When I was a child, I began reading and collecting comic books. Back then, it was a trip to the local 7-Eleven and time spent perusing the spinner rack to find three comic books I could get with my dollar. (I was really bummed when they bumped the prices up to thirty-five cents.)
Back then I was collecting the basics like Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, The X-Men, and the Justice League. Over time, I expanded my preferences and began getting any and every book that had an incredible cover, a known character, or a tie-in to a film, television show, or even the most recent toys my parents bought me. My budget soon suffered from my spending.
Eventually, I just put all the books in a box and stopped collecting. A few years back, I met Jonathan Bates, owner of Altered Egos Comics and Games here in my town and we began to talk about the stories presented in these books and how they have captured so many fans over the years. We began hosting a monthly discussion group called CHAT (Costumed Heroes and Theology.) It's a diverse group where a few of us are Christians, Jonathan and others are not, and others may have differing views on religion and faith. One of the reasons we started this is covered in a previous post from 2017 here.
Jonathan and I discussed CHAT recently on my podcast. This is available below.
Last Sunday, during our monthly meeting called CHAT (Costumed Heroes and Theology) I brought up something I read recently in a Superman comic. Yes, since beginning our monthly conversations on how these fictional heroes and stories often have deeper meanings and even theological undertones, I began reading some Superman comics again. It’s a quick read between my books on doctrine, church leadership, biographies, and current issues.
The Hero Who Can Do Everything
Over the past few decades the hero in red and blue tights with the long red cape has gone through many changes. Created in 1938 by two young Jewish men in Cleveland, Ohio named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman was the hero that young people wanted and needed. The All-American hero in the era of the Great Depression and the onset of the Nazi threat in Europe, Superman was good, right, strong, and as we know, fought for “truth, justice, and the American way.”
Even when superhero comics were fading out and such books were deemed dangerous and a waste of time by those in authority, Superman prevailed. He became the all-powerful Boy Scout with radio shows, movie serials, and even the popular television show starring George Reeves. I remember seeing him appear on an “I Love Lucy” rerun. Superman was everywhere. He was the good guy.
He could do anything.
As the years passed, the writing of the stories became even more outrageous and Superman’s powers were off the chain. Beyond stopping bullets, and leaping over tall buildings (eventually turned into flight) Supes could do things like shoot miniature versions of himself out of his hands to fight bad guys, he could use “super-________” (just fill-in-the-blank) to do whatever the writers needed done in just a few comic panels to bring the story to a conclusion.
His books were campy, corny, and fun. They weren’t realistic (or even realistic-ish considering he was an alien who was indestructible, kryptonite notwithstanding.)
After decades of stories, shows, and films, DC Comics rebooted the hero in 1986 under the creative writing and art of John Byrne. Superman was more “humanized” in these stories.
Reboots have happened multiple times since. All done to make the oldest and most familiar comic book hero more human. He is fictional and changeable based on the whims of DC’s editors and writers. He is make-believe, but still very popular in pop culture.
Even Superman Needs Counseling
With all that history, we now have a Superman in the comics world written by Brian Michael Bendis, creator of the Miles Morales Spider-Man character featured in Marvel Comics and in the recent “Spider--Man: Into the Spider-Verse” film. Bendis is considered by many to be one of the best and most sought after writers of comic fiction today.
He, not unlike John Byrne in the 1980s, rebooted Superman to a degree. He has done so not by starting over with the character, but by placing him in storylines that resonate with readers because…well, even with all the fantasy and sci-fi, seem so human and realistic. (I know, a flying man from Krypton being realistic is a stretch, but I hope you get my point.)
In this iteration of the Man of Steel, Clark Kent (Superman) is married to Lois Lane. They have a son named Jonathan Samuel Kent (named after Clark's earthly dad, Jonathan Kent.) Superman has also revealed to the world that he is Clark Kent, which has put his writing awards with the Daily Planet under scrutiny. One other thing – his Kryptonian father, Jor-El is still alive. And…he’s not a very good guy. Jor-El convinces Clark and Lois to allow him to take young Jonathan, who is a pre-teen, on a journey into space to teach him about his heritage. It’s a weekend adventure with granddad, and Jonathan is pumped.
The thing is, in comic books and sci-fi, rules of time and space get mixed up and after some adventures that only lasted a few days for the Kents in Metropolis, Jor-El returns with Jonathan who has now aged about eight years. In other words, mom and dad have missed the formative years of their son who is now an adult.
When Superman Can’t Fix Things
Here’s the story that is unlike anything I read as a kid. While there is an alien monster being who shows up to fight Superman, the entire issue is ultimately a counseling session featuring Superman and another character named Dr. Fate.
In this, the Man of Steel expresses his anger, his frustration, and his deeply held father wound. He is angry that he has lost these most important years with his son. He is angry he cannot do anything to get them back (Don’t even bring up flying around the world backward to turn back time like Christopher Reeve did. That’s not an option here.)
I know it’s just a story. It’s a fictional story. It’s a fictional story in a comic book about an overly-muscled guy who flies while wearing his underwear on the outside of his pants. I know.
But…there’s something here that I’ve seen before.
There’s something here that I have faced in others, and to a degree in my own heart.
In a culture that elevates and celebrates the self-made man and woman, that idolizes those who can get things done, who are not shaken by circumstances, the fact remains…there are more things out of our control than within our control.
Perhaps Bendis is venting through Clark Kent? I don’t know. What I do know is that many men face wounds from their earthly fathers, even good, godly earthly fathers. These are real and only the Heavenly Father can bring that healing.
I also know many who, when faced with the uncertainty and the craziness of the world that is out of their control, seem to break. It may be in outbursts at home, maybe towards one’s spouse or children. At times, it’s the seeking for answers in places where they will never be found.
Comic books, not unlike other literature, can sometimes reveal an uncover some very human realities, even when featuring fantastic and out-of-this-world characters.
When Superman says “I can move the moon…but I seem to have somehow lost complete control of my life,” the reader says “I can relate, well not the moon part, but the control part.”
This is a solid reminder to me that identity is key. I am not what I can do. I am not what I can control. I am not what I can think. I am an image-bearer of God and I am truly incapable and unworthy of anything.
That is who I am, but my identity is secure because though I am not so many things, I know I AM.
As crazy as it seems, even a story about the fictional Superman can help us realize some of the realities of own humanity and our need for a Savior.
Bendis, Brian Michael. Superman Issue 23. Burbank, CA: DC Comics, 2020.