Superman and Philosophy edited by Mark D. White (book review).

When I saw the title ‘Superman And Philosophy’, I did wonder how the philosophers would deal with this topic. Would they be focusing on the comicbook, the film version or mix and confuse the two. With a long history, how familiar would these writers be on the entire subject, let alone the reboots the character has had over the decades, it wouldn’t be difficult to confuse everything in one big melting pot. As it turns out, they take on most of them, including where he is raised in Germany and Russia, and didn’t confuse any of them.


That doesn’t mean they’re perfect on Superman mythology. Considering that only one of them remembered Pete Ross and, while living in Smallville, his discovery of Clark Kent’s real identity and never told him, it’s an odd oversight. Then again, the opening page of the introduction claiming that Superman wasn’t the first super-hero does make me wonder who they are referring to, especially as the Man of Steel was the first one to wear a zoot suit.

A lot of the time, it’s the quirks they point out which is amusing. I can’t help but wonder if Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen wouldn’t take so many chances if they didn’t have Superman looking out for them. I liked Daniel P. Malloy for pointing out in chapter 5’s footnotes how blind Olsen is for taking photographs of Superman and not spot the facial similarities to Clark Kent. In a further observation to that myself, Olsen also idolises both Clark Kent and Superman for different qualities so maybe he can’t match them together. Then again, the same is true for Lois Lane in the realities when he never disclosed his secret identity to her. There is some discussion on how Superman changes his posture and manner to ensure that if people look at him, they wouldn’t automatically make the connection. Back in the Curt Swan days, it was shown that his Clark Kent glasses magnified his super-hypnotic abilities so people saw his with a few more wrinkles and thinning hair, although looking back now, I do wonder how would this work through photographs. No wonder Kent had a TV career for a while. He probably hypnotised the world. Looking even more objectively, outside of Olsen and Lane, the same could be said for Perry White and Lex Luthor as well. Maybe Superman doesn’t inflate his chest so much when he’s Clark Kent.

I love how Malloy addresses how Clark Kent’s consistent lying about how he interviews Superman and such which is against the journalist’s creed. Mind you, when you consider how often journalists have been caught out lying, should we be surprised that Superman does the same? Malloy also lightly addresses the fact that many of Superman’s friends are violent vigilantes and love the description of a certain Dark Knight taking a kid with him to tackle crime in a brutal fashion. There really should be a general ‘Super-Hero Vigilantism And Philosophy’ book and why their actions are tolerated in the comicbook realities.

Christopher Robichaud in chapter 6 points out that although an American, Superman has never been taken to task over not paying taxes. I had a ponder on this. Superman doesn’t have any citizenship papers as such (he is very much an illegal alien on Earth) let alone a paying job, his deeds are principally voluntarily and he does co-operate in repairing damages after city battles, even if it could be seen as taking work away from paid workers. However, when you consider that his Fortress Of Solitude isn’t actually on American soil then he isn’t actually living there. At most, the IRS could get him on for over-staying his allocated time in the country. Then again, Superman is supposed to believe in ‘the American Way’ which to my mind is be a capitalist and pay as little tax as you can, so maybe he’s fulfilling that obligation. Considering that Superman doesn’t buy anything, he can’t even be had up for not paying American sales tax. If anything, the most they could get him for is vagrancy which is something they don’t get close to if he floats above the ground all the time.

In chapter 10, Adam Barkman goes back to the earliest Siegel and Shuster material pointing out how much of the names have Christ allegories, stopping short of making Jonathan or Joseph Kent being a carpenter. Probably the major difference, other than Superman being an alien, Christ wasn’t an orphan neither so it doesn’t complete the link. I’m surprised no one has written an alternative story where Jor-el and Lara escaped to Earth with their son.

Oddly, none of the writers point out that Superman is just too powerful and that more limitations beyond kryptonite and magic, both had to be created to give weaknesses when there were no others naturally available, should be imposed. In many respects, I can’t help siding with some of the Lex Luthor variants in that having such a powerful being around in a real life situation gives too much dependency on mankind to rely on Superman to sort out problems. As to him doing good deeds on a full time basis, I remember he did drop his Clark Kent alias for a time but found that even that took its toll on his mental stamina and being incapable of being everywhere at once.

Mahesh Ananth in chapter 20 questions Superman’s psionic abilities although this is very much to do with the second Christopher Reeve film where he erases Lois Lane of his relationship with him. Must have been pretty good, though, because it would also have had to include all the other people in the know about their relationship at the Daily Planet. This isn’t really comicbook canon and the Salkinds did play fast and loose with some of his abilities. Giving Superman ESP would definitely take things too far and make him impossible to beat and he’s pretty difficult already.

Throughout most of these chapters there is reference to Nietzsche and his Űbermensch or over-man or superman, making me think all these philosopher dons are relying far too much on same books. Two authors have taken different tacts although these aren’t really dissent. If anything and something I’ve commented on regarding this with the other philosophy books in this series, they really need writers who offer different viewpoints to give a more rounded approach and get you thinking more on the options than all coming from the same direction. If there is no deviance, then at least the book’s editor should explain why.

As can be noted from my comments above, any book that will make you think or react makes for an interesting read and ‘Superman And Philosophy’ succeeds in doing that. One should always be glad that Superman sees himself as the good scout otherwise the DC Earth would truly be hell.

GF Willmetts

(pub: Wiley-Blackwell. 248 page indexed small enlarged paperback. Price: £11.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-118-01809-5)
check out website: www.wiley.com/wiley-blackwell


Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.