A fixture in my cubicle is the Superman Returns poster I won in a premiere two years ago. Whenever students notice it, the inevitable question follows: “Why Superman, sir?”
Good question. I’ve answered it several times but none of them better than how I am about to explain today. I always begin by saying that I’m a comic book collector. I started with The Death of Superman in 1993, went for a year or two, then dropped the hobby until I picked it up again ten years after I began.
I pick up Superman because he embodies the superhero ideal which I first learned before I reached the age of five — that we can do anything, that we should never lie, and that we don’t drink and smoke. Heh. If you’ve ever seen the 1978 film, it is the rooftop interview that I still remember most of all. It was the first film I saw and that scene is the first I remember. The powers are a bonus. To me, the superhero represents the ideal human being. All that before five.
Thus, I was in a state of utter disbelief in 1993 when I learned that Superman died. I first heard of it in the bus service on the way home from school. In the very weekend that followed, I dragged my father to the comic book shop to pick up Adventures of Superman #498, the issue right after he died. But the bottomline of that year was that comic book collecting entered my consciousness and to this day, they provide a welcome break for me every week. More importantly, it constantly reminds me of Superman and the what he represents.
I never appreciated the Superman comics more than I did in 2004. The first three fourths of that year were the darkest years in my life. Coincidentally, so were the Superman comics. Written by Brian Azzarello, For Tomorrow tells the story of a Superman who lost his wife to a mysterious Vanishing while he was away on a rescure mission in space. Upon returning to Earth, he is consumed by a grief that evolved into an overwhelming need to bring those responsible to justice. In a twist that only Azzarello could pull off, Superman discovers that he was responsible — he made the Vanishing technology to create a pocket universe that would save people in the event of a Krypton-like catastrophe — and that justice in this sense means destroying everything he had no right to build.
It was a Superman story unlike any other. Not many fans appreciated the darker, post-modern take but it showed me a version of Superman I needed at that time. Superman became a metaphor for power, duty, and our responsibility for our own happiness. But somehow, the Superman I met when I was five was no longer there. He became too burdened a figure. The seminal Kingdom Come which I also read at that time, didn’t improve things. There was still the charge that unlike Batman, Spider-man, Iron Man or The Hulk, Superman isn’t relatable. (And giving him a child out of wedlock in Superman Returns was supposed to make him more relatable? I think not.)
Over the past year, two writers made their mark in the Superman books. On Superman, Kurt Busiek depicted a Superman that is confident in himself and his powers. He believed that Superman is a man of great consequence and that his role is to help humanity endure against all odds. On Action Comics, Geoff Johns brought Superman back to the very core of the character and polished all the continuity gems such as the Legion, the Daily Planet, and Brainiac while enhancing the Superman mythology.
Both writers also reflect the current zeitgeist of a post-9/11 world. Azzarello wrote very much in the 9/11 era where we would question our heroes and our values. The post-9/11 world is a reaffirmation of who we are, what makes us strong, and how we are vital to the human race. I saw that reflected in my own work as a history teacher, and this also reflects in how I view Superman as a character.
Two interviews over the last week are particularly revealing. In an interview with Comicbookresources.com, Kurt Busiek opines,
To my mind, the core of the character, and what makes him human, is that he’s an alien. Some writer or philosopher whose name I don’t recall right now said that “The common state of mankind is alienation.” And that makes a lot of sense. What makes us human is that we’re trapped in our own heads and can never fully communicate with other people, never bridge that unbridgeable gap between us. We can take our thoughts and imperfectly translate them to other people, who can process them imperfectly and respond imperfectly, but we’re still alone with our thoughts.
Culture, society, marriage, family and art are all ways to bridge the gap of alienation and feel less alone, but they’re all imperfect, and that sense of isolation within ourselves is what we have in common. And Superman’s got it too, but he’s got it at a super level, just like his strength. Superman feels alienation because he’s an alien. Where a kid in junior high is thinking “There is no one else around here like me,” Superman’s thinking “There is no one else in the universe like me.” And that very fact, that he’s not homo sapien is ironically what makes him most human. He feels what we feel, only magnified.
There is this huge debate that goes on among Superman fans, asking “Is he really Clark or really Superman?” Is he Superman and Clark is an act, or is he Clark and Superman is a job? I think it leans toward “He’s really Superman,” but it’s not quite that simple. The guy I think of as the real person is Kal. […] Clark Kent is a facet of Kal’s personality that is slanted toward how he wants people to perceive Clark. Superman’s a facet of Kal’s personality slanted toward what he wants the public to think of him and see him as — the responsibilities he feels as a hero and role model.
The real guy, though, is the guy who’s alone at night when no one else is around.
The fact is, everybody shows different faces to the world in different situations. The person we are at work is not the same person we are with friends and not the same person we are at Thanksgiving with family and not the same person we are when we’re alone. Different contexts bring out different sides of things. […] That’s how I see Superman — a guy with very strongly defined public roles, and very few people get to see the real guy within. So he feels alienated in both roles. For good reason, but it affects him nonetheless.
Then in a video interview, Geoff Johns responds to the question of whether Superman is relatable or not,
I think everyone can relate to Superman. Everyone feels like an outsider at times. Everyone feels different. Everybody feels like they don’t fit in. And that’s the epitome of Superman. Being Superman, you have all these wonderful powers, everybody loves you, and yet you’re not still exactly a part of them. And I think that’s really relatable. It’s that trying to fit in because everyone at one time or another felt like they haven’t.
With that apparently simple encapsulation of what Superman means, Geoff Johns has gone on to write the best Superman stories ever. We are currently at the Brainiac storyline where Superman encounters everything he doesn’t want to be as an alien, then we head off to the New Krypton storyline where 100,000 Kryptonians find themselves on Earth. When that happens, how will Superman still be unique? That’s the story.
My favorite part about Superman is that he isn’t real. He is an archetype. He is an idea that is as bulletproof as he is written in the comics, and his ability to go beyond human potential has helped me understand the lives of figures such as Jesus Christ and Siddhartha Gautama. How could men such as these exist? Simple. They just did. It was not who they were that made them perfect or ideal, but what they did. I couldn’t agree more with Busiek and Johns, but what makes him more than a man is that despite this alienation — or probably because of it — he does the right thing all the time.
If I were to ever write Superman, I’d write him as that man who shouldn’t exist and yet, does. In the eyes of everyone else, Superman is an impossibility but to himself, he just does what he can. He saves the day because that is what he does, and in so doing he inspires everyone else to do the best they can. Villains such as Lex Luthor, Brainiac, Bizzaro, Parasite, and General Zod all represent hubris, indifference, fear, selfishness, and the burden of the past — vices that bog down a man who can do anything.
I write Superman that way because perhaps, that is how I would write me. This is not to say that I am above men; quite the opposite. It is more that alienation is not alien to me. Since I was five, I learned that I was never alone in being alone thanks to an ideal that I met in comic books and movies. Through the years, that understanding opened me up to other beliefs and rationales that eventually formed me. I now realize that it is because am alone — utterly unique — that I owe it to myself, because of what I can possibly do for others, to be the best person I can be. That’s what Superman taught me since I was five. And it is a lesson I’ve doubted and reaffirmed over the years, forging a conviction that is quite simply, made of steel.