“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.