Superman is the greatest Superhero ever. You can try to argue but you’d be wrong. He may not be your favorite, he’s not even my number one, but he’s the greatest there is and he deserves the respect he’s often denied. I’m not saying you have to love Superman or that he should be your favorite superhero, but he’s the best and that’s what I’m going to explain.
First of all, he’s the first superhero. The fact that this single character created by two adolescent jewish boys in the 30’s has spawned one of the largest and longest living industries in the world is something to gawk at in itself. Without Superman there’d be no Batman. No Justice League. No Spider-Man. No DC or Marvel. No comic-cons, no movie franchises, nothing. The world without Superman would be a radically different place and the comic fans that bash him need to realize this single fact before they bash him.
The pure essence of everything that is Superheroes is molded after Superman. Essentially all superhero characters are formed around his template. No matter how radically different they may turn out, he is THE Superhero. The origin story, the superpowers, the secret identity, the love interest, and the villains. He’s obviously not the first character in history to have all of these things but the classic superhero tale is all Superman’s.
THE ORIGIN. Superman’s origin boils down to this: The dying act of two scientists on a doomed planet is to send their infant son to the planet earth where he will can live as one of them. Infant Kal-El is found by two loving farmers, the Kents and is raised to be a good man. Under the Earth’s yellow sun Clark Kent/Kal-El gains amazing superpowers. He travels to Metropolis to work as a reporter and develops the identity of Superman to fight for justice and use his tremendous abilities not to oppress but to help those in need. And the hero rescues and falls in love with the beautiful Lois Lane who only has eyes for Superman and no time for humble Clark Kent.
Maybe that wasn’t very boiled down…Anyway. The alien hero uses his powers while hiding among us humans. Bam. What’s unique about Superman’s origin, or was at the time of his creation, was that Superman was an alien come to earth to be a hero. Where as other stories such as Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and John Carter all were humans who traveled to other planets to be heroes.
Superman’s origin has been told countless times. And will continue to be. Everyone wants a crack at telling it, and everyone loves reading it. We’ve seen countless versions of how Krypton has ended, how Clark was raised, who he battles first, etc. The reason I believe Superman’s origin is so retold is that it’s become a myth. A modern mythological hero of a whole new pantheon of champions.
His origin’s iconism allows it to be retold so often because it’s so malleable. You can change the story around because essentially it always boils down to the same tale. Which I find fascinating. Superman IS Superman. It’s very rare to find other characters with this level of iconism. Batman has it. I would say Spider-Man has it to a degree too.
THE CHARACTER. Superman is a great character because he’s so much more than a strong guy in a cape. I think the idea that he is just that is what a lot of people get hung up on. “Oh Superman’s boring, he’s too nice, he’s too good, he’s not interesting.” Any time I hear this I just want to scream at them and tell them how wrong they are. And more often that I should admit, I do. My theory is that they haven’t even read Superman. And I’m usually right. Superman is Clark Kent, Kal-el, and Superman. Stay with me here.
Clark Kent. The good natured farm boy who was raised by two loving parents in Smallville, Kansas. He’s a decent, kinda nerdy, humble guy who doesn’t stand out. Sound familiar? Like it reminds of that person in the mirror? Yeah, it should. Clark Kent is US. Clark is the nerd who does what’s right and doesn’t get the recognition. Clark is the guy who is good at a lot of stuff, but doesn’t get noticed. He’s the guy loves the beautiful girl at work and can’t seem to get her attention because of the big strong guy in the cape she’s in love with. That’s Clark Kent. The mild-mannered reporter.
Kal-el. The alien sent to earth who is just a little bit different. The immigrant with the american dream. Kal-el may be an alien, but how does that make him any different than us? We’ve all felt alienated. We’ve all felt different, and that we need to hide who we are to fit in. We feel like there’s nobody else like us. We’ve been to new places, started new schools and jobs and gone to new countries where we are very much out of our element. Kal-el is this person in all of us. Diametrically, Kal-el is also the person Superman was supposed to be. If he had stayed on Krypton, who would he have been. Who could he have been? There’s a lot of story potential that comes from this too.
Superman. The hero. Superman is the guy we all want to be. He’s strong, he’s fast and he can FLY! Love him or hate him, you would be Superman if you had the chance. He’s what we all wish we could be. The nerd who can take off his glasses and be strong and get noticed. He’s also an ideal. This is where people find him too alienating. They can’t seem to be able to connect with the idea that a man with all the power in the world would use his strength to help others and not for personal gain. And if that concept is too foreign to you, than you are beyond help in many ways. I think the idea of this guy who just wants to do good and help others is a beautiful idea. But there’s also the action hero side of Superman. He may want to do good, but he’s a strong dude and he’s not afraid to hit something. He’s a man of action of justice. And he will fight for what’s right.
People say that Batman is the most relatable character because he’s human. As much as I love Batman, I disagree. I don’t know too many humans who are infinitely wealthy, driven by vengeance, and pathologically broody. Superman is a regular guy who happens to have a good heart and Superpowers. The best Superman stories use Superman’s humanity and his relationships with others. And by humanity, I don’t mean he’s all troubled by woes and burdens all the time. That’s not humanity. Humanity is being a real person with friendships, a job, ideas, and yes, problems.
So that’s who Superman is. The mild-mannered reporter, the strange visitor, and the man of steel.
THE CAST. Superman has a very iconic supporting cast. Most of which don’t even have superpowers or costumed identities. I’d say Batman has a stronger supporting cast, only in the fact that they are all primarily heroes. And Spider-Man has a few popular love interests and family members. But how many supporting characters of other heroes do you know? Steve Trevor is fairly unknown. Nobody knew who Pepper Potts was until 2008 and she isn’t really that big of a character. Iris West, Sharon Carter, Sue Dibny, etc. You don’t know who these people are unless you’re an actual comic book fan. But ask a “regular person” who Superman’s girlfriend is? Lois Lane. Superman’s pal? Jimmy Olsen. And then there’s Perry White, Ma and Pa Kent, Supergirl, Superboy, Krypto, and other Daily Planet Staff that are lesser known. But for having a cast of primarily unsuper characters, it’s pretty impressive.
Lois Lane. You can’t have Superman without Lois Lane. I strongly stand by this fact. +years. And you don’t mess with that. She’s a part of every origin story and always will be. The Lois Lane/Superman/Clark Kent romance is iconic and touching. I’ve already written about it before, but I’ll sum it up again. Superman, essentially a demi-god, falling in love with a human woman is beautiful in itself but it’s so much more than that. Clark loves Lois, but Lois only has eyes for her Superman. The hero that gives her hope to believe in. But Superman can’t tell her his secret which is why he needs her to love him as Clark too. Lois is Superman’s anchor, and she always has been. Beyond the damsel in distress love interest bit, Lois is a great character too. She’s a strong, independent, take action woman who has a passion for the truth and what’s right. She is head strong and will do whatever is necessary to get her job done and she is damn good at her job. She’s a crusader and a hero without any capes or tights and that’s what is so great about her character. There are very few human characters in comics, especially female human characters who are so recognizable and so crucial to a hero’s existence. Superman softens her edge and gives her hope and Lois give Superman hope in humanity and a reason to fight for justice. They fight the same fight on different fronts and will always have each others’ backs. They were created for each other. Literally.
Jimmy Olsen. Superman’s pal. Yeah people poke fun at Jimmy and people hate on Jimmy but he’s an interesting character to look at in the Superman mythos. First of all, people know Jimmy. More so than I would’ve thought. But the red-headed kid with the camera at Lois’s heels is pretty well known. And he’s got the history in publications that outnumbers a lot of today’s most popular heroes. What I like about Jimmy is that he’s Superman AND Clark’s friend. How many superheroes have real friends? Not many. Batman’s “friends” are all colleagues or butlers. Wonder Woman’s Amazonian friends are all more like family and are rarely written about. The Green Lanterns have other Green Lanterns. Spider-Man’s got Harry Osborne but there’s the whole insanity thing. Captain America has a girlfriend and a sidekick who went evil for a long time. Iron Man has War Machine but they fight a lot. So besides other superheroes, most superheroes don’t have many friends and that’s why I like Jimmy the best. He has a reputation for being kind of an annoying and bratty sidekick, and he was definitely that character a lot. But as he’s been modernized, he’s kind of the cool geeky guy who likes to take pictures while still embodying that bright eyed kid in the city who looks up to Superman and gets to hang out with him.
The Kents. Ma and Pa Kent are not only great but another example of a unique case in comics. They are two of the characters who have been killed off more times than Jean Grey. In the original story, Pa Kent dies. But then at some point or another Pa comes back and Superman has two parents at home, which is EXCEPTIONALLY rare. Pa usually dies, or lives for a while and then dies. Ma is usually around but in the New 52 era she is currently dead. But as for their character, I think they’re just fun. They’re Superman’s parents. Think about that. These two goofy, good hearted farmers raised Superman. “Superman Escape from Bizarro World” shows a lot of great Pa/Clark moments. And the friendship between father and son is something so humanizing that I find it fun to read. They’re the backbone to Superman and they motivate him to be the hero not just in their death, but in how they raised him.
The Daily Planet Staff. The lovable and cartoonish staff at the Daily Planet is a great bit of Superman mythology that is too rarely excluded from stories. You’ve got Perry White, the boss. Ron Troupe, the sensible up to date reporter who clashes with the brutish Joe Lombard. Cat Grant, the gossip columnist. Etc. A newsroom full of characters that bounce off each other and give depth to the Superman world.
THE LOOK. Superman is one of if not THE most recognizable character globally. Who wouldn’t see the red and blue tights with the big S and not know instantly that was Superman. Underwear on the outside is a little cheesey, and capes may not be practical but you have to respect the pure power of such an iconic visual. And it’s kind of a great look too. The bold primary colors and the simplicity of it just make it pop. It’s fun as hell to draw. It may be a little out dated, but you don’t “tug on Superman’s cape.” There’s a reason why most looks that deviate too far from the original don’t last long. Along with Batman, the Flash, Spider-Man, and Booster Gold, I think Superman has one of the best Superhero looks. Albeit a little dorky.
Maybe if they really want to be done with the red underwear, they add some red to the belt and be done with it. In the case of the New 52 design, I really have no taste for the armory look. It’s not terrible but it reeks of typical Jim Lee overdesigning. Ditch the extra lines and the collar and throw some yellow on the belt and it’s basically back to a fresh standard.
THE VILLAINS. Superman’s villains. Sigh. A very bizarre cast of characters that hold a lot of potential and other characters whose existence I groan at. Amongst the greats (in my opinion) are Lex Luthor, Brainiac, Bizarro, Parasite, Metallo, Zod, Doomsday, Darkseid, Livewire, Kryptonite Man, the Toyman (sometimes), Silver Banshee, and the Cyborg Superman. Many others are forgettable attempts at just giving Superman something to hit.
Lex Luthor. THE Sueprman villain. Superman represents all that is good about humanity and Luthor represents all that is bad about it. He’s greedy, vicious, and cruel with the startling intellect and the corporate money to devise the most nefarious of plots. Luthor boils down to greed, envy, and hatred. He’s a greedy power hungry scientist who runs Lex Corp, a traditionally brutal corporation that owns Metropolis. He is jealous of Superman, and hates him. Basically that’s Luthor in a nutshell. He thinks he’s above and better than everyone and he doesn’t like that Superman IS better than him. Luthor’s motivation is often varied but essientially that’s what it comes down to. I think it’s poetic that the greatest enemy of the most powerful superhero is just a regular human. He’s got powersuits and formulas that do allow him to go toe-to-toe with the Man of Steel, but most often he’s using hired men and monsters to do his dirty work. Luthor also works as a bad guy for Superman because he’s the guy who Superman can’t really touch. He’s protected by layers of red tape, plausible deniability, and lies that keep him from being arrested or beaten up. Luthor challenges Superman on more than just the physical level, which makes the characters perfect for eachother.
Brainiac. The alien genius known as Brainiac has taken many many forms to fight Superman over the years. As an opponent for Superman he represents all that is bad about Aliens. He comes in and invades and destroys. There’s just too many versions of Brainiac for me to summarize his character, but I’ve always loved him because he can challenge Superman both mentally and physically. I’d love to see more from Brainiac in other media.
Bizarro. The backwards-Superman clone. I always like evil versions or backwards versions of superheroes and Bizarro is one of my favorites. I’m sure he’s damn hard to right because of his backwards-ness but he’s Superman’s equal in strength and the slugfests between the two are always epic.
Zod. Kneel before him. The would be conqueror has deep ties to Kal-el’s past and is another opponent who can more than hold his own against the Man of Steel. Zod stories are great because they work on multiple levels too.
Parasite and Metallo. Two classic Superman villains who have the staying power and the physical power to be constant baddies for Superman. I find both of these villains fascinating in their embodiment of gluttony and envy.
Essentially, Superman’s rogues gallery isn’t as pathetic as people seem to think. He has plenty of foes who can challenge him on multiple levels and pose actual threats. The villains define the hero so they say, so what do Superman’s villains say about him? That Superman NEEDS to be the best to win. He faces these monstrous threats and needs to be fast, smart, and strong in order to overcome them. Just like any other hero. The difference is that the scale Superman needs to fight on is just a little bit larger than other characters. It’s not the characters fault when some of his stories are boring, it’s lazy writing.
THE MYTHOLOGY. Superman has one of the most fascinating and deep character mythologies in comics. He’s got Smallville, Krypton, the Daily Planet, Lex Corp, outer space, etc. His stories can draw on all of these sources for really unique story telling. Concepts like the Phantom Zone, Kryptonite, Bottle Cities, the Legion of Superheroes, and Fortresses of Solitude are all pretty cool ideas that inhabit the Superman mythos. The characters that inhabit this world feel like they belong there. What I find interesting about the DCUniverse is that each character does have their own mythology. Superman characters fit very well in the Superman corner of the DCU, where they would be out of place in Gotham City. There is room for overlap but the idea that these characters all have their own stories is pretty cool. I judge a character’s “mythology” as unique concepts and sources for story material. And Superman’s is pretty deep. The reason people struggle to come up with new Superman stories is that so much has already been done with the character, and if they do manage to come up with something new, it rarely sticks around because they don’t connect it to the mythology.
NEGATIVE REPRESENTATION. This is where I cut the Super-haters some slack. A lot of Superman gags come from the Silver-Age where the Superman universe is all sorts of weird. When Lois was just a marriage crazy harpy and there were dozens of Kryptonian animals. Those stories have their time, but today they seem ridiculous, especially with how overpowered Superman was.
In other media, Superman seems to struggle. I personally enjoyed the original live action Superman movie from the 80’s. Mostly out of pure iconism. It’s a pretty good movie, a little cheesey, and not full of action but it’s a product of its time. My real issue with it is the portrayal of Lex Luthor but that’s a different issue. Superman 2 is a great movie, with General Zod. Then there’s Superman 3 and 4. Which are just terrible. I don’t even like acknowledging that I’ve seen them. Superman Returns was a dull and lifeless attempt at a movie, and I understand why if people have only seen this movie and know nothing else of Superman, they may find him boring. I have hope for Man of Steel for next summer. I’m really nervous about it, but I am clinging to that hope.
Smallville is a complicated show to discus as a Superman fan. Because in a lot of ways I really love it, but in others I recognize that it’s kind of dumb. It’s a great show if you love Superman and can let go of the liberties they take with the continuity but it won’t really change your mind on the character.
In the New 52 Superman is just a train wreck. Grant Morrison’s Action Comics is alright. I liked the first arc but then it just gets confusing and a little nonsensical. The Superman title is a disaster. It’s lifeless and dull to the point of uselessness. I recognize the fact that there was a lack of communication between writers and editors of the two titles and there were problems behind the scenes. But from what I’ve read of New52 Superman, he’s not the Man of Steel I know. And that seems to be their goal, which is just so backwards thinking. Out with the old and in with the new is a terrible strategy. It alienates the loyal fans and while he may be shiny and new, if you’re producing crap because your biggest character has been sucked of all that makes him great, you’re not going to attract new readers or keep them. In the Justice League title, Superman is just this quiet background guy who hits things. Along with the rest of the team, his characterization is totally off. It really makes me think Johns is not actually writing the book, or the book is just so strongly controlled by the Corporate heads at DC that we just have shells of our greatest heroes. Woops, I’m ranting. But essentially, the New52 has done nothing positive for Superman’s character beyond the first arc of Action Comics. If this is all I read of Superman I’d hate him too.
SUMMARY. So in Conclusion, Superman is a very human character who faces great challenges both on the streets of Metropolis and in the offices of the Daily Planet. He embodies all that is great about Superheroes and is the personification of the human dream. You can love Batman or Captain America or anyone more than Superman, but Superman is the best. He’s Superman! To understand a character, you need to do some actual research or reading, not just base opinions around who you think the character is. If you want to get to know the character I’d recommend the following:
Superman: Secret Origin (Geoff Johns)
All Star Superman (Grant Morrison).
Superman: Brainiac (Geoff Johns)
For the Man who has Everything (Alan Moore)
Superman and the Legion of Superheroes (Geoff Johns)
The Man of Steel (John Byrne)
Superman: Birthright (Mark Waid)
Superman: Escape From Bizarro World (Geoff Johns)
Superman the Animated Series. (cartoon series)
Superman 1 and 2 (movies)