When we think of superheroes, the first character who comes many people's minds is Superman, and rightly so. Created in 1933 by two Jewish high school students, Superman was the first real superhero, leading on from the protagonists of pulp magazines. This meant that Superman was a paragon of virtue, the quintessential good guy on a mission to protect humanity.
Arguably, Superman inspired an entire genre of superheroes, and he became DC's poster boy when Detective Comics bought the character from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1938. He's had many, many different interpretations and iterations over the years, appearing in movies, TV shows, and novels, as well as his classic comics.
Despite Superman's obvious status as a titan of the superhero genre, he's a hero which has been subject to much misinterpretation. A lot of people see the Big Blue Boyscout as boring, leading DC to reinvent the character as a grimmer, morally grey criticism of what it means to have too much power. This is most evident in the ongoing out-of-continuity comic Injustice, and the recent movie Batman v Superman. But does Superman really need to be reinvented?
The Value Of Virtue
We love Batman because of his perpetually grey morality, Green Arrow's sanctimonious attitude is endearing, and Wonder Woman is the ultimate warrior of the Justice League. But Superman doesn't have much of a hook beyond being the epitome of a good guy. Or at least, that's what a lot of people think.
Born on Krypton but raised on Earth, Superman's story is essentially that of a refugee. Finding himself on the fringes of society simply because he's different — quiet, subdued, and struggling with his superhuman abilities — Clark nonetheless grows up with a super-sized sense of compassion for humanity. And that's a really sweet story.
Back in the the '30s, there wasn't much else needed for a hero than for them to be stalwart and true. And yet, thanks to Spiegel and Shuster, there was always a strong socialist undercurrent to Superman's tales of heroism. After all, Superman is first and foremost a man of the people.
But as time wore on, other DC writers struggled to keep Superman relevant while adhering to his status as the symbol of DC. Guidelines for writing the character were strict, so while Batman became darker, leaning heavily on his noir themes, Superman started to seem a little rigid and difficult to relate to.
By the '80s, DC decided it was time for a change. Superman started to become a little corrupt as he started to represent the establishment more. No comic used this theme more than Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, which featured a Superman who was the lackey of the US government, and the foil to the grizzled and disillusioned Batman.
This comic was hugely influential, and people started buying into the idea of Superman as an exploration of the idea that power corrupts. Recently though, it might be time to go back to what made Superman great in the first place.
Stranger In A Strange Land
It's easy to forget what lies at the core of Superman's story. He's a good guy sure, and that's not exactly the most compelling of characters. Fallibility and moral greyness is something we can relate to as people. Superman, as an almost godlike figure, is more imposing than empathetic.
But he doesn't always have to be seen as godlike. One of the comics which stands out as a quintessential Superman story is Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's All-Star Superman, which showed Kal-el at his most human as he set his affairs in order before his death.
One of the most interesting moments in All-Star Superman is when Lex Luthor experiences Superman's perception. The ability to see and hear everything brings him to tears — suddenly it's clear to him what truly matters, and that's caring for the fragile humans which populate our home planet.
Ultimately, compassion is what's most important in Superman's story. He cares about normal people, not political agendas or powerful establishments. We even caught a glimpse of this in Batman v Superman, when Clark Kent criticizes the negative impact of Batman's crime fighting on ordinary people.
But as virtuous as Superman's values are, there is a key element to his story which should be used more in modern interpretations of his story — his status as a refugee. Created by Jewish immigrants, Superman is more important today than ever before, as immigration and refugee crises are at the forefront of many people's minds.
Luckily, this is exactly what DC are highlighting in the ongoing comic Superman: American Alien, drawing on these themes to frame the young Clark Kent as an outcast. Yes, it's another origin story, but one which reveals why Superman continues to be DC's most important hero — a symbol of truth and justice, but also of hope for all those strangers in a strange land.