What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, And The American Way?

by Stephen Spotswood (Dramaturg on THE HISTORY OF INVULNERABILITY; playwright, journalist, and member of Bright Alchemy Theatre Company)

Old fashioned. Lame. The Big Blue Boy Scout. All words that have been, and still are, used to describe Superman—the most classic of comic book superheroes. For comic book readers (guilty!), it’s an inevitable discussion: What’s the appeal of a nigh-invulnerable superhero whose moral compass was created, and is still mostly fixed, in the 1940s? Where’s the danger? Where’s the risk?

It even came up in rehearsal for History of Invulnerability. Is Superman anyone’s favorite superhero? Why read about the adventures of Superman when you’ve got heroes who have much more human frailties (the Hulk and his rage, Iron Man and his ego, Spider-Man and his everyman problems)? At least Batman is all dark and Kevlar-clad and, to paraphrase Jack Nicholson, he has all those wonderful toys.

But what does Superman have to offer except a spit-curl and his underwear on the outside (not anymore thanks to a recent reboot/fashion redesign)?

Some readers see Superman as a sort of messiah figure. A demigod whose purpose is to save humanity from itself (and the occasional alien invasion). Others have called Superman the pinnacle of humanity—something we can all strive to become.

Grant Morrison, who has written a number of modern Superman tales, including the most recent issues of Action Comics, said, “Since we live by imitation, does it not make sense that we might choose to imitate the angels, the gods, the very highest form of being that we can imagine? Instead of indulging the most brutish, vicious, greedy and ignorant aspects of the human experience, we can, with a little applied effort, elevate the better part of our natures and work to express those elements through our behavior. To do so would probably make us all feel a whole lot better too.”

Some Superman writers have directly tackled the question of Superman’s relevance in the pages of the comic book. The most memorable (for me, anyway) occurred in issue number 775 of Action Comics, in a story titled “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, And The American Way?” (that’s right, I can’t take credit for that turn of phrase).

In this issue, writer Joe Kelly has Superman butt heads with a new supergroup, The Elite, who topple evil dictatorships, maim criminals, and kill supervillains. The public loves them and a poll of the citizens of Metropolis show them punishing Superman in the popularity department.

The leader of the group, Manchester Black, taunts Superman, saying, “Masks are for hiding. Capes are for play. Villains don’t share their plans before they smoke you…Reality is a mite bloodier than sitcoms or comics. The greys stretch out farther.”

At the book’s climax, Superman shows the Elite, and the world, just what a Superman who doesn’t refrain from killing looks like, and it’s an ugly thing. A commentary on the trend toward ultraviolent comic tales in the early 2000s, the story shows that, when you’ve got the power to move planets, killing is easy. Mercy and restraint (core qualities of Superman since his earliest adventures) is the harder road to walk.

It shows that stories about Boy Scout morals can hold just as much drama as any Dark Knight or green-skinned goliath.

It might seem a mite silly, debating the meaning and relevance of a character designed to take dimes out of the pockets of children. But it’s a question that lies at the heart of History of Invulnerability.

Throughout this play, Jerry Siegel is forced to ask himself what this character, one that he created means to him. Is it a work of art, a surrogate son, or something else? Something deeper and more profound than Siegel wants to admit?