Monday, March 19, 2007

The Problem of Pain in the DC Universe

I've been thinking lately about Superman and the Problem of Pain in the DC Universe.

Since Superman's inception he has gotten progressively more powerful. In his very first incarnation, Superman was able to lift a car over his head, run at great speeds, leap 1/8 of a mile, and had skin so tough it could not be pierced by anything short of an exploding artillery shell.

As time passed, he got stronger, tougher, faster, gained the ability to fly, x-ray vision, heat vision, super hearing, super breath, etc.

Superman's powers expanded as his enemies became more viscious, as his stories became more epic, and as writers got, frankly, a little carried away. But as Superman became more powerful, it forced the DC Universe to cope more and more with the theological problem of pain.

If Superman has super speed and super hearing, then how--within the fictional DC Universe of which Superman is the preeminant hero--can the ordinary citizens explain any suffering? How can Superman justify going on a date with Lois? How, within the DC Universe, does any crime or any natural disaster, or any accident ever hurt anyone? How does anyone die of any cause other than old age?

As Superman becomes more powerful, it becomes more and more difficult for the writers to avoid the problem of pain.

Apparently, writer Kurt Busiek has been thinking along the same lines. Busiek, who made a name for himself with Astro City, is quite simply one of the best writers of superhero stories out there today. He writes superheros as legends, uses their iconic status to tell fables that are often disarmingly moving. In the February issue of Superman he tells a simple story whose predictable ending, does not make it any less powerful. As Gabriel Mckee at sfgospel says "we can pretty much see where the story is headed from the beginning, but this foreknowledge simply fills it with the power of fable and parable. This story does everything that a Superman story should do, using the character's iconic status to tell a moving story about power and faith." An old woman in Metropolis becomes convinced that Superman is an angel, God's agent who comes when she prays. Superman's super hearing means that he can hear her prayers, and can respond. It's a story that needed to be told, and that deals surprisingly well with the theology of suffering. Again, I'll quote Gabriel Mckee: "If you buy only one Superman comic this year, make sure it's this one. "

Thanks to Elliot for pointing it out to me.

1 comment:

Elliot said...

Ian's pointed out another take on the Superman-evil-and-goodness problem here: