Superman: An American Mythic Hero

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Photo by Kevin Shirley
Photo by Kevin Shirley

First, an admission: I have never read a Superman comic. My exposure to the character has been strictly limited to the 1950s television show and the Christopher Reeve movies. So I was intrigued by the possibilities of what I might learn by attending the 80 years of Superman panel in Hyatt International North on Saturday. Michael Bailey, along with Matthew Clark, Gail Simone, Alex Sinclair, and Thomas F. Zahler, led the audience through a lively and informative discussion of the character and his significance. This was an eclectic panel with artists and authors bringing their unique perspective and experience to the conversation.

A recurring theme of the talk was the issue of grappling with the character and how to explore him. What these artists sought to do was to focus on Superman’s humanity. Often that meant focusing in on the relationship between Clark Kent and Lois Lane. Gail Simone embraced this dimension of the character in her work, as did Matthew Clark. For Clark, this pointed to Kent’s fundamental humanity and vulnerability. Using a comparison between Superman and Batman to illustrate the point, Clark argued that Clark Kent had to put on a costume to become Superman while Batman had to put on a costume to become Bruce Wayne.

Superman has always been both timeless and contemporary. Simone reflected extensively upon the ideals he embodies. “Superman represents so much” and embodies “American ideals.” He was an orphan and an immigrant. He grew up on a farm, worked hard and got an education, went to the city and became a reporter, a champion of the free press. These are fundamental American values and speak to the fundamental nature of the character.

The character, however, has led more than one writer/creator to shy away from taking Superman on. For many authors, it’s always been easy to get caught up in his powers. For others, their hesitancy to write for Superman is driven by a fear of letting the audience down. As a writer, what’s required is that the threats be real. One panelist commented on the brilliance of making Lex Luthor a businessman. A successful story grows out of creating a problem Superman can’t punch his way out of. What’s important is making the invulnerable vulnerable, and to do that the human dimension of Superman must drive the narrative. According to Simone, Superman’s greatest vulnerability is that he cares for everybody. And yet even Superman can’t be everywhere at once. His opponents, especially Lex Luthor, know that and exploit it. For Matthew Clark, Superman’s greatest vulnerability is the depth of his love for Lois Lane. That human dimension of Superman is easily tapped through his supporting cast, of which Simone believes is the best in all of comics.

When asked about the future of Superman in the movies, there was clear consensus about a way forward. What was called for wasn’t a retelling of old stories but rather new ones. Moreover, in all cases, Superman’s motivation should be well defined.

Toward the end of the hour the panel offered some reflection on the relationship between the DC and Marvel rivalry. Where Marvel is the powerhouse on the big screen, the DC universe dominates TV. The panel saw a kind of synergy between the two in which they benefit from and inspire each other to do better work. Competition, said Sinclair, leads you to want to be better.

Superman remains both contemporary and timeless. How else can one explain his longevity? He is an American mythic hero.

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