Superman and Supergods
This honestly feels like a bit of a strange post for me to be writing, given than I’ve never been a huge fan of the Man of Steel particularly. Truth be told I’ve always found Superman far too perfect; far too cookie-cutter and all-American for my liking. I mean, what’s the point of having a man (alien, whatever) with only one weakness? However, after having read an interview for wired.com with Grant Morrison about his book Supergods I’ve done what I thought was seemingly impossible and changed my view on Superman.
Superman possesses the qualities of the very best man we can imagine at any given time. In that sense, he’s divine. Batman is representative of our dark subconscious, who nevertheless works for the good of humanity. They embody the same ideals.
The above quote helped me to better understand the function of Superman, at least in Morrison’s eyes. His use of the word “divine” seems fairly apt to me, because that’s always been my problem with Mr. Kent; he’s made out to be an indestructible, holier than now do-gooder. In fact, it was Alan Moore’s Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow that I think gave me my first ever glimpse of the human side of Superman in a very striking splash page which showcases a rare moment of vulnerability.
However, when you put him in to the context of his “yin-yang” relationship with Batman, his role starts to make a lot more sense. Unfortunately there is often a great deal of politics attached to both the character of Superman and to Batman. Superman can of course be seen as a glaring metaphor for socialist values in the sense that he’s a vigilante fighting for the unemployed, the oppressed, and the everyday people who are unjustly treated. I mean, in the plainest of terms Superman himself is a refugee without a home, making him part of the oppressed. Lex Luthor of course represents the greedy capitalist enemy of socialism, and Superman represents and fights for those who have suffered in the wake of this greed. However, as Morrison points out, this was the old Superman, and maybe I’m judging him unfairly on how he used to be. After all even superheroes should be given a second chance I suppose.
Morrison talks a lot in his interview with wired.com and in an interview with newstatesman.com about the fact that the meaning and motivations that drive superheroes change with the times. Morrison comments that for him, “Superman was as real as the idea of the nuclear bomb to me as a child and it allowed me to get over that terror.” The more I think about this idea of the ever-changing message of superheroism, the more I realise that it is this adaptability which makes comics so enjoyable for me. In fact, I realise that (without getting too soppy and existential about it) the idea of superheroes can in its purest form just be another medium through which to escape and process the things which trouble us which, in a way, is really rather a nice way of looking at them.
I think [comics] represent our best selves. They’re a very crude representation of what in the past might have been a Hindu god, or a humanist Renaissance ideal of the perfect man, or the Enlightenment man; they’re a small-scale, obscure attempt to talk about that idea that we might be better than we think we are.
However, the danger of this adaptability and interpretive qualities is that Superman has had his dark days. There were of course times when the American ideal was less than ideal, for example when Superman was encouraging Americans to “slap a jap”. But, as ever, the Man of Steel pulled through and adapted again, becoming a patriarchal symbol of the perfect family man with the introduction of Super Dog and Supergirl. However, I find it difficult amidst this squeaky clean image to ignore the fact that this pinnacle of patriarchy was essentially trapped in a love triangle.
Quite rightly, Morrison comments that in order for Superman to stay relevant as a “champion of the oppressed” in modern-day society he must become more of an international figure. Which is perhaps what Paul Cornell et al were trying to achieve in Action Comics’ 900th issue, in which Superman controversially renounces his US citizenship. In this issue much more relevant and global issues are tackled, making this Superman far less timeless superhero and more a hero for the problems of right now.
So, I suppose rather than my opinion of the Superman himself changing, it is rather my opinion of the possibilities which the future could hold for the character. Although Superman will always be a little too goody-goody for my liking, it is possible that with the right writers he could become much more relevant to these modern times and maybe a bit more edgy and visceral. Although, it seems the film world of Superman is a bit behind the comic world on that one, judging by the latest trailer for Zac Snyder’s Man of Steel in which patronising phrases like “guardian angel” and “an ideal to strive towards” being thrown about. But hey, if there’s one thing we’ve learned from the barrage of graphic novel to film adaptations as of late it’s that they don’t always get it right. If Morrison’s vision is anything to go by then who knows, I might end up developing a bit of a soft spot for the old Man of Steel.