Putting the Man in Superman

Cover to The Man of Steel #1. Art by John Byrne. ©1986 by DC Comics

When asked to name my favorite book, I usually rattle off the same three or four by my favorite authors. Or I might mention the best book I’ve read in the past year. And then there’s Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which is the only novel I can remember reading more than twice. But my favorite books have always been comic books.

Over the years, the Superman stories have meant the most to me. The character of Superman is iconic, and his S-shield is recognized around the world as a symbol of hope. He fights for us. He rescues us. He helps us in our hour of greatest need.

He can outrace as speeding bullet. He can fly. He can punch through steel. But the stories that mean the most to me are the ones that focus on his greatest strength: his humanity.

You see, when Superman was originally created, he was more alien than human. His true nature was alien, and he was able do all those amazing things because he was from the planet Krypton. But to use his powers to help his adopted planet, he needed to disguise himself as one of us. That word “disguise” is an important one. Because he didn’t see himself as Clark Kent. That was merely a mask he wore to pass as human.

Fast-forward 40+ years to the 1980s. DC Comics asked John Byrne to reboot the Superman mythos following their Crisis on Infinite Earths. In a six-issue mini-series titled The Man of Steel, Byrne recreated Superman from the ground up.

The new Superman would be less powerful. He would be the last survivor of Krypton (no more Supergirl or Krypto, the Superdog). Byrne also had the task of eliminating Superboy from history, instead focusing on Clark Kent slowing gaining his powers as he reached maturity.

The thing that made Byrne’s Superman truly unique, however, was his focus on Clark’s humanity. As Clark grew up, he discovered his powers slowly. He wondered why he had them. And when he uncovered his Kryptonian heritage, he had an answer to that question. But his Kryptonian genetics didn’t make him alien. He was still the boy Jonathan and Martha Kent had raised, and his Kansas roots were more important than his Kryptonian birthright to defining his personality.

This made such an impact on me that I used it as the basis of my master’s thesis. I used the changes in the Superman story over the years to track popular interpretation of nature vs. nurture in psychology. From the early origins of Superman in Action Comics clear up to the television show Smallville, I showed how Superman went from being an alien “disguised as a mild-mannered reporter” to a normal Kansas boy who found out he had alien DNA. In the end, his upbringing more than genetics shapes Clark Kent into the hero we all know and love.

I know most people don’t put comic books in the same category as literature. Even so, I have been reading them since I could read, and I think they can be as compelling as any novel, play, short story, or poem.

The Man of Steel does the seemingly impossible by reinventing a well-known, well-loved character and making him relevant to a new generation of readers. It’s a wonderful renewal of Superman, but it also shows the strength of any story is in its characters. And the strength of any character is in its humanity.

Kevin Wohler is a copywriter and novelist living in Lawrence, Kansas. During the day, he works at a digital marketing agency in the Kansas City area. When time remains, he likes to tell stories of the weird and bizarre. And sometimes, he writes them down for others to read.

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