Man or Superman Part 2- The Man of the Silver Age

In part 1 of this blog series, I illustrated the main difference I see between the Superman of the Silver Age and the Superman that was created by John Byrne in the Man of Steel series: That the two men are different because the Silver Age Superman sees Superman as his main identity while Byrne’s Superman sees himself as Clark Kent. In response, one of you has asked how I would have wanted to see Superman modernized or if I would have wanted him modernized at all. My answer is that I would’ve wanted him to stay the same man as he was in the Silver Age. This answer has garnered me a great deal of criticism from fans who see the Silver Age Superman as a cartoon with a two-dimensional personality. I see him under a completely different light. In my opinion, the Silver Age Superman had some very human personality traits that show him to be a unique and often neurotic individual. His values and fears shine out as clear as day to me from the stories told in the 50’s and 60’s, but since many of you doubt this, let me illustrate some of his more important characteristics.

Super-Arrogance:

            And I do mean arrogance. I remember in the Silver Age tale of how Clark Kent got his job at the Daily Planet, Perry White took Clark out for dinner to a fancy restaurant. As soon as Clark (Superman) stepped into the place he realized that he could out-eat everyone in the dining room. In the story “The Super Prisoner of Amazon Island,” he’s forced to go through a series of challenges thought up by women who want to marry him. He agrees to the gauntlet thinking that there’s nothing that any one of them could think up that he can’t do. Superman needs to have this level of self-belief. To a point, this is the quality that makes him Superman. He can do amazing and wonderful things because he believes he can do anything. The self-doubt and self-loathing we see out of him in the modern age did make him less effective in comparison. Some of you will no doubt argue that an arrogant Superman would come off as a jerk. My response is: So what? I’m sure you know someone in real life who is excessively arrogant, but is a good and likeable person despite this fact. Isn’t arrogance a believable and interesting human character flaw? I say we let Superman return to his braggart ways. This was the man who laughed as bullets bounced off of his face, and I would love to see him return to this sort of mocking self-confidence.

Fear of Becoming Mundane:

            This quality is why the identity divide between Superman and Clark Kent is so important. This part of my argument very much embodies the essence of David Carradine’s speech at the end of Kill Bill Vol. 2: Clark is Superman’s impersonation of normal people. When Superman is in his secret identity: Clark Kent has a boss, has limited ability to affect the world around him, has baseless fears for his own mortality, and is often forced to hide his real thoughts and feelings from his co-workers and friends. In other words, Clark literally acts like one of us. Don’t you ever find yourself frustrated at having to choke back criticisms over things you can’t change in your day to day life? Don’t you ever find yourself feeling like the people around you would treat you differently if they only knew who you really were on the inside? Don’t you ever want to change the world for the better more than you do at your day job? This is how we really are as people in varying degrees in the day-to-day world. Clark Kent is an exaggerated puppet show of the tragedies of being a normal man. In contrast, being Superman means having the power and ability to actively change and affect the world around you for the better. Superman is the guy you would be if you were always being the best of yourself, and he doesn’t mean as much unless you have Clark acting like repressed version of the selves we need to be just to get through the day. That’s why Clark is important and that’s why Superman cherishes this identity as much as he fears it. Silver Age Superman constantly feared the day where he’d be reduced to only living as Clark Kent like in Superman #163 when Wonder-Man told him to “retire” to his Clark Kent identity since he was being replaced as a super hero. After being a guy like Superman with so much power, responsibility, and freedom could any one of us comfortably settle down to a mundane life? Don’t real-life veterans of wars struggle through this very problem? That’s why I don’t like the post-Byrne view of Clark Kent being the real man behind Superman. It may be a self-esteem builder for normal joes, but it doesn’t work for the Superman metaphor.

Super-Sentimentality:

            This is the Silver Age Superman’s purest trait and also, perhaps, his weirdest. Superman loves people and he loves them in ways that would seem a bit creepy to normal people. The Silver Age Fortress of Solitude kept entire rooms dedicated to all of Superman’s best friends. He had statues and tributes set up for both his birth and adopted parents. He was often watching his friends from afar using his X-Ray/Telescopic vision just to make sure they were alright, and, of course, he gave his best friend that famous signal watch to keep him safe. Now take a minute to think about all this in terms of real people. If you knew one of your friends kept a room dedicated to you and was constantly watching you to “keep you safe,” wouldn’t you think they were stalking you? That’s the degree to which Superman loves his friends and family: To the point where he’s basically a stalker. Not that I’m saying he should go “single, white Super-hero” crazy or anything like that. All I’m saying is that his love should be so big that it’s off-putting to normal people who can cycle through relationships a bit more easily than Superman can. This stands to reason with who he is. Superman suffered a major trauma very early in life when he lost his planet and parents as an infant. What if this event made him instinctively neurotic over the safety of his loved ones and his adopted planet? This is part of what makes him selfless and heroic, but I’m saying that it can also make him a little weird and awkward next to how everyone else approaches their relationships. This would give him more character.

Fear of Commitment:

            As I mentioned in part 1 of this series, Silver Age Superman loved Lois but was in no rush to marry her. Whenever she would get too aggressive, he’d reply that marrying her would interfere with his mission as Superman. The editorial reason they did this, of course, was so the romance didn’t resolve itself too early and become stale. I see some good, realistic reasons for why Superman would want to avoid settling down, though. If you have a wife and family, you’re first responsibility is always to them. Think about the weight of this truth and think about how it can change your life. No offense to the family men in the audience, but doesn’t it restrict your freedom and choices? For instance, if, you have a wife and kid, can you leave a job you hate as easily as you can if you’re single? Can you afford not to have health or life insurance knowing your family might rely on it someday?   Can you make as many decisions without taking your wife’s opinions and well-being into account? These are the compromises of being married and they are just that: Compromises. Superman, once again, is the man who lives without compromises and he needs to so he can always make decisions for the greater good and to save the day. I love Lois. I’ve always felt she’s been an amazingly strong woman and Superman’s ultimate love, but I hate their marriage. It makes them both too comfortable and reliant on each other. It also kills the romantic possibilities in Superman’s stories. Superman used to have many different love interests and some that he would just meet in the rush of a single adventure. It made his love life dynamic and tragically limited. I think this is much more exciting than the domestic drudgery we’ve put him through the last decade.

The Super-Prankster:

            This is my favorite Silver Age Superman ability. Superman used to have a great sense of humor and often spent entire stories setting up complex tricks to fool his friends and enemies alike. Sometimes he’d have to wear disguises to protect his Clark Kent identity from Lana or Lois. Sometimes he’d shift the tectonic plates to help Clark avoid a shotgun wedding (Superman #94). He used to defeat more enemies using his brain than his brawn and you’d be interested in learning both how and why he did all the crazy things he did in the end. This is why his super-intellect is so important. It gives him more tricks to fight evil with. It also makes Superman a very light and funny comic to read because he’s having a laugh with us the entire time. One final note on this: He played tricks on EVERYONE. Silver Age Superman stories often get accused of sexism and, partly, I think this is due to the times they came out, but one specific complaint is that Superman is always fooling Lois to laugh at her female inferiority behind her back. I think this claim is ridiculous because he was always tricking and laughing at everyone including his male friends and villains. He was laughing at the pettiness of human behavior and not at any one group or gender. My Superman sees every person just as valuable and as capable as the next. He is not a sexist.

            Those are the five traits I find the most charming in Silver Age Superman and that, I feel, made him a unique and believable person even in our cynical Modern Age. Some of them you can still find in the modern Superman, but not as exaggerated or as amusing. Going back to Byrne’s Superman, I don’t see character traits in him that are nearly as charming or as interesting. When Byrne made Clark Kent into Superman’s identity, Clark became hardy while Superman became emotionally fragile. In fact, it’s almost as if the word turned upside down and Clark became the better man. Clark got the girls while Superman broke into fits of crying and self-doubt. Meanwhile, can you name for me any unique personality traits Byrne’s Superman had? What were his politics? What is his favorite band? What are his neuroses? The two unique traits I see in Byrne’s Superman are that he wants to have a love-life and that he’s kind of afraid of being Superman. Outside of that he’s filled with old-fashioned mottos with a rigidly humble personality. I don’t find this guy very interesting. He might be more “relatable” since we all want a girlfriend and we all want to see ourselves as not being an arrogant jerk, but that’s not Superman (it’s actually more like Spider-Man). Though Byrne’s Superman did receive a brief surge in popularity, it didn’t last. Sales slipped again and not five years after the Man of Steel revamp I was reading the same, old criticisms of Superman’s character: “He’s too powerful; he’s un-relatable; he’s arrogant.” Those were the complaints Byrne’s Superman was supposed to fix and obviously didn’t. Why not instead of making excuses for Superman and trying to change him, we just let him be Superman. I think we’d get a much more interesting character to read in the long run, and, in my opinion, it’s far better to be interesting than relatable. 

5 Comments
5 Comments
Posted by azza04

Really enjoyed reading your Superman blogs mate. DC needs to hire you to reinvent Superman for them =D I felt you touched on some really good points. What DC needs is someone with the balls to go in and make these changes. I feel that they are to afraid of messing with their flagship character at the moment, Although maybe we will start seeing a more updated Superman soon? they took the first step with him renouncing his US citizenship.

Posted by Jekylhyde14
@azza04: 

Thanks for the compliment. It would, of course, be my dream to write Superman. I'd settle for the character just finding his way back to who he was, though. The great thing about Superman is he has been rethought and reinterpreted throughout the years, so if DC isn't ready for changes this drastic now then we can always wait a few years. I'm a big fan of All-Star Superman which is as close as you can get to a modernized Silver Age Superman and there's Straczynki's Superman- Earth One which is another, interesting modern interpretation. I thought the story in Action Comics #900 where he distanced himself from American policy was interesting, too. I can't wait to see where they take him after "Grounded" is finished. 
Posted by kadeem

The interesting thing about the silver age Superman is if he were put in the real world it would play out in a way very different than in the books.  He would probably be a threat to humanity who saw himself as Earth's hero.
@Jekylhyde14:
Very interesting article. I have a very different take on SA Superman's fear of commitment though.  Given the nature of his powers Kal wouldn't have grown up knowing pain and fear like the rest of us.  As human beings we are always vulnerable, and yet many of us still fear the sense of vulnerability and commitment that comes with falling in love.  Now someone who went through life as an invulnerable being if put in a real life situation would probably find both the sense of attachment and the pains of being in love with someone to be terribly traumatic and fear inducing.  What do you think?

Posted by ssejllenrad

Very informative especially to the ones ignorant of SA Supes. Good job!

Posted by Jekylhyde14

@kadeem:

I think you're certainly on to something there. I remember this one Silver Age Superboy story where Pa Kent is trying to find an effective method of punishing Superboy for breaking house rules. Pa can't spank him because he's invulnerable and he has trouble grounding him since Clark's powers allow him many different options for freedom even if he's still only in one room. Pa's answer to this problem ends up being pretty sadistic. He and Ma pretend to split up over Superboy's disobedience and Superboy ends up an emotional wreck over it. They let him know they were just pretending and he tells them he's learned his lesson. This situation is an indication that Superman's emotions are more vulnerable than the rest of him. Perhaps knowing this, he fears getting too involved with his romantic attachments just as you postulated. Being Super-Sentimental is also one of the attributes I listed above, so it's not a stretch to say that caring too much could also be torture to him. In the Modern Age, he certainly struggles with the knowledge that he'll stay young and strong as Lois ages and dies.  Your theory would defintely work well with that. I'd say your reasoning is pretty sound. However, I still think part of it is the knowledge that attachments like that would also interfere with his mission, but Superman's a complicated person so I think his reasoning is open to multiple factors.