In Defense of Superman

We have been Supermen.

Beach towels, bed sheets, and blankets can aspire to no higher office than that of a cape. Mine was canary yellow, wisp thin and older than myself. The corners strain from the stress of a thousand knots. To hold it is to feel the give of mattress springs beneath my feet. I see it in baby pictures and marvel at how vibrant it once was. I still have it, though I am increasingly unaware of its location. But I will keep it beyond its substance, until it is threadbare and scattered like cobwebs. How do you throw away the gift of flight?

Point being, it is easy to be Superman. It is easy to want that mantle. Even if he isn’t your favorite, there is still some nostalgic draw to being the ultimate power in the universe, the defender of good, a meteor crusher, a denier of gravity.

The modern questions? Is it too easy to be Superman? Does all that power subtract from the human drama? Is invulnerability too broad a safety net?

If God steps out on the tightrope, do we slide to the edge of our seats, fingertips at our teeth, or do we yawn?

As I grew older, truth be told, that ratty old blanket was more often black than red in my mind. The couch was not the pinnacle of the Daily Planet, but a sneering gargoyle of Gotham. I was a Batman kid. And I had the argument down pat. Superman was boring because there was never any danger of him dying. Bruce Wayne took to the streets every night knowing full well he was a bullet’s kiss from death. His only power was superior detective skill, a titan of the mind and the premiere example of what a human being could be physically. Superman was an alien cheat.

So, what changed?

Would you believe that the turning point came in a video game review?

I was gearing up for Superman Returns and, curious as to how somebody could possibly add a level of danger to an interactive Superman experience, I read up on the movie tie-in game. He doesn’t have a life meter, the reviewer said. Metropolis does.

This struck me. And I realized that my concept of danger was tied in to the mortality of the protagonist. It’s such a human concern, personal survival. Much has been said about our ability to relate to characters from either Marvel or DC, that Marvel’s ideal is the relatable, street level hero. The superhero should have recognizable problems. He should be us, but with powers. That makes his peril our own.

It’s missing the point.

Don’t get me wrong, this is the route of fiction’s escapist value. It’s crucial. But why should the primary danger be the hero’s own mortality? What about the rest of the world?

When you pick up a Superman book and try to empathize, you shouldn’t be hearing the beat of your own Kryptonian heart, but the rhythm of the world around you, the collective pulse of those you have sworn to protect. It should be cacophonous. It should be constant. They are in danger. What are you going to do?

Just because you are blessed with incredible natural ability does not mean you are prepared to use it. It must be terrible to be Superman, to know that every move you make could change the way the world spins. What guilt you’d have to know that you, through no special merit of your own, gained impossible powers, while those you care about could be compared to eggshells. No matter how good they are, how hard they fight, they will never be the mountain you are. And there’s nothing you can do to change that, and there’s no matter how many times you save them, they’re always going to be in danger.

Superman’s problem isn’t being a superhero, surviving to the end of the day. It is being the only Superman in a world of glass. What do all the powers is the world mean when you can only be in one place at any given time?

We relate to the day to day struggles of Peter Parker. But think for a moment. As hairy as our lives might be, we are not always in such dire straits. Is Peter Parker really the best example of what we have become in modern times?

I was talking to my Dad about Stack Week last week:

“We’re all writing about the books we’ve piled up and haven’t had the chance to read yet.”

“That’s a good problem to have.”

It is. Are we so easy on ourselves that we make ourselves out to be the Peter Parkers of this world, the Charlie Browns? Sometimes, more often than not, we do have some level of control over our circumstances. We have talents and abilities and are often in a much better position to use them than Peter Parker. We are more and more aware of the problems in this world and equipped with the means of solving them. The thing is, Superman, for as powerful as he is, never ceases in his search for answers. He’s an explorer even if he doesn’t have to be. He could be ruling over the planet, but he chooses to protect it and advance it.

So, for me, Superman is valuable not just as a hero to root for, but as an example and reminder. Know your powers and influence. Use them. Stop worrying about yourself for a second. Worry about Metropolis.

If I sound like i’m preaching, it’s because I’m talking about heroes. Those we aspire to be.

Those we could be.

“They are a good people Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way.

To be continued…


Paul Montgomery believes that a man can fly. You can reach him at paul@ifanboy.com.

 

Comments

  1. Terrific article, Paul.

  2. Another great article.

  3. The bit about the life meter being for Metropolis rather than Superman is brilliant.  It’s odd that something that cool came out of a licensed property game.  I don’t even bother with them as I know that they usually suck.

    This frames the tension in a whole new light for me.  I’ve never actually gotten Superman.  I’ve never given a shit, and it’s for the same reasons that you outlined Paul.  He’s invincible, who cares?  But this …

    I’m rambling because I’m excited.  This is exciting.  

    Way to go dude, you’ve given me the potential to care.  Now all that we need are writers to follow up on this.

  4. That’s one of my favorite pictures of Superman from recent years, and the final quote never fails to give me chills.

  5. *slow clap*

    Fantastic article. Superman has always been a tricky one for me. It wasn’t until adulthood that I really began to appreciate Superman. As a kid, he always seemed a bit quaint. He was the grandaddy, still around but hardly relevant admist the new crop of youngsters with their hip radioactivity and soulful angst. For me, I think it started with, I admit, the Crast Test Dummies’ "Superman’s Song." I began to "get" superman. He wasn’t a character. He was a myth. An icon. He was the pinnacle of humanity, and he was an alien. An outsider. He’s the perfection we wish to achieve, and he doesn’t ask for anything in return.

    The problem for me is that it’s still VERY hard to read a Superman STORY. He’s larger than stories now, I think. It’s not the writers’ faults, exactly. They’re constantly in search of new, relevant stories. But the icon that I see now…? THAT Superman…? He’s so hard to wrangle into a story. There’s really only ONE story for him, in the end, in my mind. His origin, his greatest battle, his death. He’s a ballad, not a series. 

    That said: I just picked up Johns’ latest issue of Action Comics, and I really enjoyed it. I’m looking forward to James Robinson joining Superman. So: we shall see what the future holds.

  6. I also want to mention and recommend Steve Seagle’s "it’s a bird…" graphic novel from Vertigo. Best Superman story I’ve read in, well, maybe ever. Because it’s not exactly a Superman story, and yet.. it totally is.

  7. Great article. 

    I find it funny that the majority of people I know who dislike Superman always add "but I like All-Star Superman" which actually took all the things most people have a problem and multiplied them.  You think Superman is too powerful?  We’ll triple his power and give him new abilities.  You find him too moralistic?  We’ll make it so he’s the nicest guy around.  You think Lex Luthor is overused?  We’ll make him (and Bizarro) the only villain not personally created by Grant Morrison.  Yet, most I see that hate Superman actually love that book.  So, maybe it’s not so much that people hate Superman, they just don’t like badly written Superman and don’t feel like wading through some of the crap Superman’s put in to find the gems.

  8. I think iFanboy Point/Counterpoint Protocol dictates that I’m supposed to shout "bah!" or shake my head in disbelief, but this is just an articulate, impassioned piece of writing. I’m not made of stone. Now, this doesn’t make me suddenly like the Superman stories I’ve read, but you have persuaded me that a good Superman story is possible. If nothing else, I am excited to get my hands on that game.

  9. I love you, Paul.

  10. The first paragraph reminded me of a short story I read from Judd Winick once, called "The Cape."

    There’s a bit of it featured in this article.  http://everydayislikewednesday.blogspot.com/2008/03/games-winick-and-meltzer-played-plus.html

    We shall see tomorrow Mr. Robinson, indeed we shall. 

  11. This was wonderful, and absolutely defines the reasons i love superman.

  12. Too bad none of that shows up on the printed page.

  13. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    @Tork – On that note, I also find it interesting that people say that only alternative takes on Superman can be compelling.  All Star Superman is just the primary example.  First, the only thing that really makes All Star Superman an Elseworlds-like interpreation is that it is out of continuity.  Or at least, not in immediate continuity.  Could it be considered the future of Superman just as Dark Knight Returns is the future of Batman (perhaps) or Kingdom Come is the future of DC (perhaps)? Is that so alternative? 

    Here’s the truth as I see it.   The best stories for most characters we’re reading are almost always these out of continuity, self-contained interpretations.  The Runaways are at their best when not tangled up in continuity woes.  Astonishing X-Men was pretty much its own thing.  The best Spider-Man right now is in the more intimate Ultimate universe.  Characters thrive in their own environment.  The bumps and bruises come when we try and cram them together and make the rules of various isolated stories reconcile with conflicting rules.  

    That’s not to say that we shouldn’t have these big universes, but it’s a matter to contend with. 

    Superman can exist in a world with lesser heroes and still seem relavant and not just overkill.  It’s just a harder thing to balance.  Batman has the same problem because he’s under-powered.  Mutants have a similar problem because they require that the world is against them, and that that political force pervades the entire world and is a daily presence.  Do you see that in every issue of Iron Man or Captain America?  No.  

    Continuity is an impossible struggle, and it makes storytelling even harder.  It’s the price of having everybody live in the same universe.  

    Anyways, I think that’s the real storytelling problem we’re dealing with here.  

  14. Very well written, and that certainly is one angle.  For myself, personally, it’s not purely his powers that turn me off of the character.  He’s not alone in the realm of absurdly powerful characters.  I’d even go so far as to say the standard Batman debate point is hardly even valid at this point, because while he’s human… his feats have gone well above and beyond that which you or I could ever hope to accomplish.  Yet he’s my favorite character since childhood.  No, what gets me is that this fantastic weight on the man of steels shoulders?  He never fails to carry it.  Well that’s sweet isn’t it?  And obviously a fair portion of the population eats that up.  They want that down home, good hearted hero.  For me, my face starts to twitch.  I’m fallible, I make mistakes, I make bad choices and I don’t dispise this characteristic of myself.  It makes life interesting, it makes life a challenge and it’s very easy to lose that aspect in an ol’ supes tale and once you lose that it feels unnatural to me.  I’m instantly uninterested.

    As several others have mentioned, they’ve slowly grown to appreciate Superman.  I’m not sure I’d say I have, but maybe I’m splitting hairs because I have come to appreciate some of his stories.  Yet, what I’ve found is that while great writers have taken the reigns and made his universe occasionally of interest to me I hardly ever enjoy the story because of him, he still generally bristles me.  Usually they examine the relationships around him, which absolutley fascinates me.  How would a real person would live with and react to him?  There is on series that I can think of that have actually made me appreciate the man himself.  Kingdom Come.  Here we got to play with the possibility of him as fallible, he had humanity?  I felt the weight of his choices, because they were difficult for him. I enjoy that interpretation.  What in our yellow sun gives the man perfect morality?  He was raised by a man and a woman, and while they were good people there were still people.

     So that’s my two cents on the debate.

  15. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    @Jimski – I do not consider this a weakness to my argument, but as it turns out, the Superman Returns video game was not a success by any stretch of the imagination.  It received some dreadful reviews.  But I do hold that that concept is the key to succcess with that character. 

    @itsbecca – Sure, I could certainly see getting frustrated with the boy scout aspect of the character, just as we could be frustrated with Batman’s brooding nature.  As you said, character is often informed by their interaction with other characters.  So there’s one ticket.  Superman is often pretty dull, especially when he’s just being used as a narrative tool.  He defaults to the steretypical altar boy persona.  But not every writer goes that root, and some even exploit it for interesting results.  More on that next week.  

  16. @itsbecca – excellent point about his morality. That’s kind of what I love about the character. He, as an idea, is the antithesis of the jaded belief that "absolute power corrupts absolutely." for all intents and purposes, Superman is absolute power. But because he was raised by a nice mid-western couple, he simply CHOOSES to do right because it’s the right thing to do. He doesn’t have to, of course. He could, as the song says, break into any vault in the United States. But he does not.

    This is why Superman’s greatest appeal for me is as an ideal. He does right because it’s the right thing, and he has the power to make his right thing count. It’s what we all dream of being. 

  17. So very well written. As I’ve become older its Superman that captures my imagination more, as I think about heroes. Simply put Batman is the one the heroes are all afraid of. Superman is the one the heroes aspire to be. To my mind it is better to be respected than feared. Just my two cents…

     Nice job

  18. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    @daccampo – It’s almost so simple that it begs to be critisized.  But if you step back, it’s really interesting.  It’s dissonance.  Those elements should not add up to a good guy.  Then you get into the nature/nurture thing.  He was such a great idea. 

     

    I’d also like to point out that he was originally intended to be a villain.  Siegel and Shuster created a villain with incredible mental powers and called him the Superman.  It was only later that they rethought the story and said, what if he has physical strength and was actually a hero for good? 

  19. Wow, you may have just single handedly made me rethink my negative view of Superman.

  20. @Paul Well absolutley.  I want to almost tweek Tork’s oft repeated sentiment, that people don’t dislike Superman, they just dislike a badly written Superman.
    I think I do dislike Superman (or it’s more a passive disinterest that an active dislike… <i>usually</i>).  But that doesn’t always a bad Superman story make.
    Out of curiosity, did you enjoy Superman of All Seasons Paul?

    Also, I’d venture to say he was not a good idea in the first place.  Early Superman is absolutley unreadable/unwatchable/unthinkable to me.  He has been integral to good ideas later.

  21. Edit: I put that abysmally wrong.  CLEARLY it was a good idea, hence the sucess, but I’m not sure it was the same idea what you’re talking about now.

  22. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    @jag2004 – That’s awesome!  Give the latest Geoff Johns Action Comics arc a shot.  Or All Star Superman of course. 

    @itsbecca – I think this stuff has always been there.  But maybe his persona has been clouded by other elements over the years.  During WWII it was all about social order and morality.  Again, he’s so simple that he’s extremely versatile.  You can plug him in to any time period and he can be informed by the times.  He can be an analog for so many things.  From the start it was about the potential for any immigrant or outsider to become a champion.  Recently that’s translated to homosexuality and alienation.  No matter what the time period, no matter what the background, everybody can relate in some way to the feeling of being an outsider.  It’s almost trite now, but that’s so incredibily significant to his endurance.    

  23. Dude great article. I mean brilliant really.

    I always loved the character, and what made me love him was that he sort of wasn’t relateble. I rather pick a hero that want to make me strive to be more than just myself, in a way to be a superman of sorts. 

  24. @Paul On the contrary, I think the closer he is to a symbol when used in stories the character suffers.  At least in my eyes and interests.  That’s the problem!

  25. @itsbecca – I can see where you’re coming from with this. In a way, execution aside, he’s been best used as a serial character in the TV show Smallville because (in the beginning) it was really an extended treatise on his origin. This is how we becomes the symbol. Becoming Superman gives you lots of meat. But… it’s essentially Spider-man. Smallville is all about learning that "with great power comes great responsibility."

    This again goes back to why it’s hard to put Superman the symbol as a character in stories.

    Paul mentions "alternative takes" of Superman being popular. Could this be because alternative takes are almost always "origins" by nature?

    Goes back to my ballad theory. He’s a modern myth. His origin IS his story. It’s very difficult to continue to tell stories with that. Not that it can’t be done. It’s just very tough. 

     

     

  26. I have to agree with itsbecca. I don’t dislike Superman but he holds no interest for me. The problem is everything is black and white with him. There are no shades of grey. When Wonder Woman killed Maxwell Lord, instead of saying ‘Thanks for saving me and possible millions of other people by stopping that guy and making the hard decision’ he was disappointed in her. Superman never faces the kill one save a thousand dilema (or don’t save one, save many since he won’t kill). Even if he did the writers would get him out of it by letting him save everyone.

    And that is where I think the real problem lies, it’s not so much the character as it is the editorial mandate for the character. Superman is boring because he is kept that way. He was created in a simpler time for simpler stories and because he is an icon, has not been allowed to change with the times. He’s a throwback to the days of the Shadow, the Phantom, the Green Hornet and the War of the Worlds radio show. Unlike those others his fame has not faded into obscurity, but unlike Batman and other characters created in that time, he has not changed.

  27. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    @itbecca – I don’t disagree with that.  I’m not suggesting that my personal take as presented in the article should be presented at face value within a Superman story.  Nor should the outsider imagery.  This was the failing of Superman Returns (which I liked but don’t love).  But this subtext is nonetheless crucial to his strength as a character.  You can still be subtle about it. 

    Still, if you have a bigger than life character, you’re talking about bigger than life themes.  It’s impossible to avoid iconography entirely.  

    I am powerless to sell everybody on Superman.  I just think he’s at least worth a second look, and I still believe there are great Superman stories yet to be told.  

  28. @OmegaFlight – Superman’s black & white morality is one of my favorite things about him.  He knows what’s right and he knows what’s wrong and he lives by that, without exception.  Batman was pissed at Wonder Woman for kiloing Maxwell Lord too, probably more so.  He has the same black & white view of killing.

    And if you think Superman hasn’t changed since his creation, you need to go back and read those old stories from the 1940s.

  29. @Conor Sure, *you* like it.  For some people it’s certainly going to resonate.  For others it’s just hard to accept, because it’s so… alien.

    And I am consistent in my dislike for this characteristic.  It’s certainly not limited to Superman. I won’t mention examples though or I feel like I might get burned at the stake.

  30. Just to put it out there, when a Zod from a pocket universe showed up on Earth after killing everyone on his respective universe, Superman killed him and his two comrades.  And for the longest time, he felt enormous guilt about it and t comes up from time to time especially when someone else claiming to be Zod would show up.  It was kill three to ave the planet and he did it.  He also almost killed the Joker to what he thought would save Lois.  To me, his morality often clashes with circumstances and he has to endure to do what’s right.  It’d be easy for Kal-El o follow the "might makes right" creed and just solve everything via Authority style action but he chooses to adhere to a code of ethics and rides it out in the highs and lows.  He might slip from time to time (killed Zod, letting Lex be President, his actions during Absolute Power, etc.) but he gets right back on and rides it out again.  That’s inspiring to me.

  31. @Tork – That’s right!  He killed Zod (before that was retconned out, apparently) and he also killed Doomsday.

  32. @Conor & @OmegaFlight – Superman from the 40’s probably would have fit in more at Marvel. For those first few issues he’s completely street level. Dealing with bad landlords, abusive spouses, war profiteering industrialists and all kinds of other gritty stuff. The cops are also after him because he’s a vigilante. And he can’t fly. Big changes these past 70 years.

  33. Nice article Paul!  Your writing skills blow minds!

    On Superman:  As a kid, I loved him because he was an easy character to latch onto in my youthful innocence.  As I got older, I became jaded to the whole concept of the character, latching to that "He’s invulnerable…snore!" mentality.  But of late, I’ve really come around on the character.  I loved his portrayal in Dark Knight Returns.  I loved, loved, loved Millar’s take on him in Red Son.  Grant Morrison’s All-Star is transcendent.  And Geoff Johns is crushing every other book out there with his work on Action Comics.  Superman is definitely one of those characters that needs good writers to overcome his all empowering strength and his black and white morality, and he’s been getting the love lately.  As a long time comic reader, I’m happy to be back in the Superman camp.  It’s a really nice place to be.

  34. Awesome article Paul. 

  35. wow, great article Paul! 

    my first introduction to Superman was The Man of Steel series by Byrne and I really got that feeling you mentioned, the only Superman in a world of glass.  That plus his folks and their morals influencing him made me really like him.  I like that the old Silver Age fantastic elements are being brought into his book now with those already established temperments and values. 

  36. "If God steps out on the tightrope, do we slide to the edge of our seats, fingertips at our teeth, or do we yawn?"

    That’s a hell of a line, Mr. Montgomery.

  37. @omegaflight based on your comments on Superman I honeslty have to ask how much Superman have you read?  It certainly seems to be more of a perception you have than reality, because without question Superman has changed and evolved.  The greatest evolution in the character is the change from Superman pretending to be Clark to Clark trying to be Superman.  I would even say having his parents both alive and part of his life now was a big plus to the character as well (Not a huge fan of they way they are drawn now however.). He’s still THE Superhero when all is said and done.

     Loved the above article too.  I have to ask other than people who refuse to accept Superman based on whatever reasons they have, does he really need defending?  All I would do is point to his books lately … they speak volumes about how great the character is.

  38. But of course if we just pointed to the books we wouldn’t get to read great pieces like this one from Paul.  =)

  39. Wow. This is my favorite IFanboy article, ever written. It reminds me of that awesome feeling that washed over me after reading John42’s review All star Superman 10. Read that too!

     I don’t think anyone has mentioned the parent angle, which has really hooked me into it. Superman has parental issues. Big Ones.

    I admit that this hasn’t been explored so much in the comics, but the films (especially the Donner Cut) do a great job of highlighting his lineage. His parents endowed him with the responsibility not simply to survive Krypton, but to exemplify it. Don’t we all face the same challenge? Whatever our background, we have authority figures (mothers brothers, uncles in my case twin sister)) who have instilled us with the drive and determination to shape the world into a better place? We have to do so in a way which honors them So when Kal-el  solve the lead the word in the right direction, to inspire  by example, isn’t he failing to honor the sacrifice of those who sacrificed everything so that he can be the best he is capable of being?

    How  many of us have felt guilty, squandering away countless hours on idle things knowing the sacrifice other people have made on our behalf? Do you really feel awesome about complaining about that 35 hour work week when 4 generations ago your ancestors slaved away at a factory for 80 hours a week with no job, just do they could afford one meal for their family? They worked themselves to death for you. Get of your lazy and at  least meet the bar they have set.  (Note: I’m not trying to be antagonistic, just trying  to prove a point? When we fail to live up to our capacity, to match that intensity, we fail ourselves and we fail them. But really, what right did they have to shoulder us with the burden of existence in the first place?

     We cannot live a life measured solely by the quantitative good we produce. We must also find happiness and take a moment to enjoy life. We have   to Find our Los and love her with every fiber of our being. Every moment of that love can be savored all the more when we realize full integration into existence, enjoying all those things that our parents couldn’t, honors their legacy in a profound way. After all, if we don’t spend our energy pursuing the affections of that razor sharp reporter who brings us more joy than anything, why the hell did our parents  sacrifice so much in the first place?

    The Kens pose a different problem. They represent that side of the parenting problem, which stipulates can never truly understand the experiences of their child. Superman’s parents have no idea how it feels to be a God among men and never will. My own father could have never imagined the world  in which I live. There are times when his moral code is insufficient, but in times of absolute necessity, I still follow the logic he taught because this system helped define my character.  This is a n inescapable, unsolvable diametric position, which is altogether painfully human.

     

     

  40. This was just a stunning piece of writing, Paul, congratulations on outdoing yourself again.

    I’m a Batman guy, through and through, always have been. It’s the complete dedication to this insane mission to stop what happened to him happening to anyone else, it just resonates more for me personally. And he’s cooler, let’s be honest.

    Although I still like the character of Superman, I always find him more interesting when they take a bit of a left-turn with him, which I thought Superman Returns did brilliantly (how a god among men tries to fit back into a world that has learned to cope without him).

    Again, excellent job, Paul! 

  41. That Superman game sucked something awful. But that was a fantastic concept.

    Also, is Supes even the most powerful person on (DC’s) Earth anymore?  

  42. @SixGun – I can’t imagine anyone more powerful.  Unless you count anyone who can wield magic, who could take Superman out.

  43. What a great article.

    I’ve been a superman fan since I was in diapers, and I’m really looking forward to seeing where Action and Superman comics are taken to in these next arcs. It is his 70th anniversary afterall!

    That last quote still brings tears to my eyes.

  44. Super article!  Superman is and always has been my favorite superhero.  This was a great way to show the haters just how awesome Superman can be.  I can’t wait for the next installment.

  45. excellent article

  46. very good article, really captures what makes superman great

    i agree that even though peter parker and characters like him are more human than superman it does not make them more relatable

  47. I really enjoyed this. I enjoyed it so much I showed it to a bunch of mine friends and they were impressed and/or wowed by the though provokingness of the piece. Kudos, my friend. Kudos.

  48. I remember reading about the idea for the Superman Returns game also. I thought it was cool, and that it made me think about the angle that makes Superman important in his world as a superhero.

     

    Then I realized that most, if not all movie related vieeo games suck. It got pretty horrible reviews, and I did not play it.

  49. To Paul ,  With your article on Superman mad me want to read up on Superman more Trust me I never really liked Superman , and after I read your article I will start now.  ( You don’t work for DC on the side do you?)

  50. @ Conor~  Is he even stronger than the Gods of the DCU?  I just re-read Final Crisis in preparation of today’s issue, and Supes seemed pretty worried about beings that could crack the world in half and kill billions of people…

  51. @Neb

    I think he’s about equal to their physical manifestations. But I think he was more woried about the collateral damage of them throwing down.  

  52. I have to admit that for the longest time I was not really a fan of Superman for the very reason you point out.  What could you possibly do to him?  Very good arguement placed to make Superman a character that’s interesting.  He’s forced to pick and choose everyday who he saves and who he doesn’t.  I think there is something to say for the everyday hero like Peter Parker who strives through a normal life and is constantly going up against superior odds and coming out on top.  But the pressure that comes when someone puts their ultimate faith in the fact that you will be there to save them is huge.  Can any of us say that we can live with that?  Everyone wants the power that comes with being Superman, but do we want the responsibility? 

  53. Ahhhh Superman.

    I love Superman as an idea. He is an ideal that we should all strive for. The courage, the care, the selflessness.  We see in his morality all things that we should strive for as individuals.

    That being said, the problem, for me, is the fact that he is so powerful that the only way to create drama is to threaten something he loves or cares about (Hence Lois and Jimmy end up tied to railroad tracks, metaphorically of course). That or use the dreaded Kryptonite…. AGAIN! Most writers use this formula over and over again. Get Kryptonite, and/or threaten Metropolis, and/or threaten someone he loves.

    This is what makes All Star Superman so good to me.  The threat to Superman is coming from within his own body. Genius.

    I hope the new writing team can figure out ways to make Superman stories matter to me. I love the character and I would very much love to enjoy his stories.

  54. Superman’s huge level of ability and commensurate huge level of responsibility does tend to raise questions best left not pondered too hard. There was that issue of Green Arrow/Black Canary not too long ago when they got in a jam and screamed, "CLARK!" so he would come running, and a couple of people raised the point, "Hey… why isn’t everyone doing that all the time?"

    If that super-hearing was public knowledge, how often would you think, "Man… where the hell did I leave my keys?… I’m gonna be late to– you know what? SUPERMAN, HEEEEELP!"?

    To say nothing of, "Hi there, Superman. I represent the CIA. You’re a big fan of justice and the American way, right? Let’s talk about that superhearing and x-ray vision. How do you feel about warrantless eavesdropping?" 

  55. The mortal hero worries about the rest of the world, too. The difference is that in addition to worrying about the world he’s chosen to protect, he also has to worry about dying. His risk is larger and his sacrifice is greater. 

    Clark Kent < Steve Rogers.

     

  56. @Diabhol – Captain America can’t take the weight of the entire world on his shoulders, because he dosen’t have the ability to protect it all.  Superman does.  His pathos is much deeper.

  57. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    Agreed.  Captain America has his jurisdiction and Superman has his.  The scope is different, so it’s really not a valid comparison.  It does nothing to belittle the importance of Steve Rogers, and neither does it belittle the importance of Superman. 

  58. Paul, dude… you’ve done the impossible. you renewed my faith in Superman. This was a brilliant analysis and you know what? it actually gave me chills! GOOSEBUMPS!!! good job, i can’t wait for part 2

  59. All of this is really nice and in a perfect world people would relate or at least enjoy as much reading about Superman as they do reading about Spider-Man but if we take into account all the current scientific information about how our brain works (every person’s favorite word is their own name and we respond more to songs with the pronoun “I” in them) then all of Superman’s sacrifice and altruism is not enough to draw our attention as compellingly as other, more mortal, characters. This isn’t selfishness, it’s human instinct.

     

    Another factor that works against Superman is the lack of true character development. This can be proven because unless you’re fairly new to the world of fiction or completely naïve, you know even Spider-Man or Batman are not going to die no matter what, not ever. So the reason more readers respond to their stories isn’t necessarily that they’re mortal human beings and could, in theory, die at any moment from a number of causes. More readers relate to these types of characters because their stories and personalities are more realistic. They face every day problems and struggle to make decisions, balance a heroic persona with their personal relationships or even try to make next month’s rent. I’ve never found the character of Superman more interesting than in an episode of its incarnation in Smallville where in a split of five seconds they show a young Clark Kent holding a couple of hundred dollars he had been saving to buy a class ring, even despite the fact his mother asked him to save the money for more important things, you can see the conflict and material want in his eyes and the way his hand holds the bills. It’s a trivial moment that could possibly never be recreated in a comic book but man, did he seem human and boy, could I relate to that guy.

  60. @peanutbutter321 – You’re wrong that it is provable that the comic book Superman has no character development.  100% wrong.  You’re making a lot of sweeping statements about readers when you really mean "I".

  61. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    I don’t want to downplay the greatness of Spider-Man/Peter Parker as a character.  I’m just saying, look in this direction too.  There are more answers to compelling storytelling than simply using an everyman.  I guess I’m saying, Spider-Man and Superman have more in common than has been suggested in the past. 

  62. I fail to see where I made any “sweeping statements about readers.” I didn’t even say there was no character development but “true character development.”

    However, I did forget to mention than I’m a Superman guy. I own more Superman (and DC) comic books than I do Spider-Man (and Marvel) but I constantly find myself wishing Superman had more of a personality than the politically correct image that he is often portrayed as having.

  63. @peanutbutter321

    "So the reason more readers respond to their stories isn’t necessarily that they’re mortal human beings and could, in theory, die at any moment from a number of causes."

    "More readers relate to these types of characters because their stories and personalities are more realistic."

  64. My point was that there’s a lot of data to prove those statements and I’m not just pulling them out of nowhere. Try to write a story where the main character is a spoon and see how many people can relate to that. Also, just because I may not include myself in the “more readers” doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

  65. @peanutbutter321 – Do you have access to a study that measures relatability of characters to readers?  Or are you just going by sales figures which don’t give you any kind of accurate representation of the reasons why people do and don’t buy books.

  66. That would be no to both questions. I’m basing myself in decades old writing principles; ask any educated writer or professor, or look at every fiction work available in any format and those who are considered classic works and keep being retold and resold through the years. The more alike the characters are to us as human beings the more we respond to them. There’s a reason even aliens don’t look that alien in these stories, no matter where they’re from they always have some human trait that allows us to connect with them.

    Like I said before, I’m a Superman guy but I’m not blind to the fact that solely on writing principles, Spider-Man is a better-developed character than the Man of Steel. And let me clear things by saying that the Spider-Man comparison is just for the sake of argument; there are lots of other comic book characters better developed than Superman which is a shame because I love the guy but I’m convinced that if Warner or DC weren’t so scared about shaking their big franchise status quo a bit, things would get better character-wise for Superman.

  67. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    Calling it selfish was hyperbole of course.  I’m calling into question these age old facts of storytelling.  Not saying that it’s wrong or misguided, necessarily, but that we should at least examine such things and understand why they are true. 

    The whole point of escapist fiction is that, while these characters may be the same as us in some way, their circumstances are so very, very different, or at least lead them to seemingly unimaginable places.  Superman is a farm boy hurled into the role of hero.  The light of the sun makes him powerful.  He must learn about his origins and how to use his powers, manage his powers, discipline himself.  Is that so different from Spider-Man, or indeed any other hero as described by the Heroes Journey?  Whether the extraordinary experience is setting sail on a whaling boat with a deranged captain, falling down a rabbit hole, being bitten by a radioactive spider, or leaping tall buildings with a single bound, these stories are universal and, when executed with care, resonate with the reader.  

    Superman is not a god.  He is a man with godlike powers thrust upon him.  He is a boy suddenly forced into the role of parent when his own are killed in an accident.  He is a little girl with the task of feeding a goldfish.  He is the new manager of a company.  He is a doctor.  Superman is anyone put in charge of something bigger than he undestands.  He’s Spider-Man with the world on his back.  

  68. Montgomery for President.

  69. Great article Paul. I have always been a Superman fan. There have been times where I had to take a break(Eletric Blue Superman anyone?). Your article pretty much summed up why I always come back. Superman’s morality and responsibility have always resonated with me.

    I don’t think anybody has mentioned this yet but I loved the characterization of Superman in Geoff John’s "Superman and the Legion of Superheroes". I liked that we were able to see a Superman that can be relaxed and have fun. Kal’s personality can truly be shown since he is surrounded by life long friends and doesn’t have the weight of the world on his shoulders. I hope that we see more interaction between the Legion and Superman. Hopefully, Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds will be good.

  70. I dislike Superman only when he disrepects real estate. 😉

  71. My first exposure to Superman was at the movies (I didn’t read comics as a child).  Even though the first film came out the same year I was born, I remember watching them as a kid and thinking that Superman was a constant.  Not only is that important when you are a child, to have constants and therefore stability, but the image was so powerful that it stayed with me through adulthood.  For some that makes his character boring, but for me it calls back that sense of stability and security.  

    Because I view Superman as a constant, I have relegated him to the background.  What I mean is, I don’t actually have a strong opinion about his character either way.  I just have a basic acceptance and that is it.  That is where I last left Superman so many years ago, and I had no intention of ever changing because I didn’t see the need to.  After reading your article I think that I may have overlooked him, and I plan on seeking out more Superman to see if the character warrants a more active role in the pantheon of my opinions.

  72. My first exposure to Superman was at the movies (I didn’t read comics as a child).  Even though the first film came out the same year I was born, I remember watching them as a kid and thinking that Superman was a constant.  Not only is maui jim sunglasses  that important when you are a child, to have constants and therefore stability, but the image was so powerful that it stayed with me through adulthood.  For some that makes his character boring, but for me it calls back that sense of stability and security.  

    Because I bvlgari sunglassesview Superman as a constant, I have relegated him to the background.  What I mean is, I don’t actually have a strong opinion about his character prada sunglasses either way.  I just have a basic acceptance and that is it.  That is where I last left Superman so many years ago, and I had no intention of ever changing because I didn’t see the need to.  After reading your article I think that I may have overlooked him, and I plan on seeking d&g sunglasses out more Superman to see if the character warrants a edhardy sunglasses more active role in the pantheon of my opinions.