[Guest post by Stephen Nelson]

Imagine the following scenario: Superman learns about a planet on the other side of the galaxy that may be inhabited by some long lost Kryptonian relatives. He decides to leave Earth in search of them. He has always taken seriously his commitment to protecting the people of Earth, though, so he convinces his old pal Jimmy Olsen to take his place as Superman. What would it take for this scheme to be successful? That is, could Jimmy Olson ever truly be Superman?

This question is a puzzle about superhero identity, which I discuss in “Superhero Identity: Case Studies in The Avengers”, my chapter of the forthcoming book The Avengers and Philosophy: Earth’s Mightiest Thinkers (Blackwell, March 2012). The problem of superhero identity is similar to that of personal identity, a hot topic since the days of John Locke. There are some special problems about superheroes, though—a single person could be multiple superheroes (e.g. Hank Pym), a single superhero could be multiple people (e.g. Captain America), and more importantly, superheroes are inherently fictional. My view that I’ll bring to bear on our puzzle at hand is that the two primary features that count for superhero identity are appropriateness and legitimacy.

Appropriateness can be established by someone having qualities that actually make them count as superhero (e.g., some kind of super power or extraordinary ability). Certain superheroes, however, are so closely identified with their powers that in order to be a particular superhero, someone would need to have powers of the right kind. For example, if you want to be Plastic Man, you’d better be pretty flexible.

Legitimacy, on the other hand, is about ownership. If someone is going to don a superhero mantle, they either need to create it themselves or else come by it in a legitimate way. Anyone could paint herself green, put on a swimsuit, and call herself ‘She-Hulk’, but she wouldn’t really be She-Hulk unless she’s Jen Walters, or unless the ‘She-Hulk’ title has been passed down through the right kind of channels.

Do these two constraints answer our question about Superman and his pal Jimmy Olsen? Legitimacy is seemingly easy enough in this case, since Superman himself is choosing Jimmy as his successor. Appropriateness is the tricky part—as it stands, Jimmy has no superpowers at all, much less the ones needed to do what Superman can do.

Let’s suppose that Superman has stashed away in his Fortress of Solitude a crystal that will allow him to give his powers to one, and only one, person. So he takes Jimmy to the ice cave, works his Kryptonian science, and now Jimmy has all the relevant powers: he has ice breath and heat vision, he can fly, repel bullets, lift trains, etc. Now suppose that Superman leaves Earth, giving Jimmy his costumes and his rolodex. Has Jimmy now become Superman? What else could he possibly need?

P.S. Thanks to Roy, Frank, and Qiana for inviting me to contribute to the blog this month—I’m looking forward to seeing what develops in the future!

About roytcook

Roy T Cook is associate professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities. He works in the philosophy of logic, the philosophy of mathematics, and the aesthetics of comics. He is the co-editor (with Aaron Meskin) of The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach (Wiley-Blackwell 2012)

9 responses »

  1. roytcook says:

    One of the most interesting aspects of superhero mantles that distinguishes them from people – that is, aspects in which superhero identity differs from personal identity – is that superheroes can go out of existence and then come back into existence at a much later date (e.g. Tony Stark might die, but years later his long lost son could rebuild the armor and legitimately ‘become’ Iron Man).
    Another quirk: There might be more than one instance of a particular superhero. Hence:
    Guy Gardner = The Green Lantern
    Hal Jordan = The Green Lantern
    yet it is not the case that:
    Guy Gardner = Hal Jordan
    (with some of its properties DC comics navigates such confusion with respect to identity by distinguishing between, e.g. Superman and Superman-Prime).
    This all suggests that in a certain sense superhero identity conditions are possibly even more complex (in some formal, technical sense) than the traditional philosophical question of personal identity.

    • Boris Smelov says:

      Well, to be fair, in the case of the Green Lantern, it’s a posting, not a “mantle”, as such. Being a Green Lantern is like being a cop.

  2. Boris Smelov says:

    I think being a superhero is much more like holding a title than having an identity. It’s an informally established title, based on popular recognition, but a superhero’s mantle seems to act just like a governorship — it can be passed to a qualified, legitimate successor. It’s unlike a government post in that there can be more than one instance of a superhero at a time, such as the case with the multiple Flashes in DC (which, as I commented above, is different from the Green Lanterns). It’s rare that more than one instance of a superhero concerns him or herself with a given geographical area, so In that sense it’s much like having a Governor of California and a Governor of Minnesota. There is a Flash in Central City (Barry Allen), and a Flash in Keystone City (and everywhere else, Wally West).

    • Steve Nelson says:

      These examples of Green Lantern and Flash are good ones, and I totally agree with what you say about them, at least in the Green Lantern case. But I think these kinds of ‘station’ superheroes are definitely the exception rather than the rule. Most superheroes aren’t geographically limited the way Green Lanterns are, explicitly assigned to sectors of the galaxy.

      I don’t know much about the history of Flash, but from what I do know, I would have thought that it’s less like the Green Lantern case and more like Captain America or Batman, where the mantle has been passed along to someone else, and then circumstances arise where the original bearer comes back from the dead or back in time or something. Isn’t that right? But with Flash there’s some other special thing that makes them all super fast, so it kind of makes sense that they would all continue being Flash superheroes, even when they’re contemporaries. With Batman or Captain America, it makes more sense for them to just decide which one will be that superhero, and then the other adopts some other identity (like Nightwing or the Winter Soldier).

      In any case, I think there is some similarity between superhero mantles and offices that someone might hold. In my chapter in the Avengers book, I compared them more to personas like David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” or “The Thin White Duke”. I think these are a bit more apt in most cases, though the governor (or maybe sheriff) analogy is great for Green Lantern.

  3. Thanks for this guest post, Stephen. And congrats on the forthcoming chapter on The Avengers!

    I’m not as familiar with the customs and protocols surrounding how superheroes are made, but where the question of identity is concerned, I am curious about how you factor in the perceptions of others? I would think that Jimmy Olsen couldn’t truly be Superman until he actually rescues someone. Or is this part of what constitutes his legitimacy to take on the title? If I could think of anything else that Jimmy could possibly need after taking on the powers, the costume, (and the rolodex), it would be that crucial act of recognition or acceptance from the populace that he has been charged to protect.

  4. roytcook says:


    Hopefully Steve will chime in, but until then I will say a bit about my intuitions regarding perception.

    First off, it strikes me that one can read your question in two slightly different ways. You mention the perception of others, but you then ask whether he needs to rescue someone (or, presumably, carry out some other appropriately heroic deed). Keeping in mind that he could in some circumstances rescue someone without their knowing that they were rescued (e.g. stopping a falling boulder that they are not even aware of), we have a number of different scenarios. Assume Jimmy Olsen has the costume, the powers, the rolodex, and Clark Kent’s sanction. Then consider the following three scenarios:

    (1) Olsen performs no heroic deeds, but sits in the Fortress of Solitude, in costume, doing nothing but eating Oreos.

    (2) Olsen performs lots of heroic deeds, in the costume and with the appropriate powers, but in such a way that no one but he knows what he has done.

    (3) Olsen performs lots of heroic deeds, in the costume and with the appropriate powers, in such a way that many come to be aware of his actions.

    My intuitions are that Olsen would really be Superman in both (2) and (3). I am not sure about (1), but I have some inclination to say that he is not in that case Superman.

    The fact that (2) counts as a case where Olsen is Superman suggests that it is not the perception of others that counts, but rather the carrying out of heroic deeds. Of course, Olsen himself is aware of the heroic deeds, so perhaps that is enough.

    Of course, superheroes need not always perform heroic deeds. After all, Superman doesn’t stop being Superman if he starts doing immoral actions. An interesting experiment is to consider (1) thought (3) above with the word “heroic” replaced with “evil” and see if you think Olsen would be Superman in any of those scenarios. My own intuitions are not clear in those cases.

    • Steve Nelson says:

      I agree with Roy that there are a few different ways to take the question about how important doing heroic acts is to being a superhero. This is an interesting issue, and definitely one I’ve thought about some. I think that the two constraints I’ve offered–legitimacy and appropriateness–offer two fruitful ways to think about this issue.

      On the one hand, Jimmy would have to ‘legitimately’ bear the Superman mantle. Attaining the mantle from Superman directly certainly helps with his legitimacy, but suppose that happened but nobody bought it. Suppose after Kal-El leaves Earth and Jimmy goes around saving people, everyone descries him as a fraud and he never gains acceptance. I’m inclined to think that he’s in danger of being illegitimate there. This connects with the question from the ‘public perception’ standpoint. Public perception does matter (at least in some cases) to the legitimacy of a mantle-bearer.

      On the other hand, we have the issue of appropriateness. I think this is a trickier issue, partly because of a way in which I’ve hedged on this in my view. To simplify things, I just focused on superhero identity, but I think this is just one small part of something broader like ‘mantle’ identity. Superheroes and supervillains are kinds of mantles, so there should really be one issue about what it is to bear a mantle appropriately, and then another issue about what kind of mantle it is.

      For example, suppose Superman (whether Kal-El or Jimmy) decides to team up with Lex Luthor and take over the world, ruling it as a despot. And suppose he really means it–he’s not under then influence of anything other than just changing his mind about being a good person. I’m inclined to say that he’s still Superman, but that something important about the mantle of Superman has changed. It’s switched from being a superhero mantle to a supervillain mantle.

      So back to the case at hand, I’d say that the issue of whether Jimmy does good deeds or just sits in the Fortress eating oreos will affect whether the mantle of Superman remains a superhero mantle or something other kind. I don’t think public perception really matters here–I agree with Roy that his case (2) would make Jimmy a superhero.

      • Steve, Welcome to Pencil Panel Page! I appreciate this very thought-provoking post.

        Let me respond narrowly to your last paragraph in the previous comment: “I don’t think public perception really matters here–I agree with Roy that his case (2) would make Jimmy a superhero.”

        I agree with you and Roy in principle, and I’d like to complicate matters slightly. In Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman, Lois Lane gets to have Superman’s powers for a 24-hour period. Suppose that Lois finds herself in case (2), where she wears “the costume” and saves people without their knowledge. Is she Superman?

  5. Steve Nelson says:

    That’s a great example, Frank. I love All-Star Superman (and pretty much anything Grant Morrison writes and/or Frank Quitely draws, for that matter). I think with the Lois case, though, she clearly isn’t Superman for that day. Wearing the Superman mantle has to be more than just having the ‘Superman’ cocktail of powers. If it wasn’t, then we’d have no way to distinguish between, say, Superman and Superboy, (or between Hawkeye/Green Arrow, Hulk/Red Hulk, etc.). In the Lois case, Superman didn’t make any effort to give up his mantle or hand it over to Lois. He takes her on an adventure as a companion, rather than sending her as a substitute. If during the middle of her 24-hour powerful period she declared herself as Superman, she would not have had a legitimate claim to it. So here, too, I think legitimacy is the key (or at least one of the keys) to determining whether she was one-and-the-same superhero as Superman or not.

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