What’s So Funny ’Bout Truth, Justice, and the American Way?
May 1, 2006
As a boy with an over-active imagination fed by superhero comic books, I, along with my fellow “Green Lanterns,” would proudly recite this oath before “flying” off to confront some threat to the peaceful denizens of the playground. I recall on one occasion, being challenged by my teacher (to whom I’ll refer as Mrs. Dewey) as to the fixed nature of morality as it related to the day’s “mission.” The exchange went something like this:
Mrs. Dewey: “How can you judge someone else’s actions as evil? They may think what you’re doing is evil.”
Young Green Lantern: “Green Lanterns know right from wrong, even if others don’t know the difference.”
I’d like to believe that Mrs. Dewey was challenging me to think, however, upon review of her teaching, I realize that she was just trying to “unburden” me from my pesky black-and-white thinking on the nature of truth and justice. There seemed to be no end to such helpful people throughout my educational career. Fortunately for me Superman, Flash, Green Lantern, Batman, and the rest of the Justice League were there to balance the scales.
The superhero comic book, while often maligned, remains one of the truest reflections of our society. In many ways, superheroes are the great epic myths of America. They embody the core principles that we, as a nation, hold dear. They show our children literal pictures of morality and inspire us all on levels of which we may not even be aware.
The superhero myth has permeated deep into our culture. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who didn’t know who Superman is, and in fact most can tell you his entire history. The Superman character was invented in 1938, and has since become a story that is retold and passed down, and not just through comic books. In fact, the comic book market is (sadly) a very small niche in the grand scheme of things. An icon like Superman has had his story told in many ways, from the Max Fleischer cartoons, to the Super Friends, to the Superman movies, to modern takes, such as the TV show Smallville.
Yet while comic books are a minor market, the superhero movie is perhaps one of the surest box office successes. What is it that stirs the hearts of Americans to attend these movies? I believe it is because we spend our lives awash in a culture that attempts to teach us not to make moral judgments. The lines between right action and vice are purposely blurred. The principles of virtue and honor are obfuscated. In fact, the worst thing one can do is to try to make a distinction between right and wrong. Yet, superhero movies reinforce the concept that there is a difference between right and wrong and, therefore, justice and injustice. In these movies, moral decisions have ultimate consequences and good triumphs in the end.
The superhero myth touches on all the important questions humanity faces. The Fantastic Four can teach us about family and friendship. Spider-man can teach us about power and responsibility. Daredevil can teach us about faith and the proper response in the face of tragedy. Hellboy can teach us about human nature and sin. The Justice League can teach us about the proper use of power, and… justice. And, of course, Superman proudly teaches us about truth, justice, and the American way.
It is worth noting that the superhero is strictly an American invention. The idea of Superman, however, was not only brought to life by two Jewish kids in 1930s Cleveland—it was also and idea of Adolf Hitler. Of course, his conception of Superman was quite different. Hitler’s superman would use his powers to take over the world. DC Comics’ Superman would use his powers to help others and fight for justice. And while Hitler’s superman would be a “son of the fatherland,” DC’s Superman was the ultimate immigrant to his adoptive American home (in fact Joseph Goebbels allegedly destroyed a copy of a Superman comic during a meeting of Nazi hierarchy, decrying Superman as a Jew—an interesting thought given the many Mosaic parallels and use of the suffix El, meaning God in Hebrew, in Superman’s given name, Kal-El).
The Roman philosopher Seneca said: “Choose for yourself a moral hero whose life, conversation, and expressive face all please you, then picture him to yourself at all times as your protector, and as your ethical pattern.” I believe that the human heart is hardwired towards this type of belief and behavior. Superman, as well as other superheroes, is a picture that points us toward unchanging principles and eternal truths.
Superman is universally recognized as a symbol of America, and this in spite of the fact that he was neither born American or in fact even human. What makes him American is not his race, or powers; it is his belief in and willingness to fight for American ideals. It matters not that he has super-strength, super-speed, flight, x-ray vision, invulnerability, super-hearing, or super ventriloquism (and yes he has that power—you can look it up). What matters is that he has a sense of justice, tells the truth and acts honorably. Do all Americans emulate Superman in these things? Of course not. The point is that Superman embodies that pinnacle toward which we, as Americans, ought to strive. The fact that Superman is a Kryptonian only illustrates that being an American is not so much about geographical origins, but rather embracing an idea. As long as someone is willing to fight for truth, justice, and the American way, there will always be an America and a Superman.
Rich Policz is a 1997 graduate of Ashland University and the Ashbrook Scholar Program. He is a freelance writer and teaches philosophy at Ashland Christian School.