In honor of Superman’s birthday, we asked Randall Lotowycz, author of The DC Comics Super Heroes and Villains Fandex, to weigh in on this significant anniversary.
Action Comics #1, by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster
On May 3rd, 1938, a strange visitor from another planet with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men first arrived on newsstands across the country in Action Comics #1 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. I’m talking about Superman, of course, the lone survivor from the planet Krypton who, as an adult, decided to “turn his titanic strength into channels that would benefit mankind, and so was created ‘Superman’, champion of the oppressed…” The initial printing of the comic was 200,000 copies, but the series went on to sell in the millions.
These days, the relevancy of this iconic character is often called into question. He’s seen as old-fashioned, or even cheesy, compared to hipper, darker characters like Batman. His clean-cut image often does not jive with modern sensibilities. But still his appeal endures, and people still seem to care about him, and not just loyal comic book readers. Last week, in the milestone 900th issue of Action Comics, Superman decided to renounce his American citizenship in order to best service the interests of the entire world, not just the USA. And news of this comic book story—an imaginary tale—spread like wildfire, with articles in Time, The Huffington Post, The New York Post, and Fox News, to name a few. Everyone seemed to have something to say about it, either supporting his decision or finding it alarming.
This isn’t the first time Superman’s exploits crossed over from the comics to the real world. When Superman died (it’s comics, they do that sometimes) in 1992, the world took notice. People who weren’t reading comic books went out and bought the issue. Why is that?
The milestone issue, Action Comics #900
I believe it’s because we all have deeply rooted connection to Superman. For some people, it was watching George Reeves wink at the camera in the 50s television show. For others, it was Christopher Reeve showing us a man could fly, in the 70s film. Others turned to the cartoons, and some have just been loyal comic book readers over the years. I never picked up a comic book before he died in 1992. The ten-year-old me actually had little interest in comics, but something as momentous as Superman dying had to be seen, and read, and discussed. It made me into a lifelong comic book fan. And regardless of how people are introduced to Superman, they all can connect to him. He’s the archetype of modern American mythology, a Paul Bunyan or Johnny Appleseed for a new era. And the fact that he’s renouncing his citizenship in the comics now doesn’t change that. He’s doing what he’s always been doing, serving as a beacon of hope to the world. I’d like to think most people strive, or at least secretly wish, to be the best person they can be. And I believe a large part of that is realizing what makes you who you are and how you can use your unique abilities to make the world a better place. We don’t have to have superpowers or be from another planet. Superman shows us to take what we have and use it.
To quote Superman’s father Jor-El in Superman: The Movie: We (not just Americans, but all mankind) “can be a great people . . . if they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you, my only son.” Messianic allusions aside, the message is strong and clear. It appeals to all of us, and will always be relevant and never cheesy. After 73 years, Superman is still around to bring out the best in us. Here’s to another 73 years!
—Randall Lotowycz is the author of The DC Comics Super Heroes and Villains Fandex.