catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 9 :: 2008.05.02 — 2008.05.16


Superman: “Man of Steel” or “Stalin”?

The character of Superman has become synonymous with American ideals. Superman fights for “truth, justice, and the American way.” And yet, while these ideals might have gone unquestioned in 1938, today they seem, at best, naïve. At their worst they are symbolic of intolerance and jingoism, conjuring images of brutal invasions and “manifest destiny.” It’s a Bird, a graphic novel by Steven T. Seagle, describes the internal conflict faced by a comic book writer when he is offered a job writing Superman. The (semiautobiographical) author, Steve, feels that he cannot write for a series starring a character as logically inconsistent as Kal-El. In many ways, that character of Superman is utterly ridiculous, from his primary-colored costume to his non sequitur aversion to rocks from his home planet. Much more than these specious characteristics, Steve fears that Superman represents the fascist ideal of dominance through violence. He wonders if this American hero actually mirror Hitler’s veneration of genetic purity and Stalin’s vision of autocracy through force. Does might really make right, after all?

Steve’s reluctance to write for Superman is not the only problem he faces. He is also struggling with the fear that he may have Huntington’s disease. This fear interferes with his relationships and impedes his ability to write. He soon begins living less and less in his present situation, and instead escapes into reveries about his past, and philosophical diatribes about the Man of Steel.

This loose grip on reality allows the narrative of It’s a Bird to move among these three distinct time periods. Seagle’s insightful soliloquizing accompanies the reader throughout the text. This allows Seagle to tell two separate, compelling stories, simultaneously. On one level, It’s a Bird is the story of Steve, the comic book writer, and his existential angst. Alternately, a reader could say the story is really a critical examination of the qualities we value as a society. The narrative climaxes as these two stories merge to create a simultaneously personal and universal conclusion.

This shifting and blurred narrative is perfectly complemented by the art of Teddy Kristiansen. His surrealist style allows flow between Steve’s life and his philosophical reveries. Figures from Steve’s present are shadowy and indistinct, whereas the images of Steve’s youth are brighter and more childlike. In addition, the art from Steve’s Superman asides ranges from the realistic, to the impressionistic, to the downright bizarre.

While the mixture of Nietzschean philosophy and surrealist art might sound a bit too “high-concept” for the average reader, both Seagle and Kristiansen successfully manage to keep their book accessible. For every philosophy reference, there is a personal situation to incarnate the philosophical in the practical. The reader will also not need an extensive knowledge of the Superman mythos. While fans of the Big Blue Boy Scout will find an extra layer of complexity to Seagle’s story, those completely ignorant of the series can still relate to the human conflict present in Steve.

Seagle’s thesis can be summed up neatly by describing one of his full-page spreads. On the spread, Seagle describes the base impulse of humankind to gain what they want through power. “Genghis Khan wants Mongolia…power…Genghis Khan gets Mongolia. The Nazis want Poland…power…the Nazis get Poland. The Allies want the Nazis out…power…the Allies get the Nazis out.” This is followed by panels depicting the explosion of the atom bomb, the shooting of a political prisoner and the defeat of the students at Tiananmen Square. The final panel shows us Superman defeating an enemy, juxtaposed with the text, “This is our history…a history of power.” These words invite us to question whether a character as American as apple pie and baseball, might actually have more in common with Nazi Germany’s Übermensch.

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