Celebrating 80 Years of Superman – “Superman: The Eternal Era”

By T.A. Ewart

“Gathered together from the cosmic reaches of the universe, here in this great Hall of Justice, are the most powerful forces of good ever assembled!” is how the Super Friends cartoon series would begin. It introduced me to Superman, the most powerful force for good in the universe, as he appeared smashing meteors like popcorn being swatted away.

Superman didn’t mean much to me at that time. I would leave the States soon after, and the Super Friends became a childhood memory, and would have remained so, but my uncle decided to treat me for being a good lad, and took me to see Superman II. I had read comic books before, and my favorite hero at that time was Daredevil. Superman II, however, was like reading a comic book. The film moved images in the same manner my young mind turned pages and filled in voices and off panel actions. I ran up and down the walk on the way home, quite taken with what I saw… but Daredevil was still my favorite.

Later, Batman would explode my senses in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. The influence could be found in every first person narrative I penned thereafter, and he became a close second to Daredevil, though I would eventually give up on him when I learned that he would never be allowed to grow past his childhood trauma. I had tried reading Superman when John Byrne’s 1986 reboot commenced, and while I enjoyed The Man of Steel limited series, I wasn’t enthused by what followed. The contrast to what I had experienced on television and film was stark. I had also read DC Comics Presents #29, which presented Superman in a much more robust manner than what was offered circa 1986. I stopped reading right before the infamous Superman #22. I wouldn’t return until the “Panic in the Sky” storyline.

I stayed with Superman, and I was unsure why. I was waiting for something to happen. Something big. Superman, in the Bronze Age, had a sense of wonder that was lost around 1986, and I waited to see if it would ever return. It didn’t. Instead, Superman was killed off in Superman #75, which was a very sobering moment in my life. Honestly, it was obvious that DC would never kill Superman permanently, but the execution of the “Death of Superman” storyline was such that I wasn’t sure… and then he did.

If you’re wondering why the personal narrative regarding Superman, it’s because Superman, for every reader, viewer, for every fan, is a personal experience. Each of us has a connection to the character that is rarely examined, rarely given any shrift or diligence, and with Superman’s 80th birthday coinciding with Action Comics #1,000, it’s great to both celebrate and remind ourselves what he means to each individual and the collective.

2011 was only seven years ago. It was an incredibly divisive year and would be followed by an even greater one with 2012. DC rebooted Superman for the “New 52” and readers were given a Superman that was quite different than the one whom they had been reading for decades past. In 2013 the film Man of Steel featured a scene that produced a great deal of vitriol in response to it. Things that had been established were undone and not with great efficacy. Superman’s outfit was changed, his marriage with Lois Lane was scuttled, and he killed, definitively, on screen. The layman who entered any of the arguments may have seen it as fanboy nonsense. However, unlike so many heroes, Superman proponents have a basis for their stances.

Superman has existed through every age of comic books; he’s been a fixture of American culture for 80 years. He’s been in actuality longer than some countries have come into being. Czechoslovakia is gone, but split Superman into two, and he comes back. He’s resilient in a manner that only one other character in history has been, and that is because of what he represents on a larger basis in the subconscious of people. Why do readers resist Superman killing, want trunks, and a knowing wink from the Man of Tomorrow? Superman is an idea. An old idea, yes, but still a very prevalent one.

The belief that someone will be willing to come an aid you in your time of need, stems from the hero archetype, and that archetype, that idea, has been with humans longer than we can recall. The hero is the one running towards the danger, while everyone else is running for their lives. We believe in this idea, despite the cynicism that pervades the Internet, social media, and other forms of media. When DC/WB decides to make changes to Superman, whether they realize it or not, they’re trying to tweak an idea, and that can only be done with a better one. We’ve yet to find a better idea for heroism. Ages have come and gone, and Superman remains, for while we may lose our taste for cowboys, pirates, and such, we have an intrinsic need for valor. The idea of heroism has sustained people through the worst times on a global scale and very personal ones.

Fanboys will rail against Superman being too powerful, even Superman fans will agree to limits, but how strong does one need to be to save them all? Superman was never created for vs/battle fodder, but to save people, when all else fails, and he does so simply because it is the right thing to do. This simplistic rationale has proven to be a complex challenge for readers and writers who do not expand their minds to the thoughts of a hero. Bravery isn’t a deliberation, it’s an action without thought from the selfless human heart. We can throw whatever we like at Superman, but if he needs to mover a solar system, or fly from the edge of the universe to save a kitten, he’ll do it. It’s frustrating, confounding, and wonderful. He’s been at it for 80 years, and he’s just getting warmed up. He’s entered what I’m going to call the “Eternal Age”.

The Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Copper Ages have all passed. We could label the years that come with more metal, prosaic to say the least, or label them after a writer or artist as some are wont to do. However, Superman has transcended these labels, having outlasted the age of his birth, by giving life to every age that has followed. Superman’s children wear cowls, use lassos, spin webs, and make deals with the devil. They transform, save princesses, win tournaments, and have convincing knock-out punches. No other fictional character has inspired so many, save one, and it stems from the idea Superman represents. The notion can be approached from a myriad of avenues, but the result is the same. It’s about being as strong as we need to be to help one another. Heroism will stay with us on Earth, when we leave to other places, and the dimensions beyond that. We can only imagine what Truth, Justice, and the American Way will sound like in 80 more years, or beyond that, but only time will reveal the answer.

It is intriguing that despite all of our attempts to reduce Superman and heroism with him, to a cynical cut-out, he defies it. He outlasts the attempts to do so, being more than bulletproof, but foolproof as well. He may be the best idea we as a species have ever had, handed through the years until two crafted it into an exceptionally durable form. Isn’t that a comforting thought?

Happy Anniversary Superman, and many, many, many happy returns.

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