Imaginary Story: Superman Adventures #6-13

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Most of the Superman Adventures issues which coincide with the 1997 portion of the second season of Superman: The Animated Seriesform a loose arc; #13, however, is a standalone story called “Grand Slam” about a plot by never-before-seen aliens to kill Superman and destroy the Earth by tricking him into winning a competition they made up. The story is essentially nonsense that exists solely to set up a scenario where Professor Emil Hamilton must hit a small round object with a technologically enhanced alien bat to save the world.

The arc is far more interesting. It begins with “Soenimod,” an odd scheme by Mr. Mxyzptlk, in which he transports Superman to the aftermath of a disaster that destroys much of Metropolis and kills presumably millions, including Lois. She is let back out of the fridge a few panels later when it becomes clear that Superman and Mxyzptlk are moving backwards in time, essentially watching the world rewind. This of course makes it easy for Superman to trick Mxyzptlk into saying his name backwards–he just has to get him to say it normally, and since they’re going backwards in time, that counts. It’s a clever solution to the Mxyzptlk puzzle, and the backwards gimmick allows Superman to figure out a way to avert the disaster even after his powers are sapped by kryptonite.

The next two issues comprise a two-part story, “All Creatures Great and Small.” Together with issue #9, “Return of the Hero,” and #10, “Don’t Try This At Home,” they explore the limitations of heroism: the idea that heroes can make mistakes, and how the public responds to them. “All Creatures Great and Small” is the weakest of these; it brings back Mala and Jax-Ur with the excuse that the Phantom Zone is “cruel and unusual punishment.” Superman insists that while their imprisonment there was just under the laws of Krypton, it is not acceptable according to his own values (internalized from the supposed, and on rare occasions half-heartedly followed, principles underlying the American system of criminal law). Superman pulls them out of the Phantom Zone, then Hamilton uses a shrink ray on them, and they are locked away from yellow sunlight so they cannot use their powers.

Of course, a few pages in they escape, and we get miniature villains with the powers of Superman. Superman of course shrinks as well, so they can have the same kind of battle Superman typically does against his more physically powerful villains in the streets of Metropolis, but instead of the collateral damage destroying buildings and tearing up sidewalks, it breaks Lois’ coffee table and smashes her vase. It’s a cute conceit, and rather telling that when it’s Lois’ personal property being destroyed, she’s a lot more upset about it than when it’s someone else’s home or communal city property. She’ll happily go on a crusade to defend others, and she cares about harm to the city–she’s not Lex Luthor by any means–but she’s still more worried about the harm to her apartment than she was in “Blasts from the Past” when Jax-Ur and Mala brought the planet to its knees.

The point is that this is a story about Superman failing–he overestimates his ability to keep them contained, and as a result they wreak yet more havoc. Between this and him being nearly killed by kryptonite exposure from random terrorists-without-a-cause, he is clearly slipping.

The next two stories are thus about heroes being knocked off their pedestals.  In the first, a young boy living in poverty idolizes Lex Luthor as  a rags-to-riches story. Of course Luthor achieved this the same way as the other handful of people who’ve ever done it: using the people around him as a ladder, then pulling that ladder up behind him once he was on top. Nobody gets rich except through exploitation, and in this case, part of that exploitation was framing the boy’s own father. Luthor makes an uncharacteristic mistake–trusting an underling without having someone double-check their work–that results in the boy recognizing his true colors, and the boy rejects him as a hero. In the second, Toyman attempts to use Superman toys to rob families who buy them, turning their children against Superman; this fails largely because a bizarre “mad bomber” character blows up his Superman robot, so children know pretty much from the start that their hero hasn’t turned against them.

In the final story of the arc, the two-parter “The War Within,” Superman is increasingly perceived by the public as “slacking off.” Lois in particular tears into him for rescuing people from a collapsing building, but not doing anything about the corrupt politicians and contractors that allowed an inhabited building to decay that far. His argument is one that gets to the heart of the problematic nature of superheroes: “there are institutions to deal with that.” On the one hand, he is saying to trust in the established structures of power–which is to say, let the Luthors of the world run things and hope a Superman shows up to save you when the roof caves in.  At the same time, if he did take it upon himself to root out that corruption, the story would in essence be about a superior, singular man acting as the focus and expression of the will of the people to take the reigns of power, which is to say typical fascist rhetoric.

More interesting is the reason for his “slacking off”: he is gradually weakening due to a Kryptonian virus carried in the lump of kryptonite the terrorists used against him in “Seonimod,” a virus which will eventually kill him if Lois and a team of scientists led by Hamilton cannot extract the cure from the middle of an Eastern European civil war.

In an aside comment in that story, when Superman is searching for the cause of the disaster, Mxyzptlk declares that there is only one cause for everything, the Big Bang. And that is true according to the best available current physics; literally everything that has ever happened was caused by something that was caused by something that… back to the Big Bang. But every event observed by Superman in the story has an immediately preceding cause–the plane crash caused by the oversight in maintenance caused by the distracted sergeant caused by the bystander to the traffic jam calling him caused by the sergeant’s wife giving birth in the traffic jam caused by the traffic jam caused by the car accident caused by the boy running into traffic caused by the other boy’s throw going wild caused by the clock tower exploding caused by the detonation of the bomb set by the terrorists caused by Superman’s failure to stop them in time.

And the detonation of the bomb set by the terrorists was also caused by the terrorists setting it off. And also caused by whatever political ideology they were following. And also caused by the Big Bang. And…

Nothing has just one cause. Superman’s infection with the virus is as much Mxyzptlk (for sending Superman back to try again) or Brainiac’s doing (for covering up the impending destruction of Krypton) as the terrorists’. And, too, while the public rejection of Superman is initially blamed on the mass-media hype cycle, and later on the virus killing him, these causes do not contradict each other. As Superman told the boy that worshiped Luthor, heroes make mistakes; it’s okay to take on the things about them that are admirable while rejecting the things that aren’t.

Which is another way of saying that heroes in themselves are a bad idea, but admiring and imitating heroic qualities may not be, at least as long as we define “heroic” correctly. Luthor is in part a bad choice because he describes a rather pop-Nietzschean approach to heroic virtues that lionizes power, will, and the lack of compassion. All things that we have called out and criticized in heroes and villains alike throughout this series, along with similarly false, dangerous virtues like respect for authority and tradition.

But there are virtues to be found everywhere. Superman’s compassion, Batman’s empathy; as problematic as the characters are, because all characters are problematic, these are positive traits that could be emulated.

So is that our answer? Are we finished early, with a simple solution, that we just need to put together the positive traits and create an unproblematic superhero?

Of course not. And to see why, we need only consider the revolution…

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