour of the nation of Israel, begins life escaping a destructive force and being raised by foster parents. In Superman's case, the same story is rather beautifully summarized on the first page of All-Star Superman #1 (see Appendix Fig. 1). “[A]s the doomed planet shuddered and rumbled in its dying moments....Jor-El and...Lara placed their infant son in an experimental rocket ship and launched him into the void” (Fleisher 130). While the rocketship is hardly held together by “slime and pitch,” the imagery of an infant being placed in a small craft in order to escape death draws a definite parallel between Moses and Superman. That both men go on to be leaders and teachers (Moses of Israel, Superman of the human race) strengthens the bond. The ends of their stories are also close parallels. Moses, once shown the Promised Land, is told “I have caused thee to see it with thine eyes, but thou shalt not go over thither” (Holy Bible, Deut. 34:4). Moses has led his people to their new home, but cannot enter it. Similarly, by the end of All-Star Superman, having defeated Luthor, and delivering humankind to its “promised land” (discussed below), Superman is exiled to the center of the sun in order to keep it running properly, never being able to see the future he has worked all his life to create.

A typological link between Superman and Christ is revealed, ironically, by Lex Luthor (whose identity as an Antichrist antitype is fodder for a whole other essay) in the final climactic moments of All-Star Superman #12. Luthor takes on Superman's powers, assuming the totalitarian aspect of the royal metaphor, the individual who forces his identity on his society. He fulfills his earlier claim that “[i]f it wasn't for Superman, [he]'d be in charge on this planet” (Morrison, “The Gospel According to Lex Luthor” 22). What Lex fails to realize is the extent of Superman's powers, an extent that bears out Frye's assertion that, when the royal metaphor is applied to a saviour figure, “the notion of a socially detached individual is an illusion” (The Great Code 100). Frye says that the reformulation of the royal metaphor into the Christian metaphor “unites without subordinating,” that it “achieves identity with and identity as on equal terms” (The Great Code 101) (emphasis in original). This idea is borne out by Paul's words “not I, but Christ liveth within me” (Holy Bible Gal. 2.20), and also affirmed by the ritual of the Eucharist. This is the saviour whose individuality teaches unity, whose personality helps a community become compassionate persons. And so Lex realizes this about Superman: “It's all just us, in here, together” he cries. “This is how he sees all the time, every day” (Morrison, “Superman in Excelsis” 15). Much like Christ, when Superman realizes he is dying, he finds a way to impart this knowledge of unity to humankind before he departs. This knowledge takes the form of a serum that can “combine Human and Kryptonian [DNA] strands” (Morrison, “Neverending” 19), fulfilling the type of the Eucharist with a super-powered antitype. Similarly, after the Last Supper and his resurrection, Christ tells his disciples that those who believe in what he preached will be able to “cast out devils” (Holy Bible, Mark 16:17) and “drink any deadly thing [and], it shall not hurt them” (Mark 16:18). Believers will even be able to “lay hands on the sick and they shall recover” (Mark 16:18). These amazing feats, if put into contemporary language, could easily be called super powers, making both Christ's and Superman's legacies amazing abilities that will foster peace amongst humankind.

Having, if somewhat briefly, established Superman as an antitype of both Moses and Jesus, one must consider why this is significant. The beginning of an answer presents itself once again in the pages of All-Star Superman. In issue #10, the typological reading takes on an aspect much like Frye's pronouncement about the Hebrew Testament, that “[t]here are...events in the Old Testament that are types of later events recorded also within the Old Testament” (The Great Code 83). In seeking to find what will happen to the world once he is gone, Superman institutes a minute creation that he dubs “Earth-Q” (perhaps here becoming an antitype for the J Creation “Lord God”), in which there is an Earth that evolves without his presence. This world, of course, is revealed to be our own, and its historical development is chronicled in brief views, from Australian aboriginals making cave paintings (Morrison, “Neverending” 14) to Nietzsche's composition of Thus Spoke Zarathustra (“Neverending” 19). Significantly, the glimpses revealed of the so-called “Earth-Q” all show varying stages of humankind's spiritual and philosophical development. The importance of this comes in the last scene from Earth-Q to be revealed, an old-time apartment building in an unnamed city. The view closes in until a drawing on a table is revealed, a drawing of Superman in his earliest incarnation (“Neverending” 21). Here, then, is a world without the super-powered saviour, one that goes through all the revolutions of thought that Superman's world did, but was left without the benefit of a benign alien crashing to the planet and saving everyone. This world, our world, created a saviour, a Superman, through fiction.

So comes the crux of the matter: the Bible, both Hebrew and Christian Testaments, teach moral lessons, lessons of the primary human concerns, through stories of individuals with remarkable powers. Moses wields a rod that, when dipped into the waters of the Nile, turns the river to blood (Holy Bible, Exodus 7:20). Christ demonstrates his unearthly power by reviving the four-days dead Lazarus (John 12:43-44) in front of a crowd of people. Neither man is shy of using his gifts in public and in service of the greater good. For Moses, the greater good is primarily the welfare of the nation of Israel; for Christ, it is the welfare of humankind's immortal souls. How, then, is the case of Superman any different from these stories? He demonstrates remarkable powers of flight and strength, but also acts of wisdom and compassion. Where an everyday person might turn from suffering (and how many of us flip quickly past the channel that is showing famine victims in Africa?), Superman uses all the gifts at his disposal for its alleviation. The question then becomes, does it matter that Superman is fictional? For all intents and purposes, the Bible is a fictional work. Regardless of whether the events within the Bible actually happened, they are so far removed temporally for them to be nothing more than stories to contemporary audiences. This is not to say that they are not important, even necessary, stories, but they are stories nonetheless. So is it reasonable to say that, seventy years ago, when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created the “Man of Steel”, they created a saviour? Is Superman a saviour whose deeds and words can be read as teachings on the proper behaviour of a human society? Is he the fulfillment of the Christian metaphor, the individual who enriches and teaches the community, who embodies the primary concerns that join all humans? And is this all significant, even though he is “just a story”?

While the popularity of the the Bible as a moral text can in part be attributed to its treatment of primary human concerns, one must also consider that it was also one of the first books to be printed in a popular edition. As such, it was a work that could be read over and over, and did not suffer from the kind of competition that modern works do. In considering All-Star Superman as a moral text, perhaps even a kerygmatic one, the argument can be made that the second coming, the new Messiah, comes again and again in our fiction. This goes against Frye's assertion that “the doctrines of Christian theology form the antitypes of which the stories and maxims in the Bible...are types” (The Great Code 85), and claims that fictions, most especially moralistic ones, provide new saviours all the time. The stumbling block for these saviours is that there are so many to choose from in our media-saturated environment that no one saviour gets the same kind of attention that the Bible and it's attendant saviours did when Gutenberg began printing. In order to assess the power, and the potential, of these saviours, one must look to their longevity and continued fictional treatment. Superman debuted in Action Comics #1 in 1938, and has been continuously in print for the last seventy years. He has become one of the most popular characters in Western popular culture. All-Star Superman has taken that seventy years of history and turned it into mythology, into a text by which lessons may be taught and, more importantly, learned. It is unlikely that the same can be said of many other popular characters of the last 100 years or so. For this reason Superman deserves a far closer look, and his attributes and teachings a far closer consideration, than just a brightly coloured costume in the pages of a disposable periodical.

Is Superman the new Messiah? He certainly evokes the qualities of the saviour types chronicled in both the Hebrew and Christian Testaments. He has also, through the volumes of his stories distilled down to their essence in All-Star Superman, taught moral lessons through the tool of fiction. One can easily imagine that, had his stories somehow been the first to roll from Gutenberg's press, that there might be temples in some corners of the world flying the iconic “S” shield that he proudly bears upon his chest. The teachings of Moses and Christ come down through the ages to contemporary times as a series of stories, stories that are given great importance by virtue of the lessons they teach. Superman hasn't been around quite as long as Moses or Christ, but to have survived seventy years in a culture that embraces new fads seemingly every few seconds speaks of the power and significance of the character, of the lessons he teaches, and of fiction itself.

Appendix: Selected Images

Fig. 1. The Origin of Superman from Morrison and Quitely, All-Star Superman #1 (DC Comics 2006)

Fig. 2. The Origin of Superman from Morrison and Quietly, All-Star Superman #10 (DC Comics 2008)

Works Cited

Note: The citations for comic books on this page use a format found here: http://www.comicsresearch.org/CAC/cite.html. There is no standardized MLA formatting for citing comic books.

Fleisher, Michael L. The Original Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes volume 3. New York: DC Comics, 2007.

Frye, Northrop. The Great Code: The Bible and Literature. Academic Press Canada, 1982.

---. Words with Power. Toronto: Penguin, 2007.

Holy Bible. New York: New York Bible Society.

Morrison, Grant (w) and Frank Quitely (a). “The Gospel According to Lex Luthor.” All-Star Superman #5 (Sept. 2006), DC Comics.

---,---. “Neverending.” All-Star Superman #10 (May 2008), DC Comics.

---,---. “Superman in Excelsis.” All-Star Superman #12 (Oct. 2008), DC Comics.

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