Sunday, February 1, 2009

A History of Justice - Superman

(Clark Kent)

The Story: You've all heard it before, but it bears repeating - the last son of a doomed world who instead becomes the champion of another.

When his warnings about planetary instability go unheeded by a political machine too old to change, Scientist Jor-El (and possibly Al Gore) creates a rocketship to save his infant son from certain destruction. As the planet smoked and crackled around him he sent Kal-El to Earth - and in moments, after an entire world of people died in a sizzling heartbeat, Kal-El became the last son of Krypton.

Landing on Earth in the middle of the American heartland he was found by Jonathan and Martha Kent - a young couple who had once been told they would never conceive a child of their own. Instead of reacting with fear and hate to this alien baby crawling from the wreckage of the stars, they took the boy as their son and raised him. They named him Clark Kent.

Clark grew up in Smallville hiding his incredible gifts from the world - his body stores and converts yellow sunlight like a solar battery, giving him amazing powers of flight and speed. The different density of Earth hardens his muscles, and gives him incredible strength beyond those of normal men. But his heart grows up human, a gift from the Kents, and one that will be his greatest strength and greatest weakness.

Eventually Clark moves to the gleaming city of Metropolis where he becomes a reporter for the Daily Planet. When a plane is about to crash down, Clark is forced to act in public for the first time, bearing a costume sewn by his mother with a cape made of the very blanket he was sent to Earth in. It was at that moment a young reporter named Lois Lane would first name him Superman, and give voice to the hopes of an entire populace - truly now, men could fly.

Disguising himself with a pair of glasses, and an entire shift of posture, physique, and tone - bumbling Clark Kent fell in love with Lois Lane, who in turn only had eyes for Superman, creating one of the classic love triangles in modern fiction - until they instead became one of comics' most formidable teams and an enduring marriage in a time when the idea of aging seems anathema to most publishers.

What Makes Him Cool - Here's what makes Superman so cool - his weakness. And not Kryptonite. His capacity and willingness to love.

Imagine having absolute, infinite power and instead of choosing to live like a God, instead you chose to live like a man. Instead of using this incredible power for any kind of selfish gain, instead of ruling over the world with even a benevolent fist, instead you used your power to become a champion of justice and one of utter selflessness. Superman is pure good, the beacon in darkness that guides us to what is right. Cool may go in and out of style but Superman is timeless. His is the ultimate story of nature vs. nurture - would anyone else with these powers act the way he does? Is it his genetics or his being brought up by two such wonderful and loving parents?

His is also the ultimate immigrant story, which makes perfect sense for two young Jewish boys in the 1930s. He is a stanger from a strange land who lands in America - where he hides out because of the fear of being different, but also has the opportunity to become the best of us. Superman represents the 'invisible minority' - the Jew, or Catholic, or anyone else who's differences reach their core but aren't readily apparent skin deep. He was adopted by a kindly couple in Kansas - that basic metaphor for American values (the Wizard of Oz used Kansas to create the All-Ameerican Girl too). And in what I think is an incredibly poignant twist, the only physical object that can harm him are pieces of his former home, now radioactive, acting as a metaphor for the way America wants us to abandon our past in order to be a part of something new.

But what makes Superman so incredibly cool? His is a love story that defies description. He chooses to love someone he has to know he'll outlive. He puts himself in a situation where there can be nothing but future pain but does so with abandon, because that love is all-consuming. Everyone he knows will one day die and leave him here on Earth alone and yet he gives a piece of himself to all of them just the same. What kind of toll does that take on a man, not knowing if you're ever going to die? And his love is his greatest weakness - by caring about people he can be made vulnerable, simply because they are. If he were hard, or cold, he would be unstoppable - but he wouldn't be human. And make no mistake, powers or not, Superman is Clark Kent first and foremost. Not the bumbling fool he masquerades to be, but the Clark Kent that grew up in Smallville - a lonely outcast that found a group of incredible friends in the 30th century where every kid could fly.

Superman is the shining light of optimism, the best the Super-Hero community has to offer. He is the image of the Justice League. My favorite image is the one at the top of this post - Superman just sitting on a cloud, pefectly relaxed, watching the world. No muscles rippling, no great effort. He doesn't need to. He's Superman - why worry? Things are going to be okay.

And so we don't have to worry either.

Reccomended Reading:

JLA - American Dream (W-Grant Morrison, A-Howard Porter): Including possibly my favorite Superman moment of all time - after single handedly pulling the moon back into orbit, Superman returns to Earth as it's under siege by the Bull-Host of Heaven. The rogue angel Asmodel has decided to succeed where Lucifer failed and overthrow God himself. J'onn J'onzz stands there, charred and tattered, refusing to give way, when Superman puts a hand on his shoulder and says "You've done enough, old friend. Stand down. I'll take over now." And charges into battle.

The Flash puts it best when he says "This is the guy who said he couldn't live up to his myth? He's wrestling an angel..."

All-Star Superman (W-Grant Morrison, A-Frank Quitely): Quite possibly the single greatest Superman story of all time. In 12 issues of award winning work two masters of the craft show us just how amazing Superman is. When Superman is finally about to die, he is charged with 12 labors to accomplish before he can pass on. From Lois refusing to believe that Superman is Clark because she just can't accept having been right for years and being lied to, to Lex drawing on his eyebrows out of vanity, to Jimmy Olsen turning into Doomsday, this book is everything you ever need to know about Superman and those he cared about.

Final Crisis: Superman Beyond, and Final Crisis #7 (W-Grant Morrison, A-Doug Mankhe): Where Lois lies dying in a hospital bed and the only way to save her is for Superman to lead a team of upermen from across the multiverse on a suicide mission against a vampire God. Where he makes the ultimate sacrifice in a moment dubbed "Hate Crime, Meet Selfless Act" - and where he contains the cure for Lois, a liquid no one but Gods can ever contain inside a single kiss because "Nothing can hold or contain Bleed, they said. They were wrong. Superman can."

And finally he saves all of existence just by wishing for a happy ending.

Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? (W-Alan Moore, A-Curt Swan): After the Crisis of Infinite Earths, Superman was being rebooted. And so Alan Moore and legendary Superman artist Curt Swan got to tell the definitive ending to everything Superman had been up until that point, and it was beautiful. It's been done to death now, but at the time, seeing Superman alone in the Fortress of Solitude crying with Krypto at his side was one of the most heartbreaking moments I experienced as a young adult. And it had quite possibly the single best intro to any comic ever -


(which may never happen, but then again may)
about a perfect man who came from the sky and did only good.
It tells of his twilight, when the great battles were over and the great miracles long since performed;
of how his enemies conspired against him and of that final war in the snowblind wastes beneath the Northern Lights;
of the women he loved and the choice he made between them;
of how he broke his most sacred oath, and how finally all the things he had were taken from him save one.
It ends with a wink.
It begins in a quiet midwestern town, one summer afternoon in the quiet midwestern future.
Away in the big city, people still sometimes glance up hopefully from the sidewalks, glimpsing a distant speck in the sky... but no: it's only a bird, only a plane - Superman died ten years ago.

Aren't they all?"
Aren't they?

1 comment:

Ozkirbas said...

Very very interesting. I'm excited to see more.