I love Superman. I love the idea and the story of Superman. I don’t love Superman because he’s the strongest, most indestructable, fastest flying hero ever imagined since God… only self-absorbed douchebags love him for that reason. I love him for the weighty challenges that the idea of Superman creates and how those ideas relate to the human condition in a unique way. This post is another in the category of “no one should read this except for me”, but considering this month of June 2013 has seen Superman return to the movie theatres in Man of Steel, and marks the 75th anniversary of his first published appearance, now is pretty much the right time for me to pen these thoughts (for my own edification).
My Fortress of Solitude
But first, a little fun fact. I moved from Edmonton to Toronto a couple of years ago… in a bit of a rush. I needed to find an apartment over the internet from Edmonton and secure it sight unseen. I spent some time considering moving into the same area that I used to live in and a couple of other areas of the city. I was on kijiji and i noticed a listing for a condo for rent on Joe Shuster Way – a new street carved into the west end of Toronto’s downtown. Joe Shuster is the illustrator-co-creator of the Man of Steel who was born in Toronto. The building is on 38 Joe Shuster Way – (19)38 being the year Superman appeared first in Action Comics. If ever there were a building designed to celebrate everyone’s favourite Kryptonian in blue tights, this was it. I was living there come hell or high water. And as a direct result of that decision, I met the most amazing woman who has changed my life and triggered an uninterrupted succession of life victories. But more about that in another post.
When I was a young boy, my father returned to University part time to obtain his Bachelor of Science at the University of Alberta. On weekends, he would take me with him to study in the University libraries or the public libraries (which in hindsight, doesn’t sound like it was a lot of fun, compared to say, ChuckeeCheezes or whatever it’s called). But I also remember Dad buying me little digest versions of Superman or Action Comics at the campus drug store and reading them while my Dad studied. It was even better in the public libraries where I could find hard-covered Superman anthologies with maybe a dozen issues contained inside. I think I read them every single time I went to the public library. While generations before me grew up on a literary diet of Tom Sawyer or heroes from Jules Verne or Edgar Rice Burroughs, I had Superman who would routinely blow planets out of orbit with his super-breath or magnetize asteroids by rubbing his hands along them at super-speed… the feats Superman achieved in the 60s and 70s were masterpieces of impossible hyperbole and for a kid under 10, it was just the kind of thing to transport his imagination out of a pretty dreary northern prairie town.
I remember the series of capes that my Mom made for me from the time that I was maybe 6 until… my twenties? no that’s a joke – I only wore capes until maybe 12. There was the strangely opposite blue-cape that stands out in my mind, as well as several red ones with yellow or red-and-yellow “S” sigils. I would wear them mostly for running down the lane with my arms out in front of me pretending to fly George-Reeves-style, or ice-skating, or riding my bicycle. I think that I took them to school from time to time. Memories like these make me wonder at how fortunate I was to grow up in a town and a time where bullying wasn’t so big a problem as it is today. And this point feeds into a greater theme of using Superman to measure my own gratitude for my own well being.
Monday will be Canada Day, so I think that it would be worthwhile to point out how Superman is almost as Canadian as he is American…
- Joe Shuster was born in Toronto, Canada, and he has asserted that Metropolis was inspired by Toronto, not New York, and that the Daily Planet was actually inspired by the Toronto Star;
- The Salkind Superman movies had their Smallville components filmed in Alberta, so the place where Superman grew up looked eerily like where I grew up… ummm, because it was;
- Margot Kidder, Christopher Reeve’s Lois Lane, is Canadian;
- The WC program Smallville filmed its ten seasons near Vancouver, BC;
- Erica Durance, who played Lois Lane in Smallville is from Calgary;
- The City of Calgary recently faced an unprecedented crisis in the form of epic flooding and its Mayor has blurred the lines between being mortal and being Superman himself.
The Problem with being Superman
The problem with being Superman is that apart from Kryptonite and distance from super-pwer-inducing yellow sun radiation, you’re pretty much unstoppable. While the magnitude of his powers have ebbed and flowed from only being able to jump great distances to being able to propell himself around the planet so fast it reverses time itself, the implicit notion to Superman is that he is both an unstoppable force and immovable object rolled into one. Superman always prevails because he represents our ultimate expression of insurmountability. You say you have giant crystal-island of Kryptonite growing in your ocean? Don’t worry that Superman loses his powers and can be killed by something like that – he will still find a way to push millions of tonnes of rock out of the Earth’s gravity and into space. Only such an impossible and contrary to belief challenge is suitable for a hero who is indefatigable by design.
This makes it ridiculously difficult to write a good story about Superman. Lex Luthor thrusts Kryptonite and Red Sun rays at him every chance he gets. Brainiac causes large-scale mayhem all around Superman and watched him run around trying to save everyone. Bizarro packs as heavy a wallop as Superman, so they are matched adversaries. But the fact is that apart from those cataclysm-inducing conflicts, Superman’s only real challenges are internal ones.
Superman’s only real challenges are internal ones – but then again, that’s true of everyone
This comes to the heart of why I love Superman. If you remove all obstacles from a person’s ability to influence his or her reality, then you have the kind of hyper-powered entity that would resemble Superman. Superman represents full actualization of every imaginable potential to interact with reality – and it’s totally impossible. Ridiculously impossible.
But Superman reminds me that no matter what powers I have or don’t have, the only thing that stops me from influencing reality around me is myself. I have my health and my legs, so the only thing stopping me from running a marathon is myself and my own willpower. The gifts I do have are mine to revel in or to squander, just as Superman’s are. No matter how rich or poor we are in those gifts, Superman is an extreme example that shows our responsibility to be appreciative of those gifts and to use them for the betterment of everyone.
And it makes sense to me that we should. But perhaps that’s just because I’ve been a fan of Superman all my life. 😛