When I was a kid, I flat-out didn’t like Superman. I thought he was too generic. He was pretty much the first really famous super hero, dating back to the 1940’s (or maybe even late 30’s), so his creators just loaded him up with everything. Strength, speed, x-ray vision, flight, heat vision, super hearing, and sure, invulnerability, why not? As a super hero, the character concept always seemed kind of lazy to me, but back then there was no basis for comparison, no reason to separate him from the rest. He was generic because he was first. To me, Superman also exemplified the annoying habit of comic character design of never, ever maturing. From Superman’s conception all the way up until the relatively recent past, comic books were intended strictly for children, and they were drawn and written that way. This was back in a time when people weren’t so concerned with massive gaps in plot logic or a sensible origin story–none of that started getting worked out until later, after readers of comics started growing up and realizing how much of the fictional content didn’t make sense. So, the stories evolved, but you know what never did? The costumes. Especially Superman’s. My personal theory about why so many people still refuse to acknowledge comics as a maturing entertainment medium is that the really famous ones still don’t look like they’ve matured. In Superman’s case, people got really attached to that costume and I think nostalgia has kept it alive through the modern age, for better or worse. Let’s be honest, what’s the point of having a cape? The only thing that can possibly do is get in your way while you’re trying to fight crime, or Doomsday (if you ask me, it was the cape that got Supes killed). Oh, and make a world full of little kids think that if they tie a bed sheet around their neck they can lift off by raising their arms.
So, yeah, I thought the costume was idiotic, but what I found even more annoying about Superman back in the day was that he was the ultimate boy scout. Not only did I want to see evil get its ass kicked, I wanted to see it eradicated. When I was a kid, I wanted to see murderers get murdered. Superman was the first, and therefore most important, super hero, and he’s the one who set the standard for the rest by never, ever crossing that line. And it should be pointed out that it would have been easier for Superman to cross that line that it would be for anyone else.
Superman could go through villains, even “super” ones, like a lawn mower through dead grass. He barely even had to acknowledge your run-of-the-mill bank robber, who he could have crushed out of existence without even thinking about it. Thinking up a villain that could give this guy any trouble at all is no easy task. And yet, he was always conscious of his natural superiority over the rest of the known universe, and he never let it get to his head. More importantly, he never killed, no matter how dire the circumstances were. This benevolence and resolution made him the target of no small amount of criticism from his more aggressive/violent fellow heroes, but Superman stayed super in every sense of the word. As comics moved into the silver and bronze age and started introducing guys like Venom, The Punisher, and Spawn, who would shoot, maim, or kill criminals with almost reckless abandon, Superman stayed true to his origins. I get the sense that a lot of readers felt that his methods and ideology were outdated, a topic which was explored in the surprisingly good animated film, “Superman vs. The Elite.”
Superman finds his way onto this list because he also exemplifies the ideal person. Not because he was strong, or fast, or brave, but because he was, despite all the natural power that came with being him, incorruptible. It takes a special kind of someone to be given all that inherent authority and consistently point it in the right direction. Clark Kent grew up on a farm. If he had grown up in middle class suburbia playing Call of Duty I shudder to think what would have become of Metropolis. It’s a rare person who learns to handle that kind of responsibility with that much class; we’re all confronted with a million things a day that have the potential to lead us down the wrong path, but Superman was always bigger than that. He had to be. The day I realized the real difference between a hero and a villain was the day I started respecting Superman for what he was, hideous costume and all. I’m still amused at the irony that the guy who I used to criticize for not maturing quickly enough in concept was in fact the most mature character in comics all along. He had every reason to not care about Earth, or the people on it. His own home planet had been destroyed, making him the only surviving member of his race. He lived a frustratingly lonely existence, trying to balance his perceived responsibility as Superman with something that resembled a normal life without really letting anyone (aside from Lois, eventually) get too close. Given that he experienced the same range of emotions as your average human being, his composure and conviction are that much more impressive. Most of us would spiral into depression if we were faced with the same circumstances, but once again, Superman stood as the best possible side of human nature–even though he wasn’t human.
I didn’t see the recently released movie “Man of Steel” by Zack Snyder, but I’m told that Superman kills General Zod at the end. To that, I say that it clearly isn’t a movie about Superman. The guy might look like Supes, and he might act like Supes, but the day Superman kills someone is the day he ceases to be Superman. I find it hard to believe that Zod made things more difficult than Doomsday did–that fight cost Superman his life, after all–and he didn’t even kill Doomsday after his resurrection. If that isn’t commitment to a standard, I don’t know what is. It seems sometimes as though writers continuously try to find the point at which Superman reaches his limit, which I find unfortunate and symptomatic of our society at large. While I understand that the testing of limits is what makes for a compelling story, it feels like there’s a collective investment to, not so much experience a good story, but see the best of us fall from grace. We seem compelled to tear down those of us who try to stand for something, which is kind of sad, even in fiction. I mean, it’s fiction; if we can’t bring ourselves to let Superman keep setting the ideal example, what hope is there for the rest of us?
Check back in soon to learn a little something about hero number 7!