So, about halfway through the day yesterday the internet decided it was "Superman Day". I have no idea what for or why. Something to do with DC cashing in on the release of Man of Steel a few years back. Why this isn't a Saturday so stores can promote Superman and bring in kids and stuff, I can't imagine.
Get your act together, all of comics.
Whatever the reason, we'd feel remiss if we didn't raise a glass to our favorite fictional undocumented alien, the man of tomorrow, the ace of action, Big Blue himself: Superman.
Every once in a while over the years I've attempted to explain the appeal of Superman, but that's never gone over particularly well. Explaining why you like a fictional character feels like weird and dorky gushing, especially when discussing one who has seen hundreds of writers, dozens of interpretations, and who has been on the outs in popularity for more than thirty years.
Still, I'm a fan. I don't think this is a secret.
Maybe in this era of cultural division and splintering, featuring a low, dull tension that seems to be hang over us at all times, where we aren't sure what to believe in the news or from our elected leaders (or from other people who'd sure like to be a leader)... We know we're getting fleeced and we know there's plenty to come right back swinging if you push back... Maybe standing in relief against that backdrop, a guy who tells the truth, stands up for those who can't stand up for themselves, who can shrug off bullets and shackles of the injust but powerful as he moves through the world righting wrongs and helping the helpless... Maybe in this world a Superman who can pull open his shirt and appears in a blaze of primary colored action makes a lot more sense.
I'll always go back to the original mythology of Superman - “Doomed planet. Desperate scientists. Last hope. Kindly couple.” Or so said Morrison. The simplicity of those statements should be what every telling of an origin story around any character should strive for. When Superman comics, TV and movies try to explode out the myth adding their own embellishments or reasons or whatever, sooner or later those new takes fade and someone else comes along and we return to the simple story of a planet on the verge of destruction, a baby placed into a rocket by loving parents breaking the foolish rules which doomed them, sending their beloved child into the stars for safekeeping, and the universe providing for, and, in turn, receiving Superman.
More than that, I'll always love that from that first issue, it was Lois all along, her fire and grit what got to him.
Of course Superman is fictional (I have to remind myself of this daily, but...). He can do anything you can describe in a sentence or draw on a page. But, for a long time when I got into comics, it was the post Dark Knight Returns era where writers wanted that good, bone-crunching form of justice backed up by thought boxes full of certainty about the rightness of one's actions against the lack of will and rightness of others. As they were asked to put words and actions around the Man of Steel, writers grappled with what to do with someone who doesn't go around reminding everyone to stay in line by kicking them or throwing ninja-blades into their arms.
Former writers were not all over the internet when I was taking my deep dives into Superman, they weren't weighing in other than discussing what a joy it had been to work on the character as they would eventually (see Elliot S! Maggin), and as each new writer came on Superman and did the comic blog media rounds of the day, you could tell the subtext was "I am doing this because it's an assignment, but I am struggling, man."
It turns out, we're all flawed people. We may have moral, philosophical and religious principles we adhere to, but we're also flesh and bone. Being "good" can be a path to a reward when we shuffle off this mortal coil (look, my vision of the afterlife is mostly based on WB cartoons and I fully expect to be going up a long escalator behind Sylvester the Cat and a bulldog in choir robes telling us what's next. Ie: I will be sorely disappointed if this is not what actually occurs.). Being "good" and helping others selflessly is hard to even imagine when we put ourselves in the shoes of a man who fears almost nothing from those who would harm him or stop him from taking action via conventional means. It's not a mystery why so many writers wonder "what is Superman went bad?" and so many people get excited about the notion. It's us. We can't imagine given the power, what we'd do with it that wouldn't corrupt.
It's Lex Luthor.
But that's not what Superman is. Since Rebirth we've been luck to have Superman back in the stewardship of creatives who get the history of the character, get the underpinnings of who Superman is supposed to be as a person - not as a one man army, nor a scared, lost alien. He may be a reflection of his alien heritage, but he has the same wiring as you or I, just with the guilt of a place he couldn't save and parents who perished and adoptive parents who understood what he might become and instilled in him the best of what's human.
Finding that within ourselves as readers or those who watch his films or cartoons is hard enough. We can make fun of Superman for being a square, not living "realistically" with his powers (like that means anything in comic book land), for being too powerful (but never quite powerful enough), for the red trunks on the outside of the long underwear. But it's my hope that no matter what lens they put over that character to change him for a while, that he'll return to what we know. As a reader, it's a leap of faith to read about such a character - and, yeah, you'll do it with some childlike wonder. But as you get older, you'll also realize how much the idea of a Superman is really needed.
As a creator - there are those who've been in so many fields wanting to bring a take on Superman to the page, the screen, what-have-you... and in our tired old world, it seems getting them to accept that something outside the LCD audience polls and focus grouped versions of characters might actually work - that's the never ending battle.
For me, personally...? I have so many bad instincts. Like everyone, I'm my own worst enemy. And I know it sounds like the ramblings of a lunatic, but when at a cross-roads or faced with a question, I can't tell you how many times I've relied upon the exercise of asking myself "so, if I were writing Superman facing this, what would I have him do?" Maybe not in so many words, and not out loud (we're not there yet. Give me time.). But after all these years, I still think about the morality of what one does who has the option to do as he pleases and still does the right thing. Who lives to help people.
It's no secret I'm a less than ideal person - clearly I fail at this on the regular, but you gotta have something of a moral compass that's not just an abstraction for what happens when the aforementioned Bulldog is deciding which button to push.
Anyway - I haven't even touched on Lois, Jimmy, Perry, the Daily Planet, super dogs and cats and Fortresses of Solitude. A host of villains and friends and supporting characters. Maybe later.
But for now... let's all imagine what a world it would be if, in a moment of crisis, you saw that red and blue streak hurtling across the sky and you knew it was going to be okay? When folks need us, let's be that streak for someone.