Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Superman: science fiction hero

It seemed only fitting to me that I begin this series on science fiction with the character that started it all.

To my way of thinking, Superman is the science fiction comic book hero.  He himself is an alien; a “strange visitor from another world.”  Devotees of “harder” science fiction would no doubt lament the fact that for an “alien,” he looks an awful lot like us.  Not to worry, there are ways of explaining that and those of you who have seen the “panspermia” episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation are probably still with me.  Biomorphic features not withstanding, Superman is an outsider to us. 

Superman arrives as a child via spaceship after his homeworld is destroyed.  Traveling with him are technological wonders from the advanced civilization of Krypton, items that will one day aid him and bedevil him.  In his Fortress of Solitude, he will attempt to reconcile his human upbringing with his Kryptonian origins.  He is the ultimate immigrant.  And this is not by accident.

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman, were two geeky Jewish kids longing to create a superhero that would not simply be a manifestation of who they’d love to be but also someone who personified the concept of an immigrant in a new culture, trying to make good.  Just look at the baby in the rocket who is raised by those who find him and how the baby grows to be a man who will bring salvation to an entire people.  Obvious shades of Moses and Siegel and Shuster have never argued otherwise (to the best of my knowledge).  Later, DC Comics would take this biblical inspiration and make the character more Christ-like.  This was especially so in that dreadful Bryan Singer film.  But I digress…

Something else was going on in the creation of Superman, another sensibility was infused into his persona.  “Science fiction fandom was born in the 1930s,” comics writer Marv Wolfman said in the introduction to The Last Days of Krypton by Kevin J. Anderson (Wolfman might be off by a few years, but we’ll keep going.)  “Two such fans were Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster…from their singular passion came the ultimate science fiction creation, Superman.  Superman was born out of this love for science fiction.”

Blogger Tom Floss takes an in-depth look at this birth on his blog, Fortress of Soliloquy.  He begins with the daily newspaper strips of Superman, an aspect I originally…and stupidly…failed to even consider.  When the daily strips began, they told for the first time the origin of the character.  Think of it as one of the first prequels done for an established, popular character a la Lucas’ Star Wars: Episode I fracas.  The origin story itself was something relatively new in comics.  No crooks or super bad guys involved.  Instead it was a classic science fiction theme of a doomed planet and a “space ark” (there’s that biblical meme again) to carry at least one inhabitant offworld.  This tiny young survivor would be the seed of hope for a better tomorrow.  More than just science fiction, this origin is steeped in Greek tragedy.  After all, Krypton’s destruction might have been averted or at least blunted if its leaders had listened to the brilliant scientist, Jor-el and not succumbed to human…err Kryptonian pride, vanity, and hubris.

The origin is far from where the science fiction aspects of Superman stop.  There is of course the extraterrestrial android, Brainiac, a living computer who became one of Superman’s greatest…and one of my favorite…foes.  There’s the bottled, miniaturized city of Kandor, the alien being Doomsday who killed Superman (he got better), and I could go on and on with the references.  Suffice to say, whenever an otherworldly threat accosted the Earth, Superman was the comic book go-to guy.

That, I believe, is the very character attribute that has kept bringing me back to read more Superman stories, even if he is no longer deemed "cool" or "edgy."  The origin story and science fiction aspects are fun but it is his sense of values and his inexhaustible will to defend others that make Superman so enduring.  

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