Lessons from Superman
Not Just a Strange Visitor
Of all of the comic book superheroes to enter American consciousness, Superman resonates with us, the most.
Why? He’s the one who saves the day. As mortal men, any job that’s too large for us to handle, we call for help. It is the fantasy that someone with powers exponentially greater than ours will come and heed our call. In the thirties, when organized crime terrorized local neighborhoods and crooked politicians ran everything, they needed a figure to answer the prayer – “Who will save us?”
It was then that two high school kids imagined a “super” man. In 1938, Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster created a strange visitor from another planet who pledged himself toward Truth, Justice, and the American way. He came because it was a scary time for them. Crime was everywhere. So they needed a hero who’d be immune to all of these things. Where gangsters used machine guns and other firearms to get their ways, bullets would have no effect on this hero. It was only natural that he could bend steel with his bare hands, leap tall buildings in a single bound, change the course of mighty rivers, and outrace a speeding bullet.
This demi-god hero burst through comics like no other.
When Superman was first published, he was like nothing anyone had ever seen before. Action Comics #1 had no words on the cover outside of “Action Comics”, the issue number (1), the date (June 1938), and the price (10 cents). Readers knew nothing about Superman.
All they knew was some guy wearing a cape, could lift a car over his head and smash it against a rock. The figure dressed like a circus strongman with a blue leotard and cape wasn’t to be trifled with.
No one could stand up to Superman. Nothing could harm the man of steel.
After all, he could do all kinds of mighty things with the bonus of making petty villains soil themselves in abject fear.
While many can make the obvious connections to Superman being a messiah figure as the product of two sons of Jewish immigrants, the real cry from readers at that time was for justice.
Shuster and Seigel wanted readers to know that’s what they were getting with their hero. More than any other element, when we look at Superman, we see a huge red and gold shield on his chest. That giant “S” shaped badge symbolized law and order for people who were too helpless to fight the terrible things causing them misery.
In the almost eighty years of Superman stories, his character managed to evolve with each decade, becoming a new Superman for each generation. I believe this character has a lot to teach us in his mythology. There’s much to be said in the way Superman acts. Whether he’s speaking as the son of Krypton or whether he’s masquerading as the mild-mannered reporter, Clark Kent, there’s a lot to be learned.
People Can’t Be Extraordinary All the Time – Life is a Balance
As said in the movie Kill Bill Part 2, the concept of the alter ego is a major part of the comic mythology. It’s very different from Joseph Campbell’s, The Hero’s Journey. Traditionally, the hero, at one point of his story, becomes extraordinary and comes to a point of no return. He is committed to his course and he leaves his mundane life to finish his mission.
This is not true for most comic book heroes.
Superman’s mission is a never-ending battle.
What does that mean? It doesn’t end. He does it forever or until he dies. However, every comic book hero needs down time. They stop fighting as the superhero and they return to their mundane lives in their secret identity as their “alter ego”.
An “alternative” ego. An alternative self and state of being. They stop being heroic and they go back to a life that is normal. We should all understand this concept. Most of us have to be another person in our professional lives and then there is the person we are in our personal lives.
As Bill (from Kill Bill) said,
“Batman is actually Bruce Wayne. Spider-man is actually Peter Parker. When that character wakes up in the morning, he is actually Peter Parker. He has to put on a costume to become Spider-man. And it is in that characteristic that Superman stands alone. Superman didn’t become Superman. He was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red “S”, that was the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kent’s found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears, the business suit and the glasses, that’s the costume. That the costume that Superman wears to blend in with us.”
Why does Superman have a need for an alter ego? He is Superman, after all. He doesn’t tire. For all we know, he doesn’t need to eat, drink, or breathe, either. Physically, he can go on and do this until his mighty super-heart stops beating.
The real reason why is simple.
He needs to become Clark Kent to ground himself. He needs to connect with the people he’s sworn to protect. After all, how dedicated can a being be if he loses touch with his raison d’etre? He does this by becoming someone who is much like a human being. It is quite ironic that Bill also cements his claim to Superman’s specific alter ego with the following statement.
“Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He’s weak. He’s unsure of himself. He’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race.“
He’s not wrong. His assessments, which point to Superman’s possible arrogance, can not be understated. When compared to an average human being, he is right.
In order to sympathize with the people who need his protection, he needs to blend with them. These are the unsure, weak people who cannot defend themselves. If they were stronger and more capable, they’d save themselves. They are unable to handle these crises.
However, there is the reason why Superman doesn’t answer every call. When he says, “This looks like a job for Superman”, he’s being quite literal. It is a job that only he can handle. He expects most of the humans to handle their own problems.
Only super crises are for a Superman.
He knows where the line is between protecting people and keeping people. Protecting people is allowing them to evolve, learn, and make mistakes. Keeping people is like having pets. A pet does not grow. A pet doesn’t become self-reliant. A pet relies on its master to feed and care for it.
There is a balance.
In his mission to protect the people of Earth, Clark Kent blends with earthlings to be part of their lives and grows to understand and love the people he lives with. All of this love and acceptance comes at a cost. This sentiment is underlined within the pages of Danny Fingeroth’s Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superhero, by Jules Feiffer, former assistant to Will Eisner on The Spirit, as he said, “America cloned itself into a country made up of a million of Clark Kents. And day after day, you could hear them muttering to themselves: ‘I’m not really like this. If only they knew my real identity.'”
The cost is for Superman to be less than what he really is. He needs to understand the mundane world because the only way for him to live in that world is to be mundane.
To understand people properly, they must also be themselves. We all know what it’s like to be star struck. We act like complete fools. The person we are in front of celebrities is not our real self. Imagine being with Superman in normal circumstances in an office environment. Would you act naturally? Would you be any different? Of course, you would. Part of why Superman is Clark Kent is for the benefit of everyone else.
After all, who’s going to feel self-conscious around a vulnerable, weak, unsure coward?
The hero has to be very careful to keep his alter ego identity a secret. There is too much to lose if it’s revealed. The keyword with that is secret. The agreed upon reason why secret identities have to remain secret is to protect the lives of loved ones. Enemies who know Superman’s secret identity can harm him through his friends and loved ones.
What lesson does the alter ego teach us? We all need our down time. When we spend too much time in our professional life, our personal life might suffer if we fail to ground ourselves to why we work. We work to keep a good quality of life. When we spend too much time within our personal lives our professional life is bound to suffer. Too much down time and people lose their “edge”. We become less adept at our livelihood when we fail to keep our skills sharp.
It’s the yin and yang of life. We as humans must remember that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. That is balanced with all play and no work makes Jack a jerk. Who we are in both worlds serves the functions of both worlds while in either.
Superman Struggles with His Creativity and Intelligence as Much as We Do
Possibly one of the best superhero dynamics in all of comicdom has been the unlikely alliance between Batman and Superman – the World’s Finest team. The World’s Finest comic, originally launched from 1941 to 1986 and then relaunched in 2012, paired the man of steel with the dark knight on monthly adventures.
New readers might immediately wonder why Superman needs anyone to team up with to fight crime. After all, as a member of a scientific genius alien race who have an incredible array of yellow sun powered superpowers on Earth, why would Superman need a mere mortal man with severe psychological scarring to help him? Remember, Superman’s day job is that he’s an investigative reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper. He’s not stupid.
Bruce Wayne is just a billionaire wastrel in his civilian guise.
Well, there are two things with that. With billions of dollars of disposable income come international celebrity status. Money opens doors. When an incredibly dangerous super villain is on the run and our two heroes are chasing him, it’s good to know certain financial hardships can be avoided through a swipe of Wayne’s quadruple platinum credit card or a phone call to the right place or government official.
It’s one thing to be faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive, but when a lead won’t talk, it’s nice to know power, money, influence, and persuasion can open doors that brute force can’t.
However, more than any kind of financial resource, Bruce Wayne is also Batman – a man who has totally dedicated himself to the war on crime and is the DCU’s greatest detective. Imagine a man who has convincingly made himself into an urban myth. When criminals encounter this being, who seemingly knows everything about them before he even starts his interrogation, the illusion borders on the supernatural.
The reasoning skills that Batman has, rival those of Sherlock Holmes. We all know that Superman’s microscopic vision powers allow him the ability to see atoms dance with each other, but that can only tell him so much. They’re only part of the deductive process. Superman can see but he does not observe.
After all, the science of detection is “observation and deduction”.
As Clark Kent does have skills from investigative reporting, they pale in comparison to Batman’s razor-sharp deductive mind that was cultivated over a decade of intense study (along with his martial arts, scientific, and disguise skills). These are disciplines of the mind. It could be argued that Superman’s physiology allows his super brain to make some mental connections faster than a regular human’s, however, the very specific knowledge needed to solve crimes with Batman’s intimate deductive experience combined with the resources he has at his disposal still makes the dark knight a powerful ally.
Superman as Clark Kent respects how hard creativity and intellectual prowess are to cultivate. In addition to his work as a reporter, Clark Kent is a successful novelist and fiction author of both Under a Yellow Sun and The Janus Contract. From Superman’s point of view, he (like most writers) takes elements from his own life and brings them into his fictional stories. For the most part, he still struggles with the creativity that all mortal writers have in finding the right words which have more… um… oomph.
Writing can be maddening. It’s nice to know that no matter how well the last son of Krypton can lift a supertanker or blast holes in iron with his heat vision, he still suffers from writer’s block.
Creativity and Intelligence have to cultivated with discipline and practice. Everyone struggles with them at times.
Superman’s Greatest Challenge is Restraint
One of the best animated episodes of the long lamented DC cartoons, Justice League Unlimited, was the one titled, Destroyer. Superman and Batman face off against the Jack Kirby ultimate bad guy, Darkseid. In the first part of the battle between Superman and Darkseid, the man of steel is getting the snot beat out of him by the ruler of Apokolips. Batman manages to distract Darkseid with a minor attack before Superman unleashes the full force of his Krypton birthed powers in this monolog.
“That man (Batman) won’t quit while he can still draw breath – none of my teammates will. Me? I’ve got a different problem. I feel like I live in a world made of cardboard – always taking constant care not to break something, to break someone. Never allowing myself to lose control, even for a moment or someone could die. But you can take it. Can’t you, big man? What we have here is a rare opportunity for me to cut loose and show you just how powerful I really am.”
Think about that. At his most powerful, Superman has been known to actually move the planet Earth with his bare hands (Our Worlds At War). What is the difference in strength level moderation between that and the strength needed to write with a pencil or type on a keyboard? How does a man live with the fact that unintentionally bumping into a person as Clark Kent could be like hitting a person with a truck? How can he properly embrace the people he loves? How in the fit of anger can he keep himself from turning an opponent into blood flavored jello?
Where are we when we really get angry at our loved ones and want to do nothing but throw pointed word daggers at them? When the former linebacker marries a ninety-five-pound cheerleader and finds her doing something unthinkable, does he curl his fingers into a fist and pound the living hell out of her? What happens when your dog urinates on the carpet you just finished steam cleaning? How do you treat a special needs child who throws a tantrum?
On the flipside of anger, when we look at Superman as Clark Kent, his greatest achievement was getting Lois Lane to fall in love with him as Clark Kent. He had to have her see his very soul without him using his power or making himself to be more than a “mild-mannered reporter”. She was the one thing he wanted to have more than anything else in the world and he knew that while he was wearing the cape and boots, he could woo her easily.
Think about the classic scene in the 1978 Superman movie where Christopher Reeves’s Kent has his first date with Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane. Superman spent the evening as a man with confidence and strength. After he ends the date, he shows up at Lois’s front door as Clark. We see for an instant as Lois is getting her coat that Clark straightens his posture again, takes off his glasses, and then speaks with his normal voice an octave lower than Clark’s tenor. However, just before he says anything relevant, he realizes that it’s just wrong to do that and slides his “Clark mask” back in place.
Just as he knows being Superman all of the time is bad, he also knows that the love he gains from Lois as Superman is not love but infatuation for a celebrity.
Brian Singer, the director of the 2006 movie, Superman Returns, believed that both Clark Kent and Superman were both masks. The real man who is Kal-El (Superman’s birth name) is the one who has manufactured both disguises. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique of humanity and Superman is the ideal to whom they can’t aspire to. But in reality, it is Kal-El who is the real person behind both personalities and who he truly is when he drops the façades. It is also Kal-El who always needs to make the judgment calls that either identity makes – much like the superego in anyone’s mind.
Kal-El is the one Lois had to fall in love with. It had to be without sex (which would probably kill a mortal woman) and it had to be without being suave, mighty, or super confident. He had to get her to see him through either disguise and love him for who he really was.
That lesson for us is to be ourselves with the ones we love and to restrain the tendencies we may use in either our professional lives or the face we show the outside world.
The Super Messiah
There is a long-standing argument that Superman is a messianic figure. Practically everything in his early mythology says so. The heavenly father who sends his only son to be with mortals on earth with powers and abilities beyond all men – sent to save us all. Many have said the big red “S” stands for “savior”. When this is compounded with his “Death of Superman” resurrection story, it gets hard to ignore.
Many heroes are designed that way. Others, as noted in Christopher Knowles Our Gods Wear Spandex, are good people who receive power or knowledge and like a freemason initiate, the secret knowledge and utterance of a word like “SHAZAM!” can bring wisdom, strength, stamina, power, courage, and speed to the most humble of people. Those that receive power from a place of humility, like the sickly Steve Rogers to Captain America and his injection of the Super Soldier formula, choose to follow their missions passionately.
It is beyond the scope of this article to make theological presumptions on how the universe works or whether Superman is Jesus. What is painfully apparent is that a comic book mythological figure like Superman has a lot to teach us all.
We find in this character all the things that teach us how to be good people. Compassion for our fellow man is lumped in there with humility. Understanding that we all have a role to play in this world is paramount to finding the meaning in life. Personal responsibility combined with understanding that everyone needs to evolve on their own. And while tough love is part of that, we never lose the idea that sometimes our greatest trial is to restrain ourselves from allowing others to do the wrong thing.
After all, before we learn to walk, we need to learn to fall.
With Superman, we can only hope there’s someone there to catch us.