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Mutants and Mystics: A Book Excerpt
The occult and sci-fi backgrounds of the Man of Tomorrow are well worth teasing out. Before Siegel and Schuster created Superman, for example, the same two young men created "Dr. Mystic: The Occult Detective." As we have it in this single two-page strip, Mystic, as he was called for short, joins his ally Zator, and together they flash along through the spirit world "at a speed greater than that of light itself" toward India and "the Seven." Dr. Mystic's face and build look more or less exactly like the later Superman. These same two pages also contain what Greg Sadowski has described as "comic books' first flying caped figure," that is, Zator.[ii] These, then, are some of the roots of the superhero genre: a mystic flying to India in the astral plane to do occult work.
This earlier explicit occultism was gently suppressed by Siegel and Schuster until it could only be gleaned from coded details like the notion that Superman was eventually said be an exile from another planet called Krypton (first introduced on January 16, 1939), which translates, if it were Greek (which it is), as the Hidden or the Occult. Put simply, Superman is a crashed Alien from the Occult.[iii] The accent, though, had clearly shifted from the Occult to the Alien, that is, from the mysticism to the science fiction, which is all to say from the mytheme of Orientation to that of Alienation.
Superman has attracted a great deal of criticism, some of it quite thoughtful, some of it grossly exaggerated. It is often claimed, for example, that the trope of the Superman was originally Nietzschean. It is then pointed out, correctly, that the Nazis loved Nietzsche's dream of the Übermensch—the Overman, Superman or, perhaps most literally, the Superhuman. This assumed conflation of the Superman and Nazism is then extended to the entire genre of superheroes, as if being a superhero is the same thing as being a fascist. The psychoanalyst Frederic Wertham, for example, consistently conflated Superman and fascism in his famous 1950s rant against comics, The Seduction of the Innocent. Numerous writers—from Frank Miller's The Dark Night Returns to Alan Moore's Watchmen—have since exposed the genre to similar withering critiques from within.
But equating the Superman, much less the superhero, in toto with fascism or any other political ideology is, at best, a half truth and, at worst, a gross misrepresentation. To begin with, Nietzsche was not a Nazi, and he despised the anti-Semitism, racism, and nationalism that he saw around him: he would have hated Hitler. It was his sister who later misrepresented him to the Führer and the Nazis. His concept of the Superman, moreover, is complex, undeveloped, and by no means clear. What is clear is that the men who created Superman were Jews, as were most of the movers and shakers in the early comic-book industry. And key superheroes, like Captain America, were explicitly and consciously created to fight Hitler, not sing his praises. Finally, the roaring success of the earliest American superhero comics is intimately connected to the GI's who fought the Nazis on the European front and took their comics, Superman and all, with them, too often to their own gruesome deaths. When the moral courage of World War II was no longer needed on the European front, the superheroes simply went away. To equate Superman and the superheroes with fascism, then, is a precise reversal of the truth.
Jeffrey J. Kripal is the J. Newton Rayzor Professor of Philosophy and Religious Thought and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Rice University. He is the author of six books, including Esalen: America and The Religion of No Religion and Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred.