Before I start this, let me say that I have enormous affection for the DC superheroes, especially the Silver Age characters who were so much a part of my own childhood experience. There are still an ample number of DC books in my pull list at my local comics shop — Million Year Picnic at Harvard Square.
But of all of those classic characters, I have always had the least affection for Superman. (Frankly, for all of the bashing the poor guy gets, I have more good things to say about Aquaman as a protagonist than about Superman).
The reality is that Superman is and remains more of an archetype than a fictional character — too powerful to be really interesting, too bland to be emotionally engaging, and too good to be dramatically compelling. Superman works best for me as a character when he is playing against someone else. Superman standing alone is like a straight man without a comedian, like vanilla ice cream without any topping.
Some writers manage to hit just the right note in the Lois Lane/Superman/Clark Kent relationship so that Lois represents a splash of vinegar tartness that plays well against Clark Kent’s wide-eyed naivety (there’s some great exchanges between the two in Warren Ellis’s recent run on the Justice League that illustrate what I mean); Superman plays well against Wonder Woman especially if they tap the sexual tension between the two (see Greg Rucka’s last issue on Wonder Woman, which works through the relationship between the two mighty heroes).
Superman plays well against Batman, setting up contrasting world views: the two keep each other honest, disagreeing about everything, yet ending up more or less in the same place at the end. In small doses, Superman pairs nicely with the Martian Manhunter or the Flash or the Green Lantern or Green Arrow. God help me, he even works in really small doses next to the anarchic comedy of Plastic Man.
I have enjoyed some recent books which explore him as an Icon (see what Alex Ross did with the character in Superman: Peace on Earth) or which turn the story upside down (see Red Son where Superman lands in Russia and ends up working for Stalin or Superman’s Metropolis which melds together the myth of Superman’s origins with Fritz Lang’s German Expressionist classic). I can enjoy scenes where Superman’s role as the ultimate establishment figure gets taken down a few notches — see the treatment of the character in Darwyn Cooke’s spectacular, DC: The New Frontier, where Wonder Woman and Superman debate the ethics and politics of the Vietnam War, or what Frank Miller did with an aging Superman (who looks more than a little like Ronald Reagan) in the original Dark Knight Returns series.
Perhaps the most interesting recent book to really systematically deal with the Superman character was Steven T. Seagle’s It’s a Bird, which really deals with the ambivalent felt by a long-time comics writer who gets assigned to do a script for the flagship superhero and doesn’t know what to do with him. Superman is after all the top assignment — even though he doesn’t make the most money and isn’t the most popular character with fans — not by a long shot. The protagonist is struggling with a range of personal issues, mostly surrounding a family history of Huntington’s disease, which distract him from but draw him back to engaging with the “problem” posed by the Superman character. He works through many key aspects of the character, providing both a historical context and a mythological analysis of the figure’s place in contemporary culture. But in the end, he is no more able to articulate why we should care about this character than when it all started.
One can see why Superman exerts an inevitable influence across the history of superhero comics — the place where all the parts came together for the first time and jelled in the public’s imagination, the seed from which richer and more diverse characters could spring. Gerard Jones does a good job tracing the historical roots and impact of this figure in Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and The Birth of the Comic Book.
At the end of the day, though, he feels like a museum piece. I have been working hard to try to get excited about the new Superman movie. Honestly, I have. I have gone back and reread some classic Superman stories. I watched the first two Christopher Reeve films again on DVD. But I came out of the theatre and instead of feeling exhilarated, I shrugged. The film wasn’t as bad as I feared or as good as I had hoped.
Part of the problem, I think, is that the filmmakers had to deal with two layers of iconicity: first, there is the character of Superman and then, there is the aura of Christopher Reeve, who has emerged over the past several decades as the closest thing imaginable to a secular saint in our culture. So, if you can’t touch Superman and you can’t touch Reeve’s performance, then you are more or less painted into a corner — all you can become is, to borrow a phrase from Pulp Fiction, “a wax museum with a pulse.”
So, let me point you towards two links that I enjoy precisely because they don’t treat Superman as sacred and instead, have fun at the character’s expense.
The first is a now classic essay by science fiction writer Larry Niven — “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex” which explains once and for all, why Superman could not and should not make love with Lois Lane. This is not appropriate reading for small children, the politically correct, the faint of heart, or anyone else easily subject to irritation. As he explains:
Superman has been known to leave his fingerprints in steel and in hardened concrete, accidentally. What would he do to the woman in his arms during what amounts to an epileptic fit?
Consider the driving urge between a man and a woman, the monomaniacal urge to achieve greater and greater penetration. Remember also that we are dealing with kryptonian muscles.
Superman would literally crush LL’s body in his arms, while simultaneously ripping her open from crotch to sternum, gutting her like a trout.
Lastly, he’d blow off the top of her head.
(Garth Ennis plays around with precisely these images in The Pro in a moment which has to be seen to be believed.)
Thankfully, the filmmakers anticipated this issue and has the Man of Steel shed his super-powers long enough to bed Lois in Superman II and thus pave the way for the events of the current film.
The other link is to a webpage that reproduces a number of those classic Silver Age comic book covers where Superman looks like he is about to do something really nasty to one or another of his good friends. Anyone who read those books knows that the covers were usually deceiving and there was a perfectly rational explanation (like time travel or mind control or a especially virulent form of kryptonite) to account his uncharacteristic behavior. But, as this site suggests, if someone did a fraction of the things that Superman did on those covers (even for good reasons), you just might not want to be his friend anymore.