I generally get the same reaction every time I tell people I think Superman is the world’s greatest superhero: Really? Superman? Something about the Man of Steel just does not seem to resonate with contemporary Americans. He’s too powerful. He’s too virtuous. He’s too one-dimensional. He’s too old-fashioned.
I happen to wholeheartedly disagree with these characterizations, but the perception is obviously there. Of course, the opposite is true for Batman. He is the grim, flawed human who is all too happy to ride the line. He is the night to Superman’s day. He is the old money to Superman’s working class upbringing. He is the philanthropic capitalist to Superman’s New Deal Democrat.
Now, let me clarify. He’s not my all-time favorite (Richard Grayson (aka Robin/Nightwing/Batman), holds that distinction) — but he is definitely in my top 3, along with Grayson and Bruce Wayne/Batman. So, why do I say that Superman is the greatest superhero?
Well, for several reasons. First, Superman is the original superhero. The Greeks philosophized that every object had an archetype: something that was that object in its purest form. Superman is the archetype from which all other superheroes flow. Everything that defines the superhero genre (secret identity, superpowers, origin story, costume, recognizable symbol, creed) was born full-formed and functioning in Action Comics #1 (1938).
(As an aside, let me just say that some people will quibble with my inclusion of superpowers in that list, and cite Batman. But, for all intents and purposes, Batman is superpowered. If you don’t believe me, you can try leaping off of buildings nightly while running a billion-dollar company, nursing innumerable gunshot wounds, surviving countless explosions and somehow returning to peak physical condition after having your back broken.)
Superman’s wild success with young boys of the Great Depression prompted comic book publishers to rush out and create as many characters as possible, most just thinly veiled Superman ripoffs. So, it is not hyperbole to say that every single comic book superhero can be traced back to Superman’s first appearance in Action Comics #1.
If superheroes are America’s pantheon of gods, then Superman is surely Zeus. And the god description is strikingly accurate when considering Superman’s characterization. He is portrayed, essentially, as a savior figure. Like Moses, birth parents sent him away in a basket so that he might escape premature death, only to be found and raised in another culture, by another race. The 1990s really laid the savior metaphor on thick, when Superman died to save the world from Doomsday, only to later rise from the dead (with a mullet).
But most of all, Superman tells us about ourselves as a society. Comic books, like any other medium, reflect the period in which they were produced, and Superman has been around since the Great Depression. What the Man of Steel reveals about the United States deserves volumes, but we’re going to do a superficial survey in one lowly blog post. So strap in for a whirlwind tour of Superman comics at various periods of American history.
Due to the length of this particular piece, I have split it up into several posts.
Read Part 1: The New Deal Democrat here.
Read Part 2: Defender of the Status Quo here.
Read Part 3: Breaking Down the Old Order here.
Read Part 4: Morning in America here.
Read Part 5: Big Business and Brinksmanship here.
Read Part 6: America in the Post-Soviet World (when the post is ready).
Read Part 7: Reconnecting with Humanity here (when the post is ready).