‘Dreams Save Us:” Why Superman is More Relevant Now Than Ever

We don’t live in a “super” world.

Spend about 5 nanoseconds online and the first thing you’ll see is anger. Hostility. Intolerance.

That’s not to say that there aren’t good aspects of the internet. Scroll long enough and you’ll find heartwarming stories: Strangers becoming pen pals for the lonely elderly in nursing homes; shelter cats and dogs finding their forever homes; a community rallying behind a neighbor fighting cancer.

Sadly, the negative is always going to be louder. Haters gonna hate, as they say. But the good is still out there, always.

But what does this have to do with a nerdy blog post? Everything. Because if there’s one thing nerds know, it’s that heroes never stop being heroes. The good never stop fighting. They might falter. They might fail. But they always get back up.

And today I want to talk about the quintessential superhero, the one who started it all: Superman.

First appearing in Action Comics #1 in 1938, the savior from another planet captured the attention of the world: He was strong, he was fast, and he was always good.

From Superman: A Celebration of 75 Years (2013)

In a time when World War II was only a year away and the escalation of the Nazi party had the very basest, worst part of humanity on display for all to see, it’s little wonder that the idea of a superhero was so captivating.

In that historic first issue, Superman saves an innocent woman from being executed, stops a man from abusing his wife, saves a kidnapped Lois Lane, and begins an investigation into a corrupt Congressman (which was continued in issue #2).

Superman was pretty busy in that first issue, but it epitomizes who he is as a character: He helps, not only with the major country- or world-shaking problems, but also with everyday injustice.

But is such a character still relevant today? Is it realistic to believe in someone who helps whoever and however he can? Someone who is, simply put, a genuinely good person?

I think the day that we say “no” is the day that we stop believing in humanity. The day that we admit, at our core, we are nothing more than selfish, violent animals. The day that we throw our hands up and declare that we will never be any better.

I’m not willing to give up on us. And neither is Superman.

Characters like him are the mirrors that show us what we can be.

Of course, that mirror might accomplish such a feat in different ways as culture changes. In 1938, Superman just lived up to his name. He was super and he made us want to be super, too.

Nowadays, comics are a little different. Superman is still super, but he reminds us of humanity’s potential in a very different way.

In Action Comics #775 (2001), the story “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” pits Superman against a new gang of “heroes.” Known as The Elite, they are powerful and, collectively, stronger than Superman. At first, Superman is happy to have more people willing to fight the good fight. But the story takes a dark turn when The Elite kills terrorists.

Superman appeals to them, saying that it is not a hero’s duty to be judge, jury, and executioner. To do so opens the door to anarchy and violence, rather than justice.

The problem? The public loves the Elite’s no-nonsense attitude. They embrace the revenge that the Elite represents. And Superman quickly becomes little more than a joke in comparison.

From Superman: A Celebration of 75 Years (2013)

Of course, Superman still believes in justice. And he worries what might happen if the Elite stops killing terrorists and turn their attention instead to others. What if they change their mind on what constitutes a danger? What if they become overwhelmed by power and start attacking innocent people? And, a part from that, they have still broken the law by abandoning due process.

Of course, they refuse to come quietly. Consumed by popularity and publicity, the Elite want to broadcast Superman’s attempt at arresting them.

As predicted, they are more powerful and they defeat him. Or so it seems.

Suddenly, Superman returns, proclaiming:

“I’ve made the mistake of treating you people like… people. But now I understand better. I understand what you are. And how to deal with you.”

Seemingly enraged and insane, Superman murders the members of the Elite and (using his heat vision) lobotomizes their leader, the telekinetic and telepathic Manchester Black.

Key word: Seemingly. It turns out that Superman staged the whole thing. No one was killed, and he only gave Black the equivalent of a psychic migraine.

The comic ends with Superman flying away, declaring:

“Dreams save us. Dreams lift us up and transform us. And on my soul, I swear… until my dream of a world where dignity, honor, and justice become the reality we all share–I’ll never stop fighting. Ever.”

More recently, the story arc The Oz Effect (2018), has Superman fighting his father, Jor-El, who was saved from Krypton’s destruction and brainwashed. Unlike his son, his time on Earth was spent among the worst in humanity. He warns Superman that the world is ending, and then manipulates people around the world to give into their worst desires (prejudice, violence, etc.).

The arc ends with Jor-El reaching out to his son, admitting that he is being controlled by a more powerful force. Superman returns to his wife and son, his mind spinning over what he has witnessed. Is it possible that the planet he has spent so much of his life believing in and fighting for truly is a lost cause?

The final image leaves the reader with only one thought:

We’ve created a job too big for even Superman.

From Superman, Action Comics: The Oz Effect Deluxe Edition (2018)

Now, back to the original question: Is Superman still relevant?

Absolutely. As long as we can strive for better, as long as we need a reminder that we truly are capable of even more than we imagine, as long as we need a beacon to confirm that, yes, there is still good in the world.

Superman may be fictional, but the ideas and hopes he represents are not. As he said, “Dreams save us. Dreams lift us up and transform us.”

The good news: We don’t actually need a visitor from another planet to save us. We just need ourselves–one act of kindness, one selfless thought at time.

The Man of Steel reminds us that, even though we might not live in a super world, that doesn’t mean that we can’t be super people.

Up, up, and away.

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Sources: Superman: A Celebration of 75 Years (2013) and Superman, Action Comics: The Oz Effect Deluxe Edition (2018).

My Top 10 Favorite Superhero Sidekicks

My first foray into the sensational stories of superheroes came in the 5th grade. TV Land had just begun playing the 1960s Batman series, starring Adam West and Burt Ward. My dad had called my brother (only about 5 at the time) into the room, thinking that his son would naturally fall in love with the cheesy action.

But it wasn’t his son who got hooked. It was his daughter.

I regaled my father with questions: Why does Batman fight crime? Who are his villains? And, of course: Can we watch it again tomorrow, “Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel?”

But my favorite part of the show was always Robin. (I am not ashamed to say that Burt Ward was my first childhood crush. Take that, Backstreet Boys!)

For years, I didn’t realize that superheroes had their own genre. I thought that Batman was just Batman. A little later, I discovered the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies and fell in love with everyone’s favorite wall-crawler.

I graduated from ’60s Batman to the ’90s’ Spider-Man: The Animated Series, which aired every Saturday morning on ABC Family (which is now called Freeform, so yes, I know, I have dated myself).

Even then, I didn’t know that Spider-Man was part of a much larger superhero universe. Whenever some other crimefighter–Iron Man, Punisher, Daredevil–would guest star, I thought they were simply new characters designed for the cartoon. I didn’t know they had their own stories!

Then came college and my then-boyfriend who introduced me to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. From there came all of the other ’90s cartoons I’d never watched: Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series, Teen Titans, etc.

And then the dizzying world of comics. Of trying to read graphic novels in just the right order to fully appreciate the massive, titles-spanning story being told. Of trying to catch-up with an industry that has been around for 80+ years. Of seeing how these timeless characters have changed with the coming decades and learning to appreciate those changes as pieces of history. (Even the ones that didn’t work out–seriously, who thought giving Superman a mullet was a good idea?)

But my favorite parts, still to this day, are the sidekicks. The mentees looking to the established heroes for guidance. The next generation.

And it’s probably all thanks to Burt Ward.

So… holy nostalgia, Batman!

It makes sense, then, for my very first comic-related blog to be a list of my top ten favorite sidekicks. And, for the nerds out there, yes, I’m going to be very specific (e.g. I won’t just say “Robin,” I’ll clarify which Robin). And to those less nerdy out there… yes, there are multiple Robins.

Buckle up. It’s time to head to Nerdville.

(10) Batgirl (Barbara Gordon)

I wondered whether or not to even include her on the list, considering that Batgirl (Barbara Gordon) has become a hero in her own right, protecting Burnside. Plus, she always kind of started out on her own. She decided to become a hero and then Batman recruited her, rather than the other way around. However, she did also help expand the Bat Family, turning the dynamic duo into a terrific trio. In that way, it only seemed right to include her. Batgirl has overcome every challenge that stands in her way–from fighting crime to overcoming trauma at the hands of the Joker–and she is equal parts brain and brawn. If you’re a villain, you don’t want to be punched by Batgirl, but you REALLY don’t want her hacking into your computer.

(9) Kid Flash (Wally West II)

For years, I was more of a Marvel fan until I came across the animated show Young Justice. From there, I started reading DC comics, and found that I was a bit more of a Bat than I was an Avenger. It’s little wonder then that a lot of my favorites come back to Young Justice. That said, I was a little uncertain when I saw they were rebooting the Kid Flash character–making him a completely different person. But I have to say… it really works. Wally West II comes with unique challenges, and now that Wally West I is back in the universe (for you non-nerds… it’s a long story), things are even better. I love watching the two Wallys interact with each other, often in a very brotherly way.

(8) Ms. Martian

Remember what I said about Young Justice? I fell in love with Ms. Martian: Her enthusiasm and energy, and then later her command and control. I loved watching her grow more and more comfortable with herself, going beyond “Hello, Megan!” to a true, Justice League-caliber hero.

(7) Robin (Tim Drake)

Tim Drake–the true detective of the Robins. The one who, in many ways, actually takes after Bruce Wayne the most. I’ve not read as much with him as I have others, but every time I do, I enjoy seeing his very analytical mind attack each situation. He’s a force to be reckoned with mentally. And while his more controlling nature gets on my nerves from time to time, he still has that “light” to Batman’s “dark” that makes him an interesting and engaging character.

(6) Speedy (Roy Harper)

I have a soft spot for those “lost” characters. And Roy Harper, who was the vessel DC used to address the drug epidemic in the landmark issue “Snowbirds Don’t Fly” (1971), is a prime example of one. Since that issue, he’s had to deal with addiction, alcoholism, and just about every obstacle writers could throw his way. Hot-headed and stubborn, he keeps pushing ahead even after he trades his sidekick days as Speedy for his adult persona Arsenal. With trucker hat and tattoos, he embodies all that is “bad boy” while still also being a hero. Whether he’s a Titan or an Outlaw, he always seems to have to prove himself–sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing, but always relatable in his desire to rise above his own demons.

(5) Robin (Jason Todd)

Remember what I said about those “lost” characters? Well, you don’t get more lost than Jason Todd: the Robin that fans hated. First DC retconned him, giving him a new backstory and personality (which was much better than Dick Grayson, Pt. 2–but with red hair!). The new, edgier, and angrier Robin still didn’t get much love, however, so when DC came up with the idea to have fans vote for an issue’s ending by calling one of two numbers, they decided to use Jason. At the end of a dramatic issue where Jason was beaten within an inch of his life by the Joker, an explosion destroys the building he’s in right before Batman is able to get there to save him. Fans were given the option: Call number A for Robin to live, call number B for him to die. And with that… Jason Todd became the first Robin to die. (He would not be the last.) Years later, we get a resurrected Jason Todd who is angry at Batman–not for failing to save him, but for allowing the Joker to live. Jason argues that Batman’s “no killing” philosophy doesn’t amount to much if evil men either continuously escape or circumvent the law. He claims that any lives the Joker destroys also leaves blood on Batman’s hands. From there, Jason goes from antagonist to antihero, eventually finding peace with Batman over their differing viewpoints. It’s a strange (and often strained) relationship, but it’s also one of the most interesting in the Bat Family. If you want to see a roller coaster of character evolution, then Jason Todd stories are definitely some you’ll want to check out.

(4) Robin (Damian Wayne)

Like “lost” characters, I also have a soft spot for those who are always having to strive to be better people. And Damian Wayne is a prime example. Raised by the League of Assassins until he was 10, his moral compass is more than a little bent. Once he began living with Batman (his biological father), Damian learned to value life, but… he’s still being raised by Batman. Not exactly a normal childhood. While his entitled and aggressive nature can be annoying at times, I still love watching him grow and change as he learns how to be a son, brother, and friend. (Also, he’s basically Batman-in-miniature and watching him team-up with Superman-in-miniature is equal parts amusing and adorable.) Cue transition to #3!

(3) Superboy (Jon Kent)

Superman-in-miniature. He teams up with Batman-in-miniature. And he’s beyond adorable. I’m a huge fan of familial themes, and you don’t get stronger ones than with the Kents. I love watching their family confront each challenge that comes their way, watching Jon grow, and also seeing his interactions with other heroes. (He’s Superman’s kid after all; that’s kind of a big deal.)

(2) Kid Flash (Wally West)

Wally West is always going to be my favorite Flash. I fell in love with the character in Young Justice, and since then, I have devoured everything I can read with him. He’s funny and charming, but also deals with a lot of doubt. After all, he had pretty big shoes to fill after Barry Allen was killed in Crisis on Infinite Earths. I love his “bro” friendships with Dick Grayson and Roy Harper, and I even enjoy his romances. In my mind, there is only one other character who is more quintessentially “sidekick” than Wally… and he’s coming up next.

(1) Robin (Dick Grayson)

Of course my number one is Dick Grayson, the very first sidekick. As the first Robin, he set the standard for the superhero mentor/mentee relationship: (1) Be a complement to the hero he fights alongside (in his case, the “light” to Batman’s darkness); (2) “Graduate” to become a hero in his own right, separate from his mentor (specifically, Dick became Nightwing). Nearly every character on this list follows that (or a very similar) pattern, but Dick Grayson was the one who started it all. Not only does his character come with a ton of history, but his role as an optimist and “big brother” in the Bat Family just makes him even more likable, clinching his spot at number one.

And that’s it: My Top 10 Favorite Superhero Sidekicks. Obviously, a pretty DC (and Bat)-heavy list. I did look up Marvel sidekicks in case there were any that I was forgetting, but sadly those I found (Bucky, War Machine, Falcon, etc.) just didn’t make my Top 10 list. I’d also argue that DC approaches “sidekicks” in a fundamentally different way than Marvel, lending itself to a more traditional definition of the word (where the characters are more like apprentices.)

I would however love to hear other thoughts. There’s nothing I enjoy more than a fun comic book conversation!