Trying to be Superman

My son refers to all superheroes as Superman.

I’m not sure how he knows which characters are superheroes. The Spider-man action figure is Superman. The Batman book features Superman. But Woody from Toy Story is Woody. None of his Duplo figures are Superman. Only the two superheroes get named for the ultimate superhero.

How does he know? Spider-man doesn’t wear a cape. Maybe it’s the fact that they all have symbols on their chests.

I’ve been reading comic books for over thirty years and there’s a lot to be said about the depictions of masculinity in superhero comics, most of it not good. But growing up this was my example, at least on a subconscious level. I’ve noticed recently that there’s an evolution at work within superhero comics, epitomized by what are perhaps the three most iconic characters, who all happen to be male (and white and straight, for that matter): Spider-man, Batman, and Superman.

I realize that those three are not the traditional “trinity” of superhero comics, largely thought of to be the DC trinity of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. And those three aren’t the current Marvel movie trinity of Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man. But I think the average person on the street with only a passing familiarity of comics would point to Spider-man, Batman, and Superman as the top of the hill with regards to superheroes.

Let’s consider 3 aspects of Spider-man, Batman, and Superman: family, violence, and sex.

The classic version of Spider-man (the one who will be gracing movie screens yet again next year) lives with his aunt. She’s a prominent figure in his life. He is still very much in need of parenting. Even today in the comics, he is the only one of these three characters who still has a mother figure in his life. Being someone’s child is still very much who Peter Parker is.

He might be older now, but the iconic Spider-man is a high school kid, so much so that Marvel regularly goes back to that well whenever they can, be it Untold Tales of Spider-man, Ultimate Spider-man, or Spidey.  And any time Peter Parker might start moving too far forward with his life like, say, getting married, Marvel has done whatever it takes to pull him as far back as they can. My favorite Spider-man stories are actually the ones that take place after he’s graduated from high school, but I understand the appeal. High school Spider-man is a way of life. But he’s not a paragon of maturity.

Batman, however, is clearly an adult. While Alfred may seem like a father figure, Bruce Wayne has taken it upon himself to be a father for a handful of characters who more often then not work with him as Robin. Part of what makes Batman more than just a two dimensional vigilante is the fact that he’s trying to build a family to replace the one he lost.

He is, it should be noted, a horrible father, though. It would be easy to make the case that he’s an abusive parent and should never be entrusted with minors.

Bruce Wayne is also over the death of his parents, no matter how many times it’s revisited in the comics. He’s not doing what he does to avenge them, not anymore. He has a mission and he’s devoted his life to it. Was the death of his parents the motivation for that choice? Of course, but it’s moved well past that.

Superman never really had to move past the death of his parents because he was a baby when Krypton was destroyed; he has no memory of them. As to whether Ma and Pa Kent are alive, I’m not entirely sure, as their status in the comics seems to change on a regular basis. The most common scenario seems to be Pa no longer with us, but Ma still alive. Regardless, by the time either or both of his parents die, he’s already been fighting for truth, justice, and the American way for some time; their deaths are not his motivator.

Because here’s the thing: Superman is selfless. Sure, perhaps you can make that claim about Spider-man and Batman, but those two characters regularly struggle with their own needs versus the needs of others. Most of Spider-man’s early stories deal him making the wrong choice in this regard, in part because every time he makes the right choice horrible things happen. And it would be easy to argue that Batman is the most selfish superhero in all of comics, in part because of his martyr complex.

Superman doesn’t really struggle with such things. Superman knows who he is and he’s comfortable in his own skin. He really is what we all aspire to.

The violence these characters take part in (these are superhero comics we’re talking about) reflect the characters perfectly: Spider-man makes jokes while he fights, Batman is painfully serious, and Superman, well, Superman usually tries to resolve conflict without violence if he can. There have been a number of writers over the years who have actually tried to write Superman as a pacifist, but even when he’s not taken to that extreme, violence is his last resort. To an extent, it has to be; he’s so powerful that his actions can have unforeseen consequences. But this is also a reflection of who he is, just as Spider-man’s jokes reflect his insecurity and Batman’s grim determination represent his lack of balance.

Their love interests are equally as telling. Regardless of what comic book lore would tell us, Spider-man has really only had two love interests: Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane. He met both of them while still in high school. Gwen was a two dimensional personification of the girl next door, while Mary Jane was the actual girl next door, who would be come the ultimate adolescent fantasy: a model.

Vicki Vale notwithstanding, Batman’s most notable romantic partners are either villains or those who walk the fine line between villainy and heroics. Batman has a bad girl fetish and it plays perfectly into the next step of maturity from Spider-man. These are women who need a strong man to get them to behave, emphasis on the man. But these aren’t real relationships.

Let’s just get this out of the way, then: Lois Lane is a singular character, unlike any other in all of comics.

Superman isn’t Superman without Lois Lane, so much so that creators in other mediums don’t even pretend it’s possible to separate the two. There was a TV show called Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman that, as is clear from the title, was about the two of them, not just the guy with the S on his chest. Heck, technically she got top billing.

You can separate Batman and Catwoman or Spider-man and Mary Jane, but you can’t separate Superman and Lois Lane.

And she’s done this by being one of the few female characters in superhero comics known for her brains, her wit, and her ability. I honestly can’t remember any lengthy period of time in which Lois Lane was nothing more than a pin-up; the same cannot be said for the vast majority of other love interests.

And perhaps that’s why — Lois Lane has never simply been the love interest. That’s not to say that she was written particularly well in the early years, but her obsession with Superman ultimately translated to tenacity as a reporter that expanded beyond the Man of Steel. Once she found out who Clark Kent really was, nothing changed. She was still the same driven Lois Lane.

The fact that Lois Lane is who Superman falls in love with speaks volumes. And, of course, he marries her, and in current comics continuity, they have a son.

Lois Lane isn’t marrying Batman. She’s not dating Spider-man. She’s spending her life with someone who deserves her.

This is where I am, then: I was Spider-man, then I became Batman, now I’m desperately trying to be Superman.

That’s not to say I was actually any of those characters. But my growth as a straight white guy can be traced from character to character. I still think Batman is the best superhero character in comics, if only because of how he changes to reflect society from decade to decade. But Superman is the be all and end all. He’s who we should all want to grow up to be.

We reminisce about being Spider-man. We fantasize about being Batman. We try to be Superman.

A few months ago, DC Comics (home of Batman and Superman) had a soft relaunch of their comics. One of the biggest changes was replacing a young, single version of Superman with the aforementioned married with child version. Not much was changed about Batman.

The current crop of Batman books do nothing for me.

But Superman is probably my favorite superhero comic currently being published.