You’re much stronger than you think you are.
—Superman from Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman
Behold, I teach you the superman. The superman is the meaning of the earth.
Superheroes you ask? Yes. And I mean it. Bear with me; it’s not as crazy as it sounds, or maybe it is. I’ll let you decide. The 20th century gave birth to many things—the airplane, telephones, television, computers, the internet, but one of the few things that rarely gets mentioned, one of the best things human beings have ever created, is superheroes. They are the archetypal reminders of humanity’s highest aspirations manifested in fictional form.
Superheroes were born with the publication of Action Comics #1 in June 1938 written by Jerry Siegel and drawn by Joe Shuster, which featured the first appearance of Superman, the father of all superheroes. Superman could not yet fly nor was he as strong as he would eventually become, but his appearance in Action Comics was the birth of the superhero as superheroes are currently thought of today. He was “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. . . .” There had never been a character so powerful in comic books or novels outside of religious texts.
When Superman burst on the comics scene in 1938, the world changed. All the mythical gods of the past may have been declared dead, but here was a new kind of god, an American god almost literally draped in the American flag, who represented not only democratic ideals, but truth and justice. Sure, there had been heroes of the past, gods that human beings aspired to be like, but never had there been a secular metaphor so powerful, so uniquely American whose popularity rivaled that of religious icons. You show a picture of Superman’s chest anywhere in the world and people will tell you exactly who he is. He may have begun as purely an American icon, but he now belongs to the world.
There has never been a character quite like Superman. He is the physical expression of a higher way of being, a totem if you will, symbolizing humanity’s tendency to evolve. His sense of morality and justice is unerring in its acuity. Jerry Siegel, in describing how he created Superman, says, “All of a sudden it hits me. I conceive of a character like Samson, Hercules, and all the strong men I had ever heard of rolled into one—only more so.” It’s the “only more so” part that is interesting because Siegel and Shuster created Superman with mythological archetypes in mind in terms of super strength (as well as borrowing elements from Moses’s and Jesus’s own literary origins), but they took their character a step further and eventually imbued him with an unerring sense of morality and justice aided with almost god-like powers and near invulnerability. They created Superman with the evolved ethical and moral codes that the best of humanity exhibited and others attempted to exemplify. Superman is a new kind of myth; he is a god on earth come to protect the weak and the powerless and to show human beings that we can become more than we are. He embodies humanity’s greatest ideals so deeply that he has internalized them, becoming humanity’s living conscience.
On the website The Best Article Every Day, a young woman posted a short article titled, “You Don’t Need to Exist to Inspire People: Why Superman Is My Hero,” describing her personal experience with the Man of Tomorrow as he appears in Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman. Her experience, perhaps not so different than many readers in her valuing of superheroes, is a profound example of why Superman and superheroes are important to readers and why they remain ever popular in not just American culture, but human culture.
I have struggled with depression ever since I was ten years old. It had crippled me emotionally. I was 27 years old, no college degree, no job and no will to live. I decided to kill myself after Christmas. And then my sister’s boyfriend loaned me these comics. Superman is dying of radiation poisoning and is trying to complete all of his tasks before he dies, but he still takes the time to save a young girl who is about to jump off a building. I cried for hours after reading this. I identified with that girl so much, and I could almost hear Superman telling me that I’m stronger than I think. Now every time my depressesion [sic] starts to rear its ugly head, I just repeat his words and imagine him hugging me when I’m standing on the edge. It works better than any medication or therapy I’ve ever had. Now I’m in college and top of my class. I have friends. I have a life. And I don’t care that he’s a fictional comic book character. He still saved me.
Superman has remained the brightest star in comics for over seventy years not only because he was the first and greatest superhero, but because he represents the highest human potential. Over the last seventy years institutions have changed, politics have changed, governments have changed, cultures have changed, but Superman has remained virtually constant. He remains the idealized human being absent of any moral or spiritual flaws. Superman is human perfection incarnate and represents the evolutionary impulse in human beings to become better, more complex, more ethical, more spiritual, more loving, more compassionate, and more whole. He invites us to evolve. He invites us to become like him—to become a superhero.
Of course, we can’t match the Man of Steel’s physical superpowers (although in the future who knows?), but we can aspire to match his spiritual superpowers. To live up to our fullest human expression would indeed be superheroic. To treat one’s life with the serious care and concern necessary to develop oneself along many of the major lines of development from moral, spiritual, emotional, cognitive, even kinesthetic, is an engagement with the world on such an intimate level that one not only transforms oneself but changes the world as well. What Superman suggests is fully alive transcendent human beings engaged in the world at a high level of consciousness. The world needs us to be evolutionaries. The world needs us to be superheroes.
If the 20th century gave birth to fictional superheroes, the 21st century will give birth to real ones, men and women who are not afraid to grab evolution by the head and lead it; who will make a commitment to Spirit and see that it unfolds through humans into higher states of being and better ways of becoming; who will sacrifice their lower selves on the altar of their highest selves; who will have enough divine pride to stand where they are and say, “I am what the world has been waiting for. I can help. And I begin with making myself the best I can possibly be.” The world needs to be reminded that giants still walk the earth, that human beings possess almost limitless power, that on our best day we accomplish miracles. The world needs to be reminded that the power and responsibility to make our lives better is ours and always has been.
Superheroes derive their strength from inner authority, their superpowers metaphorically representing their spiritual strength. This is why they will never go out of style or be so deconstructed they collapse as the cultural symbols and moral signifiers they are. Superheroes, in their transformative and moral dimensions, are like Superman—bulletproof. They inspire readers to become more than what they are. They inspire us to take responsibility for our lives and cultivate the necessary human agency that will bring about our mutual liberation. The time for superheroes is now.
We must remember what Nietzsche implored us to do: “But by my love and hope I beseech you: Do not throw away the hero in your soul! Hold holy your highest hope!” Superheroes are the cultural seeds of transformation. It is superheroes as transformative catalysts that inspire readers to live their own heroic lives of self-actualization, service, and truth and justice too.
Capes are optional. Becoming a superhero is not.