(Today's post might ramble a bit -- shocker! -- but I want to lay a little groundwork for future posts on this topic. )
Frequently I’ll mention DC’s seven “foundational” franchises and the nine books which showcase them. These are the features to which DC has shown unflagging commitment over the past five decades: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, the Justice League, and the Legion of Super-Heroes. When the fire of DC Comics finally burns out, these seven titles (plus Action Comics and Detective Comics) will be its last flickering embers.
Of course, within that select group is the Trinity of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, which itself has been retroactively made the emotional/ethical/spiritual core not just of the Justice League, but of DC’s entire superhero Multiverse. It’s a relatively recent idea, borne out by such comics as the 2008-09 Trinity miniseries and Brad Meltzer’s Justice League of America #0 from 2006 (drawn, fittingly, by an all-star lineup). Despite its novelty, I don’t see this tenet being challenged anytime soon. This is because the Trinitarians’ basic details are never going to change. Superman will always be Clark Kent, strange visitor turned mild-mannered reporter, etc., Batman will always be Bruce Wayne, and Wonder Woman will always be the Amazons’ emissary.
It follows that the Trinitarians sit atop the unofficial hierarchy within DC’s superhero realm. When the chips are down and the universe is on the line, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are the strongest, smartest, bravest, whatever, in any given circumstance. This is not to say that the Flash isn’t faster or Captain Marvel isn’t mightier -- just that no one is going to show up these three consistently in matters with which they are most closely identified. That’s a long-winded way of saying Batman will always be the World’s Greatest Detective, even if J’Onn J’Onzz spots a clue before he does. To be sure, they are not the best at everything. The Flash can outrace Superman because that’s what the Flash is all about; and Green Lantern (pick one, even G’Nort) will always have more ring-ready willpower than Batman. No one is knocking the Trinitarians off their perch, because DC’s “rules of the road” favor them.
This can be a problem, especially if you want to introduce new characters into DC’s shared universe. Captain Atom, Captain Marvel, Mon-El, and the residents of New Krypton can each be “as strong as” Superman, but they won’t be able to beat Superman ... because once you’ve established your dominance, that’s it. Once you’ve shown you can consistently beat Superman, he starts to look a lot less effective.
One solution, which DC used for decades (and certain writers have reintroduced) is -- don’t everyone say it at once -- the Multiverse, in which there can be an infinite number of Supermen. Each of these can be the equal of his counterparts, because we can infer that each occupies the top slot on his universe’s org-chart.
Now, that is hardly an inappropriate place to stick Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s game-changing creation, the character from whom an entire genre sprung, and upon whom the fortunes of DC Comics, Inc., have most significantly depended. If the whole idea of a “Trinity” comes from these characters’ continuous survival, certainly Superman deserves to be the superhero line’s figurehead in both real-world and in-universe terms.
Problem is, though, Superman has some fairly conservative trappings. Superman’s heartland upbringing has been interpreted as consistently representing the establishment. Add the notion that being a figurehead means always being on your best behavior, and it makes Superman fairly boring. I said above that Superman can’t afford to be beaten consistently. In fact, Superman was beaten, famously and convincingly, by the aged Batman in The Dark Knight Falls. Not only did it boost Batman into DC’s driver’s seat, it showed that he -- and other DC characters -- could prosper by comparison. In the post-Crisis revamps which followed Dark Knight (chronologically if not entirely in the same spirit), George Pérez’s Wonder Woman could be more violent, the Wally West Flash could sleep around, and Green Lantern Guy Gardner could be a sexist jerk.
Eventually, in 1988's Superman vol. 2 #22, Superman betrayed his own ethical code and executed three Phantom Zone criminals. They had killed billions of people on an alternate Earth, and each of them was more powerful than the Man of Steel, so he told himself he had no choice ... and the resulting cognitive dissonance led first to a subconscious-driven vigilante identity, and then to his exile into deep space. There, weakened and trapped in the gladiator arenas of Warworld, and facing another life-or-death choice, he reaffirmed his core principles defiantly to Mongul: “My name is Superman ... and I don’t kill!”
And that gets us back to Superman’s ethics, instilled in him (in the modern conception, at least) by the Kents in Smallville. This part of the origin has been tweaked in various Elseworlds stories like Red Son, The Nail, and Speeding Bullets. Icon was raised in the American South as the son of a slave woman. In Marvel’s parody Supreme Power, black helicopters straight out of a conspiracy-theorist’s fever dream descend on the “Kent farm” and transplant the infant Hyperion into a highly-controlled government-run small-town simulacrum. More chilling than that, though, is Alan Brennert and Norm Breyfogle’s Batman tale Holy Terror -- in which the God-fearing Midwesterners treat the star-child as a hellspawn and turn him over eagerly to a theocratic government ready to test him literally to death.
While not all of these permutations turn out so tragically, the further the “Superman legend” gets from the Kents and Smallville, the less “ideal” it becomes. Moreover, because Superman is (for all practical purposes) infallible, the implication is that his formative years with the Kents must also have been ideal. Let’s amend that slightly: Superman and/or the Kents might be wrong from time to time, but only in the interpretation of their (shared) core values. Those values represent mutually-acceptable principles of fairness, justice, equality, etc. -- and again, the implication is that Superman might not have learned these principles under different circumstances. Note, however, that the Kents’ geographical location is not particularly significant. The legend doesn’t require Superman to have landed in Kansas (which I think was first suggested in the 1978 movie), or even in the United States -- but every main-line iteration of the Superman legend has the Kents imparting values which we think of as quintessentially “American.” Problem is, though, this idyllic setting risks becoming less and less relevant to a changing society. In fact, it risks being lumped in with xenophobic talk about “real America.” I suppose this is mitigated by the move to Metropolis (and such things as Clark's travels around the globe in Superman: Birthright and elsewhere), but by and large, the legend emphasizes Smallville.
What effect, then, does this all have on Superman's influence? I said above that Superman has some fairly conservative trappings. It’s fairly easy to undercut his ethical code by making him a gullible Big Blue Boy Scout, whether this means he’s an easily-led dupe (as in Dark Knight) or merely a relative innocent. Again, though, this tends to be in relation to other characters with darker sides, most notably his fellow Trinitarians (about which more later). Although he’s regularly cited as an inspirational figure, we don’t often get to see his leadership skills on display. Most recently he was a military commander in the “New Krypton” mega-arc, where he seemed at first to make a significant difference. Given how that all played out, though, I’m not sure how effective he was. Perhaps the best recent example of Super-leadership might be 2006's “Back In Action” arc,* which had Supes rally a rag-tag group of super-people against the extraterrestrial Auctioneer. (I didn’t read 2008's politically-oriented DC Universe: Decisions miniseries, but from what I’ve heard about Supes’ concluding speech it seems like I didn’t miss much.)
Still, if Superman is not an effective leader in practice, what does that say about his (and the Kents’) values? Among the Trinitarians, Wonder Woman contrasts particularly well with Superman. Where he downplays his Kryptonian heritage,** she is the Amazons’ ambassador and most visible advocate. Krypton is dead, and (occasional wipes-off-the-face-of-the-earth notwithstanding) Themyscira still lives. Superman wants to keep his ethics intact, while Wonder Woman is motivated by more practical concerns. Superman would have found a way to preserve Max Lord’s life ... and it’s precisely because Superman was incapacitated that Wonder Woman had to kill Max. Does that mean the Amazons’ philosophy is superior to the Kents’?
... it’s hard to say. In real-world terms, it means that DC feels like it can “do more” with Wonder Woman than it can with Superman. Supes’ “executioner” role earned him several months’ worth of super-vigilante and space-exile stories. Wonder Woman’s rehabilitation involved Amazons Attack, a Manhunter arc, and “disappearing” during the Year of 52. (Greg Rucka told a WonderCon 2010 panel that he would have done a lot more with Wonder Woman had he stayed on the book,*** but that’s academic now.) Arguably, that makes Wonder Woman’s actions more acceptable than Superman’s, because her rehab was less involved. More people might agree with Superman in theory, but the Amazonian ideal may therefore be more “successful” in terms of its implementation.
Indeed, because Superman’s ethics aren’t as immediately practical, they can be defined more broadly. I am a fairly liberal person, so to me the Kents come across as something like old hippies, teaching Clark peace, love, tolerance, and the importance of helping others. Friends of mine might see other aspects: that, because the Kents ran a farm in the middle of Kansas, they were rugged individualists who distrusted big government and emphasized personal responsibility. Truth, justice, and the American Way mean different things to different people -- none of whom DC especially wants to alienate.
So Superman becomes this bland, blank slate upon which a wide range of philosophies can be projected. It’s pretty much a necessity, because he has to be all things to all people -- “I’m for everyone,” as Geoff Johns had him say -- but at the same time it feels like an abdication. Superman doesn’t have to be demonstrably liberal or conservative. (Naturally, I’d prefer liberal, or at least open-minded, but I don't make the rules.) He doesn’t even need Green Arrow to point out the world’s social injustices.
What he needs, and what would be true to Siegel and Shuster’s social-crusader conception, is to be seen putting those ethics into practice, so that we readers can see why Batman and Wonder Woman and the rest of DC’s super-folk look up to him. There’s just as much room for Superman to stand up for the little guy as there is for him to take apart an alien armada. If that’s where J. Michael Straczynski is headed with his Superman work, more power to him. The characters at the top of DC’s hierarchy may never look like a cross-section of DC’s readership, but the one at the very top must at least represent the best in us all.
* [Action Comics #s 841-43, September-November 2006, written by Trinity’s Kurt Busiek and Fabian Nicieza and drawn by New Krypton’s Pete Woods]
** [At least, he downplayed it before he moved to New Krypton. I really want to see how he deals with it now that his new/old-home is gone.]
*** [“12 to 18 months’ worth,” as related in CBR's account.]