Welcome to the first installment of A Sense of Wonder, a new feature of indefinite length in which I detail the wonderful (and I mean that in the purest sense of the word) and imagination-inspiring aspects of the characters in the comic book medium, which would emphasize the superheroes, but would not be limited to them. Click here for the archive.
For the inaugural edition, I present to you the one and only Man of Steel, Superman!
There tends to be a good amount of debate among fans and non-fans of Superman alike, all under the premise of Superman being unrelatable, inaccessible to new and younger readers. This almost always evolves into a discussion about Superman's power levels, with half of the fans saying that the reason people can't relate to him is because he's too powerful, and the other half saying that it's exactly because he's powerful that makes him awesome.
While I tend to lean toward the latter camp, I'd also like to say, very simply and very easily, this. It's not about how strong Superman is. It's never been about how strong Superman was. One of the things I have always been an advocate of is the fact that Superman is not about his powers. His powers exist to give us a backdrop - writers such as Alan Moore and Grant Morrison have given us classic stories with a really powerful Superman, and the powers exist to give us a backdrop of all sorts of fantastic, crazy stuff. It's not about how strong he is; it's about what fun and fantasy we can have with this backdrop. All-Star Superman, in particular, is a perfect example of this.
When I was younger, I'd see reprints of Silver Age stories of Superman that were just filled with absolute wonder. He could FLY! He had a Fortress of Solitude in the arctic, which you could only open with a big giant key that only he was capable of lifting!
He could breathe in space! He had friends, who could all fly! He could push moons, travel through time, and move planets!
He was really, really strong! It's not about him being so strong that nothing can threaten him; it's about him being so strong that he can do all this stuff.
He had a wonderful city in a bottle that housed thousands of his Kryptonian homeworlders, and when he went into it, he was powerless! It was like going home!
Why would you want to get rid of this? Well, supposedly, writers found it too hard to write ongoing stories about someone so powerful. It never made any sort of sense to me, because the whole selling point of Superman when I was younger was that he had such a rich world, which existed partly because of what he was able to do. Why would you deprive Superman a beautiful scene where he could look at space, or where he could lift something in space, or just doing something awesome in space, like this one where he kisses Lois on the moon, just because he's "too hard to write" if he's powerful enough to breathe in space? Why deprive the fans of beautiful, poetic imagery such as this just for the sake of a level of power?
Isn't Superman supposed to open up new worlds to us and inspire us? Why limit that because it's "too hard to do"? Just as Superman pushes readers' imaginations, so should he push writers. If a writer can't be bothered to come up with new and exciting challenges to make Superman sweat, the solution isn't to depower Superman and remove the fantastic elements that make him a great source of escapist fiction; the solution is to find a better writer.
Writers find it too hard to write a powerful Superman? It's funny, because some of the most beloved stories in history - I need only point to mythology - involve beings that were incredibly powerful. Something like Sherlock Holmes sold because Sherlock Holmes was the absolute best at what he did. No one needed him to be "more flawed," or "more human." Some of the best and most acclaimed stories in comics have particularly very powerful characters, such as Sandman, Preacher, and Swamp Thing, because those writers got that it was characterization and not the level of power that drove a story. And some of the best Superman stories have involved him being near-powerful, such as Mark Waid and Alex Ross' Kingdom Come:
Mark Millar, Dave Johnson, and Killian Plunket's Red Son:
And Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's All-Star Superman:
And similarly, even in the best post-Crisis stories where Superman is powered down, his lower power level isn't referenced. I highly suggest Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's Superman for All Seasons:
Geoff Johns and Gary Frank's Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes (Honestly, between this and All-Star Superman, the Superman team was firing on all cylinders that year):
And Joe Kelly and Doug Mahnke's "What's So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?" in Action Comics #775, so you know what I'm talking about:
In fact, in all three stories, I actually have no idea how strong Superman's actually supposed to be. What I do know is that he was continually pushed to his limits, and he handled it all with the strength of his character, using his powers in the most logical and smartest ways possible. Explicitly watering him down definitely takes away from the mythical aspect of it, and I think the whole thing where he needs an oxygen mask to breathe in space is just trite, ridiculous, and is one of those things that are so superficial and takes away the awesomeness. Furthermore, I really don't need pseudoscientific explanations like "Superman is a telekinetic when he's flying, which is how he's able to lift stuff up when he flies," that take away from the magic.
If a story came up where Superman had to push the moon back into orbit, I'd rather have him be able to do it (albeit not easily) rather than have the editors mandate that "Oh wait, he can't do that. We've placed a power limit on Superman." You know that oft-repeated Spider-Man scene where Spidey lifts a bunch of machinery from himself? You know how awesome it is? Well, imagine if the editors say, "Oh wait, he can't do that, Spider-Man has a limit on his strength." Then we'd be deprived of an awesome moment.
When I think of Superman, I think of an inspirational leader whose big failing is that he never realizes just how big of an inspiration he is. Cap is different - he knows exactly how inspirational he is; it takes him aback at times, but in general, he's aware of it. Superman, however, walks into a room, and everyone takes notice. The fact that there's other people in the room who are stronger than he is, faster than he is, or more powerful than he is doesn't undermine that; it highlights it. Because it's not about how strong he is - I prefer the ridiculously strong Superman because the stories are more fun, sure, but I've enjoyed stories about Superman when he wasn't so powerful (even some from the Byrne run) - it's about WHO he is, and the worlds that reading him opens up to us, the reader. So if you're going to depower Superman, I don't see the need to excise all of the fantastic elements like Kandor and the Fortress of Solitude in an attempt to be relatable, because to me, Superman is not relatable. He's someone to look up to and aspire to be.
Superman is the best of us. He embodies everything we can be and should be. He does good because it's the right thing to do - no guilt drives him, and not an obsessive sense of justice. He believes in hope, and he believes, like I believe, that no matter the level of danger or the seeming impossibility of any challenge, there's always a way. And that we, as a whole, are much stronger than we think we are.
It's hard for people to relate to the sense of wonder, joy, and idealism that Superman has, at his best, given his readers. But for me, it's exactly why he's awesome.
Duy realized upon uploading a bunch of these images just how much he really loves All-Star Superman. A reread and review is in order.
For stories that capture Superman's Sense of Wonder, check these out: