Brian Michael Bendis Brian Michael Bendis
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Everyone knows Superman. 

He soars through the air in those red and blue tights, an “S” emblazoned on his muscled chest and a cape billowing behind. As the Man of Steel, he flicks bullets away. He speeds faster than locomotives. He wallops, kabooms and pows the bad guys. He stands before the rippling red, white and blue as the last son of Krypton and the defender of truth, justice and the American way.

As pre-phone booth Clark Kent, he masquerades as an everyday man. Still tall and handsome but somewhat diminished, our mild-mannered hero wears glasses and a tidy suit as a reporter at the Daily Planet. An empowerment fantasy given body, he lives our best instincts and finest ideals. 

As Clevelanders, we know Superman better than most. The creation of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two Jewish high school students from Glenville, Superman is also one of us. So we tell others (incorrectly) that the art deco AT&T Huron Road Building is the model for Metropolis’ Daily Planet. And you’ve probably even driven past the unassuming house on Glenville’s Kimberly Avenue, with the verdant front lawn and commemorative plaques on the fence, marking where Siegel grew up.

Even for someone like me, who has two Superman posters hanging in my living room, that just about covers it. After 80 years, Superman’s identity seems cast in steel. He does not grow or change or fail. He is immune even to death. He is stuck perpetually at the end of the hero’s journey. 

Familiarity is his strength, and his cultural kryptonite. In a moment when every presidential tweet prompts, by design, fresh avalanches of outrage, The Atlantic asks “Is Democracy Dying” and the American way seems to be division and anger, could an octogenarian Boy Scout in tights have anything interesting to say? 

In times of crisis, people gravitate toward Superman’s foil Batman, says Brad Ricca, Case Western Reserve University lecturer and author of the Siegel and Shuster biography Super Boys. Superman’s popularity dips when we need him most. Even an unscientific Google Trends comparison shows Batman has been more than twice as popular as the Man of Steel in searches over the last 12 months. Fear, Batman’s grisly instrument, resonates louder now than hope. 

“Superman is more relevant,” Ricca says. “But we’re not listening to him.”

That’s why I traveled to Cartoon Crossroads Columbus to meet Brian Michael Bendis, one of the highest-profile writers in the world of comics. If you don’t know his name, you doubtlessly recognize the native Clevelander’s works. Over a professional career spanning almost 30 years, he has created iconic characters, such as reluctant superhero turned private eye Jessica Jones and the new Spider-Man, Miles Morales, star of an animated film out Dec. 14. 

Bendis has written for Marvel Comics for most of his career. But last November, in a much-publicized move, he left for DC Comics. As part of the deal, Bendis could choose to write virtually any character he wanted. 

Most expected him to select the moody, of-the-times Batman. But Bendis decided on Superman, the cheery hometown hero during his 80th anniversary year, at a time when his governing ideals of truth, justice and the American way are being questioned anew.

“These things are under siege,” Bendis told The New York Times, for a story about taking on the character. “This is the world we live in. These are not absolute things anymore. These are things worth fighting for.” 

As Bendis emerges onstage at the Columbus College of Art and Design, the auditorium full of comics industry types — writers, cartoonists and art school students — cheer for him at full-bore. At 51, he wears a leather coat and jeans, and relishes the opportunity to crack jokes about his bald head. 

Bendis spends most of the evening dancing around Superman, offering little about the tensions in his ongoing storylines in Superman and Action Comics, or the miniseries Man of Steel, which ended in July. But later, during a question and answer session, he unmasks a little narrative trick that reveals a lot about where Superman might be headed.

“You take your character and you put them in the place they least want to be,” Bendis says. “What is the scariest thing you could do to that character?”

* * *

A week or so after Cartoon Crossroads, I call Bendis in Portland, Oregon, where he lives with his wife, four children, two dogs and a saltwater tank teeming with clownfish. 

He is winding down from a whirlwind schedule of signings and panels at New York Comic Con. But Superman is on his mind; he has to write a script that night.

When some of his closest friends, fellow comic book writers, heard he was going to write Superman, they were confused, Bendis tells me. Superman seems so distant, so powerful. “They’d say, ‘Is there anything to relate to?’ ” he says. “And I’m like, ‘What?’ ”

Previous Superman writers such as Dan Jurgens, Bendis says, have honed Superman’s everyman sensibility. In the early parts of the six-issue Man of Steel miniseries, Bendis draws on that legacy. Superman’s life is surprisingly normal. Clark and Lois Lane are married, a holdover from Jurgens. They toil away at their Daily Planet jobs and have a preteen son, Jonathan. Superman spends his time defeating oddball, workaday villains like the Toyman. Jor-El, Superman’s biological father, is even alive. 

But Bendis has been slowly yanking up Superman’s anchors. He places the Man of Steel in situations that test everything he holds dear: his family relationships, his Kryptonian origin story, his mission as Superman and his day job at the Daily Planet. 

Superman’s happy world is skidding toward uncertainty. He is, like so many of us, being shoved out to sea.

“What this character wants is to save everyone, to make the world good for everyone,” says Glen Weldon, author of Superman: The Unauthorized Biography. “The only way you tell a halfway decent Superman story is to deny him what he wants.”

Bendis starts with Superman’s family. In the culminating scene of Man of Steel, Jor-El materializes in the Kents’ kitchen in a spaceship. Jor-El wants to take Jonathan on an intergalactic jaunt to train as his “Kryptonian heir.” Lois wants to go along, leaving Clark heavy with loneliness. He clutches Jon’s toys, bereft. Jor-El’s dismissive parting words rattle in Superman’s ears. “I can raise my boy, father,” he tells Jor-El. “To do what?” Jor-El replies. “Put out fires in his baby clothes?” 

Superman’s father seems to think of his mission to defend humanity, to save people, with disdain. In Jor-El’s eyes, Jon need not follow in Superman’s footsteps.

“The gift that was given to me was bringing back his father, a father he can’t relate to and a father that may actually be disappointed in what Clark has done so far,” says Bendis. “That is oooooh so relatable.”

Bendis doesn’t hesitate to shake Clark’s foundations at work too. In a manner ripped straight from the headlines, the Daily Planet is in trouble and in the hands of a new, anonymous owner. 

Supposedly unflappable editor Perry White is fraying with worry when Clark finds him hunched despairingly over his desk. “I’m being slowly bled to death, Kent,” the bedraggled editor sighs. 

Then, in Action Comics, Bendis also alters the dynamic for Lois and Clark. Lois returns to Earth from her trip with Jor-El without Jon. She has not told Superman, however, and holes up in a hotel to work on a tell-all book. One night, she goes out for a burger (no pickles) wearing a wig, presumably to hide from Superman’s all-seeing vision. Of course, he discovers her.

To top off an already-bubbling thematic stew, Bendis has created a new villain, Rogol Zaar, who claims Krypton was not actually destroyed in a natural disaster, as Superman believed. Instead, Zaar boasts that he blew up the planet in an act of genocidal terrorism and has come to Earth to finish the job — by killing Superman. 

The plotlines toy with the idea of Superman’s importance to those around him, Bendis tells me. People pay Superman and his ideals little attention. They belittle him and his mission, go off in pursuit of their own path or seek to destroy him solely on the basis of his race. He is present, but not truly recognized. He must fight for relevance.

“People [are] kind of asking Clark the question: ‘Are you doing enough?’ ” Bendis says. “Whatever our world is, you can’t help but look and go, ‘Am I doing the most with what I have?’ ”

When Bendis was 6 years old, he got up at the Passover table like a plump little Babe Ruth and called his shot: He was going to draw Spider-Man. 

Oddly, Bendis’ path parallels that of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel. Bendis grew up in University Heights, where Siegel lived after moving out of Glenville. Bendis’ parents divorced when he was young; Siegel’s father died during a robbery in Siegel’s youth. His mother’s job in publishing meant they had little money, like Siegel. And, like Siegel and Shuster, Bendis was infatuated with the pulpiest literature available — comics.

“The draw is story,” Bendis says. ”When you’re young, your hero is the hero of the story itself. But as you get older, you start to realize your hero is the person who wrote it.” 

Bendis wanted what every kid wants: to be a hero. So he applied to the Cleveland Institute of Art. 

He got his start while still in school. Bendis’ earliest successes were crime comics for independent presses, many of them set on the streets of Cleveland. Bendis wrote what he saw riding his bicycle throughout the city and heard as he worked at Super City Comics in the Arcade. 

That’s where Michael Sangiacomo, a Plain Dealer reporter and writer of the Journey Into Comics column, first met Bendis. They became friends. 

“He was stealing as many comics as he could, slacking off most of the time, reading books and drawing,” says Sangiacomo. “He had the greatest job in the world. He’d just sit there, draw and take comics.” 

In the early days, Bendis used himself and his friends as models for his work, posing them for photographs in real-life settings that he then drew. A.K.A. Goldfish was about a con man, modeled on his librarian friend John Skrtic. Based on a gun-toting woman he met at a Cleveland coffee shop, Jinx told the story of a Cleveland bounty hunter named Jinx Alameda and featured Bendis’ stand-in as a no-good two-timer named Columbia. 

Cleveland factored into Bendis’ later work too, such as a fictionalized version of Eliot Ness chasing the torso murderer in a graphic novel called Torso. In United States of Murder Inc., a graphic novel about a young Mafioso, Bendis even named a crime family after Sangiacomo.

Inspired by the plays of David Mamet and the novels of Richard Price, Bendis gravitated toward rat-a-tat dialogue that often draws comparisons to Aaron Sorkin. He also illustrated some of his own work and wasn’t afraid to cleave with comics convention. 

In several spreads of Torso, which Bendis wrote and penciled, the panels tumble down the page like a falling stack of cards, forcing the reader to turn the book vertically to keep reading. In another, as Eliot Ness questions a suspect, the panels spiral inward. The reader must turn the book round and round, mirroring the experience of the interrogation.

“I took big swings, and I like that those things are what people remember,” Bendis says. “That’s what got me to Marvel.”

On the side, Bendis contributed illustrations to The Plain Dealer Sunday magazine and to Cleveland Magazine. With stories and work keeping Bendis busy into the nighttime hours, he had trouble dragging himself to an 8:30 a.m. art history class. A few electives short, he never finished the degree. 

“School seemed to be actually getting in the way,” Bendis says. “So I just stopped and started making my comics, continuing my education and journey on my own.”

Bendis’ break into the comics mainstream came in 2000, when he started writing Ultimate Spider-Man and Daredevil for Marvel Comics, which was clawing its way back from bankruptcy. His rise paralleled Marvel’s resurgence, as he took a turn writing what seems like every character in the Marvel universe: X-Men, Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Iron Man. He created his own characters too, like the iconic Jessica Jones.

But his 2011 breakout was Miles Morales, the new kid behind Spider-Man’s mask. Half-black and half-Latino, Morales had to navigate not just the life of a young person with extraordinary powers, but the reality of doing so with dark skin. 

The character set off a media firestorm. Glenn Beck criticized the change on his radio show, which led to a Bendis appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers. But most of the response Bendis received directly, he says, was positive.

Bendis had a similarly affirmational experience with Superman. DC Comics had already offered him the opportunity to write any marquee character when Bendis traveled to Cleveland for his brother Jared’s wedding last October. 

Skrtic, now the director of public services at the Cleveland Public Library, had been bugging Bendis about creating a living archive of his work at CPL, but also insisted he check out the library’s Superman: From Cleveland to Krypton exhibit. So Bendis stopped by.

Bendis posted a short video of his visit on YouTube. He wanders wordlessly among the comics in glass cases, checks out the excerpts from the Superman movies and weaves around the David Deming statue of Superman in flight. 

“Profound” is how Bendis describes the experience to me. Here was Superman, in the place he used to hang out when he first started making comics, right across the street from the Arcade where he used to work. It all seemed like a flashing cosmic sign. 

“I was like, ‘OK, God,’ ” Bendis recalls. “I get it.”

* * *

Superman embodies truth, justice and the American way, but he loathes politics. When Americans start fighting over their ideals, Superman often steps into the background. 

“He represents the America that we want to be,” says Weldon. “Not necessarily the America we are.” 

But Superman was not always so circumspect. At his creation, in fact, Siegel and Shuster’s pre-war Superman was a New Dealer gone militant, a vigilante. 

In 1938’s genre-defining Action Comics No. 1, Superman breaks into the governor’s mansion to stop an unjust execution. He scares the wits out of a scummy domestic abuser, whose knife shatters on Superman’s unbreakable skin. He weenies out of rescuing Lois Lane from some gruff gangsters as Clark Kent, then swoops in as Superman to save her. Then he uses his ability to leap over a building in a single bound to terrify a lobbyist who has been corrupting politicians. 

“He was a progressive icon. He went after corporate fat cats, crooked government folks, people who sold slot machines in stores, reckless drivers,” says Weldon. “Basically, the title he got, long before ‘Man of Steel,’ long before ‘Man of Tomorrow,’ that is introduced in the very first issue, is ‘Champion of the Oppressed.’ ”

But World War II, an existential threat to democracy, changed everything for Superman. Fighting in the war himself would have stretched his fiction to breaking. Instead, Superman reveled in symbolic gestures of support. He planted victory gardens, broke up spy rings and appeared on the cover of his comics with servicemen. Superman became a symbol of the system he once bucked. 

The best any modern Superman can hope for, then, is to demonstrate the enduring importance of the ideals for which he fights but refrain from defining them, or risk writing off decades of history. 

At times, that makes Superman a boring character, a hopeless square. He is a constant, so we take him for granted. But when the ideals Superman represents, and thus Superman himself, are under attack, he can roar. The question is how loud.

In 2000 and 2001, around the time of the George W. Bush vs. Al Gore campaign, Superman confronted the prescient oddity of archnemesis Lex Luthor winning the presidency. DC Comics reissued the story this year, featuring a cover portrait of Lex Luthor styled like Donald Trump on the The Art of the Deal. 

At Luthor’s inauguration, a super-villainous terrorist named Earthquake attacks. Superman swoops in to save President Luthor and defeat Earthquake, who burrows back into the ground, crying, “Fools! Fools!! I didn’t come to battle any of you! I came to destroy the man we all agree is evil!” 

But that would not be Superman’s way. 

Later, Superman and Batman team up to fight Luthor. “If I am guilty of one mistake, it was putting my faith in the American public not to vote for him. The world will never know how I struggled with the decision to stay out of the electoral process,” Superman muses. “Should I have gone on television and told the voters not to elect this man? And what then?” 

Telling Americans how to vote, how to define their ideals, would be antithetical to Superman’s code, even if he believes their choice was a mistake. This is Superman’s delicate balance: He must model good behavior, without making moral judgments.

Eventually, Superman and Batman use a kind of journalism to change public opinion: They broadcast Luthor’s my-evil-plan confession to televisions around the world during a very comic-y final battle. 

Turns out, Luthor had been conspiring with Darkseid all along. 

“I choose to fight for Truth, Justice and The American Way,” Superman thinks, as he punches Luthor into oblivion. “And for all its flaws, American democracy does work. That’s not just something I learned growing up on a farm in Kansas. That’s been my life.”

Batman and Superman effectively impeach Luthor with evidence of his misdeeds. But they intend to let the people decide the validity of Luthor’s presidency.

“The United States doesn’t need me to dictate, or worse, deprive her people of that most precious gift,” Superman thinks to himself. “The freedom of choice.”

As with every Superman writer, Bendis must wrestle with a character who lives such statements. Superman is not to be bent to anyone’s political ends. But, as Bendis writes him, Superman also won’t allow his ideals or his person to be abused. He is a reticent warrior, but a warrior nonetheless.

In Bendis’ Superman No. 1, Superman meets with the Martian Manhunter, J’Onn, for a conversation. J’Onn tells his Justice League teammate that it’s time he do more. Superman should step up as a world leader and speak a certain truth that the way the world works now, with wars and money and borders, is “garbage.” 

“Could it be that the only thing the world needs more than Superman is a Superman who is actively leading the world into its future?” J’Onn says. “A Superman who is ready to take this great civilization to the stars?”

Superman’s face softens into a half-smile: “Lead the world?”

“Take over all of it and set it toward a future in which hope isn’t just an ideal, but a—” says J’Onn.

Superman’s eyes narrow and flick suddenly to J’Onn’s face. His eyebrows furrow. He frowns angrily: “Take?”

Bendis has shown what would happen if Superman were to use his power to put his ideals into practice — corruption, dictatorship and, ultimately, fear. 

Superman uses his power sparingly, and only in service to the common good. He knows better than to use it to his own ends, even if he thinks them noble. Superman shows that truth, justice and the American way matter, but he would never try to reshape the world in their image. 

He sets a humble example. He waits for us to do it for him, if we so choose. 

Maybe that is brave. Maybe it is cowardly. But it is Superman’s way.

Writing that moment was special, Bendis says. “I got excited about it because it was one of the very first times where Superman himself was having the conversation for me,” Bendis says. “His morality was in the forefront of how I was reacting to the conversation, not mine.” 

Bendis arrived at a truth about Superman, the quiet radical. 

“Clark has a line in the sand,” Bendis says. “And that was it.”

Bendis started his Superman writing process with a seven-page manifesto outlining his big-picture view of the character. Key to that picture, Bendis says is “relatability.” 

In Action Comics, Superman reunites with Lois in her hotel room after she returns from Jor-El’s space journey. Twisted in bed with Clark, Lois reveals her secret: She wants something different. Not a breakup, but a more modern relationship, less tied down. 

“I was on my way back thinking about all of this and then I thought: If I’m running around and he’s running around and normal doesn’t apply, why are we fighting the tide,” Lois says to Clark. 

“But I want things to be normal,” Clark replies.

Nonetheless, Clark seems to acquiesce. Back at work after their talk, Clark ducks into a supply closet at the Daily Planet. He tears his shirt asunder, revealing his Superman crest. But he pauses in the darkness and slumps onto a box, stooping and half-changed. His glasses, his only disguise, dangle from his hand. Superman is dumbfounded, stuck between worlds and identities.

Lois is Clark’s role model. She is worldy and savvy and probably reads The New Yorker, all the things Clark couldn’t have picked up on a Kansas farm. “He’s trying to be her!” Bendis explains. “That’s his goal.” 

But Clark was happy with their normal, a version of the happy Kansan lifestyle of his childhood. Lois’ desire to modernize their little slice of middle America makes Clark uneasy. But he loves and idolizes her. So Clark follows Lois reluctantly into this new world. 

Away from Superman’s home life, Bendis seeks to reinvent the bedrock of Superman’s history, injecting modern themes into his Kryptonian origin story. When we first meet Bendis’ Superman in Action Comics No. 1000, released in June 2018, his past and his body are being battered and bashed. Neck extended at an unnatural angle from the powerful punch of an unseen foe, the Man of Steel karooms through Metropolis, his body skipping across concrete like a stone on water. He comes to rest in a smashed restaurant. 

Outside, a fiery blast erupts. A figure leaps from the dust and fire, carrying a massive ax, clawing for Superman. Its face looks burnt by acid, flesh ragged around a line of evil-looking teeth. One of its eyes gleams red, the other blue: “KRYPTONIAN!!” calls Rogol Zaar. 

“I cleansed the galaxy of the Kryptonian plague. And I am here to finish the job!” Zaar screams, after a struggle. “Your bloodline must end. Once and for all.”

Superman has always been an immigrant, even a refugee. But Bendis has placed him also among the last survivors of Zaar’s supposed genocide. 

Zaar doesn’t care about Superman’s mission. The most powerful villain to face the Man of Steel in a long time sees only Superman’s race — a Kryptonian to be cleansed. 

In the Dec. 12 and Jan. 16 issues of Superman, Superman must root out the truth with the help of Supergirl and the Justice League, and right the Kryptonian genocide in 2019.

Meanwhile, in Action Comics, Bendis has revealed a new, not-at-all-super man made into a hero by circumstance — Clark Kent. As every day the term “fake news” is applied to inconvenient fact and the press are labeled “enemies of the people,” a crusading Kent grabs the livewire question of how truth is defined in American public life. 

To make Kent and the Daily Planet come to life, Bendis spent time observing the newsroom at The Oregonian and drew on his time working for The Plain Dealer. 

“So much of Superman’s story has been thrust upon him. He’s been told what to do. He was sent here with a mission,” says Bendis. “The only choice he’s made for himself was when he said, ‘That’s what I want to be, is Clark Kent the reporter.’ ”

Bendis cleverly reinvents Kent, whose profession has often been more plot device than subject material, by simply letting him do his job. He was fascinated by the idea of forcing Kent to find his way to the truth without Superman’s powers.  

“He could get the truth any way he wants. He could punch it out of people,” says Bendis. “That’s not the truth, then. We have this person who literally can shake it out of anybody they want choosing not to do that. If he can do it, we can do it.”

More of Clark’s story, and how Superman faces down the secret Mafia setting fires across Metropolis, is set to be revealed in the Nov. 28 and Jan. 2 Action Comics issues. But Bendis has already made a statement in Superman’s world and in ours.

“There is good and there is bad. And when people keep trying to muddy the waters, it’s not that muddy,” he says. “We can be good. You can be thoughtful and strong. To be residing in a character who expresses that without lecturing, through action, is needed.”

Perched sideways in a chair at the Columbus Metropolitan Library, before his talk later in the evening, Bendis tells me about the scariest moment of his life. 

Late last year, in December, he was hospitalized with a surprise MRSA infection. The antibiotic-resistant infection swelled his face and blinded him for four days. 

“You wake up one morning, and you’re not awake,” he says. At the hospital, Bendis’ wife, Alisa, made a life-saving choice to have the doctors extract the infected tissue. “My wife literally saved my life,” Bendis tweeted afterward. Recent weight loss and his wife’s quick thinking kept Bendis alive. 

The experience reminded Bendis of what was important to him. When he finally woke up, he was surrounded by friends in the hospital room. Although the infection arrived just as he was leaving Marvel for DC, both companies were supportive. 

“I’m constantly reminded of how lucky I am. Like constantly,” Bendis says. ”It has empowered me to write more honest.”

Honesty is the ideal Bendis shares most with Superman. Listen to him talk about characters for a while, and you hear him say things like: “[Telling stories] is a truth-telling operation. I try to really listen to the characters when they’re talking to me.” 

After his recovery, Bendis went back to work on Superman. He even named Superman’s villian, Rogol Zaar, after the doctor who saved his life.  

Where Bendis’ and Superman’s truths intersect, some of Superman’s most poignant moments blossom. In Bendis’ Superman comics, Jor-El is dismissive of his son. Their relationship is distant and challenging. Miles Morales, Bendis’ version of Spider-Man, also seems to be weighing the moral example of his father. It all feels written from experience. 

On the phone, I ask Bendis how the stories relate to his life. To my surprise, he chuckles. “You are literally asking me the question I didn’t have the balls to ask Stan Lee to his face, as a writer to writer,” Bendis says. “In every Marvel story, the father has either abandoned, betrayed or been murdered right in front of [his son].”

Father-child relationships are complicated for Bendis. His parents divorced when he was young, and his mother was the most influential parent in his life. Bendis struggles with the example his father set.

”I guess some of it is me writing the father I’ll hope I’ll be,” Bendis says. “Or even writing against what I was raised with, or trying to work stuff out in the work that I think maybe I’m going to get to in real life.”

In Superman No. 4, Superman recalls comforting Jonathan, as the younger superhero smashes cars angrily in a junkyard flashback. 

“But these gossips! They lie about us, like, every day,” Jon says, cheeks wet with tears. “Every day they just make something up! And — and people are going to believe it!”

Superman, whose father thinks of his mission with scorn, decides to make this a teaching moment. He probably feels the same incredulity Jon does: “So they can just say whatever they want about us and we’re not allowed to say or do anything back?!” 

Rather than teach his son to respond, even to unfair attacks, with vitriol, Superman chooses to teach and model the opposite.

Bendis says he might soon have a similar conversation with his own children. It echoes talks parents are holding across the country lately, about civility and responding to hatred with kindness. It is Superman at his finest: no preaching, no posturing. Just a parable of the American way, told through a father’s conversation with his son. 

“I’m saying these people you’re frustrated with today, they might not be doing their best today,” Superman tells Jon. “But they might tomorrow. It happens every day. Wait for it.”

* * *

There is a gun in the newsroom. 

Copperhead points it at the Daily Planet’s new gossip columnist, Trish Q, who kneels on the floor, hands clapped to her ears. Smoke twirls from the barrel. The next bullet will be deadly. “See, you think it’s funny! But you’re ruining my life!!” Copperhead yells. 

“I don’t even know who you are!” Trish sobs. 

“Is that supposed to make me feel better?!”

Perry White grabs his baseball bat.

“You people don’t understand! Words matter! When you tell the world that I, Copperhead, was the one that took the Infinity—” FWIIIPOOM. A streak of red. Superman has arrived.

I often, childishly, imagine Superman saving us, swooping in to scoop up puppies from burning buildings or take out a baddy threatening an innocent journalist.  

But Superman wasn’t there, at the Capital Gazette when, in a similar scene, a gunman killed five journalists over their paper’s coverage. Superman won’t be there at the next shooting, for the next family separation, for the next time the American way goes astray. 

Yet I also know the surest truth about Superman: a part of him lives in all of us. That was the genius of Siegel and Shuster. As Ricca writes in Super Boys, they distilled the streets of Cleveland into a character who could plausibly be you or I. You could spot him strolling across Public Square, just a guy with glasses, and imagine there is someone exceptional behind the disguise. 

Bendis, I would guess, knows the power of that suggestion. In his stories, he is shaping Superman’s world to resemble ours. Superman’s job might not exist tomorrow. His son is gone and will potentially return changed. His wife wants to reset their relationship in a way that makes him uncomfortable. His dad is an insufferable, dismissive jerk. 

Even his galactic wars feel like modern allegories. Earth has been ported into the Phantom Zone. A genocidal maniac might have wiped out his whole race, and has destroyed the bottle city of Kandor, Superman’s last link to his people. 

Bendis has pushed Superman into a world in which he struggles to justify his own relevance on every front, while keeping his moral compass pointed to true north. His quest feels like ours, modern and difficult. Nevertheless, Superman persists. And so, the Man of Tomorrow’s example suggests, should we. 

“It really is about hope. It doesn’t get more complicated than that,” Bendis says. “There are very, very few places in our culture, on the news, social media, that are just hope and nothing else. Unwavering hope for the future. And Superman is one of those things.”

Superman has taken Copperhead to jail, and helped Trish Q off the floor, when he notices an old, framed newspaper hanging on the wall. “SUPERMAN DEAD!” is the headline, plastered over a full-page photo of him in tattered tights, dead on his back, eyes closed, half-covered in pieces of jagged concrete. Superman and Jimmy Olsen study it. 

Superman turns to Olsen with a grin. He jabs his thumb at the frame. 

“The good old days.”

“I know, right?” 

Then, holy crap, Superman turns and those baby blues are looking straight at me. One of his eyebrows darts up. The smile purses into a straight line. It’s a sight gag, for fan laughs. He doesn’t actually “see” us. 

But, as Bendis would say, the moment rings with truth.

“Were they the good old days?” Superman seems to ask. “Were they really?”

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