Lately I've been thinking about my problem with Superman. I was a kid who loved the Superman and Batman animated series, they were my pipeline into comics. My enjoyment of Batman translated well but it didn't work out with Superman. I've always wondered about why that happened. I loved the Superman cartoon but I couldn't stand the comic book counterpart. I struggled to find any modern day Superman story I can enjoy. It was difficult for me to reconcile how much I loved the cartoon with how much I was disinterested in the comic. Why was there a disconnect between the two? I started watching clips on Youtube of the animated series to try to see whether it was childhood nostalgia that was making the show great or whether the show had a quality about it that made that Superman more special and distinct. As it turns out there was something distinct about the show, Superman was kind of a jerk.
The question then became what was significant about that. The answer is simple his attitude conveyed a personality. This was a Superman who because of his powers was a little arrogant and stubborn (absolute power does that). He reacted to events! He wasn’t written as an idea but rather as a person with character traits. Here is where I think the divide occurs between comics and the animation, the comic Superman is written as an idea instead of a character. That is the cause of the distinction. He is written as an idea of what the writer wants to express. The problem there is this causes him to lose all semblance of a personality. Writers write him to express ideas about humanity at the cost of him having any humanity. The “character” has gone through a change and become an idea which is why it’s more interesting to talk about the concept of Superman instead of reading about his adventures.
This became most apparent when I heard about the JMS Superman storyline (haven’t read it but seen bits and pieces of it). To summarize it, Superman walks around the US because he feels he lost touch with the people. That is a good idea because it is feasible that over the course of several epic adventures that will happen. Yet based on what I’ve seen, the Superman is written naïve and seemed completely unaware of the problems of the world. This goes back to my argument that he is written as an idea. (This is not a criticism of JMS other writers are just as guilty of this. I just had the thought when I heard about his story.) The character of Superman grew up in this world, he was raised on Earth and saw the best and worst of it thus he shouldn’t be this naïve. He couldn’t be. Secondly, he is a reporter. I would imagine over the course of his job he sees all sorts of problems in the world and reports on them. He is aware of the world. This is symptomatic of the larger issue which is writers seem more interested in expressing Superman as the idea of goodness and having him overcoming the evils he encounters as a way to say that we should strive towards those positive ideals to stop and overcome the more negative attributes within our nature. That is a beautiful sentiment but that doesn’t make for ideal storytelling though because you have a character that becomes no dimensional.
Superman becomes the physical form of an idea and it isn’t compelling to read. I need to stress this though, this doesn’t apply to all superheroes but specifically to Superman. Since he has ultimate power there is nothing that can challenge him, it becomes more difficult to create any doubt about the outcome. He is smarter, stronger, and faster than you leaving all villains at a disadvantage against him. The traditional situation of a small force of good standing up to vast force of evil is flipped and now it’s a small speck of evil versus an overwhelming force for good. Ultimately this results in a protagonist that is bland but interestingly enough it adds depth and layers to the antagonist. You get a more emotional investment in the antagonist and why they are fighting against the noble idea than you do caring about the quality of the original good idea. That’s why a villain like Lex Luthor has become more fascinating than Superman. You can find many articles talking about the emotional depth of his character (an excellent one is located on mightygodking) and I contend that is a function of Superman being more an idea than a character. It changes the focus of the story from why is Superman doing this to why would someone be trying to fight this idea.
I will always prefer the animated Superman over the comic Superman. In the animated DCU, he is a man who always has to hold back and be careful. He sees in himself a capacity to become a tyrant but balances that out his desire to do good, actual internal conflict. He is some what stubborn and hard headed, you know an actual character. In the animated universe he is a character but in the comics he’s just an idea.