Is Superman Still Relevant in a Postmodern World?

Superman. The name alone conjures up images of capes flapping in the skies over thriving metropolises, walls exploding as a rock-hard fist punches through them, and criminals quaking in fear before a hulking mountain of man. Just about everyone knows who Superman is and what he stands for. When fans of comics and non-comic readers alike are asked to define what it means to be a superhero, the Man of Steel is likely to be the most common example of the type. Considering he’s been around the longest—over 75 years now—it’s more than fair to associate him so closely with the genre as a whole, so when people think of superheroes, they most often think of Superman.

Ironically, it’s been a long time since Superman sat atop the heap of superhero comic books sold in the North America. Looking at the top-most selling single issues over the course of a month (dating back to September 1996), Superman has only earned the most sales seven times! Moreover, one of those months he was tied with another title (X-Men 59 from October 1996) and four of the other selections was a series which he shared alongside Batman—Superman / Batman. This means, on his own, that Superman has carried a month independently only 1% of the time. Batman, however, has carried the any given month approximately 16 times for a total of 8% of all months. This includes titles such as Batman and Robin, as Batman is the lead character and like Superman, does not include a shared title such as Superman / Batman (“Top Comics”). What do all of these statistics mean? While people in North America may know of Superman, it seems apparent that they’re not coming out in droves to buy his comics to really know Superman.

Unfortunately, it’s not just the comics where Superman is finding himself less super than his counterparts. While Superman enjoyed far more popularity during the conservative 1940s and 1950s with the release of the Superman Adventures radio show, which ran for eleven years; the Superman animated series by Fleischer Studios, which produced animated shorts from 1941-43; two theatrical releases in 1948 and 1950 respectively; as well as the black and white television serial, Adventures of Superman, which ran from 1951 until 1958. Although Batman enjoyed some similar successes, the Dark Knight could not match the pervasiveness of the Man of Steel during that time in U.S. history. Admittedly, the United States was still feeling the pains of the Great Depression when Superman creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, first put their combined powers of the imagination to pen and paper. Not only was the country looking for deliverance from hardship in the form of real world heroes—whom they found in figures such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt—they were also looking for an escape from their world of hardship to one where order was maintained by persons of extraordinary ability who would not allow the innocent to come to harm, even if the illusion was a temporary one at the cost of a dime. War in Europe was on the horizon, and in a culture that prioritized truth, justice, and the “American Way,” Superman arrived on the scene just in the nick of time. But with the onset of the 1960s, a different sort of war would break out on the home front in the protests against government and military involvement in Viet Nam, and the once trusting population began to openly challenge all facets of American culture—including its superheroes.

Not surprisingly, comics saw a significant shift in the stories being told and few of the “old guard” from DC managed to stave off the stigma of being part of the establishment—Batman being the one exception—as a new wave of comic book superheroes took up residence in Marvel Comics. And while Superman would see temporary resurgences, such as in 1978 with Richard Donner’s classic cinematic release of Superman and again in 1981 withSuperman II, in addition to the infamous “Death of Superman” comic storyline from 1992, the Man of Steel was regularly found in the backseat behind the postmodern superheroes of the new age.

Perhaps this period of celebrating non-traditional heroes and anti-heroes is what allowed Batman to become a more popular superhero in American eyes. Styled more as a vigilante than an agent of the law, Batman’s moral code of ethics did not require him to follow the letter of the law as Superman was often depicted even if he did maintain order and brought about social justice. With the Denny O’Neil / Neal Adam collaboration in the 1970s, which injected a much darker, psychologically-nuanced depiction of Batman followed by the right-wing, ultra-violent zealot depicted in Frank Miller in The Dark Knight Returns, not only offered readers a glimpse into what a postmodern superhero could really look like, but he also served as a mirror for a culture that was no longer willing to look up to authorities who advocated playing by the rules and perpetuated the myth that the world was inherently a good place. Even today, DC Comics struggles to find an audience to match that of Batman as indicated by the persistently strong sales from Batman. In 2011, Batman occupied 10 of the top 50 selling issues compared to Superman’s 6[1] (Miller). These statistics become even more disconcerting when looking at 2012 where Batman titles showed up over 12 times while there wasn’t a single Superman-related title anywhere in the top 50 and only three issues showing up in the top 100! With this drastic change in the market—one such indicator of a character’s popularity, it’s not a hard sell to argue Superman has struggled to keep up in the past few years in spite of his past successes; so the question remains as to whether he is still relevant today?

How does one square this contradiction of a character who defines the genre of comics that is the biggest seller in the industry, and yet, he does not sell anywhere near as many books as other superheroes? Is this simply a case of a culture loving the idea of Superman but not actually loving the Superman that’s delivered on comic newsstands every month? Kal El may not be the superhero of today, but there is a reason he is known as the Man of Tomorrow. And given the upcoming multi-media events for the summer of 2013, it seems likely tomorrow is now here.

In June, arguably DC’s hottest writer, Scott Snyder, along with artist and DC co-publisher, Jim Lee, will be taking the helm of the newest Superman comic book: Superman Unchained. Lee’s made a name for himself in the world of comics for consistently selling massive numbers of comics on whatever titles he works on, and in the few years Snyder has been in the industry, he’s shown the same propensity for success. Yet, while it’s a perfectly fair criticism to argue many readers will be drawn to the title given its the creative team than the actual superhero on the cover[2], Snyder argues on behalf of Superman and Clark Kent’s continued appeal as a major driving force behind the definitive superhero’s continued popularity. In an interview with the NY Post, Snyder stated:

“I think he’s incredibly relevant […] I mean, to me, Superman is sort of the character in comics, or one of the great characters in literature, that inspires us to be better, you know, than we think we can be.

“Because ultimately even though he flies and he is an alien and he has this incredible power set, the magical thing about that character is he’s the most human, I think, of all of us. You know, like, everything about him is because of the Kents. And so the thing that makes him special when you kind of boil him down to his core or you really look at him as a character, isn’t so much his power set. It’s his ethical compass.” (Greenfield)

Interestingly, one of the major tag lines to the summer blockbusterMan of Steel due out the same week as Lee and Snyder’s new series is “You will believe a man can fly.” This simple line speaks to the aspirational nature of Superman, which Snyder argued inspires fans to “be better” and reach higher. It’s a truly romantic notion of the superhero—the belief in the common individual transcending his or her own limitations to become something greater, something…super. Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and Walt Whitman all believed in the strength and potential of the individual to accomplish great things and transcend beyond his or her mortal limitations to become something even greater. Danny Fingeroth suggests that “[w]hen Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman, they tumbled onto a metaphor system that everyone in modern society could understand with a glance” (169).

There is something about Superman that speaks to certain aspects of the human condition, the belief in something transcendence, or at the least, the potential for such greatness to exist in our world. The world of antiquities had the gods who roamed the world. World religions profess God, made manifest in Christ, to have walked amongst us while His greatest prophet, Mohammed, labored to bring the light of Islam to the world centuries later. King Arthur—born amidst questionable circumstances—rose from obscurity as an orphan to bring a golden age of peace and order to war-torn England through his Knights of the Round Table during the middle ages, which would go on to inspire generations of Europeans in the years that would follow. Even in the earliest beginnings of the United States, there was a need for larger-than-life heroes who embodied the spirit of its people as seen in the celebration of frontiersmen like Lewis & Clark, Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Paul Bunyan, Molly Pitcher, Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickock, Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill Cody, and later, John Henry. In spite of science’s unveiling of the mysteries of the world in the past centuries and the rise of postmodernism over the past half-century, however, people still seem to have an even greater need for supermen and superwomen. While many contemporary superheroes were “created to expressly to deconstruct the genre and show what superheroes would “really” be like if they existed,” the general public has yet to “get tired of the more simplistic view of heroes and villains” (Fingeroth 157). Amidst a summer of dark, brooding superhero film, it was the more upbeat and hopeful The Avengers that broke nearly every box office record in 2012. Given his iconic appeal to the potential of the human spirit, it’s no wonder then that Superman has become arguably the best-known superhero.

Superman’s mission to champion the values of society and continued victory over all forces—whether the greed of the Lex Luthors of the world or the nigh-undefeatable Doomsdays of very day life that threaten to consume us—represents the hope that there will be a victory in store for his readers and viewers. Though the Man of Tomorrow’s popularity may wane at times, history has shown that it continues to carry forward and grow with each succeeding generation both in the United States and abroad.

I believe a man can fly.

Works Cited

Fingeroth, Danny. Superman on the Couch: What Our Superheroes Really Tell Us About Ourselves and Society. New York: Continuum, 2004. Print.

Greenfield, Dan. “Secret of Superman’s Success: He’s Human.” New York Post. New York Post, 2 June 2013. Web. 03 June 2013.

Miller, John Jackson. Comichron: The Comic Chronicles. June 2013. Web. 04 June 2013. <http://www.comichron.com >.


[1] This is due in part to Batman having more titles dedicated to him (Batman, Detective Comics, Batman and Robin, Batman: The Dark Knight being those listed in the Top 50).

[2] Given the fluctuation of creative teams and inconsistencies in Superman and especially Action Comics since the beginning of DC’s “New 52” reboot from 2011 to the present, the validity of this argument is even more probable.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Forrest C. Helvie lives in Bristol, CT with his wife and two sons. He is an assistant professor of developmental English at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. He received his Ph.D. in English Literature & Criticism from Indiana University of Pennsylvania where he wrote his dissertation on the influence of canonical American literature on the development of the comic book superhero. His literary interests are broad-ranging from medieval Arthurian to 19th-century American, and most importantly, pedagogy, comics studies, and super-heroes. He regularly writes for Sequart and reviews comics for Newsarama. Forrest can also be found on Twitter (@fhelvie) discussing all things comics related.

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5 Comments

  1. Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!

    Superman. Strange visitor from another planet who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel in his bare hands, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great Metropolitan newspaper fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and…… I think you get the picture.

    In actuality, Born on Earth in the midst of the depression, Superman brought hope to a nation. A character who gave people somebody to look up to, a nice ideal that if you were in trouble and were to call his name, he would drop from the sky to save you.

    Superman is not about abusing the power he has for personal gain, but instead, helping others. He asks no reward or thanks but instead takes what he needs from knowing what he has done is for the greater good. That he has helped someone is reward in itself.

    Maybe world events of recent times and the extreme greed and glorification of capitalism in the 80′s has left us all too cynical. Unable to accept the possibility of a person like this.

    In an age where the western world seems to be losing it’s ties to religion, you can’t help but wonder what is left to govern mankind, apart from corrupt politicians that appear bent on wealth and stardom. Where do we pull our values from? Who do we look up to?

    More commonly in today’s media, the characters that seem to SELL are darker and generally do what they do through some form of revenge related motivation, and there way of dealing with problems tends to be more aggressive and violent. The worrying part of all that is that the media is a product of the society in which we live. A refection of public mood.

    No matter where you go in the world people will recognize the Superman logo, but so few know what it truly stands for. On my travels around the world, i learnt that the superman logo represented, to some, American capitalism. The opportunity, by the companies that own the rights to his name, to cash in. Also was the response that superman represents all the world hates about America. The most powerful force on earth, forcing it’s will on others….. So misinterpreted.

    Let’s try and remember, although that a big company owns the right to the name, the idea of Superman is public property. He can be inspiration in a selfish world.

    Just imagine if people tried to be a bit more like him, a bit more helpful, a bit more caring, a bit more concerned for the welfare of others. What a world it would be.

    In an age of cynicism, greed and violence, superman offers a belief in the greater good, a reminder of virtue…. a light to show the way. This is how i believe man can fly and why the world needs a Superman.

    • “In an age where the western world seems to be losing it’s ties to religion, you can’t help but wonder what is left to govern mankind, apart from corrupt politicians that appear bent on wealth and stardom. Where do we pull our values from? Who do we look up to?”

      I think this is a very fair question, and I think it gets to the core of why superheroes are so popular today. Ultimately, it stands as one of the answers as to why I think comic book superheroes, especially Superman, are still quite relevant.

      Of course you bring up another slightly problematic issue related to these superheroes, and that is they are corporately owned. Their narratives are motivated, in part, by capitalism and the dollar. Too often, we’ve heard publishers, such as Dan Didio with the recent NY Times article on Karen Berger’s departure from Vertigo, that they are in the business to sell the most comics–not necessarily tell the strange and off-beat stories (even they’re some of the best out there).

      But ultimately, when the right people are behind the helm–and many fans can recognize this–these stories still inspire many. That’s a pretty strong case for relevancy.

  2. Why must Superman be relevant, or at least so much more relevant than Thor or Iron-Man or Flash? Why does he has to be number 1 to be really a success? (Clearly DC isn’t losing money with him.) Why does he have to mean something? Just because he was the first?

    And yet, he means something. Like Captain America, he is the guy who will always fight for the right thing. He’s the guy the others look up to. And that’s why he usually works better in stuff like Kingdom Come.

    But, by his very nature, he doesn’t work so well in the grim ‘n’ gritty style that was so popular in the last 30 years.

    And he doesn’t really work for us old, “sophisticated” fans because we want “motivation”, and his motivation is pretty simple: it’s the right thing to do. No inner demons in poor Clark.

    Then there’s Lex, one of the greatest villains ever. But who is a normal man. And, when he fights Superman (and he fights Superman a lot), he is the underdog.

    But that’s not important because Superman has all the cool powers we wish we had. And that’s huge when you’re a kid and you fall in love with him.

    • Mario,

      I don’t think “grim and gritty” and relevant are necessarily synonymous, even if that style is one that is popular today. In spite of some… darker elements injected into the recent “Man of Steel” film, I think there was a LOT of inspiration aspects to the film that speak to the notion you raise about how “he means something. Like Captain America, he is the guy who will always fight for the right thing. He’s the guy the others look up to.”

      Of course, those darker elements incorporated into the film may negate the positive ones for you. I, for one, think the best reviews I’ve read of the film are Mark Waid’s (con) and Julian Darius’ along with the commentary from Greg Carpenter (pro). But the discussion alone about this movie is far more elevated than I’ve seen in a long while. That alone tells me the controversial aspects of the movie underscore his relevancy.

      You raise some good issues, Mario, and thanks for sharing them.

      • Oh, I haven’t seen the movie yet. Won’t see it so soon (I saw The Avengers a couple of months ago). What I really want from cinema doesn’t really match what I want from superheroes or anything a Hollywood producer is willing to give.

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