The Limits of Superman

The core problem of Superman is that few people seem to understand what makes him interesting. It’s not a question of what he’s capable of, as Superman is defined by his ability to meet any challenge the future will bring. Nor is it the morality of what he chooses to do. Clark Kent’s reputation as a boy scout is undeserved, as no one I knew in Scouts was as well behaved as he is – living up to the highest moral standards is something he strives for every day and, even if he doesn’t succeed every time, he still serves as a high bar to confront. The core conflict of Superman is what he won’t do. What limits Superman will set is, and always will be, the thing that define him.

This is why the Superman of DC’s New 52 was so uninteresting. They took away his relationship with Lois Lane and made his love interest Wonder Woman. You can’t do that. Lois and Clark aren’t inseparable due to some deep spark of chemistry between the two. They’re inseparable because the nature of their characters complete one another. Lois Lane and Clark Kent are devoted to Truth and Justice, concepts that each pursue in their own ways with their own skills. For a long time Lois’ sense of moral and intellectual superiority blinded her to Clark and even now that they’re married he’s a constant reminder of the importance of the simple truths that undergird human nature. Superman may be able to do anything he wants but Clark can’t constantly watch over Lois’ shoulder or keep her from chasing truth in her own way without destroying everything he loves about her. The character dynamic there is deep and fascinating, in fact it’s at the root of some of the best Superman stories ever told, but the most important thing about it for our purposes is that the very fact that Lois puts a brake on what Superman will do is part of what makes Superman, the character, interesting.

Lois is not the only limit on Superman in the life of the character. Jimmy Olsen and Perry White both filled that role as well, offering a kind of friendship and mentoring respectively. Moreover, the very real responsibilities of a normal job and civic responsibilities kept Superman a character with dilemmas to confront, driven not by what he could or couldn’t do, but by what would be best for those he cared about. Too many modern superheroes are driven by abstract things. Tony Stark works for the future or progress but can’t hold a relationship together long enough for those concepts to have personal meaning. He stands aloof in his tower, making the calls he thinks are right, but when they go wrong the only skin he has in the game is the guilt trip that will come after him.

Maybe that’s all it should take. But it’s not interesting for very long. When the Man of Tomorrow made a bad call there was a nation, a city, and a small group of newspaper reporters who would feel it. At least, that’s how it was for a long time. But at some point the focus of Superman stories drifted to the Justice League, or alien invasions, or Lex Luthor. Superman renounced his U.S. citizenship so he could better represent the world, or something. He drifted from the Daily Planet more and more. Then they took away Lois Lane and everything that made Superman a man was gone. He was just a force of nature the DC editors constantly tried to slap a meaningful face on.

It was dreadful.

For the last year and a half the world’s first superhero has come into focus once again. Ever since the DC Rebirth event Clark’s marriage has been restored and he’s slowly returned to his job at the Daily Planet. The Justice League is still a part of Superman’s calling but once again his family is a part of that equation. But more than anything else, the thing that has defined Superman the most in the last two years is Jonathan Kent.

Not Clark’s adopted father, but his son.

Yes, Superman is a dad now. And he’s not a superdad. After countless years saving the world, earth’s first hero has to confront a new and disturbing notion: That he now serves as an example not for the abstract crowd of people that are humanity but rather a single boy who’s depended on him for everything from food and clothing to a moral code and the mindset to live it out. Clark can’t let Jon run wild, he has to respect the boundaries his wife wants put in place, he has to keep his son safe even as Jonathan tries to take his own place in the world. And Superman has to do it all while preventing natural disasters, fending off old rivals and keeping a day job. There’s never been more to do or more expectations to live up to while doing it.

There’s a charming moment in the Action Comics title where Superman actually dozes off while flying home one evening, summing up the character’s dynamic in a simple scene. This is Superman the workingman, pulling long hours and running himself ragged in the hope that the things he does and example he sets will make his family stronger and the world better. It’s all any of us can hope for, whether they have superstrength and laser vision or a normal job in a normal office. That shared limit we have on what we can hope for makes Superman a perfect character to lead DC’s heroes into a new age.

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Due Respect

If you’re going to do anything with the idea of superheroes, and you live in the US, then the first thing you must do is decide how you are going to handle Superman.

The Last Son of Krypton is an American icon, famous around the globe for his unmatched strength, in body and moral character. This month marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of his first appearance. Since then, the Man of Steel has been joined by legions of other heroes with extraordinary abilities, characters created by both his own publishing house and their rivals at Marvel. Every conceivable archetype has been filled – soldier, detective, mercenary, scholar, teacher, wizard and countless others. But in spite of the objections that his creed or powers or character are too simple,  Superman was, and in many minds still is, the first and most prominent superhero in existence.

Different stories with superheroes deal with Superman in different ways. The character was never created because there were real superheroes in the world already. The character was written about but is referenced only in passing. There’s someone with the abilities and character of Superman (a Superman analog) who exists in the world already, and thus the world didn’t need a fictional version. Or the story takes place before the Superman story existed or had enough popularity to be widely known. There are almost as many different solutions to the Superman issue as there are stories about superheroes. But if superheroes are your theme, then sooner or later Superman gets a nod of some sort.

Part of that is basic human nature. People want to see the things they like and they like to see those things in new and different lights. This is the origin of a thousand Star Wars vs. Star Trek and DC vs. Marvel geekfests. But it’s also due to the fact that there is nothing new under the sun. Many early superheroes have their origins in Jewish history and traditions, which are rife with decidedly superhuman goings on. But the American cultural legacy doesn’t include much in the way of superhuman activity- except, of course, for Superman and his ilk. So we expect something analogous to Superman to serve as the foundation for similar traditions in fiction.

And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that.

Superman is the embodiment of the flying brick archetype, founder of the garish superhero costume tradition and epitome of the hiding in plain sight tactics so many superheroes favor. When Siegel and Schuster first put Clark Kent together they created something truly enduring, and since the typical American will always associate Superman with superheroes in some way, if they plan to write in the superhero genre then they owe it to themselves and to their readers to be ready to say something about Superman.

In the Project Sumter universe Superman and other superheroes are problematic figures. While all the luminaries of the DC and Marvel lines exist there, for a myriad of reasons they’re not going to be referenced much by name. However, astute readers have probably already caught on to the fact that Helix, and many other talents, don’t like the portrayal of superheroes in American comics much, if only because they create so many untrue, and potentially dangerous ideas of what talents are and how they work. (There will be much more on this theme in Water Fall than there has been in Heat Wave. Assuming I remember it and can find the space.)

On top of the misconceptions many people will have about talents vs. superpowers, there’s the little fact that many superheroes are vigilantes, something that Project Sumter actively discourages. The government doesn’t just want private citizens to stay off it’s turf and not make them look bad – the fact is, a single individual, operating independently, is limited in their reach, their effectiveness, their knowledge of what’s going on and how to best deal with it and in their ability to contain dangerous situations and keep them from endangering others. Solo crime-fighting as a hobby just isn’t going to work very well, even if you do have a genius IQ and incredible funding. Vigilante crime-fighting teams are starting to look dangerously like an extragovernmental army and giving them all powerful and difficult to anticipate abilities doesn’t make things look any better.

As I worked on building Project Sumter’s world I kept pushing hard against the typical superhero ‘flying brick’ mentality. Most talents are as vulnerable as normal people to normal dangers and their powers have more limits and potentially bad side effects than those used by comic book superheroes. One reason was that I wanted powers that clearly acted as some poorly understood addendum to known laws of physics. But another was, the farther I was from stock superheroes the less I had to worry about fighting Superman’s shadow.

That’s not to say that he hasn’t gotten a nod or two. When you’re playing around in territory that has been heavily trod before you, the founders and trailblazers of that archetype in your culture deserves your respect. Part of that respect is finding your own way to tell your stories and part of that is giving you defining stories and characters their due respect.