In defence of Superman

A depiction from the graphic novel Kingdom Come

A friend of mine said that Superman was boring. That he was, as a character, lifeless. Batman was more interesting, more flawed, more real. Even Spiderman was a better character. Superman was just…meh.

I probably should have bitchslapped him. But part of me was a little too overwhelmed to come up with a reply.

Taste, even in superheroes, is really subjective. Most of my friends are Marvel die-hards. But it never mattered to me what imprint was on my comic so long as I loved reading it. And I loved Superman.

While Batman was a millionaire playboy cum secret vigilante, unlike Batman’s Bruce Wayne, Superman’s ‘other’ identity as Clark Kent was no mere facade. This was a being like an angel out of the Scriptures, literally falling from the heavens, invulnerable and able to fly. But considering the average human being is easily swayed by the trappings of money and power, Superman was happy enough to have a steady job and the company of his loved ones.

His upbringing brings up the question of nature versus nurture: he could have chosen to reject humanity as a “lesser race”. Yet being raised by humble, decent folk, Clark Kent grew up a humble, decent man.

Superman, for me, personifies all those people who live for bigger things and bigger causes. Who sacrificed much to do good and make the world better in some small or big way. He lived to serve as do so many people today and for me that lack of selfishness, the compelling urge to just “help somebody” – that’s a superpower in itself.

This superhero didn’t need to learn the hard way, as Spiderman did, that great power comes with great responsibility. All Superman needed was a good heart. And that, I think, is a story worth telling too.

The following panel from the graphic novel Kingdom Come encapsulates everything I love about Superman.

“Of all the things you can do…all your powers…the greatest has always been your instinctive knowledge of right…and wrong. It was a gift of your own humanity. You never had to question your choices. In any situation…any crisis…you knew what to do.”

2 thoughts on “In defence of Superman

  1. Horngyih

    To me the gist is more that –
    “The minute you made the “Super” more important than the “Man”, the day you decided to turn your back on Mankind that completely cost you your instinct. That took your Judgement away. 🙂

  2. ian

    “In any situation.. any crisis.. you knew what to do”. Therein lies the reason why Superman is ‘boring’ character-wise. He never makes the wrong choice. In my opinion what makes a story interesting is how the characters struggle with making the right decisions in the course of the tale. However the big blue boy scout always seem to ‘do the right thing’.. most of the time.

    Superman’s virtually unlimited powers actually limits the scope of his character and storylines. There is actually no problem too big (on Earth) that he cannot solve with his super strength, power of flight, heat vision, supercold breath, supersight, super hearing, and super what-have-you. Here we have lost another element of exciting story telling. Many exciting stories focus on the protagonist struggling against an opponent or obstacle seemingly bigger than him. (Hope you don’t mind me borrowing LOTR as an example of this.) But for Supes he can solve any problem before dinner time.

    Here you have a character who is virtually omnipotent and who seldom makes the wrong decision. Where’s the thrill in that? He may be a character who appeals to kids but no longer when they grow up and realise that the world is not black and white.

    The very look of Superman is becoming a parody of the superhero concept. What’s with the cape? Why is his costume is bright red and blue like the colours used to paint kindergartens. Why is he wearing his bright red underwear outside? Superman’s look shouts at us, like the ideals he stand for.

    Superman stands for an ideal or rather our ideals of what is right and good and true. He stands for many concepts that we cherish, and he will never ever surrender those ideals. For that Superman is an IMPORTANT icon and I would say more important than the rest of the other comic book characters put together because he shows us what humanity should be.

    Superman is an icon. Like the American flag. Can we deny that he is the personification of USA.. The image of Superman juxtaposed with the American flag is has become iconic. (Google the image of American Flag Superman. Compare that with American Flag Batman or even Captain America). Since the beginning of his creation as a character Supes was fighting for ‘Truth, Justice and the American way’. America identifies itself as Superman among the nations of this planet. Strong, powerful and invulnerable to direct physical confrontation with any other ordinary country; dispensing its own views of right and wrong to everyone whether they asked for it or not. Despite the irony that a being who is not even from planet Earth has come to represent America (But then again America has always been a nation of immigrants.), Superman actually looks more ‘American’ (read ‘white’) than Barrack Obama or Kristin Yamaguchi. Because of this identification with their nation, American comic book writers dare not take risks of making Superman i.e. America make the ‘wrong’ choice or make the right choice but suffer the consequences.

    You don’t desecrate cherished iconic symbols like a flag and a superman by making it deviate from what it has been and alwasy will be. But from a storytelling point of view this makes Superman a pretty limited character; until the day comic book writers dare to take apart and maybe even destroy the symbolism that he stands for. Exciting and interesting though that may be, but what will become of our ideals then.

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