A Superman for All Seasons

13 May

Superman is the blueprint for the modern superhero. He’s arguably the single most important creation in the history of superhero comics. Superman is a hero that reflects the potential in all of us for greatness; a beacon of light in times that are grim and a glimmer of hope for the hopeless. He’s an archetype for us to project upon; whether you consider him a messiah or just a Big Blue Boy Scout, Superman’s impact on the genre and pop culture is undeniable. Rocketed to Earth from his dying planet of Krypton, Superman was raised in Smallville, Kansas with small town American ideals. Brought up by the loving Jonathan and Martha Kent, Kal-El was given the name Clark Kent and was taught to use his powers to better humanity. After adopting Metropolis as his home in his adult years, Clark would save the city – let alone the world – time and time again. Though he’d be joined by other members of his Super-family throughout the years, it would be the Man of Steel that would demand the attention of evil-doers, the respect of his peers, and the adoration of citizens across the globe. Superman stands as the single most iconic figure in comic books; his Kryptonian S-Shield recognizable as a universal symbol for truth and justice. Though Superman may have begun as a slice of Americana, he’s grown into a symbol that all of humanity can look up to. In his 80th anniversary year and with the recent publication of the 1000th issue of Action Comics, there is perhaps no better time to look at this character’s ‘super’ legacy.

It’s going the distance that elevates Superman from the run of flying caped super guys who followed him. How many other characters from disposable 1938 fictions have appeared consistently for 80 years and are still as famous as ever? Superman’s peers aren’t really Spider-Man or Wolverine, but Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan and James Bond – pop culture mainstays who stay current through consistent reinvention but are classically themselves all the same. Superman has taken a beating from time to time: his fight for ‘truth, justice and the American Way’ is nobler but less easy to relate to than Batman’s vengeance-driven war on crime (especially when we get antsy about what ‘the American Way’ actually means); his powers are so vast that it’s hard to come up with threats worth his time (so it’s incredible that for decades, his biggest problem was a pudgy bald guy with a laboratory); and his clean-cut, super-square looks and attitude are always being challenged by someone who momentarily seems more contemporary, edgy or pragmatic. That’s perhaps why the comics have often experimented with his essential ingredients, recasting him as a Commie (Red Son) or a Brit (True Brit) or creating twisted, dark reflections of the eternal do-gooder, like Bizarro, in endless permutations that attest to his popularity and instant recognisability. If it weren’t for Superman, there wouldn’t be an entire genre of superhero stories – every single tights-and-powers character who has come along after him is defined by how similar or how different they are from Kal-El.

Some may consider Superman quaint or outdated. There are certainly edgier and grimmer characters that have been created. But Superman has had one of the most profound impacts on popular culture of any fictional character and to this day he remains an icon.  One of the most intriguing aspects of Superman is that new stories have been told featuring the character continually since his creation. While many other franchises of the entertainment industry, such as James Bond or Star Trek, have had new chapters added across a long period, there are often years in between the new stories being produced. Superman comics have been published continually since 1938, with a new story, or even four or five new stories, appearing on a more-or-less monthly schedule. This long-running narrative allow for a fascinating look at the evolution of Superman. While Superman from World War Two era comic books is easily identified as the same character as the Superman of Cold War era comics, there are clear and obvious distinctions when they are looked at closely. By exploring how this popular culture icon has changed through the years we can track how our entertainment mirrors the changes in society. Superman began as a crusading social avenger at the end of the Great Depression, became a patriotic hero during World War Two, saw his powers increase in the early years of the Cold War, entered a period of flux during the Vietnam War, was killed and returned at the end of the Cold War, and has looked for a place in the superhero world since the turn of the millennium. Superman is currently experiencing another reimagining on the silver screen – the latest of many – how this will reflect the society of now, only time will tell.

One Response to “A Superman for All Seasons”

  1. Calmgrove May 13, 2018 at 6:29 pm #

    I preferred Batman as a comic book hero to Superman, but Superman fascinated me as a kid and now, as an adult, I have more than an inkling why: he was the born outsider.

    Batman had his dark side, created from the tragedy of witnessing the murder of his parents. Kal-El, another orphan, never had the certainty that comes from growing up with your birth parents.

    Not only that but he was different, and not only because he was like those kids who fantasise they’ve been adopted because they sense a separateness from their family — he really was non-human. His creators were both Jewish and so knew what it was like to be different and occasionally rejected by other men for their perceived alien qualities. (‘Alien’ of course merely means ‘from a different place’.)

    I think many kids who feel different from their fellow humans — whether through ethnicity, being gender fluid, from a disability or being on the autistic spectrum, say — will also feel a sense of isolation while simultaneously wanted to be loved, valued, respected by those who might reject, undervalue or disrespect them. And there lies major causes of conflict, crisis points where any sense of alienation might push them to do things that can lead to disaster.

    That certainly was the case for me with Superman when, in the early days when he mostly battled villains, I would come across the occasional plot line where his sense of self-identity was put to the test. That’s when the true Superman was allowed to show his colours.

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