Superman Fact No. 1: He’s Gotta Smile
Somewhere between my transformative experience watching Superman II, and my utter bafflement reading J. Michael Straczinski’s Superman: Earth One, I’ve been on a bit of a Superman walkabout. Mostly, I’ve been trying to find the essential components – precisely what makes a Superman story feel “right.”
It’s easy to point to All-Star Superman as the apotheosis of what makes a great Superman story. Too easy, is the problem. All-Star Superman is nothing less than a love-letter to the entire idea of the character’s mythos, told in twelve parts and then…complete. And until some young, misguided upstart decides to write a sequel in 15 years, it will remain a perfect artifact.
It’s also a story emphasizing what Superman cares about when he’s only got a finite time left to live, and while that’s totally awesome…most Superman stories occur when he’s NOT dying.
So in the meantime, there’s 70-odd years of “everyday” Superman stories to go through, and god knows they can’t all be winners – but there’s got to be a few gems in there, too. So, looking at some of the high points (meaning, the collected editions I can grab through the library), what makes Superman, well, Superman?
Essential Component #1: Superman’s gotta smile. Man of Steel, John Byrne’s 1986 origin reboot, can be criticized as visually dated or narratively disjointed, but nobody will ever say it doesn’t nail down what’s important about Superman.
There are two primary points, though, and I think if you strip away everything else, as long as these two elements are in place, you have a workable Superman story.
First among them: Superman has to really like being Superman.
The best part of Man of Steel comes early on, when young Clark appears in his parents’ kitchen, unannounced and completely shaken. He was in Metropolis – still trying to figure out how best to use his powers to help people – when a space shuttle disaster moved him to act, in public, in broad daylight (a split-second decision, too – no questioning, when lives were at stake).
Only after the crisis was averted, and he found himself surrounded by a panicked, questioning mob, did he realize, “They all wanted a piece of me.”
Up until this point, it never quite dawned on Clark how much his life would be over if he continued operating out in the open. It’s a heartbreaking moment, to see a man who only wants to help realize that the cost of that selflessness would be any semblance of a normal life.
So when Ma and Pa suggest a costume, a bright blue public figure that could put people at ease – while also taking attention off quiet, mild-mannered Midwesterner Clark Kent – it goes from potentially the worst day of Clark’s life, to the best. With a little bit of creative costume design, Clark Kent realizes he can help everyone, without being devoured by his mission.
And that’s why Superman always smiles. He gets to do the thing he wants to do most of all, while removing his everyday self from the equation. “Superman” gets the mission, while “Clark Kent” gets the reward of a normal life.