Tue
May 8 2012 2:00pm
Superman: Stuffy Boy Scout, or Charming Folk Hero?

“Superman or Batman?” is the Red Sox vs. Yankees of the comic book world, a vicious rivalry between fans that has carried on for decades, with no end in sight. Both sides have their valid arguments, and both sides tend to feel pretty adamantly about whichever side of the issue they fall on (keeping it within the DC family, I guess that makes Blue Beetle the Mets). Personally, I’ve always been Team Batman. Dark, brooding, badass billionaire who used his vast resources to become pretty much the perfect the human specimen, a fact which he uses to wage a never ending war on crime? That beats a stuffy alien Boy Scout in red underoos with a matching cape any day. Superman’s a great archetype for deconstructing (and even that’s been overdone), but what fun is he on his own? There’s no dramatic tension when your protagonist is perfect and indestructible. Whereas other superheroes might fear for their loved ones should their secret identities be publicly revealed, Superman has a freaking ice fortress. Lois is in danger? I think she’s safe there. Problem solved!

Lex Luthor puts it best in the pages of All-Star Superman, in a death row interview with Clark Kent (ignoring the irony that, well, they’re the same person):

Think about it, without Superman to distract her, you just never know. Perhaps cool, cruel Lois Lane might actually have noticed good old Clark, sighing faithfully there in the corner...But next to him, she sees an oaf, a dullard, a cripple! Next to “All-Powerful Superman,” Lex Luthor is an idiot!...We all fall short of that sickening, inhuman perfection, that impossible ideal.

Lex believes that Superman’s mere presence stops human progress dead in its tracks — why should we try to improve ourselves, or pick ourselves by our own bootstraps, if this handsome, indestructible alien is always there to rescue us, and always there to show us who we can never be? At least Batman, in all his dark clothing and curmudgeonly nature, isn’t always rubbing it in our faces how much better than us he is (and he doesn’t salt the irony that Superman blends in with the rest of us lowly humans by pretending to be a meek, clumsy journalist. That’s real flattering, Kal-El).

But Lex and I both tend to forget that Superman has never used his powers to get ahead. He was an immigrant and an orphan, who grew up on a farm in the American heartland. Eventually he put himself through college, and began a career as a journalist (hardly the most lucrative or rewarding job, but certainly an important one). It’s a pretty typical American story about a hardworking Everyman — one who just so happens to have indestructible skin, x-ray vision, and the ability to fly, but still. None of that is a factor. Clark Kent’s story alone can still serve as an inspiration to all of us; the fact that he’s Superman on top of all that just gives us more to aspire to.

And maybe that’s the point. Yes, Superman might represent an impossible ideal for us to live up to — but maybe that’s just what we need him to do. We don’t empathize with Superman, the way we often do with the heroes in our stories. Instead, we aspire to be him. Like John Henry, Superman stands up to the Machine, both so we don’t have to, and more importantly, so that we believe we can (except that Superman doesn’t die, unless you’re counting that whole ridiculous Doomsday thing). He’s a folktale, one that’s been told and retold for years, slightly tweaked and reimagined for every generation (through each of DC’s various continuity-defining Crises, rather than changing through oral tradition, but still). He is Hercules, a child of the Gods raised as a humble mortal man, who never quite belongs in either world but still serves as a champion for those who need it. He is Prometheus, and he has brought us fire from the Heavens in the forms of hope and idealism; comic books are merely the rock to which he is chained (supervillains then being the birds that eat his liver every issue, but of course, he always regenerates). Just as the Greeks used the mythological stories of their Gods to teach, inspire, and entertain, we do the same with Superman (and, by extension, other superheroes).

In issue #10 of All-Star Superman, appropriately titled “Neverending,” a dying Superman puts his final affairs in order and prepares for a World Without Superman. Amongst his many tasks, he creates a small Petri dish world — dubbed “Earth-Q” — so he can observe what would have happened in the world if he had never existed at all. Time moves quickly on Earth-Q, and the miniature planet evolves through the entire course of human history in just 24 hours, beginning at midnight. On the last page of the issue, we revisit Earth Q at the end of the day (11:59:59.998 PM, to be precise), and in that moment, we observe a young man in run-down housing project putting the finishing touches on a drawing of a superhero wearing a familiar “S” shield on his chest.

What happens in a world without a Superman? Simple: we create one. Two poverty-stricken Jewish kids from Cleveland with immigrant parents (one of whom’s haberdasher father was shot and killed in an unsolved murder case, eerily enough) will put pencil to paper and create the indestructible hero that they need. That hero will then find his way (at the low, low price of $130!) into the hands of the rest of the country — as well the t-shirts, lunchboxes, movie screens, and more — because we need him to. As Superman writer Grant Morrison notes in his book Supergods, “Before it was a Bomb, the [Atomic] Bomb was an Idea. Superman, however, was a Faster, Stronger, Better Idea...Why not make that one real instead?”

I’m sure we’ve all heard someone joke (some comedian, that asshole buddy of yours) about seeing a guy in a Superman t-shirt on the shirt and wanting to punch him in the face just to see what happens, but the truth is, we all know the “S” shield on his chest. We all know what it stands for, what it represents. When we use that symbol, we know we’re not nearly as powerful as a locomotive, but we’re making a statement to those around us that we could be, that we want to be. Because Superman said we can be.


Thom Dunn is a Boston-based writer, musician, homebrewer, and new media artist. He enjoys Oxford commas, metaphysics, and romantic clichés (epecially when they involve whiskey and/or robots). He was once paid $200 to dress up like Spider-Man and sign autographs at a Wal-Mart. This remains the single greatest moment of his life, but that doesn’t stop him from trying.  He can be found online at thomdunn.net or @thomdunn.

5 comments
Mordicai Knode
1. mordicai
I say: fundamentally alienated divinity who choses to help. Superman is the triumph of ethics, of the logic of doing good; he's the sun god fallen to Earth & shown by the Kents that doings good is the right thing because it is the correct thing. It is how he engages with humanity; Clark Kent isn't an indictment of humanity like Bill says, it is his love poem, his attempt to reach out & bridge the gap between human & god.
sabbx
2. sabbx
The problem with Superman is few writers have grasped the unique qualities of his hero persona since the 50's. The original interpretation of the character came from the Depression and 20's, rooted in the concept of powerless and the desire to have a hero who enacts the wish-fullment desires of the reader. The character is Clark Kent, who assumes the persona of Superman, not the other way around which has become the modern interpretation. The 50's spin, the all-powerful, near deity Superman reflects something of the tenor of the American 50's, when U.S. power was unquestioned in the world. The character has been trying to shake that image ever since, despite various reboots and minor alterations.
Mordicai Knode
3. mordicai
I think a big part of the problem is that people somehow have gotten it into their head that Superman is invincible? Which is to say-- yes, of course Superman is going to win, he's the hero, but the same is true of Batman & no one has any problem writing convicing challenges for him. But Superman-- come on, there are lots of problems you can't punch to defeat. There is an infinite universe to spit other super strong aliens at him. There are human stories, there are cunning stories, there are psychological stories, there are cosmic stories...he's not irrelevant, he's superemely relevant. We use fiction to hold up a mirror to ourselves...Superman is the mirror that reflects us & lets us say-- "AWESOME."
sabbx
4. ChrisC
I don't know that I've ever read a better summary of the good of Superman. Also, I think the story, Red Son, explains the dangers of Superman better than anything. In that story, he is made larger than life and encouraged to not be human, but to be the embodiment of something innately non-human, so he stops empathizing with people and becomes exactly what Luthor fears he is.

Superman's tension to me always came from the fact that he cannot ever just _be_. Should he ever, even for a moment, relax, then the world might literally end, or at least everything he cares about would. If he got annoyed, he might literally blow someone up without intending it. Should he just fall into bed like so many of us do, he might crush not only his bed but the people beneath his apartment. He has to be human because anything else risks too much. Thus, Clark Kent isn't just a cover for him, it's a release. Clark becomes the thing he wishes he could be, but never can, normal, boring, flawed. . . human. God bless the man who is willing to give up everything for his fellow man when we aren't even his fellow men. God bless Superman.
sabbx
5. JohnM
Arguably, Batman is less vulnerable as Bruce Wayne than as Batman. Batman constantly places himself in danger, with only training and technology a barrier to harm. But Clark Kent is, conversely, more vulnerable - to emotion, to humiliation, to (sometimes feigned) social awkwardness. There's more internal tension in Superman's fate, to live as both an "immortal", and like a frail human (an almost Christ-like transformation). But I don't see a necessary choice between Batman and Superman, except as a device to lead your essay. We can have both Batman and Superman, both fighting against "evil".

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment