Two young Jewish men were tired of hearing stories. Stories of death. Stories of pain, of misery, of terror, of tyranny, of inhumanity. Villains were not concepts but creatures of flesh and blood standing behind podiums like pulpits, preaching the good word of hate. The worst of men cradled the Earth in their hands and called it their own.
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were tired of hearing stories, so they decided to tell one. One last time, they morphed a concept they had been evolving for years. Superman met the world April 18, 1938.
Over the last seventy-odd years Superman has suffered a myriad of alterations to costume, powers, cast, even origins. His essence remains the same.
Writer Grant Morrison penned one of the best Superman stories, All-Star Superman. In an interview on the inspiration for the series, he dismisses superhero deconstruction in a single statement. “Somewhere, in our darkest night, we made up the story of a man who will never let us down and that seemed worth investigating.”
Superman has become a cultural icon recognized internationally as a paradigm of lawful good morality.
Superman has become a cultural icon recognized internationally as a paradigm of lawful good morality. However, an argument can be made that Superman is mis-read; that he is, as a character, representative of the nature of humanity.
A native of another planet, Superman is a literal alien who must save humans because we are naturally an evil race unable to save ourselves. Thus Lex Luthor is a metaphor of how the best and brightest human is in fact an egotistical maniac, whereas the best person on the planet is not actually human at all.
The argument is valid but cynical, and it misses the point. Superman’s lack of membership in the human race is merely a matter of biology. Everything Superman grows up to be is a result not of where he came from, but who raised him. The Kents, Martha and Jonathan, are farmers who find themselves in a unique situation as they discover a child of the stars. They wean little Clark Kent on values considered the pinnacle of humanity. Alien by nature, human by nurture.
God walks the streets of Metropolis in the guise of a mild-mannered journalist from Smallville, U.S.A. He passes citizens who have developed the habit of glancing up at the sky every now and then, attempting to glimpse a myth. Someone with great power who uses it for good. Someone who didn’t need to watch his parents gunned down in the street, who never indirectly caused the death of a loved one so he could learn that responsibility is shackled to power. Someone who simply wants to do the right thing, and will die defending complete strangers.
This is why the world needs Superman.
We are a disbelieving race, one who normally only looks up to curse the rain. Hope is a four-letter word often uttered with sarcasm or derision. Superman is perhaps the only literary creation who acts as our paragon. Someone to look up to, someone to strive to model. Not because he is a boy scout, but because he embodies everything we could be.
God walks the streets of Metropolis in the guise of a mild-mannered journalist from Smallville, U.S.A.
He is someone who makes us tell stories. Stories of life. Stories of love, of hope, of kindness, of charity, of courage. Where heroes are not concepts but saviors who fly across the world, helping others because we as a species have a great capacity for good. Stories that make us stop and turn our faces to the sun.