"Man is a rope, fastened between animal and Superman--a rope over an abyss. . . . What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal . . . ."
--Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche
(Penguin, 1961, pp. 43-44)
I think of Nietzsche as conservative or backward-looking, but his concept of the Superman seems forward-looking, evolutionary, futuristic, even progressive. It's no wonder that those who looked to the future--progressives, socialists, eugenicists, writers and fans of science fiction--glommed on to it. Although there were people who looked with hope towards the coming of the Superman (or who believed in themselves as Supermen), others pulled back, in doubt, skepticism, caution, fear, or--because of nazism as much as anything--horror. The Superman in their view would be a tyrant, a destroyer, a user and oppressor of men in his exercise of his supreme will. "You have made your way from worm to man," says Zarathustra, "and much in you is still worm." (p. 42) If we fail to cross the rope, the bridge, to a higher state, are we then still worms? And if so, is the Superman right to tread upon us?
Science fiction fans Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster began their creation of Superman with a Nietzschian version, a superior man who is more villain than hero. Their innovation in creating the superheroic version a couple of years later was twofold. First, they made their hero super not by his positioning of himself above others but by bestowing superpowers upon him. Second, and more importantly, they turned their version of the Superman from a self-centered being to one who is selfless, from bad to good, from amoral to eminently moral. The Nietzschian Superman seems to have come out of an inverted Garden of Eden. From his loins sprang two versions of himself. The Nazi had or was his own Übermensch, a kind of anti-Abel. Siegel and Shuster, both Jewish, created Superman, an anti-Cain, a man above men ("Look! Up in the sky . . . .") but who uses his powers to their benefit. Has the anti-Cain, the good Superman, then slain the anti-Abel, the bad Übermensch? Can he? Or is the battle never-ending? Whatever the case, from Superman came the true superhero of today with his superpowers, secret identity, and readily identifiable costume. The Nietzschian Superman--the Übermensch--on the other hand became his nemesis, the comic-book supervillain. Magneto from the The Uncanny X-Men, with his desire to take mutant man to the next level of evolution, may be the best example of this type. Sorry, Lex Luthor.
1879, 1907, 1909-The Earliest Uses of Superpower
The earliest use of the word superpower that I have found is from before the Civil War and was applied to looms for industrial weaving. I assume the super- part refers to the overhead location of the power source. The earliest use for something other than machinery is in an item from The Isle of Man Weekly Times, March 29, 1879, page 6. The item is about God and religion. The word superpower refers to God's own power:
. . . for who can doubt that the Saviour's hallowed, persecuted form personified the wisdom, the super-power, love, and mercy of the Almighty Father?
The earliest use of superpower that I have found applied to a person is from The Daily News and Observer of Charlotte, North Carolina, April 18, 1907, page 4. The reference is to Theodore Roosevelt:
Roosevelt loomed before the country out of the clouds of battle as a well exploited and highly advertised fin de siecle meteor of primitive Americanism. He was the "super"-natural, super-candid, super-boyish, super-scrapping, super-type of the gentleman in "chaps." [. . .] They [men of "the literary and collegiate cults"] begin to express a fear of the super-power they have helped to rear and glorify [i.e., Roosevelt himself].
Superpower is applied here to the man himself and not to the powers he might possess. It occurred to me when I read this that the prefix super- seems to have caught on in America during the early twentieth century, and why not? Our country was a big, bustling place. Ordinary words could not describe it. We needed super-words. From frontier days, we had boasting, lying contests, tall tales, literary and journalistic hoaxes, and boosterism of the most forward and obvious kind. In 1903, for example, a baseball playoff began between the two major leagues. Those leagues were confined to the northeastern quarter of the United States, yet their playoff was called the World Series. Teddy Roosevelt was the perfect president for his time, for he was big, he was full of energy, he had accomplished great things. He was, in short, super--though not quite yet a superhero.
The best early use I have found of superpower, approximating our current concept, comes from the Chicago Tribune for January 31, 1909, page 34. It's in a poem under the heading "Your Corner" and the byline Fadette. The poem is long, but it begins with a striking line:
Some of us live in worlds and some in superworlds.
In the third stanza are these lines:
Some live ethereally in the ineffable spiritualities.
[. . .]
They have no feelings, but perceptions.
They know no powers save the superpowers of the supermen.
They have no possessions, hopes, homes, friends, or paradises save those of the spirit. (1)
I'm not sure what to make of this poem, but there is the word superpowers (supermen, too), and it came just when we might expect it to have come, not long after Nietzsche, during the Progressive Era, during a time when progressivism, boosterism, and "primitive Americanism" lived side by side, when super-words seemed to express best what was happening in the world but most especially here in the United States. It was only a matter of time before the superhero would come along as a positive archetype for the twentieth century.
To be concluded . . .
(1) Contrast Fadette's use of supermen to refer to men of the spirit with these words from Zarathustra:
I entreat you, my brothers, remain true to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of superterrestrial hopes! They are poisoners, whether they know it or not.
They are despisers of life, atrophying and self-poisoned men, of whom the earth is weary: so let them be gone!
Original text copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley