Saturday, April 20, 2013

Look, Up in the Sky!

On the evening of June 12th, 1932, a Jewish immigrant named Max was working the late shift at a second hand clothes store in Cleveland, Ohio.  It was the in the middle of the great depression.  Some men, like Max, worked long hours at multiple jobs like the clothing store.  Other men that night decided to make their money by holding up the place.  During the robbery, Max was shot and killed.

His 17-year-old son, Jerry was now left fatherless because of a violent man's bullet.  Jerry could read all about the details of what happened in the Cleveland Plain Dealer the next morning in a news report printed next to an editorial that suggested that maybe it was time for someone outside the law to do something about crime.  But even is something was done immediately, it was too late to save Max.  Jerry's father died because sadly, like all of us, he was not bulletproof.

So Jerry gave to the world a man was.

This past Thursday was April 18th, 2013.  It was the 75th anniversary of when Action Comics #1 was published.  There have been hundreds of comic book titles printed over the years, but this one is special.  This was the first appearance of of Superman.

Superman was created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Schuster.  Among the pantheon of superhero gods, the Last Son of Krypton is preeminent above them all.  He is the first to break through the bonds and boundaries of simple "funny books" and become a worldwide cultural phenomenon.

Superman captures the eye with his bright costume of bold primary colors.  He captures the imagination with his extraordinary, fantastic array of super powers.  And he captures our hopes.  He is dedicated to fighting the never ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.

Superman is important.

I don't mean that he is popular, though he certainly is.  I don't mean that his name is ubiquitous across the globe, though it is.  And I don't mean that he is important only in terms of pop culture, though he is.

Superman is important because of what he does: he inspires.

I think that the heroes you have when you are young truly matter.  They are not just passing fancies or youthful diversions.  I believe that when you are young, you latch your mind and your heart onto what you think it means to be a hero.  For some of us, we look at our sports stars and idealize their talent and skill.  Others look to the actors and muscicians we see on our screens and we want to be as popular and pretty.  We buy their products.  We put up their posters.  We try to see them whenever we can.

We do so because our young minds cannot grasp what it is to be an older version of ourselves.  We try, but it the picture is too vague with too many mysterious variables.  But we can see grown ups now.  They are not vague.  They are concrete.  And we can imagine being them as they are.  And that matters.

I remember being a child and seeing what would become my favorite movie: Return of the Jedi.  I had waited years to see the final battle between one of my all time favorite heroes, Luke Skywalker, against the embodiment of all evil, Darth Vader.  After Luke's butt kicking in The Empire Strikes Back, I was hungry to see my hero vanquish the bad guy.  But to my surprise Luke kept resisting the battle.  He kept saying "I will not fight you."  And even though he momentarily clashed lightsabers, in the end he threw away his own weapon and was willing to die to save Vader's soul.

That scene had a profound impact on me because for the first time I think understood that the real hero is not the one who kills the bad guy but turns the bad guy good.  This is something I've carried with me from childhood into the man I am today.  All of us have the power to fight.  Few of us have the courage to save.  I learned that because Luke Skywalker taught me.  He was a role model.

And if you don't have the proper modeling, they may not have that proper foundation.  People complain about graphic violence in movies, TV, and video games.  Often these critics are dismissed as out of touch and unimportant.  But these voices are very correct when the point out that what our minds consume as children nourish the adult we become.  And it isn't the graphicness per se that is the problem.  Its the fact that there is so much needless cruelty on the part of today's heroes and icons.

That is why Superman is important.  People often mistake the appeal of Superman is the power.  As I said before, that is essential to him, but it also misses the point.  There are thousands of super heroes with powers like the Man of Steel.  As the Martian Manhunter once complained while he was lifting up a brick building, "I'm as strong as Superman.  Why does everyone always forget that?"

What sets Superman apart is that embodies the best of the American spirit.  He fights for truth in a world that says lying "as long as it doesn't hurt anybody" is a fine thing.  He fights for justice in a world where young children are killed by monsters with bombs in pressure cookers.  He fights the American way in a world that tries to squeeze us into mediocrity.  On this last point, I think it important to remember how American Superman is.

A few years ago, there were lots of headlines when Superman in the comic books renounced his American citizenship so he could be a citizen of the world.  I hated this.  We have to remember, that nearly every other country was built around ethnic background or geographic happenstance.  America is the only country founded on an idea.  We are built on the idea that if man is capable of extraordinary things if given the freedom to achieve them.  Superman embodies this.  His power is like our freedom.  And he uses that power to make the lives of others better.

When I was a child, I had a very clear picture of Superman.  I must have watched Christopher Reeve fly through the sky hundreds of times.  And I think Reeve understood what he was doing with the character.  He did not play him campy or naive.  He played him with total sincerity and faith in the ideals of what this country has to offer.  I could never imagine Superman cussing or stealing or being cruel to those weaker than him or putting himself before innocent people.  And the more I made Superman my hero, I saw myself in him.  Jerry Siegel did not just create a bulletproof father figure.  He created an iconic ideal to shape the character of children for generations.

If Superman did for others what he did for me, then he truly is important and it is right to celebrate a world with 75 years of Superman in it.  Unlike so much garbage floating around the popular culture, he does not draw our eyes to the gutter.  Nor does he makes us see only the world around us as it.  Superman makes us look at the world as it could be.  He makes us look up.

In the sky.

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