This week on Silverwolf’s Den I’m taking a break from reviewing comics to talk about one of my all-time favorite superheroes and perhaps the most famous superhero of all time: Superman. Now, as I’m sure most of you know Superman is the most well-known superhero worldwide; even people who have never read a comic have at least a vague idea of his appearance and powers. The general sentiment towards Superman, however, is lukewarm; Superman is usually viewed as a boring character because he is “overpowered” and “too perfect.” So, today, I decided to use this space to talk about why Superman is one of the best superheroes ever from a purely narrative standpoint.
Superman has been a star since his premier in Action Comics #1 back in 1938. Since then, his general appearance, motives, backstory, etc. have been altered and revamped dozens of times by scores of different artists, writers, and even movie directors. Ultimately, however, Superman’s core persona has remained the same: he has essentially every superpower in existence and is dedicated to a strict moral code that involves saving the innocent and refraining from killing even the most heinous of foes.
One problem I see is that writing a Superman story is hard. In fact, I’d go as far as to say he’s the hardest hero to write stories about. How can you make things interesting with a man who is seemingly invincible and unstoppable? Lots of writers fall into the cliche “kryptonite trap” as I call it, where they find some way to inject kryptonite into the story to make even “Generic McEvilman” able to fight off the Man of Steel. There are, however, some clever writers who have taken other roads. Grant Morrison in the newest run of Action Comics, for instance, has depowered the Man of Steel considerably, attributing this weaker state to his youth. In this case, Superman can still feel pain and be knocked out and slowed down by the likes of trains, electric shocks, etc. While Morrison does use kryptonite, he shapes the substance in an interesting way so that it is not exactly what defeats Superman; rather it just seeks to make an enemy who already had an advantage over him even stronger.
Aside from kryptonite, Superman is also weak against magic. I think this idea, which came after the Silver Age of Superman mythos, is an excellent idea as it opens a plethora of new tough foes for Kal-El. What happens when he battles the likes of Circe or the Lords of Chaos? If he goes rogue, will it be Zatanna who brings him down? Really anything is possible with this idea, as characters with no superpowers but access to magical artifacts can go toe-to-toe with Superman. I must admit that I’ve yet to read a Superman story where magic defeats him (aside from the brief battle with Enchatress in Justice League Dark #1), but it’d be an interesting idea to explore in the future.
Intelligent foes are also a great response to Superman. The likes of Lex Luthor and Brainiac often devise traps or tricks to beat Kal-El using superior intelligence. I’ve never seen Brainiac use kryptonite, as usually his armies of robotic minions and alien technology are enough to keep the Man of Steel at bay. These two foes also often execute psychological warfare against Superman: in one issue, Brainiac threatens all of Metropolis with his metallic minions and, while Superman fights to defeat his army and save a captured Supergirl, a missile flies towards Smallville and kills Pa Kent. Though Brainiac is defeated, Superman leaves the battle with irreparable emotional scars. Lex Luthor is a great villain because he’s just a normal man with a great deal of knowledge, cunning, and capital; he often manipulates the odds in his favor in order to defeat Superman. Luthor is also interesting because he believes he is saving the future of the human race by fighting Superman, feeling that the kyrptonian, as an alien, will ultimately cause the human race to stagnate by saving them from disaster after disaster. In my eyes, Luthor is probably the most interesting villain in all of comics and is the perfect counterpoint for Superman.
In a similar vein, exploring Superman’s psyche is an excellent gateway to evolving the Man of Steel. Both Geoff Johns and Mark Millar have done so exquisitely. What should Superman do about a truly evil foe who kills mercilessly? Is it enough to imprison this enemy or should he be put to death? How should Superman respond to heroes who use brutal methods, such as when Green Arrow killed Prometheus? How does Superman respond to the death of a close friend or loved one, such as Batman or, as mentioned earlier, Pa Kent? These are the kinds of questions great writers will examine as they craft stories about Superman. Keeping the Man of Steel interesting involves thinking about him in a novel way.
The most famous arc about Superman is, almost unquestionably, The Death and Return of Superman. During the early 90s, as comic sales languished, DC decided to kill off Superman after a fight with an insanely powerful alien killing machine known as Doomsday. This battle struck a chord across the comic world and beyond. What made the story so interesting was that it dealt with a world without Superman and how the balance of power shifted after his disappearance. Ultimately, Superman was revived, but the weight of the arc still resonates to this day as one of the most powerful killings in comic history. Recently, an awesome (and humorous) fan film was released detailing this arc; you should check it out below!
Before The Death and Return of Superman, however, Alan More and Curt Swan worked together on a two issue project entitled Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?. The series explored the “last” Superman story, detailing a battle against all of his most notorious villains and ultimately ending with the “end” of Superman (you’ll have to read for yourself to see how it turns out; the story is just too great to spoil). This story also asked questions about what lengths Superman would be willing to go to in order to preserve justice and, even beyond that, survive and protect those he loves. This tale also explores a world decades after Superman’s final battle, and shows a glimpse of what a world could be without its greatest hero.
By this point, some of you may be bored with my long ramblings about my favorite boy in blue, so now I’m going to talk about how Supes relates to his most popular counterpart: Batman. For those that don’t know, Batman is MUCH more popular than Superman: he currently stars in not one, not two, but four ongoing DC Comics series with a fifth, Batman, Inc., starting again this Spring. Meanwhile, Batman appears in loads of other media, from crossovers with comics like I, Vampire to video games like the acclaimed Arkham City to movies like The Dark Knight. In contrast, Superman has only two series he stars in (Action Comics and Superman), has never appeared in a halfway decent game (Superman 64, anyone?), and hasn’t appeared in a good movie for over twenty years. I am confident Zach Snyder will do Supes justice in the upcoming Man of Steel film, but as of now that’s all pure speculation. In my opinion, many of these problems arise from the story-telling issues I discussed earlier. Additionally, there are more “Bat-family” than “Super-family” series: Batwoman, Batgirl, and Nightwing on one side, Supergirl and Superboy on the other. There are, however, other reasons I feel people find Batman more enticing.
Say what you will but Batman is at least somewhat realistic and I think that gives him a lot of appeal. No matter how hard a child tries, he will never grow up to fly through the clouds without the aid of a machine nor will he gain the strength to lift entire cities. One could argue, however, that one could become Batman: it’s not impossible to rigorously train your body, hone detecting skills, and have fortune enough to buy expensive gadgets to help fight off criminals. Is it likely someone could ever be as skilled as Batman? Definitely not. But, at the very least, Batman’s existence seems plausible, a fact which I think gives the Dark Knight movie series a broader appeal since it isn’t at all cartoony and lacks fantastical elements normally associated with the superhero genre.
Batman also appeals to people because of his grittier nature. While both Bruce and Clark lost their parents, the former, having witnessed it first hand, lives with the guilt much more heavily. As a result, Batman is filled with a hatred of crime versus Superman’s love of justice. The difference, I feel, is that Batman would go to almost any length to accomplish his ends and refuses to give criminals the benefit of the doubt; Superman, in contrast, sees the world as a happier place than it is and has given thousands of chances to his longtime foes. I also think people see Superman as naive, while Batman is realistic; generally, optimistic characters are less compelling, and for that reason Batman gains much more ground in the world.
There is also a greater range of foes to give Batman. As I said before, writing strong villains for Superman is difficult as he could defeat the likes of The Joker with one punch. Batman, however, has nearly limitless potential who he can fight with interesting results. The Caped Crusader combats everyone from the powerless Scarecrow and Catwoman, to the genetically enhanced likes of Bane and Killer Croc, to the superpowered Clayface. Batman can face all manner of foes because his fighting style is mostly reliant on tactics: while Supes can win a punching match with Mongul, Batman would never try to engage Bane head on in fisticuffs. This fact results in Batman using strategy to fight, making his battles more interesting. This, however, is not to say you cannot write a fight where Superman uses tactics just that it’s rarer to see such conflict (though personally I’d love to see more).
One thing I’ve skipped over, as some of you may have noticed, is the wildly popular Smallville television series. I have to admit I’ve never watched the show, but I’ve always heard good things about it. Why did it succeed? Well, that’s hard for me to say given by limited knowledge, but from what I’ve heard it’s the result of clever writing and great acting. Seems that watching through all ten seasons should be put on my “To Do” list…
Ultimately, I love Superman and hope, after reading this article, that you can think differently about the Man of Steel. Is he overpowered? That depends on how you write him. Is he boring? That depends on the situations you place him in. Is he uncool? No way! I don’t think perception of Superman will change overnight, but there’s never been a better time for his exploits. The New 52 has introduced us to a truly deep and varied Superman thanks to both Morrison and Perez in their respective series. I’m glad Supes is receiving the treatment he deserves, and I’m hoping that his new film next year makes people look at Kal-El in a new light.
Brett Simon is a twenty-two year old comic enthusiast. He’s hoping for another Batman/Superman crossover comic in the near future!
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