Recently the Cleveland Psychoanalytic Center joined the rest of the city in celebrating Superheroes by sponsoring a panel discussion on Superman and his creators. An enthusiastic audience gathered at the Allen Memorial Library to enjoy an evening of discovery and interaction with Brad Ricca, author of “Super Boys,” analysts Scott Dowling, Carl Rak, and Anna Janicki, and Ivan Schwarz, president of the Greater Cleveland Film Commission.
The panel members presented different perspectives on why Superman endures as an iconic presence in popular culture. Brad Ricca’s book tells the story of the invention of the first bona fide superhero in 1933 by two high school students, Jerry Seigel (writer), and Joe Shuster (artist). During the Q & A audience members were very curious about the psychoanalytic interpretation and the differences between Freudian and Jungian explanations of the superhero phenomenon. Questions about gay culture and superheroes were also explored. There was a great deal of interest in the creative process itself, taking place as it did in Cleveland during the Great Depression.
Following is Dr. Anna Janicki’s summary of the discussion.
Young men who suffered losses like immigration or death of the father often create a fantasy that helps them to cope. An ideal like superman, who was an immigrant and lost both parents, was such a fantasy for two best friends Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, creators of the comic strip. Both were children of Jewish immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe. Life in the new country was complicated by traumatic events. Seventeen-year-old Jerry Siegel wrote about Superman after he lost his father. On June 2, 1932, Jerry ‘s father Michel, a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania, died during a robbery at his Cleveland second-hand clothes store. Joe Shuster’s mother escaped pogroms, attacks on Jews, in Russia. She immigrated to Canada, with help of her future husband whom she married there. When Joe was 10 years old his family moved to the United States, to Cleveland, in an attempt to assure their financial security. Within five years the US was facing the depression.
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster only did one in-depth interview. It first appeared in Nemo #2 in 1983, and then was reprinted in 1992 in a magazine titled Comics Values Monthly, as part of their “Superman Tribute” issue. Siegel and Shuster mostly talked about their adolescent development and their inhibitions, which caused their emotional suffering as teenagers. They found an ideal outlet, writing and drawing a comic strip, to look forward to the future. As adolescents, they needed to establish their independence from their parents, consolidate their identity as men, tolerate intimacy and bear their grief and anxiety in life.
SIEGEL: “If you’re interested in what made Superman what it is, here’s one of the keys to what made it universally acceptable. Joe and I had certain inhibitions…which led to wish fulfillment, which we expressed through our interest in science fiction and our comic strip. That’s where the dual-identity concept came from, and Clark Kent’s problems with Lois. I imagine there are a lot of people in this world who are similarly frustrated. Joe and I both felt that way in high school, and he was able to put the feeling into sketches.”
SIEGEL: “You see, Clark Kent grew not only out of my private life, but also out of Joe’s. As a high school student, I thought that some day I might become a reporter, and I had crushes on several attractive girls who either didn’t know I existed or didn’t care I existed. As a matter of fact, some of them looked like they hoped I didn’t exist. It occurred to me: What if I was real terrific? What if I had something special going for me, like jumping over buildings or throwing cars around or something like that? Then maybe they would notice me. That night when all the thoughts were coming to me, the concept came to me that Superman could have a dual identity, and that in one of his identities he could be meek and mild, as I was, and wear glasses, the way I do. The heroine, who I figured would be a girl reporter, would think he was some sort of a worm; yet she would be crazy about this Superman character, which could do all sorts of fabulous things. In fact, she was real wild about him, and a big inside joke was that the fellow she was crazy about was also the fellow whom she loathed. By coincidence, Joe was a carbon copy (of me).”
SHUSTER: I was mild-mannered, wore glasses, was very shy with women.
SIEGEL: So in the artwork, he was able to translate it; and he wasn’t just drawing it, he was feeling it.
Superman was born out of a need for young men to become adults and to know that they existed. The circumstances of Jerry’s father’s death were a family secret until 2004. In the only in-depth interview in February 1983 partially quoted above, Jerry did not speak about his father’s death. Joe did not speak about pogroms and being an immigrant. Writing about and drawing Superman represented hope for strength for two young men, who dealt with the great human challenge, bereavement and anxiety about growing up. Their families were escaping prosecution in the anti-Semitic world and their new country suffered from economic depression. Moreover, they did not only lose a parent or a country, they were worried about losing their selves.
The comic strip represented and recalled their lives. Perhaps it even reconstructed the end of Jerry’s father’s life. In one of the oldest surviving sketches, Superman rushes to the rescue of a man being held up by a masked robber, just as Jerry’s father was. As they have pointed out, they symbolized their internalized feelings as they narrated their experiences in drawings and brief stories. Their creation, Superman, was an orphaned immigrant with two identities, one meek and mild orphan Clark Kent and the other muscular alien bulletproof vigilante Superman who missed his home and his parents. The comic strip shows how the immigrant adopted his new home planet and was adopted by it.
In their words, mentioned above, the emotional suffering of Joe and Jerry meant suffering inspired or governed by the emotions of adolescents. They did not speak of murders, prejudice, or their dual identity as immigrants. In their interviews they were not speaking of sadness, fear, misery, agony, pain, anguish and torment about the death of a parent or about being an alien. Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel spoke about how they coped with the pain of becoming men through fantasy and their relationship.
Sigmund Freud introduced the concept of defense, or defense mechanism. It is Freud’s hypothesis that coping mechanisms are used against painful or unpleasant ideas, moods and perceptions. It happens without conscious awareness. When psychoanalysts speak of an individual’s defensive activity, they are implying that this individual is unconsciously negating, disavowing, or rejecting some psychic content in order to avoid becoming conscious of whatever is being repudiated. This property of self-deception is the generic feature of defense. This insight is usually left out in our modern everyday understanding of coping with stress.
The fantasy of Superman embodies the unconscious defensive activity of its creators. Superman contained characteristics similar to wishes and fears that both young men tried to rid their selves of. They wished to be strong, muscular and popular while being an outsider, alien (immigrant) and an orphan. Superman was an American hero who combined these characteristics. As Clark Kent they got rid of their angry and helpless parts of their self that threatened to destroy their self from within. In the comic strip, they could be bespectacled, meek and mild, perhaps anxious, as unlovable and cowardly Clark Kent. This aspect of their self was in danger of attack by other aspects of their self, represented by Lois and must be safeguarded by being held inside an imaginary protective person, Superman, who was desirable and lovable.
Usually in psychoanalysis, the individual himself does what Dr. Brad Ricca did for Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in his book Super Boys. Individuals in psychoanalysis discover and turn their story into coherent narrative, one that explains and accepts the reality of their inner life and relationships in a new helpful way.
Graphic novels and superheroes have been discussed previously in this blog by CPC member Valentino Zullo, who reviewed Alison Bechdel’s graphic narrative, “Are You My Mother?” In his review Zullo writes about superpowers and origin stories and concludes that psychoanalysis may be viewed as Bechdel’s superpower. Zullo is also the moderator of a superheroes discussion group at the Cleveland Public Library.
Superheroes were everywhere in Cleveland last week because of The Wizard World Comic Convention that, in spite of the severe winter weather, attracted thousands of fans of comic books, science fiction, film and television. And the Sunday Plain Dealer included art critic Steven Litt’s article judging a proposed Superman sculpture for the lakefront. In the beginning of the article Litt offers his own explanation for the continuing popularity of Superman:
“Part of the allure of superhero comics in this digital age is that they represent a persistent cultural demand for hand-drawn images of well-muscled human bodies in action.”
Unfortunately, Litt concludes that the artistic quality of the proposed statue does not measure up, and in the pose, the shape of the muscles, and Superman’s expression does not match the way Superman is usually depicted in comics.