I’m looking at the cover of Action Comics #1 and finding it almost impossible to imagine how people saw it back in 1938. A powerfully-built ox of a man holding a car above his head while the other figures in the scene cower or flee in terror? Who is this guy? Is he the hero or the villain? Gaudy circus performer or alien invader? Man or…
Superman has always been a part of my pop culture landscape, from the Christopher Reeve movies to Lois and Clark, from running around with my coat doubling as a cape to reading the comics as I embraced my inner geek. True story: while on holiday in Toronto, I was wearing a Superman t-shirt on a visit to the CN Tower. When the time came for my tour party to stand on the glass floor and stare down at the sidewalk hundreds of feet below, I was asked to hold a middle-aged woman’s arm as she’d be too scared to walk on the glass otherwise. That was nothing to do with me being courageous or strong, but everything to do with the symbol on my shirt.
Those early readers weren’t the only ones figuring Superman out. In that first issue, Superman works for the Daily Star, not the Planet; he can leap one-eighth of a mile but can’t fly; his powers are due to Kryptonians being more evolved, not a reaction to sunlight. Perhaps more importantly he’s more rough and ready than the character’s normally portrayed, less sci-fi and more earthy. Back in 1938, Superman had yet to become the mythic hero of pop culture epics.
April 15th 2013, and social media reels in shock as explosions tear through the Boston Marathon. Among the digital chaos of the first few hours after the bombing, a friend retweets a quote from Fred Rogers: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” And I read that and I thought about the horror of that day and the heroism of those who ran to help the injured, and I also thought of Superman.
At least Lois was there. For all this is Superman’s anniversary, it’s also the birthday of Lois Lane. I’ll admit it; I’m a shipper. She’s the voice of humanity in the mythos, a tenacious journalist who fights for justice in her own right; the recent trailer for Man of Steel, amid all the questions about Superman’s role and identity, it’s Lois who sits there confidently getting to the heart of the matter. Heck, she’s one who gives Clark’s alter-ego a name. She’s not just one of the most famous female comic book characters, she’s one of the most iconic characters full stop. Look at the cover of Action #1 again – it’s Lois who’s being kidnapped in that car. It may be Superman’s 75th, but let’s also sing happy birthday to Lois Lane.
Talking of that trailer, there was another moment of humanity that just floored me. The young Clark has just discovered he’s adopted – that he’s not even from Earth. He turns to the man who raised him and asks “Can’t I just pretend I’m still your son?” “You are my son!” comes the reply, and that still gets me, even as I’m typing this. Maybe it’s because I’m a new stepdad, maybe it’s because I’m getting old and relating to fathers rather than sons, but… There’s just so much there, love and compassion and identity and fear, and so much of the Superman story is tied up with the things parents want for their children, whether you’re from Kansas or Krypton.
In a world of grimdark superheroes, it’s easy to overlook how important Superman was and is. He’s been used as a pop culture defence against Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, and when Grant Morrison’s run rebooted Action Comics in 2011, Clark returned to his roots as a social crusader in a time of recession and austerity and the 1%. It’s easy to forget Superman’s relevance – after all, he’s a part of the mass media wallpaper – but while it’s easy to see him as ‘establishment’, there’s also subversion going on – he’s an immigrant, he’s working class, he’s hiding a secret and he’s an outsider.
He’s relevant, in other words. 75 years after he first picked up that car, since he first leapt into action to save Lois Lane, he’s still important, still recognised, still a symbol of heroism and justice; ask him what he wants and he’ll tell you he’s here to help.
I want to help too.