We’re going to start this off with one of the most obvious characters we could possibly use. Often hailed as the first superhero, Superman is easily in the top ten recognizable trademarks on the planet. So what is it about him?
Put simply: He’s the best of us. Stripping away everything else, at his deepest core, Superman represents the humanity, the heart, that can change the world. He’s what we could be if only we never backed down. If we did what we knew was right, listened and were willing to change our minds, and generally acted from the heart after carefully and honestly weighing options, even if we disagreed with them.
Now, you can say Superman is a Moses story (it was never Jesus, honest, though yes in the movies and such they have tried to switch it to a Jesus analogy) what with the baby being sent down the river (the galaxy) by his parents and so on. Sure. But really, Superman hits a different angle I don’t see discussed as often. He represents what we could be as adults.
Most comic readers were kids, remember. Many of them on the cusp of adulthood. And Superman is one of the ultimate adults. He represents the power of adulthood, in obvious ways, with his super-abilities. But even more so in his actions. For him, growing up, taking on the responsibility of adulthood is not something to be done lightly. It is a responsibility that never goes away. You have to protect the world, your fellow man and you have to care.
He’s the best of us, and worst of all he knows it. It makes him sad. Because, of course, Superman wants us all to be at his level. He feels the lack, that we can’t share with him the power and joy that come from being so heart-driven, so compassionate and strong.
Which is why, really, he has to be not-human. By making superman an alien you can have your cake and eat it too. He can be the best of us, that shining example for everyone but as the ultimate outsider he is also not tied to any one place or mindset. It allows for a more universal adoption of the character. Now that isn’t always necessary, nor is it always the best way to get there. But in this case it works. Because you want a Superman who is cut off, making due, the best he can be and yet even then he will never fully be 100% human, not in his own head. He can’t be. He is the last of his kind. No matter how much he is accepted, he can’t forget, himself.
And once you can see him in the light of being the best of us you start to understand his villains. Luthor, for example, hates Superman. He hates him more than anything. But he doesn’t hate him because superman is the most powerful thing, or that his power reduces ordinary humans to uselessness in comparison. No, Luthor hates him because he can’t feel the same level of compassion, and he is so smart he understands his flaw and sees how it stops him. So he redirects and takes that self-hatred, that knowing flaw, out on an external force that, he also knows, will always forgive him and understand him. They’re tied, those two.
Braniac is another easy villain that has come back into prominence in the last decade. As a robot, he has, classically, no feelings. Making him Superman’s true opposite. The power without the compassion. The force without love guiding it. Also, he’s a robot. Robots are cool.
Superman is everything we could be, if we felt deep enough and trusted in ourselves and one another enough. He can save you with a kind word as well as stopping bullets. You can do the same, he tells us. You can all do the same.
Recommended reading: Here is a short list of graphic novels that represent great Superman stories:
DC: The New Frontier by Darwyn Cooke
Superman: Birthright by Mark Waid and Leninil Yu
Previously on Core Concepts: The Start!