Superman taught me how to be a man.
When I say this, it’s important to understand who Superman actually is. To me. What makes him a unique character? What distinguishes him from someone who is just strong or can fly. Superman is not defined by his strength, even though he’s so strong he’s one of our cultures visual symbols for strength. How many men have you seen in a gym wearing Superman shirts? Take that off sir. It’s like buying someone else’s Oscar statue. Or a civilian wearing a soldiers uniform unironically.
Superman is kind. Superman is so kind that strangers trust him implicitly, because of his reputation.
Superman is warm. Warm is the opposite of ‘Cool.’ Warm isn’t solipsistic, it’s not secretly anxious, and it doesn’t use the technique of “acting like you don’t give a shit” as one of its main tools. Warm is not obsessed with fashion, but knows how to dress. Warm’s self confidence comes from a well earned peace of mind.
Superman uses his gifts for good. Superman has gifts. And as a character, and I think this is part of the reason he’s so popular, he has all of the powers that you’d classify as ‘gifts’ and none you’d classify as ‘tricks.’ Tricks are things like: obvious metaphors like Wolverines claws, props like Cyclops’ goggles, or a gimmick like you’re really stretchy or you’re a mutha fuckin sorcerer.
Superman relishes in saving people. He loves it so much. It’s the only time that he can really feel powerful because secretly he feels guilty for having superpowers. That were given to him because he is the only surviving member of his planet. And the only thing that completely cancels out that feeling of guilt is saving someone’s life. So when it comes to using your powers for good, the higher the stakes the better.
Superman lives with the constant burden of the idea of saving people. He needs to be constantly vigilant, ready to spring into action at a moments notice. On top of that he’s a journalist at a major metropolitan newspaper. Sure the powers can come in handy as a journalist in the field, but they do nothing for you when you have to sit down and write your article. And on top of that he’s probably got a hobby he’s interested in. He’s probably found a new author with a back catalog of really good books, or maybe he’s always wanted to learn how to paint and this year he’s finally taking classes, or he’s following through on his New Years resolution to see more live music. The things (acts, mentalities, and practices) that allow you to fully express your humanity. This burden is always there and as a consequence Superman is always a little bit sad.
Superman is not a soldier. He performs heroic selfless deeds not because of patriotism, and not because of his ‘brothers’ because Superman. works. alone. He helps the military unless he doesn’t think they’re making the right decision. Then he just fucks off. A soldier, a Navy SEAL, an Army Ranger, they’ll kill anyone they’re told to kill. And they love it. They love the rush of the power and cunning, and they love the feeling of working as a pack to sneak up on some terrorists’ mountain hideout, kick down the door and and shoot him with guns. Superman would not enjoy that. He knows humanity too well to believe in any one country enough to kill for it without question.
He could stop any time. But doesn’t, because the cycle of misery and relief he inflicts on himself by dwelling on the burden, and distracting himself from the burden—by saving people. It’s quite a cycle.
So that’s how I viewed him when I was using him as a model for how to be a man, and I don’t think I’m the only one that did that. (Note, this is totally separate from the comics. I’m not interested in “well, actually Superman did this…” because it’s not about canon, it’s about the lessons that I took from how I perceived him. You can’t help how you perceive something, especially at such a young age.)
The thing is, whenever the Superman myth is told, there are a few things they leave out. These things are not part of the superman myth, but if he were a real person, here’s what he’d struggle with:
Desire. Desire feels selfish because there’s no altruistic side to it. You can justify enjoying flying to yourself by flying to save people about to be crushed by a Ferris wheel. Desire is something that comes exclusively from within. There are external means to trigger it, but if you had to pinpoint where the desire was coming from, you’d put your hand to your chest and say “here.” So desire doesn’t come naturally to him, though he has plenty of it and it’s a bit of an internal negotiation to give himself over to it.
Prejudices. This bothers him to no end. He’s not hateful, and tries his best to make sure everyone feels comfortable but not patronized, but it’s in there, pops up random times, and it’s really annoying.
Depression. Sometimes your batteries just run out, and your depression doesn’t lay you out physically, but you just don’t care. You’re cared out. And you turn that lack of care in on yourself, because it’s not right to inflict this lack of care on other human beings. The thing that makes you feel the best in the world is making people feel good and inflicting unintentional hurt is the opposite of that.
Fear. This identity is lonely, and the fear that you will always be alone can really drain your hope reserves. Fear that if you finally go after what you want, you will hurt people on the way.
Finding quiet time. You love self reflection and reflection in general. It’s like a warm blanket for your mind. And finding time to renew your spirit like that is hard when you have responsibilities. You don’t easily enjoy things without a little tiny piece of your mind being on one of your duties.
Tempus Fugit. Having regret wastes time, and ironically most of your regrets involve wasted time and opportunities.
I realize I’m treading into murky territory because I’m borrowing the name of a popular comic book character. But this personality framework has nothing—I repeat NOTHING—to do with the actual DC Comics. The reason why Superman is popular is because the story and character expertly illustrate a persona that we’ve seen before in myth and literature. We respond to these stories because they are familiar. In the way that a renaissance painting closely resembles the subject, so too do our stories mirror real life. It’s not just escapism, it’s reality honed down to the very basic parts to serve the structure of a singular narrative. Then we use that framework to add ornamentation and style. So we’ve seen this persona plenty of times. Jesus, Hercules, King Arthur, any number of gods and demigods, take your pick—any character that fits the above criteria. Science has forced us to port our myths from religion to the realm of fiction, and just like how people perceive you—the version of you that only exists in the minds of others—each of us take something from a story irrespective of how it compares to the ‘official version.’
So, as a kid this was the character that I responded to the most. It’s funny how we choose our art based on ourselves. I have a slightly younger brother—younger by 16 months—and growing up we were very close. We drew from the same cultural well, but we chose different heroes. I felt an affinity for Superman, Luke Skywalker, Captain America, and Mark was more of a Spider-Man and Wolverine kind of guy. Fun, angry, stylish, cool. Real bad-asses.
If Saturday morning helped start me down this road, my education reinforced this narrative with surgical precision. I attended evangelical Christian schools until 12th grade. At every turn they tell you of the selflessness of the man-god you’re supposed to follow and emulate at all times. And I mean all times. They teach you that even your thoughts are monitored by this all seeing all knowing ever present benevolent yet vengeful power. I learned about service, about sacrifice, about humility, all the while I was learning that I was not a part of the group.
I used to read seventeen for examples on what makes a good boyfriend—even though I was so afraid of rejection that I kept myself from approaching and pursuing someone that I liked. I used these examples I found to examine my heart to identify what was evil and what was good. And I always found myself lacking, becuase I was holding myself to this insanely unreasonable standard.
Saturday morning cartoons can really teach some weird lessons.