By David Goodwin
Every writer dreams of creating a character that will capture their reader's imagination and endure through time. When two young comic book writers came up with an idea for a new superhero in 1932, they could not have imagined that it would not only outlive them, but become part of culture itself.
One of the criticisms levelled at Superman is that he is a bit old fashioned.
As comics moved with the times we saw superheroes with shades of grey – 'anti-heroes' who were just as likely to kill or maim villains and criminals as they were to arrest them.
A character like Superman—upholding values of truth and justice, and adhering to a strict code of behaviour—seemed quaint in comparison, and decidedly uncool.
One of my favourite Superman writers is Elliot S. Maggin. A recurring idea in his stories is that there is a right and wrong in the universe and it really isn't that hard to tell the difference between the two.
As much as we argue about different cultures and relative versus objective truth, it is plain to me from the conversations I have with people around me that we all have a basic understanding of right and wrong.
So many times I hear the same comment, 'I don't really hold with that Church stuff, but I am a good person, I believe in God, I've never killed anyone, or steal stuff, or...'
Superman is faced with moral choices of vast significance but—even in the most complex of situations—it is plain to him what the right answer is.
When confronted with an issue without a simple answer we are easily tempted to compromise or talk about ends justifying means, as a way of abdicating our responsibility to make a choice. Superman looks past the peripheral issues and sees the heart of the matter, refusing to make excuses not to act.
Even though the fate of planets does not rest on my shoulders, I can still identify with Superman—every day I am presented with a thousand choices. While occasionally I might be faced with a complex scenario, usually it is not difficult for me to see which choice is right. The real question is: do my actions and words match the right choice?
Doing the right thing is not easy
A recent DC animated short, Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam, features Billy Batson, a young orphan living in poverty, who always tries to do right by others even when it puts him in danger.
Billy is granted magical powers and is able to transform into the superhero Captain Marvel and, together with Superman, battle the evil Black Adam. After much destruction and seeing Superman apparently killed, Captain Marvel has Black Adam at his mercy and is tempted to finish him once and for all. But in a wonderful speech Superman tells him that, 'doing the right thing is not easy', and if it was everyone would simply do it.
This really spoke to me, because working out the right thing isn't that hard, but actually doing it can be another thing entirely.
The path of least resistance is usually the wrong thing to do, which hardly seems fair. The lesson I take from Superman is this: we do the right thing because it is the right thing, and therefore worth doing—not because it is easy.
We need heroes
It is easy for us to sneer at comics and treat them as if they are childish with little to teach us about life. But they are full of truths that can speak to us all, whatever our age.
We need heroes who inspire us to believe in something bigger than ourselves, and make us want to be better. And the greatest heroes share their virtues of truth, sincerity and sacrifice with the Lord Jesus Christ, who laid down His life so that we might live with Him forever. •
David Goodwin is the former Editor of The Salvation Army’s magazine, On Fire.
He is a freelance writer, and an unapologetic geek.