Superman’s first appearance in any media form came in the first issue of Action Comics on April 18, 1938. On the cover is an image of a man wearing a blue spandex uniform with a red cape flowing out behind him. He’s lifting up a green car. The front end of the car is smashed up against a rock. In the foreground, an average citizen has his hands to his face in panic. A whitewall tire has fallen off. In the background, a yellow half-circle of flame is drawn, suggesting an explosion.
Ever since that iconic image came to newspaper stands and household across America. While the concept was not exactly new- Thomas Common’s 1909 translation of Thus Spake Zarathustra used “Superman” for “Übermensch”- the concept could now reach those who hadn’t bothered to read Nietzsche, or children who were too young to understand in-depth philosophical concepts.
In German, the word über (pronounced oy-ber) means above or beyond. Nietzsche’s concept, therefore, expresses a man above all other men, one who either by a fact of biology or a personal accomplishment, would greater than anyone else who lived during his day. This is certainly what Superman personifies- a man who can do almost anything. He ran fast, he can move extraordinarily heavy weights, he can shoot lasers from his eyes, he has freezing breath, he has excellent hearing that allows him to pick up a pinprick hundreds of miles away, he has X-ray vision, his body is impervious to projectiles, he can fly.
He can do that which a normal man cannot.
No wonder then, that Superman was seen as an American role model for much of his canonical existence. While Clark Kent managed to avoid the WWII draft by accidentally using his X-ray vision to read a chart incorrectly (thus earning him a 4F rating), Superman was another matter. The cover of Superman #23 has him swimming across the ocean, a mean look on his face. In the foreground, two Nazi submarine officers are looking through the periscope in panic, dreading what their fate might soon be. In the background, a battleship tilts to the side, smoke rising in a black plume from one side. The intimation of this image is clear: Superman will fight the Nazis whenever he sees them. He will show them no mercy. In retrospect, it even appears that he put his no-kill rule on hold during this time period.
Superman became associated- largely due to early animated productions- with truth, justice, and the American way. He was patriotic. By day, he worked hard as a news reporter. By night, or in his free time, he traveled the world doing good in whatever he could. It’s not clear if he ever had time to sleep or rest. He was tireless, indefatigable. Nothing could bring him down. Rarely, if he ever, did he seem doubt his mission or what he was doing. In order to fit a monthly episodic comic format, Superman (and other heroes like him) could not simply rout the Germans, or the Italians, or the Japanese, in a single stroke. They kept taking off a piece at a time in order to provide for more interesting narratives.
Therein lies the inherent flaw of the Übermensch concept, as used by DC Comics. A man capable of doing anything has a narrow, small-minded focus that does not allow him to see the broader picture at work. He is, in essence, a supersonic jet that can fly across the world in three minutes- yet he most enjoys visiting his adoptive family in the rural town of Smallville. He could end world hunger, he could abolish the concept of the nation-state altogether, he could put an end to every kind of tyranny at a single stroke.
He does not.
Despite having powers sufficient enough that would have made a mythological figure in Grecian lore, he also shows his human side- a side that was nurtured and developed, rather than inherited biologically. He is, after all, an alien from another planet.
This character, so popular through the entirety of his run, inspired children and adults alike. Many of them wanted him to be real. Others wanted to be him. Who would not want to be a man above all other men- a man who is greater than all of his fellows put together? While the concept of a man competing with other men was not invented by DC Comics, or even Nietzsche, it is in the comic books that the idea is fully explored in great detail.
Those who wanted to follow in Superman’s footsteps had little choice but to work as hard as he did. In the 1950’s, after America had won the war against the Axis Power, was seemingly one step ahead at all times of the Soviet Communists which appeared to threaten freedom everywhere, and were at the forefront all economic development in the world (largely because Europe’s economies had been devastated by the war).
Working hard was patriotic, an observable public good. Those who didn’t work, or didn’t want to work, were seen in a negative light. They were tramps, roustabouts, good-for-nothings. They were not trying to emulate the heroic ways of Superman.
DC’s World’s Finest comics in 1952 feature a Superman story that has the protagonist holding a very large globe on his shoulders, implying that he carried the weight of the world with him. Despite such a burden, he does not appear strained or stressed. Rather, as he observes the gangsters talking in the foreground, he appears somewhat perplexed. He might as well be holding a feather for all the strain it’s putting on him.
Similar iconography would occur in contrast to Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged whose main theme was that geniuses should let go of their burdens and work for themselves rather than for the benefit of society. Superman was the one person who could sacrifice his time endlessly without fatigue or regret so that others might benefit- even when those others did not appear deserving or grateful. He would just continue on, month after month, in new and exciting stories where he made a positive difference (while John Galt locked himself away from the world in a technological tantrum).
In the real world, real people had no powers. They had to do the best they could with what they had. They had to work hard if they wanted to be heroic. Heroism, after all, had been conflated for so long as someone who did not suffer fatigue- someone who had endless energy to do as much as they possibly could.
And while working hours were steadily going down for quite a long time- as displayed on this webpage and the attached chart- it was never in much consideration that working could be brought to a stop altogether. A person who didn’t work, who wasn’t engaged in some productive actively surely could not be pursuing the Protestant-like standards that defined an Übermensch. If a working person wasn’t going to work in order to become better than as many people as possible, then what was the point of working at all? Superman laying on the couch on a Sunday, taking a nap, can easily be seen as a waste of talent and ability.
In the same way, a person capable of working but who chooses to abstain from work or who chooses to work as little as is needed may be seen as a waste of potential. From an outsider’s perspective, that person could do any number of things. They could work themselves to the bone, they could be as heroic as they could be while all others were simply ordinary. They could feel proud in their small accomplishments. Every bit of praise they received, no matter how incidental, served as evidence that they were better than someone else.
Out of this philosophical groundwork was born the concept of toxic individuality. Of course, Superman is not entirely to blame. The concept of the Roman patrician and the medieval Divine Right of Kings also sought to establish Übermenschs in their own time. It is only within the last century that people from all social classes felt they were capable of becoming greater than their fellows. Productivity, rather than being seen as a necessary part of life to serve both one’s own self and the community at large, becomes a competition. Statistics may be introduced in order to prove this point. Some people may be awarded while others are not.
Those who are not successful become the Untermensch- a term that German Nazis used to describe non-Aryan people. In this definition also included those who were physically and mentally disabled, as well as those born in poor countries. They saw themselves as superior while those who disagreed with them, or were not fortunate enough to be part of the master race, were inferior. The very process of being born had turned into a zero-sum game involving desirable and undesirable genetic traits.
This concept was not simply limited to Nazi Germany. People in western countries shared similar sentiments under the guise of Eugenics, an idea first suggested by Plato in the form of selective breeding. Those who were healthy and able (able to work most) were seen as fit to reproduce. Those were disabled were seen as unfit to reproduce. The most extreme views in Eugenics called for a culling of the population to remove those individuals who were least capable of working hard. Putting in productive effort at one’s own job was seen as the purpose of human life on Earth- as Ayn Rand once wrote herself.
The most desirable human then, is one who works the most for the longest time. Those who advocate for genetic manipulation would almost certainly steer human genes in this direction. According to this doctrine, some humans are simply more valuable and more worthwhile than others. Their worth is tied to their ability to work productively.
This is the primary criticism that people of means have against poor or homeless individuals. If only they could work hard, they would be able to lift themselves out of their unfortunate circumstances. The circumstances that led to their homelessness are always disregarded- whether they were working hard and lost their job, or become injured and unable to work, or lost their car and can’t go to work. The presumption appears to be that if a person just isn’t working, there must be something wrong with them.
A person is congratulated for working themselves out of a bad situation, yet vilified for seeking help to help fix what has gone wrong. Superman never asked for help. An Übermensch would never ask for help. Only an inferior person with undesirable traits would do so. Everyone should be able to survive on their own, the argument goes. Those who cannot survive are simply falling victim to the law of the jungle- survival of the fittest.
In his work Mutual Aid, Pytor Kropotkin discusses at length that those who invoke Darwin to cite the survival of the fittest principle have misunderstood Darwin’s work- if indeed it has been read at all. Kropotkin cites several examples of how both animal life and human life work best when there is cooperation between individuals, when society is less concerned with who is the greatest among them and more concerned with ensuring the greatest number survive.
In addition, the western fixation on the Alpha predator or the lone wolf ignores the fact that wolves most often work together in packs, taking care of the sick and injured. While there is often a leader who may at times be supplanted, the alpha is not the end-all, be-all. His is not the existence that every wolf aspires to have. He simply is, as a fact of nature.
Among humans, medieval societies elevated kings above all others- a fact that was not prescribed by nature. In his work The Rights of Man, Thomas Paine uses the conquest of 1066 to establish the origin of English kings as something that was established by force, rather than something that arose as part of an evolutionary process. The greatest man in society was one who used the most violent methods against his fellow beings. This principle is further illustrated within the feuds between the noble houses of York and Lancaster that culminated in the War of the Roses. Whoever claimed to be the best was simply the best at taking everything for himself, tirelessly.
Historians will praise generals for using forced marches to compel soldiers to get a particular destination as fast as possible. The story of a Greek named Pheidippides is the story of a man who ran over twenty-six miles at the age of 40. Once he reached his destination, he died once he gave news of a military victory. The word marathon has entered into modern usage in honor of his accomplishment- the name deriving from the battle he witnessed before he began his journey.
South Korean, Japanese, and Chinese workers are known for working very hard, sometimes to the point of exhaustion. The Japanese word for this is karoshi, which means death by overwork. At first, these deaths were simply called “occupational sudden death.” The deaths themselves were not tied to work or the lack of personal care that overwork brought upon the work. Such societies, which did not originate out of Protestant beliefs, nor yet invented the Superman comic, still hold a belief in the superior person being one who work harder than all others- contributing as much as possible.
Superman, however, is a myth. He is a work of fiction. Krypton is an element in the periodic table, rather than a planet that once existed somewhere in space. Kryptonians aren’t real, nor is Kryptonite. For that matter, the concept of the Super Human itself is not real, either. The Übermensch is only something that Nietzsche imagined in his writing, to be contrasted with the Letzter Mensch- a man who never took risks, and sought only comfort. According to Nietzsche, comfort-seeking, complacency, and weariness of life are qualities that should not be actively pursued as laudable goals for one’s self.
The reality is that human beings are not inexhaustible workhorses (even horses themselves have limits). Human beings need to rest and recharge. They need sunlight and water and good company. They need diversions now and then. They need to figure out what they’re here for. Abraham Maslow’s 1954 work Motivation and Personality states this explicitly. And while Maslow originally thought of human needs in a hierarchical system where one fulfillment would lead to the next, sociologists of various kinds have begun to see his pyramid of needs overlapping one another.
The pursuit to become a Superman, a heroic person, a hard worker, an Übermensch, or whatever term may be preferred, must necessarily include the abnegation of one’s own self. It is a type of emotional self-flagellation, ignoring as many dreams and aspirations as one can possibly have. A person sacrifices all of the time for their work, and sometimes their lives. People die when they pursue this ideal because the human body isn’t capable of it- nor have human beings been living in conditions where this was the case for most of the time after we as a species evolved past Neanderthals to become Homo Sapiens.
For hundreds of thousands of years, human beings lived short lives as hunter-gatherers. At times, they starved. At other times, they ate their fill. They weathered the seasons as best they could, traveling in small groups or tribes. Only the introductions of agriculture and animal husbandry, invented around the year 10,000 BC, allowed people to live in the same area all their lives. Even then, the methods used were subject to failure, drought, or spoilage. People still went hungry- and those farmers who did produce crops often had an off-season during the coldest months of the year to rest and recharge.
In today’s world, there is no off-season from work. Bosses pursue the ideal of the toxic individualist- one who puts his only petty personal gains above the needs of everything else, including oneself- thus spreading the myth to any who will listen. Work hard, they will say, and you’ll get hired on permanently. Work hard, they will say, and you’ll get compensated accordingly. Work hard, they will say, and you’ll get promoted.
Those who pursue such goals often do not think of the many folks who never achieve such things despite having worked hard. They only want everything for themselves, never thinking about those who don’t succeed. This is the textbook definition of toxic individualism- which is ironic when one considers that in emulating Superman, people at work became far more like his arch-nemesis, billionaire businessman Lex Luthor.
Anyone who seeks to become a better person is more likely to do so outside of a vocational environment. In the final analysis, there is no such thing as a superior person. People simply have talents and capabilities that they honed over the years that make them able to perform at a higher level than others. Ascribing better performance to inherent goodness disregards the role of training, education, environment, and a host of other factors.
Receiving praise, a reward, or recognition in the workplace does not make one more better than anyone else (in fact, such praise is likely directed towards regular attendance).
This idea is a myth, just as eugenics is a myth, just as the supremacy of the Aryan Race is a myth, just as Superman is a myth put with pen and ink. Moreover, despite anything Nietzsche might have said about it, pursuit of comfort really is not that bad. No one ever did another person wrong by relaxing when their day was over, and taking what ease they could find.
Contrarily, quite a bit of harm has been done by those who never stopped their quest for more achievements, both tangible and intangible. Some of those who never reach a point of satiation with their chosen professions have left mental and physical damage behind them, a wreck of personal disasters that they ignore because they have everything they ever needed- and quite a bit more besides. Continual risk-taking for its own sake is simply financial masturbation.
The satisfaction of personal needs for as many individuals ought to be the goal of anyone who seeks to engage in productive work. Many workers, estranged from themselves, alienated from the lives, disconnected from all they would prefer to love, might well start with themselves. Recognizing that emulation of an impossible standard to be the problem is the first step towards realizing Maslow’s ever-elusive self-actualization.
They might recognize that they’ve been held to an impossible standard they can never meet, and made to feel guilty when they can’t meet it. They might decide to just be people, living, existing, and taking in each moment as it comes, rather than living their lives for some far off goal that may or may not happen.
Finally, workers might stop trying to be Superman and try to be more like Calvin and Hobbes- doing what’s necessary at times, enjoying the experience of life at other times. After all, it’s far more realistic for a person to go out in the woods and have imaginary adventures with their stuffed animal rather than for a single human being to carry the weight of the world all by themselves.