On April 18, 1938, Action Comics #1 went on sale, and we should all know a little about the cover character by now.
I grew up in the 1960s, the time of George Reeves syndication and Filmation TV cartoons and Curt Swan’s heyday.
Superman was my hero, and rode the top of all my friends’ estimation too. There were other heroes -- Daredevil, Batman, Spider-Man, and all the other four-color guys (I always liked Herbie the Fat Fury too) -- but Superman was the guy.
As a fictional character whose adventures were written for him and thus predetermined, he always made choices that ended well in the end. He had strength when the solution was a super-punch; he had a super-brain when strategy was necessary.
I really enjoyed stories where he outwitted Luthor or Brainiac and didn’t just beat them up.
So, Superman’s appeal to an American kid? He did what was right. He knew what to do. Girls liked him, but he was also able to keep them at arm’s distance. He had cool friends. And nobody ever picked on him.
Now, Clark Kent was another story -- he was often picked on by Lois or other characters. But that didn’t really get under our skin because we knew The Secret -- He wasn’t just that mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper. He was also the impenetrable, unstoppable Superman!
He did what was right, and he treated everybody fairly. He helped kids and didn’t look down on them. He had a smart dog who always obeyed.
As a white-bread kid (Wonder not Rainbo at our house) who grew up believing in rules and that right deeds were rewarded, Superman was for me!
Nowadays, I look around at see a society that most of the time makes up its own rules, and most of the time can’t agree that a given deed was a right one. My childhood memories of Superman, on the one hand, make me yearn for a simpler idea of life where right and wrong were so easily determined, and when the bad guy lost out (often by the unforeseen results of his own misdoings). One the other hand, I take resolve from the idea that most of the time I (or anybody) CAN do something positive, in most circumstances.
As Elliott S! Maggin put it, “There is a right and a wrong in the universe, and most of the time that distinction is not hard to make.” Unlike Superman’s fictional adventures, the reality we face can be messy and hard to figure out.
But MOST OF THE TIME it is NOT THAT HARD to make a decision that will help somebody.
- Let somebody onto the highway in front of me when they are running out of merge lane? not a problem
- Open the door for somebody (man or woman)? I will do that
- Unload the dishwasher? I live here, don’t I?
- Tell somebody they dropped some of their change? It’s when I hope they would do for me
And that’s the key, most of the time. And here we get into the reality that Superman is a shadow of…
Plenty of my friends don’t believe in my lord Jesus, and many do. But most wouldn’t argue with that guidance for living, the (second) most important rule: Treat other people right. Help them. Most of the time, that is not hard to figure out!
As Glen Weldon says on a new book about Superman: "Superman changes as our culture changes. The only thing about him, in fact, that has remained untouched, inviolate, since Action Comics #1 hit the stands in April 1938, is his motivation. That motivation is at once the simplest of them all and the hardest to unpack: He is a hero. Specifically:
1. He puts the needs of others over those of himself.
2. He never gives up."
Happy “Birthday,” Superman, you’re my second favorite hero! Even if current reworkings or “re-imaginings” change you from my childhood memories, those memories are still around. And those comics still exist, too! (Even if I can’t afford some of them.)
In case you wanted to know … the reason the title of this post is “Superman” at 75 and not “Superman at 75” is simple -- because the icon may age, but not our hero!