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The Story behind the Story
Though televised and computerized superheroes still hold some allure for children, their printed adventures have all but disappeared from view. Were it not for comics specialty shops, it seems certain that the colorful pamphlets would have already gone the way of the dime novel. In postmodern America, the brawny brainchild of two boys barely out of high school may seem a relic. Surely kids have abandoned Superman for Harry Potter.
But who can destroy an icon? His comics may not sell as well as they used to, yet Superman himself seems incapable of dying. His famous S-shield can be seen on everything from book bags to ball caps. Smallville, the most recent television interpretation, soars in the ratings. Rock groups like Five for Fighting put their spin on the legend. And, in the wake of his younger rival Spider-Man's success, a return to the Big Screen is rumbling again. Superman keeps coming back from the dead.
If the metaphor seems messianic, there may be a reason. Though it's doubtful this was what his young Jewish creators (Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster) had in mind, the subtext was there from the beginning. Superman was the mysterious outsider, using his powers and abilities to redeem mankind from its folly - and not waiting around for thanks
Compare his satisfaction upon reading a news story written in the aftermath of one of his marvelous deeds - "Good! I'm not mentioned!" - with Jesus' frequent instruction to those He healed, "Tell no one."
Not that the earliest Superman was a "gentle Jesus, meek and mild." While far from Nietzche's ubermench, the being beyond good and evil, his ruthless pursuit of justice was terrifying in its own right. In the first comic to bear his name, Superman hurls a wife beater against the wall, grabs a spy by the leg - leaping upwards with the terrified man in tow - and pitches a wailing warmonger over a stand of trees.
Considering the times from which he sprang, however, this is hardly surprising. Superman is the product of the down and dirty days of the Great Depression. It was an era darkened by the shadows of war, a day of strongmen with mighty strong ideas about government. Desperate times called for desperate measures. Superman was the little guy backed into a corner; the stoop-shouldered victim who suddenly whipped off his round-rimmed glasses, jerked open his shirt, straightened up, and took charge.
Strong as he was, however, the 1930s Superman wasn't invincible. He certainly wasn't immune to the Law of Diminishing Returns. After a while, a mere leap across town, a knife broken on "tough skin" didn't amount to much. His costumed competitors (a lot by 1940) could do as much. So Superman became more super.
As the decades passed, the Man of Steel evolved into something akin to God in blue longies and a red cape. He could see across the universe and hear a cough on the other side of the earth. He could bathe in the heart of the sun.
Of course, it's hard to sustain interest in a hero who can neither fail nor fall. For many years, then, comics writers have played with Superman's power - reducing it, increasing it, stripping him of it. Their efforts have created a more vulnerable, more human hero, and opened doors into previously unexplored rooms. We shouldn't be surprised, then, that biblical themes began to surface openly.
Take for example the long series "The Death of Superman" (1992). Battling Doomsday, a mindless aberration whose only means of expression are wanton violence and destruction, Superman dies from exhaustion and loss of blood. He is laid in a tomb. And then - silence, as DC Comics ceased publishing its flagship title. Many held their breath. Was this the End?
There was faith in his return, albeit a cynical faith. Despite shrinking sales of Superman comics, few longtime fans believed that Time-Warner, DC's owner, would allow the annihilation of a still-viable licensing property. And yet, along with the cynics, there stood on tiptoe a sizeable group with childlike trust.
That faith was rewarded in the spring of 1993. First there were rumors, then sightings. Then three Supermen and a Superboy appeared, each claiming to be the Genuine Article. Readers were tantalized. At last he appeared, weakened, long-haired (although beardless), but still able to command the love and devotion he always had.
How did he beat death? The writers spun a long strand of science-fictional gobbledygook. The fans couldn't have cared less. Superman, like Sherlock Holmes, like Mr. Spock - like Jesus Himself - had risen. That's all that mattered.
With characteristic modesty, Superman himself has remained oblivious to the Christ-parallel. Nevertheless, with frustration and embarrassment, the Man from Krypton has dealt with those who would worship him. The cover of a 1988 Action Comics Weekly shows the startled hero in the midst of a throng of adoring cultists. "Superman . . . a GOD?" the caption blares. In the book, Superman saves the life of a young man who promptly kneels before him. "Bob . . . you credit me with too much! Yes, I help people to the best of my abilities . . . but despite all my power, I'm not God."
"B-but Superman . . . !" pleads Bob. "Yes, Bob, Superman! Remember that!" responds our hero - appearing not to notice, as he utters his parting shot, that he's literally ascending into the sky.
Probably the most overt, if brief, depiction of Superman as messiah came in the Batman graphic novel Holy Terror (1991). The story imagines a world in which America has become a church-state, demanding rigid conformity of all its citizens. Bible scholars might recognize the Pharisaic motif, brought into sharp focus by the religious authorities' violent reaction to Superman. The full-page panel showing him crucified upon a green, glowing cross is disturbing. Though unnamed, he is undeniably Superman - and considered too great a threat to survive.
A more subtle, but quite powerful, Christ-parallel runs throughout a 2000 graphic novel, Mann and Superman. The story, rendered simply and energetically in bold colors, is a delightful throwback to the Golden Age of Superman. The plot is simple: Small-time crook Marty Mann heists a priceless gem with the power to grant a man's fondest wish. Marty wishes to be Superman. A magical body-switch occurs, and Superman finds he has become a loser with unpaid bills and a contemptuous son. He first struggles with his predicament, then decides to turn Marty's life around from within his own body.
Meanwhile, beneath the Man of Steel's muscles, Marty himself is learning that being Superman is not all it's cracked up to be. He has the power and exaltation he's always wanted - but remains a failure. Superman, however, has made Marty a man worthy of his son's respect. The tale ends with a chastened Marty renouncing power in favor of a new life, a life made possible only by Superman's efforts in Marty's own weak flesh.
The suggestion that Superman represents Christ got up in spandex and a cape is anathema to some believers. Yet some have suggested that there is really only one Story, of which everything from "Cinderella" to Star Wars is a shadowy replica: the Story of Redemption. If this is true, then the Man of Steel is not to be regarded as a mere gaudy relic of misspent youth, still less a figure of blasphemy - any more than Herman Melville's Billy Budd is blasphemous. Rather, Superman is an archetype. He takes his place among storybook redeemers from Robin Hood to Tarzan to the wolf-killing hunter from "Little Red Riding Hood."
The human experience is that of being fallen and in need of redemption. At some level, all storytellers, including comics writers and artists, understand this.
Christians "love to tell the story . . . the old, old story" of One who came from above to redeem us. Many others tell that story, too. They water it down, wrap it in fantasy; they spread its elements over plots, subplots, and vast casts of characters. They swath redemption in red and blue swaddling clothes, place it in a rocket, and send it hurtling to the earth. Nevertheless, we can still catch within these tales a glimpse of the One True Story. "For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things."