Is Superman The Greatest Hero?

At the Comic-Con International in San Diego this year writer and historian Mark Evanier moderated a panel celebrating editor Julius “Julie” Schwartz time running the Superman titles at DC Comics. The panel featured writers Elliot S. Maggin, Gerry Conway and Marv Wolfman, writer and former DC Comics President Paul Levitz and writer/editor Martin Pasko. They shared stories about Schwartz, how the famed editor changed the Superman mythos and spoke about the atmosphere of the DC Comics bullpen in the 1970s. But the most interesting part of the interchange was about the character Superman and how the writers approached this legendary superhero.

Superman 233
Superman 233

From 1971 to 1986 Schwartz was the editor of the Superman titles and has much to do with the modern shaping of the Man Of Steel as any man who ever wrote for DC Comics. He was responsible for the “Kryptonite No More” story. This included an attempt to scale back Superman’s powers while removing kryptonite as an overused plot device. He wanted more creativity out of his writers and took Superman in different arenas of conflict. He wanted to challenge him on the personal level as well as the physical. Under Schwartz Superman stories that went into new directions and redefining villains such as Brainiac and Lex Luthor. Pasko pointed to Elliot S. Maggin’s story “Must There be a Superman?” as a milestone during the Schwartz era, having attracted an unpredicted amount of fan mail and interest despite not featuring any super-villains battling the Man of Steel. This was one of the stories that made Julius Schwartz re-examine how he approached Superman, and editing in general, realizing that stories could be more about how the character viewed the world than whether or not he could physically defeat a threat.

Responding to the constant complaint that Superman stories are difficult to write because the character is so powerful, Maggin explained his own view to the audience at San Diego. “Superman stories are about moral and ethical choices. They’re not about kicking ass — I put [an action scene] in there, but everything else was about a moral decision. What [Schwartz] told me before I wrote the first one was, ‘Are you ready for a Superman story? You know that’s the hardest character to write.’ And for years, I believed him,” Maggin said. “The problem is not that he’s too powerful, the problem is that he has to think and he has to make the readers think. And that’s what separates Superman from everything else. So if you’ve got a Superman story that could be an Iron Man story, it’s the wrong story.”

On this note, why is Superman different than other heroes and what makes him so special and hard to write? What is so great about Superman? Have you ever wished you had superpowers in a situation. Have you ever wanted to be invulnerable to harm, or needed super strength, or wanted to fly away or have the power to change things. Well I think we all have wanted to be super in some way. “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility”, words spoken by Peter Parker’s uncle Ben before he died and Peter learned that lesson after Ben’s death, before that he was thinking selfishly that he could use his power of Spider-Man to better his personal situation. Peter learned that lesson through heartache and pain. Clark Kent lived it his entire life knowing he had abilities far beyond those of mortal men. He lived with parents that showed him that might does not make right. Life is precious and we have purposes in life that go beyond ourselves and reaches out to bring the greater good.

Clark chose the life as a mild manner reporter to see where he would be needed most as Superman. Life as Clark gives him time away from the power that many men would savor and use to there personal advantage. Superman a being that could lift mountains but appreciates the simple everyday life as Clark. Except for a few aberrations this is the Superman we seen over the years, no mater what power levels we find him at he cherishes life and tries to protect his adopted world from all evil. Power corrupts but not with Superman. He has had his challenges of when and how much power to use to solve a problem. When a super being of great power attacks him he must mentally change to meet the power levels of that character. Killing is always a last resort and never done intentionally only when there is no other choice.

In an interchange with Batman in several stories Superman has let him have a portion of kryptonite to keep him in check if he ever went rogue and hurt people by mind control or by his own choice. The welfare of others is foremost on his mind. He is a powerful person called a boy scout and naive by others in the superhero world. Superman is great not for what he can do but for what he does do with the power he has. He could rule but he chooses to serve. Pride does not run his life but he shows respect for other beings and for the most part is an example of good to the world. He has nothing to prove and has learned through the years that winning is not the most important thing in life.

Action Comics 775
Action Comics 775

In All Star Superman written by Grant Morrison in the his last words to Lex Luthor before he sacrifices his life to restore the sun for the people of earth, Lex says to him “I could have saved the earth if it wasn’t for you”, Superman replies “You could have save the world years ago If it mattered to you.” Superman never stopped saving the world in life and death if necessary. Perhaps in some future version Superman will become harsh and bitter and judge and jury above the law and what mankind deems as right. If that happens he will not be the greatest hero of all. In Action Comics #775 in story written by Joe Kelly Superman takes on a group called The Elite, a team of super-powered antiheroes fronted by Manchester Black, who gained worldwide popularity for viciously killing their foes. In the story he proves to the world that their way is wrong by beating them with out killing them and lets them live to possibly answer the question, “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice & the American Way?”, the title of the comic.

Life is never easy and we normal people know that all too well in everyday life but we can take a lead from the Greatest Hero of them all Superman. Stay tuned comic faithful for more. 🙂 Walt