Tuesday, June 25, 2013
Interlude: Superman, Lunchboxes, and the Most Important Thing in the Whole World
Superman isn't real.
That's what they tell me, anyway.
All Star Superman is a story filled with so many wondrous moments that it's difficult to single them out, but one in Issue 10 has never left me. Superman is well and truly dying, and as he compiles his will and tends to his affairs he wonders whether humanity will be able to exist without him. Can we save ourselves from our own basest urges? So, he creates an infant universe which will live and die in what are merely a few days of his time. As the comic book progresses the narrative splits between Superman's actions in one day and the progression of history through the millennia in Earth Q; we see cavemen, religious thinkers, Nietzsche, until the piece comes together in this panel which manages to be haunting and thrilling.
I don't want to get into all the specific textual implications of this panel rather, I want to talk about why it works so well. There's always been something about Superman, even when he wasn't my favorite character, that was so much more primal than any of the other super heroes. it's hard to put into words, but I think it's the absence of emotional gimmicks. He's here-- and he wants to do good because he can. It feels like real myth where the hero is singled out by virtue of being so much greater than his fellows, and in this case the absence of the usual traumas associated with superhero origins actually works to Superman's benefit. Just as villains who are evil for evil's own sake take on a truly grand, operatic quality so too are heroes who are good for its own sake.
At first the character's goodness was a hard-edged thing: innocents were defended, criminals were harshly punished. He was as swaggering and physical as any adventure hero. As the character developed, the writer's conception of better became more sophisticated. Superman could not simply be better by virtue of his superhuman power and having the right ideals, his methods, his home(s), his past, his future (and the times when they overlapped), his friends, his enemies were all elevated. Superman stories of the 50's and 60's, in their juvenile ways, actually examined the question of what it meant to be the ideal of humanity at the same time you were fundamentally distanced from it. To borrow words from my youth he was "fully god and fully man."
The slightly paradoxical element of all this rambling, is that the more anti-real he became, the more outlandishly honorable he is presented, the clearer the essential message he projects becomes.
More than Green Lantern or Captain America, or even the X-Men, (all wonderful characters in their own right) Superman is a wonderful and poetic archetype whose mission is to express to us the most essential ethical truths we know. He exhibits a moral standard, which helps inform our daily lives.
There's a certain cynicism about comic book characters, about how marketable and commercial they've become, but no media blitz, or endless exploitation, or lousy movie can snuff out what is good and pure and true about Superman. that's what this site is truly about.
Long live Superman.