In this week’s Everything But Imaginary, I’m heading back to the Silver Age of comics. The Silver Age was great. There were some great concepts, characters, stories and creators from that time. But for every Barry Allen, there were a dozen Mopees. For every Hal Jordan, there were a dozen stories that made you ask…
But in this week’s Classic EBI, we’re looking at something a bit more solemn. We’re traveling back to October 13, 2004, shortly after the passing of a man who touched everyone of my age deeply. It’s time for my tribute to a man who made us believe in heroes even before he became one.
Classic EBI #84: When We Believed a Man Could Fly (or The Importance of Being Superman)
In 1948, Kirk Alyn was the first. Then in 1951, George Reeves took over, and it was good. In 1993, Dean Cain gave it a shot, and in 2001, Tom Welling really began to soar. But for me, and for many of you reading, I suspect, there was only one true Superman, and that was Christopher Reeve, who died on Sunday, all too soon, at the age of 52.
Reeve, then a virtual unknown, was cast as the man of steel in the feature film by director Richard Donner. It was an ambitious project, one that was not easily made, but cast and crew struggled, and persevered, and the film was released with the tagline, “You will believe a man can fly.”
And we did.
This character, already 40 years old at that point, had long existed in the pages of comic books, with occasional appearances in television shows or movie serials which were nice, but didn’t quite get it. The closest the motion picture industry had come to capturing the majesty and the grandeur of the character was when Dave Fleischer directed a series of animated shorts in the 1940s with Bud Collyer providing Superman’s voice. They were, at the time, the most expensive animated short films ever made – and certainly among the best.
But when Superman was released in 1978… suddenly, everything was new again. We watched Marlon Brando as Jor-El place his son in a rocket and send him to Earth just moments before the planet Krypton died. We saw the child crash in a Kansas field, and we saw his adoption by Jonathan and Martha Kent, two characters who indirectly have saved the world a thousand times over through the values they instilled in their son. We watched young Clark Kent grow into a man… and director Richard Donner took his time. It was nearly an hour into the film before Reeve appeared at all. But when he did, there could be no doubt…
This was Superman.
People often mock Superman’s “disguise” – a pair of glasses and some hair gel are all it takes to mask his identity from the people of Metropolis. But when Reeve took the part, you could believe it. He crafted totally different identities for each character. His Clark was bumbling, yes, but he was sweet. His Superman was bold, proud and strong.
And when he flew… by Heaven, how he flew.
Reeve, of course, made three more films as the man of steel – Superman II was almost better than the first, but was derailed by a poorly-constructed ending. Superman III… well, at least it was cute as comic relief. (The less said about Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, the better.) Then Reeve left the part and went on to make other movies and TV shows, in many ways trying to distance himself from the character that had made him famous.
In 1995, while riding a horse, he was involved in an accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down. It was then that we really began to understand what a Superman is. Reeve did not die, no. He fought. He struggled back to health and began working again – directing films and taking small acting roles, even taking a part in the Smallville television show, where he symbolically passed the torch on to this generation’s Clark Kent, Tom Welling. Behind the scenes, though, he fought even harder, not only for his life, but for many others. He became a tireless crusader for the rights of the disabled and for new research techniques to save others suffering from his condition. The courage and strength he showed in the last nine years of his life are as inspirational a story as any tale ever told about Superman himself.
Reeve earned that role, not just through his performances, but in his incredible struggle in the years afterwards. Anyone who has read this column more than twice probably knows that Superman is my all-time favorite superhero. But I loved the movies before I loved the comic books. I loved the character not because of the writers or artists who gave birth to him, but because of Richard Donner, John Williams and Christopher Reeve.
And that’s why I get furious when I hear people attack the character. When they call him shallow, or too “perfect.” When bad writers feel the need to make him a baser creature in a horribly misguided effort to “humanize” him, or when I hear someone throw off an idiotic speech about how Superman must “despise” we mere Earthlings.
Think about this character for a moment with a clear mind. Think about what the story boils down to, way back to his first appearance in Action Comics #1. This was a man – a child, really — who came to a new world from a home that was stolen from him. He was denied his past, his heritage, the truth of his very existence for much of his life. This was a character who had every reason to be angry and contemptuous, to become the greatest villain of them all.
But he didn’t. He became the greatest hero.
Superman is a man – not perfect, but a good man, one of the finest of us. To me, it comes back to Jonathan and Martha Kent. Simple people, farmers, a common man and wife who understood the value of hard work, honesty and justice. And they did what parents are supposed to do – they taught this to their child. They taught him right from wrong. They made him understand what it’s supposed to mean to be human. And as their child got older and he became capable of more and more incredible things, they taught him to use those powers not for his own ends, but to protect all life. In the graphic novel Superman: Peace on Earth, writer Paul Dini penned what is probably the truest statement ever about the character with words he put into Superman’s own mouth: “I look upon my powers as a gift. Not mine alone, but for anyone who needs them.”
That’s why so many people don’t like Superman, you know. Because they can’t accept it. Because they refuse to believe anybody could have that gift and not use it for themselves. That’s why Lex Luthor always dismissed evidence that Clark and Superman were one and the same. That’s why some writers feel the need to make him a puppet or a fool, because in their narrow minds only such a person could behave that way. Others have to make him a cold, stoic creature, removed from humanity, or a smug imperialist, because similarly they believe only that sort of person could have his powers and not become an outright villain. There is a word for writers who use Superman to tell stories like this. That word is “wrong.” They would tell you that the way the character has developed is unbelievable, because no one could be that good. But that’s the point, don’t you see?
People say Superman isn’t as heroic as more street-level characters because his powers protect him. But what about the fact that he has to struggle to keep those powers in check? To keep from breaking someone’s arm while shaking their hand, or incinerating someone with a stray beam of heat vision? What about the fact that he has overcome the death of an entire planet and dedicated his life to helping the race that raised him? You want to tell me that Superman sees humans as weak or cowardly? Then why does he spend every waking moment keeping them from harm? Why does he spend so much of his time trying to become one? If he hates humankind so much, why would he do anything at all?
How many characters could easily rule the world, but choose instead to guard it? Who else would flee his adopted home world, leaving behind everything he knew, when afraid that he was becoming a threat? Who else would take a lump of Kryptonite, the one element that could kill him, and give it to the Batman as a safeguard, a weapon to use against him should he ever turn evil or lose control? Who else would go toe-to-toe with Doomsday, knowing in his heart the battle would kill him, to stop the murderous, rampaging beast from going any farther than Metropolis?
Who else would travel to the far ends of the universe to trade blows with Darkseid and then stop to rescue a kitten from a tree on the way home?
You want to play the “better than” game? Fine. I’ll admit that Batman has a much more dramatic origin. I’ll admit that Spider-Man has a more likeable personality. I’ll admit that the X-Men are more suited for allegories or that the Hulk is a stronger parable about the consequences of power.
That’s not what Superman is about. It’s such a simple story – a man with a gift does good for others. That’s it. That’s all it boils down to. From Robin Hood to Zorro, the Three Musketeers to Don Quixote, from Santa Claus to Jesus Christ, it’s all the same thing. This is the stuff that legends are made of. Are we so cynical in this day and age that we simply can’t believe in someone who would try to protect somebody else just because it’s the right thing to do? Is that why we need to demonize police officers and soliders? Is that why firefighters seem to be the only heroes left to us that people are still reluctant to turn into monsters in movies, on television – even on the evening news? (And even firefighters only seem to be given dispensation because of the real-world heroics they have demonstrated in the past few years… although police and the military have certainly displayed the same.)
Batman and Spider-Man fight because of guilt. The X-Men fight because they’re oppressed. Captain America fights for his country. The Fantastic Four fight to expand the boundaries of knowledge – explorers that they are – and the Hulk fights because nobody will leave him the hell alone. And they all make for great stories.
But Superman… he fights because it’s the right thing to do. He fights because he can do things that nobody else can. It’s not dramatic. It’s not sexy. It’s not full of angst or rage or anxiety like every other “hero” that gets thrown in our face in this day and age. It’s something good. Something pure. Something simple… like the farmer tilling his soil and teaching his son to do the same.
And even though I may not have known the words to say so back then – may not have even known the words until I sat down to write this column – I knew all of this as a child, the first time I saw Superman catch a falling helicopter and a stunned reporter who quipped, “You’ve got me? Who’s got you?”
So thank you to everyone who has made me see that over the years. Thank you, Jerry Siegel. Thank you Joe Shuster. Thank you Dave Fleisher and Bud Collyer. George Reeves. Julius Schwartz. Murphy Anderson. Curt Swan. Alan Moore. George Perez. John Byrne. Jerry Ordway. Dan Jurgens. Louise Simonson. Jon Bogdanove. Jeph Loeb. Kurt Busiek. Stuart Immonen. Tom Welling. Marv Wolfman. Mark Waid. Leinil Yu. Alex Ross. Paul Dini. Bruce Timm. Tim Daly. George Newburn. Alexander and Ilya Salkind. John Williams. Richard Donner. Thank you for bringing life to the world’s first superhero, and still, the world’s greatest.
And thank you, most of all, to Christopher Reeve.
He was already immortal. And to most of us here, he will not be remembered by the years he spent trapped, fighting, confined to a chair. To most of us, we will remember him the way he was when we first saw him, when we first loved him, where he belongs. For those of us here, we will remember him always, in the sky.
Favorite of the Week: October 6, 2004
From the highest heights, down to some of the lowest points, the Favorite of the Week this week marks about as drastic a shift from the main topic as you can pull off. Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man #27, as is so often the case with this title, gave us a last page that left me totally agape. After spending some time as a guinea pig to discover why he survived the plague that killed all the other males on Earth, Yorick has something vital stolen from him, and the result is one of those eye-popping scenes that leaves fans of this title clamoring for more of the story each and every month. This was an incredible comic.
Blake M. Petit is the author of the superhero comedy novel, Other People’s Heroes, the suspense novel The Beginner and the Christmas-themed eBook A Long November. He’s also the co-host, with whoever the hell is available that week, of the 2 in 1 Showcase Podcast and the weekly audio fiction podcast Blake M. Petit’s Evercast. E-mail him at BlakeMPetit@gmail.com and visit him on the web at Evertime Realms. Read past columns at the Everything But Imaginary Archive Page, and check out his new experiment in serial fiction at Tales of the Curtain.