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Superman Defined - Part VI

Updated: May 16


DC comics' 9-11: Artists Respond Volume 1, 2011 published as a tribute to the real superheroes.

"Superman comics are a fable, not of strength, but of disintegration. They appeal to the preadolescent mind not because they reiterate grandiose delusions, but because they reiterate a very deep cry for help."

– David Mamet

The notions of ‘truth and justice’ were questioned more than ever on September 11th, 2001 when the concept of heroes and heroism was stunningly redefined. No longer would home runs and goal scores be thrown around so loosely when defining what it actually means to be a hero – this was about true sacrifice where a real sense of purpose had to be outlined. A Fireman is a Hero…a Policeman, the everyday man working in the wreckage of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers. With the reality of the ‘ordinary hero’ – the most staple and often the most reluctant – the drama and subsequent conflict that had erupted from post 9/11 had demonstrated what would follow if a nation was threatened on home soil and what people were willing to do in their response. All of a sudden, the reality of who Superman was bore little relevance. Coincidently, in the Adventures of Superman #596, published on September 12th, 2011, the Lex Corps own Twin Towers are seen partially destroyed by an alien invasion - the issue's cover showcasing a black background to the iconic emblem and stating, 'This is Not a Job for Superman'. As the story was written several months previously, the images only fed into the surrounding conspiracy of 9/11. In their respects to the fallen, the big two publishers released their own anthologies to honour the real heroes of the disaster.

In certain positions, men and women put their lives on the line and bare witness to horrific events they must deal with each and every day without super-strength, X-ray vision, the ability to fly and above all else no invulnerability to bullets. These people form an imperative part of society and in truth reveal a far greater virtue than any fictitious hero. Superman is merely a superhero, yet, in the importance of reality and keeping our thoughts placed firmly on the ground, he is can only, to most, be a character who has captured the public’s imagination and become a strong and potent icon. But, despite his fictitious nature he has been there be to imprint on younger minds often as much as religious archetypes and in some instances become a replacement or metaphor for those same stories. It has often been the child in all of us whose imagination has been captured by such characters and helped us strive to do good, whether considered myth, legend, religion…or one in the same – a good story with a strong, central figure serves an even greater purpose.

There is no doubt that in a world without Superman, humanity would survive. In his own universe, The Death of Superman and subsequent World without Superman tales have reflected how those he has left behind have dealt with taking on the responsibilities and legacy he has left behind, until his eventual return or reboot. However, in our efforts to view beyond our own world as a source of inspiration, there is a prior need to motivate and inspire. Where some see him as a voice of reason and respect, others appose what he stands for due to his all-powerful nature. His patriotic background can also be perceived as something that does not always ring true to other nations and presents an argument in how truly universal he is as a character. Not only is he alienated by the mere definition of the word but also in what he represents to his country of origin – an archetype born out of a reaction and escape from harsh times, ‘Truth, Justice and the American Way’,…yet, to be reinvented when another depression chokes the world. In despondent times, where humanity is beginning to lose faith in what primarily keeps the world turning, the idea of a Superman – Man of Steel…a Man of Tomorrow, seems to be the most optimistic representation of what we should all aspire to be.

We are often defined by the choices we make in life and the dilemmas we may face. Superman seems impervious and invulnerable to most forces but he is still unable to be in two places at once, which often presents the challenge of who he should save when his enemies present such a difficult decision. Choices are simply another form of kryptonite that often result in dire consequences when he is either forced to choose saving the life of one closest to him over the lives of many. These choices are what defines the ‘man’ and results in a redundant use of the word ‘super’.

His vulnerability is what makes him more human than most – his heart often torn between his fears and responsibilities. From a psychological point of view, it is fear that can define most people as it teaches us the value of our own mortality and helps us to question our own belief system.

‘Far from being invulnerable, Superman is the most vulnerable of beings, because his childhood was destroyed. He can never reintegrate himself by returning to that home- it is gone. It is gone and he is living among aliens to whom he cannot even reveal his rightful name.’ David Mamet

Superman is about being the most virtuous man on Earth and more than ever, in today’s world, people need to know that good still exists out there. Any fear of rejection and a belonging in the world – the same fears that most of us may have – makes Kal-El all the more human and therefore not quite so perfect as one would first think. This is his trues weakness…and, in understanding this, is the key to telling an effective Superman story. Whether he exists or not, in fact or fiction, an archetypal figure as prominent in popular culture as Superman will go on to inspire for centuries to come. He is our legacy of the modern era in the same way all the great stories have left their mark throughout history and will go on to be embedded in a far grander mythology for centuries to come.

This post was first published as part of "75 Years of Superman" on May 11th 2013.


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