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Book Jacket

Trade Paperback
224 pages
Oct 2004
Baker Books

Who Needs A Superhero?: Finding Virtue, Vice, And What's Holy In The Comics

by H. Michael Brewer

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt




The Saving Son from Above

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s . . .”

You finished that line from memory, didn’t you? That’s a tribute to the enduring popularity of Superman, the first and still greatest comic book superhero of them all. The star of comic books, novels, radio, cartoons, television, and movies, the man from Krypton in his bold red cape may well be the most recognizable figure on the planet. Even people who have never opened a comic book in their lives know about Superman.

I found this out one evening when, on the job as a pastor, I was handing out bulletins and welcoming folks to a community Thanksgiving service. In my lapel was a small pin featuring the triangular red and gold S of Superman’s insignia. I hadn’t worn the pin to make a statement. On my way to worship, I’d thrown on the first sport coat within reach without noticing the Superman symbol.

Everyone else noticed, though. I endured some good-natured joshing about my secret identity being out of the bag, and could I really leap tall steeples in a single bound? Half the worshipers that night commented on my Superman lapel pin, but not everyone approved of such frivolity from a man of the cloth.

One dour-faced woman shook her head and said to me, “I know that can’t be what it looks like.”

She stared at the Superman insignia, her forehead furrowed and mouth pinched. After a moment her face relaxed and she said, “I know! The S stands for Savior.”

“Not exactly, ma’am,” I replied.

Again the wrinkled brow as she said, “It must stand for Son of God.”

I shook my head.

“Then what does it mean?” she asked with exasperation.

I tried my softest, most pastoral voice, wanting to break it to her gently: “The S stands for Superman.”

The poor woman drew herself ramrod straight and radiated disapproval, but I leaned forward and added in a conspiratorial whisper, “And Superman stands for Jesus.”

A Hero of Global Proportions

Is it true? Does the strange visitor from another planet really represent the saving Son of God?

That’s probably not what teenagers Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had in mind when they created Superman more than sixty years ago. Siegel and Shuster, second-generation Jewish immigrants, attended high school together in Cleveland. There the boys dreamed up the idea that would become Superman. They envisioned a larger-than-life figure from another planet with superhuman powers and abilities.

While Nazi Germany touted the Aryan “super-man” as a symbol of subjugation and conquest, Siegel and Shuster imagined a hero who would use his powers to defend the weak and uphold justice. Joe Shuster, the artist in the team, dressed their character in a bright red and blue costume inspired by science fiction pulp covers. They dubbed him Superman, slapped a big S on his chest, and tried to sell the idea to publishers.

The publishing world was underwhelmed by the visitor from Krypton. Siegel and Shuster wanted to sell Superman as a newspaper comic strip but couldn’t break into the field. As a compromise, the Cleveland creators packaged several strips into a short story and sold it to DC Comics.

In those days, comic books consisted mostly of reprints from newspaper strips or original action stories featuring spies, explorers, cowboys, detectives, and science fiction adventurers. The red-and-blue brainchild of two Ohio teens utterly changed the face of the young comic book industry.

In 1938 Superman exploded onto the newsstand in Action Comics #1. On the cover Superman hoisted a car over his head while villains fled in panic. The editor nearly replaced the cover art, fearing readers would find the whole idea preposterous. His worries were unfounded. America loved Superman. The first issue of Action Comics sold 200,000 issues. By issue #7, circulation reached half a million. In 1939 DC launched a second comic book for the character, this one titled Superman. Radio programs, cartoons, and an endless array of licensed products were just around the corner.

In the original version Superman was a tough-talking hero with bulletproof skin and incredible strength. He didn’t fly but traveled by immense eighth-of-a-mile leaps. He was rough on bad guys and always showed up just in time to rescue the innocent victims of crime and oppression.

The plotline for his story is simple enough too. On the doomed planet Krypton, scientist Jor-El places his son Kal-El in a prototype rocket and blasts him into space. As the rocket departs, massive earthquakes tear Krypton apart. Little Kal-El, hurtling through the void, is the sole survivor and last son of Krypton. The rocket crashes in a Kansas wheat field, where an elderly couple finds the uninjured baby. Ma and Pa Kent receive the boy as a gift from above and raise him as their own, naming him Clark Kent. When Clark grows up, he demonstrates powers and abilities that set him apart from mere mortals. Eventually Clark Kent leaves Smallville and moves to Metropolis, where he works as a reporter for a major newspaper. Once in Metropolis, the man from Krypton maintains a double identity: meek and mild reporter Clark Kent and dauntless hero Superman.

Juvenile? Preposterous? Even the most devoted comic book fans will admit that this is not Pulitzer Prize material. Yet something in Superman strikes a chord deep within many hearts. For some reason we resonate with this gaudy character.

What is there about Superman that’s made him a star of global proportions?

Man of Steel, Son of Earth

From the very beginning, and through all the changes over the decades, Superman’s mission was clear: to save the world.

Whether intentional, accidental, or providential, the parallels between the Kryptonian’s beginnings and those of Jesus are undeniable. Let’s look at these profound similarities to the Galilean that lie deeply embedded in the story and character of Superman.

A promotional blurb for the 1978 Superman movie sounds almost scriptural: “Marlon Brando as Jor-El, who gave his only son to save the world . . .”1

Superman arrives in this world as Kal-El, who comes from the heavens, sent by his father to a planet desperately in need of his help. In the same manner, Jesus is sent from heaven by his Father. Both babies arrive miraculously, one by rocket ship, the other through a virgin birth.

Great danger attends both advents: exploding planets and crashing rockets in Superman’s case; Herod’s murderous soldiers in Jesus’s case.

Joseph and Mary welcome Jesus. They are good, pious, working-class people who recognize this unlikely arrival as a gift from God. Like the Kents, Joseph and Mary raise their mystery child as if he were their own, but in fact he belongs to the world. Jesus grows up in small-town obscurity, and when he reaches manhood he leaves Nazareth and makes his way eventually to Jerusalem, the ancient metropolis, where his destiny awaits him.

Sound familiar?

More parallels can be seen in each man’s story: On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus reveals powers that set him apart from others. He works wonders no one else can. He walks on the surface of the sea. He commands the weather. He turns water into wine. Yet his unearthly power is tempered by sheer goodness. He uses his power not for his own gain but for the sake of people in need. He casts out demons, gives sight to the blind, feeds the hungry, heals every kind of illness, and even raises the dead.

Power is probably the most distinctive quality associated with Superman in the popular mind. The extent of Superman’s abilities has yo-yoed through the years, depending upon the whims of writers and the dictates of editors. The Man of Steel probably hit his peak in the 1960s when he pushed around planets. The old guy isn’t quite so formidable these days, but neither is he a pushover: Superman flies at supersonic speeds, lifts airliners without breaking a sweat, is invulnerable to attack by any conventional weapon (even nuclear arms), can see molecules and distant planets with equal clarity, and peers through mountains or vaporizes steel girders with a single glance.

Traditionally, Superman has only two absolute weaknesses: magic and Kryptonite. He operates in a scientific world and is undone by magical acts that defy natural law. And when Superman’s native planet exploded, the fragments were converted into a radioactive mineral that is deadly to him. Even in the world of comic book “reality,” magic is rare, and Kryptonite is harder to find than a mint copy of Action Comics #1. For all practical purposes, Superman is invincible and unstoppable.

A thoughtful reading of the Superman saga raises two unavoidable questions about the character. If Superman is really that powerful, why doesn’t he rule the world? And if Superman is really that good (a question tackled more in chapter 5), why doesn’t he save the world?

Frankly, any thoughtful observer of life will inevitably ask similar questions about Jesus Christ. If Jesus is as powerful and loving as the Bible describes him, why is the world in such a mess? If Jesus truly reigns, as the church claims, why do suffering and injustice still loom so large in the human story? Our discussion of Superman will shed some light on the problem.

To Use or Lose the Power

Imagine the temptation to exercise omnipotence in a world of mere mortals. In an amusing story by John Byrne, Superman’s archenemy Lex Luthor programs a computer to unravel the connection between Superman and Clark Kent. When the computer reveals that Superman and Kent are one and the same, Luthor utterly rejects the idea. The authority-hungry Luthor cannot conceive that someone with Superman’s powers would pose as an ordinary man and work for a living. Luthor speaks for the world at large when he says, “I know that no man with the power of Superman would ever pretend to be a mere human! Such power is to be constantly exploited! Such power is to be used!”2

Could Luthor’s reasoning be true? Why work when you can simply seize anything you want? Why be a friend when you can be a tyrant? Why serve others when they can be forced to serve you?

Early in his career Superman does indeed wrestle with the dilemma of irresistible power. He realizes no earthly authority can possibly restrain him, so he imposes his own limits. He agrees to abide by the laws of the land (“the American way”) and establishes a personal code against taking human life. Acknowledging the potential risk inherent in his own power, Superman turns for help to Batman, another costumed crime fighter. Superman entrusts to Batman a rare piece of Kryptonite, which Batman guards as a fail-safe weapon—a contingency for the day when Superman may, as Luthor speculates, abuse his powers and harm the very people he’s sworn to protect.

Both caped heroes realize that only Batman is sufficiently resourceful and ruthless enough to bring down Superman; if necessary, Batman will destroy Superman to protect innocents. This is precisely why Superman chooses Batman to hold the Kryptonite. The Man of Steel makes himself utterly vulnerable for the sake of those he’s come to save.

In a different storyline Superman faces three criminals from his native Krypton. These outlaws inherited the same powers as Superman but have used them to murder the population of an entire planet. Worst of all, they committed this unspeakable atrocity for no reason. They are not seeking safety, wealth, domination, or even revenge. They incinerate cities for sport. They revel in mass murder. When Superman confronts the unrepentant killers, they laugh about the horrors they’ve perpetrated.

Even if Superman can somehow triumph over these three foes, he realizes no prison can hold them. No matter what safeguards he uses, eventually these murderers will break free and continue their monstrous crimes. Faced with an insoluble dilemma, Superman takes an action he will never again repeat. He declares himself to be a legal representative of his birth planet, draws a piece of Kryptonite from a lead container, shields himself from the deadly radiation, and exposes the criminals to the lethal substance.

The Kryptonian renegades die slowly. Superman has ample time to reconsider his choice, but he stays the course. He brandishes the Kryptonite until the last criminal is dead. As he stands over their bodies, Superman vows that he will never again take a human life.

Years later, Superman is still haunted by the execution. Eventually he consults a psychiatrist for help to deal with his guilt.

The story reveals Superman’s uprightness and profound respect for life. Batman and Kryptonite notwithstanding, the world’s chief protection against the power of Superman is his simple goodness. Unlike Luthor, Superman genuinely cares about others, and he views his power as a responsibility for service, not an opportunity for exploitation.

It’s a theme in the stories of superheroes that the world still grapples with believing.

Made to Save

The Gospel account of Luke says that in preparation for ministry, Jesus enters the Judean wilderness, where for forty days he fasts, prays, and wrestles with temptation. When Jesus is hungry, the devil tempts him to turn stones into bread. But Jesus will not use his power for his own comfort.

Next the devil offers to Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, if Jesus will merely worship Satan. This would mean using power as Satan would, as the world does—to rule and control. Jesus turns from the devil’s offer. Jesus has come to serve, not to be served.

Finally the devil urges Jesus to demonstrate his power by flinging himself from the pinnacle of the temple in downtown Jerusalem. Surely after a public display of such invincibility, the devil reasons, the crowds will beg to follow Jesus. But Christ again refuses the easy way. He will use his power to help people, not to compel, dazzle, or coerce.

Jesus returns from the wilderness and turns his attention and energy to healing, having forsworn the use of his power for personal advantage. The fullness of God’s omnipotence lives in Jesus, but he willingly lays it aside to live in a human world. He is almighty but will make himself as vulnerable as any other man or woman.

Connecting the Celestial-to-Clay Dots

More than power and goodness link Jesus and Superman. Each leads a double life and goes by many names that explain their respective natures.

Kal-El is both Clark Kent and Superman. Neither persona is a disguise or a pretense. Each face is true; one cannot be separated from the other. Superman really is the son of Ma and Pa Kent, just as surely as he’s the last son of Krypton. Having grown up on earth, Superman understands human problems and needs, yet he brings into our world more-than-human possibilities.

Jesus also embodies this dual nature. He’s both a car-penter from Galilee and the Redeemer from heaven, the Son of Man and Son of God. Jesus isn’t sometimes one and then the other. He’s always both. Theologians explain that Jesus is fully human and fully God—one of us and yet . . . not. He’s tempted as we are, yet he doesn’t sin. He has needs, but those needs never blind him to the needs of others. He’s both the perfect image of God and the untarnished image of humanity as we were meant to be.

Superman’s Kryptonian name, Kal-El, offers interesting and unexpected insight into this dual nature of Jesus. Take a look: Kal is a given name, the Kryptonian equivalent of a first name. El is the surname, the true name; El is the name Superman shares with his father Jor-El. El is also the Hebrew word for God. The word occurs thousands of times in the Old Testament, sometimes in the longer form, Elohim, and often combined with other words and names.

Who knows if Jerry Siegel or Joe Shuster intended the Hebrew meaning of El when they named their character, but that final connection confirms for me what I told the woman at the Thanksgiving service: Superman really does stand for Jesus, who comes from the world above, sent by his Father, bearing both his Father’s name and nature. Of course Jesus can do things no one else can do! Who else but Jesus could reconcile God and humanity? No wonder Matthew refers to the newborn Jesus as Emmanuel, a name that means “God is with us” or more literally “El is with us.”

The name Emmanuel captures the ironic grace of Jesus’s life. He comes from above us but stands beside us. That can’t be said of many powerful people who love to stand above the crowd—conquerors, intellectuals, moneymakers, celebrities, athletes, and politicians. To what extent do merely mortal power brokers spend their time looking down on others instead of looking around for opportunities to serve? To what degree will they leave the world better for having been here?

Surely Superman stands apart from today’s powerful people. He explains in a conversation with Wonder Woman, “I think the best way to effect meaningful change is to work alongside people, rather than above them. At least, it’s always worked for me.”3

If Krypton had never exploded and Superman had remained on the planet of his birth, he could have lived an idyllic existence in a techno-utopia. But in doing so he never would have made a difference in our world. Only in coming to earth is Superman able to accomplish his saving work among mortals. He cannot save us from a distance.

Possibly God could have found a less costly means of saving us. He might have rescued us from on high, aloof and untouched by the mud and blood of human existence, but in fact God chose to accomplish our salvation down here. Christ stepped down from the heavens and joined us in our earthbound humanity.

Saving by Heart

A now classic episode of the television sitcom Seinfeld shows Jerry and George arguing about the extent of Superman’s powers. Jerry insists that Superman’s arsenal of powers surely includes a super sense of humor. He argues that if Superman has super hearing, super vision, and super breath, then a super sense of humor must follow.

George is skeptical. He asserts that Superman’s powers are all physical. Super is only skin-deep and does not apply to the inner man.

The debate is one the comic book writers danced around for decades. One of their favorite ploys has been to strip Superman of his more-than-human abilities temporarily. In the process they’ve revealed that even a non-super Superman is still a hero. For instance, when Superman is depowered and shrunken to doll size by the robotic villain Brainiac, the diminutive champion decoys the murderous Brainiac while Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen escape. When Superman battles the Parasite, he fights on even after his powers have been absorbed by his foe. And when Superman visits the city of Kandor, whose atmosphere renders him utterly mortal and vulnerable, the Man of Steel dubs himself Nightwing and adopts a new identity as a costumed do-gooder—without the help of special powers.

Dozens of similar stories depict a humbled Superman who continues to save the weak and defend the underdog. So on this point, George is wrong and Jerry is right, at least in principle: Superman’s greatness does extend into the spiritual realm. While invulnerability and super strength are undeniable assets, Superman’s heroism is ultimately rooted in his heart, not his biceps.

Yes, if ever a story showed us how heroism is rooted in the heart, it might be Superman’s. But as I told the woman at that Thanksgiving service, my Superman is found in Jesus, whose supreme act of salvation was accomplished through weakness and his willingness to bow his head to death.

Flying in the face of first-century Jewish expectations, Jesus did not arrive at the head of an invincible angelic army. Instead, he was born in a stable, lived in poverty, bore the contempt of Israel’s leaders, died in humiliation, and was laid in a borrowed tomb. In the final showdown with evil, he did not rescue us through such superhuman powers as commanding storms or quelling demons. Jesus saved us by the love of his heart, the love that embraced the cross and entered the tomb for our sake.

The similarities between Superman and Jesus are myriad, yet the story of the man who came down from Krypton is the palest shadow of the story of the man who came down from heaven. Laying aside celestial glory, Jesus cast his lot with humanity and joined us in the pain and turmoil of human life. He was with us in the first century, and he is here with us still, beside us now and always.

Superman’s motto is “Up, up, and away,” but perhaps the mission of Jesus is better caught in these words: “Down, down to stay.”

Thank God.