I’m a complex human lacking superpowers. Maybe you are too. One week I’m looking to control every single thing around me. Snap my fingers and family, friends, and coworkers fall in line. The next week I retreat into my carpeted mancave with my light blue therapy blankie and close the blinds. I avoid all contact with the outside world.
It’s one of the crazy yin-and-yangs of the human condition. I always think about a close friend of mine, Superman, when these quandaries arise. What if he had these two instincts and acted upon them? With the power of a god, what if he decided to control everything, our lives, our government, down to the smallest detail? Or on the other side of the coin, what if he contained all of that power and brilliance, but decided to hole up in his fortress of solitude to ignore every single cry for help…for years.
Welp, we don’t have to wonder because both of these eventualities actually happened…In comic book stories anyway. And would you believe it was his old nemesis Lex Luthor who taught him one of his greatest lessons?
I think an alien from Krypton can teach us about ourselves. We can all pull on a cape at times and swoop into situations we shouldn’t. We can all fold up that cape, pack it away in a box in a closet, to avoid conflicts with family and friends.
Superman is a tough sell to some comic book readers. He basically has the powers of a god, so it’s hard for writers to cook up challenges that truly test him. He’s also kind of a vanilla, boy-scout type of superhero. The type of do-gooder we hope will save our family, but also resent for being so boring and perfect. Maybe we crave some scandal to keep things interesting.
His pulpy stories must often rely on someone close to Superman placed in danger or provide Superman with a moral quandary.
One of the stories that got me back into comic books after my teen years was a very mature look at the superhero landscape in the future that mires an older Superman deep within a crisis of conscience. The tale unfolds in the appropriately titled “Kingdom Come” mini-series. The comic book was written by Mark Waid and Alex Ross and fully painted by Ross.
It’s a beautiful and brutal story set in a post-modern society where the superheroes we grew up with had children who developed without the moral compass of their parents. They run amok with their powers, accidentally injuring as many people as they save. Suddenly heroes who have vowed never to kill or serve their own interests seem old-fashioned.
Heroes execute supervillains and are cheered for it. A gray-haired Superman faces a world where there are no right choices. Imagine Superman in today’s world. Every crisis is designed in a way that leaves heroes with no choice but to spawn lifelong enemies no matter what solution they choose.
A world that has standards no one could live up to. And of course, a person like Superman cares what people think, that’s what makes him great. But for a superperson who wants to do right and wants to listen, it’s not hard to imagine a hero quickly buckling under each reaction or social media post. Even a Superman erodes under this kind of pressure. Supervillains don’t have to sweat this type of stuff.
So in Kingdom Come Superman does what we all want to do sometimes. He runs away. He exiles himself up at the aptly named Fortress Of Solitude. When we can’t bear the world, social media, or relationships any longer we can retreat to spaces that remind us of happier, more secure times perhaps surrounded by relics of our childhood. Superman’s mancave or she-shed just happens to be in the Arctic.
He runs away and rebuilds his childhood farm…a barn, fences, and growing crops under the greenhouse effect of his fortress. He plows fields and pats Krypto’s head after each hard day of work. He takes a timeout and allows his mind to mull over the puzzles of existence…for years.
Then one day, at the behest of a visiting Wonder Woman, an older Superman with white fringes in his indestructible follicles tunes in a newsfeed. The headlines from a mad world wash over him. And he makes a decision.
He must return to the outside world. For whatever help he can be, he’s obligated. He reappears on the world stage, does what he can to let humanity choose their path, but doing his darndest to keep us from destroying each other.
Avoiding Kingdom Come in Your Relationships
I’ve used this narrative as a guide over my lifetime. I have the unique superman symbol of this older supes tattooed on my left shoulder. As a reminder. Scott, you can separate yourself from difficult times with family, friends, and coworkers. It’s your right to protect yourself and sometimes necessary. You can’t help others when you are being pulled down with them.
But at some point, after you’ve healed, you have to reengage. You can’t hide forever, curling into a ball behind your fortress walls.
When you’ve reset, rebuilt your defenses, healed, you’ll have to enter the fray again. That could mean once again reaching out to family members who have frustrated you. Sitting down with a co-worker who you’d written off. Arranging for a meeting on the moon with your nemesis to talk it out.
Superman’s Red Boot Steps Over The Line
There’s a second story in Superman’s lore categorized as an “Elseworld’s” tale. This imprint of DC Comics provides a canvas for imaginary timelines that explore the comic book universe if things had played out differently. In this case, what if a baby Supes crash-landed in a different place? Not in Kansas anymore.
“Red Son” written by Mark Millar and drawn by Dave Johnson and Killian Plunkett sends Superman’s rocket ship down in a Russian field. He’s raised by Russian parents under Soviet ideals.
Superman sees beyond his borders though and begins to act with the entire world’s interests in mind. Unfortunately, he goes several super-steps beyond what he should. He seizes autonomy from almost every nation and even strives to control how much sleep people get each night. This misguided Superman feels that it’s best for humanity if he controls every aspect of every life.
In this timeline, Superman’s defining arch-nemesis, Lex Luthor, rises to the office of the President of the United States. He’s a public hero and his brain is the only defense against a vastly superior Communist Superman.
When Superman converts most of the globe into an authoritarian empire, Lex Luthor is left in a lagging United States of America to figure out how to combat an all-powerful hero’s increasingly tighter control.
In the middle of this insightful tale, the super-villain Brainiac arrives. This hybrid artificial intelligence shrinks and collects cities in his heartless attempt to catalog the galaxy. Red Son Superman soon finds a miniature Stalingrad preserved under a glass jar. This tragedy weighs heavily when he fails to find a way to restore the city and its still-living citizens to normal size.
Later, as Superman’s bid to keep the Earth under his sovereignty nears completion, Lex is left with one last weapon. A piece of paper.
He sends a control-freak Superman a note that reads, “Why don’t you just put the whole world in a bottle, Superman?” Superman is instantly on his knees, brought to the realization that he is no better than Brainiac.
Our Relationships Under a Red Sun
So how far are you willing to go? To set things right, to do what’s good for someone even if they resist. It’s easy to declare someone a physical or emotional invalid and seize the controls. Perhaps we don’t have the right. Maybe we are acting in our own best interest. Or just maybe, it’s exactly what the person needs. And yet, it’s their lives and they have the right to decline your intrusion.
It’s a danger we all face. Demanding too much control over others. It’s something maybe I’ll need reminding of at some point. Maybe you will too.
It can be the hardest thing to do. Walk away from a life on fire. Let them sort out their problems themselves. What other choice do you have? Putting them under glass?
And sometimes that stubbornness they display is a reaction to your overbearing reaction. Once you step back, the knot may loosen, and with the reassurance that his or her life is still his or her own, they will drop their shields and allow you to help.
Don’t forget the lesson of the gray-haired Supes. You may have to retreat for a while, but never cement your feelings and close yourself off to the possibility that door will have to be opened again. You’ll take a deep breath and reopen a frustrating conflict.
Bad Sections of Bottled Cities to Avoid
As I mentioned, I have one of the superman symbols tattooed on my left shoulder. The symbol is the new Kingdom Come Superman symbol he chooses to show he’s a changed alien. I’d someday like to have the Red Son Superman symbol tattooed on the other shoulder.
They will serve as a good reminder over the next 100 years of my life that my existence should always be balanced by the two concepts. Never complete control and never complete isolation.
We all need these reminders. From presidents all the way down to the lowest of lifeforms like bloggers.
Capes and symbols on chests can be replaced with everyday things. Your reminder may be a tattoo, a decorative license plate, thick-rimmed glasses, a breathing exercise. Just a little visual cue or habit to bring your duty into focus. Never retreat so far from a problem that you can’t find the doorway back again. Never go too far in your bid to solve someone else’s problem. And also, never say never.