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Why Superman is still important after all these years

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(by Alex Ross)

Why is it hard to appreciate the simple virtue of goodness? Why did we drop our faith in the simplicity of generosity?

Everyone on the planet is familiar with the bold, capital “S” inside the characteristic diamond-shaped crest. Superman, inseparable from the U.S. and its founding values, has become a universal icon thanks to film and television productions. Still, relativism and the existential crisis of the West have made the legend slowly fade away. Superman no longer convinces or inspires – he appears to be insignificant, a cardboard cutout. He is not taken seriously even as a comic book or a cartoon character. Superman is completely disconnected from our daily lives where nothing is easy to accomplish, where being straightforward does not reward anyone. Was not Jesus Christ treated similarly when he talked about turning the other cheek with humility?

Among all superheroes who have reigned in our cinemas, amusement centers and TV sets, it was the Man of Steel who set the standards for this particular generation of characters. Indeed, he was the pop culture version of Zeus and Moses mixed together and made suitable for the 20th century. If not for the first appearance of Superman in the first edition of Action Comics in the summer of 1938, there would not be a new pantheon – a pantheon of superheroes equipped with super powers, busy saving humanity.

The last survivor from the Planet Krypton was spawned in the imagination of two friends, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, Jews from a small town in Cleveland. They told a story about an exceptional child sent to Earth while his native planet was about to explode. But the story was created not only to achieve success during the hard times of the Great Depression. Above all else, the authors were telling a story about themselves, about the generation of emigrants on which the greatness of the U.S. was built. Superman was a representation of the dreams and aspirations of people trying to break the glass ceiling, people no one cared about or supported. When we read the first adventures of Kal-El we realize that his main trouble was not alien invasions or paranormal threats. He started off by defending truth and justice, caring for the well-being of ordinary people.

Times of glory

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From cover of ‘Action Comics’ #1 (DC Comics)

It was no accident that Superman became an icon and the object of worship among readers and the public. An innovative approach to the rogue character and making him wear red-and-blue tights was not all there was to it. Shuster and Siegel perfectly understood the challenges of being a laborer and an emigrant. It turned out that cheap paperback Superman comic books were most popular among the children from these two social groups. These kids immediately took to the clumsy Clark Kent, hopelessly in love with Lois Lane, his friend from the Daily Planet newsroom. He was not exactly torn by his romantic feelings but rather disturbed by an inner identity conflict: being an outsider from space and living behind a façade in order to form a part of human society. There lies the common conflict of interest between the role accepted by other people and the attitude reflecting one’s own true pursuits and dreams. Sadly, one is often different from the other – something that Sigmund Freud masterly depicted in the notorious Civilization and Its Discontents. All in all, Superman is a creation characteristic of a kid’s imagination confronting the challenges of an adult life, the way a kid would feel facing these challenges in a dream reality.

The Man of Tomorrow stories, where Superman defends order in Metropolis and engages in supporting American soldiers in World War II, made a great difference in the American publishing industry. He quickly made his way to the urban popular culture on the other side of the Atlantic, visible in American fairs, heard on radio programs and soon watched in a leading TV series. For the following 20 years, Superman set the tone and a framework of reference for science-fiction and fantasy novels, changing these genres significantly. Nevertheless, the socialistic aspects of the first Superman stories disappeared in the mid-40s after Shuster and Siegel, the very creators of the hero, lost a copyright lawsuit over the use of Superman as a fictional character. As a result, Kal-El was taken over by stories favored by the establishment, full of patriotism and appreciation for American values. Since then, the comic books focused in a ring-around-the-rosie manner around the same themes and topics – enormous dangers, monsters, crazy scientists, awkward technology and being hopelessly in love with the clever Lois.

Getting covered with dust

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From cover of ‘Fantastic Four’ #1, by Jack Kirby (Marvel Comics)

The real trouble started for Superman in 1962. In that year, Stan Lee made his great entry with The Fantastic Four through Marvel. Together with Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, Lee reformulated the concept of the superhero, letting it evolve from the Golden Era of comic art into a more modern medium, able to reflect the inner life of youths and adults, not just kids. The storyline would appear in real life locations (usually large cities), and the main characters had more complex psychological traits and a tangled emotional life, often pushing them towards existentialism. The vices and weaker sides of superheroes did not make them more courageous or charismatic – but it made them much more human.

DC Comics, the owner of Superman and his universe, reacted to their new competitor by parroting the new ideas rather than strengthening the traditional approach or creating an actual response to Marvel’s new concept. The old publisher chased creators who once worked for Marvel, asking them to shape characters similarly while working for DC, as soon as their contracts with the competitor expired. But Kirby and his followers did not have much that was new to say about reshaping the Man of Steel – editors from DC made it impossible for them. Today, thanks to the significant time perspective, we can see that the owners of the publishing house locked Superman in a prison of stereotypes. Bestselling comic book artists and writers were not allowed to work freely on their ideas and the characters that resulted from that approach did not make it to official canon. Their impact was rarely felt in the long run. For that reason, Superman did not provoke as many interpretations as, say, Batman. The publishing house did not treat Superman like a flesh and blood character but rather like a brand name. He did not get a chance to go through the changes shaped by trends and personal taste. The stranger from Krypton did not have a psychological depth, did not suffer from inner conflict which allowed the character to advance. Superman basically did not evolve. He is still a simple American citizen who grew up on a farm in Kansas. That is where he learned the wisdom of the cycle of life and its simplicity.

Demythologizing the icon

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From ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ (DC Comics)

DC imitated the ideas used by Marvel well into the 80s – that is when stories spanning across several books and parallel series became a thing. With the new interest in dark, mature themes introduced by writers from the United Kingdom who then invaded the American market, in 1986 DC Comics made a brand new offensive. There was no more room for optimism, bliss and light – the publishing house became more interested in political thrillers where the main characters acted not exactly like saints but rather presented all kinds of psychological issues, manias included. The atmosphere of nuclear apocalypse, the fear caused by the Cold War made the authors more concerned with the psyche of villains and anti-villains (dark characters and their opposites) than with law enforcement officers, honest to the bone.

Moral relativism took its toll also on the Superman character – although it is difficult to talk about any good change in this particular case. Some of the elements the authors were trying to introduce just did not fit very well. In The Dark Knight Returns, the Man of Steel is depicted as a Pavlov’s dog of President Reagan, the secret weapon of the U.S. Army during the Cold War. The success of this series caused certain ideas, more fitting for the so-called Cinema of Moral Anxiety, to make their way into mainstream superhero comic books. But in the Superman comic series this new trend was grotesque, to say the least. John Byrne tried to save the legend of Superman between the late 80s and early 90s, creating an interpretation which still prevails as the one having merit, now and forever. Even so, this effort did not help Superman bring the sales that DC Comics wanted him to bring.

Determined to make profit, DC Comics decided to start a marathon of modifications that smelled of desperation rather than a strategy. The publisher started off by killing the father of the generation of our superheroes by a huge monster (The Death of Superman), then revived him again (The Return of Superman), to bifurcate him into two characters with a strong electromagnetic field and place him in the middle of some mega epic adventures. These strategies did not achieve much in the way of changing Superman’s status quo. They rather undermined the very genre of a superhero story by making death mean nothing in the storylines of mainstream comic art. If Clark Kent can be revived just like that, then every superhero can die and come back again in full glory. Comic books became repetitive and predictable so people soon became bored of them, neglecting the comic art more and more. Right now, the things are as bad as can be – current Superman comic books sales in the U.S. have fallen below 60 thousand copies.

Unnecessary shame

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From cover of ‘Superman: American Alien’ #1 by Ryan Sook (DC Comics)

Over the last 20 years, DC Comics tried to make Superman more attractive by retelling the story of his origin. No other superhero has been subject to so many origin reinterpretations, with varying results. From today’s perspective, only two stories have stood the test of time. In the first one, All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, the authors collected the best elements from the Man of Steel series. In that run, we witness several stories concerning Superman’s final days where he attempts to finalize some of his affairs before passing away. Superman behaves like a fully-fledged human being, with some emphasis on certain feminist influences and the crisis of manhood, one phenomenon being connected with the other  in a way. The second one, It’s a Bird by Steven T. Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen from Vertigo Comics, is the best Superman comic book without Superman and is targeted at mature readers. In this book book, a promising writer is asked to write for a newspaper with a capital letter “S” on its cover. His deliberations push him into asking questions about the role Superman plays in contemporary culture, how that role betrays our fears and desires and reflects our simple disputes and family drama. While working on the assignment, the writer faces difficult relationships with his brother and his dying father with whom he did not have much in common when he was younger.

Right now, DC Comics is trying to tell the story of Clark Kent through a miniseries called Superman: American Alien. This series does not concentrate on the alien from Krypton but rather his social façade and alter-ego, Clark Kent. The authors show how Clark did not become a bitter and wicked person even though his youth and adulthood was filled with wickedness and intolerance towards him from other people due to his difference. The feeling of being an outsider and the alienation are supposed to reflect the feelings towards Muslim immigrants increasingly being witnessed in the USA and Europe. These issues have always been visible in Superman’s homeland, America.

It is clear that DC Comics has a serious problem with Superman. Instead of telling new intriguing stories about the hero from Krypton, the publisher plays the same song over and over, the story of Superman’s origin. There is a subtle trap in that. One may start to believe that the Man of Steel cannot develop as a character. Since the beginning, the hero does not have any weaknesses or personality traits which could be used to shape him further. But maybe the main focus should not be Superman himself but rather people he meets? Could these other characters be imperfect, have messier biographies? What we see looks more as if the writers and artists were trying to make excuses for Superman being awkwardly omnipotent, for him being a simple honest guy from Kansas. Who cares about a good man when antiheroes or villains are much sexier? Where to look for the shades of gray, something that could interest a more seasoned reader?

Take matters into your own hands

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From cover of ‘All-Star Superman’ #1 Special Edition, by Frank Quitely (DC Comics)

All it takes is to realize that Superman is not special because of his limitless power. The strength of this fictional character is the awareness of the responsibility on his shoulders. Bob Dylan once said, “A hero is someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom.” These words sum up Clark Kent very well. While Batman is largely driven by trauma, resentment or even vengeance, Superman is driven by love and selflessness (which is not to say that there are not aspects of these qualities in someone like Batman as well). Putting it simply, who we have here is a god who prefers to remain human and serve humanity to make it better. He is a lighthouse, a role model, a leader – not one who judges and falls into the pit of existentialism, particularly with current Western civilization’s manias and phobias.

Fortunately, DC Comics’s role in continually creating and revising the myth of Superman is somewhat limited and influenced by the activities of numerous enthusiasts – their bottom-up projects and online initiatives. For them, the capital “S” does not follow from the movies or comics books, but rather from understanding the underlying concept and symbolism of the character. Let us hope that the idea and ideal of Superman will not shrink and be reduced to mere consumerism, that it will not fade like Che Guevara’s likeness on a t-shirt. We should not forget that this old but vital character still has plenty of positive, motivating vibes to offer us.

**Translation by Ewa Fabian / Editing by Klementyna Dec and Daniel Jun Kim

Recommended Reading

Superman: Secret Origin

All-Star Superman

It’s a Bird

The Dark Knight Returns

Superman: Peace on Earth

Superman: The Death and Return of Superman Omnibus

Superman: American Alien

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About Michał Chudoliński

Michal Chudoliński is a freelance journalist in Poland. His articles and interviews have been published in the magazine ‘Polityka’, which is one of the most popular weekly journals in Poland with a circulation of 190,000 copies. He has conducted interviews with Professor Henry Jenkins, Professor George Ritzer and Professor Mark Deuze for a research project concerning prosumption of pop culture industries in Poland.