Today is Superman’s birthday.
You’ve got to feel sorry for the guy. He spends all that time saving the world and yet when does he get to party? Once every four years. Sometimes life sucks if you’re a superhero.
February 29th isn’t the anniversary of the character’s creation or his first publication or anything. It became the traditional birthday for Superman during the Silver Age and it fits – why shouldn’t Superman’s birthday be on the leap day? It’s an unusual birthday for an unusual person.
It’s no secret that Superman is my favourite superhero. Batman may be cooler (and, in a weird way, funnier), and Starman may be better written, but there’s something about Superman. Maybe it’s because he’s the first superhero, the one who defines the genre – he’s pure of heart and never gives up and if you were somehow mysteriously transported into the world of comic books, he’d be the one you’d call for help.
Being the first carries with it a specific set of problems though – he’s sometimes seen as boring because he lacks an ‘edge’ (that’s because he’s the baseline and so it’s easy to forget the uniqueness of his first appearance), and because he’s the first – and therefore ‘establishment’ and ‘patriarchal’, he becomes the one to knock down in order to prove another character’s credentials (this is key to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, which was so influential that everyone ended up doing it).
All this has been used to call into question Superman’s relevance; I say it enhances it. Certainly in the UK we’ve had a couple of years that have served to highlight the corruption of many of our institutions – MP expenses scandals, newspapers hacking phones, bribes paid to police. We suffer from a lack of heroes, real and fictional. In that context, the concept of Superman, who’d fight to the death to save one person, and who’d never take a bribe or fiddle his expenses, is a powerful one. That’s why Grant Morrison has taken him back to his 1930s roots as a crusader against social injustice – the character’s relevance has been confirmed by echoing his birth.
I don’t know what Superman’s future holds – how it will be shaped by the move to digital publishing, how the forthcoming Man of Steel will compare to movie juggernauts like The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, how truth, justice and the American way survives in a world that’s lacking all three.
But I do know that, as a character, Superman is still loved, still has something to say, still leads the pack when it comes to fictional heroes. And so today I’ll read a comic, wear my Superman t-shirt, and be grateful that, once upon a time, someone dreamed of a man that could fly.