Comics Society

Superman is irrelevant — which makes him relevant?

My friend sent me a screenshot that people saw someone at the January 6th attempted insurrection who looked like Clark Kent, and was like, they know Superman would never, right? I also was listening to Land of Confusion with the line, “Superman where are you now / when everything’s gone wrong somehow”

I’ve never liked Superman so I am admittedly biased — but I think Superman is particularly irrelevant and impotent today. His storylines worked in a time when good and evil seemed clear: America good, commies bad. America’s dark deeds and inequality could be shunted to the edges of society and glossed over; but now the veneer has been pried off and the rot at the heart of American culture and independent heroism is clear.

In contrast, Batman fits in a modern era, with his psychological trauma and heavy conscience and self-flagellating batter-his-head determination to pursue a thankless, impossible mission alone. He holds himself apart, making himself weaker in refusing to build real relationships, crippled by fear of loss, building bonds only through his secret second life. He is a hero of the shadows, born of darkness, hopeless yet grimly persevering.

Superman is the 1950s American hero: a strong man with clear convictions, willing to fight for his country! *Triumphant music* He’s a man for black and white problems with a clear solution. That doesn’t fit today’s problems — climate change, social division, a deadly and disabling virus, erosion of Americans’ civil rights, destruction of the democratic process — which can’t be punched into repair, can’t be muscled into a happy ending. Batman knows he’s not up to the task, but he’ll show up to fight anyway, not recognizing that filling the role of hero reinforces the divisions in the community and he thus defeats himself, tragically missing that it’s community and collaboration that are the key. That he will never be able to fix this on his own. Bruce is an elite, a 1-percenter, his very existence at the heart of the problem he seeks to fix. The systemic problems are beyond one man’s ability to charity his way out of, so his guilt drives him to bear personal responsibility by physically fighting the manifestations of his constant failure. He’s so tragic and lost, I love him — and he fits our world of gray morality and deification of the toxic American myth of the lone gunman, the independent hero. His despair is ours, his failure ours.

How would Superman react to the modern world? Where America often plays the villain on the world stage, invading countries and supporting coups and rebellions to suit political ends, and fails to live up to its ideals with the suspension of habeas corpus for brown terrorists while doing nothing to stop white supremacist violence, intensive mass surveillance of its own people, and permanent separation of children from their parents at the border as they flee their homes to escape violence. Frankly his impotence could finally make him an interesting character, when he loses the ability to save the world and his powers make no difference. When the nuclear arsenals are so large he could never stop all the bombs. When his helping the government is letting himself be used for the purposes of the nation state rather than the benefit of its people.

Yet he’d be a never give up hope kinda guy, even in his personal impotence a la Watchmen. Which could make him once more a powerful inspirational figure in leading the fight against fascism (from within), inspiring people to never give up, to never accept that they are powerless. Ironically becoming the hero needed today through his own personal loss of power.

Would he hang up the cape and spend his time on investigative journalism? Would he become a spokesperson (or social media influencer???) for climate action? Would he lead voter registration drives and phone bank? Would he become a protestor and chain himself to machinery, blocking construction of pipelines? Would he punchinate Mount Rushmore back into the indigenous people’s sacred form?

How would he grapple with the psychology of losing his identity of hero? Would it be a relief to be unburdened of responsibility, or a source of guilt and shame to not be able to set things right? Or would he let go the world’s bigger problems and keep his focus on the ones he can settle with his powers so he could remain a hero in his traditional form?

So basically I want a Vertigo Superman story 😉 Still sad about Vertigo…

(If anyone’s actually written Superman or Batman comics like this please let me know, I don’t follow DC or Marvel releases, too many to keep up with and too much lore. I tend to read one-offs like Frank Miller’s Batman.)

ETA 7/26: DC Films doesn’t know what to do with Superman – lol not without pissing off Nazis anyway

By Tracy Durnell

Writer and designer in the Seattle area. Freelance sustainability consultant. Reach me at She/her.

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