When I was in college, I ran into a friend on my way to a professor’s office hours. He saw that I had a copy of Superman for All Seasons with me and gave me a hard time about it—he was much more of a Marvel fan than a DC fan (these were the days when this was primarily a reference to comics, not sprawling cinematic universes) and just didn’t get the appeal of Superman—how could you do anything interesting with a character that powerful? Fortunately, the reason that I like Superman for All Seasons is my best answer to that question: What makes the Superman character interesting is not the magnitude of his power but the ways that he chooses to exercise it. I don’t find at all interesting any comics that take the format of “Superman must prove himself stronger than increasingly stronger adversaries,” but I find absolutely fascinating the many Superman comics—and other comics clearly playing with homages to the character—the ones that ask themselves why such a powerful character would use that power for good.
I thought of that recently when reading a BoingBoing article celebrating the 83rd anniversary of Action Comics #1, which includes this passage:
The Superman of Action Comics #1 is highly divergent and paradoxically unchanged from the character that exists in modernity. Instead of battling bizarre villains, the Man of Tomorrow fights a domestic abuser and rescues a falsely imprisoned man from execution. The Superman of the 30s is a champion of the downtrodden and oppressed that uses his abilities to enrich lives. The character still possesses vestiges of that presentation, but the message of Superman’s power has been overshadowed by the mandates of the genre he inspired. Fans are more focused on Superman battling science fiction creatures that can provide him physical opposition as opposed to stories that speak to the altruistic and selfless nature of the character.
This sums things up neatly for me. Science fiction Superman stories typically bore me, but comics like Superman Smashes the Klan or Astro City’s Samaritan character (perhaps the most interesting Superman homage I’ve read) are fantastic ways of asking questions about power and responsibility and painting a picture of altruism. Sure, they can come off as a little too idealistic sometimes—I find the government lackey take on Superman in The Dark Knight Returns equally interesting—but even the stories that ask whether such a powerful person could be that altruistic are far more interesting than super-powered characters smashing each other through buildings.
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