Superman is back in the news, though perhaps not for the best reasons. Ho hum, yet another gay superhero. Too bad Supey, Captain America beat you to it by coming out first. Actually, it was not Superman himself who is bisexual, but his and Lois’s son. So maybe the Kryptonian bloodline is doomed after all. Superman actor Dean Cain said it well:
“They said it’s a bold new direction,” Cain said. “I say they’re bandwagoning.”
The actor added that he didn’t think it was “bold or brave or some crazy new direction.”
“If they had done this 20 years ago, perhaps that would be bold or brave,” Cain said. “But brave would be having him fight for the rights of gay people in Iran where they’ll throw you off a building for the offense of being gay.”
No one is going to read this comic book, except perhaps for a handful of LGBT activists. No one reads comic books anymore anyway. Probably the main benefit to the parent company from the recent buzz will be a slight boost in video streaming of the many iterations of Superman on the big and small screens than have propagated over the last 82 years, since the character was introduced in Action Comics #1 in June, 1938.
The character of Superman made a big impact on my life. I was 5 years old in 1966 when “The New Adventures of Superman” cartoon debuted on Saturday mornings. I was hooked. It was not until I was 9 years old in 1970 when I “officially” began reading Superman comic books, which I continued to read through my college years in the 1980s. The above image was the cover of one my early comic books. I still have it in a box in the attic.
Superman was always “my” superhero. I thought it was “super” cool that the creators of Superman — Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster — were from Cleveland like me. In fact, I had always heard that it was the Ohio Bell Building in Downtown Cleveland which Jerry envisioned as being “the tall building” which Superman could “leap in a single bound.” Over the years I have often stood next to that building, gazing up alongside it into the sky, imagining being able to jump that height.
I do believe that reading comic books as a young child made me a passionate reader in my adult life. I might never have read “Moby Dick” or Dante’s “Divine Comedy” or the great historical works of science had I not first read DC Comics as a kid. As Marvel Comics publisher Stan Lee was fond of saying:
“Comic books are the last hedge against creeping illiteracy. They are only thing that kids read willingly, nay, enthusiastically.”
Stan was right. And the decline in comics readership today is in tandem with the creeping illiteracy of the 21st century. It really is too bad that no one reads comic books anymore.
I was a high school senior in 1978 when the Christopher Reeve “Superman: The Movie” debuted. I went to see it on opening night, which became a lifelong moviegoing tradition for anticipated films. This movie was an important turning point for the character, the first feature length film and the first live-action incarnation of the character in 20 years.
The above scene, in which Superman first appears to save Lois Lane, remains one of my most enjoyable movie moments. It was fun and funny and very exciting. Today’s young cell phone users might miss the joke when Clark eyes up the 70s style phone kiosk, since phone booths were already becoming passe’ by then, like all pay phones today. Some may fail to appreciate the cultural significance of Superman’s brief exchange with the pimp, an acknowledgement that street life really did exist in the previously lily-white superhero universe. Lois’s quip when Superman catches her remains priceless. The audience roared with laughter throughout this scene on that opening night 43 years ago.
Most people thought comics were just goofy stories for total geeks. Perhaps the premise of superpowerful beings was puerile and unrealistic compared to our mundane real world. But those of us who actually read comics discovered that the stories were serious, and the writing and characterizations of the comics were of outstanding quality. It has been widely said (such as in M. Night Shyamalan’s excellent movie “Unbreakable”) that comic book tales are modern epic sagas, high tech counterparts of Beowulf and Homer, classic stories depicting archetypical heroes and villains, embodying the ongoing struggle between good and evil. There was great depth in these humble stories printed on newsprint.
Even among nerdy comics readers, Superman was for nerds. He was not as “cool” as the Marvel superheroes. But I didn’t care. I could relate to the character of Superman. Unlike most people, I understood the subtext of the story. Deep down, he really was Clark Kent at heart and just pretended to be Superman. He was Kal-El, a survivor of a dead planet, all alone in the worst way. He had a desperate need to fit in, to be normal, to just be one of the guys. For this reason, Clark took on the mantle of Superman and embraced his role as defender of the weak and vulnerable. Clark really was just a nerd, just like me. And what little boy didn’t wish he could put on a cape and fly like Superman.
As I matured, I grew weary of the “neverending saga” of superhero stories. Superman can only save the world so many times before it becomes a bore. Like Mr. Incredible said, “I wish the world would just stay saved!” And my tastes in reading developed along more literary lines. As the Apostle wrote:
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. (1 Corinthians 13:11).
But my youthful enthusiasm for colorful comic stories led me to appreciate the value and potential of illustration as a medium. I discovered a movement started by comics pioneer Will Eisner of using “sequential art” for constructive, pedagogical purposes, instead of just re-telling the same silly stories. This eventually led to the discovery at age 29 that multiple-panel illustrations were ideal for teaching astronomy. Since astronomy is a visual subject, a visual medium is preferable for depicting sky events and their celestial circumstances.
This visualization of astronomy led to my illusrated work with Sky & Telescope magazine and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific in the late 90s and early 00s, and my work with Classical Astronomy ever since. I’ve heard from many enthusiastic readers over the years who have appreciated how illustration is able to make simple the complexities of astronomy.
But none of this would have likely occurred had I never made friends with my old buddy Superman! So even though the current writers have steered the character onto a political tangent, while the left gloats over its latest conquest, I remain grateful to the original creators, along with the early writers and artists, for providing inspiration to my young life.