Tuesday, May 30, 2006
Peace on Earth
Ooh Superman where are you now?
When everything's gone wrong somehow
The men of steel, the men of power
Are losing control by the hour.
This is the time,
This is the place,
So we look to the future
But there's not much love to go 'round.
Tell me why this is a land of confusion...
I recently read the novelization for the new film Superman Returns by comic book legend Marv Wolfman, and I absolutely loved it. I have been thinking quite a bit about what the character represents to us as Americans. We live in such morally ambiguous times. War is used as a primary option, threats and fear cloud our judgement, and violence begets violence, which everyone seems okay with.
It is no wonder then, that the comic book heroes we admire most are 'Take-no-prisoners' revenge-driven nutjobs like Wolverine, The Punisher, and Batman. These guys use Razor sharp claws, automatic weapons or simply their fists to settle things. Their causes are just because they say so. They shoot first, ask questions later-- Perfect spokespeople for the world we live in today. Their kind of 'instant retribution' crusades make us feel good about our own violent impulses, and they underscore the primal satisfaction of exacting instant justice. To be sure, I love these characters too-- I really enjoy the X-Men, and Batman is one of my all-time favorite heroes. In the hands of some great writers, the characters help illuminate different parts of ourselves, and recent movie treatments of all three have proved highly entertaining.
(X3 rocked, Jennie & I saw it on saturday. Batman Begins was just great. That having been said, though, 'the Punisher' has always been my least favorite comic book character. A guy with a gun & a grudge does not a hero make-- at least in my book.)
Yet not many people these days seem to dig Superman. He is regarded as 'old-fashioned,' 'naive,' and some folks think he's just plain boring. He doesn't wear a mask. He has no psychotic revenge-drama to fuel him. Instead, he's a "strange visitor from another planet" trying to find a way to utilize his abilities for the greater good while simultaneously looking for his own place in the world. In many ways, his dilemma is closer to that of my other favorite super-hero, Spider-Man, whose mantra is "With great power comes great responsibility."
My personal favorite Superman story is an Alex Ross/Paul Dini oversized prestige format one-shot called Peace on Earth which my Uncle Bob bought me for Christmas in 1998. Peace on Earth centers on the man of steel as he undertakes a personal mission to try and reach starving people in every corner of the globe in an attempt to alleviate world hunger for at least one day.
In the story, Superman takes all of the surplus grain he can carry and attempts to deliver it to the starving nations of the world. Along the way he encounters agressive dictators (North Korea), moblike crowds of starving people (Sudan), war-weary victims of the eastern european genocides (Kosovo) and the scorn and mistrust of politicians and media worldwide.
It is the hardest task he has ever tried to accomplish, and the resistance he encounters, mixed with the world's collective apathy towards human life, causes him to question himself and his mission. He admits to himself that even he wouldn't be able to reach the same people every single day... He would never be able to live his
own life and meet his other responsibilities. At the end of his quixotic crusade, Superman returns to his home feeling defeated and emotionally exhausted, and he wonders whether or not his Herculean effort has made any difference at all.
during a sleepless night of soul-searching, Superman remembers the time his adoptive father, Johnathan Kent, showed him how to scatter seeds in the fields when he was a boy on the farm in Smallville, Kansas. Pa Kent says, "As far back as we go, we've always had problems with sharing. Seem's everyone's so busy holding on to what they've got to care about how their neighbors are doing." Superman takes some measure of solace in his ability to educate others to share and give freely. He reasons that it is ultimately humanity's responsibility to solve it's own problems-- he can only do the best he can to help that effort. He cannot shoulder the burden all by himself, but he can educate people and let his compassion and selflessness create an example which people will hopefull want to emulate.
The final tableau of the story is of Clark Kent showing a high-school agriculture class how to scatter seeds on the Kent family farm, where he imparts his father's wisdom to the young students, planting a seed of compassion within them... No Superhuman abilities required.
Peace on Earth is a warm and compassionate story that illustrates the best of what the character embodies: Truth, Justice, and 'The American Way'(A cringe-worthy phrase when uttered nowadays, one which could cause people to believe that Superman endorses Torture, Rendition, Governmental Spying, Rigged Elections and the death of Political Dissent. That's a joke... sort of.)
'The American Way' part of his mantra is supposed to mean 'freedom, dignity & equality for all people everywhere.' Superman gets that, and it is this simple philosophy that is the core of his strength.
In the 1978 film Superman, Marlon Brando's Jor-El says to his son (Played brilliantly by the real Superman, Christopher Reeve):
"They can be a great people Kal-El, they wish to be.. They only lack the light to show the way."
We don't "lack the light." It is within all of us. The purpose of this character called 'Superman' is to inspire us to look for that light within ourselves, and nurture it-- so that one day, perhaps there will really be Peace on Earth.