He's able to fly above us but chooses to walk among us - human nature is an inspiration. We just have to SEE what he sees. -- "Smallville" and comics scribe Bryan Q. Miller, via Twitter
Sure, you've always represented adolescent power fantasies, and you've always had an over-developed sense of fairness and justice. You've often fought on behalf of the little guy, while also being accused of fascism by commentators who sought to destroy you. But what changes about you from generation to generation is WHO you actually are behind the cape. From 1938 until 1986, Superman was the reality and Clark Kent was the myth. From 1986 until 2011's New 52, Clark was the reality and Superman was the myth Clark used to work good in the world. In either scenario (though I much prefer Clark or immigrant Kal-El as the foregrounded personality), what matters often is the revelation of the true persona, or even more impressive, the hiding of that persona. Superman's creators knew what they were doing when they gave Superman a double identity, and it is that double identity -- along with the love of a good woman -- that gives Superman his vulnerability, his complexity, his relatability, and his wicked, wicked fun.
Many of the places I go to read about comics and culture have spent this week blogging about what you mean to them. The above quote by Bryan Q. Miller pretty much sums up how I feel about you, Man of Steel. Human nature is the inspiration for your Clark Kent clumsiness, and it's human desire that lies at the heart of your intoxicating abilities. Not only does your guise as Clark Kent allow us mere mortals to envision ourselves in your bright red boots (once you don them for action), your work as Superman is aspirational. You can represent the best, most compassionate and striving version of humanity, best typified in this wonderful series of panels from Grant Morrison's All-Star Superman. But that's not why I am fascinated by you, why I feel I personally relate to you, despite my being a woman, and the common, insistent claims out there that you have no personality and are as boring as dirt.
I have to admit many of your elements over the years have been problematic. You've been a bully, you've been square and patriachial, and you've been The Man holding down Lois Lane by secretly laughing at her not figuring out your secret (starting early and often in the comics). All this to say, I look at you with clear eyes. I know all these things about you, and I can still see what's powerful about you at the core. It's not flight or super-strength or super-hearing (natch). It's because I live with a secret identity every day.
I have a disability, but it's not a visible one. Most people who meet me don't know I'm hearing-impaired until I finally announce it. I've been told by a multitude of colleagues that they didn't know about my handicap for a good year after meeting me. This isn't necessarily something I hide on purpose. It's a part of my life; I can't say I forget about it on a daily basis. But after waking up in the morning, I put my hearing aid on, same as anybody who wears glasses or contacts would put those on to function in the light of day.
But your sly Clark Kent wink at the audience, I recognize it. Because the advantage of not having a see-all, be-all disability is that I know something others don't; I know I'm technically less functional, but no one else does, and that gives me a feeling of power. All people see is my successful walk through the world; they don't see the hundreds of little foibles I endure without my hearing aid, or when I struggle over the phone, or the way I have to position myself in a room so I can hear everyone in it. Others don't see the work, so to them, it doesn't exist. To them, I'm normal, much like you are normal as Clark. And when I tell them about my disability, I get to impress people in retrospect, much like when readers get to see you jump into action.
Like you, I get power from a secret. In the Golden and Silver Ages of comics, you got satisfaction from duping others into thinking you were a weakling, not worth noticing. In the Bronze Age, you hid happily with Lois in the classic story, "Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?". In the Modern Age, however, things changed. Authors needed a reason for you to court Lois as Clark, and so it became important for that side of your personality win her over first. So telling her about your secret life as Superman became a major point of vulnerability for you. In fact, in all Ages, revealing your alter ego always has a cost, whether it be to your love affairs or your civic duty.
And I understand that, too. Because announcing your secret leaves you open to judgment or exposure. It takes away your advantage, and who would think anyone could gain ground over you, Supes? But it's possible. And not because of kryptonite, but because of human insecurity and need. While Batman may one-up you in terms of psychological torment, your ability to show humanity both its largest triumphs and its deepest woes, simply through the putting on or taking off of a pair of glasses -- well, that justifies more than 75 years of narrative work to me. And the fact that you consistently announce yourself as Superman, or as Clark, and go about the business of pursuing a story, or squashing an alien invasion? That just gives me hope to live my life as openly as possible, without worry, and with courage that I will be understood. Thanks for the example, same as always, Superman!
POST-SCRPT: And if you haven't watched this yet, give her a go right this minute: