1) Superman helps people.
2) Superman never gives up.
While pinning down that set of basic Blue Boy rules, Weldon also demonstrates that the best Superman stories reveal the Man of Steel's limits. I mean, ultimately, he's limitless -- that's been part of his appeal (and part of his "boring drip" cross to bear) for years. But Weldon points out that the grist for any good Superman story doesn't come from how Superman changes over the course of any given tale (as would be true of most compelling characters). The drive behind a good Superman story lies in however he chooses to confront and transcend limits.
That is the quote I'm missing, the thing about limits. That exact idea is something I've sensed for years, but haven't been able to express. Over and over again, I've been told by smart people that Superman is the worst, that he's all muscles and no conflict. But finally, Weldon arrived to make my argument for me. Superman embodies both weakness and strength, simply by fighting to make a difference. The twin pulls of finding things to surmount while admitting things look insurmountable is a basic facet of drama, and a large part of what makes Superman enjoyable for me.
But Weldon doesn't stop there. In a recent Robot 6 interview, he pointed out how kryptonite shapes the Metropolis Marvel. The rock did more than weaken Superman upon its introduction, he points out; it "was the means by which he learned who he was and where he came from, for the very first time. That was information the audience knew well, but not Superman himself. So this relic of the past, this thing that can kill you, is the thing that literally tells you who you are." That's a lot of identity-based symbolism to process, and there's a lot of story potential within that sort of identity definition, I'd say. Limits define Superman, and it's limits that he surpasses over and over. Perhaps that's why he captures the popular imagination so.
Keeping that kryptonite-fueled story engine in mind, I'd like to compile a short list of what I consider great, modern "Superman confronts limits" tales for skeptics. A list that shows how Superman's identity is entirely wrapped up in how he faces challenges, both in simple and complex ways. A list that proves he's worth any reader's time, if they're willing to meet him on his own optimistic, primarily plot-driven level. A list that proves there's something of a super-dude inside any workaday person's struggles. All we have to do is draw the parallels given to us.
Darwyn Cooke and Tim Sale set out to give kryptonite that sort of transformative, game-changing power again in their run on the short-lived Superman Confidential. Based on the first true introduction of the meteorite into comics, Cooke initially uses Superman's invulnerability to fuel his fear. Not knowing what can kill you, that'd drive you nuts, right? It'd make you hold the whole world at arm's length, even as you struggle to save it. I've written before about how genius I find this take on Superman and his worries, so I won't expound much more here, except to say that when Superman finally learns what can hurt him, what his physical limits are, it gives him the experience to approach Lois not as the massive, grand-standing Superman, but as the all-too-flawed Clark. Add to that conclusion a heartfelt examination of how family members understand and embrace one another's weaknesses, and well, you've got what I consider a classic, emotionally stunning Superman tale.
Superman For All Seasons
Superhero origin story structure dictates that when Clark Kent embraces his ability to save everyone and everything on the planet, that's the ball game. After rescuing folks from a Kansas tornado, he moves to Metropolis and begins defending the city as its Superman. Happily ever after, yes? Nope. Given that this book has four different narrators, and four different points of view, you can bet this ain't your average origin story. By pitting a young Clark against the Lex Luthor-introduced reality that he can't literally save everyone and everything on the planet, Loeb turns his superhero tale into a meditation on how people confront and conquer failure. Frankly, he transcends the genre entirely, by delivering a novel-like story set across the four seasons, with Jonathan Kent, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, and Lana Lang all separately, stubbornly defining Superman, thus creating a chorus that celebrates not just the fact that Superman saves the day, but HOW he saves it. See, even Superman can admit he's only one man. Luckily, he's also clear-headed enough to see that one man can do more good than could possibly be imagined, if he just tries.
Superman: Unconventional Warfare
Perhaps the most heartbreaking Superman panel I've ever read sits at the end of this volume, while Lois lies in the hospital, unconscious. Superman cradles Lois' hand in his two ham hock-sized ones. She's hooked up to machines, she can't hear him. Yet he vows to stay by her side, because it's the only thing he can do. "I'll never leave you," he promises. In that moment, he's just as helpless as any husband in the same situation, except you know his vow has more weight, because Superman always does what he can; he'll wait forever, literally. In fact, such dedication to his crusade is what puts Lois in danger in the first place. When confronted by a colleague about going into sniper fire, to save an injured soldier, Lois takes a moment before replying, "Clark would understand." Such an understanding, such attempts to do what they can, is what makes them the ultimate power couple in my eyes.
Superman: Up, Up, And Away!
I like that Busiek (and co-writer Geoff Johns, it should be mentioned) take time to build Clark's solo life, before getting the action going with robots and Lex and radioactive men. Being powerless finally gives him a sense of what it must be like to be fully human, and he cherishes the closer connection it gives him, with his wife, with his city, with the world around him. Without super hearing, he can focus on what's in front of him, so we understand the happy days he's sacrificing by leaving Lois to fight more crime. This may be the first story I know of to call super-senses a hindrance, and it's clear when Superman's hearing and x-ray vision come back, that he can't absorb everything all at once. So he can't snap into action. What he's fighting for is still unclear. Until Jimmy Olsen is threatened by a stray bullet. Only when someone he loves is in peril, can Superman truly become Superman, and beat a bullet to its target. Which lets the reader know that without his supporting cast, without people to love, Superman really has little to fight for.
I guess I can understand. It's hard to find a thoughtful Superman identity story out there. But guess what? THIS ONE IS THE BEST ONE OUT THERE, BAR NONE. Waid even manages to reverse the "Clark is the actual personality" mandate of the John Byrne era without driving me crazy. Essentially, he takes us through an adoption tale, where Clark ultimately gets to choose who he wants to be, based on the various backgrounds he cherishes.
He flies around in long-johns because people are scared of him when he performs super-feats as Clark, so he needs to disguise himself in plain sight, giving rise to his colorful costume, AND his nebbish in glasses. What Waid proves in this rip-roaring, Lenil Yu-drawn, gut-punching yarn, is this -- Kal-El may be the most powerful person on the planet, but if he doesn't have a persona or two to anchor him, he is lost. He can try to squeeze volcanoes shut all he wants, but if he doesn't have a sense of place about himself, he cannot function in the world of man. This is why he wraps himself in the S-shield, cleverly reconfigured here to act as Krypton's flag. He is an alien, and he accepts that. It is only in his bright red boots that he feels fully himself, fully able to unleash his abilities. All superhero stories are identity stories at their core; they're about the choosing of masks, and the taking off of masks. Here, Mark Waid subverts expectations and generates great fodder for a movie.
I know I'm missing out on a lot of material here, but when it comes to Superman and limits, these are the first books that jump to mind. I haven't even touched on what happens when Superman is confronted by the grim spectre of death; that's led to some pretty amazing work, too (All-Star Superman, anyone?). But I think I've made my point. Superman's limits are there, and they are worthily explored by many a writer and artist. Like Mr. Weldon, you just have to look hard enough to see the complexities in what started out as a pretty simple superhero idea. So. What are your favorite Superman stories? What kind of limits did you see in them, if any?