Why The Man of Steel is Still Super
Superman is 70 this month. He doesn't look a day older than when I met him, but I guess that's why they call him Superman.
Why has he lasted so long? Why is he still relevant to a modern audience, decades after teenagers Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster first imagined the Samson from outer space in the 1930s?
It's not because he was the first superhero, although a lot of people falsely credit him that honour. Popeye had super strength and invulnerability, Tarzan talked to animals, the Shadow turned invisible, and Philip Wylie's pulp hero in his 1930 book Gladiator (see sidebar) could leap over a barn, stop bullets with his skin, and lift a car over his head, all long before Superman showed up.
As for the costume? The Phantom wore the tights-and-trunks years before Action Comics No. 1 hit the stands in April 1938, as did Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers every Sunday in colour. The Shadow even wore a cape. So why has Superman left them all behind in history? Why did he age so well when they didn't?
What sets Superman apart from all those who came before and after him, is that he is the personification of the most deeply rooted human belief there is: that there are gods in this world, and if we pray to them, they might help. The wonder of Superman is, that when we ask for HIS help in fighting something so big or dangerous that we poor humans can only fail, he shows up and helps. Instantly. On time. And everybody lives at the end of the story. He is god in a cape. The living answer to our prayers.
The trappings are all there: As a baby, he is sent to us by a father who lives in the sky. His spaceship/basket lands in the reeds of a Kansas cornfield, to be found by a barren woman and her husband who adopt him and create a virgin family. He learns to Americanize his birth name (Kal-El becomes Clark Kent) and "pass" for a member of the dominant culture, hiding his true identity and language. This God-as-American-immigrant spends the next few decades performing miracles, saving lives, and telling people to do good for each other. Much later, he dies saving the world from a monstrous evil named Doomsday, and a year later, is resurrected to live among us again. It's something I'm sure two Jewish kids living in Cleveland (one of them, artist Shuster, being a former Torontonian) didn't see coming when they cobbled Superman together from early science-fiction sources and Depression-era power fantasies, but they invented the American Jesus.
Throughout history, the supernatural creatures and gods of this world have been created and re-created in our image, and Superman is no exception. It's the other secret of his staying power: his adaptability. In every era, he's fought against whatever gives anxiety to that generation. And as he moves through history, he takes on the manners and attitudes of his fellow citizens and continues to be the modern American man. In the '30s, he was a Depression-era brute, but a champion of the downtrodden masses who'd been handed a bad deal by the privileged classes and the world in general. His first stories were about corrupt senators and unsafe coal mines and wife-beating husbands. He was a Superman for the little guy.
In the '40s, he took on a world war. Famously, in a 1943 issue of Look magazine, Superman abducts Stalin and Hitler and makes them take responsibility for the suffering they've caused. Throughout the '50s and '60s, Superman fought against technology and the sense of future shock Alvin Toffler said we were all feeling. Lex Luthor becomes a brilliant but evil scientist with no sense of morality, the ultimate villain for the space age.
On television, Superman was a father figure, benign and wise for an era that still respected dad. In the '70s, the time of the Me Decade and the sexual revolution, Superman focused more on the Man, and less on the Super. Christopher Reeve made Superman a romantic hero. The father figure became a sex symbol for the Studio 54 set.
In the '90s, Superman became the supporting character to the new era of empowered women, in Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. In the comics he got MARRIED, returning the father figure of a bygone era! And now, in the 20th century, in the age of 24-hour infotainment-Web-media, Superman remains king of all media. What other character has his broad appeal across so many different formats? You want hit records? Five for Fighting's "Superman (It's not Easy)" became the anthem for 9/11 rescue workers. Eminem, 3 Doors Down, The Flaming Lips and Our Lady Peace have all had Superman hits in the last decade. And movies? Bryan Singer's Superman Returns grossed a mere $400 million (U.S.) worldwide, which disappointed the executives at Warner Bros., only because they'd spent $200 million making the movie, the largest budget in film history. What about TV? He's in the eighth season of his prime-time series, Smallville.
All is not completely rosy in Metropolis. Superman is famously considered one of the worst video game characters around. And though the Last Son of Krypton stars in at least five different titles selling in the comics market's top 50, he still has nothing in the top 10. It's been years since Superman was a sales monster in the funnybook biz, like Wolverine or Spidey. In the comics shops Superman is sometimes considered too old school, like an aging relative who isn't as in touch as he should be, and when he's handled poorly, he comes off as a little dull.
All of which might be true. But in the hands of brilliant creators, Superman recently won the 2007 Eisner Award (the comic industry's version of an Oscar) for Best Continuing Comic Series, duly recognizing the excellent work of current All-Star Superman creators, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. Morrison and Quitely have been telling an EPIC Superman story, full of grandeur and godlike behaviour, with every page sparkling with inventive plotting and gorgeous art. Give them a couple more issues and they'll take my man Supes back to the top.
He's got a zillion fansites and e-zines and webrings on the net. And whatever the limitations of a character this powerful in a video game, he's still starred in more than 20 different titles for a half-dozen gaming systems. Someone's enjoying him in computer form.
Finally, for the record, he's still one of the top-selling pyjamas, and the No. 1 comic book-related tattoo in the world. After 70 years, this American God, Superman, is here to stay. He's so basic, everyone "gets" him. He's a part of all our childhoods and will be part of our kid's futures. Happy Birthday Kal-El. Stick around for a while, at least while we still need you