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Superman: Why we've loved him through the years

Superman is getting another make-over with 'Man of Steel' now out in theaters. Boston-based writer Larry Tye explains why we've loved this nice-guy superhero so long and so well. 

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A: Jerry said he wrote what he knew about, and he lived in a Cleveland neighborhood called Glenville that was 75 percent Jewish. He ended up giving us a hero who seemed perfectly situated in that Jewish world. Superman's Kryptonian name, Kal-El, means "in the voice or vessel of God" in Hebrew.

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And this guy comes down from the planet Krypton because his parents are trying to save their first-born son by floating him off in outer space. Then he ends up in the middle of America, where he's found by two Gentiles who raise him as their own and realize they've got an extraordinary child.

If that's not the story of Moses in Exodus, I don't know what is.

Q: A witch hunt targeted comic books in the 1950s, led by a psychiatrist who warned of violence and depravity lurking in characters like Batman and Wonder Woman. In some cases, he was on to something. But looking back, he seems hysterical. Did he target Superman?

A: He went after Superman specifically and said he was a fascist, a violent character who was a bad influence on kids.

There's no question that a lot of comic books were really gruesome and violent. But there's also no question that Superman was a pretty innocent character, toned down in terms of his violence, and clear cut in his understanding of what was right and wrong.

Q: Did Superman's powers undergo change over time?

A: They've waxed and waned depending on who was writing him and whether it looked like he was powerful or beginning to be unbelievable.

At the beginning, he was strong enough to lift an enormous boulder, then he was strong enough to lift planets. In the beginning, he could leap really high, but he didn't fly at first.

They've killed him, brought him back to life, had him marry and divorce. They could play with him to the point where two months ago, they had him quit the Daily Planet and become a blogger, which was devastating to me as an ex-journalist.

Q: That sort of thing keeps happening: Back in the late 1990s, the Internet first threatened the Daily Planet and even knocked it out of business.
But enough about the troubles of mild-mannered reporters. How has Superman changed as an American icon over the years?

A: One of the keys to his success is that he's evolved more than the fruit fly.

In the 1930s, we got a butt-kicking New Deal liberal. In the 1940s, he helped with World War II. In the 1950s, he was out looking for Communists. In every era, we get a Superman suited for our times.

Q: How about now?

A: In everything from his costume to his hair style to his sense of what the world is like and where he'll fit in. He is suited to what we need now, as we're facing a persistent recession and all kinds of foreign entanglements – a hero like we got in the 1930s .

He was the first, and I think he's the best, and I'd love him to be back on top.

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