Superman and My Homies, by Martha Thomases
The month of July was a veritable traveling sideshow for me. Between professional obligations and family emergencies, I barely saw my husband … and my kitty even less. I’ve had to seek out new, ever more tantalizing kinds of cat food for her to tolerate my continued presence in our home.
All of this makes me think of Superman.
When John Byrne relaunched the series, there was a lot of talk about Superman being not just the Last Son of Krypton, but the last Kryptonian. That didn’t last very long, and today we have remnants of the old continuity, with Supergirl and the Phantom Zone and the Bottled City of Kandor.
I like that Superman, but he’s not the character with whom I grew up. My Superman is the pre-Crisis version, the one published from the late 1950s up to the Byrne reboot. Sent to Earth shortly after his birth, his memories of Krypton are vivid but brief. He was already a toddler when the Kents found him in that field in Kansas.
Maybe it was because the character had been around for such a long time, and the creative teams were having trouble coming up with new ideas for stories, but there is a certain melancholy about the Man of Steel in that era. Kal-El had huge responsibilities, and no one close to him. His parents died with his planet; his foster-parents died before he left for Metropolis. He was afraid to commit to the women he loved, not because of anything as terrestrial as a fear of close relationships, but because he was afraid he’d put them in danger. Even his own cousin, who could have been a close confidante, was kept at arm’s length so he could train her to protect their adopted home.
This is the Superman who needed a Fortress of Solitude, where he could escape, at least for a while, the cries for help that flooded his every waking moment. Amid the cold from the top of world, he could conduct experiments, write to his intergalactic pen-pals, and build enormous monuments to his dead parents.
There was a string of stories in which Superman went back in time and met his parents. He was able to show them the man he grew up to be, and gain their approval (calling Dr. Freud!). He fell in love with a Kryptonian movie star, a love more doomed than most star-crossed lovers, since she was dead before he reached Earth.
Superman was not the only character in these stories to be in a perpetual state of mourning over what might have been. Lex Luthor discovered a planet, went to visit, and saved the population from a dreadful menace. In return, he was their hero, adored when he was there, honored with massive statues and parades. According to the people making those comics, Luthor’s need to show up his rival on Earth was stronger than his desire for love on this distant planet.
Sure, these stories could be funny, too. Who doesn’t giggle when Superman plays a trick on Lois and Lana as they try to discover his secret identity? And the two women, friends but arch-rivals for Superman’s heart, would compete for his love as if a simple contest can change a person’s deepest feelings. Instead, it made Superman feel even more distant from those who lived around him.
The art of Wayne Boring and Curt Swan, with a Superman who had a long jaw and rigid carriage, added to the moroseness of these stories. Poor Clark Kent, unable to find any true friends because he couldn’t show his real self. Poor Superman, unable to let down his burdens and relax with his family. All you needed was a soundtrack from Leonard Cohen or Nick Cave, and you’d have an infinite mirror of depression.
Alan Moore and Curt Swan captured this brilliantly in their pre-Byrne story, What Ever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? It’s sweet and funny, and still makes me cry. I’m not crying for my lost childhood, but for a man who finally found a way to fit in.
Martha Thomases, Media Goddess of ComicMix, finds that feeding members of her family their favorite foods and rubbing their bellies is all she needs to be accepted by her loved ones.