Superman's perfection leaves him too dull to live

THE DEATH OF A SUPPERHERO

investment value remains

October 11, 1992|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

When word first leaked out that D.C. Comics was planning to kill off Superman, several generations of comics fans were understandably incredulous.

Some of that stemmed from the shock of waking up one morning to find that everything you knew was wrong. Superman dead? Inconceivable. Indestructibility was his middle name. If he could survive Lex Luthor, kryptonite and Christopher Reeve, he ought to be able to overcome almost anything.

Or so it seemed. But in a six-issue series starting this week, Superman meets his match in the form of an otherworldly killing machine named Doomsday. In the final installment (Superman #75), our hero saves Metropolis from destruction, but does so at the cost of his life.

Unsettling as the story line may seem, it isn't the issue of Superman's mortality that bothers old-time comics fans. Rather, it's that D.C. could even think of sending the Man of Steel to the scrap heap. Superman, after all, is America's pre-eminent superhero -- not simply the first among equals, but the first, period. Before Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel dreamed him up in 1938, there was no such thing as a superhero; every one to have come along since, be it Batman, Spiderman or Spawn, owes at least a little to his lead.

Sentiment doesn't sell comic books, though, and despite hilongevity and lineage, Superman hasn't exactly been setting sales records recently. Not only has he fallen behind Batman within the D.C. stable, but market-wide, his popularity lags well behind that of characters like Spiderman, Wolverine, the Punisher, and the X-Men.

In that light, death may be the best that could have happened tSuperman. These days, the comics market is mad for collectibles, to such an extent that one trade paper, Wizard, rates new titles not for readability but "investment value." As such, the contemporary comics buyer -- excuse me, comics collector -- is likely to see the death of Superman less as a plot development than as an investment opportunity.

No wonder D.C. is offering the final, "death" issue in two versions: The standard newsstand edition (for $1.25), and a deluxe "collector's edition" (for $2.50). Advance orders are already brisk.

Understanding the commercial advantages to killing off Superman provides only part of the picture; the rest has to do with how poorly the Man of Steel has weathered the changing times.

When Siegel and Shuster first developed Superman, he was, as Siegel later put it, "like all the heroes I had ever read about, only more so." It wasn't just his power -- incredible strength, X-ray vision, the ability to fly, etc. -- that made him seem the ultimate hero, it was his character. Superman was supremely good, possessed of moral strength, forthright character and an innate vTC sense of justice. Although he was never a law officer as such, there was never even a hint of vigilantism to his actions. Superman's understanding of right and wrong was unwavering and absolute, making him the perfect guy to play the world's policeman.

Being both all-good and all-powerful made Superman mostly boring, though. Granted, that hardly hindered the writers at D.C., who generally cobbled together some sort of plot device that would seem to lend a moment's advantage to the likes of Lex Luthor, Brainiac or Mr. Mxyzptlk. Still, there's a difference between manufacturing suspense and generating character interest, and as an ultra-good guy, Superman is sorely lacking in the latter.

Don't blame Siegel/Shuster or D.C. for that. After all, the argument that a flawless hero is inherently dull dates back at least as far as Percy Shelley's complaint that, in "Paradise Lost," Milton made the Devil more interesting than the Lord. Perfection is a tough nut to crack for any writer.

Average-guy failings

Who says a superhero has to be perfect, though? Part of the reason Stan Lee's Spiderman turned the comics world on its head was that Spidey had both superhuman strength and average-guy failings. From the outside, Spiderman seemed like any other superhero: He had strength, he had a gimmick (such spider-like attributes as wall-climbing and web-spinning), and he had a calling (crime-fighting, of course). Strip away the spider-suit, though, and you're left with Peter Parker, typical teen-ager. And that was what made Spidey special -- that beneath it all, he was as human as his fans.

And Superman? Sorry. Unfortunately for him, the Man of Steel invariably seems inflexible and unmelting. Even Clark Kent, his alter-ego, seems a bit of a stiff. Then again, it's worth noting that while Spiderman is the persona Peter Parker adopts when he wants to use his superpowers, Clark Kent is the disguise Superman assumes while pretending to be a normal person.

No wonder there's something vaguely inhuman about the guy.

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