Superman: Jesus, But With More Punching

Posted: July 13, 2010 in comic books, Jeff Holland, Threat Quality
Tags: , , , , , ,

After a week of trying and failing to get a handle on Wonder Woman, I thought it best to get back to basics with the character everybody seems to get, and here is what I have concluded:

Superman fans are strange.

Because as near as I can tell, they want a Christ Figure who will beat people up for them.

Wait – I might have to go back a bit.

DC used the recent, landmark release of Superman #700 to close out their previous Big Superman Story, something involving a New Krypton, while also introducing the next story – J. Michael Strazcynski’s year-long “Grounded”, which is set to feature Superman walking the Earth (yes, like Caine in “Kung Fu”) to better get in touch with the common man he’s trying to protect.

Superman fans have not taken this well (sadly, I feel I write the phrase “Fans have not taken this well” an awful lot). 

And I would’ve agreed with them – it sounds like a godawful setup for a story, after all, especially since the “common man calls out superhero for some crazy shit he couldn’t possibly be accountable for” bit was pretty hilarious when an old black guy gave Green Lantern grief for not doing more for civil rights.

But then I read a quick “Superman through the years” blog post, where long-time (and we’re talking DECADES long) Super-fans are crying foul over EVERY change to the character from his Silver-Age roots, be it the 70’s Denny O’Neil modernization, or the 80’s John Byrne modernization, or Mark Waid’s early 00’s modernization, or Geoff Johns’ late 00’s modernization or…

Their point is, Superman was just FINE the way he was from the 40’s to the 60’s (from when he was beating up slumlords and the Japanese, to when he was screwing with Lois Lane’s head and tormenting Jimmy Olsen because he had that kind of time in his day), and every new writer’s attempt to do something different with the character is irreparably damaging him.

At first I thought, jeeeezus, these guys are a little too attached. I mean, yeah, it’s Superman, but shit, every character is allowed to change a little, right?

Then I finally sat and watched Superman II.

I’d never seen Superman II before – and if we’re being honest, I’ve never seen all of the first one, either. If I’d been a few years older, this might’ve been a cultural touchstone for me, but when I was nine, Tim Burton’s Batman came out.

So I pretty much had no choice in the matter – I was a Batman guy from there on out.

But watching Superman II, I couldn’t help but feel warmed by the hero I was presented with: selfless, self-assured, hoping for the best in everyone he meets, and yet not disturbed by the worst (except for maybe that truckstop sunovabitch – but that dude just picked the wrong day to be an asshole). He was just…just the greatest!

I could finally see why people are so attached to the guy. He is a heck of a lot more personable than my guy. And remembering how reverently a lot of writers (like Mark Waid, Grant Morrison and Mark Millar, who I’ll get to in a second) talk about the character, I realized the major difference in the fanbases.

Batman fans admire Batman. They think he’s awesome. They know if they met him they’d be terrified of him, but at the same time, there’s the unspoken agreement that if they got killed? He’d totally avenge their murder and bring the perp to justice.

But Superman fans? They know their hero would never let them die in the FIRST place, because he loves them. He loves them all, so much, for who they are and what they can be.

It’s pretty great being a Batman fan, but it’s not terribly comforting. But to be a Superman fan is to be LOVED by an awesome Jesus, who not only cherishes your unique snowflake existence – he will fight giant super-intelligent apes for you.

Which, I suppose, means any change to the character, the mythos, or the basic plot threatens the warm feeling these older readers first got from Superman way back when, and seriously – they NEED that warm feeling (because the world is wrong, I tells ya, just WRONG!).

Which is why the outcry over the “Grounded” story is even more interesting. It’s pushing the “Superman gets to know his people” trope – which one might assume, given the attachment level, Superman fans should want to get on board with. But they’re not into it at all.

Because they KNOW Superman gets their problems. And for the character to stroll through small towns and chat up locals like a politician diminishes that innate “I Love You All”-ness of the character.

Meanwhile Batman’s the guy punching Jesus with Kryptonite gloves and telling us “The world only makes sense if you force it to.” Like I said, not exactly a comforting deity to get on board with.

*A few quick thoughts on Morrison, Millar and Waid: These are the only writers that have penned a Superman I really dig, where you can really feel the absolute love for the character pouring out, and yet outside of the Justice League comics, none of them have been allowed to write his regular monthly adventures.

They wanted to – go read their amazing group pitch* for revitalizing the character back in 2000 – but they were slapped down over what I’ll charitably call “editorial confusion” (and more accurately call “editorial assholery”).

So if you get a hankering for Superman stories the way they really should be told, check out:

They’re all just perfect renditions of the icon – and FUN, a feeling often missing in the regular monthly books.

*Tom Peyer was the fourth voice in that pitch, but while the other writers were all able to salvage their ideas for these later stories, I’ve never seen a Tom Peyer-written Superman story. Weird, that. Wonder why?

  1. Moff says:

    Superman and Superman II are really pretty great movies, assuming one can forgive the corniness and cheesy special effects that were an inevitable byproduct of the era. (In fact, I would maintain that II might be the greatest superhero movie ever made.) Most of the quality hangs on Christopher Reeve’s performance, but it really is just outstanding. I, at least, genuinely feel safe watching him on-screen. Which is weird, but true nonetheless.

  2. braak says:

    Well, you know, I think it’s generally accepted that Superman is a product of the Jewish messianic tradition. I’m not sure if anyone’s explicitly proven it, but he is the last scion of the House of El, you know? When you remember that Jesus is the product of the same tradition (er, well, mythologically speaking, anyway), Superman as Invincible Space Jesus makes a lot of sense.

    Superman and Superman II were both immeasurably helped by Christopher Reeve who was just clearly, literally, the nicest guy, and it’s pretty clear why the Nicholas Cage/Tim Burton Superman Lives idea was a serious wrong turn.

    Aaand, what else? I think Superman is interesting as a character, but generally in small doses; the Silver Age, to me, showed that the problem with Invincible Space Jesus is that you run out of stuff for him to do, so he has to spend all of his time messing with Jimmy Olsen or turning into a monkey. I actually feel this way about most superheroes, really: there are a few iconic, absolutely RIGHT, exemplar stories, and the rest are sort of sub-par variations on the same themes.

    Finally: did you ever read that study they did about Batman and Superman? How if you thought about Batman right before you were given a moral dilemma, you were more likely to intervene (because you were more likely to believe you could help) than if you thought about Superman? I think this ties in interestingly with the idea of Superman-as-Divinity, as compared to Batman-as-Paragon-of-Humanity.

  3. dagocutey says:

    @Holland —
    “Superman fans are strange.”

    And the fans of all of the other superhero’s aren’t? Ahem. I’ve really grown quite fond of you guys, but ya’ll just start sounding like a bunch of Trekkies to me. (I know, I know, you weren’t even talking about Star Trek. But you love it, don’t you?)

    And you do understand that you are also a fan of Superman, right?

  4. Jeff Holland says:

    Sorry if I didn’t specify quite clearly enough, but I’m just a guy who likes Superman. I’m talking about Superman FANS, the guys who have bought every issue of Action Comics for decades and have a deep, abiding, personal connection the character that I’ve never really been able to muster up – and this love is actually a bit more intense and specific than “superhero fans” in general.

    Also I don’t know what any of that has to do with Star Trek.

  5. dagocutey says:

    @Holland: Ok, so “fan” as in short for “fanatic”. Gotcha.

    And re: Star Trek — Forest for the trees, dude, forest for the trees.

  6. Mark Waid says:

    Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Exactly. Whoever you are, email me for your dedicated, autographed copy of Birthright. You nailed it.

  7. Carl says:

    Two things about this discussion:

    First, as Chris points out, this business of Superman as modern expression of the Jewish Messianic tradition is well-established and generally accepted, as I understand it. But it seems to me that the derivation of the Superman character is more complex than this, as Jeff’s examination suggests. Jeff draws the discussion more towards a specifically Jesus-like (as opposed to strictly Jewish Messianic) characterization in his discussion of Kal-el’s essential disposition and guiding principals.

    …[Superman loves Metropolians] so much, for who they are and what they can be… To be a Superman fan is to be LOVED by an awesome Jesus, who not only cherishes your unique snowflake existence – he will fight giant super-intelligent ape for you.

    This discussion of the personality of the incarnate deity of Superman has a very particular Christian coloring. Superman is much like the deified warrior-king and prophet of the Jewish Messianic tradition, but he’s not a tribal god as the Jewish deity is (a powerful but distant, impersonal guardian of the group [ala Batman!]). He is instead, as Jeff points out, one who is personally, intimately interested in the potential of individuals– in personal contact with them. This is far more akin to the tradition of the ‘personal God’ who can be intimately known that emerged in Christianity than of the ‘tribal God’ experienced collectively and known by reputation and through practical demonstrations of power in the Hebrew tradition. Furthermore, the Hebrew God is one prepared to defend the covenant with His People by pouring out fires and plagues against their enemies (killing the Egyptian firstborn en mass, for instance; giving aid in combat to his emissaries). He is a God of Law who wields the power of fear as readily as the power of mercy—
    He is a God of Justice. The Christian God is far more reticent to employ this sort of approach (at least in the temporal realm) and dispenses with the rigors of broad and binding Law in favor of the more supple judgment of motives. Sacrifices are forbidden and general pacifism is demanded— you can’t count on Divine vengeance in this construct. In fact, turn the other cheek and pray for your persecutors, buddy. My wife, who has recently become completely obsessed with Superman, is standing over my shoulder seeking to put in that Supe famously died and was resurrected, but that the return was preceded by the appearance of several ‘False Supermans’, just as popular Christian prophetic tradition holds will be the case with Christ.

    However, none of this is to say that Superman is messiah more in the Christian mold than Jewish mold, exactly– I raise these points only to challenge the prevailing view of his religiously narrow origins. I think, in fact, that he’s a modern blending of the two traditions, re-imagined for a secular society. Certainly, the warrior-Messiah of the Hebrew tradition would have far more in common with Superman in terms of how he spends his days than with Jesus of Nazareth (at least as the tradition records his doings. Who knows, maybe he was throwing down with Romans all the time).

    This brings me to my second point. I’ve always preferred Batman to Superman for many of the reasons that Chris mentions– I just can’t seem to stay interested in him long enough to really dig in. Batman, on the other hand, is perpetually flawed, dangerous, human, and interesting. There are, surely, many non-religious reasons for this preference, but I wonder if part of it is the fact that I already have a Superman, as it were, with whom I am deeply invested lessens my interest in following the exploits of Kal-el. Were I a Sociology major with a Comparative-Religions minor and a person with an abiding interest in comics, I would undertake a study to determine whether or not this point of view is part of a larger trend. That is, I would seek to undertake whether or not practicing Christians prefer Batman or Superman and why? Then I would expand that study to include comic-reading folks of the other Abrahamic traditions, and then finally to agnostics and unbelievers to try to substantially determine exactly what role Superman is occupying in the collective Western imagination. Is his use primarily to fill the gap for those who have not actively adopted another traditional messianic figure, or does he, instead, primarily serve to reinforce the beliefs of those who have?

  8. Jeff Holland says:

    That really means a lot, Mr. Waid, thank you.

    Hey guys? Guys! All-time great Superman writer Mark Waid just said I nailed something Superman-related.


  9. braak says:

    Well, speaking as an infidel, I have to say that I like Batman more than I like Superman. I mean, I like Superman okay; there’s a lot that’s good about him, and there’s a lot that I enjoy reading about him. But I don’t think I’ve ever gone out of my way to pick up a Superman comic (except, during my bitter teenaged years, The Death of Superman).

    On the other hand, is that because I’m an atheist? That the refusal to accept the kind of cosmic comfort offered by the Christian tradition translates to a disinterest in stories about the comic-book analogue?


    Also, though, I should point out that the Messiah in Jewish tradition–the one that Christ was meant to fulfill–was actually supposed to precede the Eschaton, which resulted in Man’s return to Eden, and everyone becoming good and nice except for the irredeemably wicked. I think characterizing him simply as a “tribal god” meant to protect the Jewish people and their covenant overlooks some bits.

    Of course, early Superman was actually more active as a hero (especially a working class one). I mean, when Siegel and Shuster were writing him, Superman wasn’t just changing the world by being immeasurably good, or fighting the sort of metaphorical monsters that are a product of our imaginations, he straight up went out and ended World War II by dragging Adolf Hitler into the UN.

    The difference between temporal justice and cosmic or spiritual justice is, potentially, a hallmark of the difference between the Jewish and Christian traditions.

  10. braak says:

    Holland, it is hard for me to be happy for you, since despite all of my hard work on his behalf, I never get any appreciation from the Wolf-Man.

    ALSO, Jon Rogers never returns my e-mails.

  11. braak says:

    @Carl: Also, Superman did die, and was reborn. But he was killed by Doomsday. Which, I guess, does fit in with Superman’s resurrection as a kind of Second Coming.

    Still, he should have fought Darkseid, I think.

  12. Carl says:

    @Jeff: very, very, exceptionally damn cool. Poor Chris will never get his affirmation from Wolfman Jack– he died in 1995.

    @Braak: On this—

    I think characterizing [the Hebrew God] simply as a “tribal God” meant to protect the Jewish people and their covenant overlooks some bits.

    —are you kidding, absolutely— it overlooks most of the bits. Clearly, I am not qualified to even call myself an educated layman on these matters. I didn’t mean to be dismissive or to reductive with my distinction. I suppose that ‘tribal’ does have an unsophisticated connotation in our modern usage, but I meant it only in a strictly definitional way— that is, God of a Tribe (a clan, a group apart, a specific community) as opposed to a God of both individual persons that can be personally known in individually characterized, and a God immediately available to ALL persons outside the confines of The Community as the God(s) of Christianity and Islam insist(s) they are (He is). His covenant is not with all of mankind because all of mankind is not under the Law and does not enjoy the blessings promised to, and bestowed upon, the lineage of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob (at least, thus far). In fact, to claim those things of the Jewish God is, in certain contexts, blasphemy, I believe. (Somebody with better knowledge of this subject please jump in here.) I’m well aware that moshiah is to usher in the seventh millennium which is to be an era of peace that will extend to the whole world. An era without weapons of war, etc. Maimonides:

    “And if a king shall arise from among the House of David, studying Torah and indulging in commandments like his father David, according to the written and oral Torah, and he will impel all of Israel to follow it and to strengthen breaches in its observance, and will fight God’s wars, this one is to be treated as if he were the anointed one.”

    I think I described it correctly in general terms (if not with the precise theological terminology, as I lack the necessary education) when I said “warrior-king and prophet of the Jewish tradition”. Apologies if I am grossly misunderstanding or mischaracterizing Jewish Messianic tradition, it being unavoidably filtered through a Christian lens. Still, I assert that Superman is an expression of a blended Messianic tradition— the offspring of a religiously blended society in which these traditions are in imaginative dialogue.

  13. braak says:

    Well, I guess so, but then Jesus is the result of a blended messianic tradition, too. So is Rebbe Lubovitch. The Jewish messianic tradition is still a living tradition; it’s not like it stopped in the 1st century. When I talk about Superman like he’s a product of the Jewish messianic tradition I don’t mean, “Well, the according to the Jews, the messiah is going to have characteristics a, b, and c, and POW! That’s Superman!”

    I mean that there’s a complex, generative body of work that produces ideas within a spectrum of possibilities (actually, to be precise, I think I view it as a sort of three-dimensional “idea-space”, that includes color variation, as well, so that I can get four different variables into it — it ends up being a tangled mess of lines and color, but there are noticeable patterns and shapes). Jesus and Superman are both a product of this same body of work; one is a little more blue, I guess, and one is a little more red, but they’re identifiably similar structures.

    Of course, the introduction of both Jesus AND Superman into popular culture creates divergent idea-spaces, which are both self-transforming and have an effect on the idea-space of their precursors. Like, maybe Superman is partly a product of what people think about Jesus, but as a consequence of Superman, Jesus is partly a product of what we think about Superman. And our minds are all subtly transformed from the consideration.

    Consciousness is an exciting thing.

  14. braak says:

    Actually, now that I think about it, characters like Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, &c. offer an unprecedented opportunity to track the way people thought about them with reference to their social context. Superman’s been published monthly for, what, sixty, seventy years? He’s got a thousand-point dataset that is ridiculously precise.

    We could do some interesting things with this.

  15. dagocutey says:

    Ah, excuse me — guys? Hate to be the buzzkill, but the Waid dude’s post followed mine, so I believe he was addressing moi.

  16. dagocutey says:

    @Holland — YOU are my Superman!!!!!!!!

  17. V.I.P. Referee says:

    I think people feel good defending The Nice Guy. And Superman is so nice; he has so much power but doesn’t exploit it, he doesn’t let power strip him of compassion, vulnerabilities—and overall, he just wants to see people happy, healthy and safe. Annoying as some might find such genuine goodness, eventually, people can’t help but feel protective of him. I don’t see Superman as a “Jesus figure”–I don’t think you could assign that kind of all-knowing solemnity and authority to him. While he’s a pillar of strength and “rightousness”, it’s a rightousness without moral judgement or adherence to institutionalized doctrines. He just supports the basics of being humane: Don’t kill or hurt people when they don’t deserve it. Be nice. Share. Remember that things you say or do influence society and have an effect on others.

    I think of Superman more as a challenge to organized religion and its classic figures, a reminder that humans don’t need religion or material incentives to do good and treat eachother respectfully. Yes, he stands apart from the humans that depend on him, but he never pretends to have life more figured-out than they do. He’s refreshingly unique amongst his power peers; he remains kind, sweet, even while holding great power. I’m sure many hard-core fans cringe to think that might ever drastically change.

    (Don’t you knock SUPERMAN! He’s nice!)

  18. V.I.P. Referee says:

    …and if that is indeed Mr. Waid, that is very damned cool, Holland. Very damned cool.

  19. […] you can’t read that, it says, “To Jeff – who gets it. -Mark […]

  20. […] not a Superman expert – but I’m fairly astute. And even I know, above all else, for Superman to become an icon of heroism, he has to WANT to help […]

  21. […] between my transformative experience watching Superman II, and my utter bafflement reading J. Michael Straczinski’s Superman: Earth One, I’ve been on a […]

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