A Perspective on the Essence and Appeal of Supermanby Yosef Shoemaker
Originally presented in the June 1997 Kryptonian Cybernet
Obviously, there are numerous minor -- and unlamentable -- differences between the Byrne-Superman and the pre-Byrne version. Not too many tears had to be shed when Super-Monkey went by the wayside. No one really mourned the loss of Kryptonian judo. Even the losses of Morgan Edge, Josh Coyle, and Steve Lombard were not distressing. There are, however, many fundamental differences between the two versions, and taken as a whole, they touch on an aspect of Superman's core essence, not the peripheral elements. The common theme underlying all of them is: The Elimination of Alienation. Byrne's Superman is no longer a tragic figure, an outsider, an alien, an outcast. For example, he is born on Earth, not on Krypton, and is so decidedly divorced from Kryptonian self-identification that he could never, would never exclaim, "Great Krypton!" [This in and of itself is acceptable, but it is a sign of the larger issue.] He is no longer the bereft orphan with a plethora of memories of self-sacrificing biological parents Jor-El and Lara. He is no longer the pained figure who survives the passing of his loving adoptive parents, the Kents. Not only is he like [just about] everyone else, with loving parents doting on him, he is not even thought of as an adopted child; the world perceives him to be just one more biological product of a happy marriage. Clark Kent is no longer a vulnerable, fearful, pathetic figure; now, he is as confident and capable and as socialized as the next fellow. He even grows hair on his face and chest -- like most any other man -- which the pre-Byrne version did not.
I maintain that this tragic alienation was part of the essence of Siegel and Shuster's creation. Their Clark Kent/Kal-El was an outsider, an outcast, different and alienated from everyone else. And yet, he was also someone confident, capable, invulnerable -- the Superman beloved and admired by all. Who among us was so free of self-doubt, so secure in their abilities and their social-acceptability, that they could not identify -- on some level, at certain times -- with Clark Kent or Kal-El? Who among us didn't experience moments when they wanted to become Superman? Siegel and Shuster knew that, and they built it into their character. Take that away, and the character has been fundamentally altered.
Much of the above has been said before. One thing that I have never seen
before is a comprehensive discussion of Superman's appeal. I think the
character's appeal has to do with more than just the powers and abilities. In
my opinion, not only do we want to see ourselves as capable, confident, and
invulnerable, we also want to see ourselves as GOOD. We want to like
ourselves; we want to believe that we are nice people. Part of the essence of
Superman is his high moral caliber, his compassion, his commitment to ethical
deportment. In that sense also, Superman addresses our wishes for ourselves.