75 years ago, a couple of Jewish kids came up with a great champion of those in trouble. Drawing heavily from the story of Moses, this lost child had no people to return to nor a promise land to reach. Undoubtedly this led to the original Superman’s rather “Old Testament” style in his golden age where he was quick to dole out punishment to the guilty. As the years went by and the character was absorbed by the wider culture, he became much more protestant with a shift in focus from punishing those guilty to saving the innocent – and redeeming the guilty. Today? Superman seems to be undergoing another shift though whether that will be towards secular humanism or eastern mysticism is being fought with canon – so who knows how it will end.
Factoring in all the elseworld stories of Superman in addition to these generational changes, the question arises: who is Superman? What is at the core of his being? What is the bare minimum we have to keep in a story for the readers to grasp, “this is Superman”? Well I admit Grant Morrison summed it up best: Doomed planet. Desperate scientists. Last hope. Kindly couple. Though I would add two more words: Great power. Heck, you can boil it down to a half dozen words: Doom. Desperate. Hope. Kindness. Fly.
All of this added up shows us why Superman persists in the cultural memory as well. Well a debate we have had as a species, at least as far back as we can tell, is that of nature vs nurture. Superman IS that dichotomy: Super/nature – man/nurture. His kryptonian being which gives him his abilities and powers, those are a part he is born with. No matter the alternate world or interpretation of Supes, that part always remains. The man, Clark Kent, that is nurture. What if he was raised elsewhere? What if the “man” in Superman was Amish? Or communist? Or British? These questions are fascinating to us and Superman is a great tool for examining them because his split is so distinct. Let’s face it, if any one of us were to be “transplanted” to a different reality, would we really be able to tell what remained the same? What was our innate nature? After all, strength, skill, fitness, and so much more can vary with exercise and practice. But with Superman, it’s very easy to see what comes from the nature of his being, the powers that are innate to his nature. Only by a stark thread of commonality can differences and variations be best examined. The Super provides that which best allows us to see what is a Man.
So with all that, we can see that it is very hard to not make a Superman story (even if he is called “Ultraman” or “Apollo” or “the Plutonian”, or whatever, we all know it is really Superman that is in the story), what makes a good one?
Well that will obviously vary from person to person, so I’ll just share my favorite recipe.
- Krypton – Should it be a place Superman is thankful he escaped from or a world he should morn having missed? I think it is best when most like earth: that is it has good and bad features. Earth – humanity can be wonderful. We can also be bastards. I prefer a Krypton that’s the same. One that can make Kal-El appreciate Earth more, yet still be sad at all that was lost.
- The parents – This is something the current canon and a lot of storytellers disagree with me on, but I prefer Jor-El and Lara to have no real idea what awaits their son on Earth. Now I do get the temptation. I will admit that it is very heartwarming to see them get a glimpse of their son’s future and die with hope, but I think it makes a weaker story. I have a lot of friends becoming parents nowadays and I know, from them, that raising a child is nothing but uncertainty. That sending them to school on their own can be just as nerve wracking as jettisoning them into the void of space. Letting Kal-El be sent to earth with a vague HOPE that it is habitable for him… that makes him as relateble as any of us. After all, how can the audience find Superman ever in danger if he wasn’t even in it at the beginning?
- The Kents – This is the one thing that bugs me most of all in the Supes original movie, Returns and MoS trailers: “You will be an inspiration”. No. That is wrong, and it is the worst example of metatext invading text. Superman is an inspiration to us, the audience. In his world, it is humanity, represented by the Kents, that are an inspiration to him. A lot of the movies (and some of the comics) have this backwards. One of my favorite images (and not just because of where it came from) is this one. That’s not just a tearjerking tribute to 9/11, that’s how Superman should see all of mankind. He should be super, because he’s trying to live up to being a man. Especially the man (and woman) who raised him.
- The Love – I don’t mind Supes and Wonder Woman getting together in some elseworld tales, but in general, he should always be with Lois. Because she is another tie to the humanity he wants to be a part of. Because her spunkiness and bravery, yet kindness, is a perfect fit for his own spirit. Because there is some irony that a man who can do almost anything must struggle to win the heart of a “simple earth girl”, yet while he could probably have any girl, he wants the one that can see through the “super” and love the man – love who he is. Winning Lois is a microcosm example of his winning acceptance by humanity.
- The villains – See what I previously wrote.
And that’s my favorite recipe for a Superman story. What’s yours?