Superman Revisited

RODERICK NORDELL has served as editorial writer, reviewer, and columnist on THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR. He is a graduate of Harvard and holds a degree from the University of Dublin.

For quite a few years, I had been out of touch with Superman. Recently I found it necessary to revisit the Man of Steel. The experience has been bittersweet if not downright (choke!) sad.

The reason for meeting Superman again is that two of our children are now big enough (gasp!) to receive allowances and buy comic books. The older boy reads to the younger one, or I read to both of them, and even their three-year-old sister picks up enough to say, “Don’t get the Kryptonite on me!”

Kryptonite, for the information of those illiterate in the field, is the one substance that threatens Superman’s invulnerability — a word our second-grader has been prompted to read at a rather earlier age than his father. I must have been ten before I discovered there was such a thing as a whole book of comics. I can still remember (sigh!) the thrill of that quickly suspended disbelief.

My wife grew up thinking that comic books were bad for you. She may turn out to be right. But I have the theory that anything the father survived, the son can survive also, including comic books. In my wife’s eyes, the degree and quality of survival may be open to argument. In my own view, the painstakingly chosen comic books of my youth did me no lasting harm. When Superman makes our kindergartner say, “I can hardly wait till I learn to read,” I say more superpowers to him.

What saddens me is that the Man of Steel seems to be going the way of that mighty hero of the past, Hercules. Perhaps humanity can stand the superhuman only so long without laughing. At any rate, it appears that after all his Herculean labors, Hercules became for the ancients a figure of fun, brought on stage for comic relief.

In modern times a similar thing has happened with fantastic characters like Frankenstein’s monster, starting its fictional life in the Gothic imagination of a poet’s wife, Mary Shelley, and winding up in The Munsters on TV.

Meanwhile, the movie success of Frankenstein begot the bride of Frankenstein, the son of Frankenstein. Then, on the assumption there is box office in numbers, Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man, or it’s Frankenstein and Dracula together again! Before long Frankenstein meets the Bowery Boys or the Three Stooges. Thus is the unearthly brought thuddingly down to earth.

Superman may not have had exactly Shelieyan beginnings. But in those early days — “it’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s . - . !”—the Man of Steel stood on his own two feet. Superman was the star. He was enough.

But at some point Superman’s drawing power must have faltered, as I used to think none of his other powers could. Like the bygone strong men in the current film Hercules, Samson and Ulysses, he was teamed with another comic-book hero, Batman. The Man of Steel and the Cowled Crusader joined forces to arrest any mutual decline in popularity.

Also in the shadow of Superman’s cape came Superboy and Supergirl and even Krypto, the Dog of Steel. Consider, too, the Legion of SuperHeroes, which in a recent episode included not only Superboy, but Brainiac 5, Colossal Boy, Cosmic Boy, Element Lad, Invisible Kid, Light Lass, Lightning Lad, MatterEater Lad, Phantom Girl, Saturn Girl, Star Boy, Sun Boy, and Ultra Boy—all pitted against (ha, ha!) Starfinger.

And now the men behind Superman have gone so far as to make him a grandfather. Can Superman Meets Donald Duck be far behind? Think of the Man of Steel as a second banana!

Such thoughts reduced my gravity as I read The Three Generations of Superman. The children had told me the Man of Steel had a grandson of steel, but I couldn’t believe it.

Yet there it was, in red and blue and yellow, tempered only by the disclaimer that this was an “imaginary tale, which could happen in the future, but may not.”

There was the graybeard pointing with his cane to a picture of one of his former triumphs: “Heh, heh . . . If I say so myself, son, you’ve never topped my fame . . . though you’ve equaled it!”

And the middleor workinggeneration Superman says: “It’s too bad that repeated encounters for many years with green Kryptonite so weakened your superpowers that you had to retire. I know I can’t replace you, but I try!”

And the third generation — Superbaby, as the children say — plies his grandfather with questions about the old days before crime was stamped out.

I could not help enjoying the victory of Supergrandpa and Supergrandson over robots controlled by outer-space “alien plotters,” who conclude: “We’ll never try again to invade that world! What chance would we have, when our mightiest machines were defeated by an old man and a child?”

But surely in that direction lie comic books that can hardly be taken seriously. Pop art may have made museum pieces of the comics. Camp taste may have found sophisticated entertainment in them. But when Supermen become grandpas and grandchildren, they cannot be far from supporting roles on the Dick Van Dyke Show.

I admit the Man of Steel has not yet become a clown to our children. They take him as seriously as their own grandfathers.

But they do play along with old Underdad (chuckle!) when he begins talking about Superbreakfasts, Superbaths, Superspankings, and Supermom. I anticipate the day when the whole family learns to talk in comic-book balloons, with the full burden of expository prose they are required to bear.

“Great Scott, Superdaughter! Eight-year-old Supersibling shouldn’t have told you the charcoal for cooking our dinner was (heh, heh!) Kryptonite! Now to teach that scamp a lesson before I prepare the coals.”

“Don’t punish him, Underdad! Though I’m his younger sister, he can’t tease the Girl of Jell-O. It’s good (chortle!) that I’m impervious to brothers.”

“But what about me, your other Supersibling? Why did you cry when I wore your flip-flops to the bathroom?”

“Superdaughter thought you weren’t going to give them back, Supersibling. Just the way I wonder if repeated encounters with black Kryptonite have made Underdad slower than ever in starting the fire for our hamburgers.”

“Hamburgers (groan!) again, Supermom! Will you please make them thin like at the restaurant . . . Oops, sorry. I didn’t mean to step on your toe. Sure glad you’re the Mom of Steel!”