How Becoming a Dad Made Superman Relatable

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By Robert Starsmore
 
It’s one of the biggest clichés in comics fandom: he’s too powerful, he’s too much of a boy scout, he’s BORING. It probably comes down more to the old idiom that there are no bad characters, just bad writing, but it’s no secret the Superman books have been in a slump since well before the New 52. That’s not to say that I think those writers are bad, it’s simply that their take on the character didn’t work for me. So when DC decided to relaunch all their titles, what did they do to try and make Superman interesting again? They made Clark Kent a dad. 
 
Now, I should pause here to add the caveat that as a recent father myself, this colors a lot of why this relaunch has worked so well for me. If reading about a superhero parent doesn’t sound interesting to you, I promise the real reason why this series is succeeding is that writers Peter J. Tomasi and Patrick Gleason are telling really great stories. Superman is a character that comes with a lot of history, but all you need to know at the start of this series is that Superman (going by Clark Smith), is the survivor of the universe prior to the New 52 reboot. He’s been hiding out on the current earth, living a relatively quiet life with his family. However, when New 52 Superman is killed, the original Superman steps back into the red boots and cape to fill that vacuum. Jon Kent, Superman’s son, was created by Dan Jurgens and introduced in the Convergence and Lois and Clark miniseries prior to Rebirth. The Superman Rebirth one-shot does a good job of giving you enough info that you can jump into the series without knowing the full history. 
 
One of the great things about this series, and Rebirth as a whole, is that DC has really committed to telling fun stories with shorter arcs. Although the current series begins with a six issue storyline, it ended up being complete in 1-2 issue arcs. This has included a team up with Batman and Robin, a run in with Frankenstein, Agent of Shade and the super pulpy tribute to Darwyn Cooke, “Escape from Dinosaur Island.” The initial arc does a really good job of rooting Superman in his 90’s “Death of Superman” persona and building his place on this new world. Superman Rebirth has also benefited from one of the more consistently quality art teams, as the twice monthly shipping schedule has caused some books to have some less-than-stellar fill in artists. Superman’s stable of artists includes pencilers Patrick Gleason, Doug Mahnke and Jorge Jimenez, along with a bunch of robust inkers and colorists.
 
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While no series can survive without telling good stories, one issue remains: how do you challenge a character like Superman in a way that makes him relatable, while still making him vulnerable? When a character can’t be shot or stabbed, burnt or frozen, you have to make them relatable by giving them a scenario they can’t punch their way out of. This is why you get a lot of classic Superman villains like Lex Luthor, Brainiac and Mr. Mxyzptlk. Superman has to combat these villains by outthinking them, not overpowering them. This is the biggest reason Man of Steel didn’t work for me, Superman mindlessly punching the bad guy and destroying the city isn’t a very compelling take on the character. 
 
It’s certainly not a new trope in superhero comics to give the hero a family member they are worried about protecting, but the beauty of this new series’ premise is that Clark’s main concern isn’t about Jon’s physical wellbeing – Jon has super powers of his own and Clark seems to have no problem taking him on wacky adventures, or to Batman’s secret base on the moon. Lois and Clark know that their son is developing these new powers – trying to prevent him from using them would be futile. Superman is trying to make sure that he raises his son with good values so that he uses his powers for the betterment of mankind, and that’s where the real vulnerability of this character comes in. The conflict for Tomasi and Gleason’s Superman comes with trying to figure out how to relate to his son; how to teach him right from wrong; how to balance work and family. For any parent out there, these are immensely relatable issues. There’s a scene in the first issue where the family’s cat is grabbed by a hawk, and in an emotional outburst, Jon accidentally fry’s the hawk and the cat with his heat vision. Jon is ashamed and attempts to hide it from his dad, but we soon discover that Clark could smell the burnt ozone and already put together what happened. He doesn’t try to shame Jon or lash out at him in anger – accidents are going to happen, it’s a part of growing up. Instead, Clark uses the situation as a teaching moment as well as a chance to reassure his son that everything is going to be okay.
   
The standout issue of the run so far is #7, a relatively quiet issue about Clark taking his family to the County Fair. The issue begins with him spending all night helping the Justice League – followed by a beautiful shot of him sitting over Metropolis in reflection – quickly realizing that it’s morning and he need to go spend time with his family. There’s a robbery attempt at the fair, and Superman sneaks off to stop it, but the brilliant part is the foiling of the crime happens off panel. The focus of the issue is Clark and Lois spending time with their son, playing games with him, interacting with the locals and making sure they finish the night off by riding the roller coaster. This issue provides a perfect encapsulation of what works about this series for me. It shows Superman trying to fit in to this new world, trying to balance his career and his family and trying to show his son how to do the right thing.   


    One Comment

  1. Katie PeckhamFebruary 5th, 2017 at 8:53 am

    Great article. You made this mama who’s never taken an interest in any comic, interested in this one!

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