Nerd Factor: Who is Superman?

Dr. Mike Robinson, LC Communication Studies Professor~

The answer seems simple enough.  But there is a certain genius in that small, factual sentence.  

Eighty years ago, Superman arrived in “Action Comics” #1. The cover of the comic depicts Superman lifting a gangster’s car over his head and crashing it against a rock.  By today’s standards, that seems like a light day’s work for the Man of Steel. But the harried look on the face of the fleeing villain in the cover’s bottom left corner shows us how startling it was at the time.  

Superpowers were the crucial difference, the spectacular element that set Superman apart from the various crime busters and adventurers who shared the anthology comic with him in separate stories. It seems strange to us, now, but before, the characters with vast superpowers tended to be the villains.  Flipping the idea around, co-creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster gave the Depression-era audiences a guardian to help them in their time of need. No wonder Superman’s popularity exploded.

Over time, Superman’s resume of abilities would dramatically increase.  At different points in his career, he moved around planets and flew fast enough to time travel. Those power levels have also been scaled back at times, but Superman retains a vast and flashy set of powers that anyone would envy. For that reason, it’s very easy to see Superman as a power fantasy.  And why not? After all, everyone dreams of flying.

But the other side of the equation also contributes to the greatness of Superman.  Clark Kent may not seem like much. In fact, in some eras, he is presented as an almost agonizingly neurotic disguise for the Man of Tomorrow.  These affectations may make it difficult to see the two most important elements of Clark.

Superman

Illustration by Genevieve Griffin

First, Clark Kent is from Kansas.  As we all know, he got there in a rocket, fleeing from a doomed planet like a modern day Moses.  The Kansas he arrived in was pure American mythology, all golden fields of grain and wholesome heartland values.  Clark is a character steeped in the greatest virtues and aspirations we imagine rural life to contain, the best possible man he could be.

Second, Clark Kent is a journalist.  He succeeds in a profession that does not rely on his powers.  Yes, there are definite advantages to having x-ray vision and super-hearing.  Typing at superspeed helps too. And all those exclusive “interviews” with Superman are a bit of a cheat.  However, Clark does not possess a power called “super writing.” He puts words to page from the same starting point as an ordinary person.  Those words are designed to inform and to aid. Clark Kent saves the world one sentence at a time.

I think this is why Superman can be disappointing these days.  We see more super and less man. Comics have only had so many pages and movies can only be so long. The current cinematic Superman is a dour presence, because Clark mostly exists to sex up Lois and occasionally walk into The Daily Planet for no clear reason.  There is nothing to separate the character from the legion of super-beings that followed in his wake after “Action Comics” #1.  The human element gets downplayed or lost altogether in favor of, ironically, the action.