Saturday, February 21, 2009

Champion of the Oppressed

If you've ever met me, and we've talked for more than a few minutes, superheroes probably came up somehow in the conversation. And, if we discussed it further, the conversation probably led (as conversations with me on superheroes invariably tend to lead) to Superman.

Now, I know that most people who like comic books are into to Marvel. That's fine. They make great comic books, and I'm all for people supporting the industry regardless of which companies titles they read. Personally, I find Marvel's superheroes to be lacking that certain something that makes them heroic. A lot of people enjoy Marvel characters because they can relate to their failures and shortcomings. That's fine. Sometimes, it's even great. But, I want something more from my heroes. If my heroes are just like me, then I don't really have any reason to look to them as examples of how I ought to live my life.

That's why I've always been a fan of Big Blue. Say what you want about him, I've heard it all: he's too powerful to be interesting, he's just a boring boyscout, he's a total loser without his superpowers, he's a crude caricature of America, etc. But, at the end of the day, I think there's a reason that Superman has been around for 70 years: because people want hope. If our heroes don't inspire us to become better than we have been, if our heroes are no better than we are, then hero worship is merely just a matter of empathy.

Lots of things have changed about Superman over the years: his relationship with Lois Lane, just how powerful he is, whether or not he can age, his supporting characters and the villains he battles, etc. The main constant in the Superman mythos is this: Superman always does what he believes to be the right thing. His rigid moral character, his indomitable will, his love for humanity: these are things that make Superman a hero, not heat vision or super strength.

Now, to maybe help you have an idea of what I'm talking about, here are some examples of why I love Superman from a couple of my favorite Superman stories. The first is Red Sun, a what if story where Superman grows up in the USSR in the 50's instead of America. The context of this soliloquy is that a satellite is falling toward Metropolis, threatening to destroy the city.

"They called me a soldier, but that just wasn't true. I was never a soldier. A soldier always follows orders. A soldier knows and hates his enemy. A soldier only fights and dies for his own people. I just fought for what was right... A cluster of support cables groaned and snapped. People screamed for someone to save them. Not my people, but I never refuse a cry for help. All the lies they spread about me. The propaganda they engineered at the height of the Cold War. None of it mattered for a while on that bright afternoon. Just for a single moment. They realized I was here to save them."

These are not Superman's people. But, at the same time, they are. Superman does not belong to a single state or principality. Superman belongs to the world, and we are all his people, regardless of our personal philosophies, skin colors, sexual orientation, or the crimes we have committed. We are all his people.

The second and third examples are from Kingdom Come, a story set in the future where the new generation of superheroes have become petty and corrupt, and our heroes come out of retirement to show them the way that heroes are supposed to behave. The first story deals with why Superman retired, and the second deals with what happens when things get out of control in the rehabilitation of the new generation.

This quote is in the context of Magog, the "hero" who replaced Superman addressing him in the middle of a nuclear explosion decimated Kansas, a result of Magog's recklessness:

Magog: "They were calling you old-fashioned when I was a teenager. World's oldest boy scout...but you wouldn't change. You wouldn't get in step. You wouldn't flex with the times. Remember? The Daily Planet asked if that's why the Joker got so many notches on his belt when he blew into our town. How many did he take out just that last time? Ninety-two men?..."

Superman: "And one woman."

Magog: "Hell. We both tore up the city looking for that bastard. I really thought you or Batman would get to him first. Even I almost missed him. Almost. I will never forget the look on your face when you saw me standing over that smoking creep. All the way to Jail, I thought, what a sap. What an old woman. Blue boy's dragging me in for having stones he doesn't. 'Times are tough. Joker'd been deserving worse than 'cuffs for years. So I took it upon myself to lay him down. I can't be judged for that.' And I was right. I was a hero. But you just wouldn't roll with it. You had to get in a last shot and piss me off. I wanted that torch passed. I wanted to cement my claim as Metropolis' new number one. I asked for a title bout between you and me, and I won by default when you flew off with your cape between your legs... I always thought you were afraid of me. A lot of people did. But that wasn't it. You were afraid that I was the man of tomorrow. You were afraid of the future I represented. Well, look around you. This is what I represent."

Superman: "You must be proud."

Magog: "Proud? PROUD? GOD DAMN YOU! Pround of being the man of tomorrow? Your bastard. The world changed...but you wouldn't. So they chose me. They chose the man who would kill over the man who wouldn't... and now they're dead."

In case you couldn't tell without the pictures, this recounts Joker killing everyone in the Daily Planet building (including Lois) and in turn being killed by Magog after he had turned himself in to the police. Superman's response? Put him on trial for murder. Murder of the man who just killed everyone Superman ever cared about. Superman lost the trial and went into self-imposed exile, incapable of dealing with a world that would condone murder, even murder of a psychopath with the blood of thousands on his hands, including Superman's friends and wife. Because that's how much Superman values the lives of people, even scum like the Joker.

The second excerpt from Kingdom Come is Superman addressing his followers after the "heroes" they are attempting to rehabilitate are refusing to cooperate and have started a riot in their gulag.

Wonder Woman: "So...your world's finally turned completely topsy-turvy. How do we handle this?"

Superman: "I...don't know."

Wonder Woman: "Then I do. We're going to confront the prisoners and give them an ultimatum. They must surrender."

Superman: "And if they refuse?"

Wonder Woman: "Then it's war."

Superman: "But you can't have a war without people dying."

At this point in the story, everyone looks at Superman as though he's lost his mind, then walks away to go and have their war. It's true that Superman's moral code doesn't always work out neatly in his stories. People have been dying all this time as a result of his refusal to take the lives of truly evil people. But, agree or not, you have to admire his refusal to compromise.

I could go on and on about Superman and superheroes in general for hours and days, but I just thought I might give a rough, somewhat preliminary explanation of why I'll always love the Man of Steel as I wander through life.

“The Promised Land always lies on the other side of a wilderness.”


Shane S. said...


But whatev, if you want to be in love with an alien, I guess that's your thing...

The Wanderer said...

Better an alien than some whiny emo kid who looks like he's having seizures when he cries.

Shane S. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shane S. said...

I don't believe that I ever said anything to the effect of:

"I'll always love the Man of Steel as I wander through life."

Brint Montgomery said...

Hey, I just finished reading Kingdom Come. It really was excellent. Thanks for letting me borrow it.