By Dale D. Dalenberg, M.D.

July 2, 2013

The new film Man of Steel (Warner Bros., 2013)
gives us a re-imagined Superman who is entirely welcome in the already crowded
universe of fine interpretations of this most super of all super-heroes. Henry Cavill as Clark Kent/Kal-El fills the
shoes of the great Christopher Reeve more than anyone could have
predicted. He is innocent, honest, buff,
and he leaves us wanting more. 

The film does suffer from the malady that cripples most science fiction epics these
days— namely, a surfeit of special effects, flashing lights, and explosions that
are so far over-the-top they would make most films mind-numbingly dull. But in this case, the film is saved from
decaying into mere glitz because there is a great science fiction rationale for
most of the mayhem (Kryptonian exile General Zod finding his way to Earth and
attempting to terraform our planet into a new Krypton, a storyline that
definitely calls for noisy devastation on a world-wide scale).

The new Superman is portrayed with an emphasis on the fact
that he was originally a space alien. This Superman grows up disturbed with the emergence of his powers,
trying to reconcile his alien-ness with the fact that he was raised up with a
wholesome childhood on a Kansas farm. Classic Superman comics don’t spend much time on this aspect of
Superman. But myths evolve.  Man of Steel was made for a
generation that is accustomed to the travails of the X-Men as they developed
from freak teenagers to super-heroes, a generation who watched Superman grow up
during a decade of Smallville on TV. 

DC Comics came late to an exploration of the inner psyche of
super-heroes. This used to be the sole
province of Marvel Comics. Peter Parker
as Spider-man always doubting himself; the Incredible Hulk as Jekyll & Hyde
anti-hero; the Thing from the Fantastic Four hating what he had become. When it comes to the DC Universe, one could
argue that Batman needed to be on the psychiatrist’s couch before any other
super-hero.  Batman’s entire existence is
based on a vendetta over the death of his parents. He is profoundly disturbed,
and at times disturbing.  Comic writers
began to figure that out in the 1970’s, and finally, today, many Batman stories
are very dark, even to the point where the police can’t ever seem to figure out
whether he is a good guy or not. By
comparison, Superman has always been a good guy. Ok, so there was that one Superman movie with
Christopher Reeve where he got unshaven and ran around the world doing bad
things, like straightening the leaning tower of Pisa — but he went good again and
put everything back right in the end. With
of Steel
(fresh on the heels of the Smallville saga, and
borrowing liberally from that perspective of the young Superman), the young
Kal-El gets a very well fleshed-out backstory, and the take-home lesson is that
being Superboy is not all that much fun. 

This portrayal of Superman in his childhood as an
X-Men-style child-freak learning to adapt to his super-powers, tormented by
having to keep them secret, is definitely a modern take on the legend.  It is fun to look back at previous
interpretations of the Superboy aspect of Superman.  To that end, we at the Dalenberg Library of
Antique Popular Literature offer up a few Superboy depictions from the past,
all from the collection:

 Adventure Comics #200 from 1954 below shows Superboy running off to
Africa to save the apes from illegal trappers. 
In these classic comics, Superboy stories were supposed to be “the
adventures of Superman when he was a boy.” 
But there really wasn’t much to distinguish the adult Superman from the
boy Superman except how he was drawn by the artists.  He was just a miniature Superman.  He got a little more boy-like in a few more
issues, when they introduced Krypto the Super-Dog in Adventure Comics #210.

Later, Superboy left the pages of Adventure Comics to
appear in his own title.  Superboy
is a typical storyline, with Superboy once again saving his
adoptive parents Jonathan and Martha Kent from certain death. 

This is the splash page from The Adventures of Superman #500 (1993)
that introduced the modern Superboy.  He
debuted as a brash and generally unlikable teenager who was one of the 4
pretenders to the Superman identity after the famous Death of Superman storyline.  This Superboy was a clone of Superman
produced by a secret government laboratory, although various storylines over
the years have given various accounts of where the genetic material came from
and added further complexities to the story.