Show Business: Up, Up and Awaaay!!!

America's favorite hero turns 50, ever changing but indestructible

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Although Superman's adventures were a fairly crude story, fairly crudely illustrated, their overnight success not only earned millions but also created shoals of imitators, such as Batman, Captain Marvel, Hawkman, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman. "Oddly enough," says Cartoonist Jules Feiffer, "the Depression enlivened the American dream that anyone could make it, and that's what Superman did. I loved the fantasy of this guy who had all this strength. While Superman went around beating up crooks, in my dreams I was beating up authority figures."

But if Superman was a reassuring hero for troubled times, for the Depression and the coming World War, why has he endured so long? Partly because troubled times have endured in other forms, and partly because he has always had qualities that go beyond the flying fists. He was orphaned, and thus forced to rely on himself, just like Little Orphan Annie or Huck Finn. He is a foreigner from outer space in a land built by foreigners. And he is one of the good guys, fighting for "truth, justice and the American way," which seems to many people a very good thing to do. Superman's violence is never cruel, however; he punches villains but rarely does them any real harm. His greatest powers are exerted to deflect violence, by stepping in front of bullets, say, or moving huge objects out of harm's way.

In some ways, Superman's relentless virtue goes even beyond virtue. In his extraterrestrial origins and the shining purity of his altruism, some commentators have detected a divine aura. "Superman, I've always thought, is an angel," says Andrew Greeley, gadfly Roman Catholic priest and best-selling novelist. "Probably the angel stories found in all of the world's religions are traces of the work in our world of Superman and his relatives. Who is to say I'm wrong?" Proponents of the angel theory believe it is no accident that when Superman is in full flight, his flared collar and flowing cape resemble wings.

Such speculation goes even further. Experts have pondered the fact that Superman's original Kryptonian name, Kal-El, resembles Hebraic syllables | meaning "all that God is." Greek and Norse mythology have been invoked to show that Superman resembles a god who comes to earth and walks among men in mortal guise. Screenwriter Newman sees yet more exalted implications in the legend. "It begins with a father who lives up in heaven, who says, 'I will send my only son to save earth.' The son takes on the guise of a man but is not a man. The religious overtones are so clear."

In secular terms too, Superman represents something quite special. "It's very hard for me to be silly about Superman," says Christopher Reeve, who plays the role in the movies, "because I've seen firsthand how he actually transforms people's lives. I have seen children dying of brain tumors who wanted as their last request to talk to me, and have gone to their graves with a peace brought on by knowing that their belief in this kind of character is intact. I've seen that Superman really matters. It's not Superman the tongue- in-cheek cartoon character they're connecting with; they're connecting with something very basic: the ability to overcome obstacles, the ability to persevere, the ability to understand difficulty and to turn your back on it."

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