In a week that saw an awful terrorist attack in Boston and a horrible explosion in Texas, Superman turns 75. The anniversary of his first appearance is today, April 18. That little pop culture note may serve as a bit of light-hearted relief from days of grim news. It’s also a moment to reflect on the deeds of the very real super men and women who stepped forward this week, joining a brave tradition that stretches back to America’s first hours. We have been blessed with so many heroes. Where better for the legend of a tireless champion who can soar among the clouds to begin?
The superhero is often seen as an evolution of classical mythology, a fusion of the legendary hero and pulp adventurers. But when the Man of Steel picked up that car and dashed it into a rock on the iconic Action Comics cover, something unquestionably new and different was created. There are many such characters now, and they’re obviously no longer the exclusive province of the comic-book medium where they first flourished. (It’s already hard to remember bygone era of 2007 when most people didn’t know who Iron Man was, isn’t it?)
Superman set so much of the template for the characters to come: the secret identity, the brightly-colored costume, the astounding powers. There have been countless clever variations on the theme, to the point where it’s rather difficult to pinpoint exactly what defines a “superhero,” and much fun can be had debating how many characters older than Superman should qualify. Was the Lone Ranger a superhero? How about Sherlock Holmes? Or Beowulf?
I think the defining characteristic of the superhero might be the extraordinary seeking to be ordinary. Both the bold costumes and secret identities are part of this formula. Superheroes get their powers in many different ways: Superman is an alien who was born with his, as were the X-Men. Characters like Spider-Man or the Hulk are ordinary people who received their powers by accident. Iron Man and Batman deliberately sought theirs out, at great effort and expense. However those powers were obtained, what sets the superhero apart from the often superhuman or semi-divine heroes of myth and legend is that the superhero wants to be a part of the ordinary world, and wants to use his or her amazing powers for the benefit of ordinary people. They don’t rule as lords; they are not tragic figures undone by lust or hubris. (Well, not permanently, anyway. Not until latter-day authors got hold of them, and began writing superhero stories that more explicitly resemble the myth cycles of the classical era.)
Superman set the tone for all that. He has many identities: the last son of Krypton, a champion of the human race, a crime fighter… but ask him who he is, and if he’s inclined to answer with complete candor, he’ll tell you he’s Clark Kent, Johnathan and Martha’s boy. Of course he will always honor where he originally came from, and be mindful of the great role destiny has thrust him into, but he knows where he lives. He knows where home is. How perfectly American.
Superman wants to live in the ordinary America, too. He puts a lot of effort into ensuring Clark Kent is seen as a normal man. It might be one of his greatest challenges. Can you imagine the self-discipline necessary to live comfortably within a world where every object is made out of tissue paper, life moves at a snail’s pace, everyone else is stuck on the ground, and you can hear everything? But he not only makes the effort – he wants to live that way. Despite all that we ask of him, he never loses his temper. He sincerely loves the people around him. In fact, he reveres them, because of the astounding things they can accomplish despite being so comparatively frail. We astonish Superman. That’s one of the signature differences between superheroes and the mythological demi-gods that preceded them as literary inventions.
If he were real, Superman would have seen much to astonish him in Boston and Texas this week. The real super men and woman are, sadly, not invincible. Many have fallen in the course of rescuing others and defending this nation. They stepped forward to meet extraordinary challenges in hours of desperate need. It would be quite something to see a man with limitless strength soar overhead, perpetually ready to help anyone in need. I look upon the deeds of the real super heroes, sometimes performed at tragic cost, and I am no less amazed.