- Superman in Myth and Folklore by Daniel Peretti
As the field of folklore studies continues to openly embrace new research and insights into popular culture topics, there are a few icons that loom large over the endeavor. Superman, the Man of Steel and the Last Son of Krypton, is perhaps the most famous and important of these. Since his creation as the first "superhero" in the 1930s, Superman has ruled over the pantheon of comic book heroes and, as Daniel Peretti convincingly argues, transcended into America's popular lore.
Peretti understands the challenges before him in tackling a subject as large and intricate as Superman, so he clearly lays out his parameters in the preface, aptly titled "Why Superman?" Drawing heavily on his own training as a folklorist, he narrows down the scope in negatives: this is not a history of Superman in media, nor is this fan studies or an ethnographic analysis of community. Peretti admits his "methods were not ideal, but they fit the project" (p. xiii). To that end, this book serves its first of many contributions to the field of folklore studies: as a challenge to others. "This is just one possible book that can be written about Superman using the folkloristic method" (p. xiii), Peretti writes, stopping just short of asking others to join him. A second contribution, and arguably the most important Peretti makes through this book, is a structural one: after challenging the field to look at popular culture through a folkloristic lens, he provides a masterful example of just how to do it.
From the start, chapter 1, "Superman and the Folkloristic Perspective," is something that anyone interested in the intersections of popular culture and folkloristics should read. Peretti does the heavy lifting, placing Superman—and by extension, other popular culture artifacts—in the context of the history of folklore studies. He draws out for the reader how Superman exists as a fictional character and then how Superman exists as a folkloric text operating within the accepted genres of folklore studies such as tales, festivals, and material culture. Peretti walks the reader through folklorists' interest in "the human element" (p. 7) of myths, legends, and traditions. He then embraces the categorization of comic books and superheroes as folklore in and of themselves but carefully notes that the genre operates less like oral tradition and more like "the midrashim of Jewish tradition, exegetical writings that expand on what is found in the Torah" (p. 11).
Peretti adeptly highlights a larger complication in the field, as he begins his consideration of the interplay between popular culture and folklore. He rightly states that "there has been little said about the presence of material derived from literature and popular culture in folklore" (p. 18). Examples like Sandra Dolby's "examination and celebration of microcosms" (p. 12), Francis Lee Utley's "The Bible of the Folk" (p. 14), and Sylvia Grider's symbiotic media narraforms (p. 16) set up the parameters and antecedents for Peretti but leave plenty of room for his new analysis of "the ways that people make use of" (p. 18) Superman. By noting that comics are "material culture, but not a folkloric version of material culture" (p. 11), Peretti focuses on, but does not directly state, how objects and texts like Superman jokes or fan-based material culture are not folklore—the lore of the folk—but could be better and more accurately described as poplore—the lore of popular culture.
To illustrate his points, Peretti dives into chapter 2, "Three Cases." Embracing the human element, Peretti uses studies of three individuals as lenses through which the folkloristic importance of Superman can be exemplified. Tattoos, sexuality, family and social relationships, life narratives, personal identification, and apathy mix together to create a vivid insight into what Peretti calls a "continuum of affinity" (p. 21). Methodologically, Peretti shows folklorists how hybridized research methods can lead to fruitful results. To build on his personal study of Superman tattoos, he utilizes the internet to look at...