Even with Marvel’s surging popularity and the massive success of the Batman movies, if you asked anyone to name a comic book superhero the first word out of their mouth would be “Superman.” The Man of Steel is without a doubt the most iconic name in comics, and he’s been such a staple of the genre that he’s come to be more than just a character. When we think of Superman we think of America, we think of invulnerability, we think of the golden age (both of comics and of American life). Perhaps more importantly, when we think of America, we think of Superman, too.
As a character, Superman is not that interesting to read about. He’s invincible and all-powerful – who can beat him? There’s very little risk for Superman – he’ll always find a way to win. Even in Death of Superman his “death” is temporary. Superman works best as a metaphor – either for America’s role in world politics, for domestic American political stances, or for simple human goodness in a world that favors evil. For Superman as a political allegory, the first comic that leaps out is Mark Millar’s Superman: Red Son, which explores a world where Superman’s craft landed in Russia instead of America. Superman grows to be the ruler of Russia, replacing Stalin as the “Man of Steel.” He creates a country where people are literally mind-controlled if they step out of line, because this is what Superman sees as the optimal way to keep the peace. The entire premise of the comic is so striking and profound because Superman is so ingrained in everyone’s minds as a symbol of freedom and choice – Millar doesn’t need to spell this irony out to us.
Similarly, Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come uses Superman more as a stand-in for a certain set of ideals. When a new superhero, Magog, begins killing supervillains instead of capturing them, Superman comes out in adamant opposition. The public, however, sides with Magog and a disgusted Superman goes into retirement. What makes Kingdom Come such an interesting concept is that it places Superman into a situation he can’t fight his way out of – public disapproval. When the people he fights to protect choose someone else to protect them, what role can Superman play in the world?
These are the situations in which Superman’s real role as a superhero become apparent. Superman is at his best not when he’s doing what only a superhero can, but when he’s doing what the everyday human has to do. When Superman is confronted with a situation where his awesome powers mean nothing, his human side comes out and we see that he struggles with the same problems we all do. This is what makes Superman so compelling for us – not that he is a super man, but that he is a man. When he struggles, we realize it is okay for us to struggle. And when he overcomes these struggles, he does it without his super powers.
Look at All-Star Superman, where Supermans from several timelines come together to fight a terrifying chronovore, a creature that eats time. An extreme and superpowered situation to be sure, but what hits hard about the story is a moment where the chronovore takes three minutes from the present-day Clark Kent’s life, and during those precise three minutes Clark’s adoptive father suffers a fatal heart attack. Clark realizes he can’t hear his father’s heartbeat and rushes full-speed back to him, and in that moment the reader empathizes with him not as a superhero who is saving the world, but as a man who is losing a father and is powerless to stop it. Superman’s desperate rush back to his farm, shouting that he can save everyone even as he realizes his father is already dead, is a powerful scene because of how vulnerable Superman is, not because of how strong he is.
Superman is an easy character to misuse. Many writers seem content to turn his comics into all-out brawls, where Superman demonstrates his massive powers and the American people cheer and bask in the radiance of their hero. Flashy as a Superman fight can be, the real power of Superman, and many other comic heroes, is in what they reveal to us about the human condition. When we see the humanity in the superheroes, we see the superheroes in ourselves.
First image is from Kingdom Come by Mark Waid and Alex Ross.
Second image is from All-Star Superman Volume 1 #6 by Grant Morrison.