I love comic books. I was born in 1947 and they were my chosen form of fantasy escape. I still marvel (sorry for the pun) at the infinitely greater power of computer-generated imagery to affect me sitting in the movies compared to the meager colored drawings on pulpy paper that had to fulfill my imagination sitting at the counter of the Rexall Drugstore in Shorewood, Wisconsin. I’d go for a cherry Coke and the latest issue of Superman comics. Perhaps those comic books were linked to today’s superhero movie franchises as a bridge between watching and reading. Reading lost the battle and, although explosions are bigger, our imaginations are certainly smaller. Fantasy and drama cannot be served in a predigested form. The story of the triumph of good over evil must have some role to play for each of us, and reading — or even listening on the radio — provides that interactive role for our imagination.
Anyway, I loved Superman comics, and because of my personal journey I think of Superman not merely in personal or cultural terms. I am most deeply engaged by the spiritual lessons of Superman. I am brought to these spiritual recollections of the Man of Steel because this past April 18 was the 80th anniversary of the first appearance of Superman in Action Comics issue No. 1 in 1938. “Supe” deserves a fitting birthday cake or at least a fitting sermon.
The blessing of Superman is that we all want a superhero. The curse of Superman is that superheroes make us morally lazy.
Evil in our world is so united and so powerful, and the forces of good can seem so weak and divided, that we can understandably despair of our ability to overcome it. So our fantasy life kicks in and we imagine that there might arrive someday a good person with superpowers who will triumph over evil. That is Superman. Even his back story mimics the story of Moses, who is the Bible’s superhero. Little Kal-El (which means the voice of God in Hebrew) is swaddled and sent in an interstellar version of Moses’ ark of bulrushes to Earth. Like Moses, Superman is endowed with special powers.
Here is where we see the difference between a superhero and a liberator. Superman changes nothing important and Moses changes everything by leading the people to freedom. However, there is a strong spiritual similarity between Moses and Superman. The people come to rely on the heroes’ powers rather than their own. They complain to Moses when their food and water runs out and miracles are hard to find during the desert wanderings. Superman appears during World War II, the greatest moral catastrophe of all time, and he can’t do a thing. He just fights Lex Luthor and assorted phantasmagorical villains from outer space.
The problem with superpowers is that they teach us to sit on our behinds and wait to be saved. This is not empowering. This is morally debilitating. It works just so long as we keep the conflict contained to the realm of fantasy, but when we enter the conflict with evil in our real world, the only countervailing power that matters is our own collective courage. The struggle against evil is not a movie with special effects and it is not a comic book. The struggle against evil is fought out in our own divided hearts.
This is what Jesus knew and it is the distinctive moral legacy of Christianity. In the belief of Christians, Jesus is neither a superhero nor liberator. Jesus is a savior. His work is to save people from sin, which is the evil that corrodes their own souls. The struggle is not resolved by anything that happens in this world. That struggle is resolved in the next world, where evil vanishes like smoke. The arc from superhero to liberator to savior reflects our eternal struggle to be free.
And finally, a word about flying. Of all Superman’s wide array of superpowers, the only one I cared about was his ability to fly. As a kid, I remember finishing a Superman comic and then just stretching out face down on my bed with my arms outstretched, pretending to fly. I may have even prayed an unfortunate child’s prayer: “God just let me fly a little. Just around my room would be OK with me or maybe in front of the girl I like who does not even know I exist.” It did not work . . . until I learned to fly with my words.
Happy 80th birthday, Supe! I’m glad you appeared nine years before me. I don’t think I could have gone nine years without you.