Comics, Critique, Geek Culture, Masculinity, Opinion

The Thing About Superman

Last year, I wrote a piece where I selected Captain America over Superman as representative of what it means to be an inspiring, benevolent, super powered person. I based my decision on my feelings about the character of Superman, which tend to lean towards that of Lex Luthor. I appreciate that Superman does wonderful things for the human race, but continue to ask myself “why?”

Is he helping because that’s what Ma and Pa Kent taught him to do? Does he help because he can?

I confess I didn’t know much about Superman beyond the “boy scout” basics, but as far as boy scouts go, my preference is for a character who is human first and understands what it means to be the downtrodden. For me, Captain America is the better representative of someone who does the right thing, not because he has the power to do so, but because that’s who he is. The Superman I know is presented as someone who is a good, incorruptible person – but has never firmly exhibited how I ought to relate to him as a human being. He may have grown up with humanity, but the moment his powers manifested, he became far more than human, though he chooses to pretend otherwise.

Though not prominently presented as such, Superman is a genius. His powers are immeasurable. For all intents and purposes, he is a god among us. And while he does suffer the occasional loss of powers that allow him a glimpse into what it actually feels like to be human, there’s never a doubt that he’ll go right back to being a god by the end of the story. There are many characters in the comic world that have similar god-like status and abilities, but with Superman, I am supposed to believe that he can set all of that aside to hide behind a pair of glasses.

Superman | Lex Luthor

Lex Luthor: Man of Steel

I would find Superman a much more interesting character if he was more of the ticking time bomb Luthor fears in Lex Luthor: Man of Steel (Brian Azzarrello and Lee Bermejo). This is the utterly alien being who steals humanity’s sense of hope and aspiration because Superman is powerful enough to do everything for us. He doesn’t do this because he is evil. He does this with the far more frightening justification of benevolence. There’s nothing more frightening than an all-powerful being who has determined what’s good for us.

Consequently, my favourite portrayals of the character are the ones that explore this concept. Superman: Red Son by Mark Millar, Dave Johnson, Kilian Plunkett, Andrew Robinson, and Walden Wong is on the top of my list, with a Superman who lands in the Soviet Union, instead of the little town of Smallville. It explores the idea of nature versus nurture. Unlike Ma and Pa Kent, Joseph Stalin doesn’t raise his adopted son to be kind and true. It is Kal’El’s need for order that leaks into everything he does. He doesn’t necessarily help people because he is a good person, but because he wants to maintain a sense of order and control and has the power to do so.

Superman: Red Son

Superman: Red Son

In Injustice: Gods Among Us by Tom Taylor and Jheremy Raapack, tragedy leads Superman to the same path of world order, ruling with an iron fist. Batman initially believes Superman incapable of corruption, but discovers that his friend does have a limit.

Injustice: Gods Among Us, Vol. 1 | DC Comics (2013)

Screencap: Man of Steel, Superman and Zod, WB 2014Even the Man of Steel movie held some merit for me by offering a character that struggles with the suppression of his powers and emotions, as instructed by his Earth father. (Oh wow. I never thought I’d find myself comparing Superman to Elsa from Frozen, but there you go.) He is able to find an outlet in doing the right thing when needed. Unfortunately, the movie also offered a Superman that cares nothing for the collateral damage and other consequences of his actions, save when it comes to killing Zod.

These are the Superman stories that speak to me because I just don’t buy the concept of an all-powerful alien being simply fitting into our world and being so readily accepted. This is a god walking among us in disguise. That’s not the story of a man trying to fit in. That’s just damn good acting. One might argue that I read and accept people shooting lasers from their eyes or controlling the weather, but for me, the X-Men have always been human first. Their acceptance does not come from hiding who they are, but from finding people like them, whether in Charles Xavier’s mansion, on Magneto’s asteroid, or in the sewers with Calisto. Thus, they are able to be themselves and thereby have strongly defined personalities.

But who is Clark Kent? The character seems to be so easily definable by his incorruptible, benevolent status, but is there truly a personality beneath the “S,” outside of the one crafted to disguise himself?

In my original article, Superman fans sharply reprimanded me for my obvious bias. They expressed their heartfelt love of the character and what he means to them, and offered some better examples, in hopes of convincing me to rethink my views and better understand him. I still need to watch more of shows like Smallville and Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, which I think will go a long way to giving me some insight into Clark’s elusive personality, but in the mean time, I did do a bit of reading.

Superman Birthright | DC Comics (2005)

Superman: Birthright

While I have not had the chance to check out everything, I did read a few graphic novels, including Superman: Birthright by Mark Waid and Leinil Francis Yu. This is an update on Superman’s origin story, where Clark realizes that using his powers in secret isn’t good enough. He must come out and represent the good fight. This story offered some interesting elements that I liked, namely, a Superman who could get a little ragey and wasn’t afraid to express his emotions as well as his power, implying there was an line that he could cross, if he wanted to. Still, I questioned his motivations – was this a Clark that wanted to be good because he should be? Or was he doing these things for the thrill of it? I would have been fine with either option, but the book ultimately did not dig in and define Clark’s personality. Or rather, it defined the personality that Martha Kent helped him create in order to disguise himself in Metropolis, but who is Kal’El really?

Superman Earth One | DC Comics (2011)

Superman Earth One

Superman: Earth One by J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis once again goes back to Superman’s origins and offers a young, lonely Clark who desperately wants to fit in and find purpose, but can’t because he is simply too different. Again, this story offered some interesting twists on the character and his origin (and includes some great Perry White moments). I particularly liked his exploration of potential careers, and the cat in the moon.

But I still didn’t get an interesting, relatable, and likable person out of these stories, or strong reasoning for why he does what he does, and why everyone so readily accepts him as “one of us.”

I’ve come to the realization that Superman origin stories are not going to work for me. Not because the writers write them poorly, but because the writers have their hands tied by the standard requirements of a Superman origin story: Lois Lane, Ma and Pa Kent, Metropolis, the Daily Planet, Krypton, the “S” costume.

Both Birthright and Earth One started to walk down some interesting plot lines, but were yanked back in to ensure that they stuck to the “rules” of Superman.

Finally, I came to All-Star Superman. This one had so much riding against it – obviously because I was already utterly jaded about Superman, but also because I’m not a fan of Grant Morrison. I find that Grant Morrison is a fan of Grant Morrison and the words that Grant Morrison writes. But I have read We3 and discovered that, when Morrison works with Frank Quitely, Morrison is less enamoured by his own words, and actually allows the art to tell the story.

I did a little Wikipedia re-con before picking up the first volume, and was immediately pleased by Morrison’s approach: he did not want to rehash Superman’s origin story, yet again. Because good grief, we get it, okay??

All-Star Superman (Volume 1) | DC Comics (2007)

Been there, done that.

Instead, All-Star Superman is meant to give us the essence of the character, which is what I have been looking for all along! Morrison addresses many of my concerns and he does so with the kind of tongue-in-cheek sense of humour that made me realize one of the other problems I’ve had with Superman stories: they’ve all taken themselves far too seriously. All-Star Superman reminded me that I do enjoy reading and watching Superman in cartoons like Justice League because humour makes everything better.

I particularly appreciated the concept of no one recognizing Clark Kent as Superman. Morrison and Quitely change Clark’s physical appearance by adding more than just glasses. Superman’s buff bod becomes Clark’s “I’m just big-boned” goofy kind of bulk, and they really play up his cowardly, clutzy demeanour. It is very reminiscent of Christopher Reeves portrayal of the character in the movies. But the best part is that Pullitzer prize-winning investigative reporter Lois Lane, and the world’s greatest mind, Lex Luthor, simply cannot fathom that Clark and Superman are one and the same, despite the striking resemblance. Morrison and Quitely play with the concept of mind over matter and finally give me a believable scenario, where even the most intuitive minds only see what they want to see.

All-Star Superman (Volume 1) | DC Comics (2007)

In this story, Superman is dying and is reflecting on his life and doing the things he has been unable to do – namely share who he truly is with the woman he loves. His loneliness is profound, as Morrison and Quitely explore the life of a man who is loved and hated by those around him, and knows that he can never be one of them. They aren’t asking me to love Superman, or even respect him. They are just presenting him as he is, and it’s up to me to take him or leave him.

So at the end of the day, I finally found the Superman story I needed. It doesn’t necessarily answer my questions. It doesn’t even make me like the character. Instead, it simply says: “just shut up and Superman, Wendy.”

This, I can accept.

  1. Jo Fu

    January 15, 2015 at 2:06 pm

    Oh man, I loved this piece, but you should try Superman For All Seasons, and the Lex Luthor graphic novel by Brian Azzarello! Superman For All Seasons is an origin story, but it’s told from the POVs of Clark, Lois, and Lex, and you get to see Clark going to prom. Lex is all Lex, and really shows Superman from his perspective.

    Of course, my favorite rendition of Supes is from the Justice League cartoon. You get to see more of his leadership, his charm, and his determination to not let his absolute power corrupt his self. It’s very charming!

  2. Jacob

    January 15, 2015 at 2:20 pm

    To me, the Superman I love the most (and there are so many depictions, that it is truly up to you to pick what you want out of the character) is defined by the idea that his powers developed slowly throughout his entire childhood. He doesn’t see himself as an outside, because, for many years, he was just an average guy being raised by honest folks.
    My Superman isn’t a crime fighter or a God, but merely a good Samaritan. He’s kind, because that’s what he was told is the right thing to do. He puts on a costume because it helps him help people.
    To me, Superman is a story about the importance and the joy of helping others. He tries his best to be a good person, even if that naivite means he doesn’t always make the right choice, because sometimes the tough choice is the right one. It’s an allegory for doing whatever you can with what you were given to help others.
    He’s an average guy with extraordinary abilities.
    The conflict isn’t internal; the conflict occurs whenever his ideals rub up against the friction of reality. He’s aspirational, but in a fully achievable manner.
    It’s important to remember that superheroes were developed for children. Whey you’re a kid, you want to fly and have Superman’s power. As you grow up you realize that’s impossible, but you still want to be like Superman, so what do you do? You emulate his actions.
    You go out of your way to make sure you’re not harming anyone. You ensure that the least of us are cared for. You spend your free time using whatever gifts you have to make the world a slightly better place.
    For me, the best Superman stories aren’t world changing; they’re in these small moments of kindness. Because that’s what we can take from the Superman story. No matter what you were born with or what you do, if you use your power, your gifts, your skills, your talents, to help others, maybe the world will be a better place.

    1. Claire Napier

      January 15, 2015 at 9:24 pm

      This is really nice!

    2. Wendy Browne

      January 16, 2015 at 5:50 pm

      Thank you for sharing this.

  3. nabby

    January 17, 2015 at 9:52 pm

    Hating on Grant Morrison? For shame.

    1. Wendy Browne

      January 18, 2015 at 7:23 pm

      Hey now, I gave him a Frank Quitely pass.

      1. Megan Purdy

        January 18, 2015 at 10:13 pm

        Not Saint Morrison, Wendy. How could you?

  4. Stuart B

    January 18, 2015 at 5:00 am

    The writers have actually long acknowledged that there is a line that Supes can cross, and that he himself is terrified of the thought – which is why he gave a chunk of Kryptonite to one of the few Humans he really trusts – the Batman.
    (I’m pretty sure he gave some to J’onn J’onzz as well, although I could be wrong there.)
    So far, it has never been needed – but who knows what the production team at DC have in store for one of the most powerful beings in their canon.

    1. Wendy Browne

      January 18, 2015 at 7:25 pm

      Have they really never explored this in a main canon story? The line is obviously there and it is explored brilliantly in many of the stories I like. But I think it would be really interesting if they did take it into a main canon story. Make the consequences real, rather than being able to reset it with a timeline punch or some cheap excuse. It would fundamentally change the character though, and his relationships, so I can see why it might never be properly explored in canon.

    2. Wendy Browne

      January 18, 2015 at 7:26 pm

      I do know that Batman carries Kryptonite. But he would have done that with or without Kal’s permission 😉 Always be prepared.

  5. Simon

    July 9, 2015 at 7:20 am

    Damn. Website ate my comment. Nuts.

  6. Robert

    June 23, 2016 at 9:55 am

    Great, thoughtful piece about the many facets of Big Blue. I’m glad you liked “All-Star”, did you ever get a chance to see the animated film? A very faithful translation, my only complaint is that it’s too dang short (70 odd minutes).

    1. Wendy Browne

      June 25, 2016 at 9:12 pm

      No, I haven’t seen it yet! There are several DC cartoon movies that I need to catch up on.

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