Alan Moore attempts to answer a question originally of his own making when he created Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? years ago. This question has been asked a variety of times since the end of the superhero’s Silver Age and has garnered a variety of creative answers.
But why Superman? Why is Superman still so important? I admit: I have friends who simply don’t see the point to the Man of Steel’s continued existence or, indeed, his creation to begin with. One main criticism that people have with regards to Superman is how unrelatable he is to the reader. I mean, come on now, none of us can generate heat rays out of our eyes, fly, possess X-Ray vision, make freeze-breath, or be invulnerable. Certainly, no one has Superman’s “boy scout” morality without any other very human flaws and failings to match it: if that.
I can understand why Batman is more relatable. He is a human being who has used material resources and pushed all of his human skills to their limits by sheer obsession and utter will. If anyone should be the Man of Tomorrow, gender connotations notwithstanding, you’d think it would be Batman. Certainly, many people have a great love of the vigilante: of the person that goes beyond the law, becoming extra-constitutional, going beyond the polis–the city-state–to become a god or a monster to see that proper justice or vengeance is done. And there are heroes being venerated today–perhaps throwbacks to the ancient literary heroes–who are far more brutal and even more morally ambiguous than Batman.
And Superman? He is a “goody-goody.” He is so much a goody-goody he is too good to be true. Whereas Batman operates beyond the law or within its blind-eye, Superman obeys the law in as much as he can save innocents and capture criminals. Perhaps there is little difference, save that the law seems to like Superman a lot more or accept that he is beyond them: that he is using his powers to uphold the law and safety to a fault. Indeed, you could say that Superman has more a lovable personality: or is more personable and wins all popularity contests through his sheer good nature while Batman fights with fear as his weapon. Fear does not make you popular or loved: but it gets the job done.
But is that the only thing Superman has over Batman and others? That he is more lovable and makes a show of following rules? That he is superhuman and chooses not to obliterate the world? That he ignores or reshapes the reality of the world? Or worse: does he continue to patronize his friends, his allies, his enemies, and the human race by presuming to always save and stop them? Is his alter-ego of Clark Kent, according to Bill in Kill Bill Vol. II, simply a grotesque critique of what he thinks a human being really is?
The truth is, when you look at Superman, you see an incredibly powerful being that could rule and destroy the world. He could rip us apart like insects. Yes, Kryptonite can hurt and kill him but he has enough knowledge to protect himself against it. In fact, the knowledge and intelligence he possesses from the Fortress of Solitude that is his Kryptonian birthright and from his own experiments is enough to dominate and destroy all human kind. There are many people who–if they had his knowledge and power–would do exactly that and have very little qualms about doing so. Some people in the DC Universe already have.
It is already clear that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster based him off of Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of the ubermensch: a being that has grown beyond the constraints of morality and limitation to choose their own path, yet they injected “good old morality” into this alien superman and made all of his achievements naturally-born and inherited from the dead.
So why is Superman special? Why do I think he is special? I might have written some of my answers already but–if I had to sum it up–I would have you consider the following.
Imagine finding out that you have the power to crush steel with a punch or even just the touch of a hand. If you wanted, nothing could ever touch you. You can move as fast as or beyond the speed of light. If you jump, you will jump extremely high and eventually be able to fly: but you need to somehow know how to control where to go or how to move given that you still have a humanoid form and it is not built with the instincts for flight.
Now take all of that–never mind the fact that you have to learn how to control your temper, your passions and hold your parents or your lovers carefully so that you don’t crush or hurt them–and then add an alien birthright whose most modest lore could detonate the world many times over and again: possibly taking you and everyone you love with it.
Your merest touch could kill a person and your slightest knowledge could destroy them. It makes for a lonely existence doesn’t it? And yet, somehow deep inside of you, you not only find the will to master all of these powers but you actually want to use what you have to help other people. At the same time, you just want to be like other people: even though deep down you know you never truly will ever be. You don’t want to be thanked, you just want to help and out of all those things you could do, you choose to do so.
In Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come, a horrible calamity happens and Superman gives up on being Clark Kent. We see a person who lived among humans, who loved them, who had friends among them and wasn’t alone become an out of touch and distant Superman who only responds to the dead name of Kal-El from an equally dead and distant world. It is a Superman who still wants to do good and still feels bad over the loss of life, but he can no longer relate to anyone that he wants to save and people cannot relate to a person who looks upon them as so … lesser than he is.
He becomes the genius that cannot relate to anyone and garners misunderstanding and even contempt: because if a superhero, like a genius, cannot relate to those they save or even us readers then they have failed in a very fundamental way.
Unlike Bruce Wayne whose civilian identity is a mask for Batman, Superman is Clark Kent. He was born as Clark Kent and even though he isn’t human, being Clark Kent has taught him control and about life. As Grant Morrison demonstrates with a bright and essential freshness in his Superman All-Star, the power has not mastered Superman as it has so many others.
Superman has mastered the power and like the ubermensch he chooses his morality: which is to help people. At the same time, he is like Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kroger: who can see the dance of humanity around him and even replicate it artistically but is never really a part of it. It is his strength and his sadness and yet he finds the joy in helping others find joy. Very few others in fiction or the real world could ever be like that.
I write a lot of dark and conflicted characters yet once–long ago–Superman was one of my earliest childhood heroes. And in some ways, he still is. I’m glad the idea of him exists. I’m glad he exists.
Thus concludes another episode of Matthew Kirshenblatt writing about superheroes. Up, up and away my friends.