Abracadara: Superman and Magic

Many years ago, in 1969, to be exact, Larry Niven wrote an essay entitled ‘Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex’ which attempted to explain why the superhero character of Superman could not get laid. To this day, his postulations have remained intact.

There is, however, yet another question about Superman that remains unanswered, and I believe I know the answer: why is Superman (and by extension, all Kryptonians) so vulnerable to magic?

The Silver Age Superman was much different than the Golden Age predecedent: more powerful, and sometimes more limited. The Silver Age was when Red Kryptonite (September, 1958) first appeared, for instance, and the Silver Age was also when it was first mentioned that Superman was totally vulnerable to magic.

Totally vulnerable, as in totally defenseless.

These both certainly made sense from a thematic standpoint: stories about a character without weaknesses would quickly become boring, and what better weakness could the super-scientific superhero, alien from an advanced scientific civilization, have, except for magic? The dichotomy is just so perfect.

But from a story background standpoint, how does this happen? The Silver Age writers who came up with the idea back then probably didn’t consider any kind of explanation, but that wasn’t good enough for me. After some consideration, the explanation seemed so very simple to me.

The whole explanation starts, strangely enough, with a quote from “The Books of Magic” by Neil Gaiman. In it, the Phantom Stranger, who at the time was old enough to have witnessed the birth of the Universe 1, explained to the next archmage of the DC universe Tim Hunter 2 the difference between science and magic:

“Science is a way of talking about the universe in words that bind it into a common reality. Magic is a method of talking to the universe in words it cannot ignore. The two are rarely compatible.”

It is that dichotomy that is at the core of this question.

In the story ‘The Heart of a Star’ 3 in the graphic story collection “Sandman: Endless Nights”, Neil Gaiman describes a very important event in the early history of the Universe, a parliament of the Endless along with a number of beings, some of whom we discover are the life-forces of stars, including Sto-Oa (the primary star for the planet Oa, long before the Guardians came into being) and Rao, the star of Krypton. (A very young star known as Sol was also present, tolerated by the older stars at the time.)

According the DC history, the first inhabited civilization and the former center of the Universe in the DC universe is Oa, the planet of the Guardians and the home of the Green Lantern Corps. The next two inhabited planets with civilizations are not known, but it can be postulated they were Krypton and the Sorcerer’s World. What if one of the things being considered at this parliament was to give both of these planets a choice: science or magic; it is quite likely that both were chosen to represent the two sides of the science / magic dichotomy. Krypton chose science whereas the Sorcerer’s World chose magic.

For millions of years, the intelligent races on both planets evolved into the civilizations and cultures that became the epitome of that dichotomy. In so doing, every trace of any ability for any kind of magic was steadily eliminated from the Kryptonian gene pool and even from the Kryptonian psyche as well. 4 At the same time, any defenses against magic were also eliminated. Therefore, any Kryptonian eventually became totally a manifestation of science and completely vulnerable to magic. The same, in reverse, would also hold for the inhabitants of Sorcerer’ World.

One also has to consider Clarke’s Third Law 5 in this situation. Not in the sense that the science might be too advanced to be understood by the viewer and thereby seemingly magic, but in the sense that magic is often described as the understanding of the universe 6 which corresponds with scientific knowledge. It could be that the ultimate intention of this dichotomy was to create the two races and then merge them to produce a race that could unite science and magic to be able to completely control the Universe on a fundamental level. (Or maybe replace the Guardians of Oa. Hmmm … There’s a story there, I think.)

This vulnerability, of course, meant lots of problems for Superman on Earth, where he could find himself opposing spellcasting villains. (This does not include Mr. Mxyzptlk, whose power is based on his Fifth Dimensional technology or other-dimensional nature.) Therefore, could someone like Zatanna or Doctor Fate could cast a spell on Superman to give him a defense against magic? That I doubt, mainly because of Superman’s complete vulnerability to magic. Any magic cast upon him would suffer from the same effect and be just as vulnerable to other magic as he was: essentially, there would be nothing for the magic to “stick to” and could be negated by magic as easily as any other spell or magic effect upon him. The same would also hold for anything like a magic shield or ring intended to protect him: it just wouldn’t work.

Of course, given the fluid nature of the comic book world, the worlds and universes, and the characters, even if the above is valid now, or maybe was, it may not be by the next issue / story line / universe reboot.

  1. As opposed to the changes from the “New 52” universe revision where the Phantom Stranger is now Judas Iscarot the betrayer, an act that totally ruined any mystique the character possessed.
  2. Unfortunately, with the “New 52” universe revision, his position as potential archmage was also revised out of continuity.
  3. Annotations here: well worth reading.
  4. Genetic throwbacks would still occur: there was one backup story that told of a Kryptonian magician entertainer of the distant past who somehow had real magic, even though he denied it. His assistant was forced to trick him into using his powers in times of crisis.
  5. “Any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic.”
  6. “The Law of Knowledge” from “Authentic Thaumaturgy: The Laws of Magic” by Isaac Bonewits: “Understanding brings control; the more that is known about a subject, the easier it is to exercise control over it.”
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