There were DC kids and Marvel kids, and I, without the slightest doubt, was a DC kid. My dad had bought me a copy of Justice League of America in 1973. He taught me to keep it safe, protect it. I read it over and over until the covers fell off, but not because I’d treated it poorly. It fell apart because I loved it.

The JLA heroes were the same as on “Super Friends,” except for Marvin, Wendy, and Wonderdog. We played Super Friends in the back yard. We jumped out of trees until my mother said that if we didn’t stop jumping out of trees we couldn’t watch Super Friends anymore. When she wasn’t looking we jumped out of trees anyway.

it was never the same after wonder dog left the show

Dozens of photos testify to my childhood obsession with Superman: birthday cakes shaped like a Superman S, pictures of skinny little me standing with legs spread apart, spaghetti-noodle arms up, fists clenched to show off my nonexistent biceps.

We fought over who would be Superman, fought like Superman and Bizarro, an imaginary blur of primary colors and bulging muscles, locked in mortal combat in outer space. Jagged-edged sound effect balloons emanated from our struggles, each with its own unique exclamatory phrase. Bap! Pow! Ka-Krraack!

That must have been Superman’s initial appeal: the fantasy of superhuman strength, the ability to defend your puny little self from the most evil of villains. But it was also about the sheer goodness, the squeaky cleanness — Superman the Eagle Scout, saving cats from trees, never having a cross word to say, no need to repent of anything, ever. Nothing figured that combination of superhuman strength and moral uprightness like the polished chrome shine of the new silver logo for the Superman movies. Had anything ever looked so cool?

five years later there would be no twin towers

It wasn’t until I was a teenager, when the Christopher Reeve franchise had jumped the shark (who dreamed up that embarrassing poster where he’s carrying Richard Pryor over the Grand Canyon?) and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns appeared on the scene that I began to prefer Batman, with his appetite for violence, his gut full of hatred, over Superman, who can’t help but speak in the cadences of public service announcements. Bryan Singer gets this just right in the new movie. After preventing a damaged jetliner from plummeting to earth, Superman reminds the passengers that flying is still statistically the safest mode of transportation. We wouldn’t want to screw up the economy now, would we?

In Miller’s graphic novel, Superman is aligned with a tottering old TV-personality president, the very symbol of Reagan’s America. Nothing was more thrilling than the splash panels showing Superman and Batman fighting to the death. This is what being a teenager should feel like — your Superman side and your Batman side duking it out.

bap! pow!

Of course Superman’s appeal also has something to do with feeling like a teenager. The Clark Kent/Superman dyad is designed to allow young readers to identify with the alter ego, the nerdling with slipping glasses. Superman is, even more than David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust or the characters on my beloved Roswell, the ideal embodiment of the teenager-as-space-alien motif. The WB’s Smallville nails this aspect, exploring the metaphor of superpowers as sexual awakening. (It’s not unique in this, of course. Think of the Spiderman movies’ take on the same dynamic: “What’s this sticky white stuff in the palm of my hand?” Or the appeal of Harry Potter: you wake up one morning and come to find out you’re a wizard, with a magic wand in your hand or a flying broomstick between your legs, always on the verge of being out of control.)

super sexy
Superman may have such longevity as a character because he can go either way — exploring the human dimension or exploiting the superhuman side. The tension was built in from the beginning, in 1938, when two Jewish kids dreamed him up like a Golem to fight the Nazis. This, incidentally, is where Singer’s otherwise entertaining film — lighthearted and dramatically compelling all at once — really blows it: This character should not have been so easily appropriated into Christian symbology, with Jor-El intoning, like some heavenly father, “Humans are capable of much good if they have someone to show them the way. This is why I am sending you to them, my beloved son.” Excuse me, but I thought Jor-El sent him off to save his infant ass from the total destruction of Krypton. Baby Kal-El is more a Moses in the bulrushes than a Jesus figure, though for his earthling doctors’ sakes we should hope he was circumcised before he arrived on this planet. When Singer’s Christianized Superman ascends into heaven, his arms thrown wide like he’s hanging on an invisible cross, I almost expected to see stigmata. Oy veh.

What makes Superman Returns so enjoyable anyway — aside from its brilliant sense of humor, a refusal to take the Superman myth too seriously — is that this SuperSavior is not exactly perfect. Returning to earth after a five-year trip to see Krypton’s ruins, he’s still in love with Lois Lane, who by now has given up on him ever coming back and has settled into a live-in relationship with the guy we assume is the father of her child. (I suppose we’re also to assume that his five-year absense explains why he didn’t prevent 9/11; as my friend Bacon put it, surely he could have made it at least in time to save the second tower.) Will Superman break up Lois’s relationship? It’s clear that he’d like nothing more. Richard Donner hit this note — the sexualized, and hence humanized, Superman — in Superman II, when Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder wake up in bed naked the morning after their tryst in the Fortress of Solitude. Singer certainly had the right idea to pick up where that film left off, as if III and IV had never existed. It’s the Superman of conflicted morals that appeals to grownups, knowing you’d probably choose, like him, to spin the world backwards to save Lois, even if it meant letting some other people die as a result. Decidedly un-Jesus of him, and to the character’s credit.

In college I worked my Superman fixation both ways. I retrieved my childhood Superman bedspread and pillowcases and carried them with me as kitsch. I wrote papers in my women’s studies classes about the development of my gender identity, with Superman figuring high on the list for formative influences, right up there with sex scenes in James Michener novels. I denounced superhero sexism, the way big-breasted, scantily clad heroines were really just pin-up girls for overweight, bearded comic book store clerks who still lived in their mothers’ basements. At the same time, I wasn’t above asking a girl I was pursuing (she had three Brians/Bryans after her, and I was always stuck being “Nice Bryan”) if she wanted to head back to my room to find out exactly why I had a Superman bedspread. She didn’t really love that guy she made it with, now did she?

In grad school, flushed with Foucault, I had the S permanently inked on the back of my leg. It was an ironic signifier of my masculine socialization, as I told anyone who asked. It was a marker of the fact that no matter how much I thought I had escaped traditional masculinity, I still responded to stress and conflict in traditionally masculine ways: hot-tempered, shouting, with violent fantasies. Of course I was still conscious that I was kind of scrawny and I didn’t want anyone to think I really thought I was a Superman, in a superpecs sort of way, so it helped to think of it as ironic. It only made it moreso that Jon Bon Jovi and Shaq had the same tattoo. My shrink had a different reading. She thought it had to do with how much I carried: two kids, three jobs, Ph.D. coursework, the uncertainty of an academic career. We were both right of course — aren’t the items on her list also tied into certain masculine fantasies?

When push came to shove — literally — on one occasion in the fifth grade, following a serious ass-kicking I suffered at the hands of a gang of older kids, my fantasies had less to do with Superman than with the Incredible Hulk. I imagined myself in the midst of their fist-pounding huddle (they were repaying me, at their 6th-grade teacher’s request, for some smart-assed comments I had made on the playground), cowering for just long enough to let them think they had the upper hand, when my clothing would rip, my skin would turn green, and my muscles would expand to fifty times their normal size as I became Lou Ferrigno. I’d throttle the ring-leader, then swing him around in a circle, using his limp, unconscious body to knock the others a hundred feet in the air, like so many golf balls. The last one would look into my eyes, knock-kneed. He’d probably pee himself. Then he’d turn and run. In real life, I hid in the bathroom and cried, even after the bell rang to end recess.

I had that dream for years, much more Marvel than DC. But it never was as satisfying as the one where I was locked inside the foyer of our smalltown movie theater, only to find that someone had boarded up the entryway to theater auditorium itself. Then, when no one was looking, I’d discover that I could fly. I’d get a little tingle in my hands and feet, look down at the floor, and suddenly realize I could lift myself into the air if I wanted to. I’d rise, slowly at first, floating up to the ceiling like a helium balloon, then I’d propel myself forward, toward an open vent shaft that allowed me into the theater. Instead of finding screen and seats, though, I’d find an enormous, cavernous room filled with treasure, like the dragon’s cave in The Hobbit. I’d swoop through the air, from one corner of the room to the other, picking up pieces of gold or jeweled goblets. But nothing in the room — nothing — could match the satisfaction, the energy in the stomach, of hovering in place, prone, Superman-style, suspended just inches from the ground.

5 responses to “Superconfessional”

  1. Lisa Parrish says:

    From today’s FT, a letter offering a new perspective on Superman:

    Sir, It dawned on me during the opening scenes of the new Superman movie that Superman, the arch-typical American hero, is the ultimate undocumented illegal alien.

    Think about it. He arrives in the US in a unregistered aircraft. He crosses the border and enters the US without any documentation, visa or passport. It is also likely that his adoptive parents, the Kents, falsified information for a birth certificate leading to his illegal acquisition of a US Social Security number and card.

    Publicly exposed, and in spite of all his good works fighting crime, Superman would not be able to get a legal green card, and would be expelled to his country (or in this case planet) of origin. Sure, Congress could pass a special law legalising Superman’s status. But what would be the precedent? Good works? Crime fighting? Economic benefits created by the Superman movie franchise?

    It’s a dilemma. The timing of the movie is perfect. It comes during the US great debate on immigration policy. How many other illegal aliens are there out there whose work and lives in the US have been such as to merit a legal path to citizenship? If we have created a system where not even Superman merits consideration, well, maybe we should reconsider the whole question?

    Branko Terzic,

    Vienna, VA 22182, US

  2. Tim Wager says:

    Hey Bryan,

    Great post! Also, I’m crying at how too good a line this is.

    > She didn’t really love that guy she made it with, now did she?


  3. James says:

    Nice post, Bryan. Interesting synchronicity – I’m going to be having dinner next week with some of the writers and artists we idolized, and first saw at the San Diego Comicon twenty years ago next week.

    And I agree with you on Superman’s influence on the development of one’s gender identity; I didn’t get the ink done, but I wear a Superman ring as a wedding band. Which makes an intersting statement of its own, I suppose…

  4. PB says:

    When I saw the trailer months ago I thought: Bryan is going to write a great post about this and wow, superman is way cute. Your post was worth the anticipation, the movie only OK (although the actor IS really cute).

    Although tattoo-less, I am also a huge Superman fan and have been since childhood. For me it is always the paradox and dichotomies–being from Krypton gives him the gravity edge gifts, but being from Kryton also makes him suceptible to the meteors. He is neither truly alien nor truly human. He is hidden and yet always potentially there. In love yet untouchable. As good as the villian is evil, etc., etc.

    I love your identification first with the strength, then with sexuality and ultimately with the complexity of adult life. In the end that is lure, the simplicity of magic abilities that save us in a jam. Tha dark message of comic books is that there is always a cost.

    great post, Bryan.

  5. […] Or maybe it was my love for little Kal-El in his spaceship, sent off from Krypton to save his life. […]