Poll Position: What puts the Super in Superman?

I've long wondered what exactly it is that made Superman the mega-star he is when so many other characters from the Thirties long since faded away into utter obscurity (many of them found right here on these pages being made fun of, and what kind of life is that for a guy in tights?). Sure, he has lots of powers, but so did those other guys. And yes, he had a flashy costume, but so did a lot of the other crusaders running around the funny pages. Is it as simple as he was first, so he had dibs on the popular imagination?

Beyond that, though, the character has been through more re-imaginings and ret-cons and re-definitions than I can count, and yet his core still remains unquestionably "Superman". So what is it that makes him who he is, with a seeming death-grip on the American public consciousness as "the" super-hero? So here's the question I came up with to try and grapple with that issue:

{democracy:90}

  • Invulnerability: Doomsday aside, Superman pretty much sets the standard for invulnerability. I think in some ways this inability to be hurt is what drives him to want to be Clark Kent so badly; in a very real sense, pain and mortality are at the core of what it means to be human, and yet those are the very things Kal-el can never really experience while still being himself. Would a Superman who can be hurt like the rest of us still fly so blithely into danger? Charge so heedlessly to the front when action is required?
  • Super-strength: In terms of his power set, his strength has to be darn close to his invulnerability. The iconic images of Superman mostly involve him throwing cars or bending steel bars or smashing through walls. Yes, lots of other super-heroes are strong, but this is a guy who's relatively normal (if buff) looking, not a grotesque distortion of the human figure like The Thing or The Hulk.
  • Flight: Look! Up in the sky! The power of flight has absolutely fascinated humanity for thousands of years, and Superman's ability to float above us has got to be a key part of his charm. Sure, when he started out he was just a really good leaper, but flight came along pretty darn fast. Would a Superman who could only "leap tall buildings" instead of race over them still be Superman?
  • The Big Red "S": Maybe this is my graphic designer persona talking, but that logo is pretty damn iconic. It's instantly recognizable throughout the world, and its bright primary colors and bold design pretty much set the tone for the whole body of work. During the interminable "Reign of the Supermen" story arc, the replacements with a big bold "S" were simply more Superman than those without it. Branding is reality, folks, like it or not.
  • The Clark Kent identity: I think you can make a good case that Clark Kent represents everything Superman most longs for -- to fit in, to be a part of humanity, to be unremarkable, to be appreciated not for his powers but for his heart and mind and personality. We all want to be something we not, and you can argue that just as Superman is exactly that for most of us -- what we emphatically are NOT -- the fact that this very same model also most wants to be like us has a powerful attraction.
  • Code vs. Killing: Superman sets the gold standard for a purer, more traditional style of super-hero, and his code versus killing is pretty much the reason for that. The case is made explicity and brilliantly in "Kingdom Come", but a fundamental and deep respect for the sanctity of other life is core to who Superman is as a character. I don't think a murderous, rampaging, homicidal Kal-El is still Superman.

So there you have it. I usually chime in here with what I think the answer is for me, but I don't want to muddy the waters this time around, I'm too curious to hear what you all have to say. So make your case in the comments, and if you think I left out "the" answer, by all means lay out the smack-down!

14 Responses to Poll Position: What puts the Super in Superman?

  1. For me it’s flying, am I the only one that can picture him not being so “Super” when he has to get around Metropolis on the bus.
    “Is it a bird? A plane? No… It’s the number 42 to Gotham.” It doesnt work does it.

  2. darkvatican

    Okay, I voted for the big, red “S”, but honestly I think there’s more to it than just that.

    What I believe it comes down to is his costume in general. It’s about the simple color palette the creators used coupled with his stylized “s” symbol. People joke about how superheroes wear their “underpants” on the outside and whatnot, but there are still a great many superhero characters who do just that. Superman was the first and that is a part of his character. The fact that he wears no gloves and his sleeves simply terminate at the wrist is an interesting component to his costume, also. He has no adornment for his hands/wrists at all. Most characters who don’t wear gloves either have a wrist band of some sort (like Supe’s thunderbolt-wearing counterpart, Capt. Marvel) or their sleeves terminate farther up the arm. His cape is also a huge part of his image. This was made evident when DC tried to switch his costume for the “energy superman” of the late 90s. People HATED that costume and a big reason people hated it was there was no cape, in addition to the stupid “lightning” designs. Superman’s haircut is also pretty darned iconic. Not just anybody can pull off that “I have an extremely conservative haircut but I can still shift planets w/my bare hands” thing that Supes has going. When they tried chaning his hair to the long haired-superman (or mullet superman) it lasted about as long as a snowball would in hell. Even when they left his hair short but tried to cover it up with his energy superman costuming, the fans railed at DC for seemingly trying to destroy Superman’s image. Last but not least is the S symbol. The S symbol Superman wears is so iconic that w/out it, his character would be a nobody. He has worn some version of his symbol in every version of his costume, if I am remembering my comics history well enough. The symbol/insignia is even now a time-honored tradition of the superhero, and this is due mostly to Superman & Batman, w/some few others like Green Lantern, Captain “Shazam” Marvel, and the Flash adding a bit to it, as well. Marvel’s superheroes largely avoid the insignia or “symbol” for their characters. A good many of their characters have a symbol of some sort emblazoned across their chest (and maybe even on their belt buckle), but people like Spider-Man and even Captain America are not made by their symbols the way Superman is by his. Marvel always tried to be different from DC when it came to their costume designs, so they avoided the “wear the symbol on the chest” thing a lot when creating and recreating characters, opting instead to put whatever symbols the characters wore off to the side of the chest(like daredevil), on the belt buckle(sentry), or maybe even on the character’s back.

    So there’s my answer: Superman’s costume as a whole. You can break it down into different elements, but without his costume he just isn’t Superman to comic fans. I think the attempts to change his costume/appearance indicate this is true.

  3. HalLowEn JacK

    I couldn’t vote – you left off the real reason.

    Colloquial language from the 20’s.

    Think about how camp the term ‘Super’ is in modern day vernacular, yet Superman lives on. If he had been called Captain Wonderful he’d be in a gay pride float every year.

    That being said, I think Superman’s lasting popularity comes form how thoroughly ingrained inteo the America Psyche superman has become since the wartime era of the easrly 20th century. He’s the ultimate Nazi Superman fighting for Truth, Justice and the America Way whose parallels to the story of Jesus are blended with America cultural icons of virtue and as such I don’t think it mattered WHAT his powers and abilities were/are, pecause the role he played in supporting American cultural identity at a time of crisis made him an heroic, legendary figure whose appeal is not as universal outside of the United States as within.

  4. What HalLowEn JacK said. In addition one has to remember, that 30’s was the time of cynicism with depression, fascism and rampant crime. I think the popularity of Superman was counter reaction to all that as it gave people a vision of a person, who could still believe in the american dream without compromises.

  5. I’d say the code. That much power without that much restraint becomes something much, much darker.

  6. Without “Clark Kent” then what you have is a Kryptonian named Kal-El whose starship could have landed anywhere, at anytime. Numerous Elseworlds have addressed this and have given us a “Superman” from Soviet Russia, Apokolips, in Gotham City raised by the Waynes, and so on and so forth. But it is his upbringing by Jonathan and Martha Kent that gave the world the Superman we know. However…if you’re talking about the public “persona” of Clark Kent, then no, he doesn’t need it. Eventually he will have to put “Clark Kent” to rest, and it’s funny: Superman is as much an act that Clark Kent/Kal-El puts on for the public just like the bumbling goof “Clark Kent”.

  7. William A. Peterson

    Part of it’s the “Clark Kent” identity…
    Not the glasses, and the spitcurl, but the whole “Raised by farm folk in Kansas” thing, the morality, the humility, and the simplicity of the man.
    That’s really where the “Code versus Killing” comes from, as well as the tendency to pull his punches, to always have a good word for other heroes, the whole ‘cornball’ routine.
    “JLA vs. Avengers” got that part right…
    The Marvel Universe is greatly diminished because it doesn’t have a Superman!
    Cap tried, but, ultimately, he was mortal…
    {Don’t bother telling me how they’re bringing him back, because that really doesn’t matter, any more!}
    And, partly, it’s because (Prince Namor’s appearances to one side), he was the first…
    His name defines the term “Superhero”!

  8. Wow, good question. A couple of books come to mind…

    First, there’s a very interesting book called The Psychology of Superheroes, which is just what it sounds like. One of the essays in it is about what Superman would be like if he grew up in New York City. The conclusion it reaches is that he wouldn’t be Superman without being raised in Kansas by the Kents. That gives him his moral center.

    Second, in Kurt Busiek’s Secret Identity, he talks about Superman as a parallel to growing up, boyhood vs. manhood and reaching our full potential. I never really ‘got’ Superman before that, but I can see it that way. If he represents the potential in each of us to be the best we can be, I think it’s the code that makes him Superman. The symbol and all the powers are part of it, but the code makes him who he is.

    We’re deep into myth territory here. If you have a character who can do all the stuff Superman can do, what makes him human? What makes us give a crap about him? It’s what he chooses not to do.

  9. It was a real toss up for me between invulnerability and his code vs. killing. If I had to choose just one, I’d say his code of ethics, because if Superman ever killed someone, he’d be a darker superhero or worse he’d become a villain. This being said, the one thing that usually pops up in my mind first when I hear Superman’s name is his invulnerability and how nothing but a glowing green rock could hurt him. So, I voted for his “code vs. killing” but invulnerability is a very, very close second.

  10. It’s not flight because he can run faster than a speeding bullet so he still has a way of transportation.
    It’s not super-strength because there way too many people with super-strength.
    The Big Red “S”…well, the thing that defines someone has to be something only they own and can’t be copied. Steel has the big “S” so he could copy.
    I don’t think it’s the identity because lots of supers have secret identities and we are looking for the thing that defines Superman. Ok, without being raised by the Kents he wouldn’t be the “Idon’tliketokillpeople” guy. Buuut that was long ago, it’s not the thing that defines Superman.
    Now…the code vs. killing is a difficult one. I think it really defines Superman because he might be the only one that really despises killing even his greatest enemies. While the other heroes are killing everybody crosses the line of the law, Superman always puts them in jail (ok, they often run away from it very easily (LL has a room for himself in prison so he can go on vacations there) but it’s the intention that counts, right?). But other heroes don’t like killing either (Spider-man for example…but he DOES beat the crap out of bad guys…).
    So, I go for invulnerability. For some reason he is known as the “Man of Steel”. The fact weapons just don’t kill the guy made his character more unique because they had to get new ways of stopping him and when they could stop him the people could see that even someone who is invulnerable can be defeated (even if temporarily). I think the way he always fought against his brief moments of weakness inspired people (along with is kind hearth but that comes in second).

  11. JInkieZoinks

    This is a very loaded question, not because it lends itself to a certain point of view. But because it tries to single out one reason that Superman embodies the myth of a great hero. Which is the REAL reason superman is so iconic. It is a simple case of filling out all the boxes on a classical mythology checklist. As an example compare the Story of Hercules from ancient Greek myth to that of Clark Kent/ Superman, you’ll find them VERY simular. Which is a good thing. because it means that in a few thousand years people will look back at our culture and see the story of Superman ranked right up there with the Illiad. I think Superman is defined not by one simple thing, but because of them all and how long they have been just let to evolve beyond the original scope. Just like a classical myth should.

  12. darkvatican

    “I think Superman is defined not by one simple thing, but because of them all and how long they have been just let to evolve beyond the original scope. Just like a classical myth should.” – JInkieZoinks

    Very good point here.

  13. I’m not sure the official question and the unofficial one are really the same question.

    The official question regards Superman; the version in the poll title even states ‘what puts the Super in Superman?’, but that’s not the actual question being asked here. The actual question is what Superman’s one true defining characteristic is – and in my view, it’s something that has little, if anything, to do with the ‘super’ part of him.

    What puts the Super in Superman? For that question, it’s his powers. The whole set, not simply one specific power. (Although you’re free to ignore super-ventriloquism when considering that statement.)

    What’s Superman’s truest defining characteristic? That he’s not, in fact, a ‘superman’ at all, except for those powers. In fact, an argument could be made that, in the most technical sense, he’s only barely a hero, as the term was originally understood.

    From what I’ve read on the issue, in the original myths the term descends from a Hero was a semi-divine being – and by that standard, because of his powers, Superman sort of fits. (If you’re willing to waive the technicality that his powers are alien rather than divine in origin.) But, that was the only requirement for the Hero title; consider that a selfish bastard (literally in this case) like Herakles could fit it. Sure, Herakles did some things that were considered good, but just as often, he’s the only one benefitting from his actions.

    And Superman, for all his pseudo-divine powers, isn’t a Hero in the mythic sense if this is the case. He doesn’t hold himself out as someone above the crowd, a raised figure who others should honor but not emulate. If he’d come to the earth fully-grown, Kal-L might have become these things. But by coming as a child, Kal-L gained something else, thanks to John and Mary Kent. (I’m working with the Golden Age Superman here; the Silver Age Kal-El simply inherited the mantle his forebearer had woven.) He gained a sense of humility, and humanity.

    Superman isn’t the semi-divine Hero raised up on a pedestal to worship; he’s an Exalted Everyman; an ordinary person, albeit with extraordinary powers, who uses those powers the way other ordinary people might if they had them. Remember, when Kal-L first took up the labors of Superman, he wasn’t fighting against costumed villains as Kal-El does now. In these latter days, when it’s not uncommon to see Superman going up against practically anyone with a bad costume and an “Evil and proud of it” badge, it may be difficult to remember his origins. But those origins, as much as anything else, are what makes Superman who he is.

    “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” Kal-L fought those who harmed others, but who were, technically, just barely on the inside of the law. He sought to provide for others the truth that those in power (even so simple a power as a company manager) might seek to hide. He sought to provide justice, and a fair chance, to others – even at cost to himself; one of Superman’s first major acts was to demolish a major, if delapilated, area of Metropolis, with the intent of forcing the hand of the government – with the old, dangerous buildings gone, the inhabitants of the area would be given new homes to live in. This act was to brand Superman a public enemy for a while, a burden he willingly took on in order to provide assistance to those who it would benefit.

    So, what really is Superman’s defining characteristic? If limited to the list at hand, I’d have to say it’s Clark Kent. Not “Clark Kent the disguise”, which is how some have treated it, but “Clark Kent the identity”, or “Clark Kent the man”. It’s Clark Kent’s humanity that transformed a simple ‘Hero’ into the Everyman Legend that really makes Superman who he is – without that gift, he’d be nothing.

  14. What makes him Superman? It’s not the Super in the Man, but rather the Man in the Super.