Guest Article: ‘I Believe A Man Can Fly!’: Why The World Still Needs Superman By David Sayers

This may come as a surprise to many of my fellow nerds who have heard me sound-off about this subject in the past, but I actually really love Superman. With the best will in the world, if you are at all attached to the mythology of mainstream Western comic books, then how could you not? To put it simply, he’s the OG. He’s the superhero. The benchmark that inspires all others, and that all others are in their own way compared to, and ever since his conception he has been a hit with both the comic readership and the broader popular culture, and it was decades before any other character even came close to following in his footsteps.


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That doesn’t make him the ‘best’ by any objective measure, and it certainly doesn’t mean he has to be your personal favourite, but it’s not a fluke either. No fictional character captures the hearts and minds of a generation, far beyond just their country of origin, and inspires that generation to turn them into an icon of truly biblical proportions, by accident. That kind of status, that love, is never underserved. It never happens unless something within that character strikes a powerful and unilateral chord with people, and so in my opinion the people who in recent decades have found good sport in dismissing the man from Krypton as irrelevant and boring next to either his more ethically grey or more happy-go-lucky contemporaries are being completely ridiculous.


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That is not to say, by any means, that the Man of Steel or the stories featuring him are above reproach. If anything, I believe a character with such a legacy should only merit greater scrutiny, so that they may continue to live up to it, which is what may have led some people I’ve argued with to believe I’m not all that hot on Superman. In my defence, I think it’s increasingly clear that the glory days of the character are looking further and further behind him, and the two most recent attempts at reviving the character on the big screen have received… ‘mixed’ reception if we’re going to be charitable. Overall, it seems the creative minds behind him in recent years are hardly less confused about what the icon of Superman is supposed to mean in a modern world than some fans are, which hasn’t done him any favours.


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And yet, that icon is still powerful. Ask anyone, almost anywhere in the world, who is not a huge follower of Western comic culture to name a superhero, and they will know of Superman. A majority of those people will probably still know of him above all others. He is still relevant, that’s a fact, and so the only question is, how can he start acting like it again?

Back to Basics…

I don’t want this to be a negative article, and so I don’t want to spend all my time lambasting where recent attempts at portraying Superman have been going wrong (for one thing, I’m sure I could milk at least a whole other article out of that cow). However, if we’re trying to figure out how to captivate a whole new generation with the image of Superman, then you have to start with what he meant to the generation that spawned him. What desires did he fulfil to them? Which of their hopes did he bring to life, and which fears did he soothe? From there, we can start to draw comparisons between that generation and ours, because as far apart as we might seem on the surface, I believe that now is the time, more than ever since the 1930’s and 40’s, that we need a hero like him.


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To understand how to retain Superman’s place as the quintessential icon of Western popular-culture, we have to be on board with two simple truths. The first is that all fictional characters are in some way aspects of their creators; and the second, is that all creators have been moulded by the forces around them. Therefore, if we want to figure out how Superman might still capture the imaginations of our modern minds, we have to go back to the beginning, to who created him, and why…

A Bit of History…

This topic is actually a matter of some debate. What we know, is that the first Superman comic was published in 1938 by Action Comics, from writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster. A popular belief for many years was that the pair dreamed up the indestructible hero as a way of attracting girls in high school. However, more recently, a theory has emerged that Siegel was inspired to create a protector figure after his father died during an armed robbery at his second-hand clothes store in Cleveland. Siegel’s father died in 1932, shortly before Siegel first began work on the character. The timing, along with other parallels that can be drawn between character and creator, would appear to lend credence to this theory.

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As neither Siegel nor Shuster are alive today, and as neither of them confirmed the truth of Superman’s origins in their lifetimes, we have no way of knowing for sure if this personal connection holds fruit. However, I believe it’s still fair to point to what was without a doubt the most pressing issue on the American zeitgeist during the 1930’s, namely the Great Depression. It is perhaps the event that hit the US mainland harder than any other in the 20th Century. Social and economic disparity was huge, violent organised crime skyrocketed, entire cities seemed on the verge of extinction, and kids like Siegel and Shuster were caught in the middle of it, perhaps even becoming targets for the frustration themselves (Siegel was a second-generation Jewish immigrant from Lithuania). Without a real figure of stability with a generous spirit to turn to in all this chaos, it’s not hard to believe that they invented one for themselves, and that the rest of their generation was only too eager to lap it up.

The Hero We Need…

So, what parallels can we draw between Siegel and Shuster’s major creative influences and the present day? I shouldn’t need to spell it out, should I? On both sides of the Atlantic and beyond the world is still licking its wounds from the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, which is constantly brought up in comparison by news reporting on it. My generation (and those just behind me) have been growing up with almost a decade now of economic instability that has left its mark on all of us, even if we’re not the ones constantly worrying over our bank balance. We’re all in debt, employment is unstable, with numbers being boosted by irregular or even outright phoney ‘jobs’, and the perceived gap between the haves and the have-nots grows ever more nebulous. With the real powers that be so often struggling to come up with a vision of the future that we can feel positive about, am I supposed to believe that my generation has no use for hero with humble roots (the farm-boy ones, not the outer space ones), a day job speaking truth to power, and with powers of his own that free him from the shackles of societies lesser concerns? Are you trying to tell me that’s not a fantasy you can get on board with? Really?


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Economic anxiety is far from the only parallel that can be drawn between the concerns of our generation and the one that spawned Superman. The character may have first been published in the thirties, but his popularity truly exploded during the forties and fifties, and it should be fairly clear already where I’m going with this…


The Second World War, the rise of fascism in Europe, and the threat of imperial expansion from Japan, dominated the American psyche at the time and continued to do so for perhaps the rest of the century. It’s not in my view an exaggeration to say that in that time, Superman was essentially the surrogate father figure to an entire generation of American children, who had seen their fathers march off to war on two fronts, against powers that at the time appeared unbeatable. Many of those fathers, sadly, would not return. For those children, the pull of a figure like Superman must have been immense, and only gives more credence to the theory that Superman was conceived out of Siegel’s grief for his own father.


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Of course, Superman was far from the only hero providing an outlet for the wartime generation’s power fantasies. What was it about him that made Superman such an enormous success both within and without comic fandom, where characters such as Captain America were also fighting Nazi’s at the time, and being far more overtly patriotic about it (left-leaning he may have still been)? Was it simply the level of Superman’s power being so much greater? Possibly. Could his more fantastical elements have provided a distancing effect from the horrors of war, where the likes of Steve Rogers were an uncomfortable reminder, as well as an outlet for catharsis? I could get on board with that idea. However, I have another theory for what was so uniquely compelling about the Man of Steel…

More Than a Flag…

The 1930’s and 1940’s were a brief window, after the isolationism of the turn of the century and before the Cold War/Red Scare of the fifties, where American culture was perhaps more internationally minded than it has ever been before or since. WW2, for all its horrors, was also a great symbol of international co-operation, where the old empires of Western Europe, Soviet Russia, and the new world of the United States fought together for the greater good. While Superman has become for many a quintessential ideal of American values, he is an immigrant (like Siegel himself). Superman has always been a hero for the whole world (the “American way” clause was a later addition to his famous motto in the 1950’s), and the loss of his home planet serves as a reminder of what humanity stands to lose when we don’t step up, and what we stand to gain by taking in those in need. He existed to do more than just win a war, but to help us deliver ourselves from injustice wherever it may be found. In this moment, I believe the culture of American youth was very susceptible to the idea of a hero who belonged to more than just one nation, and whose power could be both vast and caring.


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So what does the symbol of Superman during WW2 have to do with a modern audience? Well, the War on Terror has been going strong for nearly fifteen years now, and shows no sign of winding down anytime soon. Even more than our modern generation has been raised by economic strife, we have been raised by paranoia over our national security. While at first glance WW2 and the War on Terror might appear as different as two wars can be, and yet we too are weary of conflict, and frightened of an insidious enemy that can seemingly strike from anywhere. Most dangerous of all, these conflicts threaten to divide the 21st century world once more along ethnic and political lines.


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Superman could be a balm for those fears, not by devoting issue after issue to punching the Taliban to death (before Frank Miller gets any ideas), but by being exactly what he was in the 1940’s. He can be a hero for all of us, soldier or civilian, native or refugee, who has the ability to intervene where diplomats and militaries have failed, and who possesses genuine humanitarian credentials.

The Hero in All of Us…

So yeah, that’s what Superman means to me, and I don’t think I’m alone. This is one of those articles where I started out with a point to prove, but everything I have come across has only made me more convinced of it. Superman is a symbol. He is an ideal, that’s just a fact, and even as a fictional character, his power comes from the idea of just what we could be if we all strived to be just a little like him. We are living in a scary world, an unstable world, which is changing often beyond our control. While a skin-deep analysis might see Superman as a stiff, regressive avatar for the status quo of the past, to me he could represent, by staying true to his own ideals, a force of positive change that can bring us all closer together, to tackle the very real difficulties we face.

If you like this article, be sure to check out my blog at for more, or witness me frequently make a ass of myself on Twitter @OpinionatedDav1

…That was a guest article by comic expert David Sayers!!! Check back on Monday for a new BearSleuth Opinion Piece!

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