“So many of our dreams seem impossible, they seem improbable, and then, when we summon the will they soon become inevitable.”Christopher Reeve
Superman is a beacon of hope.
Much like Superman’s alter ego, Clark Kent, the best parts about him often go overlooked. To many people, he is a one dimensional goody two-shoes. An unrelatable character. In the almost 80 years that he has existed, we have seen cartoons and movie adaptions, comics and novels alike. After all this time, he is still one of the biggest superheros there is. If Superman is so boring, then why is he still around? Surely the charm would have warn off after at least 10, 20, even 50 years. Indeed Superman was the original superhero, how could we forget about him? He’s a novelty, a nostalgic American icon. But beyond that, when heroes like The Spirit and The Phantom become ancient and archaic comic book characters of yesteryear, Superman retains the qualities of hope and wonder that other characters before him lacked, and many since have tried to replicate with varying success. Superman has resonated within our minds because he is the embodiment of hope.
The reason Superman is known as “The Man of Tomorrow,” among many other noble titles, is because of this hope that is found within him. It’s a quality that is so obviously missing from the more recent adaptations of the character in film. It’s a tenent that people don’t recognize within him anymore. He has become a mopey hero with some shoehorned inspiration and a CGI mouth; or a marketing tool in order to sell backpacks and lunch boxes. Yet people still see the movies and buy the merchandise after all these years. Why? Because at some point in someones life, they will look at this hero, this personification of truth, justice, and the American way, and it will stick with them for enough of a moment to inspire them to do better; to hope for a better world. So Superman lives on. Whether you have had this experience with the character or not, maybe you just prefer Batman, Superman is still a character one can learn from and relate to, because of the symbol on his chest and what it means. Superman embodies a godlike principle of hope because he believes in people, inspires them to be better, and helps others look forward to a better tomorrow.
A Very Brief History
If you don’t know who Superman is, here’s the briefest of summaries found on the very first page of All Star Superman by Grant Morrison: “Doomed planet, desperate scientists, last hope, kindly couple.” (emphasis added). If you need more context than that, Kal-el was born on the planet Krypton; the planet was about to be destroyed when his scientist parents sent him to Earth where he crash-landed as a baby and was raised by a couple in Smallville, Kansas. Superman originally appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1938, created by Jerry Siegal and Joe Shuster. Much has been added to the endearing character in terms of powers and backstory, but suffice to say, Superman is one of the most popular and recognizable characters of all time.
Belief In People
The world always seems to be in a constant frenzy of people contending with one another. Paranoia and distrust permeate the population leading to an abundance of fear, which gives birth to hatred. Many believe the world will never recover. They lose faith in their country, in their community, and in the people around them. What can a “Sun God from Smallville” teach us about culminating a sense of hope and belief in other people? From the plethora of comics, movies, and tv shows about Superman, one thing is abundantly clear: Kal-El believes in the human race often times more than we believe in ourselves. It was instilled in him from a young age that people are fundamentally good, and nobody cannot be saved from evil. Superman Earth One, written by J. Michael Straczynski, is a take on Superman if he existed in a world more like our own. The problems he faces in this setting aren’t just aliens and a giant man-eating parasite monster, but the social and political problems that plague humanity. He can’t just do anything because of how the world will perceive him. He can’t just fly into other countries and take out evil world leaders. He aims to affect the world through change. Earth is where he was raised, and he wants to remain in good standing with it’s citizens. Across the volumes of Superman Earth One, Superman demonstrates his belief in humanity when he says:
“. . .I was raised in this country. I believe in this country. Does it have its flaws? Yes. Does it have its moments of greatness? Yes. . .it just [takes] one person who care[s] enough to take a chance–one person to step up when no one else would. . .There’s someone out there willing to rush into the fire where no one else will go–making a choice that would one day change the world in ways he could never, ever imagine; because that’s not why he did it in the first place. He did it because he knew it was the right thing to do. . . .if the word ‘super’ is to be applied to anyone, it should be applied to all of you, to all mankind. Against that power, against that truth…I’m just a man.”
One cannot help but read these words and feel “super.” Wanting to be better, wanting to be the person to make a difference in the lives of others, and to do it for nothing more than knowing it’s the right thing to do. Is this hope? Yes.
Superman, like Spider-Man, knows that when you have great power, it is your duty to use it to the best of your abilities in order to help others. If somebody falls onto a railway and there is a train coming and Superman willingly does nothing, that death is ultimately on him. He uses his powers constantly to help people. Even as Clark Kent, his bumbling reporter alter ego, he changes the world through the written word and lives the standards of Superman on the ground level. One of the great things about Superman is that the whole world can be collapsing around him, he could be fighting Darkseid or Mongol or even General Zod, but he still always has time for somebody. Be it a child wanting an autograph, an old lady about to be hit by a car, or a man falling from a great height; Superman will juggle all the tasks he needs to help the world and spare any life because he knows that it’s worth it. He knows that these actions inspire greater nobility in others and gets them off their feet to help. In the story The Death of Superman (especially in the animated movie), a character named Bibbo Bibbowski is highlighted because of the hope that Superman brings to him. Bibbo owned a bar in Metropolis and met Superman once. Bibbo punched him thinking that he was some clown dressed as the Man of Steel and broke his hand. Yet Superman’s kindness and generosity struck Bibbo and won Superman his respect. From that point on, Bibbo became a continuous do-gooder and contributes almost everything he does to the time when he met Kal-el. Whether it’s Bibbo, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, or Batman, Superman changes hearts with his actions of compassion and kindness, which instills more hope within people than just merely saving them would.
A Better Tomorrow
It’s all well and good that Superman can affect the lives of fictional people in comics. After reading a comic, we can leave with a warm heart and then get on with our lives. But Grant Morrison (mentioned earlier), begs to differ. Supermans ever conscious gaze into the future and what it can bring lead us to do the same. In Morrison’s book Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and A Sun God From Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human, he tells a story of growing up near a missile armed nuclear submarine force in Scotland. Morrison’s father often campaigned for nuclear disarmament and pacifism. He grew up with frightening pamphlets warning the world of armageddon and nuclear apocalypse. However, next to these on the endtable, were his mother’s sci-fi paperback books. Intrigued by these stories of wonder, Morrison eventually found his way to superheros and the peace that they afforded. He said more poignantly than most, that comics, especially Superman comics, gave him an escape from the fear of living in the bomb’s shadow.
“Before it was a Bomb, the Bomb was an Idea.Grant Morrison, Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and A Sun God From Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human, page xv.
Superman however, was a Faster, Stronger, Better Idea.
It’s not that I needed Superman to be “real,” I just needed him to be more real than the Idea of the Bomb that ravaged my dreams. I needn’t have worried; Superman is so indefatigable a product of the human imagination, such a perfectly designed emblem of our highest, kindest, wisest, toughest selves, that my Idea of the Bomb had no defense against him. In Superman and his fellow superheroes, modern human beings had brought into being ideas that were invulnerable to all harm, immune to deconstruction, built to outsmart diabolical masterminds, made to confront pure Evil and, somehow, against the odds, to always win.”
Superman inspired Grant Morrison to have the hope to face the next day. Morrison is one of comic book history’s most prolific writers and has written some of the best stories involving Superman. He understands the character of Superman because that character, and the writers behind the legacy, understood that Morrison needed hope in a time when the world had all but given it up. Superman does this time and time again, his belief in a better world, a better tomorrow truly inspires us all to go another day, even in the darkest hours of our lives.
As a kid, I cycled my way through all the superheroes you could like growing up. Most start with Spider-Man, at least I did. Many emulate Batman because he’s just downright cool. But the majority perhaps, tie a towel around their neck, throw a fist in the air and jump off the couch in an attempt to fly like the Man of Tomorrow himself. For a while I lost touch with my affinity for Superman; after all Batman is a lot cooler. And after many debates have risen about who would win between the two (me desperately trying to help my friends understand that it is in fact possible for Batman to triumph), I realize now that Superman embodies the things most noble about humanity (and he’s not even human). The will to believe that people can be better than they choose to be. Never ceasing to inspire compassion and charity in others, and to always hope for a better tomorrow.
“You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. . .”Jor El, Man of Steel (2014)