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. 

Henry Cavill is the latest embodiment of Superman, but Superman biographer Larry Tye says that over the years the Man of Steel has "evolved more than the fruit fly."

Unlike many of his counterparts, Superman doesn't have enough issues to fill a newsstand.

This mostly well-adjusted nice guy never embraces the darkness like Batman, Spider-Man, and all the other superhero orphans who could use a spot of therapy.

That's pretty remarkable considering the potential for phobias (eek! Kryptonite!), parental resentment (he was abandoned), and low self-esteem (do these tights make me look fat?).

Superman was a sunny character in the beginning, actually, and his goody-goody nature doesn't change in "Man of Steel," the big Hollywood film that opens today.

How has he remained such a softie – a "Big Blue Boy Scout," as some call him – after all these years? And what has changed about the Man from Smallville? For the answer, I turned to Boston writer Larry Tye, author of 2012's Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero.

Q: Darkness lurks in the lives of many superheroes, from the violent loss of parents (Black Panther, Daredevil) and alcoholism  (Iron Man) to family rejection (various X-Men) and even child abuse (Incredible Hulk). Did Superman ever become a dark character?

A: Relatively speaking, he's been on the far light side of the spectrum. At various times people have played around with him being a darker character. But fans or editors have pushed him back to light every time they've done that.

Q: How do you think this affects his appeal?

A: At moments like now, when it like the world has enough dark heroes, Superman's plucky and righteous familiarity makes him reassuring. He was the model that Batman and Spider-Man were built on. Spider-Man is the anti-Superman, and Batman is the dark Superman.

Q: How did he diverge from Batman, who – 1960s TV show aside – is one grim guy?

A: At his best, Batman is as dark as he can get. At his best, Superman is as light as he can get.

If I wanted to be crude and cynical, I would say they were each filling a niche in the marketplace. There's been an understanding that there's an opening for a dark hero and also an opening for a hero of light.

The other way to look at it is that Superman's whole backstory is more of an upbeat and optimistic one compared to Batman, whose story is about revenge and darkness. This was built into their DNA, and their handlers pushed these tendencies to distinguish them.

Q: What surprised you about Superman as you did research for your book?

A : I came across the unpublished memoir of Jerry Siegel [the co-creator of Superman]. He told a story no one had ever heard about how he was a bullied kid.

The boys would taunt him because he was a little bit too short, a little bit too round and wore glasses that were a little bit too thick.

He needed to create a hero who would help him fight against the bullies. I love the idea that a kid who needed his own hero gave us a hero who's still a stunning success 75 years later.

Q: Comics scholars have often linked superheroes (Batman, Captain America, Spider-Man and many more) to the Jewish faiths of their creators. How did that play out with Superman?

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.

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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