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Retro Thursday: Superman’s enduring status

by Matthew Price Published: November 13, 2008

The following is a piece I wrote for the release of “Superman Returns.”   It’s one of my favorite pieces I’ve written for The Oklahoman.   It’s about the legacy of Superman, and why he still matters. 

“There’s one thing that I know for sure, son. And that is, you are here for a reason.”
- Jonathan Kent (Glenn Ford), “Superman: The Movie”
“They can be a great people, Kal-El; they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way.”

- Jor-El (Marlon Brando), “Superman: The Movie”
The fantasy born in the minds of two teenagers during the Great Depression is still touching the hearts of dreamers in the 21st century. While most of the fads of 1938 have disappeared, Superman is proving he still has the power to fire imaginations.

Kurt Busiek, the current writer of “Superman,” says the strength of the basic idea of Superman is what’s led to his endurance.

“I think Superman’s enduring popularity comes down to the fact that the character is so primal, such a clean, stark, simple idea that resonates with the audience in all kinds of ways,” Busiek said via e mail.

“Whether it’s the fantasy identification of feeling that people see us as Clark, but if only they knew our true hearts, they’d know we’re Superman, or the mythic ritual of the powerful son sent to us from the heavens to save us all, to the simple joy of imagining flight, unsurpassed strength and more – Superman touches something deep in our dreams and on such a basic level that it withstands all the societal changes that come with the passing decades.”

Superman was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two mild-mannered teens from Cleveland who started the legend of the first superhero. Their character seemed larger than life, but the two were not afraid to infuse themselves into the character. Superman’s meek identity of Clark Kent was inspired by the real lives of the timid teenagers.

“Superman would lead a double-life,” Siegel wrote in “Action Comics” in 1983, for the character’s 45th anniversary. “As headline-hunting newspaper reporter Clark Kent, he would hide behind a false front of pretended timidity, so that no one would suspect that he was secretly the crusading, all-powerful Superman. As a furthering disguise, meek, mild Clark Kent would wear eyeglasses, which would give a somewhat intellectual, inhibited appearance.

“Much of that premise came out of my own personal frustrations,” Siegel wrote. “I wore spectacles and was a high school boy who wrote for the school newspaper. Introverted, my thoughts kept dwelling on science-fiction, thriller pulp magazines and the movies.”

Comic-book writer Geoff Johns, who wrote both the older and modern versions of Superman in DC Comics’ “Infinite Crisis,” as well as co writing the recent “Up, Up and Away” story line in the Superman books, says Superman’s status as the father of American superheroes has had a hand in his popularity.

“Superheroes are the closest thing America has to its own mythology, and Superman was the character that started it all,” Johns said via e-mail. “His iconic and classic origin resonates with what America was built on – a foreigner coming to a new country to find a new life. It’s iconic, simple and powerful.”

As reflected upon by both of his fathers in “Superman: The Movie,” Superman has the power to inspire, to make us try to become something better.

As Brandon Routh, the actor now playing Superman, told “If Superman just saves things, he just saves things, and people feel like he can do everything for them. That’s all they get from him. But if he can influence and say, ‘Hey, you can aspire to be better in your life’ or ‘different in your life,’ you know, that’s a great thing. And I don’t know if I’ve made that evident by anything speaking in the film, but that’s what I’m working on portraying.”

Johns agrees with Superman’s inspirational status.

“As they stated in the very first film – Superman has the power to light the way. He inspires. And with a world full of antiheroes or dark vigilantes like Wolverine, the Punisher and Batman (not to mention our real-life problems and people), we need someone who embraces truth and justice more than ever.”

by Matthew Price
Features Editor
Features Editor Matthew Price has worked for The Oklahoman since 2000. He’s a University of Oklahoma graduate who has also worked at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and was a Dow Jones Newspaper Fund intern for the Dallas Morning News. He’s...
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