This post was originally written for comicommand.com-
Written By Cadeem Lalor
My last article examined how films can impact the comic book industry and since I have posted that article, I have also thought of how comics are impacted by other media. Aquaman is one of my favourite comic book characters and a great deal of his backstory is rooted in pre-existing mythological elements, such as Atlantis. The same goes for Wonder Woman, who is heavily rooted in Greek mythology. Additionally, Marvel and DC comics both have their own version of Hercules. Comic book creation as a whole is a cycle where pre-existing archetypes are often altered to create something that is either (arguably) new or a hybrid of other elements.
The character of Superman himself can be seen as a superhero archetype, with his morals and some of his powers being found in numerous superheroes that followed. Yet Superman also takes inspiration from previous works, begging the question of where homage and inspiration can really be traced.
In Man of Steel, Dr. Emil Hamilton warns Superman that he could possibly be carrying an alien pathogen, to which Superman responds that he has not infected anyone in his thirty-three years on Earth. I am not a religious person by any means, and although I was raised Christian I no longer practice. Yet I couldn’t help but notice that was the same age Jesus dies.
The Superman/Jesus allegory is also clearly present in Clark’s backstory. A man sends his only son to Earth, who is then adopted by Mary (Martha) and Joseph (Jonathan Kent). Of course the names aren’t identical but the similarity is still undeniable. Superman Returns also slapped audiences across the face with Christ imagery when Superman falls to earth in the final act, with his arms spread wide. Returns also focuses on the importance of Superman’s return, with Superman referred to as a “savior” throughout the film. Dawn of Justice(spoilers) also depicts the Death of Superman, which will be followed by his resurrection. Death and revival are universal themes, but when combined with all the biblical similarities, the Jesus comparison is the most obvious one. Interestingly, the marketing for Man of Steel even includes a website where pastors can access more information on the similarities between Superman and Jesus, in order use the universal themes to teach their congregations. Author Stephen Skelton, also claims that a non-Christian friend told him that Superman Returns “…spoke more to me about Jesus than The Passion of the Christ.”
Since the Jesus allegory is clear and also well documented I will move on to creative influences that are probably not as well known. Some may remember the film John Carter, or maybe not since it was a box-office flop (relative to its budget) and got average reviews at best. Its source material, The Barsoom Stories feature John Carter, a man who is transported to Mars. Once on Mars his strength and speed outstrip those of the native Martians due to Mar’s reduced gravity. Sound familiar?
Philip Wylie’s Gladiator (1930) is also viewed as another influence on the Superman mythos (Feeley 177), despite the creators of Superman never publicly acknowledging its influence (Feeley 179). Gladiator depicts the life of Hugo Danner, a man with Superhuman abilities acquired after his father injects his pregnant mother with a serum (Feeley 178). Danner’s abilities include superhuman strength and invulnerability and the book focuses on his desire to find his place in the world (Feeley 178). Aside from these general similarities, Danner also adopts a costume and a secret identity throughout his life and his moral compass also mirrors Superman’s (Feeley 178). If such a character were created now it would be difficult to ascribe the creation to a single, or even a few different characters. However, Gladiator’s publication a year before Superman’s, at a time when such stories were relatively uncommon does make it more likely that Superman’s creation was influenced by Wylie’s work.
An amazon review of Skelton’s book, The Gospel According to the Greatest Superhero in the World, is quick to criticize Skelton for making great leaps in his analysis: of seeing allegories and comparisons where there are none. As the reviewer says ” Superman is, and has always been, primarily a pop culture icon intended to entertain, not a symbolic figure meant to remind us of Christ.” This review goes on to argue that the nitpicking comes at the expense of some of the most obvious allegories. This “nitpicking” includes some details such as Superman being an only son sent to Earth.
I can’t argue that every point Skelton, or any other author will make, was an intended reference by Superman’s creators. However, I think it is also important not to think that fictional characters are created in a vacuum. Our fictional creations are shaped by our desires and our circumstances. Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster may have been Jewish, but it’s possible that omnipresent stories of Jesus could affect their writing. Especially since the authors cite the biblical stories of Moses and Samson as being inspirations. Terrible creations like Fifty Shades of Grey wouldn’t exist if the author didn’t write out her fantasies. Was she intending to entertain too? Of course, but the material she released for entertainment came from somewhere. The same logic applies to comic book characters such as Superman.
Superman is a pop culture icon, and I did not write this piece to argue that he is a sign of the second coming or a rip-off. I only state the fact that previous works, ranging from the bible to early science fiction led to the creation of one of the most popular characters ever created.
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Feeley, George. “Review: When World-Views Collide: Philip Wylie in the Twenty-First Century.” Science Fiction Studies 32.1 (2005): 177-182. Print.