What can be said about the Last Son of Krypton that hasn’t already been said? We all already know everything about him, his origins, his secret identity, his powers, his supporting cast, his personality, etc. But lets think all of that over again, because, while we all already know these things, I feel like there’s far too many people who misunderstand them and simply write Superman off as too simple. It’s easy to understand how some people may think that, he is, after all, the definitive superhero, the first one that everyone thinks of when asked to name a hero, and this mindset can easily lead people to also think of him as generic, as just your typical overpowered boy scout with nothing else particularly groundbreaking about him. I’ll admit right now that I used to feel this exact way about the Man of Tomorrow, I thought that he was too powerful for anything to challenge him, or that he wasn’t morally complex enough which, according the edgy mind that only a middle schooler and Zack Snyder can have, pretty much just meant that he wasn’t dark and brooding like Batman. But, one day something happened that that made me start to change my mind, I actually started to read some Superman comics and I finally began to understand why he’s so beloved by so many, and I now consider him to be one of my favorite superheroes. This has all been one giant preamble to explain that I want to take a look at some of his most iconic stories and explain why being an overpowered boy scout makes Superman super.
As I’ve already said, we all already know the basics of Superman, so I don’t plan on going over them here. If you feel like you need a crash course in Superman’s basic history, then the video “The Story Of Superman – Basic Superman 101 – Who is Superman?” from the YouTube channel “Brad The DC Universe Geek” can serve as an excellent guide.
After you have his basics though, where do you go from there? I mean, Superman has had over 80 years of active publishing, and has undergone multiple reboots, retcons, alternate timelines, etc. Well, I think, that the best starting point for Superman is Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s phenomenal 12 issue series, “All-Star Superman,” a storyline that is commonly considered by many to be the greatest Superman story ever told. Set in its own, self-contained universe, “All-Star Superman” tell a story about Superman developing a terminal condition from overexposure to sunlight and finding out that he only has around a year left to live, and seeing how he chooses to spend that year. Morrison has stated that their intention with this story was to write something that payed homage to various pieces of Superman lore, while still making it as new-comer friendly as possible, almost as though they wanted it to be the definitive Superman story, something which most of the Superman fandom agrees that they did fantastically. Honestly, as good as it is, and as much as it alone could support my pro-Superman arguments, I’m kind of hesitant to say anything else about this series, out of fear of spoiling it for anyone who hasn’t already read it. That being said, there is one page in particular that feel I need to address, one page that almost serves as the thesis for the story as a whole.
This one page contains every major theme in the “All-Star Superman” series: the preciousness of life; the inevitability of death; and, most importantly for our purposes, the human decency that serves as Superman’s primary motivation. To give a little bit of context, once again without spoiling too much, we see earlier in the issue someone on the phone frantically telling Regan that they got held up, they were almost caught in a train accident that Superman had stopped, and to stay in the apartment. Later, in the page right before this one, Superman is in the middle of an intimate conversation with Lois Lane when he has to stop the conversation early to go and help Regan on this page, and then the moment is never brought up again after this page. Superman took the time out of his busy day, interrupting a precious moment with the love of his life, just to save this one girl, just to embrace her and personally let her know that there are people who care about her, people who would be devastated if she took her own life. This moment is far more than just Superman saving the day, this is Superman acting as an exemplar of what it means to show basic kindness and decency others, and, in at least one instance, having a real impact on real people. This is probably the iconic moment of this entire iconic series, and as much as I want to sit here and talk about the rest of the series for at length, I really would rather anyone who hasn’t read it already to read it on their own with as few spoilers as possible.
Before we move on, I would be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to tell everyone reading this that you absolutely do matter. If you’re ever in that kind of dark spot where everything seems hopeless and like death is the only way out, just know that even though there’s no real Superman to come to the rescue, help is nevertheless one human interaction away, be it with your family, your friends, your acquaintances, or even a call or text to the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. If not for yourself, then do it for your loved ones, because you really do make their lives exponentially better.
Now that the PSA is taken care of, I’d like to redirect our focus from one of the most beloved Superman stories to another PSA. “Superman: For The Animals” was a single issue comic written by Mark Millar with art by Tom Grummett and Dick Giordano that was made in collaboration with the Doris Day Animal Foundation in an attempt to spread awareness about animal rights and to encourage readers to stand up against animal abuse. Based just off of that brief background of the comic, one may assume that they already know exactly what its about; Superman finds out about some criminal overlord that’s running a dog fighting ring, or some corrupt scientist that’s conducting inhumane experiments on animals, or something along those lines, and then beats up the bad guys, rescues the animals, and then gives an empowering speech to a group of local kids about animal right. Well, those assumptions would be wrong. The comic actually takes a much more sophisticated approach, focusing on a 12-year-old boy named Tommy Delaney who ends up in befriending a group of troublemakers lead by a kid (hilariously) named Ballser. After befriending them, Tommy would eventually find out that these kids were habitual animal abusers, and that Ballser was a habitual animal killer. Superman himself actually barely appears in the story, serving instead as a framing device and as a source of inspiration for Tommy to stand up to Ballser, and it’s in that minimalist role that the true beauty of Superman’s character shines through. First off, the framing device is Superman reading letters sent to him from all over the world asking for his help, showing just how truly kind he is to everyone. Secondly, and much more importantly, Superman being shown as a source of inspiration for Tommy is a perfect analog for how we as readers should be interpreting Superman, as a source of inspiration to always stand up for what’s right and to always to kindness to all other living things.
Tommy first sees Superman after Ballser throws a cat off of a highway overpass, with Superman catching the cat at the last moment, saving its life. Ballser insulting use of “boy scout” fells as though its directly calling out that common criticism that we talked about earlier, but for Tommy it would eventually go on to be a badge of honor.
These comics show just what Superman is really all about, kindness, compassion, and human decency. Superman may be an alien, but he really is the most human of all superheroes, and just as Tommy was inspired by him, so too should we all be.