Book Article

Cape Cowed

Why the new Superman comics have been so disappointing. In current story lines, the Man of Steel hasn't been using his powers to fix man-made problems -- not exactly the kind of hero Americans want during wartime

Superman | NEW WORLD ORDER Superman flies to the rescue on the home front
Image credit: Superman: © DC Comics
NEW WORLD ORDER Superman flies to the rescue on the home front

Why the new Superman comics have been so disappointing

If Superman were real, here's how the Iraq war could have been avoided: At the request of the U.N., the Man of Steel rockets to Iraq, scans for weapons of mass destruction with his X-ray vision, and, upon finding some, flings them into the sun. Instant disarmament.

Alas, the real world is lacking in alien refugees imbued with powers. Besides, judging from current Superman stories, published by DC Comics (owned, like EW, by AOL Time Warner), it's unlikely Clark Kent would help his adopted planet in this way, even if we all asked him nicely. For the most part, Superman believes that man-made problems require man-made solutions and that godlike intervention in matters that don't involve megapowered wackos might make us mere mortals feel small. As a rule, political imbroglios aren't his bag. Superman may stand for ''truth, justice, and the American way,'' but really, he's a citizen of the world.

Such characterization can make for some deeply unsatisfying wish fulfillment. In a recent story line, Clark Kent ventured into a crime-ridden slum called Hell's Heart to save his kidnapped childhood sweetheart, Lana Lang. What you want is for Superman to use his powers to turn Hell's Heart into Utopia. And he does -- by basically imploring the locals to rise to the challenge of self-improvement. Spiritually revitalized, they commit to building a kinder, gentler slum.

Sorry, but a superpowered-yet-self-limiting demigod just doesn't fly, especially now. It feels like a cop-out by comic creators incapable of imagining a more radical Superman, or unwilling to use this uniquely American icon to explore our national character. (At least not in the ''official'' Superman titles; in the new miniseries ''Red Son,'' which posits an alternate reality where Kal-El grew up in the Soviet Union, Comrade Superman gets so angry at the sight of a breadline, he takes over the USSR.) This month's self-congratulatory 800th issue of Action Comics peppered an origin rehash with testimonials from fictitious Americans about how Superman inspired them to achieve, overcome, and love thy neighbor. It's all very uplifting, but if they too were bombarded by images of suffering Iraqis and American POWs, even they might wish their Superman were more Stormin' Norman and less Deepak Chopra.

It's not that I expect a comic-book Superman to save the world; I just wish he had something more interesting to say.

Originally posted Apr 23, 2003 Published in issue #706-707 Apr 25, 2003 Order article reprints
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