I love Superman. I legitimately think he’s about the best fictional character mankind has ever created. I respect what he stands for so much that, when a fellow member of the sketch comedy group I’m in pitched a bit where Superman would try over and over to commit suicide but couldn’t quite make it work, I protested the idea as offensive, a word I basically never use (but I still love you Steve).
Anecdote aside, though, there really is something that bothers me about many people’s perception of Superman: the idea that he’s not a good character because he’s “too strong,” and that therefore there’s no real tension or stakes in his stories. This is a pretty baseless assessment that I think results from people not really giving the character enough consideration.
Now, me, on the other hand – I’ve been considering Superman a lot this week. Not only does today mark his 75th anniversary of publication, but, seemingly unrelated, America’s kind of had a rough go of it the last few days. Times of crisis always make me think of the Man of Steel because, well, he’s an inspirational figure, at least to me (truthfully, I think he’s tied for my #1 spot with Bruce Springsteen, who I also thought about a lot this week).
The events of the past week have also made me think a bit about 9/11. Bringing that back to Superman, at the time of the 9/11 attacks, DC Comics decided to not really address the event head-on (unlike Marvel, who did so with disastrous results). And although I can’t really find an official statement as to why this is the case, it’s easy to make an educated guess: because in the world of the DC superheroes, the Justice League of America wouldn’t have let those attacks happen. Superman wouldn’t have let them happen.
But is that really the case?
Digressing for a moment: I was delighted to read new DC writer Charles Soule’s first issue on Swamp Thing a few weeks ago. In this issue, Swamp Thing has been tasked with eliminating wild plant growth all over the Earth because his elemental masters in the Green have decreed that growth an anomaly that cannot continue. The human side of Swamp Thing feels bad about this because, well, he’s taking food and other resources away from people who desperately need them. To cope with this dilemma, he travels to Metropolis to consult with Superman. His reasoning? Because Superman has to do stuff like that all the time.
I want to emphasize that bottom-right text especially. “From what I know, he’s constantly making impossible decisions. He can’t be everywhere – he has to let people die every single day.”
In two sentences, Charles Soule shows that he understands the Man of Steel better than even some people who are paid to write comics with the word “Superman” in the title.
This is why the idea that Superman is “too strong” treads no water. Here is, basically, the most powerful man on Earth. He can see through walls, he can feel minute changes in the pressure of the air around him, he can hear things that are happening half a world away – but he still can’t be more than one place at a time.
Think about what that would do to someone – especially someone who’s dedicated his life to always doing the right thing, always being a good guy. At any given time you know exactly where and how people around the globe are suffering, but you have to make a choice about whose suffering you’re going to abate.
Sounds like hell, doesn’t it? For Neil Gaiman (inspired by an idea from Alan Moore), this is literally the case. A script Gaiman wrote in the mid-1980s for Action Comics (but that later saw publication in 2000’s Green Lantern/Superman: Legend of the Green Flame) momentarily sends Superman to Hell, and this is the very thing that tortures him – he senses everybody’s pain, but he’s doomed to inaction.
For a more personal (but just as moving take) on this idea, let’s look at 2007’s Superman #659, written by Kurt Busiek with co-plots from Fabian Nicieza. In this issue, a religious Metropolis woman living in Suicide Slum becomes convinced that Superman is a literal guardian angel after she (verbally) prays for an intervention from God in a moment of crisis and is saved by our hero. The issue continues with her wandering into dangerous situations and praying for goodness to be done, and of course her prayers are always answered. Superman tries to set her straight and warn her that he won’t always be around, but she’s not having any of it. She feels invincible.
That is, until one gut-wrenching two-page sequence (masterfully interrupted by a turn) in which our heroine walks into a drug den, tells all the gangsters present that Superman will stop them, and is fired upon. At the end of the first page, a close-up panel of the firing gun is captioned from Superman’s perspective: “I heard the gunshot. I heard the crowd catch their breath.”
Then we turn the page and Superman, it turns out, is fighting a giant energy monster in Antarctica. Because he’s Superman. Because that was bound to happen eventually. But the captions let us know what he’s thinking. “I heard the thud as her body hit the warehouse floor. The bubbling gasps as her left lung filled with blood. And I heard her whispered, halting prayers.”
This is the crucial weakness of Superman perfectly written. It’s the idea that every second of every day, he has to choose who receives his attention – if anyone. He still has to make time for Clark, after all, and stories like Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come have gone to great lengths to show that Superman can’t do everything for us. But choosing where that line is drawn – choosing who gets saved and who doesn’t – that’s going to wear on a guy, especially a good guy.
And yet, somehow, overly earnest Five for Fighting songs aside, Superman is a pretty well-adjusted fella. He has to be. This is the reality of the world he lives in. How could he function if he hadn’t made peace with it already? But, on the flip side of that, what level of commitment does that kind of coping mechanism take? I think it is that tension, more than even the rays of our yellow sun, that powers the best Superman stories.
I think that, even though most of us can’t relate to having Superman-level powers, we can all take a little something from his example. Every day we have to choose who or what gets our attention and our energy and what just has to fall by the wayside. That is, in a lot of ways, the ultimate human struggle – at least for those of us who are fortunate enough to live in a place where our basic survival needs are more or less met. Superman represents this struggle in an exaggerated way, sure, but that’s what icons are for.
To therefore call Superman “too strong” and “uninteresting” because of the many things he can do is a huge mistake. Every one of us has different capacities and abilities, and those all come with their own limitations and challenges. If Superman seems unrealistic well, sure, in a lot of ways, he is – but so are most superhero characters. But to say that there’s nothing that can challenge him – well, you’re just not reading the right stories.