I was fortunate enough to visit the Heroes Museum that was located in downtown Indianapolis. The tense is past because the one man behind the show was not making enough money to keep it open. This is a shame. It was a small part of the proprietor’s personal collection of stuff related mainly to Superman, but with an impressive Batman section as well. It was also hard to find. It was in one of the buildings that once held Kipp Brothers Toys and Novelties, where I worked for many summers long ago. The wholesale district of town is changing. In comic books the heroes do their work in the heart of the city. Indianapolis should have worked harder to keep Superman.
Superman represents the best and most noble aspirations of each of us. He protects and serves like the police, but he will not be killed by criminals’ guns. He works for no company, government, or group, so his motives are pure and free of corruption. Superman fights for the good in the world because he can, and not for glory or paycheck. He has compassion for the weak and innocent. His enemies are the powerful, greedy, and self-serving of our world. Certainly the comics and graphic novels have thrown supernatural villains of all descriptions at the man of steel, but the villains who always remain are those who are hardest to stop, the human oppressors.
While Superman could destroy these misguided men, he chooses instead to work within our system of legal and moral guidelines, the same held by his earthly adoptive parents. They were imagined as humble farmers in rural Kansas. As his alter self, Clark Kent, he tries to use media exposure to stop corrupt individuals from doing more harm. His biological parents were scientists who, in another world, tried to stop their government from harming their planet beyond repair, but the damage was already too great. The world of his birth was destroyed.
Yet even with the powers he possesses on Earth, he also must live with the burden of his own limitations. He reminds us that the best of us, even one better than all of us, is still only one person. Superman fans know that power and influence is only worthwhile if it used to guide and inspire others to use their own power responsibly and wisely. We all have power.
In a Superman book called Peace on Earth the artist, Alex Ross (the greatest hero artist of the modern era), shows Superman whisking around the planet trying to tackle the human crisis of hunger. In one segment he carries a cargo boxcar filled with food into an unnamed African or Asian setting where the soldiers of that nation open fire on him. Later in another country where the people are allowed access to the food he has brought, they claw at him and mob him so that he simply has to get away. He realizes that bringing food to the starving is the wrong kind of help for such a massive problem. Superman cannot help them. He cannot assume control of corrupt governments, nor can he destroy them, for what might take their place?
Ross also paints Superman in a most human light, physically. He is shown looking weary, dejected, almost defeated. No matter how pure his intentions, no matter how awesome his powers may be, he still protects a world of pain and suffering. But in that moment we readers understand that this is what really makes Superman the hero he is. He does not give in to despair. He does not give up his efforts or call them hopeless. He does not harbor hatred for humanity. He keeps fighting for the greater good. He fights on because he can. It was why he was put here.
Ultimately, we need Superman to remind us of our own obligation to fight for the greater good. Superman can’t do everything, but he does his best to do whatever he can do to push the balance a bit more in favor of goodness. And precisely because Superman is not real, writers, artists, and others keep his story alive. If we each strive for greatness, each of us fighting as we can to put down injustice, corruption, and deception, there would be no need to tell his story.
In all that you do, strive for greatness.
-originally published on 10/4/2008