I have been reading comic books on and off since I was nine years old. While I have read a variety of comics here and there--Impulse and JLA in the 90s, trade paperbacks of Flash and Batman now (I'm a DC guy)--Superman has been the constant.
I think the way I feel about Superman is the way that many of those five or ten years younger than me feel about Harry Potter. They are the heroes of adventurous tales in which good triumphs over evil. The fact that these stories are works of fiction do not make them any less true. They are pieces of art (yes, even comic books can be art) and art has a way of speaking to us on a more visceral level. Of course, comics do not always speak to me this way just like a novel, movie, or piece of music might not speak to me. But when that conversation takes place, it's like I'm nine years old again.
(I should probably warn you that there are spoilers ahead)
The most recent issue of Superman reminded me why I still read these stories and why I am okay with my sons following in my footsteps. Superman #39 is a fairly quiet story. Written by Geoff Johns and with art by John Romita Jr., Klaus Janson, and Hi-Fi, the issue comes on the heels of a mini epic that culminated with two major developments. First, Superman discovered a new superpower that he cannot control and which leaves him powerless for 24 hours after it is deployed. Second, Clark Kent reveals his secret identity to his best friend Jimmy Olsen.
The issue follows a de-powered Clark and an uncertain Jimmy as they go through that 24 hour period. They talk about the ways in which each of them try to fit in with the world around them. When it's time to head back to work at The Daily Planet, Clark expresses embarrassment that he doesn't know how long it takes to walk back to the building because he usually flies.
Though he is without powers, Clark still tries his best to help those around him. He dives and catches a boy who fell out of a tree; gashing his elbow in the process. In the climactic scene, Clark as Superman talks down a gunman with a hostage as Jimmy worriedly looks on, the only one in the crowd knowing how dangerous this situation truly is. After Superman convinces the gunman to make the right choice and shakes his hand, he and Jimmy have this exchange.
Jimmy: He could've shot you.
Superman: He could have. But he didn't.
Jimmy: But he could have.
Superman: You think I only step in front of guns because I'm bulletproof?
And that's what made a good story become a story that I love. The best writers understand that what makes Superman is not that he's faster than a speeding bullet or more powerful than a locomotive. He simply tries to do the right thing even in the face of immense risk. It doesn't always work out. There are times when he fails, but he always keeps coming back to do the right thing. He doesn't step in front of guns because he's bulletproof. He steps in front of guns because he has the chance to help people. He would be Superman even if he didn't have the powers.
That is the thread that has spoken most deeply to me since I was nine years old and I hope it's the one on which my sons pick up as they watch their cartoons and play with their superheroes. It isn't really about the powers, the costumes, or the drama; as fun and entertaining as all of that is. It is about this never-ending story that at its best reminds us to be sacrificial, giving, brave, and kind.