The year is 1961. The place is southernmost Ohio, a rural residence facing a narrow, curvy road. Behind the house is a six-year-old boy. Having grown tired of his stick horse, he casts it aside. He raises his arms and begins to run. Imitating the sound of flight—“sssshhhhhhh”—little legs churning, imaginary cape flapping behind him, he charges down the steep hill toward the house. For some reason, he’s unable to stop himself. The ecstasy of imagination burns away in the flaming terror of—
The boy thrusts both hands through the window, shattering it, instantly learning a rough lesson in the difference between fantasy and reality. He earns 13 stitches in his arm, a scar he wears to this day—the mark of Superman.
The hero has made an impression, all right, and not just on my left forearm. From the dream of two high school boys to a cultural icon, from a social activist in circus garb to a demigod, Superman’s saga has been told and retold (e.g., here and here). His flight from the comic page into other forms of media ultimately secured his place in our collective consciousness.
But 75 years after the first kids plunked down the first dimes for the first issue of Action Comics, is Superman still a viable commodity? In a world of dark knights and scowling wolverines, is this big blue Boy Scout still a pop cultural force to be reckoned with? Does he remain the Man of Tomorrow, or has the passage of time been as deadly as Kryptonite?
Not all signs are encouraging. Some argue that the comic book industry, which Superman essentially created, is on its last legs. Late in 2012, D.C. Comics, which publishes Superman, came out with a total reboot of their line, “The New 52.” The new comics dropped the old numbering, starting all over again with Number One. The revamp did away with much of the Man of Steel’s lore. His marriage to Lois Lane was chucked, along with his red trunks (replaced by Kryptonian “battle armor”). There was some attempt, at least in the beginning, to take Superman back to his roots as a populist protector and defender of the little guy. Lately, however, he’s back to dealing with supervillains and planetary menaces.
As the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The changes don’t seem to have had a great effect on failing comic book shops throughout the land. Though Comic Book Resources’ most recent report says sales are up, they’re talking less about readership and more about retailer orders. Today, it seems that superhero comics are being retained mostly for their licensing value. With the print media all but dead, Superman seems largely dependent on film and television to stay commercially viable.
Complicating the matter is the hero’s long absence from the big screen. After the last Christopher Reeve movie, nineteen years went by before another Superman film reached the cineplex—“Superman Returns” didn’t meet studio execs’ financial expectations. When “Man of Steel” opens in June, seven more years will have passed. Many have noted the somber tone of the most recent trailer, a sure sign that the filmmakers don’t consider Big Blue as compelling a concept as the down-and-dirty Dark Knight. Hollywood and Funnybook-land are holding their breath, hoping for a hit.
Financial success is one thing. Cultural influence is another. As a Baby Boomer brought up on a plethora of Superman titles plucked off spinner racks (long since done away with), I find the lack of basic Superman knowledge among today’s youth disturbing.
For example, as one junior-higher went out the church door after worship, I complimented him on his bow tie: “Reminds me of Jimmy Olsen,” I said. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry at the look of utter incomprehension on his face. His mother unnecessarily stated, “He doesn’t know who Jimmy Olsen is.” Yeah, him and a whole lot of others! Kids do know the name “Superman,” and many of them wear T-shirts emblazoned with the emblem. On the whole, however, his influence does seem to be waning.
Nevertheless, we don’t seem to be quite finished with the kid from Krypton. He still has the power to inspire—and to polarize.
Gambling on the hoped for success of “Man of Steel,” D.C. recently announced three new Superman titles, including one called “Adventures of Superman.” The first issue of AoS was to contain a story written by science-fiction author Orson Scott Card. That is, it was until someone found out that Card is on the board of an organization called the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes same-sex marriage.
In an article for the Deseret News, Jim Bennett describes the campaign against Card’s involvement in the Superman project:
“The Atlantic magazine has already labeled Mr. Card as a ‘fascist.’ Thousands of activists have signed petitions to have him removed from his Superman assignment, and some comic book stores are refusing to carry his work when it is published. The protests have been successful in persuading the artist [fan favorite Chris Sprouse] slated to draw the comic book to withdraw, and now the future of the project is in doubt.”
The last word from D.C. was that Card’s Superman script has been shelved for now.
Many critics and pundits leapt into the fray, including Glen Weldon, author of “Superman: The Unauthorized Biography.” Weldon, who is homosexual, opposed Card’s writing Superman stories on compelling grounds. From the first, he says, Superman was a champion of the oppressed. The Man of Steel has since evolved into a symbol of what mankind can be, the human ideal. But . . .
“DC Comics has handed the keys to the ‘Champion of the Oppressed’ to a guy who has dedicated himself to oppress me, and my partner, and millions of people like us. It represents a fundamental misread of who the character is, and what he means.
“It is dispiriting. It is wearying. It is also, finally, not for me.”
Though I am not in sympathy with Glen Weldon’s ends, I warm to his idea of Superman. Nevertheless, as a Christian, I am forced to choose.
Ultimately, my allegiance cannot be to a demigod, a human “ideal,” because human beings are flawed, sinful creatures. Their basic nature is self-loving and God-hating. Thus, Superman’s owners and handlers must always be chained to public perception, the ever-changing mores of society, and the almighty dollar.
In short, despite how much we may want him to be, Superman isn't our Savior. He remains at best a crude imitation, a shadow of reality. As badly as we might want to, there's no way to enter Superman's story. Amazingly, the Son of God entered ours.
We can still enjoy Superman. We can cheer him on. We can wish him a happy seventy-fifth birthday and many more. But the Mighty One, the Ageless One, the One who speaks the same word now and always, beckons.
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