There's a book called The Terror Dream, by Susan Faludi. It's a book about what the American responses to 9/11 revealed about us as a nation. It's also largely about the myths we tell to get us through crisis. These myths aren't always healthy, as Faludi demonstrates with overwhelming evidence. It's fascinating.
A while back I posted some fan art of Superman grimmacing in pain because of his impotence in the face of the attacks on the world trade center. Here's some more.
It's called 'And Where the Hell Was Superman?' by Hardy Ecke. It seems to be on display in DC somewhere, but my information may be out of date.
Ecke explains the picture on his website: What causes me to fix the catastrophe in a painting is not that an attack on the civilized world is surrounded by unanswered questions, but insted that the saviour of the world became too tired to protect America from evil anymore....A Rambo and a McClane with all the other Hollywood comics cannot rescue the world because if they cannot reach victory with the brain they cannot succeed with the sword.
It's an interesting image, though I don't think it conveys the ideas (at least to me) that he wanted it to convey. I see in this painting an image of a symbol of heroism that is dated and tire, one that can no longer save us, which is evidently what he wanted to paint. But maybe my concept of Superman is different from his. Superman is different that Rambo and John McClane--both reference in his explanation. These guys are all muscle and tactics. Superman is violent, to be sure, but he stands for something more.
This is from Gregoy McNeill, writing on the Superman Homepage: Since then [9/11], our concept of what a hero is has changed. Living with the fear of future terrorist attacks and uncertainity has made us ask "Where's Superman?" The truth is he does exist. It's not the powers nor costume that defines Superman, it's the morals. Superman has evolved from the embodiment of America to what we as human beings can strive to become if we can constructively use our talents and potential in a positve light....All of us are superheroes when we take a stand against injustice. All it requires us to have is courage and faith. Superman is within us, it's our choice to decide whether or not we want to use it.
I think Superman as a moral exemplar is a more common conception than Superman as a brute. There's a therapeutic technique named for him, "What Would Superman Do?"; an English professor counsels the same thought exercise, There's Valerie D'Orazio's blog, Occasional Superheroine, where she titles a post, "Why Superman not Telling a Lie Had Such an Impact on My Life." She ends the post with the question, what would Superman do? (it's at the bottom of the page here). A Google search of "What would superman do" reveals over 5000 hits, though not all of those are immediately relevant, they're interesting.
And I return, as so often, to All Star Superman. A running theme is Brain Vs. Brawn, Luthor vs. Superman. In Issue 12, Morrison reverses it, when a weakened and dying Superman outsmarts Luthor and says, "Brain beats brawn every time," a line Luthor uttered several issues earlier (Issue 1, maybe). Of course, Superman is punching Luthor when he says it.
but back to Terror Dream...Faludi titles a chapter "The Return of Superman." This book would have been published about a year after the film Superman Returns. There's a lot to the book, about how 9/11 affected women in particular. The chapter relevant here is about how we had to search for heroes after the attacks. When none presented themselves in an obvious manner, we (meaning, largely, the media and government) had to invent them. We invented them in a mold that we had long held to be valuable and glorious, a mold cast on cowboys and superheroes. Into that mold stepped Bush and his cabinet, Giuliani, and others.
Also cast in that mold were the men on United 93. We sought evidence that the mold fit, and we found it in statements such as this one, spoken of Lou Nacke on Dateline: "When he was a little boy, he love Superman. And he'd actually had a cape on and went through a glass window pretending to be Superman." He also had a tattoo on his shoulder. So he must have been a hero.
I do not question Nacke's heroism. Nobody really knows what happened on that plane. When Congress tried to award medals to four of the men, whom the media had decided were the heroes who overthrew the highjackers, others protested. Eventually, all the passengers on the flight were given posthumous medals. Lots of other people, too.
Faluid writes that this search for heroes and the apotheosization of them reveals "a deep cultural unease beneath the hero worship." We were constantly looking for new heroes after attacks that "left us with little in the way of ongoing chronicle or ennobling narrative. So a narrative was created and populated with pasteboard protagonists whose exploits would exist almost entirely within the realm of American archetype and American fantasy. There was a danger to being honored with such manufactured laurels, particularly for the tragedy's survivors; for the fantasy to hold, citizens would have to stay in character, never mind that their roles were constrained and deforming, never mind that the command performance prevented them from expressing what they really had witnessed and suffered that day."
There's a danger in casting real people as imaginary characters. They can never deliver fully on the promise of the role. None of these people is Superman (neither, seven years later, was Obama), who would have saved the day. That's why the moral example is so much more important than the warrior. Faluid calls superhero stories the fantasies of adolescent boys, but that only refers to the power the character possesses. If the Superman who returned after 9/11 had been the embodiment of morality instead of the misguided muscle of the governmental reaction, things would have been different indeed.