In my high school senior class I teach a segment onat the beginning of the semester. It’s a good way to kick start things, and it gives the class a good excuse to talk about their favorite superheroes as well as the mediocre blockbuster movies they watched during the summer. It’s a well-designed trap, in reality. I’m tricking them into learning.
During this lesson I take some time to use comic book heroes to illustrate certain points about the Hero’s Journey—a cycle noted byto be shared by most literary heroes throughout recorded history. When you boil it down, it’s basically as though we have one very common tale: young man discovers he’s a “chosen one,” is trained by an older mentor, sets out on a quest, overcomes obstacles, loses mentor, then defeats some terrible threat, only to return home a wiser and changed man. Sound familiar? It should. , , Star Wars, The Matrix, , The Hobbit, and a thousand others are all the same. Only the names change.
But despite the fact that I’ve basically spoiled every summer blockbuster those students will ever watch at this point, the conversation inevitably turns to whichcould trump another. It’s the age-old argument that we had as kids ourselves. And it’s the same one I saw two 40-somethings have outside my booth at Phoenix Comicon…but that’s another story entirely.
Although I’ve seen a few long-shots come out victorious in these heated debates, the tried and true super hero to apparently trump them all is usually Superman. Impervious to most physical attacks. Able to fly. X-ray vision. Faster than a speeding bullet. Cool fortress of crystals. Yeah, the guy’s got a lot going for him. He’s a perfect winner for the lesson I am guiding the class through, and it gives rise to one final discussion: that being the shockingly ridiculous disguise used by—the man behind the .
Let’s face it, in a world of super heroes with everything from symbiotic goo, high-tech gadgetry, latex, spandex, and iron-forged helmets used to cover or disguise the face, somewhere along the line Clark Kent missed an important memo.
I mean,digitally alters his voice to create that gravelly “I’m Batman” snarl that comes out from the cowl. ? Nope. Nothing theatrical here. No snarl. No cowl. No helmet. Just the specs and a comb to distinguish the two personalities.
“Glasses? Seriously no one can tell its him?”
“Clark Kent combs his hair and Superman has that little curl. Oh, and the glasses. That’s it!”
The quotes I’ve heard from students go on and on, most orbiting the same concept: there is no disguise. But after listening to their ranting and raving, I begin again. I have them where I want them, and they’ve all come willingly along.
You see, it’s no small accident that the original creators of Superman made such a simple distinction between the most recognizable super hero in the world, and his “every man” alias. Do people think that one day the creator looked down at the comic book panels, smacked his forehead and said, “Good God! We forgot the mask! How’d we forget the freaking MASK?”
No. He’s not supposed to have a mask, because Superman, like so many other popular heroes in our culture, is a reflection of who we are. There’s a reason why we’re drawn to these characters in such an enduring manner, and it has nothing to do with their powers, their looks, or their costumes. These pop-culture icons are symbols and representations of who we are. Us, the audience. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a closer look.
Batman is a character haunted by guilt, driven by vengeance. Capable of justice or revenge, he’s always skirting the line of good and bad. No white knight here. He represents the conflicted, brooding part of us. The part of us that must constantly deal with choices of “good and bad,” issues of “right and wrong.” He’s the part of us that must sometimes dirty our hands to do perhaps not what is right, but what is necessary. How about? A wealthy playboy plagued by alcohol, he’s a womanizer and arms dealer. Iron Man is tough on the outside but deeply flawed within his metal skin.
Despite class, creed or color, all have our hidden demons that we keep behind a tough exterior. Hulk shows us the raging battle of man’s repressed emotions. X-Men are a society’s outcasts, persecuted for their differences. The list goes on and on.
And Superman? Ask yourself this: why is it no one can tell the difference between Kent and Krypton’s last son? Is it really the curl and the specs? Or is it possible that the inability to see this literal super hero right before their eyes is actually a reflection of us, the audience?
Clark Kent carries himself as a gawky, socially awkward, clumsy Average Joe. Superman, on the other hand, is, well, “super.” Faster than a speeding train, able to leap tall buildings…you’ve heard the spiel. Yet, in truth, they are the same man.
Like the characters in the comics, it’s not that we’re unable to see the truth. We’re unwilling.
My assertion is this: just like the characters in the comics, people don’t let themselves see the superman inside. In fact, it’s entirely possible that beneath all of the socially awkward Average Joes in the world beyond the funny pages, lives a Superman ready to take flight. The creators of Superman knew this. They didn’t forget the mask, folks. They left it off for a reason. It’s a message to all of us that too often we as a people, as a culture, are too shallow to see that beneath the clumsy, geeky exterior of that person sitting across from you resides a Man of Steel.
Like so much in our pop culture, you have to look beneath the pages of the comic book to truly get it. You have to be willing to accept that the reason titles like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Iron Man, and others haven’t existed this long simply because they’re “cool.” They’ve lasted this long because they’re a part of who we are. They are reflections of our hopes, our fears, our aspirations, our teenage dreams, and our middle-aged disappointments.
And if indeed Joseph Campbell had it right and there is only one hero’s story that is told and retold over and over again, then that means the story is ours.
Each of us is our own Superman setting out on the unique Hero’s Journey of life.
We are all Men of Steel.
-by Todd VanHooser