Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
SUPERMAN: Does he work better on his own like Godzilla or does his presence in a superhero-filled universe benefit him?
This reminds me of the question you asked about a month ago regarding Marvel and DC Comics different genre roots. That’s not a reprimand though because we’re swerving from the broad to the specific here. I stated that DC characters work perfectly as the center of their own unique universes there and mentioned Superman about 10 times (according to CTRL+F). So for anyone that wanted an answer to this question, but didn’t want to hear me ramble, there you go: Superman works just like Godzilla.
Anyway, the key to my argument there was based in how many DC Comics characters share DNA with the pulp hero tradition. That is most certainly true of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s creation of Superman. His roots have been thoroughly tied to the likes of Doc Savage, Tarzan, and John Carter in Gerard Jones’ history Men of Tomorrow. But to chalk Superman up as an amalgamation of pulp heroes is to dismiss his importance to the superhero, one of the most culturally relevant genres of today. No matter how much Siegel and Shuster may have admired the forgotten work Gladiator what they did in response to it was something truly unique.
While there are other good and valid reasons for his importance, Superman coming first is a key to his enduring popularity. He was the model before there was a model and it’s one readers have seen re-crafted every month in his own comics, in facsimiles like Captain Marvel and Apollo, and just about every other superhero comic to some degree since. You can’t pick out a superhero story today that doesn’t belong to a family tree in which Superman forms the trunk. Even as some concepts like the secret identity have become outmoded, much of his essence remains important.
It’s easy enough to say that his early popularity and invention of the genre show that he functions perfectly well on his own. And you would be right. It’s the same thing you see with Godzilla, both in the original film from 1954 and Shin Godzilla, the best remake of that origin to date. In the same way Superman gave us the superhero story, Godzilla delivered the kaiju story fully formed. In both of their earliest appearances you can find almost everything that is important to a much broader set of future stories already being done exceedingly well.
While you can never deny the constant evolution of art and how so many different sources influence each new creation… Well, you still don’t tell Robert Johnson how to play the blues or Humphrey Bogart how to play a hound dog or Superman how to save the day. What these sorts of creators and creations did were so utterly unique and important that they stand apart and cannot be improved upon through means of addition.
Even in the decades following Superman’s creation when other creators, most importantly Curt Swan, populated an entire Superman family to surround the character, they were all iterations on the Superman idea. Whether we’re talking Supergirl or Beppo the Super Monkey, these are characters who all essentially pose a “what if” question to Superman. Supergirl has taken on a story and life that is all her own in preceding decades, but it stems from an origin of “What is Superman was a girl?”
When you look at the Superman family, you’ll also notice that many of the most famous characters don’t have a name that starts with “Super-”. Instead, you’ll find that Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, and Lex Luthor form the core of his supporting cast and they are all very human. While providing some animals or family members who could also fly and lift heavy objects offered fodder for stories, the heart of Superman’s best tales has never relied on there being other superheroes around him. That aspect of his family is about as essential as the various shades of Kryptonite, which is to say fun, but superfluous.
And here’s where I make the leap between Superman not requiring other superheroes to be the best version of the character to stating why the best version of the character exists in a relative vacuum. It’s not just that Siegel and Shuster’s creation can stand on his own well, it’s that he has never needed anything more.
Consider the best Superman comics. How many of them involve a team or shared universe? All-Star Superman, Secret Identity, “The Last Days of Superman”, It’s a Bird, and Birthright are all as close as you come to universal standards. In each of these comics Superman exists as the sole superhero or close to it. In two of them, Secret Identity and It’s a Bird, he’s not even a real superhero, but a fictional idea so powerful it is infused in the real world.
Of course, that list is obviously a bit biased. There are some truly great Superman stories that do feature other popular leads. “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”, “For the Man Who Has Everything”, and Red Son are all widely praised as well and contain the concept of the DC shared universe. Ask yourself whether any of these stories could exist without the likes of Batman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern and you might be surprised though.
Let’s take Red Son, for instance. This story features all of those Justice League members I just mentioned, but what does it have to say about any of them? Ultimately Batman is a suicidal prop used to explore paranoia and terrorism in the face of an authoritarian government. Wonder Woman is used similarly to represent Superman’s sacrifice and alternative utopian ideals. Hal Jordan is even more of a tool than normal, a two-dimensional prop for Lex Luthor. While you can see their roles rooted in how readers might know each of them, none of them enhance the story by providing Superman additional superheroes to interact with. They’re merely the most obvious means of presenting an alternative idea (or threat).
Superman isn’t more interesting in that story because he has to square off against Batman or because of how he fights alongside Wonder Woman; he is more interesting because of how he interacts with the ideas they represent. He doesn’t need other superheroes in this story or any other in order to enhance his identity or the themes he represents. That sort of logic follows the same course in which his incredible power is his defining characteristic. Sure, you can wonder about whether Superman could beat up a squadron of Green Lanterns, but that doesn’t tell you anything about the character.
Like other beloved figures with incredible power, wisdom, and compassion in literature (e.g. Jesus and The Buddha) his stories aren’t about what he can do, but what he chooses to do and how it impacts the world around him. Whether he’s interacting with Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane, or Lex Luthor, what is most fascinating is how he responds to human beings and how they respond to him.
That’s probably why the true supporting cast of Superman stories is entirely composed of non-superpowered people who have remained in those roles for so long. Through all of his iterations Lex Luthor has represented the foibles of man and our obsession with power. Lois has been the partner who provided a more human side to a godlike being. Perry and the Kents offer the role of mentors and guardians. Jimmy is the pal who reaches greatness by working with Superman. Superman’s presence shapes the lives of all these people and reveals their importance as archetypes.
You can’t make Superman more interesting by adding a pantheon of gods around him because he’s already the complete package when it comes to moral figures. That concept of a pantheon is certainly great on its own, but it can exist entirely independent of Superman. There’s nothing about the Justice League that requires Superman. On the other hand, Metropolis, the Daily Planet, and Smallville are all things that require this one figure to become iconic.
Superman isn’t at his best when teamed up with Batman or any of his other peers. It’s fun to contrast those characters and see them play off of one another, but those comparisons don’t reveal anything that wasn’t clear before. Superman is iconic when he’s interacting with us. Whether it’s with any of his most iconic human relationships or simply with a girl named Regan for a single page, Superman interacting with humanity is what exposes the essence of his character.
No matter how much fun it may be to see him punch out villains with other costumed folks, you’ll never know why Superman matters until you see him as one of us.