Tom De Haven’s Our Hero: Superman on Earth was one of my accidental discoveries this semester, arising out of trying to help a student in my counterfactual history class with her really interesting project.
I have a long-standing engagement with comics and sequential art both as a consumer and in terms of some of my underlying scholarly interest in fan cultures, subcultures, and divergent national histories of genre and form. De Haven’s book isn’t as formal or far-reaching an analysis as work like David Hadju’s cultural history of the moral panic over comic books in the U.S. during the 1950s or Gerard Jones’ look at the beginnings of the superhero comic as a form. De Haven’s short commentary on the history of Superman as cultural property and idea rests heavily on such work, as well as work about comics history by comics creators such as Jim Steranko’s authoritative account. (Which, by the way, some publisher should consider reprinting.)
I enjoyed his weaving together of the now-familiar, once-obscure story of the travails of Superman’s creators, Joe Schuster and Jerry Siegel, with the evolving meaning of the character to his publics through his successive iterations in different media, which have ranged from a kind of devil-may-care social crusader early on to the weird mix of surrealist plotting and boys-club misogyny of the Mort Weisinger era and onward to the continuity-laden, densely fannish treatment Superman gets in many current comic books. De Haven ends up arguing that there is a sort of essential core to the character, most importantly that he does good because he enjoys it, almost because it’s his hobby. (He points out that the idea that Superman was raised right in the American heartland by two salt-of-the-earth Midwesterners was added relatively late to the character’s mythology.)
In any event, even if you had no interest in Superman or comic books, De Haven’s book is a good model for a looser style of extended essay by an academic cultural critic. It’s not an exhaustive work of original research, and doesn’t need to be. It’s a commentary that requires the author to have an erudite understanding of the texts involved (Superman comics, the television show, the movies, advertisements) as well as the wider social and historical contexts but doesn’t feel obligated to compel its readers to share that erudition in order to understand the basic thrust of his interpretation of Superman. De Haven does a nice job of integrating his personal experience of Superman the character and cultural property into his analysis, and maintaining a relaxed, curious, open attitude towards his subject. In many ways, I wish this is what cultural studies scholarship looked like more often.