Road to Rises: Adventures in the DC Universe # 5: Superman

He has been called The Man of Steel, the Man of Tomorrow and Earth’s Greatest Super-hero. He is faster then speeding bullet. More powerful then a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. He is a fearless defender of truth, justice and the American Way. He is also the one who kicked of the whole comic book medium, and from him was coined the term “Superhero.” His introduction even caused those who came before him, like The Shadow, The Phantom and Doc Savage, to be retroactively called “superheroes.”  He is Superman. He really doesn’t need much in terms of an introduction. Even those unfamiliar with comic books have some idea of the character of Superman, but very few know just who he really is. Sometimes, fans even feel like the company that is entrusted as the custodian of his legacy really understand. A lot of it is quite simply, because Superman has come to mean so much to so many, and each person has their own vision of just who he should be.

Superman

Superman

Part of this comes from how larger then life he has become.  Even the birth of the Superman comic book has all the makings of a Great-American story about perseverance. Superman was first introduced in 1938, the creation of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two Jewish-American immigrants. Their original concept of the character featured a bald mad scientist called “The Superman” who was bent on taking over the world. This idea was promptly rejected. They reformatted heir idea and tried again and again, facing rejection multiple times. Finally, National Periodicals, (now DC Comics) agreed to run the character in Action Comics#1. The character went on to become a huge success.

When he first debuted Superman could not fly, see through walls, shoot heat vision from his eyes, or do any of the things we have come to know. When he first debuted in Action Comics volume 1, number 1 in 1938, he only possessed super strength, super-speed, could leap a great distance, and of course he was invulnerable. He was also a little rough around the edges. Superman had no qualms against busting through walls and tossing a gangster, or a man abusing his wife and children out of a window, albeit catching them before they went splat.

The character became a huge success, so huge he had popular radio shows, and theatrical serials both live action and in animation. The radio show and animated serials (better known as The Fleischer Superman cartoons after producer Max Fleischer) introduced a plethora of new powers, all of them the ones we’ve come to identify with as being traits of Superman.  This, combined with anxieties brought on by World War II, and the Cold War caused the image of Superman to soften and he became the benign scout master we know and love.

He came about at a time when America was just beginning to emerge as a world super-power, and reflects a very American ideal. Superman is the ultimate immigrant, who finds his place in American society and emerges as a leader of men. He possesses the strength of the biblical strong man Samson and the mythical Hercules. He is even seen as a pop-cultural Christ-like figure, sent by his benign father to show us a better way, to save us from evil, and dying and rising again victoriously, fighting a never ending battle for the sake of good.

Over his past 75 years he has become nearly godlike in his status, so much so that many have a difficult time relating to him. However they just see the bright costume and incredible feats. They don’t see what lies deep inside Superman. That is part of the reason of all the superheroes, his origin story is told and retold the most through a verity of media. Superman, and for that matter, all the heroes who followed after, are larger then life figures. There are two categories f hero:  the legends who become human, like Superman, Wonder Woman and Marvel’s Thor and then there are the humans who become legend like Batman, Robin, Green Lantern, Captain America, Iron Man and Spider-Man.

As such you need to begin the Hero’s Journey at a point where they possess the most reliability, a moment in which they seem as human as us. Noted scholar Joseph Campbell pointed out in The Power Of Myth, that Jesus on the cross can be related to, but it is much harder to relate to God. The cross is a moment of brokenness and humanity, but also a moment before ultimate heroism can begin. As such superheroes like Superman need that point of reference as well.

This origin story for Superman has been examined in the Christopher Reeve films, the 1998 cartoon series, the upcoming Man of Steel movie, and numerous comic book mini-series. It was even the focus of the long running TV series Smallville. As he is the most powerful character in comic books, there are only a few moments were he truly appears human. Those moments include his death at the hands of the Doomsday monster, his wedding to Lois Lane, some moment when he is confronted with the mortality of those closest to him, and of course, at his beginnings.

It’s not hard to see why. Look at all the amazing things he can do.  He is also a deeply virtuous person, so much that he makes Steve Rogers look tainted. He’s even a space alien. Superman can crush coal into diamond with his hands, and yet he has the gentleness to pluck a kitten from a tree and hand it back to its owner. He has had to rescue his father, Jonathan Kent, and his high-school sweetheart, Lana Lang, from the fury of an all too common Midwestern tornado, yet he has also pick up a hammer and help rebuild the barn. He can duke it out with Doomsday yet when his pal Jimmy Olson is having a bad day and thinking of quitting the planet and heading back home, Superman will encourage him to stay and even grant him an exclusive photo, something he won’t give any one else.

However, before he was the Man of Steel, even before he was raised by the Kents, Superman was just a helpless baby like any one else. However, he happened to be helpless baby on a world that was about to explode. His home world of Krypton was a beautiful, advanced society. His father, Jor-El was a leading scientist on the Kryptonian Science Council, and he had made a startling discovery. Based on his readings of the planet’s geothermic activity, Krypton was about to be destroyed.

Like Noah in the Bible, Jor-El warned them that destruction was eminent. In Superman:The Movie, he intones,

“My friends you know me to be neither rash, nor quick to give into wild and unsupported claims. But I tell you Krypton will be destroyed.”

They refused to heed his warnings, even trying to reassure him that Krypton was merely shifting its orbit (which any astronomer or astrophysicist would tell you is probably a bad thing). To most this would be cause for alarm, but the Kryptonians refused to believe his warnings for two reasons. One was the fact they were, in Jor-El’s own words, vain and believed themselves to be invincible. The second was they chose to listen to the reassuring words of computer entity known as Brainiac. As seen in Superman: The Animated Series, this machine deliberately deceived them, as he was siphoning off all the knowledge of Krypton and was going to destroy it.

Realizing there was nothing left to do, Jor-El and his wife Lara placed their son in a rocket and sent him adrift in space. It is not unlike the baby Moses in the Bible being set adrift in a basket or ark, in the Nile in the book of Exodus. In fact an earlier Superman story called his ship “The Ark of Space”, and   Superman, or Kal-El as he was called on Krypton, and Grant Morrison’s recent run on Action Comics rendered the rocket looking more like a basket. The rocket arrived on Earth where, like Moses among the bulrushes being found by the Pharaoh’s daughter, it was found in a corn field by Jonathan and Martha Kent.

Jonathan was reluctant to take the child as for all they knew it was one of those “Russian babies”. However, Martha  was stubborn and insisted they keep him. They had always wanted a child and prayed for one, and after two miscarriages and a stillbirth were willing to accept defeat, until Kal-El came to them. They adopted the baby, named him “Clark” and raised him as their own the best they could.

As he grew up, his powers began developing, and he had questions. This is especially true in the aptly named graphic novel Superman: Secret Origin. In this telling of his origin his powers are starting to develop. He accidently broke his best friend Pete Ross’s arm when the two collided during a football game and his strength, speed and invulnerability broke it. His heat vision set the High School Gymnasium on fire during his first kiss with High School sweetheart Lana Lang. As would be the case for any child, Clark wants to know why this is happening. His parents not only tell him he comes from another world, but show him his space ship and a device from krypton that explains it all in full detail. Clark is naturally frightened and runs out into a field. All his life he knew he was adopted, but now he learns he is not even human. Clark falls to his knees and cries to his father, Jonathan Kent, that all he wants is to be his son. Jonathan holds Clark close and tells him, “You are.”

It is a moment of pure, unadulterated humanity. This boy, who would one day be called Earth’s Greatest Superhero, is afraid of his powers and who he is. Clark desperately clings to something that he knows is familiar, his father, and hopes that things will be the same. We see that Superman, like all of us, wants to be loved and accepted, just as he is. We look at Clark, crying in the field and see ourselves as we go through the changes of puberty and grow into adults wanting just to be normal.  We also see his parents loving him and encouraging him to use his powers to serve his adopted home world. To them Clark was a miracle, not just for them but the entire world.

They taught him right from wrong and the value of a hard days work.  They wouldn’t let him shirk his responsibilities at the farm, making sure he didn’t use his powers to rush through anything. It was frustrating to Clark, as he could also not play football, at risk of hurting someone. In a poignant scene in Superman the Movie Jonathan catches Clark showing off and takes him aside and tells him, “You’ve been sent here for a reason. Now I don’t know whose reason or what reason, but I do know it’s not to score touch downs.”

He soon learned this reason. Through the advanced computer program with messages from his birth parents, he learned just why he was sent to Earth of all worlds. Like God the father to Christ the Son, Jor-El chose to send Superman to Earth to show humans a better way. Jor-El tells him in Superman: The Movie,

“They can be a great people, Kal-El, they choose to be, they only lack the light to show the way and so for this reason, their capacity or good, I have sent them you. My only son.”

Many writers have been quick to point out that Superman is who he is because of his parents, specifically, Jonathan and Martha Kent. His genetic material may have come from Jor-El and Lara of Krypton, but it was Jonathan and Martha who raised him, gave him his moral fiber, and helped him become the man he was destined to be. It is something he never fully forgets, as that upbringing is something that humanizes him.

As Batman says on one of their many team-ups,

“ It’s a remarkable dichotomy. In many ways he is the most human of us all. Then he shoots fire from the skies and it is difficult not to thing of him as a god. And how fortunate we all are that it does not occur to him.”

With out that anchor, he could easily have become a tyrant, but the Kent’s showed him a better way. He learned to think, behave and act like a human. To him his gifts and abilities were not different, just natural to him .he even described it as being like a bird flying.  Yet at the end of the day, when he was a kid he still had to do his homework, do his chores, and when he grew up, go to work, pay his rent, and pay his bills.  He may do extraordinary things, but he lives an ordinary simple, life, one that wouldn’t acquire greatness.

The Kents also helped him develop his secret identity. Martha told him to wear layers to hide his physic, slouch, change the pitch in his voice, comb his hair differently, and most importantly to study acting techniques, specifically the likes of Stanislavsky. Jonathan age him an old pair of glasses, extra thick lenses, and encouraged him to head for a big city like New York, LA, Gotham or Metropolis. After all, if in the real world, New York ash over 8 million people, some one like as unassuming as Clark Kent should be able to blend in perfectly. Martha also made that familiar costume for him, designing it to reflect his Kryptonian heritage, and including the familiar shield, which has been revealed to be more then a letter “S”.

“ At first I thought it was a family crest of some sort—but if it was, it came to means something more then that to these people .Wars were fought over it ,entire cities were built on it. Over the course of time, it became a.. a promise. A sign of a people fighting to make a better world. A symbol of hope…its time it became something more.”

Donning a costume made by his mother, he headed ff for Metropolis. It was there that he gained the name Superman, given to him by Lois Lane when he saved her from an accident. She saw him as handsome, charming, and in her words, “The Nietzchian fantasy come to life, the Superman.” Perry White, her editor liked it and splashed  across the front of the Daily Planet. The whole city was taken by Superman.

This is perhaps one of the most telling details about Superman. He never chooses the name for himself, it’s always given to him by Lois. Clark, and his parents are too humble to go around calling him Superman on their  own. To him his powers and abilities are second nature. He has to use them to help people. He isn’t motivated by anger, duty or guilt, but rather, simple basic goodness. It was even a question he posed his pastor at church back in Smallville when he was a teenager following a tornado. He asked him simply, “What if some one had the power to stop this, and didn’t?”

He also has the power, and every right to impose his rule upon the Earth, and yet he refuses to use his power in such a way. Rather, he wishes to be a good example to them, and help them along the way. In a Superman story dealing with his fear of Earth destroying itself like Krypton via it’s nuclear weapons, he comes to the conclusion that he can’t make humans do anything, an that in essences they are like children learning to walk who need a gentle hand to lead them. He also will not intervene in a war between nations, even though it would be very easy for him. In a non-canon story written back in World War II, all Superman had to do to stop the war was fly over to Germany nab Hitler and Stalin and drop them off at a world court. Yet for some reason, he refuses to get involved in such affairs. As he tells Lois when she him to come with when she is an embedded reporter in a Middle-Eastern country, if he were to get involved in any nations war it would look like he was playing sides, which would only make an already hostile situation even worse. The war needs to be handled on its own, and not by him.

The “S” in essence just doesn’t stand for Superman, or for Savior, and for Selfless. He seeks to try and make the world a better place, not by busting down walls and knocking in heads but by his strong moral character. Jor-El even tells him, “it is forbidden for you t interfere with human affairs. Rather use your influence to stir others to their own moral betterment.”

This is seen in the Superman Story “ What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way?” A new group of grim, gritty, ultra-violent anti-heroes called the Elite has come to town and they are willing to do anything to stop evil, including kill. It doesn’t phase them if the innocent die in the process, as long as the bad guys are taken care of. The public comes to love them, seeing Superman, and the likes of Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern and Batman as passé. That night Superman confides to Lois,

“They ( The Elite) are perverting everything I’ve spent my life fighting for. Killing people and laughing… They have no concept of human rights. I heard a child tell his friend he wanted to be in the elite – because it would be fun to kill bad guys. Fun to kill. People have to know that there’s a better way, Lois. They have to hear a voice of compassion and faith instead of spite and anger. They have to see that someone believes in humanity strong enough—“

Before he can finish his thought she asks, “to die for them? She remembers full well what Superman is willing to do for humanity. It hadn’t been that long ago when the monster Doomsday was rampaging through Metropolis, destroying everything. Superman fought the monster, and then right outside the Daily Planet Superman gave his all. Realizing there was no other way to defeat the monster he used his full strength, giving his life to stop the monster. As he fought he thought, “ For Lois, For Jimmy. For all of Metropolis, I have to stop this monster!” To him, there was no other alternative. It was his greatest act of heroism, after all as Jesus Christ himself said, “Greater Love has none then this, then a man lay down his life for his friends.”

The monster was defeated at he cost of his life and he died in Lois’ arms. It has always been in the face of his death that his full influence is felt. A little boy who was watching while his daddy abused is mom couldn’t help but cry for the man who “made daddy stop hitting mommy.” An old rough neck sailor named Bibbo would ask in his prayers why Superman had to die while he lived on. A steel worker named John Henry Irons, took up the shield of Superman and donned a suit of armor, calling himself “Steel”, all because of a promise he made to Superman. Irons had fallen from a construction sight he was working on and would have died had Superman not saved him. When the Man of Steel set him down, he asked how he could repay him and Superman told him to make his life count. As such Irons felt the best way was by living up to his legacy and helping get rid of the dangerous military grade weapons that were arriving on the streets of Metropolis and killing kids.

Even the league was devastated, as this was the man who led them and made them better heroes. In an episode of the Justice League cartoon, “Hereafter”, this same concept is dealt with. The villain Toyman fires an energy canon at Batman and Wonder Woman and Superman takes the blast for them, vanishing right before their eyes. Wonder Woman is ready to punch a heel in a villain’s head when The Flash restrains her, reminding her that it isn’t the way they handle their enemies. Wonder Woman orders Flash to speak for himself and all he can say is,

“I’m trying to speak for Superman.”

He later shares with fellow hero, Martian Manhunter that,

“ I used to be able to goof around so much because I knew he had my back. Now I only have his example, and I guess that’s going to have to be good enough.”

Even Batman couldn’t shake his influence. Standing at Superman’s memorial  he admitted:

“I’ve got some things to say. I should have said them when you were here, but… Despite our differences I have nothing but respect for you. I hope you knew – know that. You showed me that justice doesn’t always have to come from the darkness.”

Of course, Superman always manages to come back. In the Justice League episode it turned out he was actually blasted forward in time, and in the Death of Superman saga it was through the process of advanced Kryptonian science. One way or another he conquers death and returns to fight the never ending battle and there is much rejoicing, even by his arch rival, Lex Luthor.

Despite their animosity, Lex would not want any one else to kill Superman. As is archenemies, it is the one privilege he feels he is entitled, and no one, especially an intergalactic soccer hooligan like Doomsday is going to steal that from him. To Lex, Superman had taken the love of Metropolis from him, and he intended to win back the city. Lex in more modern interpretations was a corrupt businessman, akin to a Chicago-land style politician. Luthor had built the city from the ground up, and prided himself as being like Professor Henry Higgins with Eliza Doolittle, even calling Metropolis his fair lady.

It is not surprising as Lex himself is the ultimate self-made man. He brought himself up from the ground up by his own boot straps from Podunk town of Smallville, overcame his abusive  father and became one of the most powerful men in the city. H had no incredible powers, save a high intellect that in comic book terms is described as being “above level 12.”   As he brags to Superman he owns half the city and over two thirds of it’s population work for him whether they know it or not. Most media out-lets ( save the struggling Daily Planet) and even some of the police are on the pay roll. Superman comes on the scene and ruins his operations.

Lex tries to buy him off and keep him on the pay roll, but Superman refuses. Lois says to him that she has never seen anyone stand up to Luthor like he does. Superman just says that, “It’s about time some one does.”

Despite what Lois says, Superman, the one we know and love is the farthest thing from the Superman archetype held by Nietzsche. He is a deeply moral person, adhering to a standard code of ethics. Lex however is more like that archetype. He has no problems buying an election, covering a trial that could indict him by killing people, staging robberies, hostage situations,  offering a woman a million dollars to have an affair with him and even makes arrangements so the mother of his child is kept far away from them, all so he can have his daughter’s undivided love. He’ll poison a man named John Corbin so he needs an operation that transforms him into the cyborg Metallo, and stage an accident that crates the monster Parasite.

To him the moral rules of right and wrong do not apply, he is above that he sees rules as nothing but chains that must be broken. It’s part of the reason he’ll take every measure not to get caught committing a crime, because as he’d call them, lesser minds are inhibited by morality and he’d be sent to jail.  The only law that matters is the law of Luthor (which appropriately his first name means in Latin.) It is part of the reason Superman is so offensive to him. Lex sees himself as Prometheus, stealing fire from the gods to give to man, and that gods are the “selfish men running around in red capes” who only hold humans back from their true potential. After all, Lex seemed to get by just fine on his own steam, so to should they. He wouldn’t mind ruling them, but that’s just the quivering masses, everyone else is more then capable of getting by with out Superman.  Superman, however, is more then willing to teach others right from wrong.

Lex does everything for his own glory and fame, usually with one goal in mind, the Oval Office of the White House. He wants power and lost of it. he wants to be more then a human. The only thing Superman would want is to live a normal life. In Superman II, he even gives up his powers to be with Lois. Yet when Earth is threatened by  General Zod, Major Ursa and Non, , three Kryptonian criminals from the Phantom Zone ( a sort of prison in another dimension), and he hears the cries for help, he knows he cannot turn away. He makes a trek to the Fortress to beg his father for another chance and has his powers restored so he can continue his never ending battle.

As such, because of Superman’s great powers, Lex like so many others has a hard time believing that Superman could have any form of secret identity. When a computer reveals to him that Clark Kent is Superman, he smashes the computer, and fires the secretary who told him, as in his mind, someone as powerful as Superman wouldn’t want to hide behinds the guise of some one as humble and unassuming as Clark Kent. If Lex wants glory, then so should the Man of Steel.

Not so for Superman. He knows that he as enemies out there, and as his father Jor-El warned him, Superman would find that his enemies would learn that the only way to hurt him is buy hurting those he loves. It is for them that he maintains his identity as Clark Kent. He may be bulletproof, but they aren’t. For example, when Lois is embedded in the Middle-East, he is busy fighting another monster. As the battle concludes, he hears as a hitman shoots Lois and arrives just as she hits the ground, with nothing more he can do but get her to medical attention. When he is battling Brainiac, he is occupied with defeating the machine before it destroys Earth that he isn’t able to get to Smallville in time to stop the Kent Farm from being destroyed, thereby causing Jonathan Kent to suffer a heart attack from the strain of saving Martha. And it is by having these people in his life that he is more human.

It is summed up perfectly in the scene in Superman: The Movie, where Clark is standing beside his mother grieving for Jonathan. “All these powers, all these things I can do, and I couldn’t even save him.” He may be able to stop a bullet but he can’t keep the heart of the man who raised him beating forever. He realizes that humans can and will die, and for all his powers he can’t stop it. He has discovered that he does have his share of limits. It’s something that humanizes him, and makes him more willing to make the world a better place. Life is short, why shouldn’t it be a bit better?

Ironically, Superman co creator Jerry Siegel also lost his father. When he had been about 18 years old, his father, Mitchell, died during a robbery of a store he worked at. The official reports ruled it a heart attack, but evidence suggested otherwise, namely that Mitchell Siegel was murdered. From the pain of loosing his father, he helped dream up an invincible character. Author Brad Meltzer argued that rather then creating a Christ figure, or Moses, or Samson, but wanted his father to be bulletproof so he wouldn’t have to be alone. It could be speculated, that like Steven Spielberg dreaming up another Christ-like alien named ET, that more then anything he wanted a friend to help him through his pain.

That is one of the most important parts of Superman as a character. Not that he has these awesome powers, but because he seeks to be that kind of friend. Actor Christopher Reeve, who played Superman in Superman: The Movie said, “When Lois asks Superman, ‘who are you,’ he responds , ‘A friend.’ This makes him more then anything a symbol of hopes. Many times hope comes to us in the form of a friend who reaches out to us.”

Author Steven Skelton argued that Superman isn’t a Christ figure, but rather a Christ-like figure, the kind of person we all should strive to be. Some one who humble, giving, selfless, self-sacrificing, compassionate, noble, and always there for you when you need them, in essence a friend. Superman himself sums it up perfectly, “Do good to others and everyone can be a Superman.”

What does that mean? It means being the kind of friend who will help you in your time of need. The kind of friend who is always there for you. It means being the kind of friend who isn’t consumed by greed, but looks out for others. The kind of person who will teach you something you never knew, that you never thought you could learn . The kind of person that makes you want to be a better person. The kind of person who makes the world better, just by being in it. Most importantly, the kind of friend who you know will die for you. It’s the kind of thing that fills you with hope, and makes you look up.

The ending of the Christopher Reeve Superman movie sums it up perfectly. Just before the credits roll, Superman flies through space, orbiting the Earth, looks down, smiles before flying off, reminding the viewers that he is out there, watching out for them no matter what. All they need to do is one simple thing, to quote the old Superman serials, “ Look! Up in the sky!”

Superman II

Theatrical poster for Superman II starring Christopher Reeve as Superman. With Margot Kidder, Terrence Stamp, Susanna York, Gene Hackmann, Ned Beatty, Marc McClure, Jackie Cooper, and Sarah Douglas,

 

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*First Appearance of Superman.

 

 

Creator Credit:

Superman Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

 

 

Photo Credit:

1985 DC Comics, 1980 Warner Bros. Studios.

 

 

Disclaimer:

This blog is not authorized, endorsed, approved, prepared or affiliated with any persons involved in the creation or ownership of the Superman characters. This views and opinions expressed in this blog do not reflect those of DC Comics, DC Entertainment, Warner Bros. Studios, or AOL-Time-Warner, Inc.

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About jonathondsvendsen

Hi! Thanks for stopping by my blog! Somehow you stumbled upon it. Whatever brought you around, I'm glad you're here. I am a free-lance writer and independent scholar of pop-cultural mythology, living and working in Minnesota. An aspiring mythmaker, I dream of voyages through space, fantastic worlds, and even my own superhero or two. I am also an established public speaker and have guest-lectured for college classes on the topic of comic book superheroes. I graduated from Bethel University in 2007 with a degree in Literature and Creative writing. I also write for the website NarniaFans.com. Head on over and you can check out my book reviews , a few fun interviews and even my April Fools Day jokes.
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