I have never actually had this conversation in real life, so I have felt free to use creative license in writing it down. It therefore goes without saying that you should imagine me dressed as a Viking warrior (historically accurate or Kirby-style, your choice), and the other fellow as eleven feet tall and smelling faintly of fine tobacco from a faraway land:
JUSTIN: So, do you like Superman?
STRAWMAN COMICS FAN: No, not really. I could never really get into him.
JUSTIN: Hm. Why is that?
SMCF: I don’t know. He’s kind of boring; y’know, that whole “big blue boy scout” thing he’s got going on.
JUSTIN: Ah, I see where this is going. You’ve got another reason not to like Superman as well, haven’t you?
SMCF: Have I?
JUSTIN: I suspect it is so.
SMCF: What makes you say that?
JUSTIN: Anytime a comics fan, particularly a strawman comics fan, says they don’t like Superman, it’s for two reasons. “Big blue boy scout” is one.
SMCF: And the other?
JUSTIN: Oh, go ahead; you tell me.
SMCF: Are you sure? I’m starting to think you might be one of those self-righteous Superman fans, and I don’t want to get into a whole thing here.
JUSTIN: Ha ha! How absurd a notion, that such a thing would upset me! No, you’ve no cause to worry. Go ahead, what’s the other reason?
SMCF: Well … there’s no suspense to Superman stories because he’s almost impossible to kill.
JUSTIN: *violent rage, uncontrollable shaking, choking on black bile*
Moral: It is not easy to be a self-righteous Superman fan, believe you me!
Black bile aside, I understand that attitude to some degree. It’s based on a misunderstanding, I think, of the essential conflict in a Superman story. But to be fair, it’s one that a lot of creators buy into. It’s why you get so many stories with kryptonite, with Superman powered down or powerless, where he’s flying through the heart of the sun one moment and getting beat up by a really strong dude the next. Because, in fight-heavy superhero comics, it’s easy to lose sight:
The essential conflict in a Superman story isn’t “Will Superman survive?” It’s “Will everybody else survive?”
Right, Richard Donner’s Superman movie; we all agree it is a good representation of Superman, yes? But the only time Superman is actually in any kind of mortal peril is when Luthor wraps the kryptonite around his neck (unless you count, y’know, being on Krypton as a baby in the first place). Less than five minutes of the entire movie are devoted to the prospect that Superman might die.
So what’s the rest of the movie about? Saving people. Whether it’s Air Force One or the entire population of California, or, of course, Lois Lane. In fact, the kryptonite bit isn’t even the climax of the movie; the suspense hinges on whether Lois will die in the earthquake, not Superman.
Because look, when it comes right down to it, unless it’s got an Elseworlds label on the cover or Dan Jurgens’ name is in the credit box, you know Superman isn’t going to die anyway because there’s another issue coming next month. And you know what else? Superman knows he’s not going to die. Oh, sure, Lex Luthor and Brainiac could cobble something together that might hurt him a bit, making him clench his teeth in theat dramatic way, but he’s 99% sure that he’s gonna be walking away from any fight you can throw at him.
But will Lois? Or Jimmy? Or the schoolteacher trapped in a car at the bottom of a lake or the workers stuck in the burning oil refinery or the hostages on the plane? Or let’s make the stakes really big and say the whole world. You’ve got a supervillain with enough power to destroy the Earth, and I’ll wager Superman still survives that.
And the thing is, that is actually a fate worth than death for Superman. Because he’s the ultimate survivor – he escaped what killed the last planet he lived on, and ever since he’s been almost completely invulnerable. For him, failure doesn’t come with the sweet release of death. He’s going to have to live with it. He’s going to have to see that plane crash, that dead body, that burnt-out Earth. And that’s the sort of thing that would actually hurt Superman, not kryptonite lasers.
You can’t pierce his skin because he was born on Krypton, but because he was raised on Earth you can break his heart.
(Incidentally, this whole thing can be applied to Wolverine as well, if you’ve got a problem with him growing back arms and whatnot, although even I’ll admit having all of his flesh burnt away by Nitro was pretty silly.)
So that’s easy, right? You don’t have tease me with “Is this the end of the Man of Steel?” You don’t even need to pit him against three bad guys from Krypton with all of his powers, or a hundred bad guys, or a thousand. It’s fun once and awhile, but that’s not what powers the engine. Just show me one human life in danger that Superman might not get to in time, and I’m invested in your story.
Hell, you might even hook that enormous dude with his damned Moroccan cigarettes as well!