Saturday, November 3, 2018

The Secret Origins of the Superhero-Part Five

Every superhero has his secret identity. With Superman, it's Clark Kent. (Or is the other way around?) (1) Superheroes also have their unique costumes, secret hideaways, props, trappings, and supporting characters, including their love interests. Many of these conventions of the superhero genre come from other genres, some of which are as old as time. It's impossible now to uncover the origins of many of them, but secret identity is a specific phrase that lends itself to a search. I've done that, and I have an early occurrence of the phrase secret identity, again from the 1890s.

1890-The Earliest Use of Secret Identity

The earliest use I have found of secret identity is actually from a piece of serialized fiction called King or Knave?, written by Robert Edward Francillon (1841-1919) and published in various newspapers in the 1890s, perhaps beginning with the Manchester Weekly Times and Examiner of Manchester, England. The quote below is from the installment of January 11, 1890, page 10. In Francillon's story, a doctor and a young woman named Cynthia have met on a train. They begin discussing some people they know in common. Then their conversation takes a turn:
A dreadful pang shot through the doctor's heart. Could anybody else have discovered the secret identity and be trading on it? He made his last remark to see how it was taken. If she did know the secret, it was incredible that she should have played with it before a stranger--unless, indeed, she were playing some very deep game [. . .].
There were more secret identities in newspapers from 1890 to about 1940 or so, but it was only after Superman came along that the phrase became a part of common currency, including in professional wrestling. (Professional wrestlers, along with rock stars, might be the closest thing we have in real life to costumed superheroes.)

1912-The Earliest Use of Supervillain

Last to arrive on the scene was supervillain. The earliest use I have found of that term is from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 10, 1912, page 7. The article, "Guardsmen Are to Repeat War Drama Triumph," is a review of a stage play called Held by the Enemy. "War dramas," wrote the reviewer, "require two things--a heroine of emotional type and a super-villain." (What about a hero?) In this instance, Mrs. Horace Applegate played the former. Major Dick Gruner, playing Surgeon-General Fielding, filled the latter role, making him perhaps the first supervillain so named in our popular culture. I have another use from about the same time, from the Vicksburg Herald for April 13, 1915, page 5. This, too, was a review, for a "five part photodrama" called Money. From the first paragraph:
"A Million Dollars for a Banquet"--that is the amount of money spent [. . .] by the super-villain of the story, John D. Maximillian, otherwise known as Croesus, who has made himself the Money-Power of the World.
So it looks like Maximillian as a supervillain possesses the superpower of money--he is "the Money-Power of the World."

It's interesting that the supervillain came to popular culture (i.e., pulp fiction and comic books) from popular culture (i.e., melodrama and cinema). In other words, the super- prefix seems to have attached itself to the supervillain not because of his association with the Nietzschian Superman but because of the general usage of that prefix during the first decade or two of the twentieth century. (2) American movies, as a more or less conventional, middle-class, heavily sentimentalized, even moralistic medium, had superheroes and needed counterbalancing supervillains as their foils. In short, the supervillain seems to have been an invention strictly of American popular culture. 

In summary, the words superhero, superheroine, superman, superwoman, superpower, secret identity, and supervillain were all in use well before the 1930s. (3) It only took science fiction and fantasy, and then, ultimately, comic books, to turn these words into what we understand them to mean today. And that happened in the 1930s, mostly because of Superman.

* * *

PostscriptIn writing this series, I have thought about Slan, by A.E. van Vogt (1946), and other science fiction stories. The idea of the superior man is vast and deep in genre fiction; a simple blog just isn't big enough for the exploration. Instead I'll say that, although the concept of the Superman--and super-ness--seems to have come from Nietzsche, it found its natural home only in America, in the land of tall tales, hype, and boosterism. When it arrived here, we did with it what we do best: we a) commercialized it, and b) turned it into popular culture. Super-ness went from being a serious and abstruse philosophical concept to one taken up by ordinary men and women, mostly in the popular press. You could say that the concept became--"Horrors!" Nietzsche might exclaim--democratized. In the process, the Nietzschean Superman, an idea perhaps too serious for its own good, was punctured and became deflated, only to be replaced by the democratic Superman, who fights for truth, justice, and the American way.

As it turns out, the pretender or aspirer to super-ness is more often a small man than a great one--a small man living among the masses, either in a democracy or as part of a mass movement. He is decidedly not an aristocrat or a man above men. I'm not sure that we have had a true Nietzschean Superman since the philosopher first came up with the idea. In fact, the advent of the Nietzschean Superman may very well be an impossibility. (God always has the last laugh.) On the contrary, the desire to be above the rest of humanity holds a special appeal to small men rather than big, and they can't seem to resist it. More often than not, they choose a political--especially a politico-racial--means for attempting super-ness. The recent synagogue shooter in Pittsburgh, the recent mail bomber in Florida, the castor-bean-mailer in Utah, the black-church shooter in South Carolina--these are all good examples of small men trying to be big, and necessarily failing. Lee Harvey Oswald is another example. So is the shooter in Las Vegas, who, significantly, fired on masses of people from above. To him they must have seemed like ants (or worms, in Zarathustra's formulation). All or most of the high-ranking Nazis were like that, too: small men--freaks, perverts, deviants, misfits, outcasts, losers--all trying to be big.

Unfortunately, the same kind of thing was and is sometimes at work in science fiction, especially in early science-fiction fandom. Those early fans were physically unattractive, awkward, inept at ordinary living, etc., yet some were convinced that their superior brains and vast knowledge of science, fitted to what was sure to be a better, more technologically advanced future, would make them big. In creating Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster may have been acting out a kind of fantasy--their fantasy--of achieving bigness and greatness--his bigness and greatness. But they seem to have come up with an innovation: they converted the Nietzschean Superman into a force for good rather than one for himself and his own greatness. In that way, they took the Nietzschean Superman away from the Nazis and other pretenders so well and so thoroughly that when we think of the Superman today, we think only of the DC version, not the Nazi or Nietzsche version. What a powerful thing they did! The Allies may have destroyed the Nazis, but Siegel and Shuster, two Jewish kids from Cleveland, destroyed the Nazis' physical, racial, and political ideal by wresting it from them forever.

Next: A Return to Weird Tales.

(1) And both Clark Kent and Superman may have had secret identities in their creators, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster. Through Clark Kent, with his double English name (English occupation, clark, and English place name, Kent) and his Middle American origins, they might pass, I guess, as WASPS. And through Superman, they might pass as big, strong, powerful men rather than as ordinary Jewish urbanites. All of this (and my postscript) ignores the possibility that Clark Kent is the real identity of Superman and not the other way around. The evidence for that? Clark Kent wants Lois Lane to love him for himself rather than for what he is as Superman. Recent moviemakers have ruined the story of Superman by getting rid of the love triangle that is at its heart. They do, however, tell and retell (and retell) Superman's origin story, which is part Moses and part Jesus, or at least part Messiah.
(2) Like Magneto, Nietzsche might have found the idea of hero or villain, or hero vs. villain, to be nonsensical. It's no villain (or "reprobate," as in a quote on this blog from a few weeks ago) who strives to become the Nietzschean Superman.
(3) Super-villainess actually came last, in a review of Shadow Hall by John Paul Seabrooke, quoted in the London Observer, May 15, 1927, page 9: "Full of thrills. What a gang of villains is here led by a super villainess."

Original text copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley

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