Able to leap tall buildings ...
The question startled me. Actually, it felt like a joke, a verbal kick to the gut. In this line of work, where the impossible and improbable flow by in the muddy waters of daily news, I was surprised to be so surprised.
The query came from a 10-year-old boy. A kid.
Listening to a song on the radio, he asked as innocently as can be, “What’s Kryptonite?”
(Yeah, I know, right? You’re shaking your head just as I did. You’re thinking, “That can’t be.”)
Of all the curiosities that can be asked about the chaos of the world we live in, a kid — a little boy — had to ask that particular question?
How does a child, in this age of YouTube, gaming, iPods and apps, not know what Kryptonite is? Perhaps the story was lost precisely because of those things.
Yet there it was. Like a lump of glowing green rock tossed at Clark Kent’s feet, a sadness and weariness came over me as my age caught up with me — faster than a speeding bullet.
The Superman mythos, which had turned 75 last month, had somehow arrived in the court of the ordinary.
It seemed both improbable and impossible to me: The godlike legend of the Man of Steel had lost its persistence.
The late Sarah Lawrence College professor Joseph Campbell spent more than 40 years teaching students about how we actually need heroes to exist as a society. He demonstrated how heroes are woven into the fabric of history, heritage and psyche. We absorb them. His noted books “The Hero With a Thousand Faces” and “The Power of Myth” both showed that fables, stories and icons have become devices that we use to define values and morality. They eventually become customized for each individual, somehow govern the framework of our lives, and shape, in one form or another, our characters.
It all depends on who we decide our heroes are.
Scholars argue over how many hero stories are really out there. Some maintain there are just a handful — savior, champion, underdog and, in some cases, martyr. Others argue that heroes should not be limited by definition, but rather should be defined by their selfless actions. It is true: Heroes should transcend the ordinary and speak to the eternal values of centering our lives. They help us understand good and evil, right and wrong, and they inspire us.
That’s a tall order and one, I think we can all agree, society needs.
We look to the people at the Boston Marathon finish line who ran toward the explosions in the seconds after the bombs ripped through the crowd. We look to the men and women who serve our country’s military in these uncertain times, against evolving enemies.
We look to police officers and firefighters who regularly stand in harm’s way to keep us safe. We look to people raising money to eradicate diseases and build hospitals in Third World countries. We look to those trying valiantly to reduce our carbon footprint in the name of preserving our planet.
We also tend to elevate sports figures, entertainers and statesmen to “hero” status. And while they are inspiring in some cases, they are not working selflessly. They are agents of change, for sure, but rarely heroes.
Or has our definition of hero changed, as it once did with Superman?
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two Jewish boys from Cleveland, created Superman in the 1930s. They were teenagers in post-Depression America, schoolmates and friends on the school newspaper. They both liked to draw and tell tall tales and adventures. Their first forays into the comics were enjoyed by classmates, but publishers thumbed their noses at the boys’ ideas. They were dull, ordinary.
Superman first appeared on the Siegel-Shuster drawing board in 1934 but was not picked up by DC Comics for a couple of more years. He debuted in 1938 — America’s first superhero — and overnight, the son of Krypton became a best-seller — and a necessary icon.
Voltaire said that if there were no God, it would be necessary to create one. The same could be said for Superman, and he arrived when the nation needed him.
With war raging in Europe, and the teenage creators keenly aware of Hitler’s rise, they continued to craft Superman and his story (sometimes at odds with DC Comics) to stand up for more than just the oppressed. Superman would have to stand for a nation and even condemn the rise of the Nazis. He was once declared “America’s secret weapon.” Standing Patton-like before a huge American flag, he boasted pridefully about America’s “unflagging courage” and that “no matter what the odds,” we would win the war. “Against that,” Superman declared, “Hitler and Hirohito haven’t a ghost of a chance.”
He galvanized the propaganda; he emboldened the nation; he gave us the escape we needed when the reality around us felt improbable and impossible. He was so popular as a character and icon, the comic book world built a culture around him.
The world could not get enough.
Superhero rip-offs appeared like wildfire. Serials turned up on the radio. Television gave him a real face, and with him, enemies to match the times.
Through it all, Superman fought for “truth, justice and the American way.”
And yet, of all superheroes put before us, our first icon became the most challenging character for his creators: He is godlike, impenetrable, unstoppable. As Superman became more and more godlike, he had less to do with the problems of ordinary people. Compared to so many other heroes we have created, Superman started to become sad and lonely. He was too good, almost too true and just. And too American.
He was designed out of the minds of dreaming boys to persist for eternity.
And then we are reminded of just how easy it is to lose something so iconic. How quickly the mission can go off track.
Like when someone asks, “What is Kryptonite?”
Up and away
Today, we seem to be flush with superheroes. They are everywhere: comic books, TV, movies, online. This summer alone, we will see the resurgence of Iron Man, Thor and, yes, even Superman. Next year, there will be a new round of Avengers, and even a rumor of another Dark Knight film.
There’s almost a dilution in the commonality that we have created with so many ways to look at what we want our heroes to be. There’s a hero for everything, with a characteristic we can all get behind, like a franchise or a team. And for reasons only psychologists probably understand, we seem to like our superheroes to be tragically flawed.
Fortunately, our faith in society comes from the heart of what Siegel and Shuster meant Superman to be: He does not take life or maim his enemies, no matter how treacherous they may be; he is the respecter of the law, of due process, of fair trials. He is loyal. His alter ego is all about facts and truth, and doing the right thing. He is proud to serve and is humbled by the graces of humanity.
Yet there is a part of him that satisfies that need in us all to stand tall against bullies and take them down.
Who doesn’t believe that such simple motives could have lasting effects on who we are and how we interact?
But life is harder and more complicated than all that. We bump up against impossible and improbable every day, whether we want to or not. We long for heroes to step up and make our days a little better and less complicated.
Like Shuster and Siegel, we want to soar away and never have to worry about the harms that keep us grounded on earth — mere mortals trapped with our own pieces of Kryptonite.
But we will never be too old to dream.
Steven M. Pappas is the editor of The Times Argus.