The American Monomyth - Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence (Pt.2 - On Superman)

For a general introduction of The American Monomyth, please refer to the first part of my review.

In their discussion of the development of the American Monomyth, Jewett and Lawrence refer to the period between 1929 and 1939 as the axial decade (185) where the development of the national monomyth has begun to enter into its maturity, where the slowly developing hero becomes a superhuman with extraordinary abilities along with a completely repressed sexuality and a fully hidden identity.

Of course, the most easily recognized figure who feature these characteristics is Superman. Originally dreamed up by Siegel and Shuster in 1933, he became a publishing phenomenon in 1938 and almost single-handedly created the superhero comic genre and defined its core principles for the decades to come.

In tracing the development of the superhero cult, the authors follow the emergence and development of the nameless hero figure who starts out by saving troubled frontier towns from external evils. Jewett and Lawrence argue that such a figure is endemic to the American culture and dates as far as the discovery of the continent. Over time, the feats that the nameless hero accomplishes grow more incredible and his powers become ever greater. At last, in the axial decade, we arrive at Superman. The success of Superman also signified an important transition in the form of Clark Kent. The redemptive God with superhuman strength was now disguised as Everyman, enabling the ordinary masses to share the fantasy.

The love triangle between Louis Lane, Clark Kent and the Superman is very significant in explaining this phenomenon. While Clark is desperately in love with Louis, as Superman, he sees her only as a helpless hostage to be rescued from dire situations and does not care that she is in love with him, and Louis, in turn, despises the dull and clumsy Clark and desires the infinitely powerful Superman.

The authors argue that such a relationship is very appealing to comic book readers, who are mostly boys approaching puberty. They know themselves to be "Clark Kent"s, but the fantasy leads them to believe that they are Superman underneath the glasses and although the girl they are in love does not care about them, they will in turn not care about the girl when they become Superman. Also implied in this triangle is the completion of the sexual renunciation of the superhero, necessitated by the serialization of his adventures. For any true superhero to continue his exploits every week, no single episode can end with a superhero flying off to the sunset with his bride.

Another effect of the serialization, brought by comic books and radio plays, while taking away the blissful union of partners at the end (signifying the restoration of Eden), is to carry the redemption acts into miraculous territories. Comic book pages and radio broadcasts allowed the presentation of spectacular actions of superheroes and blessed them with capabilities that enable the heroes to confront previously unthinkable odds.

A very central element in these superhuman abilities is some form of rapid mobility. The authors state that the ability to transcend space and time, like Superman, is the most characteristic and coveted form of freedom in America. But, beyond all else, the most crucial implication of the superhero myth relates to power, society and democratic institutions.

By destroying evil in magnificent feats, superheroes restore the peace and harmony in heaven, as argued before, in that sense they fulfill the promise of religious redeemers, while secularizing this ideal, superheroes also project their power onto ordinary citizens with their alter egos. In this sense, while they are a display of absolute power, their power remains benign, transforming lawless vigilantism into a perfect embodiment of law enforcement.

The authors argue that with these conventions, the monomyth fails to capture tragic complexities of human life. It forgets that every gain entails a loss, that extraordinary benefits exact requisite costs, and that injury is usually proportionate to the amount of violence employed.
The American monomyth offers vigilantism without lawlessness, sexual repression without resultant perversion, and moral infallibility without the use of intellect. The superhero who delivers this absolute justice by eliminating due process of law constitutes a form of leadership without paying the price of political relations or responding to the preferences of the majority.

In conclusion, the authors argue that the monomyth "betrays deep antagonism toward the creative exercise of reason on the part of the public as well as the individual." (215)
"In the exercise of redemptive power, purity of intention suffice; careful deliberation, knowledge of law, and mastery of book learning are usually presented in monomythic materials as indicator of impotence and corruption.
Heroes are either static, innately possessing all the wisdom they need, or they learn all they require from a single incident.
So hostile is monomythic material to individual intelligence that one of its most durable conventions is to use "brains" as a distinguishing trait of evil persons" (215).

"In summary, the American monomyth rejects democratic values at a number of crucial points. It conveys a pessimism about democratic institutions and public responsibilities, a messianic expectation that society can be redeemed by a single stroke, and an impatience with constitutional process.
In its repeated celebration of the evasion of collective responsibility, the monomyth has become a ritual of the demonic. So skillful, so eloquent and moving are its materials that they are probably the most effective sources of the erosion of democratic credibility today" (216).

As a conclusion, the authors not the ability of the monomythic material to glorify individualism but argue that the form has to incorporate democratic ideals and cooperation instead of redemption by a single and omnipotent purge.

It should be noted however that the subject matter of the study is not limited to comic books and purpose of the work was to survey the popular culture landscape of 20th Century America, which comic books constitute a significant element. Nevertheless, although somewhat dated, most of the arguments presented in the book provide useful insights and present further research opportunities for researching comics.